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This Day in Labor History: April 7, 2000

[ 15 ] April 7, 2015 |

On April 7, 2000, the Workers’ Rights Consortium formed at a New York conference. This apparel industry monitoring organization developed in response to the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s and still exists today, trying to bring attention in the United States to the plight of foreign workers making apparel for our colleges and universities.

By the 1990s, almost all American textile production had moved overseas, largely to Latin America and Asia. The conditions in these factories were little changed from what workers in the United States had dealt with a century earlier. Moving from the northeast to the South to Mexico to Central America to Asia has been part of a long-term strategy by the apparel companies to find new workers to exploit and not have to improve working conditions or acquiesce to unions. Also in the 1990s, stories began appearing in the American media about the terrible working conditions in these sweatshops. Most famous were stories about Nike and the clothing line branded by TV host Kathie Lee Gifford. College students began campaigns to improve these conditions as they applied to the production of university licensed apparel.

Central to this movement was United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Formed in July 1998 by students at 30 campuses, USAS began providing a national organization for all these anti-sweatshop movements on American campuses. USAS members began conducting fact-finding tours, visiting Dominican Republic sweatshops making baseball hats for colleges where young women earned $40 in a 56-hour week. The movement continued to grow through that fall, with new chapters opening at campuses across the United States. Universities refused to sign any code of conduct with the exception of Duke University. Instead, schools sought to avoid responsibility through the Collegiate Licensing Corporation, a corporate front that claimed to monitor apparel industry conditions. It created a CLC code that forced no responsibility onto universities. This intended to make a claim that the schools cared, but it only made the anti-sweatshop activists more determined. Protests and sit-ins grew at schools around the country by 1999. Schools continued trying to cover themselves, now joining the Fair Labor Association, another corporate front group that provided only voluntary guidelines for schools.

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Through this campaign, the students gained the support of the United Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). UNITE formed in 1985 as a merger of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU). Both of these unions were decimated by 1985 from the outsourcing of their jobs overseas. UNITE hoped that combining forces would help marshal resources to fight this, although the job losses continued. Facing the end of the union, UNITE quickly saw the growing sweatshop movement as useful allies in the war against the exploitation of apparel workers that these unions had fought since the beginning of the century. UNITE offered professional assistance, funds, and training to the burgeoning sweatshop movement. The AFL-CIO also chipped in, giving USAS $40,000 in 1999-2000.

In April 2000, activists met in New York City in order to develop strategies to help hold universities to anti-sweatshop pledges. It created the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor monitoring organization dedicated to the ethical sourcing of clothing for colleges and universities. It is supposed to define standards, conduct independent external monitoring, and force contracting companies to disclose wages, hours, and working conditions, with an independent agency to determine violations of the code. It places reports of factory inspections online that you can peruse.

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The WRC developed connections with labor unions and NGOs in the nations where clothing production took place. It based its investigations on complaints it heard from the workers and affiliated agencies on the ground. It took that information, conducted investigations, and sought to press university administrations on its findings to ensure their contractors were complying with the agreed upon codes. In January 2001, the WRC took on its first case. Workers at a factory in Atlixco, Mexico complained that their employer, the Korean operator Kukdong, which had contracts from Nike and Reebok, used child labor, subjected workers to verbal harassment and physical violence, fed workers spoiled food in the company cafeteria, did not provide mandated maternity leave, and illegally fired workers. In other words, standard treatment of workers in the global apparel industry that continues today. Within a week, the WRC was in the factory and interviewing workers. It filed a report and began to pressure university administrations. This all led to Nike and Reebok forcing Kukdong to rehire the fired workers, improve the cafeteria food, increase wages, and recognize the factory’s independent union (an important point considering the corrupt official Mexican unions).

This early victory provided the WRC needed legitimacy. At that time, the WRC had the support of 44 universities. Ultimately, the WRC provided much needed American attention on apparel sweatshops, but the reality is that there is not a whole lot the WRC can do to force a fundamental transformation of the entire industry. So long as students were actively forcing change, they could create some real victories for workers. But the fundamentals of the global apparel system require government action to force real changes. Simply put, the WRC even at its height had no conceivable way to monitor conditions at the thousands of sweatshops scattered around the world. No independent monitoring organization will ever have those resources.

The WRC was never able to get the U.S. government to take the issue seriously enough to force its corporations to make changes or to pass laws that would create enforceable standards for outsourced production imported back into the United States. Instead, the free trade mania continues in this nation that encourages the exploitation of the world’s workers by American corporations for cheap goods that we can buy without knowing anything about the conditions of production. Despite all this work by the anti-sweatshop movement, a WRC/Center for American Progress report from 2013 showed that real wages for apparel workers around the world fell between 2001 and 2011.

After 9/11, the sweatshop movement faded from prominence in young activist communities, with opposing the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and other actions of the Bush administration taking precedence. Yet the movement remained relatively strong at some campuses and has been rekindled to some extent in recent years, partially through events like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 workers again drawing the attention of young Americans. Today, the WRC has 180 college and university affiliates, as well as 6 high schools. This affiliation, which includes the University of Rhode Island, can often be pretty loose. URI has no real anti-sweatshop movement and while the university is aware of it, to my knowledge anyway, there’s no real active movement on these issues coming from my school.

This is the 141st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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The Evicted of Central Park

[ 65 ] April 6, 2015 |

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Would it surprise you to learn that the creation of Central Park required the eviction of an African-American village on the site, as well as a few Irish? Would it surprise you to learn that yet another moment in American history is connected to the nation’s racism? No, I don’t suppose it would. Shouldn’t anyway.

But there’s another side to the story. By the time the decision to create a park was made, there wasn’t enough empty space left in Manhattan. So the city chose a stretch of land where the largest settlement was Seneca Village, population 264, and seized the land under the law of eminent domain, through which the government can take private land for public purposes. Residents protested to the courts many times, against both the order and the level of compensation being offered for their land; eventually, though, all were forced to leave.

Two thirds of the population was black; the rest Irish. There were three churches and a school. And 50 per cent of the heads of households owned the land they lived on, a fact conveniently ignored by the media of the time, who described the population as “squatters” and the settlement as “n***er village”.

Crushing Treason in Defense of Slavery Day

[ 117 ] April 6, 2015 |

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Brian Beutler with a proposal:

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

Two things. First, Crushing Treason in Defense of Slavery Day should absolutely be a national holiday. That should go without saying. It should be a national remembrance of the Confederacy’s evil and the end of the racist slave labor system that underwrote the development of American capitalism (that it was replaced by another racist labor system is a fair enough point).

Second, monuments to Confederates should be renamed but that doesn’t mean those previous names should be forgotten about. In other words, the Edmund Pettus bridge should be renamed the John Lewis bridge and there should be a historical marker there explaining who Pettus was and why the name was changed. That should be done around the nation. There should be no schools receiving federal money named after Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis. But that they were named after those slaveholding traitors should be part of our official history. Similarly, we should rename American military bases named after slaveholding traitors.

Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men

[ 8 ] April 6, 2015 |

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In the aftermath of the Homestead Strike of 1892, the New York songwriter William W. Delaney composed a song by the name of “Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men.” It became fairly popular across the nation that year. Here are the lyrics.

‘Twas in Pennsylvania town not very long ago
Men struck against reduction of their pay
Their millionaire employer with philanthropic show
Had closed the work till starved they would obey
They fought for home and right to live where they had toiled so long
But ere the sun had set some were laid low
There’re hearts now sadly grieving by that sad and bitter wrong
God help them for it was a cruel blow.

CHORUS
God help them tonight in their hour of affliction
Praying for him whom they’ll ne’er see again
Hear the orphans tell their sad story
“Father was killed by the Pinkerton men.”

Ye prating politicians, who boast protection creed,
Go to Homestead and stop the orphans’ cry.
Protection for the rich man ye pander to his greed,
His workmen they are cattle and may die.
The freedom of the city in Scotland far away
‘Tis presented to the millionaire suave,
But here in Free America with protection in full sway
His workmen get the freedom of the grave.

This is taken from Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel, p. 4.

Returning from the Grave

[ 34 ] April 5, 2015 |

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This happy glorious holiday sees both the return of Mad Men and Major League Baseball. Let this be the open thread for both.

Personally, I have experienced too much disappointment to believe the Mariners are one of the best teams in the AL. Then I look at the rest of the AL and reconsider.

Power and the Land

[ 18 ] April 5, 2015 |

Enjoy this 1940 Rural Electrification Administration documentary on the drudgery of rural work before electricity and how REA cooperatives and the New Deal transforms the lives of farmers. Good stuff. I love the films of the New Deal. There are also useful stories here. Robert Caro’s first LBJ book is a wonderful book on Texas, the main character in its first half. Years later, I continue to recall how he described the drudgery of farm women’s labor in the Texas Hill Country. LBJ helped end that through being a big supporter of public power. That was necessary because with private utilities, profit comes before service. So even as late as 1940, you had American cities in the modern age and American farms basically in the 19th century when it came to life inside the home. The REA played a huge role in changing that. Public power was a justice issue. Naturally, Republicans largely opposed it, the godfather of public power George Norris being the exception that proved the rule as he was a Republican only to keep his seniority and openly attacked Republican presidents over the power issue.

Harvesting the Ripe Grain of Wingnuttery

[ 81 ] April 5, 2015 |

Welcome-to-Kansas

The voters of Kansas elected Sam Brownback governor. Then they reelected them. So now the reap what they sowed:

The economic fallout continues in Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback recently signed a public school funding overhaul that cut millions in funding for the current school year.

Two school districts in the state are now ending the academic year early, according to the Associated Press, because they can no longer afford to stay open under the new plan.

The governor’s proposal, which passed the Kansas House in mid-March but was slowed by a court order that challenged parts of the plan, replaces the state’s previous education funding formula with block grants for the next couple years until legislators finalize a new formula. Critics say the proposed formula takes away millions of dollars in much-needed funding, including about $51 million this school year alone.

Brownback has received the brunt of the blame for Kansas’ fiscal woes after he spent his first term slashing taxes and promising an economic boom that never came. Instead, his “real live experiment” in applying conservative tax principles led to debt downgrades, weak growth, and left the state’s finances in ruins.

Sure Kansas children are falling behind those of every other state in the nation. But who doubts that Brownback could win reelection again, term limits notwithstanding? Not I.

Apple: A Corporation of the New Gilded Age

[ 82 ] April 5, 2015 |

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Building off the sociopathy of its founder, Steve Jobs, Apple is banning felons from working on constructing its buildings. It’s nice that capitalists are judging the morals of the American working class while outsourcing production to facilities where conditions are so bad that workers jump to their deaths often enough that suicide nets were erected. But condemning people who have made one mistake in their life or got caught up in the United States’ racist justice system to not being worthy enough to do hard labor on their buildings is a really classy move for Apple to make.

Migrant Workers in Germany

[ 11 ] April 4, 2015 |

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Migrant workers in Germany are as routinely exploited as they are in the United States.

Migrant workers in Germany’s construction industry are increasingly faced with abusive practices of this kind.

In March 2014, the German union representing construction workers, Industriegewerkschaft Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt (IG-BAU), took on a similar case, defending 50 building workers in Frankfurt who had not been paid for months. The company was finally forced to pay the €100,000 (US$106,230) in wage arrears.

“More and more construction and public works companies are turning to labour subcontractors. As a result, a whole host of firms has sprung up specialising in the supply of cheap labour for construction projects,” explains Frank Schmidt-Hullmann, head of migrant workers’ affairs with IG-BAU.

“They are not genuine construction firms. They look like it on paper, but their only activity is, in fact, to supply labour at a low cost. They are brass plate companies that often only pay wages for the first few months. They then stop paying and expect the workers to keep going until the job is finished, in the hopes that they will be paid at the end of the contract.

“We are constantly coming across situations like this. And we only know about the cases that are presented to a union. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Most of the migrant workers in this situation are employed under the status of EU posted workers.

What a surprise that subcontracting is responsible for this rise in exploitation. It’s almost like other nations are looking at the new forms of corporations exploiting labor developing in the United States and learning from it! Glad to see the global influence of our corporate masters leading to a global Gilded Age.

Environmental Groups Supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

[ 13 ] April 4, 2015 |

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The White House blog has been shamelessly claiming how progressive and good for the American people the Trans-Pacific Partnership is. The other day, it sent out a message about how the TPP was good for environmental issues and included quotes from environmentalists who supported it. What? The World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy are supporting the TPP? Here’s Carter Roberts, CEO of the WWF:

A major trade agreement among these countries that includes strong environmental obligations could provide critical new protections for some of our planet’s important natural resources. More specifically, it could disrupt some of the most notorious trading routes that are driving the current global wildlife poaching epidemic.

As nearly four years of negotiations come to a close, TPP countries face a choice. Do they keep their promise to create an ambitious 21st century trade deal with a fully enforceable environment chapter or do they abandon real environmental protections for weak, voluntary promises?

The U.S. has pressed hard throughout the process, and in response to the recent leak of the environment chapter, US Trade Representative Ambassador Mike Froman wrote that our government “will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.”

It’s great to see the U.S. continue to publicly show its support for the environment. US leadership is paramount to delivering a final TPP with strong conservation protections, but it’s critical that other TPP nations make similar public commitments. As major producers and traders of wildlife, fish and timber, all negotiating nations have a responsibility to ensure that resources are well managed and that illegal trade and subsidies do not contribute to the depletion of fish stocks or increase illegal logging and wildlife trafficking.

Of course, many environmental groups oppose the TPP, although their voices have not been very strong in the debate. The Natural Resources Defense Council:

As a result, any trade agreement with these countries must address the key environmental and conservation challenges facing us in the 21st century, such as destruction of our oceans, wildlife, forests, public health, and climate. The U.S. has pushed for a minimum set of conservation protections in the TPP Environment Chapter – just one of 29 TPP chapters. But the devil is in the details and there are a number of aspects that the U.S. has resisted including in the agreement and provisions that could undermine key environmental safeguards. Unfortunately due to arcane rules pushed by the U.S., we have no idea what is in this agreement and won’t know until the final deal is reached as the documents are kept secret. But we do have some insights into a couple of aspects, including the Environment Chapter, thanks to leaks of earlier versions of the negotiating documents. And the signs from those leaks were troubling enough that NRDC, Sierra Club, and WWF raised serious concerns back in January about the reported language in the Environment Chapter.

So as negotiators make a final push to wrap up agreements this year, thirteen leading environmental and conservation groups – including NRDC, Sierra Club, WWF, League of Conservation Voters, and Oceana – sent a letter to the U.S. government articulating basic minimum conservation protections that need to be included in the final TPP environment chapter. On top of that a number of groups, including NRDC, have raised concerns about other TPP provisions including the inclusion of secret courts that would give new rights to corporations to challenge environmental and other public interest policies in un-transparent trade tribunals and the exclusion of key environmental agreements that address climate change or mercury pollution. At the same time, these trade agreements don’t establish minimum environmental safeguards that each participating country must meet, such as protecting their citizens from dangerous pollution. Here is a basic summary of my organization’s minimum requirements for the TPP. Unfortunately the leaked documents fall well short of these principles.

Interestingly, both sides of this within environmentalism are using the issue of enforceability as the key to their point. A few of the more conservative and less far-reaching groups are pointing specifically to wildlife trafficking protections as the reason to support it while those with a broader agenda see another version of NAFTA, lacking real, meaningful, and enforceable regulations on transnational environmental issues.

It’s worth noting here that some environmental groups decided to support NAFTA in 1993 because they wanted to continue to be part of the conversation and be in a favorable position with the Clinton administration. That strategy worked very poorly for the environment itself given the huge negative impacts on the Mexican environment from American corporations outsourcing production. It’s possible that is what some of the pro-TPP groups are thinking here again. It’s a short-sighted strategy.

You can read the Wikileaks account of the draft environmental passages of the TPP from 2014 here
. It does not look promising.

Baseball Executives Want to Use the War on Drugs to Avoid the Bad Contracts They Signed

[ 51 ] April 4, 2015 |

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Baltimore Orioles

Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton has a long history of substance abuse that nearly derailed his career. But he finally got it together. Of course, substance abuse and addiction are very difficult issues. He had a relapse over the offseason. He could have tried to avoid responsibility. Instead, he told the Angels and MLB voluntarily.

Josh Hamilton signed a 5 years-$125 million contract with the Angels before the 2013 season. This was a great contract for him but a really stupid one for the Angels. Even at the end of his time with the Rangers, Hamilton’s production was falling. He always struggled with plate discipline and the years of substance abuse probably made his skills decline a touch faster than they would have naturally. His strikeouts skyrocketed in 2012. Hamilton, when he hasn’t been hurt, has been a slightly above league average player the first two years of this contract.

The Angels wanted to suspend Hamilton for violating his substance abuse program, even though he came to them voluntarily. Yesterday, an arbitrator ruled that they could not. The response of Angels GM Jerry DiPoto and president John Carpino did not hide the team’s disappointment:

This led to sportswriters ripping the Angels as it became clear this was about saving money and using baseball’s war on drugs to bail teams out of bad contracts, not helping Hamilton. Bill Plaschke:

The team that has already given away Hamilton’s locker is now publicly kicking him to the curb. The organization known for a cuddly primate has bared its teeth and revealed its vindictiveness. This is not only about wanting to make sure Hamilton is off drugs, this is about wanting him off their payroll and out of their lives.

The Angels want Hamilton suspended so they can save the remaining $83 million on his contract, save awkwardness when he returns to a clubhouse, and basically just save themselves the hassle. They don’t care that Hamilton or his teammates are listening, they don’t care that a Southern California fan base that often winces at such intolerance is listening. They just want him gone.

This column is not a defense of the arbitrator’s ruling. The Angels are right that it was wrong. While the ruling technically adheres to baseball drug law, it goes against the spirit of the discipline required to make that law effective. Reportedly one of the factors in allowing Hamilton to avoid discipline is he reported his relapse instead of failing a drug test. That sets a dangerous precedent. So if a player thinks he just tested positive, he can get off the hook by immediately throwing himself on the mercy of the commissioner before the test results become public? That’s a gaping loophole that needs to be closed.

But the Angels should have kept their mouths closed. Why further humiliate a sick player by warning him he’s no longer welcome? Why not let him finish his rehabilitation while finding some inner peace, then leave open the possibility he could play for you again?

And the usually measured Ken Rosenthal on why everything about this case was leaked throughout the process:

Even if the arbitrator had determined that Hamilton indeed violated his program, the entire matter should have remained private, at least until the moment commissioner Rob Manfred issued his suspension. But that’s not what happened, and make no mistake — Hamilton was wronged in the process.

So, who was responsible for the leaks?

As a reporter, I know that information comes from everywhere, and not always obvious sources. The Angels, however, are the one entity that stood to benefit if Hamilton was suspended and forfeited a portion of his $23 million salary in 2015. He also is guaranteed $30 million in both 2016 and ’17, and considering his declining performance in recent seasons, the Angels surely would love to escape that obligation as well.

The initial report on Hamilton from the Los Angeles Times said he was meeting with baseball about a disciplinary issue and that the team was bracing for possible penalties. Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed that Hamilton was in New York but said nothing else. A scramble then ensued to report why the meeting took place, and both CBSSports.com and New York Daily News reported that his relapse involved cocaine.

I’m not sure the Angels acted properly in confirming Hamilton’s initial meeting in New York. And the club went public again Friday, saying in a statement, “The Angels have serious concerns about Josh’s conduct, health and behavior and we are disappointed that he has broken an important commitment which he has made to himself, his family, his teammates and our fans.”

This, for a player who was deemed not to have violated his treatment program.

Lovely.

I understand why baseball pursued the matter; if Hamilton had indeed violated the program, then it would have been only proper for the sport to enforce its policy. But baseball, too, needs to take responsibility for the way Hamilton was cornered publicly.

He deserved better as a recovering addict. He deserved better as a major leaguer. He deserved better as a human being.

Of course some sportswriters, even wanting to fight the War on Drugs from their computers, are talking about how this is really about the Angels wanting to get Hamilton help, but that’s totally absurd.

I’m curious to see if this affects the Angels with free agents going forward. This isn’t some steroid case where many players really want those players out of the game. This is a sick man who has struggled with life-threatening addiction for a long time. He deserves support from his team, not contempt. But Angels owner Arte Moreno doesn’t want to pay the money he owes Hamilton and so wants to see him suspended. That can’t make the next aging slugger or pitcher Moreno offers a bunch of money feel real great about it. I suspect agents are definitely taking note of this. And whoever was leaking this information about Hamilton to the media probably should be fined or suspended by MLB. Not that it will happen.

Why the Endangered Species Act Matters

[ 14 ] April 3, 2015 |

Murrelet

I think the Endangered Species Act is really quite underrated in the history of transformative American legislation. Everyone knows about it on a basic level, but it’s role in saving entire ecosystems from industrial production is really quite remarkable. Take the marbled murrelet. People know about the northern spotted owl and the role it played in shutting down old growth timber production in the Pacific Northwest. But the murrelet is just as important and in the long run maybe more as the barred owl is eliminating spotted owls on its own. The marbled murrelet only nests on think high branches in old growth forests. Get rid of the old growth and the murrelet goes extinct. The environmental historian Char Miller:

These economic benefits ran right into an interrelated set of ecological deficits for which Furnish and his peers along the northern Pacific coast had to account: steep declines in spotted-owl and salmon populations, as well as troubling data about timber harvesting’s impact on the marbled murrelet. By the late 1990s, federal and state scientists assessing murrelet behavior ranging from the Santa Cruz Mountains north into Oregon had concluded that breeding murrelets exhibit site fidelity, that is, they return year after year to the same nesting area. As such, if a nesting stand is logged off, these particular birds may not breed again.

On the Siuslaw, for example, the data revealed that “nine out of ten mature timber stands had nesting owls and murrelets — which meant no more timber harvest.” What Furnish and his leadership team concluded was that “this incredibly productive landscape could not simultaneously maximize timber products and wildlife.” Because these redwood, spruce, and fir forests were “the womb that sustained this natural abundance,” and because by law this abundance itself must be sustained, “the remaining mature forest in the Coastal Range would stay standing.”

In an effort to undo this principled reasoning, the timber industry has been trying to delist the marbled murrelet as a threatened species, stripping it of its protections and opening the way for a return of clearcutting. As Furnish wrote me in an email: “The timber industry continues to take the narrow, regressive view that the Endangered Species Act simply doesn’t matter.”

But the timber industry consistently fails to win these battles because the ESA language is strong. Theoretically, the next time Republicans control all branches of government, the law could repealed. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. But as of right now, it has saved not only a bird like the marbled murrelet, but the entire ecosystem it relies upon.

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