If it wasn’t evil, I’d say it was refreshing that at least they aren’t lying anymore.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
Scott Walker using prison labor to decorate the Christmas tree (and in this administration, it ain’t no holiday tree like here in Rhode Island) in the Wisconsin state capitol building. The use of prison labor means he didn’t have to use and pay unionized state workers to put up the tree.
This story has received very little coverage, but today was nearly the day the National Labor Relations Board, for all intents and purposes, died. The NLRB is supposed to have 5 members, but presently has 3 because of Republican obstructionism. There are 2 Democrats and 1 Republican, Brian Hayes. Angry about new rules designed to limit endless employer appeals of scheduled workplace unionization votes in order to buy more time to defeat unions, Hayes threatened to resign from the board. Had he done so, the NLRB could not have reached a quorum and would have been paralyzed. Had this happened, there’s little reason to believe it ever it would have revived in a meaningful way. Maybe Republicans would have filled the positions when they took over, maybe they would have just let it die, but any chance it could have served as an fair arbiter for American labor would have ended.
Luckily, Hayes decided not to resign, citing his desire to not be an obstructionist (are we sure he’s actually a Republican?) and his respect for the institution. Crisis averted for now. But the long-term future of the NLRB remains up in the air because Hayes could bail at any time.
I recently visited the Torn in Two exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Using maps at the primary storyteller, this exhibit told the story of the Civil War. Running until the end of the year, I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston. Maps are usually used as supplementary material in exhibits rather than as prime storytellers, but this exhibit really suggested the power of these documents. It was most effective demonstrating the differences between North and South in the antebellum period. Seeing a map of Louisiana cotton plantations next to a map of the mills in Lowell suggests both the interconnectedness of the two regions and how they were so very different at the same time. The section on the war itself features a variety of maps, ranging from somewhat fanciful topographical maps produced to help people at home understand the conflict to battlefield maps (which never interest me) to hand-drawn maps from diaries and letters, which are fascinating documents. The exhibit kind of tails off at the end, not really showing how maps helped us understand the end of the war. It’s also quite Boston-centric. This is natural enough, but also slightly limiting. Still, a fine exhibit overall.
In the newer part of the library, there’s a separate exhibit on Bostonians during the war which is also a good way to spend 20 minutes. Consisting of a few artifacts and some video kiosks explaining these various people, it provides good biographies of a variety of interesting people. Although the exhibit is awfully white (they couldn’t have included a soldier from the 54th Massachusetts?), it is more than half women, which is a nice reminder that the Civil War was much more than a conflict of men killing each other.
Joshua Rubenstein provides a nice, quick overview to the life of Leon Trotsky that I would recommend for anyone interested in learning a bit more about this enigmatic figure of 20th century radicalism. Often, shorter biographies tend to eschew a unique point of view. Rubenstein avoids this pitfall, firmly placing Trotsky’s life within a Jewish context, no doubt to an extent Trotsky himself would be uncomfortable with.
Among his many hats, Rubenstein is Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, a background which strongly colors his view of Trotsky. He is completely open about this and I respect him for this. Writing about leftists still leaves authors open to ideological attack and Rubenstein meets this head on. He respects Trotsky on one level, but also sees him as fully capable of murderous violence who used the system he revolted against in order to maximize Soviet power. By the time I read of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin, I wanted to root for Trotsky, but it’s hard to forget his own actions in the Kronstadt Rebellion, where he brutally crushed sailors protesting the new regime, killing 2000 outright and thousands more slowly in concentration camps.
Trotsky is the easiest Soviet revolutionary to romanticize. His fall from power and subsequent life in Mexico where he was sleeping with Frida Kahlo and getting killed by an ice axe to the back of the head make him like an earlier version of Che Guevara. No one is going to look bad on anyone who stood up to Stalin. Trotsky has missed some of the criticism directed at Lenin’s own murderous leadership. Trostkyism because a communist alternative to CPUSA Stalinism. Plus Trotsky is just so damn interesting. Unlike the dullard Stalin or the single-minded Lenin, Trotsky seems like a guy you’d like to spend some time with. He charmed people everywhere he went.
But as Rubenstein reminds us, while maybe Trotsky would have been less brutal than Stalin, maybe he wouldn’t have been. He was as committed an ideologue as Lenin or Stalin and clearly showed his willingness to engage in massive violations of human rights to achieve his goal. As Rubenstein states, it’s almost impossible to put ourselves in the political mindset of the early twentieth century, but it’s striking how utterly narrow-minded the communists were. They were so convinced of their own doctrinaire correctness and the destiny of history that flexible thought seemed impossible.
What makes this book different than other Trotsky biographies is its explicitly Jewish focus. Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, grew up in the atmosphere of official late 19th century anti-Semitism. But he never identified as a Jew. One of the most interesting parts of the book was seeing the communists and the Zionists interact–Russian Jews had many options open to them: emigration, Zionism, revolution. Trotsky rejected his own Judaism and chose the latter as a Russian. But Rubenstein also shows that radical movements were full of Jews seeing violence as their only defense and that Trotsky surrounded himself with Jews all his life. Not to mention that Stalin moved against Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev through stirring up anti-Semitism.
If anything, Rubenstein may overplay the Jewish angle a bit given Trotsky’s own discomfort with it. Sometimes, it feels tacked on. On other hand, the book is part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. In any case, this is a minor critique. It’s a fine and very readable overview.
An Afterword: A few years ago, I visited Trotsky’s home in Mexico City where he was killed. I was hoping for blood stains on the wall, but alas no. It was a very cool tour however. I peaked into the bathroom. I wondered if that was Trotsky’s toilet. I didn’t ask though. I have a sort of fascination with historical toilets. Not long ago, I put a picture on Facebook of a chamber pot in Albert Gallatin’s Pennsylvania home that I visited earlier this year.
Of course, it’s not the toilets themselves I am interested in (though the one in Martin Van Buren’s house is actually pretty cool). I think the interests comes from being not totally comfortable with great man history. The toilet humanizes these individuals. This is more salient in the history of radicalism. Trotsky’s life is supposed to be the story of people rising up against oppression, but like communist rule around the world, it became about a few extraordinarily powerful individuals. Even much of the history of the American labor movement tends toward celebrating Haywood and Lewis and Gompers. It feels like a betrayal. The toilet helps me deal with the failure.
I should preface this post by saying that I rarely complement higher education administrators. I am naturally suspicious of people in power anyway and I always question the motives of faculty who love meetings and the minutia of academia so much that they choose to turn their backs on research and teaching for it. I have found most college/university presidents duplicitous corporate gladhandling hacks. One excellent example of the new species of university president is the University of New Mexico’s David Schmidly, probably the most loathed individual in the Land of Enchantment. Schmidly embodies everything I dislike about the new university–a corrupt man who is “business-friendly” in the sense that he has used his time in the job to destroy much about the university, particularly within the liberal arts, social sciences, and university press.
That said, there are some good ones out there. One is the current (until yesterday) president of my alma mater, the University of Oregon, Richard Lariviere. As Farley can confirm, the University of Oregon was not exactly a great institute of higher education when we were there in the early to mid 90s. Property tax limitations copied from California had severely undermined university funding. The school shut down many programs, including most of the education program. Tuition began rising. In order to make up funding, the university began recruiting heavily out of California. That might sound fine, but in reality, we were getting students who were not smart enough to get into the UC system but had enough money to not have to suffer the Cal St. schools. Rich, lazy Californians, sounds awesome. And indeed it was.
The school has improved some since then, but still ranks very low in pretty important metrics. It has sunk to the lowest per student funding of any American Association of Universities school, and in fact could follow the University of Nebraska in getting kicked out of the organization, which would be a huge blow to the institution. It also paid its professors significantly less than its peer institutions, leading to 15 leaving last year for other jobs. The state was not going to fix. In fact, the state ordered the schools to not give pay raises, saying the state couldn’t afford it. So Lariviere decided to act on his own.
Realizing state funding was never going to come and knowing that the state only provides 5.8% of the school’s funding anyway, Lariviere combined tuition increases, enrollment increases, private funding, and research grants to give employees a 4.5% raise, a huge jump in this day and age. He did this without 1 cent from the state and without asking the state’s permission.
For this, he was canned yesterday. There are ancillary issues. First, salaries for administrators jumped too. And that’s bad given how much they make. But let’s be honest, it’s not like state governments really care about this unless it’s convenient for them. Administrator salaries are skyrocketing across the country at schools that are eviscerating their faculty. If we want to run our institutions of higher education like a business, we have to concentrate 99% of our resources in the top 1% of employees, right? Second, for whatever reason, people with ties to UO are underrepresented on the Oregon Board of Higher Education (essentially it’s board of trustees) while the regional schools like Western, Eastern, and Southern are highly represented. The Board was outraged that the state’s flagship institution might outpace its regional schools. Third, Lariviere totally bucked Governor John Kitzhaber’s orders on this so I don’t know what he expected.
Maybe Lariviere didn’t care. Unlike most university presidents, doing the right thing by his faculty took priority. I like Kitzhaber. His stand on rejecting the death penalty is to be lauded. But he is wrong here. If the state isn’t going to provide a majority of funding, or anything even close to a majority, why should it have such power over the institution? Last year, the state of Oregon provided $62 million to UO. This year, it is providing $47 million, the lowest number since 1986 and that doesn’t even count for inflation or the much larger student body today.
Plus, it’s hard to not like a man who not only wears a hat like that, but who kind of looks like John Huston circa-Chinatown.
The Republicans have decided to back the payroll tax extension, fearful of being painted as anti-middle class in the coming elections.
As Kos noted in a tweet, there’s no way this happens without Occupy Wall Street. This is concrete evidence of how OWS has changed the discussion in America. Remember 6 months ago? The Republicans were in full ascent, talking tough, showing no compromise, going all-in for the 1%. Now we have recalls in Wisconsin, the irrelevancy of the Tea Party governor in Maine, the repeal of SB-5 in Ohio, and now this. Republicans are starting to run scared. Democrats need to start pushing them hard, keep them on the retreat.
Sarah Jaffe has been all over the issue of debt lately, chronicling who is profiting from the massive debt young people have to take on in order to graduate from college and how people are fighting back. Great stuff. See here and here.
This debt is one of the most important issues Occupy Wall Street has brought attention to. The current level of debt is completely unsustainable. It’s still better for a young person to take on that debt than to not go to college at level (at least in terms of future earnings), but it causes massive social and economic problems. The debt forces people into long-term debt that is either impossible to repay or makes them take corporate jobs rather than follow their dreams in order to pay it back. It flat cannot continue at this pace.
1. Conditions at Chinese computer manufacturing plants remain horrible. Apple has claimed they will look into these problems, but actual action remains unlikely. The workers themselves are fed up and 1000 employees at a Jingmo Electronics Corporation factory, which makes keyboards for many computer companies, have gone on strike:
According to what workers have told China Labor Watch, the motivation behind the strike was the factory’s decision to make workers work nightly overtime. The factory decided to require workers to work from 6 p.m. until 12 p.m., and sometimes even until 2 a.m. the next morning, in addition to their regular work hours (7-11:30 a.m., 1-5 p.m.) Workers now commonly worked anywhere from 100 to 120 hours of overtime a month. Moreover, the factory refused to let the workers work this overtime on Saturday, which would necessitate paying them double wages in accordance with Chinese Labor Law.
Apart from the overtime issue, the workers said that they also had other grievances with the factory. These include the high rate of workplace injuries (there have been nearly 20 recently), mass layoffs of older workers and the lack of any benefits. Apart from these more tangible hardships, factory managers often verbally abuse and bully the workers, causing them severe emotional distress.
But hey, if workers would only give up negotiating everything but wages, they would totally gain more power!
Corporate claims that they don’t have control over the factories where their products are made are absurd. These contractors do whatever the multinational wants. If Apple and IBM decide to sacrifice a small amount of profit to pay workers more, reduce workplace injuries, and hire more workers rather than make current employees work obscene hours, it will happen very quickly.
2. Of course, the great thing about the race to the bottom is that companies can make working conditions in the United States really bad too! If you haven’t read Spencer Soper’s piece on the terrible working conditions at Amazon warehouses, you will want to check this out. Soper won a Sidney for this piece. An outstanding piece of labor journalism.
3. I guess conservatives are right–Obama is directly costing people jobs. Or at least, one lunatic has decided he won’t hire anyone until Obama is gone! Good luck keeping your company open!
4. Cooper Tire has locked 1050 workers out of its Findlay, Ohio plant after the United Steelworkers represented employees rejected a new contract that would not only include higher insurance premiums but outright pay cuts. Cooper is moving to use scabs. The salary of Cooper CEO Roy Armes has risen from $2.6 million in 2008 to $4.7 million in 2010.
Very disappointing piece from Kevin Drum supporting Alan Haus’ call for unions that only negotiate wages and nothing else. Haus, an employment lawyer, is packaging old-school company unionism in new wrapping, calling for conservatives to be OK with highly paid workers so long as management controls everything else regarding work. He wants public-sector unionism destroyed and to strip collective bargaining law of everything not concerning wages. This kind of corporate hackery is not even worth my notice.
Far more disturbing is a major progressive writer, writing for Mother Jones for Christ’s sake, supporting this drivel. Is Drum just engaging in a Slate pitch joke here? I’d like to think so. Alas, no. His logic is basically, “well, unions are dying anyway so we have to try something.” And that something else is giving up a century of struggles to get theoretical power to bargain for wages. The problems with this are legion. A couple specific points:
1. Drum seems naive enough to believe that if unions were to give up all this power, corporations would then follow through and grant their workers higher wages. Is there any reason to believe corporations would bargain in good faith? No. Glad that leading liberal writers have a real deep understanding of how corporate power works in American politics here.
2. Unions are not exclusively, or even primarily, about wages. Wage rates are a piece of what they do. Unions also provide protection from getting fired without cause, push for workplace safety, give workers a voice in fighting sexual harassment, bargain for working hours, vacation time, sick leave, etc. Unions are working-class people’s leading voice in fighting for any number of pieces of progressive legislation. What’s worse is that Drum knows this, noting that the UMWA has done far more to fight for mine safety than any corporation or government agency. But I guess that’s worth just shrugging off!
3. Company unions are far from new in American history and they consistently have served to undermine worker rights, giving employees a facade of a voice on their job while allowing corporations to consolidate control over the workplace and maximize profit. Haus calls for, without directly using the term, the return of company unions, allowing corporations to set everything outside of wage rates. How can anyone who cares for worker rights think this is a good idea?
4. The title itself gets to the laughability of this whole notion–”Can Unions Be Saved By Making Them Weaker?” Well, maybe African-Americans should give back the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make the movement stronger again! No doubt it would work!!! And I’m sure that repealing Roe would sure put a spark in the pro-choice movement!
Does Drum remain worth reading on labor issues if he continues parroting conservative writers? I think not. Sadly, he spreads these anti-union ideas in a publication named for one of America’s true labor radicals, who no doubt is not only spinning in her grave, but in classic Mary Jones fashion, is cursing a blue streak at Drum.
While the nation’s attention has been focused on Occupy Wall Street, Jane Mayer wonders whether the really important American political movement of 2011 has not actually been the Bill McKibben led movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. I wouldn’t go so far as to downplay the importance of OWS, but there’s no question that environmentalists led a fantastic campaign against all odds to stop a project that seemed in the bag. Its long-term future is unknown; McKibben thinks he’s won but the decision has only been postponed until after the election. Still, it’s hard to regain momentum on big projects when they’ve been halted. In any case, it’s a tremendous story that demonstrates how to play the inside game of Democratic politics, the protest game, and how to bring in local constituencies that normally oppose environmentalism but don’t want their own areas denigrated, in this case Republicans in Nebraska who feared the pollution of their groundwater.
Outstanding Louise Mozingo op-ed on how office parks contribute to sprawl and how any rethinking of urban spaces needs to place limitations on the growth of “pastoral capitalism,” as she calls it. In conclusion:
All three steps — a halt to agricultural land conversion, connecting dispersed employment centers with alternative transit, and encouraging downtown development — are needed to create renewed, civic-minded corporate workplaces and, in the process, move toward sustainable cities. Even leaving aside climate change, very soon the price of energy will make the dispersed, unconnected, low-density city-building pattern impossibly costly. Those jurisdictions and businesses that first create livable, workable, post-peak-oil metropolitan regions are the ones that will win the future.