Sam Ross-Brown

Sam Ross-Brown is The American Prospect's associate editor. 

Recent Articles

Students Nationwide to March for Debt Relief and a $15 Minimum on Campus

Inspired by Bernie Sanders's call for a million students to march on Washington, thousands of students, faculty, and workers are demanding debt cancellation and $15 minimum wage on campus.

(Photo: AP/Bloomington Herald-Times/Jeremy Hogan)
(Photo: AP/Bloomington Herald-Times/Jeremy Hogan) A student holds a sign during a 2013 strike at Indiana University, in protest of rising tuition rates. T housands of students, professors, and university workers were scheduled to take to the streets Thursday in a “Million Student March” inspired in part by Bernie Sanders. The march, built around demands for tuition-free public college, cancellation of all student debt, and a $15 minimum wage for campus workers, furnishes an early test of whether the Independent Vermont senator’s presidential campaign will fuel a broader progressive movement. In a June interview with Katie Couric, Sanders said that the only way to achieve free higher education would be for a million students to march on Washington to demand it. “People have been talking about this for a while, but the tipping point was Bernie’s call,” says Keely Mullen, a junior at Northeastern University who expects to graduate next year with more than $150,000 in tuition debt...

Labor and Climate Groups Blast TPP as Full Text is Released

The United States Trade Representative released the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership today, one month after negotiators finalized the massive 12-nation pact in Atlanta. The release kicks off a 90-day window before President Obama can sign the deal and turn it over to Congress for approval.

In a statement released today on Medium, Obama said the deal “puts American workers first,” and claims it represents “the strongest labor standards in history” and “the strongest environmental standards in history.” Supporters like Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, have pointed to provisions like the bilateral labor rights agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam as proof that TPP puts workers first. The agreement would purportedly ensure basic workplace standards and organizing rights among Vietnamese workers.

But experts and activists on the left have had a somewhat different first impression. Within hours of the text’s release, leading environmental, labor, and civil liberties groups blasted the deal for its lackluster provisions on workers rights, climate change, and human rights.

“We now have concrete evidence that the Trans-Pacific Partnership threatens our families, our communities, and our environment,” said Sierra Club President Michael Brune in a statement released today. In its initial review of the pact, the Sierra Club pointed to the pact’s failure to outlaw illegal trade in plants and animals, illegal fishing, or commercial whaling, all of which remain critical conservation issues for TPP signatories Peru, Vietnam, Japan, and Singapore. At the same time, the TPP gives corporations the power to roll back existing environmental regulations through the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) process, the group added. The statement from Sierra also noted that, amazingly, the final text does not once mention climate change.

Jason Kowalski, policy director at 350.org, went further. “The TPP is an act of climate denial,” he said today in a statement. “While institutions across the planet are divesting from fossil fuels, the TPP would double down on the industry’s destructive business model.” Like Sierra, 350.org also expressed alarm at what an expanded ISDS system could do to local environmental regulations. “In short, these rules undermine countries’ ability to do what scientists say is the single most important thing we can do to combat the climate crisis: keep fossil fuels in the ground,” Kowalski said.

Experts like Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton have also cast doubt on provisions like the labor rights agreement with Vietnam. “It is not enforceable in practice,” he told The New York Times today. Sifton pointed out that, unlike corporations, workers in Vietnam will have no rights to bring complaints against countries or companies to the newly-empowered investor-state dispute bodies. He also alluded to the U.S. Trade Representative’s poor record on workers’ rights in previous trade pacts.

The view from the American labor movement has been no rosier. The Communications Workers of America, one of the first major unions to respond publicly to the deal, expressed concern today about what the ISDS process could mean for labor and environmental laws in the U.S. The CWA also noted that while hundreds of official trade advisers—mostly representing business—had a direct hand in the TPP’s six-year negotiation, the public is given just a 90-day review.

On Twitter, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters noted that the TPP includes no penalties for human trafficking, while also pointing out that Vietnam has a full five years to implement its much-touted labor policies, and that enforcement will likely be minimal.

This sentiment was echoed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who also lamented the “expansive new legal rights and powers” corporations may soon use to challenge existing workplace, environmental, and financial protections. Trumka also noted that as the TPP was being negotiated, “our policy recommendations and those of our trade reform allies in the environmental, consumer, public health, global development, and business sectors were largely ignored.”

As The Washington Post has reported, the TPP’s negotiation process has long been heavily lopsided toward major corporations and away from labor, environmental, and citizen’s groups. Out of 566 official trade advisers, 480 have represented corporations and trade groups while less than 30 have represented organized labor. Over the past six years, the AFL-CIO alone has requested more than 100 specific changes in the TPP’s wording, but has little to show for it. As the AFL-CIO put it in a 2014 statement, “because the U.S. government treats trade deals differently than all other policies—it is allowed to negotiate rules that affect our lives in these areas behind closed doors. This is undemocratic.”

All that being said, TPP is far from a done deal. With the pact headed to Congress it will face an uphill battle from populist wings in both parties. At the same time, the TPP has also faced strong criticism from leading White House contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, who may help shape the conversation as Congress prepares to vote.  

The Keystone Effect

Just hours after the White House indicated it would make a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline by the end of Obama’s second term, TransCanada made a sharp left on its years-long effort to quickly secure approval. Perhaps sensing that the Obama administration was poised to kill the project (turns out, they were probably right), yesterday TransCanada sent a letter to the State Department asking that it suspend its review of Keystone and instead wait until the next administration takes office in 2017. The move has been widely interpreted as a punt, intended to stave off a decision in case a friendlier president takes office—like, say, a Republican.

Keystone opponents, from 350.org to the Sierra Club to Bold Nebraska, were quick to declare a hard-won victory in the fight to stop a project that James Hansen famously warned would mean “game over for the climate.” But, as activists like Bill McKibben have long been stressing, this decision is not just about Keystone. It’s about a dramatic change in the public perception of fossil-fuel projects and their impact on the planet.

At an event held by America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) this past May, ANGA President Marty Durbin outlined a new and growing problem facing his industry: grassroots opposition. “Call it the Keystone-ization of every pipeline project that’s out there,” he said. “These are things that pipeline developers have had to deal with for a long time. But we’ve seen a change in the debate.”

The difference, added Dominion Energy President Diane Leopold, has been the rise of “high intensity opposition” to pipeline projects. “It is becoming louder, better funded, and more sophisticated,” she said.

At the time of the event, ANGA and its supporters were under a lot of pressure. Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a $5 billion project crossing three states and 550 miles, had inspired a uniquely diverse opposition of climate activists, conservative landowners, and prominent Republican officials. As Politico reports, the anti-ACP campaign includes heavyweights like former Bush 41 staffer Tom Harvey, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and financial services lobbyist Phil Anderson, along with climate groups like 350.org and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Such a diverse alliance has a direct parallel in anti-Keystone activism, particularly in how Bold Nebraska has built a broad-based campaign of conservative landowners opposed to eminent domain and climate activists opposed to dirty tar sands. And that opposition has only grown. With the ACP far from finalized, local opposition has pushed Dominion to sue dozens of landowners who wanted no part in the project, while also adjusting its route a number of times due to environmental concerns.  

Proposed projects in the Northeast and upper Midwest have met similarly stiff opposition from climate groups and landowners. In Minnesota, Enbridge’s $2.6 billion Sandpiper Pipeline, slated to snake across the state’s northern region, has run into hard resistance from landowners, environmental activists, and tribal groups, particularly the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Opponents have cited a lack of formal hearings in the pipeline’s development as well as Enbridge’s decidedly poor record of oil spills in the region. The pipeline remains about a year behind schedule.

As Elana Schor reports for Politico, “Keystone has changed the politics of pipelines nationwide, offering a template that activists from New England to Minnesota and Wisconsin are using to grind projects to a halt.”

And of course companies like Dominion and Enbridge are far from the only targets. In fact, the same week Durbin warned about “Keystone-ization” the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the government body in charge of issuing permits for new pipeline projects, was forced to reschedule its annual meeting in Washington after warnings from law enforcement about impending protests.

To be sure, the battle over Keystone isn’t over. As activists acknowledge, even if Obama rejects the pipeline, TransCanada can resubmit its application under a new administration. But it does seem like the ground underneath projects like this has begun to shift.

The Fed Will Continue to Support the Recovery—But For How Long?

This afternoon, the Federal Reserve announced that it will keep interest rates near zero for the time being, maintaining its critical support for the sluggish economic recovery. The decision came as a surprise to many observers on Wall Street, including analysts at Citigroup, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, who expected a rate hike to be announced today. But citing instability in the financial market and the global economy, the Fed said today it would not raise rates in the short term. Some six years after the recession officially ended, today’s decision is a sign that the economy is still far from recovered.  

The decision comes less than a month after Fed Up, a nationwide coalition of economists, union members, and grassroots activists, descended on the central bank’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to demand that the Fed not abandon its role in the recovery. As I reported last month for The American Prospect, Fed Up organizers cited large racial gaps in unemployment and poverty as well as paltry wage growth as indicators that the recovery has yet to reach millions of communities, particularly those of color. During the symposium, the coalition held teach-ins on economic policy and delivered a petition to Fed leaders demanding they hold off on a rate hike until more Americans had a chance to feel the recovery.

“This is a victory for the working families who stepped up with innovative organizing to send the Fed a clear message: Our voices belong in the debate about our economy,” said Fed Up Director Ady Barkan in a statement today. “With the recovery still far too weak in too many communities, it would have been economically devastating—and immoral—to slow the economy.”

Although indicators like unemployment are near pre-recession levels, as economist Josh Bivens argues, there’s plenty this number keeps hidden, particularly the number of people who have given up looking for work. Today, the employment-to-population ratio for prime-age adults is less than half of where it was in 2008 as millions of workers remain unable to find employment. Bivens and his colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute refer to these people as “missing workers.” Wage growth, Bivens adds, has been similarly pessimistic, barely keeping pace with inflation.  

And even these modest gains have been dramatically uneven. According to Census data released this week, the poverty rate among black Americans is more than two-and-a-half times the rate for whites, and has actually gone up over the past year. Similarly, black unemployment and underemployment has remained at more than twice the rate for whites.

It’s groups like these that would feel an interest rate hike most dramatically, Bivens said in a statement today. “Tightening before the economy has reached genuine full-employment is not just a mistake,” he said, “it’s a regressive mistake that would hurt the most vulnerable workers—low-wage earners and workers from communities of color—the most.”

“Today’s decision by the Federal Reserve to keep short-term rates unchanged is welcome,” Bivens added.

But the Fed’s reasoning for keeping interest rates low doesn’t seem to have much to do with issues like racial inequality or unemployment—in a statement released today, the Fed cited “solid job gains and declining unemployment” since the central bank’s last meeting in July. Rather, the Fed seems more worried about “recent global economic and financial developments” that could hamper growth.

In a press conference today, Fed Chair Janet Yellen reiterated that “the recovery from the Great Recession has advanced sufficiently far, and domestic spending is sufficiently robust” to warrant a rate hike now, but “in light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait.”

Moreover, the Fed still expects to raise interest rates by the end of this year, whether or not the job market sees much improvement. Over the past few months, Fed governors have hinted strongly that a rate hike would come by the end of the year, and many analysts expect an interest-rate hike at upcoming Fed meetings in October or December. If the Fed is serious about supporting a broadly shared recovery, it should hold off on this rate hike until more Americans have a chance to feel the recovery. 

Do Black Lives Matter to the Federal Reserve?

With black communities nationwide far from recovered, a grassroots coalition wants the Fed to know that an interest rate hike could be disastrous. 

Center for Popular Democracy
Center for Popular Democracy A Fed Up rally in San Francisco on March 5, 2015. T his week, Dawn O’Neal has traveled from her home in south DeKalb County, Georgia, to the Federal Reserve’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with a simple message for Fed leaders: Don’t raise interest rates. The 48-year-old teacher’s assistant and mother of four wants Fed governors to know that her community is far from recovered and that raising interest rates too soon could be disastrous. O’Neal is one of dozens of activists and policy experts traveling to Jackson Hole this week to urge the Fed against raising rates. The campaign, called Fed Up, includes some two-dozen unions, community groups, and think tanks, from the AFL-CIO to the Working Families Party. In Jackson Hole, organizers will deliver a petition demanding that the Fed rethink its plan to raise interest rates until the recovery can reach more Americans. Fed Up also plans to hold a series of teach-ins exploring questions like “How...

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