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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 37

[ 47 ] June 26, 2016 |

This is the grave of George Washington.

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There’s one much one can say about Washington, so just a couple of points.

1) His choosing to step down from power peacefully is one of the greatest things to ever happen to the United States. As we have seen around the world in revolution after revolution, without a respected tradition of peaceful succession, oppression and war result.

2) His record on slavery is highly mixed. He profited his entire life from enslaved black labor. However, to his credit, at least he freed his own slaves on his death. He could not free Martha Washington’s slaves. But he did a lot more than Jefferson. One wonders how quickly this would have changed had he the opportunity to make money in western cotton lands, something he would have been interested in given his lifelong engagement in land speculation.

3) It’s interesting that Washington remains basically inscrutable, even after ages of popular biographies. He was simply an unknowable man, even to his contemporaries.

I’m sure you all have thoughts on Washington. Go for it. The world needs an open thread on George Washington.

George Washington is buried at Mount Vernon, Virginia.

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Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (I)

[ 68 ] June 25, 2016 |

I am presently on the beach in the Dominican Republic. Every now and then, often when on vacation, I start reading random things one can find on the Gutenberg Project, the great collection of old public domain texts. If only copyright law was updated so that material after 1923 that no one was making money on anymore could be included, it would be incredibly useful for my research, but as it is, at least it provides glimpses into past weirdness. Still, some post-1923 material does show up, as is seen below.

So I decided tonight, after my wife has gone to bed and I’ve had a few beers, to read Reau Folk’s The Battle of New Orleans Its Real Meaning: Exposure of Untruth Being Taught Young Americans, from 1932. That battle has a lot to answer for. First, it gave us a genocidal maniac as president. Second, it gave us one of the shittiest country hits in the genre’s history (see above). Third, it gave us whatever the hell this is. Basically, Folk’s argument, such as it is, is that Tennessee textbooks (those bastions of leftism during this period) were shortchanging Andrew Jackson and the importance of the Battle of New Orleans. For without said battle, evidently real America would have been split between the British control of the Mississippi River and the evils of New England. My god, the whole nation would be eating Dunkin’ instead of some holding onto Krispy Kreme as the best donut chain. And to give the South credit, this is absolutely correct and New England’s love for Dunkin’ basically absolves the British for the Intolerable Acts.

Anyway, as evidence, Folk points out all the writers who said it was unfortunate a bunch of people died during the battle even though the Treaty of Ghent was already signed. According to Folk, these deaths were necessary for the Americans to truly take control over this region. I mean, I know that I demand my nationalistic project be based on oceans of limey blood, no doubt smelling like Earl Grey from all the tea those people drank, unlike the good coffee-swilling (or even chicory coffee-swilling!) Americans! Folk begins the book with an utterly idiotic imagined conversation between the author and a student who is waiting on him at a restaurant, who it just so happens is part of a debate team at school that has argued that the Battle of New Orleans was unnecessary. Our brave author sure shows up this nonexistent fictional character! This may be the high point of the book.

Folk reliving impressment shows the need for the bloodshed, although it’s unclear why since the treaty ending the practice had just been signed, but, hey, aren’t we real Americans here! There’s a long, boring section on the negotiations at Ghent, intending to show that the homespun Americans outwitted those suave Englishmen, but sort of forgets the key issue, which is that the British didn’t actually care about America with Napoleon defeated. Rather, he claims that the British were negotiating in bad faith, hoping that they would take New Orleans before the U.S. had the chance to sign the treaty and thus making it moot. Then it goes on to quoting this and that person before getting to the real point: that the British are infecting our schools with their vile propaganda:

In all literature there cannot be found a more concrete, comprehensive line: “Great Britain coveted it in 1815 when Jackson saved it.” Pro-English historians may deftly turn and twist this and other facts to their purpose; but let me give a tocsin call: PRO-ENGLISH HISTORIANS SHOULD BE KEPT OUT OF OUR SCHOOLS, AND YOUNG AMERICA TAUGHT ONLY THE UNGARBLED, UNVARNISHED TRUTH.

I guess I was unaware of British fifth columnists infecting Tennessee schools in 1932 but who doesn’t believe that our good young Americans should only be taught THE UNGARBLED, UNVARNISHED TRUTH?

Not I comrade, not I.

Music Notes

[ 46 ] June 25, 2016 |

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I’ve been so busy that I haven’t done one of these in several weeks. I don’t even really have any good stories to link to, but I have slowly listened to a new or long-forgotten album every now and then over the last few weeks and wrote them up here.

First though, another day, another musician. The truly great Bernie Worrell, RIP.

It’s not that 2016 is some sort of musician apocalypse year. It’s that you are getting old, I am getting old, and the musicians who did not take care of their bodies for decades are really getting old. Imagine what 2020 is going to look like.

Ludovico Einaudi, Taranta Project

This is fairly interesting music. Einaudi fuses Sicilian, North African, and Turkish folk music with electronic and contemporary compositional music into a swirling set of compositions. The sounds work pretty well. My one caveat is that this sometimes sounds a bit too New Agey-type world music to me, a genre I have long found repulsive. Not that I need “authenticity,” whatever that is, but borrowing music of the world to provide background music for white people to feel authentic rubs me the wrong way. Mostly this avoids this and stays in the world of worthy music, but sometimes I felt on the border.

B+

Deerhunter, Fading Frontier

This is a very solid, not great, rock album. Deerhunter is one of those bands that I am happy when it comes on the shuffle, but don’t listen to the albums much. I own both Halcyon Digest and Microcastle, both solid enough. Clearly playing for a classic rock sound, Deerhunter mostly succeeds here. I probably won’t buy it, but you might well want to do so.

B+

Sherwater, Jet Plane and Oxbow

This is a decent rock album, although the singer sounds a bit too much like whiny 80s British pop to me. I’ve always hated that Cure-esque sound. Fans of that scene may disagree. 80s nostalgia has never worked for me. Lyrics are fine, music is fine. Overall, a perfectly acceptable album that I won’t ever listen to again. But if someone puts it on while I’m in the car with them, that’s totally fine.

B

Kasey Musgraves, Pageant Material

The critics love Musgraves. And she is a solid performer. But this is not an exceptional or even particularly great album. A lot of that critic love is that she sings about smoking marijuana, questioning religion, and being cool with gay people, topics that are risque in the right-wing world of Nashville. And that’s all great. But it does not mean that she has a great set of songs on Pageant Material. She wrote a perfectly acceptable set of songs for it.

B

Gardens & Villa, Music for Dogs

Mostly I just found this to be irritating synth-pop. Not much for me to grab on to here.

C

The Pretenders, Packed.

I forgot how much this album sucked. Mitchell Froom was a really terrible producer. I guess no Pretenders album can be that bad. But this is pretty lame.

C+

I have seen one live show since I wrote the last of these posts. That was the percussionist Adam Rudolph at The Stone in New York, with Hassan Hakmoun on sintir, Hamid Drake on drums, Graham Haynes on cornet, and an unlisted North African musician on also sintir and hand percussion. This was pretty amazing. Those mesmerizing North African vocals and music with the two drummers can really take you away. And then Haynes popping in with cornet, which really served as another voice, was just great. I don’t have a good YouTube clip of anything quite like this, but here’s some of Rudolph’s music with Yusef Lateef.

As always, this should serve as an open thread on all things musical.

James Green, RIP

[ 12 ] June 25, 2016 |

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James Green, preeminent labor historian, has died. His books reached far beyond the academy to transform popular understanding of the United States’ most dramatic labor incidents. Probably his most famous book is Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided America. His last book was also brilliant. The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom brought the reality of the incredibly terrible lives of these workers and their rebellion that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest civil uprising in the United States since the Civil War, into the public consciousness. His book was adapted by PBS into a documentary for The American Experience titled The Mine Wars, which is also quite excellent. A great historian and a great loss.

This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1914

[ 9 ] June 25, 2016 |

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This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, is available from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.

Charles Lee worked at a patent leather factory in the Blubber Hollow neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts. It was unpleasant work in a rickety building. Workers like Lee dissolved flammable scrap celluloid film in flammable amyl acetate and alcohol, painted it on leather, added another layer of wood alcohol, and then steam heated it.

A hundred and two years ago today, on the afternoon of June 25, 1914, the inevitable came: a fire broke out. Charles Lee was the worker standing closest to the fire’s origin, and he broke both his legs jumping out of a window to escape the flames. Half an hour later, 300 workers had been forced to flee their factories. By evening, the fire had consumed 50 factories across the city, including, most devastatingly, Salem’s largest employer, a sheet factory called Pequot Mills. More than 18,000 people were left homeless or jobless.

Every disaster is a workplace disaster for someone. Sometimes, as for Charles Lee, the disaster is part of work. Other times, as for Pequot Mills employees, a disaster destroys opportunity for work. For others, including the 87 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2015, it is disaster itself that is the worksite. Workers have long responded to workplace disasters by coming together with their coworkers and neighbors to think about–and fight over–the conditions of their labor.

Changes in illumination, heating, firefighting, and transportation technologies–together with organizing and government regulation–led to a gradual decline in the sort of fires that once regularly destroyed large swaths of cities. In 1918, a Canadian government researcher counted 290 urban conflagrations in the United States and Canada between 1815 and 1915, more than half of the global total. Salem’s was among the last.

But industrial risk was not vanquished. In the United States in 2014, the last year for which data were available, about 13 people a day were killed at work, whether in small accidents or big disasters. This risk–of lives lost, of bodies mangled, of property and livelihoods diminished–is never evenly distributed (as Erik, among others, has reminded us). Who bears the bodily risk of industrialism is a political choice we all make. Most of the time, workers die in ones or twos, invisible except to their families, coworkers, and friends. Disasters–like when 29 coal miners died in Upper Big Branch, West Virginia, in 2013, or when, in the same year, 1,100 garment workers died in a factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh–are the times we see our choices and have an opportunity to correct them.

After the Salem fire, as after disasters today, people debated how to organize society and its risk in their neighborhoods and churches, in town meetings and voting booths. Six months after fire, Salemites recalled their mayor in the first modern recall in New England. Catholic laypeople argued with priests and the archbishop about how their parish should be rebuilt. Neighbors argued about whether a new building code, designed to make the city less flammable, was worth the cost.

Most of all, they fought for power in their workplaces. Pequot Mills was rebuilt and reopened a year and a half after the fire, in 1916. Soon, workers began to experiment with new ways of organizing and building power across skill, gender, and ethnicity. At a time when in most Massachusetts textile mills only the most skilled workers, mostly men, were welcomed into unions, workers at Pequot Mills organized a union that included women, unskilled workers, and French Canadians, whom many labor leaders at the time thought were unorganizable.

Workers at Pequot Mills fought for, and won, higher pay, but more importantly they wanted a say in how the factory would be run. They won seniority rights, a grievance system, and defined job categories and so limited management’s arbitrary ability to hire, fire, promote, and discipline workers. By the late 1920s, the union had taken charge of the company’s sales and marketing departments, and it controlled a joint labor-management committee that sought to increase productivity through scientific management. Workers’ willingness to sacrifice some material gains for control over how the factory would run got press attention as a national model.

It did not last. While at first union power meant democratic control of the workplace by workers, within a few years the business manager, not the workers themselves, controlled the process. “I didn’t bother to report,” he told visiting researchers, “because they are a bunch of ignorant Canucks and Polacks who wouldn’t understand anyway.”

After a few years of growing union autocracy, workers took the skills they had honed in the aftermath of the fire and rebelled against their own leaders. Led by women, who were especially hurt by the business manager, they rebelled and struck in 1933 and again in 1935 to found a new, more democratic union. A generation after the fire, workers were still debating with each other, with management, and with their neighbors how to organize work.

In our own era of workplace disasters, we too can debate how labor should be organized. Disasters offer opportunities for solidarity in the workplace, in the community, and up and down the supply chain. They are times when the choices society makes about whose lives are more or less valuable become visible, and they are times we can make different choices.

One example was the prosecution of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role creating the Upper Big Branch disaster. (He was sentenced to a mere year in prison.) So too was the Rana Plaza factory collapse. The horror of that disaster forced the North American companies that had subcontracted work to those factories to impose greater–though still inadequate–safety standards. More importantly, it spurred greater garment worker organizing, so that in Dhaka, as in Salem, workers can build power and set their own standards.

This post also encourages readers to donate to the Rosenberg Fund, supporting the children of targeted activists. You can read more about the Rosenberg fund here.

This is the 182nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Slate Pitches I Can Endorse

[ 151 ] June 24, 2016 |

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Running a marathon. Why the hell would somebody do that to themselves?

Indeed a vast, disturbing literature has now accumulated on the ill effects of running marathons. Studies find that up to 1 in 12 participants end up seeking medical help during the race. (At hot-weather events, runners can end up “dropping like flies.”) As many as four-fifths report having gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and fecal incontinence while on the course. Some runners suffer from blood poisoning. Others must endure a blitz of dermatological conditions: sore nipples (affecting up to 1 in 6 on race day); chafing (another 1 in 6); blisters (1 in 3); and jogger’s toe (1 in 40). Given all the risks, it’s no wonder that some marathon organizers have asked doctors to embed as race participants so they can quickly tend to runners who collapse.

When researchers consider all the injuries that accrue during the period of training—and not just on the day of the marathon itself—they find even greater cause for alarm. One study looked at 255 participants in an extended, 32-week marathon training program and found that 90 of them—that’s 35 percent—experienced “overuse” injuries. (Among the most common training ailments are anterior knee pain, Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, and stress fractures.) Another research group surveyed 725 men who raced in the 2005 Rotterdam Marathon, and found that more than half of them had sustained a running injury over the course of the year. Among those who sustained a new injury during the month leading up to the race, one-quarter were still suffering, to some extent, three months later.

Deaths do occur during the marathon, but I’m glad to say they’re very, very rare. Most runners’ ailments will be temporary; then again, most runners won’t have any benefits to weigh against those modest costs. Even if they don’t ruin their knees, twist their ankles, or bang their toes while training, their weekly hobby won’t do much to help their health. Marathoners fail to lose weight, as a rule, and while aerobic exercise may be good for the heart, doing a huge amount of aerobic exercise brings at best diminishing returns.

The sport isn’t merely dangerous; it’s extravagant. It costs more than $250 just to enter the New York City Marathon and to have the chance to chafe your nipples alongside 50,000 other people. Meanwhile, humanity’s oldest form of exercise has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry in footwear. Even efforts to pare down the sport to fundamentals have been absorbed into this marketing, such that there now exists a set of high-priced products known, improbably enough, as “barefoot running shoes.”

I get the feeling that marathoners think of themselves as gritty, motivated types, who would rather train and get things done than sit around watching videos on Facebook. Indeed, they’ll often note the fact of their accomplishment (we might think of this as “showing off”) on social media. For them, the pursuit of running 26 miles may have less to do with any functional reward than merely having gone through training in the first place. It’s an exercise of will, not one of purpose; the marathoner views achievement as a virtue of its own—like climbing Everest because it’s there.

It’s telling that this monomania gets rewarded—every single time, with cheering crowds and Facebook likes—despite its lack of substance. (At least Everest has a view!) I guess the form itself excites us: We’re so starved for ways to show self-discipline, and to regiment our time, that any goal will do, even one so imbecilic as the marathon. This only calls attention to the wasted opportunity: If we want to celebrate the act of building up to something hard—if we’re ready to devote ourselves, for at least 100 hours, to regimented training—then we should strive for something better. Instead of spending all that time purely for the sake of having spent it, let’s pursue a goal that has some meaning in itself.

I can think of no form of “leisure” less appealing than running 26 miles. Except for those crazy supermarathon bastards running 100 miles or whatever while they figure out where to poop.

Opinions may differ.

CEO Pay in the New Gilded Age

[ 66 ] June 24, 2016 |

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Where are the pitchforks?

Growth in median compensation may have slowed lately, or even fallen for some of the highest-paid chief executives. But this is little recompense for workers who have seen their wages stagnate or fall for decades.

Last year, the average chief executive of an S&P 500 company was paid 335 times more than the average nonsupervisory worker, according to the AFL-CIO’s useful interactive site, Executive Paywatch.

This stunning disparity has been the norm since the 1990s, but it wasn’t always this way. In 1965, the average CEO made 20 times the pay of the average worker; it was around 34-to-1 in 1980. By 1998, it was nearly 322-to-1.

What to do about it is fairly obvious. Tax the living heck out of them:

One measure would be returning to the progressive taxation system that operated from the 1940s until 1981, with a top marginal rate of, say, 70 percent as opposed to today’s 39.6 percent.

Another is to eliminate the tax-option loophole, which helps subsidize high compensation. (It allows companies to deduct the market value of the options, even though they are not a real expense, thus lowering their taxes. This arguably encourages companies to grant even more options in big comp packages.) According to a report from Citizens for Tax Justice, 315 big companies have used this to avoid $64.6 billion in taxes over the past five years.

Corporate tax rates could be set higher for firms with high CEO-to-worker pay differentials. Say-on-pay could be made mandatory rather than advisory. Public companies could be required to separate the chairman and chief-executive jobs. And unionization could be made easier, giving workers greater bargaining power.

Unionization certainly does need to be made easier, although I’m not sure that it would really make a difference unless unions start bargaining over peak executive pay. I’d love that, but it seems that tax, tax, tax is the answer, in a variety of ways. Time to reclaim that money for the public good.

Hidden Sexism

[ 99 ] June 24, 2016 |

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Will hidden sexism hurt Hillary Clinton this fall? Quite possibly, although I’d like to see more than yet another story on Real American Voters, i.e., working-class white men from the Rust Belt, to suggest it may be so.

Ralph Stanley, RIP

[ 32 ] June 24, 2016 |

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The great Ralph Stanley died last night at the age of 89. Stanley was the last major living figure of the early bluegrass era. He began recording with his brother Carter in 1947. They never had major financial success–really only Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs did. They were a great band, pretty squarely within the emerging bluegrass tradition. But when Carter died in 1966, Ralph took his music back in time a bit. He always thought of himself as an old-time singer and banjo player, not a bluegrass musician. And that’s accurate. Bluegrass quickly developed into something pretty slick, with fancy instrumentals and a certain sense of virtuosity. Monroe developed the music by taking old-time and combining it with jazz, pop, and country music. While Stanley never completely rejected that, he emphasized the old-time Appalachian music much more. This led to some really outstanding music in the years after Carter’s death. I want to point out a few starting points for Dr. Ralph’s (he received an honorary Ph.D. from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee) discography. His 1969 album, Hills of Home, is an outstanding entrypoint. While I don’t care about the subject matter, the 1972 gospel album, Cry from the Cross, is probably the best bluegrass gospel album ever recorded. During these years, he mentored a number of young Appalachian singers, including Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs. The last two of course became stars after switching to country music while Centers was pointlessly murdered. My collection of Stanley is this 2-CD set from these years, including live performances from all three. Really amazing stuff.

I saw Ralph Stanley perform twice. The first was in about 1998 at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. By this point, he was signing with his son, Ralph II. His son doesn’t have a good bluegrass lead voice. Good enough for country music, but not good enough for that style. So it wasn’t like seeing him in the 1970s, but was a ton of fun nonetheless, especially in front of a crowd that cared deeply about that style of music. I saw him again in about 2002 in Albuquerque. By this time, his late-career revival thanks to O Brother Where Art Thou had kicked in. He played to a packed house, played “Man of Constant Sorrow” like 3 times, and during the set break, shook every hand and sold every piece of merchandise he could. An old man now, he was going to cash in while he could. And who could blame him, given his long struggle to be financially successful, even if this meant the set break was a full hour.

Rest in Peace, Ralph. You were a true giant of American music. A few sample cuts:

And since this is a political blog, let’s not forget his endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008.

Trump & Cohn

[ 32 ] June 23, 2016 |

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A match truly made in Hell.

Donald Trump was a brash scion of a real estate empire, a young developer anxious to leave his mark on New York. Roy Cohn was a legendary New York fixer, a ruthless lawyer in the hunt for new clients.

They came together by chance one night at Le Club, a hangout for Manhattan’s rich and famous. Trump introduced himself to Cohn, who was sitting at a nearby table, and sought advice: How should he and his father respond to Justice Department allegations that their company had systematically discriminated against black people seeking housing?

“My view is tell them to go to hell,” Cohn said, “and fight the thing in court.”

It was October 1973 and the start of one of the most influential relationships of Trump’s career. Cohn soon represented Trump in legal battles, counseled him about his marriage and introduced Trump to New York power brokers, money men and socialites.

Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.

Since he announced his run for the White House a year ago, Trump has used such tactics more aggressively than any other candidate in recent memory, demeaning opponents, insulting minorities and women, and whipping up anger among his supporters.

Cohn gained notoriety in the 1950s as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel and the brains behind his hunt for communist infiltrators. By the 1970s, Cohn maintained a powerful network in New York City, using his connections in the courts and City Hall to reward friends and punish those who crossed him.

He routinely pulled strings in government for clients, funneled cash to politicians and cultivated relationships with influential figures, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, mafia boss Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and a succession of city leaders.

In the 1990s, a tragic character based on Cohn had a central place in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”

Trump prized Cohn’s reputation for aggression. According to a New York Times profile a quarter-century ago, when frustrated by an adversary, Trump would pull out a photograph of Cohn and ask, “Would you rather deal with him?” Trump remained friends with him even after the lawyer was disbarred in New York for ethical lapses. Cohn died in 1986.

All the Record Heat

[ 65 ] June 23, 2016 |

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In case you want to feel depressed, you can follow the monthly updates at Gizmodo as the Earth keeps breaking its all-time heat records. This will end well.

See also.

Non-Compete Clauses

[ 96 ] June 23, 2016 |

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It’s completely ridiculous that it took the New York attorney general’s office to force this to happen, but Jimmy John’s is finally ending its practice of making its employees sign non-compete clauses so they can’t take the valuable skills they learned and get a job at Subway.

The Illinois-based sandwich chain has agreed to stop including noncompete agreements in its hiring documents, a practice that was deemed “unlawful” by the New York attorney general’s office.

The announcement follows an investigation by that office into Jimmy John’s use of noncompete agreements with franchisees in New York, which began in December 2014. The agreements had barred departing employees from taking jobs with competitors of Jimmy John’s for two years after leaving the company and from working within two miles of a Jimmy John’s store that made more than 10 percent of its revenue from sandwiches.

“Noncompete agreements for low-wage workers are unconscionable,” Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, said in a statement. “They limit mobility and opportunity for vulnerable workers and bully them into staying with the threat of being sued. Companies should stop using these agreements for minimum wage employees.”

It seems that this agreement only covers its New York stores, although Illinois is going after it now, so maybe that will finally stop the practice entirely.

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