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Wage Theft in the Chile Fields

[ 30 ] December 17, 2013 |

Green chile.

The greatest gift New Mexico has given to the world, when you visit the Land of Enchantment, that chile is found everywhere from the most humble breakfast burrito (breakfast taco is second rate Texans) to the high end overpriced Santa Fe restaurants where tourists from the Upper East Side play Mabel Dodge and wear hoop skirts or buckskin with fringe as they go out to dinner. The smell of roasting green chile in the fall is the single greatest smell on the planet.

Regardless of where you eat your chile, you probably don’t think much about how the chile is produced. Like the rest of agriculture, we do a really good job of separating our consumption from the production of the plant or animal. And that’s certainly true of green chile, where we can hold onto an image of a small family farm surviving for 200 years on acequia irrigation rights than we can for beef or corn or tomatoes or whatever. We are supporting the local economy by eating this product that can only be grown in a few places (although an increasing amount of New Mexico green chile is now grown south of the border). But the reality is that the conditions in the chile fields are bad and wage theft is depressingly common.

In the cool of the early morning, the crew of about 60 workers moves quickly down the rows, rushing back and forth to the crates. Lopez, a big woman, is soon breathing heavily. As the day progresses, the temperature rises, hitting 88 degrees. Exhaustion kicks in, and everyone slows down.

Lopez was told that the crew would work until noon that day. Then 12:30. Finally, at 1 p.m., she calls it quits. “I work until my body says, ‘Stop,’ ” she says. Her legs hurt, her arms hurt; she is spent. She holds out her right hand. It is shaking.

Soon, more workers leave the field. But the tractors keep coming, bringing more empty crates waiting to be filled. No one gets paid until the day’s quota is met, so Lopez waits. At around 2 p.m., there’s a long pause between tractors and she’s convinced she’ll finally get paid. Then another one pulls up. She shakes her head and mutters “pendejo,” a profane word for idiot. By the time she’s paid, she’s lost yet another hour. For filling 55 buckets, she’s paid $46.75. She worked 6.25 hours and waited another two.

She should have earned much more. With rare exceptions for very small farms, state law mandates that when workers are paid hourly—for example, when weeding a field or picking chiles—they must receive the New Mexico minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. If Lopez’s wait time is factored in, her hourly pay falls far below $7.50. That means that, in effect, her wages were stolen.

This is a very strong piece of journalism, demonstrating the many ways that workers wages are stolen, how little most buyers of green chile care one way or another, and how the state of New Mexico simply doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it. It also has a governor that doesn’t care about poor people, which doesn’t help. Of course this is hardly unique to green chile. Wage theft is “as common as dirt” among farm workers generally. With the exception of the late 60s and 70s, when Cesar Chavez was a useful stand in for Martin Luther King among white liberals who wanted to do something for change without dealing too strongly with their own complicity in a racist America, farm workers have always been the forgotten workers of the United States and that’s certainly true today.

When Will the Providence Journal Promote Mayor Angel Taveras for President?!

[ 79 ] December 17, 2013 |

I guess we’ve now reached the point in the presidential cycle when hometown newspapers write ridiculous articles promoting local candidates for a presidential run.

If he weren’t the nation’s oldest governor, a ripe 75, Jerry Brown would automatically be counted among serious Democratic candidates for president in 2016.

He boasts a household name, an impressive list of accomplishments in the country’s most populous state — a state some once deemed ungovernable — glowing national media coverage and a deep familiarity with the pitfalls and rigors of a White House bid, having run three times before.

Now, some are pushing Brown to consider another try for the White House, even if it means taking on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the prohibitive, if still undeclared, Democratic favorite.

“I think Jerry is precisely what America needs,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, the leader of a national nurses union and a strong political ally of Brown. “He has the courage of his convictions, which we haven’t seen in a very long while.”

Hmmm…..I don’t think any of that is true.

Ray Price, RIP

[ 34 ] December 16, 2013 |

Another of the great country legends has traveled to the great honky tonk in the sky. Today, Ray Price doesn’t have the cache of Cash, Nelson, Haggard, or Williams. But like George Jones, his influence within the genre of country music was titanic, even if it traveled less to the broader musical culture. Check this out from his obituary in the Times:

Over a career that began in the 1940s, Mr. Price placed more than 100 singles on the country charts, including Top 10 hits like “City Lights,” “Heartaches by the Number” and “Make the World Go Away.” He hired future country stars to play in his band, notably Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck. And Pamper Music, the publishing company that he owned with two partners, helped start the careers of hit songwriters like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran and Mr. Nelson.

He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.

Mr. Price first helped change country music in the mid-1950s, when, hoping to distinguish his sound from that of his former roommate Hank Williams, he and his band transformed the gutbucket country shuffle of the postwar era into sleek, propulsive honky-tonk.

That’s a pretty bloody impressive resume. Among the other people in the Cherokee Cowboys was a young fiddler named Mark Feldman, now a legend of his own on the avant-garde jazz scene in New York. I’ve always found this fascinating given how little his own music is influenced by his years in Nashville.

Part of the reason I suppose Price’s legend is less well known was his choice to keep selling records by transitioning into the countrypolitan sound in the late 60s. That smoothness doesn’t sing to modern hip audiences who like their country, which is defined against the garbage coming out of Nashville today, as something rough, manly, slightly violent. Lots of songs about prison, murder, drinking, etc. And that’s fine. But not only is not all of country music, it leaves out a lot of really talented people who get relegated to “the country music I don’t like even if I’ve never heard Ray Price/Faron Young/Jim Reeves/Hank Snow/Etc” category.

Another key point to Price’s legacy was the release of his Night Life album in 1963. We’ve talked before here about the failure of the country music establishment to understand the potential of the album format, and thus you’d have all these people releasing 4 albums a year, each consisting of 2 good songs, a bunch of lame covers of current pop hits, and some real dreck. Night Life was one of the first real thought out albums in country music history. It’s also a masterpiece of the genre. The great Austin musician Dale Watson calls Night Life his all-time favorite album, and it certainly deserves consideration for the honor. Here’s a couple key tracks off the album. First, we have the title track, “Night Life.”

And then we have “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women”

But of course his legacy includes dozens of other hits. One is “City Lights.” This is a live performance from 1962.

And finally an example from his countrypolitan period, doing a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” which Price has called his favorite recording of his career.

Clearly Worth the Money

[ 71 ] December 16, 2013 |

What does private school tuition and massive fundraising campaigns go towards? Why, feathering the nests of top administrators of course!

Forty-two presidents of private colleges were paid more than a million dollars in 2011, up from 36 for the previous two years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual analysis of the colleges’ latest available tax forms.

The three top earners were Robert J. Zimmer, University of Chicago ($3,358,723); Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern University ($3,121,864); and Dennis J. Murray, Marist College ($2,688,148).

According to the Chronicle, Dr. Zimmer’s pay doubled in 2011, Dr. Aoun’s nearly tripled in the same time, and Dr. Murray’s almost quadrupled from the previous year. Although their base salaries all remained under $1 million, the top three, like many other highly paid presidents, earned much more from retirement packages, bonuses or deferred compensation.

I happen to be very near Marist College as I write and this is front page news here. While Marist is a reasonably decent institution of higher education, how on earth does the guy deserve $2.68 million? He doesn’t of course, even if the bulk of it comes from some sort of retirement package. This is a major problem in the spiraling costs of higher education. Yet the focus goes on supposedly worthless liberal arts degrees, as if our low salaries and zero research support is even a drop in the bucket of the larger problems.

Shorter Texas: We Welcome Another Fertilizer Plant Explosion

[ 55 ] December 16, 2013 |

The Dallas Morning News, which has been outstanding on covering the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion and its aftermath, has a strongly damning report on the response to the disaster from the state of Texas. Which is nothing. Nothing has changed.

This is the state’s response at year’s end:

The Legislature, though it was in session when the plant blew up, did little beyond holding hearings.

Perry has been silent on specific changes in Texas’ laws or regulatory approach.

Texas has taken no measurable steps toward adopting a statewide fire code, which could have prevented the blast.

The state has not tightened rules for storing or securing ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded at West.

Texas still does not require facilities that stockpile such materials to carry liability insurance.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency whose mission includes the broader role of protecting the public’s health, has abandoned any role in West-related matters. “We haven’t really been involved,” an agency spokesman said.

Last month, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst instructed a Senate committee to study “regulatory and insurance requirements for the storage of ammonium nitrate.” He added that any changes should not cause “duplicitous practices and procedures for the Texas workforce.”

Such caution is not out of character for a state long wary of rules that might inhibit commerce.

Josh Havens, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Perry believes “that smart and fair regulations, designed to protect citizens without creating an overly burdensome environment for business, are a key to economic success in this state and the nation.”

There is still no state fire code, reporting requirements, etc. For Texas Republicans, enormous explosions that wipe out half a town are easily worth the price of being seen as “pro-business.” For that matter, it’s worth noting that the actual meaning of “pro-business” is “allowing corporations to do whatever they want to local communities.”

Not only can such an event happen again in Texas, it almost certainly will happen again. After all, it’s far from the first time Texas has been home to a preventable industrial disaster.


[ 7 ] December 16, 2013 |

In all the celebrations of Peter O’Toole upon his death, let us not forget the equally sad demise of the great Joan Fontaine.

Farran Nehme with more.

Not Just the Oceans

[ 34 ] December 15, 2013 |

It’s not just the state of the oceans that makes me want to drink. Reading about the Great Lakes will do just fine.

Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of toiletries like facial scrubs and toothpastes are slipping through water treatment plants and turning up by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes. There, fish and other aquatic life eat them along with the pollutants they carry — which scientists fear could be working their way back up the food chain to humans.

Scientists have worried about plastic debris in the oceans for decades, but focused on enormous accumulations of floating junk. More recently, the question of smaller bits has gained attention, because plastics degrade so slowly and become coated with poisons in the water like the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs.

“Unfortunately, they look like fish food,” said Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres organization, speaking of the beads found in the oceans and, now, the lakes. His group works to eliminate plastic pollution.

Studies published in recent months have drawn attention to the Great Lakes, where there may be even greater concentrations of plastic particles than are found in oceans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also been looking at the impact of microplastics on marine life.

Remember folks, every time you brush your teeth, you poison aquatic life. And eventually, yourselves.


[ 85 ] December 14, 2013 |

Is there a pre-atomic era film about the world ending?

Audrey Totter, RIP

[ 9 ] December 14, 2013 |

One of the great women of film noir has passed. She’s perhaps best known for her work in Lady in the Lake, which is famous primarily for being shot entirely from the perspective of Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe. It’s a gimmick and it doesn’t totally work but it’s hardly uninteresting.

Tools of the Day

[ 32 ] December 14, 2013 |

First we have Larry Summers, for calling for university presidents to not fund faculty who want to attend the American Studies Association meeting. If the ASA had instead pushed to send toxic waste to Africa, Summers would be lauding the organization. It’s hard to see a stronger argument in favor of the ASA boycott than irritating Summers.

Second, there’s Ed Schultz, a fine hypocrite on unions. And really, Schultz is so terrible anyway. If you asked me which MSNBC host would be a total hypocrite in real life, I would have said Schultz before you could finish the question. And so he is.

Old Hoss Radbourn Reviews ESPN’s Top 100 Players

[ 140 ] December 13, 2013 |

A year ago yesterday, ESPN ranked its top 100 baseball players of all time. @oldhossradbourn provided running commentary. I had not seen it all collected into one site until now. A few highlights:

83. M. McGwire. Would be ranked higher but angered all the scribes when the fellatio they gave him in 1998 gave them oral cancer in 2005.

67. M. Rivera. Aided by guts, courage, and by being a 1/4 time player in a masturbatory media market which needed to pen a hagiography.

9. M. Mantle. American hero who never lived up to his talents or the money lavished on him, much like the generation which venerated him.

48. L. Jones. Remember when he hit .364 as a broken 36-year-old and faced no scrutiny? It’s nice to be white.

56. “Yogi” Berra. Italian catcher, the worst of two worlds. Yet it is fun to throw things at Italians. Cursed us all with his son, Dale.

There are many good ones to choose from.

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 57 ] December 13, 2013 |

In comments yesterday, duck-billed placelot pointed me to a truly terrifying story. Basically all the starfish in the northern Pacific are disintegrating.

It’s normal for a tiny portion of starfish populations to suffer from so-called “wasting syndrome.” If the creatures’ skin is wounded or becomes too dry, little lesions can become infected and lead to the loss of arms. But the disease is typically isolated to one or two starfish among hundreds in a rocky tide pool. And even in bad cases, it rarely stretches beyond a single population. “The spatial extent is unprecedented,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at UC Santa Cruz, which monitors starfish populations on the West Coast. “If it’s as extensive as it looks like it is, then we’re talking about a loss of millions and millions.”

While starfish—which scientists call sea stars to avoid the misconception that they are actually fish—often recover from the lesions, infections on the West Coast are proving lethal. Populations of starfish monitored by Raimondi have essentially disappeared over a period of months. “They will start losing arms or bits of arms and in the end, they kind of disintegrate … into a gooey mess,” he says. An individual sea star may go from whole to remains in a period of days. Though starfish generally have the ability to grow new arms, in these cases wounds don’t heal and innards become exposed as the animal falls apart.

Nobody really knows what’s going on. Quite possibly it is related to climate change and warming water temperatures, making starfish, like bats and frogs, a whole group of animals that could be driven to extinction within a few decades. Some have speculated it is Fukushima radiation, but that reeks of knee-jerk conspiracy theory. Could be a freak bacteria or virus, and of course such things are always possible, such as the contagious cancer wiping out Tasmanian devils that seems to be wholly unconnected to human behavior.

Either way, given the centrality of starfish to the North Pacific tidal ecosystem, this could be disastrous for a number of species. Not to mention make visiting tide pools pointless.

As I said yesterday, I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily. This news should make everyone start doing shots right now.

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