Big changes for political texting, and carbon-capture in the infrastructure bill

Good morning,

I have two new stories to share today:

The first, published in In These Times, looks at the latest in the politics of carbon-capture utilization and storage. Readers of my work know I’ve been interested in the politics around organized labor and climate change for a few years, and a new bill introduced last month in Congress that’s backed by Biden would go a long way to building out the U.S.’s carbon capture storage infrastructure, at least putting it on par with other countries that have taken similar steps. There remain left-wing opponents of the idea, but notably they’ve been fairly silent on this bill so far, compared to protests they’ve mounted in the past, even most recently in September of 2020. I reached out to a bunch of them for this story. You can read more about the legislation and labor’s support for it here.

I subscribe to a good weekly climate newsletter at The Atlantic written by their reporter Robinson Meyer. I think his writing from this week (linked here) was particularly interesting and gets at something I think a lot about with respect to coalitional climate politics and labor.

The second story is in The Intercept and focuses on some little-known changes coming down the pipe soon by mobile carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, that will affect all businesses, advocacy groups and political campaigns that want to text you. It’s slightly complicated, because it involves telecomm regulations and rules, but the short of it is that political groups, unlike businesses, have been able to text voters without getting affirmative opt-in consent. (If CVS or your airline wants to text you, you have to check a box on their website and proactively tell them that’s OK.) The FCC affirmed last summer that political groups are distinct from the laws that govern telemarketers and autodialers, but AT&T, T-Mobile (and probably soon Verizon) are implementing new rules that would treat them as all the same.

The rules would impose new fees on all groups that want to send texts, would assign so-called “trust ratings” to groups that impact how many texts a group can send, and would require opt-in consent from everyone. Like with debates roiling around with Facebook and Twitter, it speaks to the ability of tech companies to be able to regulate public communication outside of the realm of government. I looked at protests being mounted by progressive coalitions to slow the mobile carrier’s roll, but conservative groups, wary of Big Tech discrimination, are also concerned by the murky, surely costly, and potentially dramatically consequential changes coming to their organizing. It’s a tough fight, because people do find spam texts annoying, and mobile carriers claim they are just responding to user frustration. You can read that story here.

If there are any freelance media workers reading this newsletter, and either have contributed to The Intercept in the past or might be interested in pitching them in the future — I’m co-hosting a workshop next week with the Freelance Solidarity Project about our statement of principles that we organized last year and how to get the most of out of them.

We’ll also be discussing potential next steps for organizing so if you want to come to that and learn more, it’s at 6:30 PM ET on 4/28. You can sign up here!

I know there’s a ton of outlets and new Substacks all competing for your attention and resources these days. While my newsletter is certainly more modest in ambition than many of these publications, I just want to say thank you again for being here. Your support—both financial and just reading, engaging, sharing—makes my freelance strategy (reporting for the public via outlets that can provide professional editing, illustrations, distribution etc) possible. So thank you.

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The first act of reparations in Georgia

50 Black families in Athens were displaced in the 1960s to make way for UGA dorms. Now they're seeking redress and a chance to testify before Congress

In the 1950s and '60s, across the U.S. , cities took advantage of the federal government’s new “urban renewal” program — which subsidized so-called “slum clearance” to make way for new development. Colleges also benefited from the program, as the Baby Boomer generation was coming of college age and universities wanted to make more room for students.

Black Americans were disproportionately affected by urban renewal, with their homes purchased via eminent domain and often sold for less than market value.

In The Intercept I wrote about one middle-class Black community in Athens, Georgia — known as Linnentown — displaced by this program. While the history had been passed down orally for decades, residents never had anything solid to prove what had been done to them, or what they lost. Then remarkably, about 2.5 years ago, a UGA library worker stumbled upon old records in the university’s special archives detailing the old transactions, displacements, and demolitions of Linnentown residents’ homes. The worker connected with the handful of living direct descendants of this community, and over the last 2 years they’ve been organizing for recognition and redress.

I wrote about their push for reparations, and whether this has implications for communities beyond Athens. I’m proud of this one, and grateful for the strong editing I received as well as the strong work from the art team, including original photographs taken by an Atlanta-based photographer. Reparations is a tricky and controversial topic, and you’ll see the folks in Athens see it as about much more than just cutting a check.

You can read it here.


Amazon retaliated against Chicago warehouse workers during Covid, NLRB finds

Utah bail reform and a guest panel on telecom in prisons

Good morning! I hope where you are is starting to get warm. It’s a been a very welcome change here this month.

Tomorrow night I’m going to be speaking on a virtual panel as part of public education series Worth Rises has been organizing about profit motive in the prison system. Tomorrow night’s session is on telecom, and I’m going to be joining to talk about my past reporting on the high cost of prison phone calls and efforts to change that. Worth Rises is led by Bianca Tylek, who I quoted in my New York Times oped earlier this month. She’s just an incredibly formidable person. (Her twitter bio is: “The prison industry hates me. It’s mutual. Comfortable in conflict.”) I’m also excited about the other guests who will be speaking. You can watch the livestream here if you’re interested. This is Week 8 of 15 for them, and past segments from this programming have covered everything from prison equipment to information data systems. Future sessions will be looking at topics like prison healthcare, transportation, and investors.

A few stories from last week to share:

The NLRB in Chicago investigated complaints filed by workers at an Amazon warehouse in April following their Covid-19 “safety strikes” and found the claims of retaliation and intimidation were merited. Now the NLRB is trying to get to Amazon to settle. I talked to some of the workers involved in Chicago about what this means to them, and I also looked at why the worker organizing they’re doing there looks different from the high-profile Amazon union drive ongoing in Bessemer, Alabama. You can read that Intercept story here.

At The Appeal I looked at how some of Utah’s hard-won bail reforms might fall by the wayside, depending on what the GOP governor Spencer Cox decides later this week. I talked with prosecutors, public defenders, academics, lawmakers and advocates about how Utah’s bail reforms came to be in the first place, and how just after four months of being in place, they are in a very vulnerable spot. You can read that here. There’s been some major advances in bail reform nationwide over the last few years, but this wouldn’t be the first state to then roll back some of their new reforms. It happened last year in New York.

Thanks for reading and supporting independent journalism.

Covid-19 policy lessons (in the New York Times!)

And how that came to be

I am very honored and excited to share with you a piece I wrote for The New York Times’s opinion section — as part of a special package on the anniversary of Covid-19. It went online Thursday and it’s in print today. (I ran to CVS this morning and definitely confused the cashier when I bought multiple copies).

The piece essentially looks at policies we put in place at the local, state, and federal level throughout the pandemic that a year ago would have struck most people as radical and politically naive. We released prisoners. We banned evictions. We mobilized to deliver hundreds of thousands of tech devices to homes without internet. We moved the homeless into their own independent living spaces. We did a lot quickly, and the sky did not fall. But as we near the end of this crisis, and many of these emergency interventions are expiring, we’re really at a crossroads about where we go next, and what kind of society we’ll choose build in Covid’s wake. I argue essentially that we have a window over the next few months to push for bigger structural changes, and we can do that. That raising awareness is never enough, but we need to understand what we have done over the course of the pandemic when there was will to act, and what our government still can do. That it’s up to us to demand it.

You can read it here. And the full package of anniversary pieces here! (Or pick up a copy today)

A lot of people have asked me how did this happen? And it’s a good question. It started with an email I got out of the blue from an editor, Max Strasser, in early December, subject line “Possible assignment for you?” We had a phone call and he explained they were commissioning pieces for this anniversary package in February or March, and he thought I might be able to do this piece that would require reporting on more radical policy experiments that occurred over the pandemic, and write something about how things are now reverting back to pre-pandemic times. I spent a couple weeks in December doing research. But after the Georgia Senate runoffs in early January, I and many people I spoke with were recalibrating political expectations. Things that seemed more far-fetched in December suddenly seemed a whole lot more possible, at least for a brief window of time. I made the case to Max to reframe the argument slightly, that we could certainly go back to how things were and forget all that we’ve learned, but really there is an opportunity we have now to push forward a lot more. And whether we do that is in large part on whether we understand that we can. And to recognize what we’ve done. These windows of political opportunity don’t come around so often. He liked it, and I spent the next six weeks or so doing more interviews. I didn’t tell anyone about this because honestly, they didn’t send me a contract until 2 days before it was published, and I just really was not sure if it was actually going to happen. Normally I would never do a lot of reporting for an assignment that I was not sure was happening, I just can’t afford as a freelancer to take that time, but there are always circumstances in which you break your own rules and I thought well if this one does work out it will be worth it. But I better not tell anyone in case it falls through and then I’ll be embarrassed. I didn’t even tell my parents until about a week ago.

So that’s the backstory. We did eight rounds of edits, and I was able to help mold the argument into something a little different, more along the lines of, we have this chance now to do something, to build on what we’ve learned. Will we?

I know if it weren’t for readers like you who have helped me to put a lot of this kind of policy reporting into the world before, the NYT wouldn’t have seen me as someone who could do this assignment justice. So thank you.

Negotiating School Safety

Readers of this newsletter know I have been following school reopening politics closely over the last year. But even for me, it can get very confusing. Studies and public health guidelines often seem to contradict each other, new research is coming out all the time, and then there are things happening with schools in other countries you try to stay on top of, to reconcile how that should or should not impact our understanding here. One thing that has been very clear is that the science continues to evolve, even if not everyone cares to keep up with it at this point.

Today I have a new story in The New Republic that I hope clarifies a bit more of what has been a very challenging issue for most people to keep up with, and why it often has felt like people are speaking past each other in all these conversations about safety and risk.

I’m going to copy and paste the first section below, and hopefully you’ll continue on to read the full thing.

Inside a Long, Messy Year of Reopening Schools

Last month in Chicago, after months of heated negotiations, the teachers union and Chicago Public Schools emerged with one of the most detailed school reopening agreements in the nation. Brad Marianno, an education policy professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has been studying these agreements since last spring, called it the most comprehensive he’s seen, citing its inclusion of things like testing protocols, measures that might lead to reclosing schools, and vaccination commitments. Among other things, the union succeeded in negotiating accommodations for hundreds more members at higher risk of Covid-19 complications, or who serve as the primary caregiver for someone at higher risk, than the district had originally agreed to accommodate.

Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said one of the most important components of the agreement was the so-called “school safety committees”—a demand the union put forward in December to hold leadership accountable to the health and safety promises it’s made. The school-based committees include up to four CTU members, the principal, the building engineer, and a “reasonable” number of other employees like janitors, lunchroom staff, and security guards. On a regular basis, they will flag to the principal any issues that arise and can hold the school liable if they go ignored. “That is the part of the agreement which provides us with some space to enforce the safety protocols, and it gives people who are working in the buildings power to push back and keep themselves safe,” Davis Gates told me.

Likewise, when I asked the Baltimore Teachers Union about what they’re most proud of from the fall negotiations, Corey Gaber, a vice president on the executive committee, called the “key provision” in its Memorandum of Understanding the one that holds Baltimore Public Schools accountable for everything in its Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. In effect, this means violations of those guidelines could be pursued as formal contract grievances. “The district does not have a strong track record of following through,” he said. “Given past precedent, there is not a level of trust, so for us, it’s all about getting things in writing.”

The remarks from Davis Gates and Gaber reflect something relatively basic to those familiar with the labor movement: When it comes to workplace safety, avoid taking an employer at their word. They also highlight something that, following dragged-out reopening fights, has been confusing to worn-out parents and community members, who are unclear why the pledges made by school districts have been insufficient to persuade educators to return more quickly: Isn’t this enough? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good? These dynamics are compounded by a raft of shifting and not infrequently conflicting local, state, and federal public health guidelines—which can and are routinely used to accuse each side of “not following the science.” Even in February, following the release of the long-awaited Biden Centers for Disease Control and Prevention school reopening guidelines, experts quickly came out with contrasting opinions on the recommendations. Some felt the CDC shouldn’t have tied in-person learning to community transmission rates, despite evidence linking the two. Others thought the CDC should tie them but believed their metrics were too conservative. Others were frustrated the CDC stuck to recommending six feet of social distancing, and yet still others criticized the agency for downplaying the role of ventilation. (Two weeks after releasing its guidance, the CDC responded by releasing additional recommendations on school ventilation.)

“I was very disappointed in the school guidance that came out. I think it still has too much emphasis on ‘Covid theater’—like taking daily temperatures and cleaning down everything all the time,” said William Mills, a ventilation expert and engineering professor at Northern Illinois University. Mills, who has been advising his state on Covid-19, says governments have been resistant to embracing a more interdisciplinary approach to safety and have been too slow to accept what has been clear to industrial hygienists like him for a year.

“Many epidemiologists and infectious disease people do not get taught about the ‘hierarchy of controls,’” Mills said, referring to the standard way occupational safety experts analyze and address workplace hazards. While measures like personal protective equipment and social distancing are important, occupational safety experts put greater weight on so-called “engineering controls” like ventilation, which depend less on proper and sustained human compliance. Ensuring young children or teenagers consistently wear their masks and always remain properly distanced—in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and bathrooms—can be difficult, particularly if the school is crowded. “Engineered solutions remove the onus from individuals and their personal habits or attentiveness,” reads Covid-19 guidance from the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “Machines do not get tired, sloppy, or distracted.”

Bob Harrison, an occupational health specialist and clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, agrees what’s often missing from reopening conversations is the melding of different perspectives of safety. “While the CDC might determine that reopening schools will not lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases in the community, from a worker health perspective, whether or not I am significantly contributing to community health is not how I am coming to the issue,” he explained. In other words, in addition to fears of inadvertently getting their neighbors sick, school staff also just worry about their own health. Schools are workplaces, and since the passage of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, employers have a general duty to ensure all employees “are free from recognized hazards” that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

A year into the pandemic, it helps to understand that school reopening battles have involved different experts carrying different assessments of risk. This has sometimes led advocates for faster reopenings to believe school employees are demanding “zero risk” on the job—an obviously untenable standard. Educators, in turn, see many academics and pediatricians making assured pronouncements about how public schools can be safe, with little reckoning of whether schools are safe and how to keep them that way. “Most doctors have never visited an inner-city school or been in a meatpacking plant,” Harrison said. “They probably have never taken much of an occupational history course, they don’t know what unions do, they don’t know about power dynamics in a workplace. So we’re speaking across a gap trying to understand each other, and it’s been a long and challenging road.”

In other stories, both for The Intercept:

  • I reported on an Amazon VP who abruptly resigned from the board of a liberal legal organization, just weeks after he was renewed for another 3 year term

  • Connecticut lawmakers are trying once more to become the first state in the nation to make prison phone calls completely free. Right now Connecticut has the most expensive prison phone call rates in the nation.

    Thanks for reading and supporting this work. I’m excited to share something else with you all later this week.


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