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The Role of a Single Activist

[ 85 ] June 27, 2015 |

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Most of you already know about the awesome event of this morning, when an activist by the name of Bree Newsome climbed up the flagpole outside the South Carolina capitol building and took down the Confederate flag hanging there. This fantastic episode of direct action ramps up the pressure on South Carolina to get rid of the flag and continues placing the anti-flag movement in the public eye where it has been since the attack on the Charleston church last week. Newsome and her companion James Dyson were arrested for–wait for it–defacing a public monument. That’s the best possible charge she could face since it then invites discussion over whether the American swastika is really a public monument that should have legal defense. Not to mention whether simply taking down the flag is actually defacing anything.

What’s also interesting about this to me is the outsized role single activists can sometimes have in moving conversations forward, setting off new movements, and exposing the power structure that oppresses people. Most of us are simply not going to climb that flag pole. But we probably should. In Out of Sight, I discuss a woman named Liz Parker, who took it upon herself to go to a store of the British department chain Matalan with a signboard shaped like a coffin that read “Matalan Pay Up! Long Overdue for Rana Plaza Victims.” Local newspapers reported her protest, providing a bit on insight for readers on the horrors of global production.

Again, any of us can do this kind of thing. Sure we might be escorted off the property at our nearest Walmart, but it will take at least a few minutes before the police arrive. We might even be charged with trespassing, which is why it certainly helps to have a group of supporters rather than be a lone wolf. In other words, it’s more useful to be Rosa Parks and have an organized movement behind you than be James Meredith and just start a new action like the March Against Fear. But even Meredith, in no small part of course because of the role he played in desegregating the University of Mississippi and because he was subsequently shot, could force a movement to move in a particular direction through his actions.

The point is that we do have it in all of us to take an action that creates a positive change in society. The psychology in not doing those things is perhaps less interesting than in those who actually do them since that is so much rare. We are social animals, fearful, worried about how it will affect us in the future, lazy, whatever. I’m no better at this than the average person. But what Bree Newsome did today was once again show that the individual can do fantastic things to make the world a better place.

Friday Night Advice

[ 46 ] June 27, 2015 |

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Don’t climb on beaver dams.

Whole Paycheck

[ 104 ] June 26, 2015 |

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One has to wonder how deep into Whole Foods corporate culture ripping off consumers goes:

Sticker shock has always been part of the shopping experience at the city’s Whole Paycheck luxury stores, but now it turns out some of these prices may be illegal. An investigation by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs has uncovered some shady price tags at our fleet of Whole Foods stores that show customers have been overcharged for their already pricey pre-packaged goods. “DCA tested packages of 80 different types of pre-packaged products and found all of the products had packages with mislabeled weights,” according to a DCA press release. And we were just starting to trust you, Whole Foods.

The investigation looked at products that are weighed and labeled and found a “systematic problem” whereby customers were routinely overcharged for things like nuts, snack foods, poultry and other grocery products. Eight packages of chicken tenders—priced at $9.99 per pound—were inaccurately priced and labeled to the tune of a $4.13 overcharge to the customer per package, a store profit of $33.04 for the set. DCA says one package was overpriced as much as $4.85. “Additionally, 89 percent of the packages tested did not meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that an individual package can deviate from the actual weight, which is set by the U.S. Department of Commerce.”

A current Whole Foods employee, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, says the issue is incompetence. He says the company was aware of the labeling issue but actually eliminated the job position responsible for checking price tags, sales signs and tare weights in a bid to save money.

This isn’t the first time the chain has been accused of and cited for overcharging customers. Last year, the company was fined nearly $800,000 in California for not deducting tare weight, selling less than the weight on products sold by the pound and other violations. Not to be outdone by our neighbors to the West, “our inspectors tell me this is the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers, which DCA and New Yorkers will not tolerate,” according to DCA Commissioner Julie Menin.

One might chalk this up to a bad employee or two at a distribution center, but given the extreme nature of the overcharging, the corporate indifference to it, and the California case, corporate culture seems to hold significant responsibility here.

Scalia and the West

[ 212 ] June 26, 2015 |

The most important part of Scalia’s dissent is when he defines California as not part of the West. Because San Francisco and Hollywood no doubt.

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This is like an even dumber version of the inevitable graduate seminar in US West history argument over what is and is not the American West.

Jindal

[ 102 ] June 25, 2015 |

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Above: Bobby Jindal raises one digit for each vote he will receive in the Iowa caucus.

Remember when people took Bobby Jindal seriously. Yeah, that was a long time ago. Jeb Lund on the utter disaster that is Jindal’s political career since 2009.

Guess How Much Qatar Cares About the Workers Dying in the Country?

[ 17 ] June 25, 2015 |

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It cares not one whit!

A senior governmental body in Qatar met on Monday and voted against ratifying proposed changes to the country’s much criticised labour laws.

The Advisory Council, which can approve legislation that must be signed off by the emir, agreed to send proposed reforms of employment law back to a committee for further review, the state news agency QNA reported, rather than approve them.

Doha has come under severe pressure to change its controversial kafala sponsorship system of employment, which restricts the rights and freedoms of foreign workers. The wealthy Gulf state, which is due to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, has been criticised by rights groups for failing to provide adequate working conditions for those constructing football stadia.

New employment legislation was supposed to make it easier for foreign workers to change their jobs and gain entry and exit visas, however, local media reported that the Advisory Council has gone against this and proposed giving employers more control over their staff.

“If an expatriate worker deliberately creates problems for the employer and does not comply with the contract to force the latter to end the contract or transfer his sponsorship to another employer, he should not be allowed to change jobs even if he runs away,” the committee recommended, according to Peninsula news site.

In other words, the World Cup should clearly stay in this workers’ paradise.

Nostalgia for the Clinton Years

[ 73 ] June 25, 2015 |

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Remember when Bill Clinton thought it was a good idea to write laudatory letters to the Daughters of the Confederacy? That was in the long ago epoch of 1994. And those were good times.

“For 100 years, the United Daughters of the Confederacy has maintained and built upon the wonderful legacy of your founders. The strength of your organization today is a testament of the vision of your founders and to your commitment to your shared goals.”

“I congratulate you on your achievement, and I extend best wishes for many years of continuing success,” he concluded.

I suppose at some point we can bring in the argument of not reading too much of our current values into the past. Except that in 1994, it should have been anathema for anyone to say anything nice to a neo-Confederate organization except upon its disbanding and donation of the group’s assets to civil rights organizations. So I can’t give Clinton a pass here.

How Not to Talk About Sweatshops

[ 35 ] June 25, 2015 |

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Active defenders of sweatshops really get under my skin because they combine a celebration of labor exploitation with cherry picking historical examples in order to create a false narrative of sweatshops leading to future national economic success.

Not so, says Benjamin Powell, a professor of economics and business at Texas Tech University who, controversially, argues that sweatshops are economically and socially beneficial to the countries they’re in.

“If you care about the consequences for the lives of developing nations workers I believe it is ethical to buy products made with sweatshop labor,” he says. Powell argues that sweatshops are not exclusive to poor countries in our modern, globalized world.

“My ancestors worked in the mills in Massachusetts. For the United Kingdom and the US, the process of development took more than 100 years to move through the sweatshop phase,” in which women and children worked in cotton mills, factories and manufacturing, he says.

Powell doesn’t suggest that sweatshops should be permanent fixtures but a stage in the development of developing nations, and they “often pay far above the levels of extreme poverty that exist in these countries and often even better than the countries’ average incomes. In 1960, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all had sweatshops,” he says, but “in a generation they jumped from a pre-industrial standard of living to first world status.”

Major eyeroll here. First, sweatshops are not beneficial for these countries. They are rank exploitation. The sweatshops themselves did not lead to the economic explosion of South Korea and Taiwan. It’s not like those sweatshop workers were gaining skills that led to an information economy in Korea. And it’s not like the long-term sweatshops of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has led to those nations rising economically. Rather, they have just been a next stage in a century of post-colonialist exploitation by American corporations. Note that the people making these arguments that sweatshops are great never reckon with the Latin American examples. They only focus on the Asian Tigers. But those nations have alternative reasons for their economic rise that include a) being close Cold War allies of the United States that led to massive economic growth as part of US foreign policy and b) steel and other heavy industries building huge new factories that out-competed the outdated US steel mills of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually forcing them to close. The heavy industry of China is a big reason why that nation has risen economically. Neither of those factors are likely to repeat themselves in the low-wage sweatshop economy of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In other words,

And Lowell and the Triangle Fire were not necessary moments in the history of the rise of the American economy. The idea that the heavy exploitation of women workers in apparel factories is somehow required to have economic growth is completely absurd. Rather, these are highly avoidable situations where modern companies could still take advantage of relatively cheap labor while also not killing these workers, forcing them to undergo sexual harassment, pregnancy tests in order to work, stolen wages, etc. These are false choice offered by the defenders of the global race to the bottom. Back to the linked article:

“About 4 million people in Pakistan work in the textile industry and 95% of them never get the paperwork to prove it,” says Nasir Mansoor, deputy director of Pakistan’s Nation Trade Union Federation. “This means there’s no way for them to fight for their rights if something isn’t right.” The garment sector, he says, has some of the worst conditions for workers in the country.

“All garment factories, by law, have to register with the Pakistani government, but we estimate that 90% fail to do so and the government doesn’t enforce the law. It wasn’t too long ago that even inspecting the factories that were registered became outlawed in some provinces so there was no way to know what was happening in them either.”

It was only after the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012 that killed nearly 300 people and injured a similar number that the inspection ban was lifted.

Sajida Khanum, a 45-year-old, has only ever worked in sweatshops. She doesn’t want to disclose which factory she’s working in now for fear of losing her job and being blacklisted from working in factories again.

She says there is no security in her job, and that sometimes, when there is not enough work to do, she has to beg her contractor for work. Khanum gets paid about 40 cents per item she makes. “We have to work fast because we get paid per dozen garments.”

Khanum has been working in garment factories for 15 years. She says most workers live the contradictions of working in sweatshops. “We all do it because its necessary, what else are we to do? I’m uneducated, all I know is this job.”

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but what Pakistani garment industry workers Ahmad and Khanum say reflects what Powell has found in his research.

“When workers choose to take employment in a sweatshop, it demonstrates that they believe it is the least bad option available to them,” he says. “That means that, relative to their previous situation, these sweatshops improve their lives.”

Despite the rather specious reasoning over worker choice offered above (what other choice do these workers have, starvation? prostitution?), I do agree that we should not shut down these factories if we aren’t going to replace them with something else for these workers. After all, Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, urges developed world consumers not to boycott these clothes because these workers need jobs.

So how do we fix these conditions while also empowering women workers and helping the world’s poor increase their economic status? As I’ve said in Out of Sight (now available for a Madison presidential election price of $18.08!), we have to create international standards that allow the poor of the world to live dignified lives and create middle classes of their own in ways that do not accept rampant exploitation. That must place power in the hands of workers to sue these corporations like Walmart and Gap if they or their contractors violate international standards of wages, working conditions, and pollution. This is how you create middle classes in nations like Bangladesh while taking away the incentive for these multinational corporations to move to the next nation as soon as these workers succeed in forming a union or enforcing a minimum wage. This is how you work toward international labor solidarity and it’s how you push back against defenders of the exploitation and murder of poor workers on the job.

Labor Picketing

[ 19 ] June 24, 2015 |

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This opinion piece by Catherine Fisk and Edwin Chemerinsky is quite interesting. Did the Supreme Court accidentally set a precedent to eliminate bans on labor picketing?

Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s reasoning makes it clear that restrictions on labor picketing can no longer survive First Amendment scrutiny. Sections 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) of the National Labor Relations Act prohibit speech, including peaceful picketing, if a “labor organization” or its agents is the speaker and based on the message. Section 8(b)(7) prohibits picketing urging workers to join a union or employers to recognize one if the picketing lasts longer than “a reasonable time” not to exceed 30 days. Thus, the National Labor Relations Board’s enforcement arm sought to enjoin workers affiliated with Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) from picketing with signs saying “Stand Up, Live Better,” “Walmart, respeta a los trabajadores” (Walmart, respect workers), and “Let Walmart Associates Speak Out.” And under 8(b)(7) fast food workers can picket outside restaurants with signs asking to be paid $15 an hour or that the city adopt a $15 minimum wage ordinance, but they cannot picket for more than a reasonable time urging workers to demand $15 and a union. Section 8(b)(4) prohibits picketing urging secondary boycotts, and thus prohibits members of a labor union from picketing at a retail store urging a boycott of the store because its low prices are the result of low wages paid by a subcontractor that produces goods sold in the store or that operates the warehouse whence the store’s goods are shipped. But a store employee would be allowed to picket to urge customers to shop at the store because of its low prices.

The 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) restrictions on picketing clearly violate the First Amendment as the Court interpreted it in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. They prohibit speech based on its content because they, as the Court explained, “single[] out specific subject matter for differential treatment.”

Therefore, the picketing restrictions in section 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) can be upheld only if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court assumed for the sake of argument that the government has a compelling interest in regulating aesthetics and traffic, but rejected the Town’s contention that the regulations were narrowly tailored to protect the Town’s aesthetic appeal or traffic flow because the law was under-inclusive – it allowed signs with some messages but not others. The government might argue that 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) serve the compelling interest of preventing unjustified work stoppages and consumer boycotts. Eliminating work stoppages and consumer boycotts is, in our view, not a compelling governmental interest. But even if it were, prohibiting picketing is both overbroad and under-inclusive. Any group other than a labor organization is free to urge a consumer boycott or that workers strike to demand higher wages, and even labor organizations are allowed to use leaflets (rather than picket signs) to urge boycotts or strikes. The picketing prohibitions are under-inclusive if the goal is to eliminate encouragement of boycotts and strikes. And 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) are over-inclusive to the extent that they prohibit peaceful advocacy rather than actually striking or boycotting.

I guess my views on this are like my usual belief about the Supreme Court–that the justices will create ways to enforce their own personal political preferences. This is quite the development and may create a path forward but it’s hard for me to believe that Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia care one whit for precedence when it might help a labor union.

Climate Change and the Navajo Nation

[ 21 ] June 24, 2015 |

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The sprawling Navajo Nation that covers northeast Arizona and parts of southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico is a huge chunk of land that is beautiful, unique, and fragile. This largely high desert area can certainly sustain life but it’s dryness means that climate change makes it highly prone to long-term changes that severely limit that ability to sustain life. There was a major report on the impact of climate change on Navajo lands prepared last year that certainly covers these issues in detail.

Yet we have to be careful about how we lump all environmental change in with climate change. This article talking about how sand dunes have made one-third of the Navajo Nation uninhabitable and blaming climate change is a case in point. There’s no question that climate change is making this problem worse. But at the end of the piece, someone mentions overgrazing. And in this case, that’s the real issue. Ever since the return of the Navajo from the Bosque Redondo to a piece of their native lands in 1868, enormous herds of sheep have roamed this fragile landscape, causing widespread erosion and most of the problems mentioned in this article. Part of this return meant the Navajo had to give up their raiding ways and although their reservation was large and became larger, was not nearly the extent of land where they had previously lived. This all meant more emphasis on the sheep economy. As early as the 1930s, the erosion was clearly visible on the land. This is when John Collier, as part of his Indian New Deal, intervened and forced the Navajo to cull their herds. This was a total disaster. While Collier was a welcome change from the usually corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs for most tribes and the Indian New Deal a step in the right direction, with the Navajo, Collier had no idea what he was doing. As Marsha Weisiger details in her excellent book Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, Collier’s methods in dealing with the erosion problem undermined women’s status in Navajo society, increased class divisions by favoring wealthy herders, and probably most significantly, created long-term suspicion of conservation methods as anti-Dine in Navajo society. So sheep herding grew again and continued almost unabated.

That’s what is primarily creating this desertification on the Navajo Nation. I don’t doubt that climate change is a factor. But this is largely a socioeconomic/colonialist creation.

Are Investor State Dispute Settlement Courts Unconstitutional?

[ 42 ] June 24, 2015 |

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This claim that the ISDS courts in the Trans Pacific Partnership are unconstitutional is certainly an interesting one. I’m not a lawyer so I’ll leave the analysis to the experts. But I’m intrigued:

Under the TPP, the arbitrators will act like judges, deciding legal questions just as federal judges decide constitutional claims. However, unlike judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution, TPP arbitrators are not appointed by the president or confirmed by the Senate, nor do they have the independence that comes from life tenure. And that presents a significant constitutional issue: Can the president and Congress, consistent with Article III, assign to three private arbitrators the judicial function of deciding the merits of a TPP investor challenge?

The Supreme Court has not ruled on this precise question. But the collective reasoning in four of its recent rulings bearing on the issue leans heavily toward a finding of unconstitutionality. The Court has placed significant limits on the ability of Congress to assign the power to decide cases traditionally handled by the courts to people other than Article III judges, even when the judicial substitutes are full-time federal officials, such as bankruptcy judges or the heads of federal agencies. Moreover, in each case in which the Court approved of a dispute being taken away from federal judges, there was judicial review at the end of the process, which is not the case with TPP. Moreover, although the Justice Department issued a lengthy opinion in 1995 on when arbitration can be used to replace court adjudication, it did not then, and has not since then, defended the constitutionality of arbitration provisions like those in the proposed TPP.

As it presses for the passage of TPP, the administration needs to explain how the Constitution allows the United States to agree to submit the validity of its federal, state, and local laws to three private arbitrators, with no possibility of review by any U.S. court. Otherwise, it risks securing a trade agreement that won’t survive judicial scrutiny, or, even worse, which will undermine the structural protections that an independent federal judiciary was created to ensure.

Thoughts? My sense is basically that current U.S. courts will defer to most issues if they help corporations and hurt working people, which will almost certainly be the result of the ISDS courts.

For Once, Bill Kristol is Actually Correct

[ 122 ] June 23, 2015 |

That’s right Bill, and it’s great.

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