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NLRB Pushes Back Against Permatemps

[ 59 ] July 13, 2016 |


In their myriad ways to avoid not only unions but also responsibility for their own employees, employers have come up with any number of ways to control workers without having any legal obligation to them. One of the most effective ways is to use temp agencies for long-term workers who labor on the shop floor next to actual employees, doing the same work with lower wages and fewer if any benefits. The Japanese auto industry’s investment in American factories for instance has relied heavily on this sort of arrangement. How can a factory unionize when the workers are technically employees of different companies? This is of course half the point of it, the other half being lowering employee compensation. Before this week, the rule was that the temp company would have to grant permission for their employees to be included in such a bargaining unit, which is of course laughable that they would grant. But by a 3-1 vote, the NLRB overturned that rule this week.

The National Labor Relations Board is reaffirming its view that labor law must now address the brave new world of the fissured workplace—where workers are often separated from their actual employer by layers of subcontractors and staffing agencies. On Monday, the board announced a decision on the case Miller & Anderson, ruling that unions that want to represent bargaining units including direct employees as well as “permatemps,” contract workers, and other indirect workers that share a “community of interest” are no longer required to get permission from the parent company.

The old standard, established by George W. Bush’s NLRB in 2004, which required unions to gain such parent-employer consent, allowed companies to use staffing agencies and subcontractors as a barrier to organizing drives. Under the new ruling, a nurses union, for example, can now more readily expand bargaining units at a hospital to include registered nurses who are directly employed by the hospital, as well as nurses who work for staffing agencies hired by the hospital.

This is absolutely huge and another enormous advance in labor law by Tom Perez’s Department of Labor.

In an increasingly fractured world of labor relations, it’s hard to understate how big of a deal this is for easing union organizing efforts. And coming less than a year after its Browning Ferris ruling that established a bold new standard for defining when parent companies are joint employers of subcontracted workers, the Miller & Anderson decision is yet another important step that increases employer accountability to their workers by expanding the responsibilities of joint employers.

Not only does the decision mark an emerging new jurisprudence on labor relations, it also serves to burnish President Obama’s second-term record on labor and worker rights, which includes a rash of bold new policies enacted through executive power.

You can read the decision in this PDF

This is why I have zero patience with anyone voting for Jill Stein. While there’s no guarantee that Hillary Clinton will have as strong a DOL as Obama has since naming Perez to his cabinet, there’s also no question that her NLRB appointees will build on these sorts of decisions to improve conditions for workers. I simply assume that most people who refuse to “compromise their values” by voting for Hillary basically don’t actually care about working class people.



[ 59 ] July 13, 2016 |


Worth remembering in this age of extreme police militarization that the concept of the SWAT team came straight out of the LAPD after Watts in the mind of a very nice man named Daryl Gates. In case you forgot the details of Gates’ reign of terror over black communities as LAPD chief between 1978 and 1992, here’s a primer.

Portland LGM Meetup

[ 40 ] July 12, 2016 |


I will be in Portland late next week and at Anna in PDX’s suggestion, we are going to do an LGM meetup. It will take place Thursday, July 21. There will be two possibilities for you Portland hipsters. We are going to have dinner at 6:30 at Cha! Cha! Cha!, a Mexican restaurant at 5225 N. Lombard. We will then move at 7:30 to the Chill n’ Fill bar next door at 5215 N. Lombard, which has beer, cider, and wine on tap.

If you are going to come to the dinner, let me know, in comments or in an e-mail. Not that we exactly need reservations but if there are 10 people, we might want them.

Hope to see some of you west coast readers!

Should We Prosecute Jenny on Federal Charges?

[ 71 ] July 12, 2016 |

I’m not saying this is a good decision because it sounds a bit overreaching to say the least. Nonetheless:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has handed down a very important decision on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Facebook v. Vachani, which I flagged just last week. For those of us worried about broad readings of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the decision is quite troubling. Its reasoning appears to be very broad. If I’m reading it correctly, it says that if you tell people not to visit your website, and they do it anyway knowing you disapprove, they’re committing a federal crime of accessing your computer without authorization.

I’ll leave you legal types to analyze the case. But I confess it’s at least dreamy to fantasize about charging racist trolls with federal crimes for not going away.

How the World Breaks

[ 16 ] July 12, 2016 |


For the first time, I was asked to write a book blurb. That book is now ready for you to buy and you should do so. It’s Stan Cox and Paul Cox, How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia. The authors travel the world to disaster sites and tell amazing stories of people’s resilience in the face of these disasters. But of course, these disasters, many of which are blithely called “natural disasters,” even though they are the product of a combination of natural and human forces that reflect preexisting inequality, can only happen so often before the both social and ecological systems around the world break down. They tell stories of these geoclimatic disasters–fires, tornadoes, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.–showing how climate change makes many of these disasters far worse, but also highlighting the human experience in them. Ultimately people are amazing because they are so resilient. So is the planet. But at some point, and that point is rapidly approaching, neither people nor the planet can take so many disasters, one on top of the other. Systems do break down. That’s the story of this book. Ranging from the Greenberg, Kansas tornado to fires in Australia to landslides in India, the authors tell amazing stories. But the authors point out that this talk of resilience becomes an excuse for nations not to do anything about climate change. Kiribati may be about to be swallowed into the ocean, but if that nation’s people are resilient, they will figure something out. That something will of course mean becoming climate refugees, which is hardly an answer. They talk about how we are now being told that we have to be flexible and expect catastrophe, giving up ideas of security. It’s amazing to me how this language mirrors that of neoliberal economic planners who have forced workers to give up any idea of security in order so that the global wealthy can capture more profits. Of course, those not wanting meaningful action on climate change are the same people foisting the current economy upon us. The authors ultimately call for a climate justice movement that includes reparations from industrialized countries to the world’s poor nations forced to bear the burden of climate change impacts.

This is a very good, very readable book that many of you will enjoy. You should buy it.

Press On

[ 69 ] July 12, 2016 |


I can see why Black Lives Matter activists would worry that the Dallas shooting is going to undermine its cause. But all activists can do in a situation where a terrible thing happens at one of your protests is to just press on. There’s really no good reason to worry too much about the backlash over a particular incident, especially when it really wasn’t associated with your movement. If we look at the history of activism in this nation, especially in the last half-century or so, the reality is that you simply don’t know why or when a movement that seems like it has sparked will fade or why or when a seemingly moribund issue will take off and real progress will be made. Both of these situations can be represented by the brief anti-Confederate flag movement in the last couple of years, which came out of nowhere, made real changes and galvanized the country for about a month, and then almost instantly faded, allowing states like Tennessee and Alabama to create pro-Confederate memorialization legislation.

Activists can never know what is going to cause blowback against them. Such things are out of activists’ control, more or less. The only answer is to just keep doing what you are doing. The more people continue to protest against the police, the better the chances of something actually happening to end racist police violence. Worrying about the consequences of actions from people not associated with your movement isn’t going to move the ball and neither is tempering actions because of fear that they might lead to blowback. Only direct action and protest is going to lay the groundwork for the necessary structural changes.

Of course these activists already know this and I wouldn’t presume to explain this to them. My comment is more related to the broader trajectory of activism as I see it within American history and intended for general audiences like here at LGM that contain a multitude of left and left-of-center voices, some of whom are quite pro-protest and others who find protest highly uncomfortable or even counterproductive.

And the last few days have shown pretty solidly that the Dallas shooting is not creating a blowback to the BLM movement, so keep on keeping on.

Other Models to Deal with Student Debt

[ 48 ] July 12, 2016 |


Of course the United States could borrow the Australian model of dealing with student debt and tag it to income without any real expectation that the borrower is going to pay it all back in a relatively short time. We don’t have to punish our students with crippling debt and then only give them 10 years to pay it back.

In Australia, income inequality is much higher than in Sweden. Yet while students borrow about as much as they do in the United States (30,000 Australian dollars, or about $22,000), the system works smoothly because borrowers pay nothing until their earnings reach about $40,000. Above that threshold, borrowers pay 4 percent of their income until the debt is paid off. Payments rise and fall automatically with earnings, just as our Social Security payments do.

But in the standard American plan, payments don’t vary over time. Borrowers face the same payments when they first get out of college as they will years later, when their earnings are higher and more stable.

Just like Social Security contributions, student loan payments in Australia are automatically withheld from pay. Some critics argue that payroll withholding gives student loans primacy over other expenses: Why should a student loan get paid before more basic needs — food, rent — are met?

But prioritizing basic needs is exactly what the Australian system does. The idea is that no one facing economic hardship should have to choose between paying student debt and paying for basic necessities. When earnings drop, loan payments drop immediately, allowing borrowers to devote their reduced budgets to essential needs. Borrowers don’t have to fill out an application, or even make a phone call, to get the payments stopped.

In the United States, student loan bills keep coming, no matter how small the paycheck. It’s up to borrowers to apply for a reprieve if their financial situation worsens. Getting on an income-based repayment plan depends on working with a loan servicer to complete a 12-page application. As shown by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, this is often a bumpy process that can take months. In the meantime, the bills keep coming — and millions of borrowers end up in default.

Payroll withholding is the only way to provide an immediate link between fluctuations in earnings and loan payments. Any other system delays the protections that low-income borrowers desperately need.

But if we were going to borrow ideas from Australia, we would do so with guns. Luckily, we are Americans and we don’t borrow from countries lesser than us. Why would the greatest nation in human history to do so? America! Love It or Leave It! Or anyway, leave it if you can afford a plane ticket after you pay $800 a month in student loan debt.

Donald Trump, Friend of the Worker

[ 19 ] July 12, 2016 |


That populist Donald Trump, he’s really a friend of the working person. I really take his populist talk about jobs and trade agreements very, very seriously. The history of workers in his own properties shows he’s the kindest, warmest, man to ever live.

GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump fashions himself a friend of union workers. He has bragged about having good relationships with labor unions. When the AFL-CIO recently endorsed his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed it was he who deserved the labor federation’s coveted backing.

“I believe [union] members will be voting for me in much larger numbers than for her,” Trump declared last month.

Before entering the voting booth, those union members might want to know how much money one of Trump’s businesses has spent in an effort to persuade low-wage workers not to unionize.

The Culinary Workers Union recently organized housekeepers and other service workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. The union won the election in December — but not without a fight from hotel owners Trump Ruffin Commercial LLC. That’s a joint venture between the likely GOP nominee and casino magnate Phil Ruffin, himself a major financial backer of Trump’s presidential run.

According to Labor Department disclosure forms reviewed by The Huffington Post, Trump Ruffin shelled out more than half a million dollars last year to a consulting firm that combats union organizing efforts. The money was paid from Trump Ruffin to Cruz & Associates in a series of seven payments between July and December, totaling $560,631.

Nearly $285,000 of that money was paid over the course of two weeks in December, shortly after the hotel held its union election.

Despite the heavy investment from Trump Ruffin, the union prevailed by a vote of 238 to 209. Trump Ruffin argued in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board that the union illegally swayed the vote, but a regional director for the NLRB rejected those claims. The hotel has asked that the board members in Washington review that decision. According to an NLRB spokeswoman, the board has not yet determined whether it will grant that review.

A lawyer for Trump and a campaign spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the payments. Lupe Cruz, the owner of Cruz & Associates, did not respond to a voicemail left at his office on Friday.

I’m not going to say that it’s not in the interests of union members to vote for Trump. It’s certainly not in their economic interest to do so. But too many Americans prioritize their interests in white supremacy over their interest in feeding their kids. That’s unfortunate, but it’s true and some of those people will vote for Donald Trump. Racial resentment has usually trumped economic solidarity in American history. But this should be brought up over and over whenever Trump talks about himself as a friend to union members.

Coal Outside Appalachia

[ 43 ] July 11, 2016 |


I write a lot about coal here and one thing that repeatedly strikes me is how Appalachian-centric writing about coal remains today. There are of course historical reasons for this, but given how sharply production has shifted out of West Virginia and Kentucky over the last couple decades, public attention has really lagged. Here’s a couple of stories about coal in other parts of the country.

First is this Times exposé of the complete disaster of a clean coal plant in Mississippi that has suffered from its first moments from everyone involved having incentives to slow down the work so they can maximize govenrment money and because all the financial risks were shifted to the state’s taxpayers. From the get-go, it was a complete disaster. The silver lining here might be that finally policymakers give up on the idea that clean coal can be a thing. Because it can’t.

Meanwhile, story after story about the decline of coal in West Virginia talks about the transition of the industry to the West, especially Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, but hardly any stories actually follow the industry out there to examine its impact. This High Country News story details how coal jobs have rapidly declined in the West, really hurting towns relying on it and with no safety net. The latter point is typically of a whole history of the West’s boom and bust natural resource economies, with the remains of once prosperous mining towns scattered around the region.

The Rheeist Scam Goes Global

[ 36 ] July 11, 2016 |


Charter schools don’t educate students any better than public schools and are a giant grift. Besides, as Pierce says, “education is not a damn marketplace.” But any good grift has global implications, right? So Teach for America is now spreading its great message that funding schools is irrelevant if you exploit idealistic 23 year olds and spread a message that “grit” can overcome structural inequalities.

 Currimjee is a Teach for India fellow from Mauritius, an island closer to Madagascar than India. She doesn’t speak Marathi, her students’ native language. This forces her to bellow in her clearest, most basic English, in the hope that her volume will help words like “represent” and “interpret” make more sense. She tells us that she received five weeks of training from Teach for India, a sister organization of the troubled Teach for America, which places the graduates of elite colleges into low-income classrooms as teachers.

TFI, according to its official account, sprang to life after Shaheen Mistri, a prominent nonprofit leader in Mumbai, walked into the Manhattan office of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp in 2007 and declared, “We have to start Teach for India, and I need your help!” Teach for America has become famous for tackling inequality in education by training young graduates from elite schools to teach in public schools for two years and then become advocates for “education reform”—a contested agenda that includes increasing the number of privately operated charter schools and limiting the power of teachers’ unions. TFA’s critics say that inexperienced teachers make educational inequality worse, and that the organization has become a Trojan horse for the private takeover of public-sector resources. And TFA’s recruiting numbers have dropped in recent years, as skepticism of the once-lauded organization grows.

Five weeks of training for a teacher who doesn’t speak the same language as her students! Brilliant! And I love the telling of how Teach for India started. I love Big Ideas, you love Big Ideas, let’s do a Big Idea! And this is just classic:

 Like TFA founder Kopp, a Princeton graduate who realized that a career in finance was not for her, Mistri began her forays into educational reform from the outside looking in. Every bit the “global citizen,” Mistri describes her privileged upbringing, including traveling first class from “sandy coves on Greek islands” to “the Austrian countryside,” in her book on TFI’s founding. After a year at Tufts University, she experienced her epiphany while sitting in a taxicab on a family vacation in Mumbai. “Three children ran up to my window, smiling and begging, and in that moment I had a flash of introspection,” Mistri writes. “I suddenly knew that my life would have more meaning if I stayed in India. I saw potential in that fleeting moment—in the children at my open window and in myself.”

This is like a Tom Friedman column except an even purer exercise in narcissism.

Of course, the school system in India is a disaster thanks to chronic underfunding. The government just basically refuses to spend on education. So instead, Teach for India, like its parent organization in the U.S., believes that speaking in the language of the Aspen Institute will fix the problem.

After about five minutes, Rakshit strides over from the other side of the grand atrium, a confident figure in Western fusion clothing. We shake hands, and she fires back answers to my questions in polished English—a PowerPoint presentation in the flesh.

“Oftentimes, you blame the system,” Rakshit says, when I ask her about the inadequate state of India’s education system. “But our core belief is that it’s the people who are putting the system together—that’s the problem. Underlying all these issues is a lack of leadership. It’s not a systemic problem; it’s a problem of people.”

 In Rakshit’s view, problems like poverty and underfunded schools reinforce an invidious belief that poor children can’t match the educational achievements of their wealthier peers. Teach for All organizations challenge this notion by deploying “transformational” teaching fellows, who will gain “valuable understanding of the challenges facing the underserved populations” and go on to “provide political leadership aimed at devoting more resources to solving the problem of educational inequity.”

“If you say it requires a group of smart, dedicated, committed people, it becomes easy,” Rakshit beams at me in conclusion. “Or, well, not easy—but possible!”

That doesn’t even make the first bit of sense. The teachers of course try to do the best they can. It’s not their fault they are working for a scam. But rather than try and do something about the problem, like push for greater funding, in the TFA model, the point is turning education into profit.

 Teach for India’s board members are involved in efforts to increase the privatization of India’s schools instead of securing more funding and resources for teachers like Ms. D. Take Ashish Dhawan, a TFI board member and one of the most successful private-equity players in the country today. Dhawan’s name isn’t as famous as those of TFI’s other board members, several of whom come from India’s dynastic industrial families. But over the last five years, Dhawan has become one of the country’s youngest big-time philanthropists, funding numerous education-reform groups that draw on the language of the so-called liberalization era of the 1990s, when the government privatized former state industries, welcomed foreign investment, and began to abandon its historically progressive role in economic development.

In interviews, Dhawan explains that education reform will allow the corporate sector to “unlock the true potential” of India’s human capital. Informed by his success during the country’s IT/outsourcing boom, Dhawan claims that the Indian government needs to shift its focus from “inputs” like infrastructure and classroom size and turn its attention to producing higher “outputs.” To do this, he has advocated the increased use of standardized tests, the introduction of cheaper forms of instruction like MOOCs (massive online open courses), and increased private-sector participation in Indian education, freed from teacher-licensing and class-size regulations.

The people of India will no doubt thank the wealthy capitalists for introducing MOOCs and standardized tests. It’s really a ticket for success, much more so than indoor toilets.

And then:

 I pressed this point, asking if this was perhaps why Teach for India fellows should live in these neighborhoods and stick with the schools for more than a couple years. But all three shook their heads.

“It wouldn’t be marketable if it were longer,” Nikhil said.

Of course it wouldn’t. Because it’s a total scam reliant upon cheap, exploitable non-union labor from young people who will soon learn that they can do better work for better money doing almost anything else.

In conclusion, clearly Teach for Mexico will solve the teacher union problem in Oaxaca and give poor kids who don’t speak Spanish just what they need to become successful entrepreneurs! I’m sure Jon Chait would support it.

Is the Ground Shifting on Police Violence?

[ 228 ] July 11, 2016 |


Jamelle Bouie is hopeful that is the case. He is more optimistic than I.

For as little political movement as we’ve seen on questions of police violence and racial bias, there are signs that the broad public—the white public—is waking up to the problem. Conservative writers like Matt Lewis in the Daily Caller or Leon Wolf in RedState are conceding the pervasiveness of police brutality. Prominent Republicans such as Paul Ryan did the same, praising President Obama’s remarks and hailing peaceful protests. Even Newt Gingrich—who once called Obama a “food stamp president”—agreed. “It’s more dangerous to be black in America,” he said. “You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you.”

It’s too much to say that there’s unity in American life. Nationally, police officers are killing people as often as they were before Ferguson, Missouri, put the issue on the map. It’s not enough to acknowledge problems of police violence; Americans—and white Americans in particular—have to agree to end it, which means jettisoning views that equate crime with blackness and rethinking the role of police writ large. We are still at a deep impasse on the question of guns and what to do about the violence at the heart of our society. And there is the Trump phenomenon to be reckoned with. It’s still true that his campaign is a vector for racism and anti-Semitism, still true that he has proposed plans that would target racial and religious minorities, still true that he has awoken and validated an ugly nativism across the country.

But the events of the past week—and perhaps the shared sense that we’re on a brink of some sort—have inspired a basic decorum. Black Lives Matter has fiercely condemned the violence in Dallas, and beyond the right-wing fever swamps, there’s no apparent effort to cast blame on the movement against police brutality. At the risk of indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations, this week has revealed the strength of American society at the same time it has exposed its most fragile parts.

He’s basically right. As I often tell my students, there are only 2 times in all of American history when enough white people cared about black rights to do anything about it, from about 1863-1870 and from about 1954-1965. Other than that, most white people have generally supported the oppression of black people. And at the very least, the reaction to the Obama presidency leading up to and including the Trump campaign shows that demonizing of people of color is still a very potent political weapon in the United States. So will everyday white people come to believe that the police do commit wanton violence against black people? You can color me very skeptical, even if Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich are even admitting it. The rank and file white folks who vote Republican simply don’t want to hear this. To them, the police are heroes precisely because they protect the good people of the community from those scary black men who want to do unmentionable things to us.

And as for the last week showing the strength of American society, I think that’s just flat out wishful thinking.

Three Years After Rana Plaza. What Have We Done to Ensure that Our Clothing is Ethically Produced?

[ 9 ] July 11, 2016 |


At least in terms of Americans, the answer to that question is basically nothing.

The collapse and dangerous and inhumane conditions at other facilities in Cambodia and elsewhere increased public outrage and demands that something be done.

Three years later, it turns out, not enough has been. New reports by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a consortium of advocacy groups and trade unions, say that safety and labor conditions are still lacking in Bangladesh and other countries that produce products for American retailers in shoddy buildings at bargain basement wages.

The reports, which were published in The New York Times, say that tens of thousands of workers still sew garments in buildings without proper fire exits. In Indonesia, India and elsewhere, pregnant women are vulnerable to reduced wages and discrimination. In Cambodia, workers who protested for an $20 a month were shot and killed, the wage alliance reported.

American retailers insist that they are paying close attention to the working conditions in factories they contract with to produce their goods and are attempting to force local owners to fix the problems and treat their workers better. But even the retailers admit that progress has been slow and subject to questionable delays.

Meanwhile, workers at these sweatshops remain in peril.

And this is unlikely to change, because basically we don’t care if people die making our clothing. Or our meat. Or anything else. It just doesn’t matter, so long as the prices are low.

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