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Big Ag

[ 7 ] March 9, 2015 |


Big Agriculture is nothing but the Tea Party + agricultural subsidies.


A Match Made in Hipster Labor Heaven

[ 19 ] March 8, 2015 |


It does seem that bike shop workers and the modern IWW fit together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Somewhat OT, I have been perplexed by the establishment of DIY bikeshops and anarcho-leftist organizations over the last ten years. If learning how to fix your own bike is a step on the way to revolution, I may not be prepared for that new society. I know this is a different kind of bike shop and thus the need for a union.

Also, the IWW continuing to avoid contracts as it did a century ago means that even if tens or hundreds of thousands of workers joined it, it would still run into the same problems it faced at Lawrence and other places where it had initial victories, i.e, the inability to consolidate and institutionalize any gains for workers in a situation where the employer really knows how to consolidate and institutionalize its gains.

Selma and Environmental Justice

[ 3 ] March 8, 2015 |


Fifty years after Selma, it’s worth remembering that the continued exploitation of poor blacks by whites also includes their environmental exploitation, as (largely) white-owned companies use their neighborhoods for toxic dumping grounds and to site the most hazardous and polluting factories.

The South has long been a region where fossil fuel industries have pretty much had their way with mostly poor, black, brown, and Native American communities, mainly due to lax regulations and poor environmental and civil rights law enforcement. Just this week in Alabama, the environmental group Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) filed a civil rights complaint against the Jefferson County Department of Health for allowing Walter Coke, Inc. to continue emitting air pollutants over predominantly black communities (Grist wrote about this last April). A University of Alabama at Birmingham study found a correlation between low birth weight and household proximity to coke plants in Birmingham. It’s the second civil rights complaint GASP has filed on this matter in as many months.

“North Birmingham has historically served as a dumping ground for polluting facilities,” said long-time environmental justice scholar and activist Robert Bullard, who’s helping lead environmental justice activities in Selma. “The neighborhood was an environmental ‘sacrifice zone’ when I did my student teaching at a high school in the area way back in 1968.”

The latest concern, and one of the largest, for environmental justice activists in the South is a gigantic “clean coal” facility under construction in Kemper County, Miss. As Grist writer Sara Bernard recently reported, the operation is already taking an economic toll on the surrounding communities and provides no guarantees that it won’t add to pollution already saturating the state’s land, air, and water.

That plant is owned and operated by Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, which owns numerous dirty coal plants around the South, and has funded the work of recently discredited climate denier Wei-Hock Soon. Just so happens that Southern Co. is also a sponsor of the Selma 50th anniversary event this weekend. (Mississippi Power is not a sponsor, but two of Southern’s other subsidiaries, Georgia Power and Alabama Power, are sponsors.)

One would hope that sponsoring civil rights commemorations wouldn’t get these companies off the hook for hurting black people in the present. Of course, the executives of these companies almost certainly also support politicians who want to roll back black voting rights.

The Higher Ed Disruptors Are Still With Us

[ 107 ] March 8, 2015 |

We haven’t heard too much from higher education technofuturists lately, what with the complete failure of early MOOC trials to prepare students to pass courses. The San Jose State University debacle really shut them up for awhile. But they never went away and the New York Times is always happy to give them a forum. The paper decided to excerpt The New American Foundation’s Kevin Carey’s new book on how what we really need to make MOOCs acceptable is just forcing employers to accept online degrees as official, with the probable upside of eliminating many institutions of higher education.

Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.

The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.

Traditional institutions, including Michigan State and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are experimenting with issuing badges. But so are organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 4-H, the Smithsonian, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Y.M.C.A. of Greater New York.

The most important thing about badges is that they aren’t limited to what people learn in college. Nor are they controlled by colleges exclusively. People learn throughout their lives, at work, at home, in church, among their communities. The fact that colleges currently have a near-monopoly on degrees that lead to jobs goes a long way toward explaining how they can continue raising prices every year.

The MOOC providers themselves are also moving in this direction. They’ve always offered credentials. In 2013, I completed a semester-long M.I.T. course in genetics through a nonprofit organization run by Harvard and M.I.T., called edX. You can see the proof of my credentials here and here.

Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform, offers sequences of courses akin to college majors, followed by a so-called capstone project in which students demonstrate their skills and receive a verified certificate, for a fee of $470. The Coursera Data Science sequence is taught by Johns Hopkins University and includes nine four-week courses like exploratory data analysis, regression models and machine learning. The capstone project requires students to build a data model and create visualizations to communicate their analysis. The certificate is officially endorsed by both Coursera and Johns Hopkins. EdX has similar programs.

Inevitably, there will be a lag between the creation of such new credentials and their widespread acceptance by employers and government regulators. H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.

Note all the dishonesty and avoidance of tricky issues here. If the point of all this is to prepare students for a job (and let’s be clear, the point of all this is to privatize a public good and profit off of it), none of this does anything to help make that happen. How are people hired today? Largely by who they know, assuming they have the basic degree. None of that will change in this new system. Carey doesn’t even begin to address the kind of skill-building people need to be successful–critical thinking, writing skills that most students really need 4 solid years of college to develop, laboratory work, individual mentoring with professors, etc., etc. None of that matters. Carey just wants to offer badges that simply replaces the college degree without replicating any of the skills students learn there. Disrupting the college means disrupting the skills college builds. If that’s a problem, we’ll just claim those skills are unnecessary or pretend like they don’t exist!

And then there’s this:

This has the effect of reinforcing class biases that are already built into college admissions. A large and relatively open-access traditional public university might graduate the same overall number of great job candidates as a small, exclusive, private university — say, 200 each. But the public 200 may graduate alongside 3,000 other students, while the private 200 may have only 300 peers. Because diplomas and transcripts provide few means of reliably distinguishing the great from the rest, employers give a leg up to private college graduates who probably had some legs up to begin with.

This is really telling. We are focusing on the excellent 200. But what about the other 2800? What do they do for the next forty years? Take more courses from Coursera? Also, the idea that class bias disappears in hiring with new technologies is laughable. Yeah, if I’m an employer and I see a student with a Harvard degree and one with some badges from Coursera that show they have the same skills, I’m totally taking the badge person! C’mon. All this is going to do is to reinforce those class biases, as employers are going to see job candidates with real education and job candidates without real education and choose between them.

And if the disruptors win and traditional college is destroyed, what jobs are these graduates going to have available to them? What will the hundreds of thousands of people who lose their jobs when traditional universities end going to do? What does this labor market look like where disruption is fetishized for disruption’s sake and the new economy does not prioritize stable, life-long work? Carey doesn’t care about any of this.

None of this is to say that higher education doesn’t have problems. But as any professor with stagnant salaries and disappearing hiring lines will tell you, it’s not like we are rolling in money. Administrative bloat and especially disappearing state funding are the real issues here (although the rapidly growing costs of private colleges who do not rely on state funding is unrelated to this core issue for public schools and something that does not receive enough attention). For Carey, this is a feature, not a bug. This is classic Shock Doctrine. Underfund the universities, make people believe that they can’t provide a proper service, replace them with private companies, and then profit.

Tennessee Funding Higher Education on the Backs of Its Workers

[ 8 ] March 8, 2015 |

Michelle Chen reports on how Tennessee has received kudos for offering a free community college program that has influenced Obama’s proposals. But how is this being funded? By cutting benefits for the workers at Tennessee universities.

The new budget would impose major “reforms” to the healthcare benefits of career civil servants. The cutbacks for retired workers and the newest hires, according to Commercial Appeal, include “ending eligibility for pre-age-65 retiree health insurance to state employees and school-district employees hired after July 1, 2015; ending eligibility, after July 1, for state health insurance for part-time state employees.”

The budget also proposes so-called “flexibility” for the state to offer current workers a more limited defined-contribution retirement health plan, instead of the traditional, typically more stable, defined-benefit scheme. The state may also seek authority to tweak the healthcare subsidy formulas for active employees.

And lest you think this is just taking some retirement money from well off professors, think again. As the United Campus Workers state, this is going to hurt the poorest workers–the housekeepers, the janitors, etc–more than the professors.

The United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 3865 union (UCW) is galled that the cutbacks have been proposed amid the governor’s boasts of making higher education affordable for all. Will their kids get free tuition while parents pay more for basic healthcare? Doubling the irony is that the target population of the new expansion of Tennessee Promise—the new funds are aimed at adult learners with a few college credits already—are perhaps the type of folks who might work a campus custodial job and take classes on the side at night: will they see the new tuition boost offset by shrinking benefits, or have to forgo community college courses to take on a second job?

The students campaigning in solidarity with the UCW recognize the fact that the tuition break is just one piece of the promise—one that the state seems to have bargained for on the backs of public servants. Student organizer Lindsey Smith tells The Nation via e-mail:

we are struggling to understand how Gov. Haslam can put money into such a plan, but completely ignore the campus workers’ pleas for better working conditions and higher wages. His plan is to supposedly help traditionally marginalized, working class students to get a higher education degree…but what happens to those students when they graduate? Not to mention, what about the people that are already in the workforce?

Like so many plans around higher education today, this is about short-sighted political gain that ignores the structural issues around employment in this country. Cutting tuition by cutting benefits makes about as much sense as provosts promoting international studies programs while cutting positions for language professors. Or worrying about the children up to the age of 6 and then underfunding their schools and throwing them in prison for smoking pot at age 15. Education without good jobs is just education. If this is supposed to be about giving people the skills they need to get good jobs, good jobs have to exist. Cutting benefits for those jobs to fund the education does not make sense.

This issue has a bit more meaning for me than most labor issues because I was on the ground floor of organizing what became the UCW at the University of Tennessee back in 1999 and 2000. I had just finished a master’s degree at the school and was involved with a group of students working on economic justice issues. We had a lot of connections with local labor unions and, probably most importantly, with the Highlander Center, which has served as a center of left-leaning southern activism for eighty years now. We held a labor teach-in and through our connections we were able to get Richard Trumka, Bill Fletcher, Elaine Bernard and other great speakers. We put up flyers around campus to see if we could get workers to come out. We received a call from some of the housekeepers. I went to speak to them. What I didn’t expect was to walk into a room full of angry, passionate workers ready to go to the mat after employers who had treated them like garbage for years. They were ready to walk off the job at that moment. It was all pretty incredible.

From that came the UCW, which is now affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. By that time, I had moved to Albuquerque to start my PhD program. But I maintained connections with the union for years, sometimes editing newsletters and the like. Technically, I’m still a sort of honorary member and I pay them monthly union dues. Public workers in Tennessee still don’t have collective bargaining rights and no contract is ever going to come out of that union. But it serves as a voice for the workers of the Tennessee higher education system, from cooks and janitors to library workers and full professors, lobbies in Nashville, and provides power to workers. That this truly grassroots union has survived and flourished for 15 years in the face of the anti-union wave dominating the country is quite remarkable and the implications of it for the modern labor movement is something I should write more about, but I’ll stop reminiscing for now.

Today in the Permanent Crisis of Masculinity

[ 197 ] March 8, 2015 |

No matter what period, what social class, or what issues are at stake, men always think masculinity in permanently in crisis and must be protected against all its threats. In this case, almond milk and body grooming.

1915’s Greatest Headline

[ 44 ] March 7, 2015 |

The Denver Post really reached new heights of journalistic excellence on March 6, 1915 with this lurid story of the problems drug addicts faced now that the federal government had criminalized opiates.


Combined with the white slavery story on the same page, this could not be more 1915. I think the link below works for the whole front page, let me know if it doesn’t.

Denver Post 6 March 1915

Hiatt’s Gonna Hiatt

[ 54 ] March 7, 2015 |

Fred Hiatt’s editorial board on the beleaguered Rahm Emanuel.

It shouldn’t escape notice that Mr. Emanuel’s willingness to take on these very same unions as he tackled some of the city’s most pressing problems landed him in political trouble in the first place. Instead of ignoring, for example, the grossly underfunded pensions of government employees that threaten to drive the city into bankruptcy, Mr. Emanuel engineered sensible reforms to the municipal and laborers pensions and is intent on fixing the police and firefighter funds.

Where Mr. Emanuel was most fearless — and where, as the New York Times recently reported, he seems to be reaping the angriest payback from riled unions — is in school reform. He backed the closing of dozens of underused and underperforming schools, insisted on a longer school day and school year, toughened teacher evaluations and helped expand charter schools. These reforms have produced encouraging results: graduation rates up, suspensions and expulsions down, more African American students taking Advanced Placement classes. But success for long-neglected children appears immaterial to a teachers union focused on protecting its turf. Mr. Garcia got into the race at the urging of Chicago Teachers Union leaders, who along with their national affiliate are leading the charge against the mayor.

Mr. Emanuel is not the only Democrat who, faced with choices in governing, has opted for the general welfare over special interests and as a result incurred their wrath. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, for example, faced similar pushback, but happily voters in their states ended up backing their sensible approaches to government finance and services. What unites these progressive Democrats is not an allegiance to corporations, as the slurs might have you think, but a recognition that their predecessors made unaffordable deals that can’t be fully honored without harming people who lack powerful advocates: poor students, people who use city playgrounds, patients in public clinics.

David Broder is smiling from the grave. The only good Democrat in Beltway wisdom is the one in the pocket of Wall Street, the one who busts unions, the one who declares war on the poor while claiming to be representing them.

Capitalism in India

[ 9 ] March 7, 2015 |

This is a really fascinating interview with Indian novelist Rana Dasgupta on the impact of capitalism upon India. While I think he’s a bit too sanguine about the history and impact of capitalism in Europe and the U.S., one can certainly understand how that view could develop watching the incredibly tumultuous last twenty years in India. The interview is very much worth your time.

American Exceptionalism and White History

[ 90 ] March 7, 2015 |

In the Oklahoma version of the attack on AP U.S. History standards, the bill (now withdrawn) read:

“founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”

In other words, AP U.S. History standards should conform to stories that confirm current Republican positions.

But the whole idea of American exceptionalism is an inherently white construction, as it celebrates, rather than critiques, the history of a white settler state centered around the oppression of minorities and the dispossession of land from indigenous people, ignoring those critical issues in understanding it. Historians David Wrobel and Amanda Cobb-Greetham:

David Wrobel, Merrick Chair of Western History at the University of Oklahoma, says in response to Fisher’s position, “The idea of American exceptionalism is deeply connected to the mid-19th century idea of Manifest Destiny…. But it’s important to bear in mind that Manifest Destiny developed as a justification for American expansion…. To accept it as the explanation for American development, to say as historians that God favors one nation over other nations…would be to write history on faith rather than engage in historical analysis.”

Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Chickasaw, director of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, has another take on the term, “In its classic form, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation because of the principles and beliefs on which it was founded, democratic ideals of individual liberty, freedom, justice, equality. To my mind, if we’re exceptional, it’s because we continue to strive for those ideals, not because we have met them in every circumstance. We haven’t.”

That’s nicer than I would have been.

Doc Watson

[ 13 ] March 6, 2015 |

On this Friday evening it’s worth remembering how amazing Doc Watson was.


[ 56 ] March 6, 2015 |

In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.

So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.

This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.

No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.

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