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Worst Chavez Obit

[ 127 ] March 7, 2013 |

The coverage of Hugo Chavez’s death has been almost universally terrible. But this piece from Associated Press business reporter Pamela Simpson takes the cake:

Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.

The true sign of national greatness–absurdly large skyscrapers and nice things for rich people.

This sums up much about the business community’s beliefs in 2013. Health care and education for the poor is a waste of money. Glitter and income inequality, that’s the ticket.

Jim Naureckas with more:

In case you’re curious about what kind of results this kooky agenda had, here’s a chart (NACLA, 10/8/12) based on World Bank poverty stats–showing the proportion of Venezuelans living on less than $2 a day falling from 35 percent to 13 percent over three years. (For comparison purposes, there’s a similar stat for Brazil, which made substantial but less dramatic progress against poverty over the same time period.)

Of course, during this time, the number of Venezuelans living in the world’s tallest building went from 0 percent to 0 percent, while the number of copies of the Mona Lisa remained flat, at none. So you have to say that Chavez’s presidency was overall pretty disappointing–at least by AP’s standards.

The new Gilded Age indeed.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball provided its own classy moment, refusing to honor the request of the Venezuelan World Baseball Classic team for a moment of silence before an exhibition game against the Marlins.

Given that Jeffrey Loria is a far greater monster than Hugo Chavez could ever dream of being, this is particularly egregious. But at least Major League Baseball can now return to the unregulated exploitation of young Venezuelan boys.

Bad Labor Reporting Revisited

[ 10 ] March 7, 2013 |

Last week I talked about that awful Mother Jones article blaming AFSCME for keeping prisons open in Illinois. I focused on the problems with the terminology. AFSCME strikes back against the article’s inaccuracies about its own position.

Once again, Mother Jones generally is not good on organized labor and that story was especially egregious.

This Day in Labor History: March 7, 1932

[ 32 ] March 7, 2013 |

On March 7, 1932, several thousand unemployed workers marched toward Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Upon reaching the complex, the city police and Ford’s armed guards, very similar entities, opened fire on the marchers, killing five and wounding more than 60.

Henry Ford still has an international reputation for good labor management. This is based entirely upon his 1914 decision to pay his workers $5 a day, the equivalent of about $113 today. That was indeed pretty impressive, doubling his workers’ wages. Here’s the problem though–he didn’t raise that wage for well over a decade. Moreover, Ford was a small-minded mind and demanded nearly complete control over his workers’ lives through his Social Department and its 50 investigators that detailed workers’ everyday lives to make sure they lived up to Ford’s moral standards. Ford also hated unions. He hired Harry Bennett, a former boxer, to bust unions and beat organizers, which Bennett and his men did with extreme prejudice, most famously at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937, when Bennett’s men brutally beat United Auto Workers leaders including Walter Reuther. So when the Great Depression began in 1929, Ford had no patience for those who would argue he had a responsibility for his workers.

As the Depression deepened, the auto companies laid off thousands of workers. Between 1929 and 1932, automobile production fell by 75%. For those still working, wages dropped by 37%. The resulting unemployment led to depression and suicide. There were 113 suicides in Detroit in 1927, 568 in 1931. By 1932, there were 400,000 unemployed people in Michigan, most of them in the Detroit area. Dave Moore remembered life in Detroit at the time:

I hope you never will witness what people went through. People would go down to the old Eastern Market and pick up half-rotten white potatoes or sweet potatoes, lettuce and cabbage, whatever the farmers were throwing away. That was the source of food for many people, picking up a half-rotten banana or a half-rotten potato, any kind of half-rotten vegetables, to bring home so your mama could make a meal out of it. I came from a family of seven boys and two girls, and the older boys had to leave home. Whatever food there was, was left for the younger ones. David Moore, and a lot of other David Moore’s went very hungry at that time. But we tried to make it possible for our moms and dads and brothers and sisters to eat. We’d go out and try to salvage whatever we could from the stores and street corners, wherever different kinds of food – discarded vegetables and meat – had been thrown out because they couldn’t sell it. That’s how we got together a meal for ourselves.

The unemployed began organizing, with help of the Communist Party that was organizing the unemployed across the United States. Two communist-led groups, the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers of America decided on a march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge complex in Dearborn to present petitions demanding jobs. Focusing attention on the Ford Motor Company seemed an ideal way to galvanize support for unemployment relief at one of the worst times in American history.

The march had between 3000 and 5000 workers and was nonviolent. Workers held placards demanding jobs and there were some feisty speeches, but nothing more threatening than that. The workers marched to the Dearborn city limits but when they arrived, the sympathetic government of Detroit mayor and future Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy disappeared, to be replaced by the Ford dominated Dearborn police. Ford completely controlled Dearborn. The city government, police, and fire fighters answered directly to Henry Ford. And they were determined to keep the communists and the unemployed out of the Ford fiefdom.

Upon reaching the city limits, the Dearborn police sprayed tear gas at the marchers and beat them with their clubs. The crowd fled and the nonviolence turned into self-defense, with marchers throwing stones at the police to fight back against police violence. The police retreated and the marchers regrouped. A mile later, nearing the River Rouge gates, the Dearborn Fire Department sprayed fire hoses upon the marchers on what was one of the winter’s coldest days. The police and Ford security guards began firing into the crowd. 3 worker–Joe York, Coleman Leny, and Joe DeBlasio–were killed and 22 wounded.

At this point, the organizers called off the march and began retreating. But then Harry Bennett, who was as bloodthirsty an anti-union thug as anyone could imagine, pulled up in his car and opened fire on the crowd personally. People began throwing rocks at his car and injured him. The police then opened fire with a machine gun, killing a fourth worker by the name of Joe Bussell. A fifth, Curtis Williams, an African-American, died of his wounds a month later.

That night, the forces of reaction kicked into high gear. The wounded marchers were chained to their hospital beds. Communist offices were raided in Detroit. A nationwide manhunt began for CPUSA leader William Z. Foster. There were no legal consequences for Harry Bennett, any of his thugs, or the Dearborn police. Detroit newspapers blamed the whole thing on the communists, saying they had opened fire. The communists tried to blame Frank Murphy along with everyone else, but that didn’t stick with Detroit workers. Even the AFL, anti-communist as ever, condemned the murder of workers.

A funeral march of up to 70,000 people laid the 4 murdered workers to rest, side by side. When Williams died, the cemetery would not allow an African-American to be buried there. Have to keep the color line in death as in life after all. So instead his ashes were dropped over the River Rouge plant from an airplane.

Here’s an interesting little film produced in 1932 about the incident. The first 2 minutes show a march in February in Detroit. Then it gets to footage of the repression in Dearborn.

Ford would continue his harsh anti-union stance. Long after General Motors and Chrysler signed contracts with the United Auto Workers, Ford resisted, finally relenting only in 1941.

This is the 54th post in the series. The rest are archived here.

Book Review: Andrew Balmford: Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success

[ 4 ] March 6, 2013 |

Who wants to feel less terrible about the environmental problems we face? Who wants to hear some happy stories?

I know I do. Being a scholar of the natural world is not fun, let me tell you. Sure, you might get to go to some cool places from time to time, but the overall story is so bloody depressing. Climate change, ocean acidification, the world’s entire wildlife supply being slaughtered for the Chinese market, overfishing, deforestation, etc. What’s frustrating about environmental degradation is that it is almost all either avoidable errors or manageable problems. Humans often choose not to do the right thing–a form of consumer capitalism that commodifies the natural world but separates us from production processes is the number one reason–but sometimes we figure things out. I think that part of the reason the environmental movement has declined in the United States in recent decades is that it was so successful. We don’t breathe in horrifying smog. Our rivers don’t catch on fire. Banning DDT brought back the bald eagle. People don’t see the environment as affecting their lives negatively so it falls to the back burner, even as climate change causes heat and giant storms. Most of the time, we don’t notice the catastrophic change around us. Still, the U.S. environmental movement shows that we can do a lot of things right if we pressure government and corporations to do so.

The British author Andrew Balmford explores a number of these success stories around the globe
, offering readers useful lessons in how we can make things better. Balmford visits each continent for a different example. He visits a park in northeast India where anti-poaching patrols are trying to save the last rhinos. He goes to a North Carolina forest where new management forms give landowners incentive to save red-cockaded woodpecker habitat rather than eliminate it in fear of the birds being found and development ceased. He writes about the amazingly diverse Bosberg Mountains of South Africa, where the government has invested heavily in removing non-native species in order to bring back water supplies and create work. He discusses a Dutch rewilding effort, efforts to limit logging in Ecuador to provide water for farmers and preserve biodiversity, and lauds the corporate effort by Alcoa to restore its aluminum mining sites in southwestern Australia in order to maintain public support for mining. Finally, he explores the idea of sustainable fisheries in the oceans, although it’s hard for anyone to spin any example of that as a real success story, at least at this time.

The overall lesson is that a combination of government, corporate, NGO, and citizen leadership can restore areas, at least in the short term. A lot of places need pretty significant managing over a long period of time. If you are eliminating non-native foxes and cats in parts of Australia, well, they are going to keep coming. Others, such as the fynbos ecology in South Africa could theoretically return to some state of lesser management if you eliminate non-native plants and allow for a more sustainable fire regime. But in all these places, someone or some group of people has to lead and has to either lock down land or motivate changes in human behavior. Big tasks, both.

I agree that people and even corporations can lead on these issues. I’ve been on two of Ted Turner’s giant ranches in southern New Mexico and they are pretty amazing spaces. I’m really glad they are intact instead of turned into the ranchettes that increasingly dot the West and fragment wildlife habitat. Corporate leaders who see legacy as important might do some good work. But both of these are fleeting. As long as the fundamental and increasingly only goal is to maximize profits, what would keep a conversation program going for long? Glad that Alcoa is doing some conservation work in Australia. A new CEO and it ends. A wealthy individual can donate land and leave a strong will, but if heirs really want to develop or sell land, they might have the lawyers to make that happen so long as the land remains in private hands.

Ultimately, these programs need government leadership. For poor nations like South Africa, it makes sense to combine it with an employment program. In the end, the success of the American land reserve project of the past 100 years has come almost strictly through codifying land management under federal law, whether the limited good oft he United States Forest Service or the truly preserving Wilderness Act of 1964. People demanding government action is probably the best way to save and restore ecosystems. Governments themselves can be problematic of course. There’s a lot of land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that is designated as national parks, but the willpower and ability to enforce those boundaries is often nonexistent. In these places, NGOs and wealthy individuals can play a vital short-term role. But in the end, long-term land management for sustainability and biodiversity can only be planned by a centralized state. Or at least it gives such plans the best chance of effectiveness.

A lot of environmental writing comes in two basic forms. The first is the jeremiad that tells us how everything is in dire collapse, but then gives us a message of hope at the end, urging us to make things better. This book follows the second path, providing a lot of great and inspiring examples and then giving us a stern warning at the end that everything is going down the tubes. I’m not really sure which is more effective. The problem with the former is the downer stories could turn people off (a frequent criticism of the genre), while the latter may suffer from false hope. We all have to face the reality that things are getting very bad, very fast. If we could leave climate change out of it, the story would just be depressing. With climate change, it is catastrophic for us and everything else.

But hey, you have to try to make things better. Restoring small patches of the natural world is not always that difficult. We’ve done it before and we can still do it. And when we do, they are amazing to visit. Fighting the good fight is the only alternative to utter depression. Plus it can be fun. Andrew Balmford provides us a useful reminder of these points.

A Dot

[ 108 ] March 5, 2013 |

I was really struck by this photo of Venus through Saturn’s rings:

Venus is the dot.

It reminded me of a time, not too long ago I guess, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sight of our planet from space put our lives in a bit of perspective. A lot of Americans saw this and realized we were this amazing fragile ball floating an endless sea of nothingness.

These images of Earth from space helped spur the U.S. environmental movement of the 1970s, which did so much good.

I wonder if any such image in our media-saturated uberironic brains could make any such impact today. Or would we just tell a joke and write it off as ironic in some vague and poorly defined way. I’m skeptical.


[ 46 ] March 4, 2013 |

Jeb Bush flip-flopping on immigration, now saying he doesn’t support a path toward citizenship for undocumented Americans, is a sign that leading Republicans can be serious about winning the 2016 Republican nomination or they can be serious about winning the general election, but they can’t be serious about both.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1998

[ 33 ] March 4, 2013 |

On March 4, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiff in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, deciding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to same-sex sexual harassment, and creating a landmark expansion of judicial oversight into the workplace.

In 1991, Joseph Oncale got a job working as a roustabout on an oil rig for $7 an hour. Employed by Sundowner Offshore Services, Oncale was assigned to a Chevron USA rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While on board, Oncale was subjected to severe sexual harassment by his supervisor, John Lyons, and his fellow workers Danny Pippen and Brandon Johnson. Lyons placed his penis on Oncale’s neck and arm. On October 25, 1991, Lyons also publicly sodomized Oncale with a bar of soap in the rig showers as Pippen held him down. Lyons also threatened to rape him. Today, most of us would no doubt consider the soap incident rape, but throughout the case, there seems to have been a steady distinction between the two incidents.

Oncale stood up for himself through this entire process. He complained to his employer, who basically said he was gay (in fact, Oncale was heterosexual) and did nothing. Oncale quit, requesting that his pink slip state that he left because of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. In his deposition, Oncale said, ““I felt that if I didn’t leave my job, that I would be raped or forced to have sex.”

With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Oncale then filed a suit against Sundowner in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, saying his rights were violated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But there was no precedent to applying Title VII to same-sex harassment. Title VII forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by all employers with more than fifteen employees (indeed, if your workplace has less than 15 employees, Title VII does not apply. I don’t know anything about the history of this. If anyone does, let me know). Title VII does not explicitly cover same-sex issues, as one would expect in 1964. The District Court ruled in favor of Sundowner. Oncale then appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled for the defendant.

The Supreme Court overruled the Fifth Circuit with unanimity based on a previous decision that held Title VII “evinces a congressional intent to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment.” It decided that Title VII’s protections against workplace harassment applied to same-sex relationships, even if those relationships were not explicitly sexual. Sundowner argued that applying Title VII to this case would create government interference into the workplace in an unprecedented manner that would serve “as a general civility code for the American workplace.” Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the opinion, rejected this, drawing a limited application to the decision: “the prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the ‘conditions’ of the victim’s employment.”

Not only did Oncale set a precedent for same-sex sexual harassment, but it also expanded the legal definition of sexual harassment to include something broader than sexual desire, so long as it makes a worker uncomfortable on the job. The implications of this did not make many commenters comfortable. Here’s a Jeffrey Rosen piece from The New Republic expressing his concern that the courts were equating sexual expression at the workplace with sexual harassment and urging the Court to stay out regulating workplace behavior. I’m guessing Rosen now really wishes he hadn’t written that. Reading Rosen’s piece sixteen years later shows how long the road has been in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. The late 20th century workplace was a space where power was used for sexual advantage and intimidation. Many men thought of making sexual advances on women almost as a right. Today, we slightly laugh about that while we watch the ridiculously lewd office behavior in Mad Men, but of course those sorts of things happened in any number of ways in any number of workplace settings. Creating and enforcing protections for women was controversial and contested in the 1990s. Extending such protections for men at a time when the anti-gay movement was as its peak seemed even more unlikely.

This is the 53rd post in this series. The series is archived here.

Do Not Leave Anything Loose on the Scaffold

[ 41 ] March 3, 2013 |

Got to give it to the Soviets, they did not mess around in showing the consequences of unsafe workplaces.

Of course, like American employers blaming workers for accidents, I have little doubt that the Soviet state could have mandated safeguards on machines that would have prevented a lot of pain and suffering had it had even minimal accountability to the public.

Popping that Popcorn

[ 96 ] March 3, 2013 |

Greg Mitchell reviews Tom Friedman’s column from 10 years ago yesterday in which the Mustache of Wisdom said, “Watching this Iraq story unfold, all I can say is this: If this were not about my own country, my own kids and my own planet, I’d pop some popcorn, pull up a chair and pay good money just to see how this drama unfolds.”

Yeah, that sure was a great movie.

Brothel Menu, 1912

[ 92 ] March 2, 2013 |

Have you ever wanted to see a detailed brothel menu from 1912, with extremely graphic detail about the services provided? Well, here’s your chance.

This might be the most amazing historical document I have ever seen.

Here’s another link if the first isn’t working

One Example of Working-Class Environmentalism

[ 11 ] March 2, 2013 |

Too often, including in the comments at this blog, the idea that labor unions and environmentalists have irreconcilable goals goes unchallenged. But there is in fact significant common ground. Over the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Transit Workers Union, health care unions, and other unions opposed its construction on grounds of both environmental health and the future of the planet. Employers love to say that the Environmental Protection Agency is a job killer. Too often, many unions buy into that rhetoric as well. But not all. A leader on pushing back against job blackmail for years is the United Steelworkers. The USW has long used EPA regulations to push its own interests both inside and outside the workplace. Other unions that used to do this as well were the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), which is the subject of the second half of my book project. Unfortunately, those latter unions no longer exist. But the Steelworkers keep up the fight. Here it is with a press release ripping the oil refinery industry for violating EPA standards on safety and the workplace environment.

Part of the problem right now on this labor-environmental issue is that the industrial unions of the CIO were always much more open to making alliances with environmental organizations than the AFL trade unions. But it’s the industrial unions that have been slaughtered by outsourcing, deindustrialization, and globalization, while many of the trade unions, especially in the building trades, remain relatively healthy. So a changing culture in the remnants of American unionism isn’t helping. But the reality is far more complicated than the stereotype of workers and environmentalists being always opposed.

Keystone Approved

[ 163 ] March 1, 2013 |

The Obama Administration Obama Administration’s appointees in the State Department announces its approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline at 4 pm on Sequester Friday. How brave.

Disaster for the climate. Hardly surprised, greatly disappointed. Obama will not go down as a president good on environmental issues.

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