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[ 171 ] December 5, 2013 |

One of human history’s greatest fighters for justice has passed. Rest in peace.

Fast Food Strikes

[ 281 ] December 5, 2013 |

Today is the largest mobilization of fast food workers in history, with workers across the country engaging in a one-day strike. The basic demand is a $15 an hour wage. SEIU has played a major role in spurring this movement, even though it has little to gain immediately since the chances of a union contract that would pay dues is low to nonexistent in the near future. But this is the kind of forward thinking leadership that labor needs to take with non-union workers in industries away from their base (in SEIU’s case, health care and government) that won’t necessarily build the dues structure. The recent populist push for higher wages, coming out of Occupy and seen most concretely in the Sea-Tac $15 minimum wage passed last month, is a good sign that people are uniting around a specific concrete goal as a first step. Rep. Raul Grijalva is pressing Obama to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers covered by government contract, which he can absolutely do but almost certainly won’t. But it is more concrete pressure from the left that combined with people on streets, can and I think will move more Democrats toward making meaningful changes in the national wage laws.

Greenhouse’s piece linked above cites economists claiming a higher wage would lead to a lot less employment, but I am skeptical of this and don’t see any real evidence as to its truth. If mechanization is cheaper, it’s going to be cheaper at $7.50 too and a few bucks an hour to the few workers in a fast food joint isn’t going to make or break that process. It’s certainly possible that an employer could try to staff with less workers, but that’s another problem that workers can organize around. It’s also of course worth noting that employers and their lackeys make these arguments about every improvement in the conditions of workers and have since at least the Civil War.


[ 42 ] December 5, 2013 |

The West has reinvigorated its war on wolves and the Obama Administration has sadly capitulated to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, in what is yet another example of its poor policy toward public lands that originated with the Salazar appointment to Interior and has not improved at all. This is been one of the weakest performances for progressives in the entire administration (along with education policy) and an area where the administration has almost total control to set policy (unlike say, closing GITMO which we can say is disappointing but where the president is highly constrained by Congress).

Wyoming classifies wolves as predatory animals that can be killed by any means and without limit in more than 80 percent of the state, and in parts of Idaho, there are no limits for when or how many wolves can be killed. Not to be outmatched, Montana nearly doubled the bag limit on wolves this year, extended the hunt season to allow killing of pregnant females and refused to listen to pleas by park biologists to create a safety buffer just outside the park’s boundaries to protect straying research animals.

These hunts are a throwback to the not-so-distant days when wolves were ruthlessly persecuted and nearly wiped out from the entirety of the lower 48.

Today wolves live in only about 5 percent of their historic range and have less than 1 percent of their former numbers.

Despite these dismal figures, the Obama administration has proposed to remove protections for wolves across most of the country. With numbers going down from hunts and protections gone, wolf recovery that is broadly supported by a strong majority of the American public, has cost taxpayers millions, benefits ecosystems, and is a tremendous Endangered Species Act success story will be flushed down the drain.

Awful. But this hasn’t received much political pushback, which is another piece of evidence to me of the decline of the environmental movement, which today is as weak as it’s been politically since the 1950s.

This is How a Meaningful Third Party Movement Begins

[ 65 ] December 5, 2013 |

My criticism of most 3rd party political campaigns are well known. I see them, personified by the Nader campaigns, as quixotic attempts every four years to show left-wing anger with the Democratic Party but completely lacking any legitimate political strategy, movement-building skills, or long-term plans. They appear and disappear and nothing happens during the election off years. They don’t organize locally, they don’t try to challenge the Democratic Party on the city and county levels. Essentially, they are spasms of self-righteous anger that occasionally do enough damage to elect Republicans, which then makes life for the 99% much worse. Also, thanks for Iraq, Ralph.

But here is an alternative. Lorain County, Ohio is a Democratic dominated county. The split there is between unionists and centrist anti-union hacks. When the Democratic Party overturned a Project Labor Agreement that guaranteed union jobs, labor took matters into its own hands. The Central Labor Council ran its own set of candidates for City Council and won most of the races.

This isn’t a full-fledged third party movement. But it’s exactly how labor and third party activists should operate. You start on the local level, you organize, and you win. You then build from there. What the CLC will do going forward is unknown. But not only have they sent a message to the Democratic Party that they can win elections if the Party doesn’t fall in line behind labor, they have provided a guidebook for how those to the left of the Democratic Party can reject the party and still make a difference.

If only the Green Party activists and Nader defenders would learn from this.

Environment and the Border

[ 2 ] December 3, 2013 |

Michelle Chen provides a useful overview of the intertwined environmental and humanitarian disaster of American policies toward the Mexican border. She covers several important issues. To excerpt from her introduction:

The parts of the border that take the form of an actual, physical barrier are an intrusion on the landscape, an eyesore to many — and to millions, a deadly obstacle to overcome. Elements of the local environment, from deserts to the Rio Grande, have been trampled, polluted, criss-crossed by truck convoys, occupied by federal agents and factories, and traversed by migrants following well-worn and perilous trails. And each phase of commercial development and economic exchange has also left an ecological mark, from the bustle of tourists to the churn of the maquilas to the paths trod by migrants following smugglers.

Just as immigrant rights activists see the border as a violent social barrier, environmentalists see the border fence as an assault on the integrity of regional ecologies. The border environs is both a symbol of global environmental changes — transnational movement of people and natural resources, climate change, the wave of urbanization that is sweeping wild lands worldwide — and a symptom of acute environmental impacts — the footprints of stampeding livestock, baking asphalt slicing through desert, and a dense network of dams and pipelines tapping the veins of increasingly parched riparian habitats. In the border zone, life is disrupted by the armature of the state.

I Knew the Nation Went Downhill Once Ohio Joined the Union

[ 70 ] December 3, 2013 |

Ohio leads the nation in swearing.

Ohio is also the 5th least courteous state.

Personally, I blame William McKinley.

World Heritage Status for German Beer Purity Laws?

[ 129 ] December 2, 2013 |

I guess there’s nothing really wrong with granting UNESCO World Heritage status to the German beer purity laws. I mean, whatever, I guess laws holding back the development of more interesting beer is some kind of heritage. But let’s not overstate the case here:

“If Germany is still regarded as the undisputed beer nation, that is due to the Reinheitsgebot,” said Hans-Georg Eils, president of the German Brewers’ Federation.

Well, no one in their right mind who is not actually German thinks Germany is still regarded as the undisputed beer nation, so we can move on. Maybe #3 beer nation. But certainly no higher.

Rare Good News for New England Fisheries

[ 19 ] December 2, 2013 |

This is a nice change from the usual news of doom for New England fisheries, with scallop production based out of New Bedford exploding and what sounds like very responsible government regulation of the scallop beds that will keep the production going. Note: you usually know the government is doing a good job if the fishers are complaining about too much regulation.

Now, New Bedford has its issues with poverty. But between a still functioning scallop industry and something of a tourist industry, it is in a whole lot better shape than, say, Fall River or Worcester or Pawtucket.

Bye Bye New Jersey Pines

[ 15 ] December 2, 2013 |

The New Jersey Pinelands are a really neat ecosystem, the rare fire-driven ecosystem in the east. I enjoyed hiking there when I was in the area in September. Like everything else though, it is changing rapidly thanks to climate change. The lack of cold winters means that beetles are moving north since the old deep freezes that used to kill them off in northern climes don’t happen anymore. This means widespread death for the pines.

This Day in Labor History: November 30, 1999

[ 31 ] November 30, 2013 |

On November 30, 1999, protests began in Seattle, Washington against the World Trade Organization. The WTO meetings offered unions, environmentalists, and various social and economic justice activists from around the world a forum to voice their rejection of the neoliberal free trade agreements of the late 20th century that had undermined American unionism, allowed corporations the mobility to flee meaningful labor agreements or environmental restrictions, thrown millions of farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands as cheap American agricultural goods flooded world markets, and stripped people around the world of the ability to influence the economic conditions of their nations and the social and economic safety nets created in the twentieth century to provide people with a modicum of dignity. These protests raised an important hue and cry against this injustice, but became most known for the violence that took place on the streets.

The general story of what went down on the streets is pretty well known. A loose coalition of people opposed to free trade agreements decided to target the WTO meeting in Seattle as a general point of protest. The protest was supposed to be nonviolent, but as is usually the case, there wasn’t much of a mechanism to ensure that it actually was so. The idea quickly caught fire and at least 40,000 people came to the protests, making it the largest international protest against free trade in world history. I don’t want to spend much time focusing on the idiotic black bloc anarchists who decided to break Starbucks windows during the protest and undermine the nonviolent mission of the protests without permission from the other stakeholders. I also don’t want to focus on the fascistic police response by the Seattle Police Department, which should allay any mythology that the police will ever be on the side of working class protest, unless it is very much in their own interest to do so. I’d rather focus here on the role of the labor movement. But by the evening of November 30, the streets of Seattle were at war and the labor and environmental organizations who had planned the thing found their message swamped in a sea of violence and the media coverage of it.

Labor’s involvement in the protests came in the wake of the federation increasingly realizing that the good old days were no longer true. There was a lot of denial and trying to ignore the problem of labor’s collapse in the 90s, although the defeat over NAFTA and the ascendance of John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO were clear signs that at least some people were trying to take it seriously.

The first moment of the protests, and really more accurately the weeks before the protest, saw an uptick in conversations about how labor was finally reaching out to other social organizations. “Turtles and Teamsters” was the phrase used to describe this phenomenon, an apt one as this came just a few years after the resolution of the ancient forest campaigns and spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest that saw environmentalists and labor at each other’s throats. But environmentalists and labor had long had much in common and had for the last three decades had off and on alliances over specific issues. So this was not unprecedented but was meaningful at this point, particularly in its public nature. And at the protests, Steelworkers and Earth First members were making many of the same points–that free trade agreements undermine both good working conditions and environmental standards, that workers breathe in the same air as environmentalists, and that without meaningful protections on labor and environmental standards, a race to the bottom would ensue around the world, which is of course exactly what has happened.

After the protests, recriminations were everywhere, particularly against the Seattle city government and police, as well as the anarchists. Organized labor’s role in the whole event was largely forgotten. Left leaning discontent quickly moved on to the Nader campaign, while 9/11 changed the course of the nation’s history, or at least so popular culture likes to believe. But in the narrative of the left, 9/11 is what killed any chance of meaningful continued actions against unfair trade.

Even without the black bloc protestors and 9/11, we can legitimately question whether any real movement would have developed out of Seattle that would have led to meaningful alliances and a program for change. I am skeptical. It was immediately clear that this was a moment where various people could protest against something but that what would come next was a question no one was prepared to answer. That isn’t denigrating the moment, but everything that happened at Seattle was the easy part. That’s why I’m a little skeptical about the 9/11 claim; it seems like a cop-out for the fact that there wasn’t really any meaningful alliance building going on that would lead to an obvious next step. Once host cities and countries isolated the protesters from the function of the meetings, there wasn’t much else the various movements could do because there wasn’t any other plan. It’s possible that had the AFL-CIO and environmentalists placed the repeal of NAFTA and other free trade agreements as the one and only thing on their agenda and fought like the devil to make it happen–well–it probably still wouldn’t have worked given the overwhelming dominance of neoliberal ideology among the Republican and Democratic Party at the time. But that was probably the only concrete place where such alliances could have really made a difference where it counts–in the law. And in any case, such an alliance was not really feasible. I don’t disagree that on a national activist scale, 9/11 and the War on Terror dropped economic concerns from a high priority–and even today, look at so many of the people progressives claim to love and how little many of them ever talk about economic issues–but honestly, there’s not a whole lot of evidence from the last 40 years that what passes for the non-union left in this country has had much real impact on the nation’s trajectory.

But that doesn’t mean that commenters of the time didn’t hope it was so. The WTO protests was the first time I remember labor writers and activists and historians make statements that I’ve seen over and over again since–at the Wisconsin protests, during Occupy, after the Chicago Teachers Union strike–that this is the moment when labor will turn it around. This is almost entirely wishful thinking and it places a big burden on those trying to build a movement, but once people started realizing that the American labor movement was in very real trouble, they began hanging enormous expectations on whatever pocket of labor uprising popped up at a given moment.

So what to make up the WTO protests for labor? Ultimately, it’s not much. It is an important moment in public perception. But the ultimate effect of these protests upon the American working class was basically zero and the odds were long against it ever becoming something more than zero, even if the protests and the aftermath nationally took an entirely different course.

This is the 83rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Happy Thanksgiving

[ 131 ] November 28, 2013 |

My belief that Thanksgiving is the most overrated food day of the year is well-documented so I won’t go over the arguments again here except to say that most everything on the traditional Thanksgiving table (or at least the traditional Thanksgiving table of the 1980s that frames my experience with its boxed stuffing and canned cranberries, both of which are still hugely popular if not hip today) would be better replaced by something else in the same genre. Still, turkey would be better replaced by any other meat imaginable, pumpkin pie is at the bottom of the pie genre, etc. I’ll be doing part for the big family meal, making a ton of roasted vegetables with garlic and herbs while the wife creates a huge pot of mashed potatoes with enough butter to drown a small child.

Or maybe you are having a tasty TV dinner since ye Indians are hungry tonight.

And really if you are going to have to eat turkey, it would make sense to take some advice from our neighbors to the south with their superior culinary traditions.

As for the sides, Alexander Abad-Santos and Elspeth Reeve rank Thanksgiving sides fairly accurately, particularly noting that even the worst of them is better than the turkey. Also, roasted vegetables and macaroni and cheese are superior dishes at almost any meal. Of course, why ham is a side instead of the main course is something I can’t figure out. On the other hand yam/sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and Karo corn syrup is responsible for me not eating sweet potatoes until I was 30. Does it come with a side of insulin? And why don’t I ever go to Thanksgiving dinners that serve ham with turkey so I can just eat the ham? I need to know different people.

On a more serious note, Aaron Bady:

Also, obviously, the holiday is a racist and nationalist celebration of American manifest destiny, an expression of gratitude for God’s gift of “America” to the (white) people who arrived and took it by force from the (non-white) people who were living there. There are always debunkers, who point out that the original Thanksgiving never really took place—and they’re partly right, in that the “first thanksgiving” narrative is total bullshit—but the truly damning thing about the holiday is that it actually does go all the way back to John Winthrop’s corn-stealing and grave-robbing shenanigans in 1624 (albeit by way of a protracted editorial campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Abraham Lincoln’s canny deployment of this nationalist myth in the middle of the civil war). It was in the 19th century that the ritual practice took shape, and the holiday was created, but the events which it sanctifies not only symbolically happened, but they kind of actually really happened. The darker and more grisly version of the story—as David Murray tells it in Indian Giving: Economies of Power in Indian-white Exchanges—is of starving and traumatized Englishmen wandering through a unsettled and uncanny ghostly landscape, digging up graves for food: some of the objects they grave-robbed, they put back—realizing that it would be an abomination to keep them—and others they ate, though they pledged they would make some kind of recompense to the Indians if they could ever find any living ones. They didn’t, of course. In the end, they decided that that it wasn’t to the Indians that they owed their salvation: it was to God they gave their thanks for the Indian death they had found.

In any case, enjoy your in-laws and your turkey if such a thing is possible and remembering that the Detroit Lions exist for one day a year.

Home Care Workers

[ 46 ] November 26, 2013 |

For those of you who like long, detailed reports about the struggles of working people to earn a decent living in the United States, this report on home care workers is very much worth your while. An excerpt:

In-home workers are more than 90 percent female, and are disproportionately immigrants. One out of every nine foreign-born female workers with a high school degree or less works in an in-home occupation. In-home occupations are growing rapidly, driven by sharp growth in direct-care work, including personal care aides and home health aides.

In-home workers receive very low pay, and many have trouble getting the hours they need.

The median hourly wage for in-home workers is $10.21, compared with $17.55 for workers in other occupations. After accounting for demographic differences between in-home workers and other workers, in-home workers have hourly wages nearly 25 percent lower than those of similar workers in other occupations.

In-home workers are more likely to work part time than other workers. This is due in many instances to their own preferences, but it is also the case that a larger share of in-home workers than other workers want (and are available for) full-time jobs, but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

The median weekly pay for in-home workers who have or want full-time work is $382, compared with $769 for workers in other occupations. After accounting for demographic differences between in-home workers and other workers, in-home workers who have or want full-time work have weekly wages 36.5 percent lower than those of similar workers in other occupations.

In-home workers rarely receive fringe benefits.

Only 12.2 percent of in-home workers receive health insurance from their job, compared with 50.6 percent of workers in other occupations. The majority of in-home workers who receive health insurance from their job are agency-based direct-care aides (18.4 percent of whom have employer-provided health insurance). Only 4.9 percent of maids and 6.3 percent of nannies receive employer-provided health insurance.

Only 7.0 percent of in-home workers are covered by a pension plan at their job, compared with 43.8 percent of workers in other occupations. The majority of in-home workers who are covered by a pension plan at their job are agency-based direct-care aides (10.7 percent of whom are covered by a pension plan). Less than 3 percent of maids and nannies are covered by a pension plan.

In-home workers have a higher incidence of poverty than workers in other occupations.

Nearly a quarter—23.4 percent—of in-home workers live below the official poverty line, compared with 6.5 percent of workers in other occupations.

Twice the official poverty threshold is commonly used by researchers as a measure of what it takes a family to actually make ends meet. More than half—51.4 percent—of in-home workers live below twice the poverty line, compared with 20.8 percent of workers in other occupations.

One of the strengths of SEIU comes from its ability to organize some of these workers and deliver concrete improvements in their lives. Given the growth of this sector of labor and the desperation of those who work at it, not to mention the fact that they lack the common shopfloor experience that has traditionally bound workers together, SEIU’s work organizing these workers is all that much more important.

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