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The Wal-Mart Response

[ 34 ] September 4, 2015 |


Wal-Mart is claiming that its decision to pay higher wages (a response to the persistent criticism of the corporation for keeping its workers in such poverty that there are food donation carts asking employees to feed their coworkers in need) is costing its stockholders 24 cents a share this quarter. I find this unlikely, but whatever. The response of Wal-Mart to this of course is then to cut the hours of these workers in order to satisfy the investors, keeping workers in poverty. Of course, a major problem is that these companies pump almost all their profits into the shareholders:

Walmart may be one of the many corporations stuck between responding to the short-term demands of Wall Street and the long-term investments that don’t pay off as quickly but can increase growth in the long run, like employee compensation. Large corporations have been spending most of their earnings on stock buybacks and dividends, which serve to boost their short-term stock prices and enrich investors. They’re expected to collectively spend $1 trillion on these moves this year. Between 2003 and 2012, buybacks and dividends consumed 91 percent of earnings, leaving just 9 percent to invest in workers, equipment, research, or other long-term investments.

Have to keep the 1% happy after all.

The U.S. and the Syrian Refugees

[ 50 ] September 4, 2015 |

Syrian refugees

The United States has taken an embarrassingly small number of Syrian refugees. That is especially true given U.S. complicity in the rise of ISIS and right-wing pressure to arm the Syrian rebels without accepting any consequences into what that would lead to (although I realize Obama did not allow this to happen). The U.S. has taken in 1500 refugees and will take in 300 more by October. 300? That’s ridiculous. In the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the U.S. took in 125,000 refugees. Given the size of the Syrian crisis, I would say that is an excellent target number for the U.S. this time as well. That’s especially true given how much immigrants revitalize American communities and contribute to the culture of our nation. Locating immigrants in some of our struggling cities (say, Schenectady) would do a lot to revitalize them, would provide a new chance for people desperately escaping war, and would show the U.S. providing moral leadership for the rest of the world on this issue.

There’s been a certain amount of outrage about the picture of the 3 year old boy who drowned trying to cross into Greece. People don’t like to be exposed to these things. But this is reality. And as I state in Out of Sight, people act when they physically see terrible things. If you don’t see it, you don’t think about it and outrages go on. If you see it–as happened at the Triangle Fire, with the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, and with the Ray Rice video–public outrage to do something about it is much, much higher. We have to hope that seeing the victims of the Syrian refugee crisis forces Americans to get a little more serious about doing something for these people. At least we are now talking about refugees in the United States, which we were not doing on Monday.

That said, I am pessimistic because these are people from the Middle East coming over at the same time as one of this nation’s occasional freakouts about immigration and because they are coming from a part of the world with a reputation for terrorism. That the same people who oppose their immigration tend to support policies that lead to the right-wing terrorist activities that threaten Americans a lot more than Middle Eastern terrorists is of course not part of the conversation.

GE’s Taft-Hartley Comic, 1947

[ 36 ] September 3, 2015 |

Thanks to Bruce Vail for sending me this hilarious propaganda comic General Electric put out in 1947 during the debate over the Taft-Hartley Act. He asked me to credit the Maryland labor activist Bill Barry in hunting this up and putting it into a PDF file. Enjoy!

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_1

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_2

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_3

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_4

In Other News From the Jerks Who Run American Football

[ 29 ] September 3, 2015 |

The people who run football provide one with such joy.

The NCAA makes Roger Goodell look like a man of principle. As a response to the fear of college football players unionizing, the NCAA’s big schools have begun paying stipends to players so they have live with some level of dignity. Of course the coaches now see opportunities to fine players for whatever they decide is a rule violation. Such as at Virginia Tech:


From the Deadspin piece linked above:

Just look at that bullshit right here. (And note that the scale roughly indexes the priorities of a meathead college football coach—a dirty locker, for example, is apparently more than three times as bad as being disruptive enough in class for an instructor to report it.):

These are fines being thrown at players who, aside from a piddly shit cost-of-attendance stipend—$3,280 or $3,620, depending on whether a player is from out of state or not—aren’t getting any kind of monetary compensation in exchange for their labor. The Times-Dispatch has another photo, in which fines for “improper equipment” are detailed. A seventh offense would have cost a player $1,600.

Tommy Tuberville, head coach of Cincinnati, is talking the same game as Virginia Tech. This is ridiculous, especially when the players have no means to appeal these fines except for the same people who are fining them. Also, where is the money going? Who is accountable here? In other words, these players need a union.

Speaking of bullshit, let’s go back to our old friends who run the NFL. You know what I hate about the NFL? All the meaningless cross promotions for the military and breast cancer that don’t actually do anything but make the NFL look all awesome and patriotic and pro-woman when it is only interested in making money and has an enormous problem with its violent game bleeding over into widespread domestic abuse.

Deadspin again broke open just how bankrupt all this is. The St. Louis Rams pulled a stunt where they surprised one of their cheerleaders with her husband just returned from the military. Oh, everyone is just so happy, right? The Rams look so good! The NFL looks so patriotic! Well, about that… Turns out the husband was not only serving in the less than dangerous combat zone of Korea but that he is, wait for it, a Busch! And the cheerleader? A former aide to Laura Bush and the daughter of a well-known right-wing Illinois political family. The couple had their wedding ceremony at the Vatican. In other words, this was a stunt that in addition to the usual military pablum was designed to serve powerful and wealthy families of the area. Big deal, right? But on top of it, the cheerleader’s mother is running as a Republican for state representative in Illinois and is using the video of this to promote her political career.

It makes sense that an NFL team would go out of its way to do something special for a member of one of the most powerful families in America instead of, say, a local grunt who’d served in a combat zone, because these reunions really aren’t orchestrated and televised for the benefit of the soldiers and families involved. They are done because cozying up to the military is a good way for the NFL to market itself as a noble civic endeavor while making some extra money, and because the American football-loving public loves a chance to share in a bit of un-earned catharsis—watching two smiling, photogenic soldiers embrace in relief is a great way to forget about all the bodies that have piled up. If a given reunion happens to basically be a viral political ad—and given that Candace Ruocco Valentine is not only the member of two connected families and a former White House intern but has pursued or is pursuing both a JD and a doctorate in public policy analysis, one suspects that this moment may be shared on some campaign page of her own before too long—it’s hard to be too put out. That is, after all, what they all are.

Between this and the Brady case, that’s the NFL for you in a nutshell.

ATI Lockout

[ 3 ] September 2, 2015 |

Last week, I wrote about the ATI lockout of their union mills. Wanted to highlight this issue once again. The United Steelworkers held a big rally in Pittsburgh yesterday to pressure the company to end the lockout and negotiate a fair contract with the union. The lockout and union-busting could devastate the steel towns that rely on the wages of union members for businesses to survive. That’s the theme of this USW-produced video, focusing on a pizza shop owner standing with the USW because it’s in his own financial interest to do so (also because he knows it’s the right thing to do). Check it out.

The Enemy Within

[ 10 ] September 2, 2015 |


I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of The Enemy Within (in Britain it is going by Still the Enemy Within). This is a powerful documentary on how Margaret Thatcher busted the coal miners’ unions in the 1980s. If this is of interest to you, I highly recommend hunting down a copy, perhaps through getting your library to purchase one if possible. Told strictly through the eyes of the miners and their wives, along with video clips of Thatcher and other conservatives, the film is a very useful document for understanding the decline of the postwar labor movement, which was far more than just an American phenomenon. I am far from a scholar of Europe so I can’t speak with any real authority about the claims the workers make, but they certainly believe they were really very close to winning what turned out to be a catastrophic loss to a government seeking to destroy their union, which was the backbone of the British left. But the workers claim that had the other unions shown solidarity and walked off the job in support, as opposed to empty words and some money or if all the British mines had joined the strike (Thatcher intended to split the miners by giving a few choice mines some extra money while seeking to bust the other unions) that they could have defeated the government and perhaps the worst parts of Thatcherism broadly. Even though this is a depressing story, the film also shows how solidarity between groups with little in common with miners (elite students, gay and lesbian activists) was created, how women stepped out of traditional gender roles during the strike, and how personally empowering the strike was for at least some workers. I suppose, as a non-Europeanist, I would have liked a bit more context about Thatcherism and about what happened to the interviewed workers after the end of the strike, but those are pretty minor complaints. I’d check the film out if I were you.

Katrina and Solidarity

[ 15 ] September 2, 2015 |


My good friend Jacob Remes has an interesting piece up at the Atlantic. You may remember him from his entry in the This Day in Labor History series on Davis Day in Canada. He is a historian of disasters and working-class solidarity. We read chapters of each other’s book drafts and I can guarantee you his new book is very provocative and you should read it. His Atlantic piece effectively summarizes his major theme–that the state often fails citizens in natural disasters and that in response, a sort of anarchist solidarity naturally appears that provides mutual support and which the state soon seeks to undermine. Again, it’s provocative and we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on every point. But there’s no question that strong community ties make a big difference in post-disaster life and that planning for strong communities is a really underrated strategy for dealing with disasters, something that a world dealing with climate change needs to take a lot more seriously.

Drones as Workplace Monitors

[ 100 ] September 1, 2015 |


Who else is excited to have your workplace performance monitored by drones? I know I am shocked to see technological advancement embraced by employers to control workers!

Tianjin, Texas

[ 11 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: The 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion

There’s been a lot of media discussion over the past week about Chinese workplace safety conditions because of the Tianjin explosion that killed more than 150 people and spewed toxic material into the air. The problem is a lack of regulatory control, corruption, and a culture of indifference to the general public. And this is a major problem in China, with another blast in another city yesterday killing someone.

But it would be nice if these reporters noted that a mere 2 years ago in Texas, a very similar incident happened in the town of West, where a fertilizer plant exploded and killed 15 people. Governor Rick Perry’s response was to declare Texas open for business, ensuring that nothing would change. And with OSHA so understaffed that it would take 129 years for the agency’s inspectors to visit every workplace in the United States, very little has improved. Moreover, Tianjin and West is the America libertarians want to embrace. The freedom of factory owners to site factories where they want, store chemicals how they want, and not be responsible for the forthcoming disaster is central to conservative philosophy. So while we should be talking about Tianjin and these problems in China, casting an eye on the United States is also important for journalists, for the comparisons are not as far-fetched as one might hope.

McKinley Hot Takes

[ 132 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: Conservative hero of the New Gilded Age

Proving there is literally nothing President Obama can do that won’t threaten their whiteness and send them into spasms of uncontrolled fury, conservatives are going ballistic over the official name of change of Mt. McKinley to Denali. There’s no reason to spend any real time explaining this because it’s nothing more than pure, unadulterated wingnuttery. David Graham actually does usefully explain it however, noting that this is another battle in the culture wars for people who see everything they love about this nation destroyed by the Kenyan usurper.

For non-Rovians, what makes Obama’s “Denali” decision sting is the symbolism. One of the key stories of the Obama presidency is the sense among white, conservative Americans that their country is disappearing. Though seldom couched in directly racial terms, the issue of racial identity always lurks beneath the surface. The sense that white America is fading is not irrational, and it’s not just about the black president in the White House. Census projections have Caucasians becoming not a majority, but merely a plurality, of the population within a couple decades.

The reaction to Dylann Roof’s massacre in Charleston is an example of how this plays out. Even some people who were horrified by the shooting and supported South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state-capitol grounds felt uncomfortable with the sudden rise of demands to erase other symbols of the Confederacy or of white-supremacist leaders of yore—statues of Jefferson Davis, college buildings named for racists, and the like. These changes are just and overdue, but they’re also understandably disorienting, and for people who already feel their heritage and way of life are under siege, they seem a step (or several) too far. Conservatives complain, using a phrase Obama himself employed in October 2008, that the president is in the process of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

As for the Rovians reference at the beginning, again, Karl Rove loves William McKinley because that’s the America he wants in this nation, so he has a new hagiography coming out about the Gilded Age imperialist.

We could play a game and find the most ridiculous take. But why bother when you have Ben Shapiro in the house?

Assassinated in 1901, McKinley, who presided over an economic boom and massive growth in American power, once stated, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” Regarding the Spanish-American War, McKinley explained that Cuba “ought to be free and independent.” Obama would have opposed both moves.

As Obama stated in Dreams From My Father, he spent his college years discussing “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism.” And President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments. In kowtowing to the Castros in Cuba, Obama has ensured that America’s Spanish-American War victory ends with perpetual communism in a country America once granted its freedom; in 2014, the Obama Department of the Interior sought to give Hawaiians the same status as Native Americans, forcing separate governance for them based on ethnicity.

The only question now: when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan?

So much to love here. Fanon fears! Rewriting the history of Cuba to make it look like the U.S. is its long-time friend! Good old fashioned redbaiting! “Forcing separate governance” on native Hawaiians! Why that’s far more oppressive than overthrowing the native Hawaiian government in the name of sugar companies and American naval interests!!! But really it’s the Atzlan reference that wins. Because this is right at the heart of the conservative fears. It’s the reconquista caused by hordes of Mexicans crossing the border and facilitated by those fifth columnist liberals and their illegitimate president from the colonies.

I dare you to find a better Denali hot take! Although anyone with the bravery to dive into the waters of the conservative blogosphere just might be able to do it…

Music Reads for Your Tuesday

[ 8 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: Oum Khaltoum

This is a great read taking you on a tour of the first recorded music from spots around the world in the mid to late 1920s. Well worth your time.

And a discussion on the evolution of the cheating song in country music.

Creeping Lochnerism

[ 102 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: The victims of the Triangle Fire, i.e., the libertarian vision of America’s future

Brian Beutler’s piece on libertarians’ goal to return the U.S. to the Lochner Era through the courts should scare you. It’s hardly news to political junkies that libertarians seek to destroy a century of regulations that created what was great about the United States in the twentieth century. But because a lot of seemingly smart people take libertarianism seriously as an intellectual idea, their actual nefarious goals are often muted. Libertarians want to return this nation to an era of workplace deaths, of unlimited working hours, of low wages, of industry polluting wherever they want with whatever substances they choose, etc. They openly say that the nation went off the rails with the Progressive Era (Karl Rove and Glenn Beck have said this on top of the libertarian crew) and hope to return us to the Gilded Age. They’ve gone a long ways toward succeeding, as I have documented on this blog for the past four years.

They are also really close to the big coup. That would be a Republican victory in 2016 and the replacement of a couple of elderly Supreme Court justices with Thomas and Alito-types who are happy to do the bidding of corporations.

All libertarians want to fight federal regulations in Congress and the executive branch. But Barnett and his allies think courts should be empowered to throw regulations out even if political majorities support them. These Lochner revivalist professors have established beachheads at law schools across the country. In 2002, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh founded a blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, as a hub for libertarian ideas, including Lochner revisionism. Today, it has become the most prominent academic legal blog in the country and now publishes under the auspices of The Washington Post. It boasts nearly two dozen contributing professors and mainlines detailed and informed libertarian legal arguments to thousands of the nation’s top lawyers, law students, clerks, judges, and opinion-makers every day.

The contributors to The Volokh Conspiracy teach at the University of Minnesota, Northwestern, Emory, Duke, and elsewhere. Several hold positions at George Mason University’s law school, which is famous for its conservative faculty and, in 36 short years, has rocketed to prominence as one of the 50 best law schools in the country. In 2011, GMU law professor and Volokh Conspiracy contributor David Bernstein published a book titled Rehabilitating Lochner, and that’s exactly what he, Barnett, and their contemporaries have been attempting to do.

Again, it drives me crazy that people respect what happens at Volokh Conspiracy because these are horrible people. They aren’t hiding it either:

To dismiss the debate between libertarians and traditional conservatives over Lochner as an academic sideshow is to misunderstand the stakes. “A full-fledged return to Lochner would put a constitutional cloud over a whole host of laws that we all take for granted today,” said Sam Bagenstos, a liberal constitutional scholar at the University of Michigan who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. “Laws guaranteeing workers the right to join a union without being fired, and the right to earn a minimum wage and receive overtime if working more than 40 hours a week, laws protecting worker safety, and laws protecting workers and customers against discrimination based on race or other protected statuses, just for starters.”

I asked Barnett whether the social welfare laws on the books today would be permitted under his reading of the Constitution. “Probably not at the federal level,” he said.

That’s why Barnett and his contemporaries prefer to root their arguments in specific injustices rather than categorical abstractions. Why shouldn’t bakers be allowed to work more than 60 hours a week, or individuals be allowed to remain uninsured? Why should the government be allowed to regulate out of existence my right to hail a driver or your right to rent a stranger’s house for a weekend?

These are people who actually want to return us to the the Gilded Age. Let’s look at the past to get a glimpse of the libertarian paradise. Allow me to quote from Empire of Timber.

Both camp and mill workers felt the pain and shock of severe injury in a dangerous and highly mechanized working environment and saw workers die horrible deaths. These technologies made logging a more dangerous and deadly job. Cables and machines broke, becoming deadly whipsaws. The flying logs of high-lead logging crushed workers’ heads. The state of Washington began collecting data on workplace injuries in 1912. Between that date and 1929, between 124 and 261 loggers died every year in the timber industry. In 1914, 63,350 people worked in the timber industry, thirty-five per cent of the state’s workforce. In the first five months of that year, there were 4,928 reported accidents that injured or killed timber workers.

Working in the region’s watery environment contributed to this death toll. The Northwest’s cold rain and snow made workers sick while the workers toiling on floating logs in log ponds or river drives risked their lives. At least nine loggers drowned on the job in 1906, including J.W. Roth of Springfield, Oregon and Ralph Leedy of Hoquiam, Washington who died in separate incidents on log ponds and J.K. Lynn who fell into a river near Hoquiam while rafting logs. Alfred Aasen fell into a cold river while working in the spring of 1916. He did not drown, but he caught pneumonia while riding on a rail car the ten miles back to camp in soaking clothes and soon died.

Machines killed far more workers than water and cold. On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from his saw. He fell into it and died. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson lingered for a day before dying, leaving behind a wife and child.

The lucky workers were merely maimed. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Workers like Campbell, Lang, and Boyer faced grim futures as disabled persons, as did many people disabled on the job before the passage of the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1920, which provided occupational training and job placement for those injured on at the workplace. Many workers chose self-medication. Joseph Gillis of Seattle lost a leg while working at the McDougal and Jackson logging camp near Buckley, Washington. He sued for $10,000 but overdosed on the laudanum he used for pain the day before he lost his suit.

This was the reality of Lochner-era America. Workers could do little to nothing about these working conditions because the courts said they had agreed to work under those conditions and thus protecting them would be violating their freedom of contract. Things got so bad that during the years after Lochner, judges, juries, and politicians began pushing back against it. That’s why workers’ compensation was enacted in the 1910s, because juries began awarding benefits to workers and ignoring the freedom of contract ideas and this scared corporations into protecting themselves while still paying as little as possible to injured workers.

This is the America where Volokh writers hope to take us Even if they say that’s not what they foresee, that’s the reality. In calling for a return to Lochner-era policies, there is no guarantee the Supreme Court won’t rule, say, OSHA unconstitutional.

This future, which sounds hopelessly dystopian, is entirely possible if Republicans win the 2016 presidential election. And we need to be calling out libertarians for what they are–people who think dead workers is a form of freedom. People who think working 84-hour weeks in a steel mill is totally acceptable. People who want you to experience another Donora Smog in the name of liberty. People who want to eliminate OSHA and the EPA. People who want to tear apart everything that makes this nation livable. And they are this close to succeeding.

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