Week Ending October 9, 2015
House Leadership in Turmoil
The recent announcement by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that he would leave Congress and vacate the office of Speaker of the House at the end of the month continued to disrupt the congressional agenda and throw the entire House Republican Caucus into turmoil. On Thursday morning, the morning of the scheduled vote of the House Republican Caucus, expected successor Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suddenly announced that he would not run for Speaker. The last minute surprise forced Boehner to announce a postponement of the election in order to give the caucus a chance to consider new candidates. Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Daniel Webster (R-FL) had already announced their intention to run. It’s not clear who else may run nor when the caucus election will take place. A small group of Tea Party Republicans who are calling themselves the Freedom Caucus had pledged their support for Webster. Boehner announced he would remain Speaker as long as necessary to select a successor.
Democrats Urge End to Automatic Spending Cuts
Congress has not moved any closer to a budget deal to address either raising the debt ceiling by November 5 to avoid defaulting on our nation’s debts as requested by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, or to extend federal funding after December 11 when the current stopgap funding measure expires. Instead, Congress is in a holding pattern until Republicans elect their new speaker.
Activists, from AFSCME and more than 2,500 other organizations in the Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) Coalition, gathered to rally Congress to prevent a government shutdown, end the mindless across-the-board “sequester” cuts, and pass a funding bill with no idealogical policy changes attached to it. Members of Congress, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-NM), and Robin Kelly (D-IL), along with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Jack Reed (D-RI), all pledged their commitment to ending the harmful and economically damaging spending cuts.
Rep. Hoyer noted: “If we’re going to be a strong country, we need to raise these [sequester] caps because we need to invest in a strong country on both sides of the budget – both on the national security/defense side but also on the [non-defense] – education, health care, environment, infrastructure – side.”
AFSCME strongly supports an end to sequester, a clean funding bill with no harmful policy provisions, an increase in revenues through ensuring businesses and corporations pay their fair share in taxes, and an increase in the debt ceiling to uphold the full faith and credit of the United States.
U.S. Reaches Trade Agreement with 11 Pacific Rim Nations
On Monday, the U.S. and 11 other nations reached a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement could be scheduled for a vote by the Congress as early as January. While the trade agreement has not yet been made public, some of the details are known. Unfortunately, what we know indicates that this deal prioritizes the interests of global corporations over the interests of every day families and the need to create good paying jobs. For example, the deal fails to include rules against currency manipulation which some countries have used to make their goods cheaper in the U.S. and to make U.S. goods more expensive in their nations. Currency manipulation has caused thousands of U.S. factories to close and millions of workers to lose their jobs.
The agreement includes investor-to-state dispute settlement, allowing global corporations to sue countries over laws and regulations that reduce their profits in private, foreign trade courts. Corporations will be able to collect billions from taxpayers to compensate for lost profits and effectively block laws aimed at protecting workers on the job, cleaning the environment, safeguarding our food and more.
The U.S. Trade Representative is touting improved labor standards compared with previous trade agreements. However, past experience demonstrates that the labor standards are meaningless because the enforcement measures are so weak that countries that tolerate abusive labor practices are not forced to change. Moreover, a nation that improves its labor standards would be at risk of drawing a challenge from corporations under the investor-to-state dispute settlement process.
The agreement also includes provisions that will block reforms aimed at bringing cheaper generic and biosimilar drugs to the market. These provisions will keep pharmaceutical prices high in the U.S., straining Medicare, Medicaid and employer-sponsored health plans.
Home Care Worker Wage and Hour Rules Cleared to Begin
The U.S. Supreme Court denied the home care industry’s emergency request to delay a final U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) rule providing nearly two million home care workers with federal wage and hour protections provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.’s order did not include an explanation. According to court experts, the Chief Justice’s order rejecting the request to postpone the implementation of the rule does not necessarily mean that the industry’s appeal for a full review, if filed, would be denied. However, one factor in deciding for or against a delay of a lower court order is whether the Supreme Court is likely to take up the issue. Home care workers are one step closer to getting the full pay they deserve for their important work helping individuals maintain their independence and dignity at home.
The wage and hour rule for home care workers becomes effective on October 13. DOL will not begin enforcement for 30 days, or on November 12. From November 12 through December 31, DOL will exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in determining whether to bring enforcement actions, with particular consideration given to the extent to which States and other entities have made good faith efforts to bring their home care programs into compliance with the FLSA.
White House Summit on Worker Voice Promotes Unions and Collective Bargaining
On Wednesday, President Obama assembled dozens of union representatives, business representatives and other advocates for a day-long summit on the state of working America and what steps are needed to give workers a real shot at achieving the American dream. Many speakers emphasized the key importance of a strong labor movement to achieve this goal.
AFSCME was represented by President Lee Saunders, Council 5 Executive Director and International Vice-President Eliot Seide, and national office staff. In their remarks, President Obama and Vice President Biden emphasized the importance of a strong labor movement, noting unions’ role in workers having weekends off, health and retirement benefits, and overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week. President Obama also quoted AFSCME President Saunders’ statement: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” IVP Seide spoke on a panel entitled “Worker Voice Making a Difference,” and stressed that collective bargaining is the extension of democracy in the workplace.
In a statement issued on the day of the summit, President Saunders said: “It was heartening to hear many panelists today talking about the essential role that unions and collective bargaining play in fixing an economy that is badly out of balance and improving incomes for all working people. Throughout the history of America, we see incontrovertible evidence that when unions are strong, all workers’ wages are higher and more families are part of a secure and thriving middle class. These gains for working families were not achieved through petitions, or asking the boss nicely. Without the ability to come together through a union to speak up for each other and bargain collectively with their employers, working people never truly have a voice and working families never truly build power.”
Congress Must Act to Keep Medicare Affordable
This week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced Protecting Medicare Beneficiaries Act of 2015 (S. 2148) which would protect Medicare beneficiaries from a sharp rise next year in Part B premiums and deductibles, including coverage for doctors’ visits, outpatient hospital services, and some home health care. Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced a similar bill, Medicare Premium Fairness Act of 2015, (H.R. 3696) in the House.
Under federal law, Medicare premiums are linked closely to Social Security benefits, which are not expected to include any cost-of-living adjustment next year due to low inflation. If this prediction holds true, 70% of Medicare beneficiaries’ premiums and deductibles will stay the same. However, roughly 30% of Medicare beneficiaries, 15 million Americans, will face an unexpected 52% increase in monthly premiums and steep increases in annual deductibles. Those who would be affected by these large, unexpected spikes in premiums and deductibles include low-income people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid (“dual-eligibles”), new beneficiaries, certain higher-income Medicare beneficiaries and those who do not receive Social Security checks. States are particularly concerned about the possible increase in premiums because their Medicaid programs pay the Medicare premiums for dual-eligibles. Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, said: “This is a huge issue for states. To finance Medicare, the federal government would shift billions of dollars in costs to state Medicaid programs already struggling with hepatitis, long-term care and other challenges. That’s a horrible policy.”
The Senate and House bills would extend both the 2015 monthly premium and monthly deductible rates through 2016, and they would provide for increased government contributions to the Medicare Part B trust fund to compensate for reduced premium payments. AFSCME urges Congress to act to keep Medicare affordable for all beneficiaries and to protect state budgets.
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