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12/22/2014 - President Obama Calls Only On Women During 2014's Last Press Conference

In case you missed it, President Obama on Friday held his last press conference of 2014 - and when it was time for questions, he only called on women.

The press corps has long been dominated by men, and Helen Thomas became the first female reporter to cover the White House in 1960.

It was not the first time President Obama took questions from only women. Back in September during a visit to Wales, President Obama called on four reporters who were all women. But while that was reportedly just a coincidence, Obama calling on all women on Friday was purposeful.

"The fact is, there are many women from a variety of news organizations who day-in and day-out do the hard work of covering the President of the United States," Josh Earnest, Press Secretary at the White House, said after the conference. "As the questioner list started to come together, we realized we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the President's closely watched, end-of-the-year news conference."

When reporters thought Obama was done taking questions, a male reporter asked Obama about his New Year's resolutions. He ignored the male reporter and called on April Ryan of American Urban Radio instead. The other seven women, all print reporters, called on were: Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico; Cheryl Bolen, Bloomberg; Julie Pace, Associated Press; Lesley Clark, McClatchy; Roberta Rampton, Reuters; Colleen M. Nelson, Wall Street Journal; and Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post.

12/22/2014 - McDonald's Responsible for 86 Cases of Misconduct Against Workers

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled Friday that the McDonald's corporation is responsible for several dozen complaints of retaliatory conduct against workers fighting for job improvements.

Since November 2012, 291 charges have been filed against McDonald's franchisees. Of that number, the NLRB said it found 86 cases of unlawful conduct which included firings, reduced hours, threats, surveillance, and discriminatory discipline against workers who participated in organized and legally protected activity. Of the 291 charges that were filed, 11 cases were resolved, and another 71 remain under investigation.

Friday, the NLRB elected to name the McDonald's corporation as a joint employer with McDonald's franchisees, a move that trade groups have criticized. According to Reuters, the NLRB has traditionally held that franchisers may only be held liable if they are involved in setting wages and hiring workers. If the cases cannot be resolved through settlement, they could go before an administrative law judge beginning in March 2015. Cases have been launched in 13 regions across the country, including cities in New York and California, where the Department of Labor reported egregious wage theft violations earlier this month.

Speaking for the National Employment Law Project, General Counselor Catherine Ruckelshaus agreed with the NLRB's decision. "While lobbyists for the fast-food industry might loudly disagree, their objections don't change the facts: if you work at McDonald's, then you work for McDonald's, and not just the company's franchisees," she said. "McDonald's exerts substantial control over its franchised restaurants; it's only right that the company should also be held responsible for the rights of the workers at its restaurants."

McDonald's plans to contest the unfair labor practice charges against them.

12/19/2014 - Woman on Life Support Revives Ireland Abortion Debate

Debate surrounding Ireland's ban on abortion has come up again following a current case involving a woman who is being kept on life support because she is pregnant.

The woman's family wants her to be taken off life support, but doctors refuse because Irish law says they must do what they can to protect the 16-week-old fetus. It is highly unlikely for a fetus to survive outside the womb until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Dr. Adam McAuley, an expert on Irish medical law, believes Dublin High Court will decide to keep the woman on life support until the fetus develops into a baby that can be delivered. The case will come before court on Tuesday.

"The law isn't clear, and when there is conflict, the matter will have to come before the court," McAuley said.

The woman, who was in her 20s, suffered a blood clot that left her brain dead. An Irish constitutional amendment gives mothers and the unborn equal rights under the law - which means that despite the family's wishes, doctors cannot remove her from life support.

Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country where more than 4,000 women leave to receive abortions annually (most go to England). However, some women do not have this option - including, obviously, those such as the woman in this current case.

Ireland's first abortion exception law was passed just last year, which made it legal to receive an abortion if the woman's life was in danger from the pregnancy. The law came about largely after debate surrounding a woman named Savita Halappanavar who died from blood poisoning that came about from the dying fetus she had to carry. She was not allowed a life-saving abortion because the fetus technically still had a heartbeat. Halappanavar's death led to nationwide protests.

Last summer, a suicidal woman who was raped as a minor became pregnant. She could not go to England for an abortion because she is not an Irish citizen, so she attempted to obtain an abortion under the new law. The woman was denied the abortion despite two psychiatrists determining she was suicidal and saying she should have access to the procedure. The obstetrician on the panel declared that the fetus was viable and should be delivered. After the panel's examination, the woman had to wait 17 full weeks to hear back about the outcome. She believes the government purposely delayed her case until the fetus was viable. When her request for an abortion was ultimately rejected, she started a hunger and water strike in protest but stopped when authorities threatened to put her on forced hydration. She then agreed to have a premature caesarean section at 25 weeks.

A pro-choice group in Ireland called Choice Ireland posted the most recent news with the caption "How many 'unforeseen' cases will it take to repeal this abominable law?"

12/19/2014 - DC City Council Unanimously Approves Reproductive Health Anti Discrimination Bill

Wednesday, the Washington, DC City Council unanimously passed a bill that will prohibit employer interference in the reproductive health decisions of their employees.

The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2014 was first introduced by DC Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), just ahead of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of for-profit retail chain Hobby Lobby this summer. The bill amends DC's 1977 Human Rights Act and "expands discrimination on the basis of sex to include discrimination based upon the reproductive health decisions of an employee, their spouse or their dependent." The original Human Rights Act includes language that explicitly protects DC residents from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy status, childbirth, or related medical conditions or needs.

Some advocates say the bill could be interpreted as a reversal of the controversial Hobby Lobby decision, but according to a committee report, the bill "is not about insurance coverage, but rather about employee discrimination."

Outgoing DC Mayor Vincent Gray is expected to sign the bill before year's end. As in the case of all legislation in DC, the measure will still need to be approved by both chambers of Congress and President Barack Obama before it can be fully enacted.

12/19/2014 - Incremental Gains for Women in Congress

When the 114th Congress is sworn into office on January 3rd, 2015, there will be exactly the same number of women in Senate as the year before, 20, and a record-high number of women in the US House, 84. Overall, the total percentage of women in Congress will increase from 18 percent to 19 percent.

At this rate, it would take more than another 2 generations of women to get to parity in Congressional representation. "Clearly, this is not acceptable," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

With Mary Landrieu (D-LA) losing to Republican Bill Cassidy in a Senate run-off election this weekend, twenty women will serve in the Senate for the third year in a row. There is a notable difference in party divisions, as only 70 percent of the women in Senate are Democratic, compared to 80 percent in 2014.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics, noted that years when Republicans win many elections often do no yield well for women. "While Republicans won big across the country," she said, "women remain seriously underrepresented among GOP officeholders."

The number of women in the US House of Representatives, however, has increased from 74 to 84- the highest amount yet. Due to a special election, Alma Adams (D-NC) became the 100th woman in the current Congress when she was elected to join the House.

The total number of women governors stays the same at 5, and includes Gina Raimondo, the first woman elected governor of Rhode Island. Another record setter, Maura Healy of Massachussetts is the first openly LGBT woman to ever be elected to the position of attorney general.

12/18/2014 - New Jersey is Inching Closer to Mandatory Paid Sick Leave Statewide

The Assembly Budget Committee of the New Jersey state legislature approved a paid sick leave bill Monday by a 6-4 vote.

If the bill is passed, New Jersey workers will earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. In smaller organizations, employees will be able to earn a required minimum of five sick days per year; at companies with less than 10 employees, workers will be able to accrue 40 hours of sick leave that could be carried over to the next year. Workers at larger businesses would be allowed to carry over up to 72 hours or 9 days of sick leave from one year to the next.

The New Jersey Time to Care Coalition praised the committee's vote. "When you get sick, you shouldn't need to worry about losing your pay or even your job," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, Executive Director of NJ Citizen Action and spokesperson for NJ Time to Care. "We thank the Assembly Budget Committee for their commitment to advance the right of all workers to be guaranteed a basic standard of earned sick days."

In November, residents of Trenton and Montclair overwhelmingly voted for local measures that would require private-sector enterprises to offer paid sick leave. In the last year, eight New Jersey municipalities (East Orange, Irvington, Jersey City, Newark, Passaic, Paterson, Montclair, and Trenton) have taken legislative action on paid sick leave. There are only 16 cities with paid sick leave laws in the entire country. If the statewide measure is approved, New Jersey will become only the fourth state to offer paid sick leave.

Last week, US Secretary of Labor Tom Perez met with activists and some New Jersey lawmakers at Rutgers Law School in Newark. "We are the only nation in the civilized world where we don't have some form of federal paid leave, and we're working on that in Washington with the leadership of the President," Perez said. "You are ahead of the curve," he told them. "It probably doesn't feel that way as you push the boulder up the hill."

12/18/2014 - American Apparel Hired Its First-Ever Woman Chief Executive to Replace Dov Charney

Six months after retail store American Apparel fired its chief executive and founder Dov Charney, the company has hired retail executive Paula Schneider as a replacement.

Schneider, who will become American Apparel's first female chief executive, will take over the position as of January 5.

Charney had led American Apparel since 1998 and became well-known from American Apparel's sexist advertising and from several sexual harassment lawsuits and sexual assault accusations against him by former employees. Charney was removed in June but was brought back on a month later as a "strategic consultant." After an investigation by the company, a statement was released that did not bring up the harassment or assault accusations, but did state that based on this investigation, the special committee determined that it would not be appropriate for Mr. Charney to be reinstated as CEO or an officer or employee of the Company.

Earlier this year Charney said he would seek severance pay of between 23 and 25 million dollars. Schneider says she strives to make American Apparel a better company while "staying true to its core values of quality and creativity and preserving its sweatshop-free, Made in USA manufacturing philosophy."

"This company needs a permanent C.E.O. who can bring stability and strong leadership in this time of transition, and we believe Ms. Schneider fits the bill perfectly," said David Danziger, a co-chairman of the American Apparel board.

12/18/2014 - Obama's Judicial Appointments Most Diverse in History

Congress came to a close on Tuesday night with the Senate confirmation of 12 new federal judges and 12 executive appointments - including Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, Sarah Saldana as head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Tony Blinken as deputy Secretary of State. In their entirety, Obama's confirmed nominees to the federal bench are 42 percent women, 19 percent African-American, 11 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent openly gay men or lesbian women, making this the most diverse group of judges in history.

As of these appointments 9 of the 13 federal Circuit courts of appeals are now composed of a majority democratic appointment. Until recently, 10 out of 13 had a majority appointments by Republican presidents.

Tuesday's confirmations were made possible by the parliamentary blunder of Senator Cruz and the quick response by Senator Reid to move appointments that had been languishing because of Republican opposition.

Sarah Salda a was appointed as head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement by a vote of 55-39, and faced nearly unanimous GOP opposition. Saldana is a US attorney from the Northern District of and Texas, will be the first Latina to hold the position. In a statement President Obama called Saldana "the right person to lead the dedicated men and women at ICE in securing our borders, keeping American communities safe, and upholding our values."

With a close vote of 51 to 41, Vivek Murthy was confirmed as the next Surgeon General. Murthy, the 37 year old founder of the group Doctors for America, is the first Surgeon General of Indian-American descent. Murthy's appointment was held up by Republican Senators for about a year because of his view that gun violence is a public issue. President Obama expressed confidence in Murthy in a recent statement. "Vivek will hit the ground running," he said, continuing "He'll bring his lifetime of experience promoting public health to bear on priorities ranging from stopping new diseases to helping our kids grow up healthy and strong."

12/16/2014 - Federal Lawsuit Challenges the Wisconsin Law That's Putting Pregnant Women in Prison

A federal civil rights lawsuit is being filed on behalf of a Wisconsin woman who was jailed after allegedly using methamphetamines while 14 weeks pregnant.

Tamara Loertscher, 30, was jailed after seeking prenatal care at a Mayo Clinic branch in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Loertscher was seeking treatment for a serious thyroid condition and depression, and disclosed to doctors that she'd been using drugs before she knew she was pregnant. Hospital workers then had Loertscher jailed.

"This was my first pregnancy, so I didn't know what to expect," Loerstcher told reporters. "I was having lots of cramping and a lot of stress from everything and they [jail officials] wouldn't allow me to see the doctor."

Wisconsin law grants authorities the power to involuntarily detain and confine a pregnant woman for substance use if she "habitually lacks self-control" and her substance use poses a "substantial risk" to the health of an egg, embryo, or fetus. This policy, Wisconsin Act 292, is also referred to as the "cocaine mom law."

Wisconsin is just one of several states that effectively suspend the civil rights of pregnant women in the name of protecting against fetal harm. Tennessee was the most recent state to enact such a law, doing so earlier in 2014. Wisconsin's law remains the most broad, and no court has yet ruled on its constitutionality.

12/16/2014 - Personhood Groups Plan to Launch County and Municipal Measures to Restrict Abortion Access

A newly-created anti-abortion group has announced a new tactic meant to end abortion access nationwide.

In the wake of major defeats for personhood ballot measures in Colorado and North Dakota's recent elections, anti-abortion extremist Gualberto Garcia Jones, who authored Colorado's failed Amendment 67, is now instructing groups to abandon statewide votes for personhood amendments. Instead, Garcia Jones suggested that in 2015 anti-choice groups start engaging the enemy in municipalities and counties that we know we control. The Personhood Alliance, which claims to have member organizations in at least 14 different states, is already receiving support for putting anti-choice ballot initiatives at the county and municipal level from other anti-choice groups.

"We know that winning in a head to head statewide battle with Planned Parenthood is almost impossible," said Molly Smith, President of Cleveland Right to Life, "so we are going to change the rules of engagement a little."

Voting at the local level, however, has not worked for passing abortion restrictions in the past. Cathy Alderman, Vice President of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, remembers when anti-choice groups failed to ban abortion at 20 weeks in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Voters upheld the value that women should be making their own health-care decisions in consultation with their doctor and their family and without government interference," Alderman said.

12/16/2014 - Thousands Marched for Justice in Washington, DC in the Wake of Fatal Police Violence

On Saturday, December 13, the National Action Network (NAN), NAACP, and other civil rights organizations led the Justice For All March in Washington, DC. Thousands attended the march with the goal of compelling Congress to take legislative action to bring justice to the families of those slain by law enforcement.

Just 8 days before the march, founder and leader of the National Action Network, Reverend Al Sharpton, put out a call for protesters, allies, and supporters to converge on the nation's capital. The families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and John Crawford III, all attended the march, joined by other survivors of violence by police and, in the case of Martin, "vigilantes."

Last week, in a blog for the Huffington Post, Sharpton commended President Barack Obama for establishing a task force to brainstorm and develop concrete recommendations to address the the culture of militarized hyper-policing and use of excessive force that most often adversely impacts communities of color. He also acknowledged President Obama's commitment to outfit some 50,000 police officers with body cameras - a direct response to the more than 150,000 people who demanded via petition for mandatory body cameras. Sharpton also took aim at Congress.

"Congress must immediately start hearings to deal with laws that will change the jurisdiction threshold for federal cases and policing," Sharpton wrote. "The executive branch has addressed this most pressing issue, and now it's time the legislative branch do the same." Sharpton also called for the funding of body cameras for police officers.

He isn't the only one calling for more lasting action. Last week, a delegation of the Mothers Against Police Brutality also appeared before Congress to urge them to take decisive action in how police-involved killings are prosecuted.

The delegation included 10 mothers from all over the country who've lost sons to police violence. Mothers Against Police Brutality supports mandatory body cameras, but they want to see Congress push for demands like same-day blood tests for officers involved in police-shootings, random drug testing for all law enforcement civil servants, and accountability of the district attorneys many officers work with.

12/15/2014 - Ohio House Rejects Six Week Abortion Ban

An Ohio bill that would have banned abortions as early as six weeks failed to pass in the Republican-controlled Ohio House Wednesday.

House Bill 248, a direct affront to Roe v. Wade, would have banned abortion before viability, even in cases of rape or incest. 11 Republicans voted against the bill, causing it to fail with a vote of 47-40. 11 legislators did not vote.

"It's not supported by good science, it's not supported by good medicine," said Representative John Patrick Carney (D-Columbus), who voted against the bill.

The bill, a so-called "fetal heartbeat ban," was labeled a "Heartless Abortion Ban" by reproductive rights advocates. Kellie Copeland, the executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said her organization was "elated" that the bill failed, but that debate surrounding the bill had had a "chilling effect" on women and physicians in Ohio.

"Sadly, we know that defeat of this legislation is not the end of the threat to women's health," Copeland said. "Anti-choice forces already have more restrictions on access to reproductive health care ready for introduction when the legislature returns in January."

An earlier version of the failed Ohio bill had previously passed the Ohio House in 2011 but was defeated in the Senate.

Both North Dakota and Arkansas have passed early abortion bans, but these have been blocked by the courts. In April, a federal court permanently blocked enforcement of the North Dakota six-week abortion, calling the measure "invalid and unconstitutional." Another federal court earlier this year struck down a "fetal heartbeat law" in Arkansas that would have banned abortion at 12 weeks.

12/15/2014 - Supreme Court Declines to Review Decision Blocking Arizona's Anti-Abortion Law

On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to review the decision by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to block a restrictive Arizona abortion law. Anti-abortion proponents of the law claimed it would have essentially eliminated medical abortions in Arizona. Similar laws enacted in Ohio, North Dakota and Texas will likely now meet a similar fate.

The Arizona law would have prevented women from receiving a medication abortion between their seventh and ninth week of pregnancy. The anti-abortion Arizona law passed in 2012 was blocked by the Ninth Circuit. Arizona then appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The Court's decision to deny the appeal means the law cannot be enforced.

"Mifepristone, or the pill method of abortion, is extremely safe and non-invasive," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "Politicians should stop trying to practice medicine and allow women and their doctors to decide the best course of action for their well-being."

Medical abortions, or pill-inducing early option abortions, are used in the first 49 days after a woman's last missed menstrual period. Medical abortions are non-surgical and involve the use of the mifepristone pill. This method accounts for some 40 percent of all first-trimester abortions. The appeals court in blocking the law said it "substantially burdens women's access to abortion services," and it "introduced no evidence that the law advances in any way its interest in women's health."

The Center for Reproductive Rights, when arguing against the law before the court, agreed, saying it would only cause harm for women."Women who have made the decision to end a pregnancy will continue to get safe, legal care based on the expertise of their doctors, not politicians who presume to know better," said Nancy Northup, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in response to the Supreme Court's decision.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, applauded the decision. "Politicians across the country should take note: These harmful and unconstitutional restrictions won't be tolerated by the courts or the public."

12/15/2014 - Senate Maneuvering Allows for Confirmation of Obama Nominees

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was able to push for confirmation of 24 Obama nominees over the weekend. 12 federal judgeships and 12 administrative appointees, including a new Surgeon General and head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, could be appointed due to a little-known procedural rule and the actions of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).

The Senate vote on the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill this weekend was stalled when Senator Cruz insisted on a vote on the constitutionality of President Obama's recent executive actions on immigration. Although Senator Cruz's motion was defeated 22-74, the extended session opened the door for Senator Reid (D-NV) to present 12 nominations for judgeships, and another 12 for executive office- an unintended consequence that has many GOP leaders frustrated.

Amongst nominations for the executive office is Vivek Murthy for Surgeon General, whose view that gun violence in America is a public health problem and needs to be addressed has been controversial. Sarah Salda a was also nominated to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If appointed, Salda would be the first Latina woman to hold the position. Many of the nominations face minimal opposition, and it is believed that most will be confirmed early this week.

12/15/2014 - The Spending Bill Lifted the Abortion Ban for Peace Corps Volunteers

The Senate Saturday passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that included expanded abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in case of rape, incest, and when the life of the parent is threatened.

The Senate's Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act brings w0rkers' health care coverage in line with all federal employees, and lifts a 35-year ban on federal funding for abortion in case of rape, incest, or life endangerment for Peace Corps volunteers. Before now, Peace Corps volunteers were the only recipients of government-sponsored insurance that were banned from receiving abortion care under designated emergency circumstances. President Barack Obama has included the same expanded abortion care provisions for Peace Corps volunteers in his budget proposal for the last several years, but those efforts were blocked by Republicans. Earlier this year, for the first time, a standalone bill was introduced in the House on behalf of the more than 60 percent-female organization, but the new rider will go into effect when the President signs the Cromnibus.

"Every woman should have the reproductive coverage she needs, and the brave women of the Peace Corps should no longer be unfairly targeted for inequitable treatment," Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union legislative office, said.

The new budget package does not, however, make any changes to other longstanding abortion bans. The bill preserves a ban of local and federal funding of abortions for Washington, DC residents on Medicaid. It also preserves a ban on the use of federal money for federal prisoner abortions. According to the Washington Post, the bill also includes new language directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to indicate whether a healthcare plan available on the federal exchange covers abortion services.

Money reserved for family planning programs also remains about the same in the new spending bill.

12/12/2014 - March on Washington to End Police Violence This Saturday

The families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and Reverend Al Sharpton will be marching in Washington, DC tomorrow to call for an end to police violence.

A coalition of civil rights groups led by Reverend Al Sharpton at the National Action Network organized the "Justice for All" march, which will begin at Freedom Plaza at noon on Saturday, December 13, and proceeds down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. The Justice for All march, announced on Wednesday, is not expected to have record-setting numbers, but to make a strong national statement in support of street demonstrations nation-wide. Charter buses, however, are coming from many cities and states across the east coast.

Those participating in the march are calling on Congress to take legislative action to combat racial profiling, and police discrimination and violence. For more information on the march and how to get involved, visit the National Action Network's webpage.

12/12/2014 - Warren and Pelosi Fight Spending Bill

The US House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion, 1603-page spending bill late last night, 219-209. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) led the fight against passage, asking if Congress was representing Wall Street or representing the people. She said the bill represented "the worst of government for the rich and the powerful". The bill contains a provision that weakens the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act by easing restrictions on banks, which ultimately contributed to the financial debacle of 2008.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took to the floor to denounce the bill saying members were being blackmailed to pass the measure in the closing hours of the session with the threat of a government shut-down. The bill was passed within 3 hours of the deadline.

The bill contains many provisions impacting millions of people. It includes the Hyde Amendment, which bans spending federal dollars on abortion, and it includes provisions spending $5 million and upwards to $12-15 million more for ineffectual and harmful abstinence-only education. But it also contains level funding for the Teen Pregnancy Initiative which covers comprehensive family planning education at $101 million.

One of the most controversial aspects of the legislation is that it includes language that could result in cuts to pensions for millions of retired workers under the age of 75 years and even minimal cuts to those over 75.. It allows cuts to multi-employer underfunded pensions plans usually sponsored by employers and unions. It allows the plans to cut benefits well before they reach insolvency. The teamsters claim that one of the proposed revisions could save UPS $2 billion. Some pensioners could lose as much as a half to two-thirds of their pension.

This pension cutting provision is supported by both Democrats and Republicans and some unions and employers. AARP and the Pension Rights Center among other advocacy groups opposed it. Karen Friedman, the pension rights center policy director, warned "this sets a precedent for cutting social security and senior employer plans."

A provision having nothing to do with government spending was included allowing wealthy individuals to increase their contributions to national political party committees from a maximum of $97,200 in 2014 to possibly as much as $777,600. Calculations differ, but the increase is substantial, giving more power, as if they needed it, to wealthy donors. The citizens united Supreme Court decision, allows individuals to give to non-profit independent expenditure campaigns unlimited secret funds. One can argue this provision provides more power to political parties in fighting groups like the Koch brother's Americans for Prosperity.

12/12/2014 - Senate Blocks Military Justice Improvement Act

The Senate denied a vote for the Military Justice Improvement Act yesterday, blocking the act for the second time this year.

A bipartisan group of senators approached the senate floor yesterday to push for the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), spearheaded by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Gillibrand was hoping the Act would be added as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, but said that she will push for it as a stand-alone bill, and is even prepared to urge President Obama to take executive action. The bill is hoping to combat recently released data from a Pentagon report showing little progress over the past year in preventing sexual assault in the military, making it easier for survivors to report assault, and eliminating retaliation for those who do report. The bill fell short of being passed by only five votes earlier this year.

The MJIA would move the decision to prosecute military sexual assault outside the chain of command and give it to trained, independent professional military prosecutors. "The Department of Defense has failed on this issue for over 20 years now," Senator Gillibrand said yesterday, "and the data shows they still don't get it." She continued "Why should our service members enjoy a lesser standard of justice and fairness than you and I, whose freedoms they risk everything to protect?"

The need for reform was emphasized by Col. Don Christensen (Ret.), former Chief Prosecutor of the Air Force, who called the current process an "ineffective, broken system of justice," that "undermines the military I love." Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) agreed, saying "What we're doing now is not working."

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who led the objection to the bill, said he feared that it would undermine the authority of commanders in the military, although Sen. Gillibrand clarified that this bill would only affect the top 3 percent of commanders.

12/11/2014 - Groups Demand Gender-Responsive Climate Policy at UN Convention

Through December 12, policymakers representing at least 195 countries are in Lima, Peru for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP20 (Conference of the Parties). The talks are a continuation of the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this year, and a precursor to the 2015 climate meeting in Paris, where these world leaders are expected to finalize a new global climate agreement. Friday, the Climate Action Network (CAN), a civil society member of the UNFCCC's Women and Gender Constituency (WGC), issued an assessment of the gender gap facing the ongoing global climate discussions.

In the Lima edition of the ECO newsletter, CAN acknowledged the COP20 President's stated intent to advance "gender-responsive climate policy," but called on the body to codify those commitments into the actual convention. The Women and Gender Constituency is a coalition of civil society organizations that participates in the COP meetings. The WGC is working to ensure women's rights and gender justice are central elements of the final UNFCCC agreement.

In a statement released Wednesday, the WGC stated that one of their two primary concerns is the development of a climate plan that includes a measure for gender equality. On the first day of COP20 talks, Carmen Capriles of Reaccion Climatica in Bolivia, addressed the larger delegation on behalf of the WGC. "In regions like ours here in Latin America, where women are distinguished by their triple work days; as heads of household, as mothers and as fundamental players in the economy, it is important to recognize that their livelihoods are being affected [by climate change]...which is compounded by poor access to resources and land, lack of education, and lack of access to decision-making," Capriles said. "This reality has caused women to be on the frontlines of climate action."

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that women produce more than half of all the food grown in the world, and women are responsible for some 60 to 80 percent of food production in most developing countries. According to a 2009 Resource Guide on Gender and Climate Change, the UN Development Programme determined that "poor women's limited access to resources, restricted rights, limited mobility, and muted voices in shaping decisions make them highly vulnerable to climate change." Despite their leadership and expert natural resource management and conservation, Indigenous women throughout the world are the first line of defense when extreme weather events and natural disasters happen, yet there is no formalized emergency response mechanism or communication system to reach them. The UNDP also cited how restrictions that aim to limit the mobility of girls and women can endanger those needing access to shelter or medical attention in a disaster emergency, but without gender-conscious climate policy, there is no account for such nuance.

Mrinalini Rai, representing the Global Forest Coalition, another member of the WGC, demanded that the 2015 talks in Paris be transparent, people-centered negotiations. "This includes women, youth, Indigenous peoples, and local communities, with considerable expertise to be found in each of the constituencies represented here in Lima, Rai told the larger body last week. "This is the right moment to set the bar high and ensure that future climate policies take into account the rights, needs, perspectives, capacities and expertise of women and men alike, in order to achieve truly sustainable development and avert the climate crisis."

12/10/2014 - Federal Judge Strikes Down Indianas TRAP Law Saving Lafayettes Last Clinic

Wednesday, an Indiana federal judge found a 2013 state TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law unconstitutional. The law arbitrarily requires abortion clinics to meet the same building code requirements as ambulatory surgical centers (ASC). It also expanded the definition of an "abortion clinic" to include providers that only administer medication abortions, even if they offer no surgical abortion services.

The bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence in spring 2013, targeted the only abortion clinic in Lafayette, Indiana. Because of the law, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lafayette would have been subject to costly renovations despite the fact that it offers no surgical procedures. According to court documents, the Lafayette clinic saw more than 4,000 unduplicated patients in the year preceding the law's enactment. During that time, there were 54 women seeking medication abortion services, but more than 10,000 prescriptions or dispensed orders for other medications, not limited to contraceptives. To avoid disruption of service, the Lafayette clinic sought a waiver from the Indiana Department of Health citing its status as a non-surgical provider, but was rejected in November 2013.

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky (PPINK) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana (ACLU) filed suit against the state immediately following the passage of the ASC requirement. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU also took issue with the state's provision that the Indiana Department of Health could not "exempt an abortion clinic from...physical plant requirements," which would have adversely impacted operations for Lafayette and other Planned Parenthood facilities.

In a 66-page order filed Thursday, Judge Jane E. Magnus -Stinson who was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2010, sided with Planned Parenthood. Judge Magnus-Stinson ruled that the state presented "no rational basis for this unequal treatment." This is the second time in just over a year that Judge Magnus-Stinson helped defend the Lafayette clinic from the threat of closure. In November 2013, she temporarily blocked portions of the law that would have shuttered the Lafayette clinic, again calling the statute fundamentally irrational.

"We are very pleased with this victory, which protects a woman's constitutional right to reproductive health care," said PPINK President and CEO Betty Cockrum. "Medically unnecessary laws such as this are designed to chip away at a woman's right to access a safe, legal abortion. Countless medical professionals are on record that such laws do nothing to protect a woman's health and safety, and we are thankful the court recognized the irrational basis of this law."

12/10/2014 - The Employment Rate for Women Just Surpassed its Previous Peak in 2013

The Obama Administration just released the Bureau of Labor Statistics for November 2014, and the employment report shows more job growth in the past 11 months than in any previous calendar year since the 1990s, with women surpassing their previous employment peak in September 2013.

This November marked the longest streak - 57 months - of private sector growth on record. In November 2014 alone, 321,000 jobs were added to the economy, with 314,000 of these jobs in the private sector. Today's unemployment rate of 5.8 percent represents a 1.2 percent decrease since the beginning of 2014. Overall women's unemployment is now 5.3 percent, slightly lower than men's at 5.4 percent.

"Public job growth, which is currently being truncated, especially by Republican governors who are cutting public sector jobs and by the failure of Congress to pass a desperately needed infrastructure bill, is not keeping pace with the private sector job growth," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority. "This is particularly hard on women and people of color, who hold a larger share of public sector than private sector jobs, and on blue-collar men in construction jobs."

Unemployment rates for black and Hispanic women, although decreasing considerably, still remain high. The unemployment rate for African American women is 9.8 percent from a high of 13.8 percent in 2010. Hispanic women's unemployment rate has been cut in half, from 12.3 percent in 2010 to 6.4 percent. White women's unemployment rate at 4.5 percent is considerably better than the overall unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for women who maintain families, including single mothers, is also high at 8.2 percent, although it has decreased considerably from a peak in 2010 at 13.4 percent.

12/10/2014 - Activists Call on the President to Stand with Survivors of Rape in War

Dozens of activists braved the rain yesterday at a rally outside of the White House, where they called on President Obama to stand with women and girls raped in conflict.

More than 20 organizations, including the Feminist Majority, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), Advocates for Youth, and several human rights and faith-based groups, came together to urge President Obama to ensure that US foreign assistance helps survivors of war rape access comprehensive medical care, including abortion.

"Rape as a tool of war is older than the scriptures," said Reverend Harry Knox, president and CEO of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, at the rally. "But our faiths tell us we have a powerful tool in our hands. We can show compassion. We can show compassion to those women from the conflict zones who have been raped. Compassion means providing the full range of health care options, including access to safe abortion."

Around the world women and girls - some as young as 11 - are systematically raped during war and conflict. These women and girls face increased rates of maternal mortality, permanent reproductive damage, and obstetric fistula, in addition to isolation, trauma, and unintended pregnancy.

In their article, "The Cruelest Weapon," appearing in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms., Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director of Global Justice Center, and Attorney Kristina Kallas explain:

In today's wars, like ones of the past, rebels and government soldiers alike systematically use sexual violence against women and girls (and sometimes men and boys) to demoralize, terrorize, destroy and, in some cases, change the ethnic composition of entire communities.

The United Nations has strongly condemned the use of rape as a war tactic and called on and establish the rights of victims of war-time rape to include comprehensive sexual and reproductive health.

Survivors, however, are denied comprehensive medical care. Women who become pregnant as a result of rape are often unable to access abortion services because of US political barriers to safe abortion, and a misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment - a provision of the US law that prevents US foreign assistance for abortion "as a method of family planning" - but does allow US funds to help women obtain abortion care in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

President Obama, however, has the power to break the political barriers women face in seeking comprehensive health care, including abortion, in warzones by taking executive action.

TAKE ACTION: Join us as we call upon President Obama to act NOW to protect the lives and health of women overseas!

12/9/2014 - Michigan House Passes "License to Discriminate" Bill

The Michigan House last week voted to pass a bill that gives service providers the right to deny service to anyone who does not adhere to their religious beliefs.

Speaker Jase Bolger's proposed bill, cynically promoted as protecting religious freedom, passed through the House with a vote of 59-50 along party lines. The bill will now go to the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate. Opponents of the bill argue that it gives service providers a license to discriminate against those who do not share their religious beliefs. Far from protecting religious freedom, opponents say the bill limits religious exercise.

"The free exercise of religion is one of the most basic principles in our state and federal constitutions," State Rep. Vicki Barnett said. "This bill moves us in a new and uncharted direction. It requires me and others to practice the faith of our employers, grocers and pharmacists."

Susan Grettenberger, a professor at Central Michigan University, says she believes the bill could be extremely harmful. "Social workers who are opposed to war on religious ground could refuse to serve military members," she said. "If their religion excludes the use of alcohol, they could refuse a client with substance abuse problems."

The Michigan bill is modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) - the same law the US Supreme Court relied on in Hobby Lobby case to exempt "closely held," for-profit corporations from providing health insurance coverage for contraception if the corporations' owners had a religious objection.

The LGBT rights community in Michigan has also been a vocal opponent to the Michigan bill, especially as Michigan does not have a statewide law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Speaker Bolger has refused to put a broad-based LGBT anti-discrimination bill up for a vote.

12/8/2014 - Pentagon Report Shows Continued Scourge of Military Sexual Assault

The Pentagon released new data last week on sexual assault in the military, showing a continued need for reform of the military justice system to help combat an epidemic that has gone virtually unabated over the past year.

According to the the Pentagon report, prepared using data collected by the Rand Corporation, there were about 19,000 cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact last year - over 50 cases a day. That number is less than the 26,000 cases in 2012, but still unacceptably high, especially since only one in four victims will report their assaults.

Of those who do report, nearly two-thirds reported that they faced retaliation. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called this figure a "screaming red flag," and released a renewed call to action in support of the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The bi-partisan bill received 55 votes in the Senate earlier this year, but not enough to defeat a filibuster. Gillibrand is now calling for a new vote on MJIA - either as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act or a as a stand alone bill.

The MJIA would move the decision to prosecute military sexual assault outside the chain of command and give it to trained, independent professional military prosecutors. The bill would apply to all crimes punishable by one or more years in confinement, and would exclude crimes that are uniquely military, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave.

"There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed," said Senator Gillibrand in response to the Pentagon report. "Enough is enough, last December the President said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work and it is clear they have failed in their mission."

The need for reform was summed up by Col. Don Christensen (Ret.), former Chief Prosecutor for the Air Force. "The rapist boss should not determine the fate of a victim's case," he said.

Col. Christensen called the current process an "ineffective, broken system of justice" that "undermines the military I love." He explained, "If you really knew what victims have to go through when they walk into a military courtroom; walk by their co-workers, their bosses, their commanders, their first squad leaders; all sitting behind her rapist; you would understand why we need to change the way we do things in the military."

The failure to significantly reduce sexual assault in the military, the persistent hurdles to reporting, and the inherent bias of the system point to the need for action, according to Gillibrand and a bipartisan group of Senators who stood with her as she pushed for another vote on MJIA. By taking prosecutorial discretion out of the chain of command, the MJIA removes inherent conflicts of interest and helps create a more equitable justice system while giving some additional confidence to those who fear reporting due to the threat of retaliation.

Overall, 74 percent of women and 60 percent of men in the military perceive a barrier to reporting sexual assault. About 62 percent of women who decided to report their assault say they experienced some form of retaliation for doing so. They also continued to face a broken system, highlighted in a recent New York Times magazine feature, in which commanders fail to prosecute sexual assault cases, and convicted rapists go without punishment.

12/8/2014 - Activists Demonstrate Outside TransPacific Partnership Negotiations

Workers, human rights advocates, environmental organizations, and consumer rights leaders rallied today in front of the Office of the US Trade Representative to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, described as "a massive corporate power grab that would set rules governing roughly 40% of the global economy, with potentially dire consequences for the economy, environment and public health both at home and abroad."

Negotiators on Sunday kicked off a week of closed-door meetings on the proposed free trade agreement in Washington, DC. These negotiations follow the TPP summit last month in Beijing, at which leaders, including President Obama, expressed that concluding the TPP - which would be the largest free trade deal in history - was "a top priority."

A number of workers' rights, human rights, women's rights, environmental, and LGBT groups, however, have opposed the deal, citing a broad range of concerns. As Martha Burk explained in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms., the TPP is "unprecedented in its scope, affecting not only trade in goods and services, but also regulation of intellectual property, foreign investments, and labor and environmental standards." Unions say that the deal means fewer US jobs - especially majority-female jobs in the communications and human resources sectors. Groups like Doctors without Borders have also pointed out that the TPP's provisions on intellectual property could reduce access to generic drugs, including drugs that are critical for treatment of HIV/AIDS.

The agreement also threatens human rights. The Feminist Majority Foundation in June led a group of 12 women's rights organizations, demanding the White House suspend all TPP talks until Brunei was removed from the negotiating table or until the Sultan of Brunei revoked its new penal code, which calls for the stoning of gays, lesbians and people convicted of adultery, as well as the public flogging of women who've had abortions. In a letter to President Obama, the groups wrote:

It is simply unacceptable for the United States to bind itself into a close and enduring relationship with a country that is enacting such policies... The administration has claimed that the TPP will be a high-standard 21st century agreement. But clearly no 21st century agreement can include a country that has imposed 5th century laws that deny women, LGBT people and others their basic human rights.

A bipartisan group of House Representatives, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3), have also opposed the TPP, highlighting in particular that the TPP is largely a secret deal, negotiated without sufficient transparency. "Right now, lead negotiators from the 12 nations involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are meeting behind closed doors and without input or oversight from members of Congress," DeLauro said in a statement released to coincide with the DC negotiations. "The Administration has repeatedly refused to take into account the deeply harmful impact the TPP would have on workers and families, food safety, intellectual property, financial regulations, the environment and access to medicine. The American people want confidence that international trade creates jobs and grows the economy. Instead, we know that corporate interests are driving these negotiations."

In the nearly five-year history of the talks there has been limited, if any, participation by public stakeholders or elected officials. However, multinational corporate interests have been thoroughly represented by "trade advisers," leading some critics to characterize the TPP as a "backroom trade deal" that favors the 1 percent.

House members have also stressed that negotiations with known labor rights offenders sends a conflicting message to the world about the United States' commitment to the rights of working people. In a letter to the US Trade Representative Michael Froman, Reps. DeLauro, George Miller (D-CA-11), Loretta Sanchez (D-CA-46), and Mark Pocan (D-WI-2) warned, "Free trade agreements with nations that violate international child labor and forced labor standards not only undermine our moral authority, but they also capitalize on the lack of oversight and regulation in developing nations." The group cited the Department of Labor's International Labor Affairs Bureau's (ILAB) annual report that has cited one-third of the TPP countries for labor abuses. In particular, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, and Malaysia have all faced charges of labor violations. In ILAB's 2014 report, Vietnam was one of only four countries in the world cited in the report for both child and forced labor abuses.

The countries represented in the TPP negotiations are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. The deal would set rules governing roughly 40 percent of the global economy, while impacting everything from the cost of healthcare, deregulation of food and drug safety, environmental policy, and FCC rules.