Al Franken will resign from Senate after more allegations of sexual improprieties

From today’s LA Times:

Al Franken announced Thursday he will resign his Senate seat, falling to a whirlwind of sexual misconduct allegations like those that have enmeshed other politicians, business leaders and media figures across the country in recent months.

The Minnesota Democrat, a second-term senator once seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2020 or beyond, earlier had said he would not leave office but would submit to a Senate ethics investigation into his behavior. He had acknowledged some misconduct, but denied other allegations.

His fate appeared sealed, however, on Wednesday, when more than half of Senate Democrats issued calls for his resignation in an uprising led by female senators. The choreographed move came as yet another woman came forward to accuse Franken of unwanted advances before he was elected to the Senate, and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York privately met with Franken to tell him the time had come to quit.

Franken’s announcement marked the second departure this week of a once-heralded Democrat caught in unsavory accusations. On Tuesday, the senior member of the House, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, quit after multiple complaints by aides that he had sexually harassed them.

The departure marks the end of the legislative career that began when Franken squeaked into office on an exceptionally narrow win, was reelected more easily and had emerged as a well-regarded member of the party’s growing liberal wing.

Franken’s resignation will not change the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority with 52 seats. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow Democrat, will appoint a replacement to serve until a special election can be held in November 2018. The winner of that election will hold the seat until what would have been the end of Franken’s second term, in January 2021.

Read the entire article here.

Takeaways From Tuesday’s Elections

From today’s New York Times Election Review:

By any measure, Tuesday was a big night for Democrats, especially in Virginia, where they swept the top offices, including governor, and made strong gains in the General Assembly. Here are some key takeaways from the biggest election night since President Trump’s victory a year ago.

Susan Johnston helping coordinate canvassing efforts at the Mainers for Health Care headquarters in Portland on Tuesday. Maine became the first state to vote to expand Medicaid. 

A suburban rebellion propels Democrats. It was largely a suburban rebellion, where more moderate voters rejected Mr. Trump and embraced Democrats. Be it New Jersey, Virginia or Charlotte, N.C., Democrats rode a miniwave of victories that will give them energy for candidate recruitment and fund-raising heading into the midterm elections next year.

In addition to winning the top races, for governor of New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats also captured the mayoral post in Manchester, N.H., the State Senate in Washington, along with other important victories in statehouse elections. Maine also became the first state to vote to expand Medicaid, the 32nd in all under President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

It’s hard to have Trumpism if you don’t have Trump. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, tried his best to sound the call of Mr. Trump’s followers in stoking the nation’s culture wars. He was harsh on immigration, supportive of Confederate monuments and opposed to those N.F.L. players who have taken a knee. But his public record before, as a national party chairman, White House counselor and Washington lobbyist, had few of those harsh edges. And like a lot of Republicans, he only grudgingly supported Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Most notably, Mr. Gillespie did not seek to campaign with the president in Virginia, settling for support via Twitter. That left him with almost all of Mr. Trump’s baggage and few potential benefits.
Read the entire review article here.

Pence casts deciding vote in Senate to deny consumers rights to sue banks

From today’s Washington Post by Ken Sweet:

Call it a win for “the swamp.”

President Trump and Republicans in Congress handed Wall Street banks a big victory by effectively killing off a politically popular rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks.

The 51-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote, means bank customers will still be subject to what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses. These clauses are buried in the fine print of nearly every checking account, credit card, payday loan, auto loan or other financial services contract and require customers to use arbitration to resolve any dispute with his or her bank. They effectively waive the customer’s right to sue.

The banking industry lobbied hard to roll back a proposed regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would have largely restricted mandatory arbitration clauses by 2019. Consumers would have been allowed to sue their bank as a group in a class-action lawsuit. Individual consumers with individual complaints would still have to use arbitration under the rules.

President Trump is expected to sign the Senate resolution into law, overturning yet another Obama-administration initiative. Trump spent months of the 2016 campaign accusing his opponent Hillary Clinton of being in the pocket of the big banks and therefore unwilling to take on Wall Street.

At least among voters, the CFPB’s regulations had bipartisan support. A poll done by the GOP-leaning American Future Fund found that 67 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the rules, including 64 percent of Republicans. Other polls on the subject show similar levels of support.

The overturn marks a significant victory for Wall Street. After the financial crisis, Congress and the Obama administration put substantial new regulations on how banks operated and fined them tens of billions of dollars for the damage they caused to the housing market. But since Trump’s victory last year, banking lobbyists have felt emboldened to get some of the rules repealed or replaced altogether. Top or near the top of the list was the CFPB’s arbitration rules.

“(The) vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country. Wall Street won and ordinary people lost. This vote means the courtroom doors will remain closed for groups of people seeking justice and relief when they are wronged by a company,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, in a statement.

The big banks and its lobbyist groups are calling this a victory for U.S. consumers, saying that arbitration is faster and the rules would have been an economic stimulus package for class-action trial lawyers. They also cite statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own 2015 study that show that the average award from a class-action lawsuit is roughly $32 while an award from arbitration is $5,389.

But reality is more complicated. At best, the banking industry’s arguments twist the truth.

The reason why the award for most class-action suits is small is because people don’t typically sue individually his or her bank over a small sum of money, like an overdraft charge or account service fee, because it’s not worth the financial effort to recover a $10, $25, or $35 fee. Arbitration cases are less common, and usually involve more substantial disputes, hence the larger awards. Also the majority of consumers resolve their dispute with their banks in person, typically at a branch or over the phone.

If the CFPB’s rules had gone into effect, companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Equifax would have been exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits for future bad behavior. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the U.S. banking customers paid $14 billion dollars in overdraft fee last year, and the industry has gotten in trouble in the past for shady tactics like transaction reordering, where a bank would reorder a day’s debits and withdrawals to extract the most overdraft fee income from its customers that day.

To overturn the CFPB’s rule, Congress used the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to overturn any executive agency’s rules or regulations with a bare majority vote, but more importantly, the law prohibits that agency from issuing any “substantially similar” regulations without Congressional authorization. That means that until Congress passes a law to restrict arbitration, the CFPB’s hands are now permanently bound on this issue.

The political winds are in Wall Street’s favor going forward. Cordray’s term at the CFPB will end in mid-2018 but he is expected to step down before then to make a run for Governor of Ohio. Trump will be able to choose his own appointee and will likely pick someone more likely to favor the banks.

The CFPB was created after the financial crisis as part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law that passed in 2010. The bureau was crafted to be independent and powerful, funded by the Federal Reserve instead of through the traditional Congressional appropriations process. Its director has considerable authority to pursue issues he or she considers important and generally cannot be removed from office.

There’s another major financial consumer protection now pending in front of Congress focused on the payday lending industry. The CFPB finalized new regulations weeks ago that would severely restrict the ability for payday lenders to make loans that its customers, often the poor and financially desperate, cannot afford. The payday lending industry is pushing hard to overturn these rules using the same process that was used to overturn the arbitration rules.

Head of AFL-CIO explains, “Why I Quit Trump’s Business Council”

From the New York Times “Opinion” Section, August 16, 2017 by Richard Trumka:

On Tuesday, President Trump stood in the lobby of his tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and again made excuses for bigotry and terrorism, effectively repudiating the remarks his staff wrote a day earlier in response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va. I stood in that same lobby in January, fresh off a meeting with the new president-elect. Although I had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, I was hopeful we could work together to bring some of his pro-worker campaign promises to fruition.

Unfortunately, with each passing day, it has become clear that President Trump has no intention of following through on his commitments to working people. More worrisome, his actions and rhetoric threaten to leave America worse off and more divided. It is for these reasons that I resigned yesterday from the president’s manufacturing council, which the president disbanded today after a string of resignations.

To be clear, the council never lived up to its potential for delivering policies that lift up working families. In fact, we were never called to a single official meeting, even though it comprised some of the world’s top business and labor leaders. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. joined to bring the voices of working people to the table and advocate the manufacturing initiatives our country desperately needs. But the only thing the council ever manufactured was letterhead. In the end, it was just another broken promise.

During my January meeting with President Trump, we identified a few important areas where compromise seemed possible. On manufacturing, infrastructure and especially trade, we were generally in agreement. Mr. Trump spoke of $1 trillion to rebuild our schools, roads and bridges. He challenged companies to keep jobs in the United States. He promoted “Buy America.” He promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Here’s the thing: Working men and women have been promised the moon by politicians. Year after year. Campaign after campaign. Republican and Democrat. Too often, those promises have ended up being hollow; election year sound bites are often discarded as quickly as they are made. I told President Trump that this time must be different. I made clear that we would judge his administration on its actions.

Nearly seven months in, the facts speak for themselves.

President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill is nowhere to be found. And according to an analysis from the University of Pennsylvania, even if Mr. Trump did bring such a plan forward, his own budget proposal would wipe it out, leading to a net loss of $55 billion for highways, water facilities and public transit. President Trump has also remained silent on the future of the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which requires contractors on federally assisted construction projects to pay their employees at rates prevailing in the communities where they perform the work.

What about Nafta? First, President Trump promised that the United States would withdraw. Then his administration sent a letter to Congress indicating the treaty needed only minor tweaks. Now renegotiation is underway with no clear principles for reform or negotiating goals in sight. Meanwhile, Nafta remains firmly in place.

Although President Trump has promised to protect the social safety net, his budget would slash $1.5 trillion from Medicaid, $59 billion from Medicare and up to $64 billion from Social Security over 10 years. It would strip funding for workplace safety research by 40 percent, even though about 150 workers die each day from hazardous working conditions. And it would force the people who make our government work to endure a 6 percent pay cut.

President Trump championed the Republican plan to gut health care and raise taxes on working people to line the pockets of the rich. And his executive orders that deport aspiring Americans and impose a religious litmus test for refugees are both morally bankrupt and bad economic policy.

Finally, rather than “draining the swamp,” President Trump has filled his cabinet with the authors and beneficiaries of our broken economic rules. He has elevated an anti-worker judge to the Supreme Court and appointed union-busting lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board.

His response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville was the last straw. We in the labor community refuse to normalize bigotry and hatred. And we cannot in good conscience extend a hand of cooperation to those who condone it.

In some ways, President Trump presented himself as a different kind of politician, someone who could cut through the gridlock in Washington and win a better deal for American workers. But his record is a combination of broken promises, outright attacks and dangerous, divisive rhetoric. That’s why we opposed him in the campaign. And that’s why he is losing the support of our members each and every day.

House Republicans Are Trying to Pass the Most Dangerous Wall Street Deregulation Bill Ever

From Mother Jones, June 7, 2017 by Hannah Levintova:
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From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has opposed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Obama-era financial reform law passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis.  Trump has characterized it as a “disaster” that has created obstacles for the financial sector and hurt growth. In April, he repeated his promise to gut the existing law.
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“We’re doing a major elimination of the horrendous Dodd-Frank regulations, keeping some, obviously, but getting rid of many,” Trump said in a meeting with top executives during a “Strategic and Policy CEO Discussion,” which included the leaders of major companies like Walmart and Pepsi. He added, “For the the bankers in the room, they’ll be very happy.”
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The Republican Congress shares Trump’s dislike of Dodd-Frank and this week, the House plans to vote on the Financial CHOICE Act, a Dodd-Frank overhaul bill that will, as promised, make banks and Wall Street “very happy” if it becomes law, while undoing numerous financial safeguards for regular Americans. (CHOICE is an acronym for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.”)
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The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), takes aim at some of Dodd-Frank’s main achievements: It guts rules intended to protect mortgage borrowers and military veterans, and restrict predatory lenders. It also weakens the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s ability to oversee and enforce consumer protection laws against banks around the country—upending a mix of powers that have helped the CFPB recover nearly $12 billion for 29 million individuals since opening its doors in July 2011. The bill also weakens or outright cuts a number of bank regulations enacted through Dodd-Frank to keep risky investing behavior in check in order to avoid the economic devastation of another financial crisis or taxpayer-funded bailout.

Read the entire article here.

In MT Special Election, Voters Must Reject GOP candidate Greg Gianforte

Not only is freedom of the press under assault from the rise of “fake news” and the lack of critical thinking in this country, it is also under physical threat from politicians who are treating reporters like punching bags.

Today Montana is holding a special congressional election for its “at-large” House seat to replace Ryan Zinke who Trump appointed to be Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. The contest is between Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a popular musician and rancher, and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who was rejected by the state’s citizens in November in his race to become governor against the popular Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock.

The special election is turning out to be referendum: not only about Trumps’ presidency and GOP policies, because many citizens of the state are deeply unhappy with proposed legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but also about the lack of civility and decency in American politics.

On the night before the election, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jones, a reporter for The Guardian at a campaign event, right before he was scheduled to give a televised interview with a Fox News correspondent and her crew. Here is how Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna described the incident:

At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!” 

This assault by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives on a reporter reflects the “zero sum” politics of elections in recent years, and it has to stop. The rise of social media and its outsize influence on electoral politics has come at a cost: the decline of civility and decency among and between citizens and their elected officials.

There is also another cost: with very little consequence for saying whatever people believe, the rise of “fake news” and outright lies have become part and parcel of this political in-fighting. This trend is disturbingly self-evident in the press release provided by the Gianforte campaign after the incident.

Shane Scanlon, who is Gianforte’s spokesperson, should not just be ashamed for lying about the incident in an effort to cover it up; he should also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement officials during the course of their investigation. What Scanlon describes in this press release is falsified by three eye-witnesses who confirmed the details supplied by the reporter to Gallatin County sheriff’s detectives that Gianforte assaulted him.

Unfortunately, over 200,000 Montana voters have already cast mail-in ballots before the campaign was over. If voters do not reject Gianforte at the ballot box today, he should withdraw from consideration. And if he fails to do that, and he is welcomed with open arms to Congress, it will be dark day for Montana history and American democracy.

How Democrats Can Win in the West

From yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Section by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT):

HELENA, MONT. — I AM no fan of Neil Gorsuch or his legal theories, but his appointment to the Supreme Court raises a question that Democrats must answer. Justice Gorsuch is the first person from the Mountain States named to the court since Ronald Reagan chose Sandra Day O’Connor from Arizona in 1981. Since then, Democratic presidents have appointed four justices, all more or less drawn from the Washington-New York-Harvard-Yale corridor. Why was it left to President Trump to finally take a person from the American West or, for that matter, anywhere from the interior of the country?

I ask this because a related question has been put to me lately. On the night that Hillary Clinton got 36 percent of the vote in Montana, I won re-election comfortably, running on progressive ideas and against an extremely wealthy Republican opponent. Ever since, national reporters have asked me whether Montana Democrats have some secret recipe, given that we’ve won the last four elections for governor, that might be used in national campaigns. I tell them yes, we do.

But it’s not really a secret, or all that hard to figure out. Above all, spend time in places where people disagree with you. Reach out. Show up and make your argument. People will appreciate it, even if they are not inclined to vote for you. As a Democrat in a red state, I often spend days among crowds where there are almost no Democratic voters in sight. I listen to them, work with them and try to persuade them.

Democrats as a national party have ceased doing this. This has to change. They should take a more expansive view of the America that exists beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard. To use a local analogy, Democrats should try casting the fly line a little farther out into the river.

The party has plenty of room for improvement here, in both politics and government. Only one person from the interior West has ever served as the party’s chairman. The last five came from up and down the I-95 corridor. The last vice-presidential pick from west of the Mississippi River was 29 years ago, and as concerns Montana specifically, it was not until last month, after 129 years of statehood, that a person from our state was named to a president’s cabinet.

If you’re not geographically diverse, it’s hard to even speak a language that makes sense to folks in faraway places. That’s especially a problem in the West, where voters have always mistrusted the federal government. Lately we watch cable news broadcasts coming from New York, featuring creatures of Washington and a dialogue full of lifeless talking points that either defend or assail some federal policy or proposal. That’s the native tongue of Washington, and it’s a language the Democrats’ last three losing presidential candidates spoke fluently but that almost always misses the reality of what Americans, especially those far from the nation’s capital, think and feel.

On health care, for example, Montanans aren’t in love with Obamacare — but they don’t want to see it eliminated, either. Our state voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, yes, but voters of all stripes here want a system where everyone is covered, and they supported me when I expanded Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income Montanans. And yet many of us were puzzled by the Democrats’ resistance to make any changes at all to the Affordable Care Act, given the often outrageously high premiums and deductibles.

And there are some progressive battles that Western Democrats have been left entirely to ourselves to wage. It wasn’t long ago that the Citizens United decision focused the nation on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Washington has apparently moved on, but in Montana we kept fighting; in the past few years we eliminated all of the anonymous corporate campaign expenditures that used to plague our state elections, often millions of dollars a year. This dark money is now illegal in Montana, and we are bringing, and winning, legal actions against the bad actors.

In the past decade Democrats in the West have battled a bizarre but powerful right-wing movement to allow wealthy individuals to take ownership of public lands and close them off, an issue on which even some of the most conservative voters here side with Democrats. These are our forests and parks and rivers, great equalizers where all citizens can escape to hunt, fish and hike, activities central to our heritage. But it barely moves the needle in Washington, because it seems like such a faraway issue to people inside the Beltway bubble.

I remember a humorous episode from Bill Clinton’s presidency in which his advisers prevailed upon him, one summer before his re-election campaign, to spend his vacation in Montana and Wyoming instead of the usual Martha’s Vineyard. The theory was that he’d benefit from hanging out someplace a little more down to earth. He took the advice, and won re-election. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart.

U.S. Senate votes to block California-led effort on retirement security for low-income workers

From today’s LA Times by Evan Halper

A pioneering, California-led effort to create retirement security for low-income workers has been thrown into jeopardy after the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to block states from starting programs to automatically enroll millions of people in IRA-type savings plans.

The measure, aimed at stopping the fledgling state retirement programs, now goes to President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

That leaves lawmakers in California, Illinois and other states who only months ago were celebrating the success of their long-planned initiative scrambling to regroup. The Senate voted 50 to 49 to stop the state plans.

The retirement programs that were about to launch in seven states and are under consideration in many more were targeted by Wall Street firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The vote reflected the renewed influence of the business lobby in Washington since the 2016 election, with lawmakers defying the 38-million member AARP, a vocal supporter of the auto-IRA program. The seniors group had warned senators that its members would hold them accountable for their votes.

“Nobody had a problem with this except for the big Wall Street companies who invented in their mind that they would be losing business to these state innovations,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), whose state was moving to implement an auto-IRA program. “This is a terrible, terrible thing we are doing,” he said of the Senate’s vote to undermine the state programs.

The California Secure Choice program and similar retirement laws generally require employers with no retirement plans to automatically invest a small percentage of each worker’s pay in a state-sponsored retirement account. Employers can opt out of the program if they choose.

The money is managed by private investment firms that partner with the states. The accounts are intended to help build financial security for some 55 million workers nationwide whose employers do not offer a retirement plan.

The push to implement the programs was delayed for years by complicated federal Labor Department rules governing such investment pools. In its final months, the Obama administration gave states the green light to pursue their vision. But Congress has now voted to revoke that authority, leaving the programs in limbo. Opponents of the state programs say they became too risky for consumers after the federal rules were changed.

Read the entire article here.

American Priorities at a Crossroads: Trump’s Budget Leaves America Behind

The Trump Administration released its 2018 Budget Proposal and the picture is a disturbing set of priorities aimed at increasing military and law enforcement spending over the next 18 months by $100 billion, while slashing spending on domestic programs that will adversely affect health and human services, education, and scientific advancement.

If this is putting America First, then there are surely tough times ahead for the majority of working Americans and families.

Increasing spending on the military budget is a monumental waste of money that would be better used to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, create jobs, and shore up entitlement programs that are in need of sensible reform: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Currently, military spending accounts for 54 percent of the federal budget (2015 figures). That means for every tax dollar raised in revenue, over half of it goes to spending that does not directly benefit American workers and taxpayers. The benefits we do get from such lavish spending in terms of national security is largely indirect in the form of a subsidized belief that the bigger our military, and the more money we spend on it, the safer we are. That is a false argument to be sure.

Spending more money on the military in a time of social, economic, and political crisis is a failure of Trump to live up to his stated priorities of putting Americans back to work and ensuring that economic prosperity is spread around to those states, and the working class citizens in them, who feel they have been left behind in the wake of trade agreements, technological innovation, and the forces of globalization.

Many people who voted for Trump may “feel” that his budget proposal reflects their values. But when the anti-tax Congress refuses to fund vital programs, including a much needed overhaul of our nation’s infrastructure, and jobs do not suddenly materialize by returning from overseas, they will once again be left holding the bag. We may have the most powerful military in the world, but the most powerful nation it protects will not be able to provide good paying jobs for its workers, while the streets and bridges crumble under their very feet.

Strong Unions, Strong Democracy

From yesterday’s New York Times “Opinion” by By Richard Kahlenberg

IF the questions that came up during oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Monday are any guide, the ruling bloc of conservative justices appears ready to render a decision later this year that would significantly weaken public sector labor unions.

By stripping these unions of key financial resources — their fair share of fees provided by nonmembers — the court would upend a longstanding precedent. A decision in favor of the plaintiff would effectively slam the door on an era in which some conservatives joined liberals in recognizing that vibrant unions help make our democracy work. This is radicalism, not conservatism.

Public sector unions — representing teachers, firefighters and the like — are the remaining bright spot in America’s once-thriving trade union movement. In the case before the Supreme Court, Rebecca Friedrichs, a dissident teacher in Southern California, argues that she should be able to accept the higher wages and benefits the union negotiates, but not help pay for the costs.

Relying on the First Amendment, Ms. Friedrichs says that she shouldn’t be forced by the government to support political causes with which she disagrees. But almost four decades ago, the Supreme Court came to a sensible compromise on this issue, written by an Eisenhower appointee, Justice Potter Stewart:

No public sector worker can be compelled to join a union or to pay for its political efforts. However, the state may require that every worker pay fair share fees to support the costs of collective bargaining over bread-and-butter issues like wages, benefits and working conditions.

That 1977 ruling appears in real danger of being overturned. Doing so, David C. Frederick, a lawyer representing the union, told the court, “would substantially disrupt established First Amendment doctrine and labor management systems in nearly half the country.”

Continue Reading Full Article Here.