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Workplace Safety Recidivists & Republican Economic Ideology

[ 33 ] July 22, 2015 |


Above: The Republican ideal of workplace safety

Some companies just don’t care about workplace safety, even when they receive OSHA fines. One of those companies is Wisconsin’s Ashley Furniture.

Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., already facing a possible $1.7 million fine for alleged safety violations at its massive factory in Arcadia, was accused Tuesday of new infractions and of failing to report worker injuries.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said a 56-year-old employee of the giant furniture maker lost his right ring finger after a March 11 accident on a machine that the agency had cited as unsafe just one month earlier.

Ashley also failed to report the injury as required, OSHA said. The agency learned of it from a family member of the victim, an OSHA spokeswoman said.

Another Ashley employee was similarly injured in January on the same type of machine, OSHA said. The company also failed to report that injury as required, the agency spokeswoman said.

The latest citations carry proposed fines totaling $83,200. The bulk of that stems from two alleged violations that OSHA deems “willful,” meaning that they were committed “with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.”

“Workers at Ashley Furniture cannot count on their company to do what’s right when it comes to safety,” Mark Hysell, OSHA’s area director in Eau Claire, said in a statement. “These workers are at risk because this company is intentionally and willfully disregarding OSHA standards and requirements.”

In February, OSHA accused Ashley of 38 safety violations and said the firm was emphasizing profit over worker safety.

Of course this company has very close ties to Scott Walker. So close that one wonders about the legality of those ties. Last year, Walker appointees gave Ashley Furniture a $6 million tax credit that included a provision allowing it to lay off half its in-state workforce. Ashley executives then paid Walker back with $20,000 in campaign donations.

This is what a Walker presidency would look like on a national scale. Gutted workplace safety laws and a whole mess of corporate giveaways in exchange for campaign money. That’s Republican economic ideology in a nutshell.


The Limits of Learning from the Progressive Era

[ 22 ] July 22, 2015 |


Sabeel Rahman has a piece in the The Nation that reviews some of the journal’s classic essays from the Progressive Era as a way for us to learn about that period today as we deal with the New Gilded Age. Do the Progressives offer a way forward for us? Rahman suggests yes in a piece titled “How to Revive Progressive Era Economics for the New Gilded Age, including around issues of public utilities. And that’s fine, I don’t disagree. However, it’s worth noting here just how limited Progressives’ visions were for the government and how little power they actually took from corporations. Yes, a few trusts were busted here and there and some forests kept out of private control. But for the most part, the Progressives wanted to work with capitalists to save them from their own excesses. And in a period without a strong radical movement and where we are engaging in full givebacks to corporate control around previously untouchable parts of American life like public schools, these sort of moderate arguments of the Progressives might be as far as we can push.

But we should also note that Progressive Era economics largely failed on their own terms. The Panic of 1907 was averted only through appealing to J.P. Morgan to bail out the government for instance. And the challenges of the 20th century economy were far too great for Progressivism. In any essay on the period and its lessons, I think it has to be noted that the ultimate Progressive was Herbert Hoover. He brought those Progressive Era ideas into the presidency and of course they completely failed in dealing with the Great Depression. The voluntarism, mild government interventions, and public-private partnerships so valued by Hoover and other Progressives were no match for real government regulation. And that’s why the New Deal offers far more lessons on how to tame the overreach of corporate capitalism than the Progressives. It’s not as if the New Deal was overtly anti-capitalist. The NRA was openly pro-capitalist, bringing corporate ideas into the government, largely to protect the companies from the cutthroat competition than industrial leaders thought was at the root of their economic problems. Ultimately, only widespread direct government intervention in the economy and the creation of a relatively powerful regulatory state has created a fair playing field for everyday people in U.S. history. So while there may be useful lessons from the Progressives for us today, we have to note their real limitations as well.

Confederate Nostalgia, 1975 Edition

[ 25 ] July 22, 2015 |

A good use of Congress’ time in 1975.

I’m glad the nation can’t issue a national official apology for slavery but can find time to rehabilitate the architects of the South’s treasonous war for slavery. But hey, civil rights and true equality were totally achieved by 1975, so why not give the neo-Confederates a sop….

This is Racist

[ 171 ] July 21, 2015 |


Activists in Denton, Texas continue the newfound attack on Confederate nostalgia.

Surveillance video shows that sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, two individuals used large stencils and red spray paint to write the words “This is racist” near the top of the arch of the embattled monument on the south side of the Square. The duo then met a third person near the Square and the three fled on foot, the video shows.

Sheriff’s officials learned of the vandalism shortly before 9 a.m. Monday. County Commissioner Hugh Coleman said he was on the Square enjoying his morning coffee when he was told and took a look for himself.

“Whether you like something or not, there are better ways to express yourself,” Coleman said.

According to sheriff’s officials, the vandalism is a felony that carries a fine of up to $10,000 and from six months to two years in jail. Sheriff’s officials posted still images of the suspects on the office’s Facebook page and issued a news release asking for the public’s help in finding the suspects.

County personnel started working on the damage Monday morning, and by evening the monument still bore faded red marks.

Damage to the monument could exceed $50,000, according to Peggy Riddle, executive director of the Denton County Office of History and Culture. A conservation specialist will be called in if necessary, she said.

“This is not an easy shoot-it-with-graffiti-cleaner-and-go kind of thing,” Riddle said. “It leaches into the porous granite and marble. After that, we will have to do a type of special wax that conservators use so the monument will not look bleached-out in certain areas and all go back to being a cohesive color.”

I wonder how far the county will go with $50,000 fixes for a memorial commemorating those who committed treason to defend slavery if this happened again and again.

New Frontiers in the Global Race to the Bottom

[ 13 ] July 21, 2015 |


Labor in Bangladesh is not cheap enough for the apparel industry. Time to move to Myanmar, so long as the government–a group of military leaders not precisely known for taking the poor into consideration–doesn’t raise the minimum wage to a shockingly high 40 cents an hour.

In the last few years, top Western clothing retailers such as Gap, H&M, Marks and Spencer Group PLC and Primark Stores Ltd. have signed contracts with more than a dozen garment factories in Myanmar, the former British colony also known as Burma. The country emerged from decades of military dictatorship in 2011 and major U.S. and European sanctions shortly thereafter. It now offers some of the cheapest labor costs on the planet combined with easy access to Asian markets — both attractive features for corporations looking to source low-cost, ready-made garments for export.

Last summer, Gap raised eyebrows when it became the first American apparel company to publicly sign a contract in Myanmar since President Barack Obama eased sanctions. At the time, Gap said, “The apparel industry will play a key role in helping to fuel the economic prosperity of the country.”

But if garment-factory bosses get their way, comparatively little of that newfound wealth will flow to workers.

The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, representing about 350 factories, says the government’s proposed wage is too high and will force employers out of business. It wants its own industry-specific rate of about $2 a day instead. Starting pay in factories currently hovers around $1 a day.

An association official recalled a meeting two weeks ago that brought together representatives of about 160 factories, including the owners of plants that supply Gap and H&M, to discuss the government’s wage proposal. “At one point, we did a roll call vote to see a show of hands, who would say basically they couldn’t afford to pay it, and every hand went up,” says the group’s project manager Jacob Clere, reached on the phone in Yangon, the nation’s largest city and garment-manufacturing hub. “In terms of the membership, they’re all saying they can’t afford to pay it.”

That sentiment contrasts sharply with the repeated public assurances of brands that say they are committed to improving labor standards in Myanmar.

What I love about how the garment industry is framing this is by saying that the apparel contractors can’t pay this minimum wage. Not letting them off the hook here, but the real issue is that Gap, Walmart, Primark, etc., won’t pay enough per garment to allow them to pay that higher wage. Again, let’s be clear where most of the power resides in the global apparel industry–with the big western companies doing the contracting. The garment owners may often be awful people who treat employees with unnecessary cruelty. But they are most certainly operating with very thin profit margins thanks to the cost standards imposed upon them by the western companies. They are the ones that need to be held culpable. This is why we need international standards on wages, conditions, and other facts of work in the global garment trade, precisely so that a nation like Myanmar can pay their workers 40 cents an hour without the garment companies having all the leverage to defeat it.

High Standards

[ 272 ] July 20, 2015 |

It’s nice that the National Review can run articles insinuating that Bernie Sanders is a Nazi, or I’m sorry, a national socialist. Quite the respectable publication with really high standards for publication there.

As for Sanders and Black Lives Matter at Netroots Nation, well, that was pretty ridiculous all the way around and probably doesn’t really mean much of anything as far as the election is concerned. However, he was pretty roundly embarrassed there and I didn’t quite expect him to act like an amateur. There were clear responses to that kind of protest–like affirming the protestors, even if Netroots Nation needs to do a much better job of policing the room–and he and his staffers failed.

Out of Sight in Brooklyn

[ 40 ] July 20, 2015 |


Time for another round of Out of Sight promotion! Specifically, I wanted to let all our New York readers know that on Wednesday, July 29, at 7 pm, I will be having a book event at Local 61 in Brooklyn. It will be a conversation with Sarah Jaffe about Out of Sight, outsourcing, and possibly dead horses, who knows. Other than listening to me ramble and meeting Sarah, there are two additional reasons why you should come. First, Local 61 is also a bar with a good tap selection. Second, the event will be filmed by CSPAN for its BookTV channel. So that’s pretty cool. That may mean I shouldn’t be drinking that tasty beer during the conversation. Or maybe I should! So if you are in the area, come on out!

I will also soon have announcements for an event in Cambridge, and hopefully one or two more for you residents of the Keystone state.

I’ll also mention that the book is now discounted on Amazon to a Jamestown starvation price of $16.08 so, you know, Christmas is coming.

…Also, I was on the Heartland Labor Forum out of Kansas City last week. Here’s the interview if you want to listen.

This Day in Labor History: July 19, 1972

[ 65 ] July 19, 2015 |

On July 19, 1972, the AFL-CIO announced its decision not to endorse George McGovern for president. This astounding decision helped doom the already floundering McGovern campaign, helping to guarantee another victory for Richard Nixon. It also placed a permanent divide between non-labor progressives in the Democratic Party and the labor movement, one that still has not been fully bridged today. The story is actually more complicated than is usually stated, because in fact a lot of unions strongly supported McGovern.

For George Meany, George McGovern and his supporters were offensive on a number of levels. First, McGovern represented the Democratic Party in revolt, the hippies who protested inside the disastrous ’68 Chicago DNC. In the aftermath, with rules changes to the Democratic Party structure to make it more democratic, the power of the AFL-CIO leadership within the Party was challenged, even as there was room for more rank and file participation. But worse for Meany, McGovern didn’t support the Vietnam War. George Meany was a cold warrior’s cold warrior. He used his power as head of the federation to undermine socialism around the world and promote CIA activities, including, at the beginning of his tenure as AFL chief, supporting the overthrow of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Meany thought the Vietnam War was a righteous war. And that would make him hate McGovern.


There was another issue at play–the endless rivalry between Meany and the old CIO unions. Walter Reuther was dead by this time, but Meany and Reuther hated each other and what each stood for. Meany was highly concerned that the new social liberalism of the Democratic Party grassroots would empower the Reutherites both in the labor movement and in society as a whole. So undermining the social democratic unions in a new grassroots oriented Democratic Party was also on his mind.

George McGovern had a reasonably strong background in labor. He wrote his first book on the Colorado coal wars that culminated in the Ludlow Massacre. But McGovern’s record was not perfect, and that included on some of the most important labor legislation of his term. First, while in Congress, he voted for the Landrum-Griffin Act. Second, in 1966, he voted against the repeal of Section 14(b) the Taft-Hartley Act. The latter especially is pretty bad. That’s the provision that allows states to enact right to work legislation. Yet in the end, COPE, which was the AFL-CIO political arm, noted that McGovern voted with labor 93.5% of the time, about the same as Ed Muskie, if less than Hubert Humphrey, who was an outstanding supporter of unions. In any case, it wasn’t a record that should have lead to the AFL-CIO ditching him once he had won the domination. One can argue, as Jefferson Cowie has in Staying Alive, that the vote to overturn 14(b) would have hurt him in South Dakota where such a vote would have no support. Possibly, although I think Cowie, is excusing McGovern’s vote here to make a point against Meany. But, to his credit, McGovern openly said that if elected, he would fight to overturn 14(b). And as Cowie also points out, Meany’s good friend Lyndon Johnson had voted for Taft-Hartley in the first place so this was all a frame job against McGovern, a fair enough charge. And in any case, McGovern’s labor record was a hell of a lot better than Richard Nixon’s.

So Meany went to work on the AFL-CIO to not endorse McGovern. That wasn’t all that hard, really. First, Meany himself supported Nixon. Second, a lot of the building trades also supported Nixon. That didn’t mean that the federation was going to endorse Nixon; far from it. But it did mean neutrality, which was a huge and very public blow to McGovern. At the AFL-CIO convention a week before the announcement, Meany worked openly to achieve this result. Even before it was made official on July 19, the newspapers were filled with articles that this was going to happen. And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.

Interestingly, McGovern’s second choice for the vice-presidential candidate, after Ted Kennedy, was United Auto Workers president Leonard Woodcock. By this time, the UAW had withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taken out by Reuther in 1968 over Vietnam and a variety of other policies. So it’s far from clear that had Woodcock accepted whether this would have done anything more than infuriate Meany. But while Woodcock was interested, there was a lot of feeling within the UAW that this was inappropriate for a union head and he declined.

There was significant discontent within the labor movement over Meany’s tactics. A lot of unions, especially the industrial unions, were furious with him over it. They thought McGovern would be great and fully supported him. The United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, AFSCME, and a lot of less powerful unions like the International Woodworkers of America fought hard for McGovern. Thirty-three unions, representing a majority of unionized workers in the United States, ultimately officially endorsed McGovern.

McGovern also visited that site of 1972 rebellion against both corporations and staid union leaders, Lordstown, Ohio, where his genial rebellion was received very positively with the young rank and file UAW members rebelling against the boredom of their jobs and what they saw as staid union leadership. But it was all too little by far and of course McGovern was crushed that fall.

Unfortunately, this complexity within the labor movement over the McGovern decision gets lost in a general narrative that between Meany’s support for Vietnam, his hatred of McGovern, and a couple of isolated incidents where “hardhats beat hippies,” labor cannot be trusted by other progressives. It’s a cherry picking narrative that is really problematic and needs severe revision. Those incidents are true enough and George Meany was terrible, not only for what he did to McGovern, but to the labor movement as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that labor itself can’t be trusted because of some actions over 40 years ago. Rather, it means that organized labor has had some terrible leadership over the years, but that the union movement has always included some forward-thinking people who have done a great deal of good for social and economic justice everywhere. And that’s should be a lot more important today that George Meany’s call in the presidential election of 1972.

This is the 152nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The South or the Nation?

[ 520 ] July 18, 2015 |


Tom Sugrue is a great historian and he makes excellent points in this op-ed about how racism is not just a southern problem but a national problem. But let’s face it, this is an overstated case. Even if everything he says about the North is true, and it pretty much is, Dylann Roof still shot up a church in Charleston, South Carolina (Denmark Vesey’s church no less), it is southern states that are seeking to disfranchise African-Americans in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act and it’s also southern states denying the Supreme Court’s verdict on gay marriage, executing African-Americans in racist criminal injustice systems, and where the last die-hards going to the mat for the Confederate flag are hanging on.

Yes, racism is a national problem. No, the North and the West are hardly immune from the horrors of white supremacy. But yes, these problems are worse in the South and it’s important to recognize where the front line of the civil rights struggle remains.


[ 65 ] July 18, 2015 |


Remember the days when we Democrats were supposed to listen to Wesley Clark? Yeah…..

But I do think on a national policy level we need to look at what self-radicalization means because we are at war with this group of terrorists. They do have an ideology. In World War II if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.

So, if these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States, as a matter of principle fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict. And I think we’re going to have to increasingly get tough on this, not only in the United States but our allied nations like Britain, Germany and France are going to have to look at their domestic law procedures.

Oh, OK. That’s the kind of progressive leadership we need today. Why couldn’t we have elected Clark instead of that far, far to the right of Richard Nixon sellout Barack Obama?

Sun Ra Films

[ 15 ] July 17, 2015 |

I realized that some of you have probably never seen any of the Sun Ra films. Allow me to alleviate this serious problem in your life.

Prison for Wage Theft

[ 66 ] July 17, 2015 |


A great start in New York fighting wage theft:

On Wednesday, the owner of nine Papa John’s franchises in New York City pled guilty to the first criminal case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against a fast food franchisee over wage theft.

According to court documents, including company records obtained by the attorney general’s office, Abdul Jamil Khokhar, the franchisee, and BMY Foods Inc. paid its 300 current and former workers the same base rate for any hours they worked after putting in 40 a week, which under law should be paid time-and-a-half. To get away with paying less, they allegedly paid overtime hours in cash and created fake names for the employees in the timekeeping system. They then filed fraudulent tax returns that left out the cash payments made to employees under the false names.

Khokhar’s sentencing is set for September 21, when he faces 60 days in jail. He also faces paying the employees $230,000 in back wages as well as an additional $230,000 in damages and $50,000 in civil penalties.

BMY Foods Inc. declined to comment. A Papa John’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “Papa John’s is aware of the recent incident involving one of our New York franchisees who was taken into custody this morning. These allegations do not reflect our position as a company. We have a strong track record of compliance with the law. We do not condone the actions of any franchisee that violates the law. This particular franchisee has divested itself of most of its restaurants and is in the process of exiting the system. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and take appropriate action.”

More of this. And Papa John’s itself needs to be held legally liable. Franchising exists in no small part so corporate doesn’t have to have any legal accountability for what happens in their stores. They control what they care about and let the little things like workers be on the backs on the franchisee. It’s a model that exists to help the corporation. One way it helps them is provide legal distance from the actual conditions of work. That has to change, and there has been recent signs that it is changing. We already know that Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter is a terrible human being who likes to keep his labor as poor as possible. I don’t know if Schneiderman can go farther up the food chain, but imprisoning a franchisee for wage theft is a good start.

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