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A Partial Victory

[ 46 ] August 16, 2015 |


The University of Texas did a good thing by deciding to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from public display on campus and move it into its US history museum. But the decision to keep up the Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston statues makes no sense. Johnston did move there so at least that’s a plausible claim I guess. But Lee did not have “deep ties to Texas.” He, along with Johnston, was stationed there in the 1850s fighting the Comanche. For both of them, the 1850s has absolutely nothing to do with why they have statues at the UT campus. We all know why those statues are there and it insults our intelligence to claim they should remain if the Davis statue goes.

Bernie and His Fans

[ 311 ] August 16, 2015 |


Good take on the problem with Bernie Sanders: the cult of personality his fans are erecting around him that make any criticism an attack on their hero.

It’s time for Sanders supporters to relax a little. It’s great that we’re fired up. But fired up to the point of alienating potential allies with our unwavering and, to be frank, ever so slightly cultish support of Sanders? That’s harmful, and it needs to stop.

The thing is, we’ve been through this once before, back in 2008. Everyone got all fired up and excited for Barack Obama and he was going to magically make everything better and then he was elected and the air went out of the room. Now, I’m not saying a hypothetical Sanders would follow the same path. Obama was always too fond of bipartisanship and compromise, even when it had become painfully evident that those who he was seeking compromise with hadn’t managed to stay awake in class. Sanders is of a different mold, and I very much doubt he will seek compromise for the sake of compromise. At the same time, a hypothetical president Sanders will not be able to do all the wonderful things his supporters think he can. Beyond that, Sanders isn’t perfect. Sorry, but it’s true. On Israel, while he’s less hawkish than most, he is still too far to the right for my tastes. Some of his statements on gun control are a little questionable. He’s a human being, and I don’t expect to agree with him 100% of the time. And there is nothing wrong with that, save when his supporters deify him as the best candidate in the history of everything. That a) sets yourself up for disappointment and b) creates a weirdly cultish atmosphere that doesn’t exactly welcome new recruits.

This course is counterproductive and, if something is not done to change it, downright harmful. I like Sanders. As far as I’m concerned he’s easily the best candidate out there. But he’s not the messiah. He’s not perfect. It is long past time for those of us who support Sanders to come to grips with that. If every criticism of Sanders, every action that his fans deem harmful, every question about his polices is met with an unthinking and reflexive attack, his campaign is in serious trouble. Maybe not now, but in the long term. No one wants to join a cult of personality. If we want the Sanders campaign to succeed it is time we stopped acting like one.

It continues to be striking to me how much liberals want to believe in That One Candidate Who Will Change Everything. Like Obama in 2008 (who admittedly stoked these fires for himself), many liberals are turning to the next Great Man to solve our problems. They would have preferred the first Great Woman, i.e., Elizabeth Warren to do this for them, but with her refusing to run, Bernie is good enough. The problems here are manifold, but far more so if Bernie was actually elected. Were that to happen, he’d face the exact same structural problems Obama does with Congress and the courts, the same corporate lobbying system, and the same inability to change the system on his own. It’s true that he would not have some of Obama’s weaknesses, like the believe in bipartisanship and the terrible education and trade policies. But then again, Bernie’s gun and Israel policies are bad. So progressives would quickly see their hero thrown against the rocks of the system and make some mistakes of his own. They’d call him a sellout and look for the next Great Man to solve all their problems.

The inability of so many liberals to think structurally is really exasperating.

World Record in Posing as Anti-Union Image

[ 17 ] August 16, 2015 |


Above: The actual Rosie the Riveter image, which did not seek to fight unions

I know I will never win this fight, but if we are going to try and set world records in women dressing up as “Rosie the Riveter” can it a) at least be the real one and b) not copy what was in fact an anti-union poster. Remember, the “We” in “We Can Do It” does not mean women. It means Westinghouse.

I get that the image has been appropriated for good. It doesn’t mean that we should forget about its history or pretend that it is what it isn’t. Historical mythology should always be corrected.

Julian Bond, RIP

[ 7 ] August 16, 2015 |


Julian Bond has died at the age of 75.

On Amazon

[ 145 ] August 15, 2015 |


Above: Jeff Bezos, Sociopath

Everyone is talking about the big Amazon story in the Times today. This should be an open thread for that. I don’t have a whole lot to add, as the story speaks for itself. A couple of quick points.

1. People often praise these new tech leaders as heroes. Mostly they are sociopaths. That was the case with Steve Jobs and it is certainly the case with Jeff Bezos. These are terrible, awful human beings. It’s not necessarily so different from John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick, but we need to stop thinking of these people as heroes. Bezos has created a culture of 24-hour devotion to him and his company that kicks people with kids or who have cancer to curb for those truly committed to him. This is a sign of a tremendously evil person.

2. Internal Amazon culture, with its constant self-criticism and elimination of those above and below you reminds me of nothing so much as the Cultural Revolution. That’s not a good thing. It’s probably not sustainable in the long-run either, but so long as Bezos controls everything, it will remain. That this story comes out while other tech companies are creating more benefits for mid-level workers shows that if there are other options, workers are likely to take it.

3. That so many workers are not only willing to put up with this sort of treatment but actually revel and want it shows how far so many of us have gone in accepting the extremist corporate culture of the New Gilded Age that demands complete devotion to the employer. The entire culture around disruption and innovation is really a conversation about destroying other people’s lives for profit and that isn’t going to happen without an almost religious faith in the corporate culture of these companies.

4. Relatedly, what these people actually need is a union, or some other employee organization if they can’t unionize that would represent collective disgruntlement. But even for the most exploited of these workers, not only would I be shocked if they supported such a thing, but I think it would be anathema to them, even after experiencing the incredible exploitation of the Amazon workplace.

Independent Contractor Status Screws Over Workers, Part 1,000,000

[ 29 ] August 15, 2015 |


Why do companies or agencies hire workers as independent contractors rather than regular laborers? In order to maximize profit, of course. Thus you have the Uber model of blatant exploitation that has built the company. In a world of extreme individualism, where people think working this way is freedom because it gives them a certain amount of control over how much they work and when, corporations have discovered many advantages to this system and encourage it through this language of individualism. Like subcontracting, franchising, temp work, and outsourcing, independent contractors shield employers from liability, training, wages, and benefits. It’s not too surprising to me that workers in some of these fields are starting to wake up to their own exploitation and that helps explain the sudden push toward union drives in new media, where you combine politically astute people laboring in this exploitative system.

So what happens when an independent contractor gets pregnant?

But she wasn’t like everyone else. Cetrone was a contractor, along with two other staffers at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and therefore not entitled to benefits like workers compensation or unemployment insurance — or more importantly when she became pregnant, the eight weeks of paid family leave that D.C. government employees get.

“They made us look to the public like we were full-time employees, but we didn’t have any of the benefits,” Cetrone says.

Cetrone thought it was unfair she’d have to take time off to have a baby without pay. But it didn’t strike her that there was anything untoward about it — until she began seeing reports on all the lawsuits over misclassification in the “sharing economy,” alleging that everyone from Uber drivers to Homejoy cleaners should be treated as employees rather than contractors.

“I started looking at my contract, and reading all the articles about Uber,” Cetrone says. “And I’m like, if these people are working 20 to 50 hours a week, then maybe my contract isn’t legal.”

When she raised her concerns, she soon found herself out of a job.

But if the District misstepped, it wouldn’t be the only one. Disputes over the role of contractors are becoming commonplace after the federal government and others outsourced many functions.

“I see this all the time,” says Alan Lescht, whose law firm deals largely with federal employees and contractors. “Companies think they can hire someone as an independent contractor to avoid paying benefits and overtime, and when they look carefully into their roles, more often than not they’ve been misclassified.”

And more people might be taking second looks at their contracts these days. The federal government and state labor agencies have been cracking down on misclassification, which allows companies to dodge taxes and other overhead associated with bringing on full-time employees, and is especially prevalent in low-wage industries like construction and trucking. But it happens in white-collar jobs too, and now the media attention is waking up those workers to the idea that their employers could be part of the trend.

This is why joint employer status is so important
and why I hope the Obama NLRB will start moving in this direction. If you work in a place of employment, you should have the same status as everyone else working in that place of employment. We have to take away the incentive of using independent contractors or temps to avoid responsibility. And of course, as in the case above, the anti-government mentality among conservatives and Beltway elites since 1980 has contributed significantly to this problem by trying to shrink the size of government, thus forcing agencies to get creative in how they staff positions. Robust labor law is only a start, but an important start, in pushing back against this panoply of problems in our work lives.

This Day in Labor History: August 15, 1914

[ 30 ] August 15, 2015 |

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, completing one of the great engineering projects of the time, one that recreated racialized labor norms of the United States in Panama while also demonstrating how sanitary reforms could save workers lives. It also served to connect the imperial empire of labor the United States was building around the world.

Much of the story about the Panama Canal is well-known, including how Theodore Roosevelt worked with the French company that had originally hoped to build a canal to hew Panama off of an uncooperative Colombia in order to acquire the canal rights, a classic act of imperialism in now two nations who would long bear the brunt of American interventionism. To some degree, the brutality of building of the Canal is known as well and this post will expand some of your knowledge on these points.

The first real transportation labor in what would become the Panama Canal took place in the 1850s, when Chinese and African laborers died by the thousands building railroads in the area that later became the Canal. The French were heavily involved in these early projects, as they would be in the first attempt to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific in the 1880s. The French particularly targeted the impoverished island of Jamaica for the workers on this project, running advertisements showing Jamaicans returning from Panama with great riches. This was an effective advertising scheme but certainly didn’t represent the reality for those workers. Approximately 20,000 workers, mostly Jamaicans, would die in the first effort to build a canal. Most of these workers died from disease, as the canal was built upon tropical swamps rife with mosquitoes and with enormous rates of malaria and yellow fever. Hygiene was horrible and significantly contributed to the death rate. The West Indians only earned 10 cents a hour and less than 20 percent of those who lived lasted more than a year. Ultimately, the first effort to build the canal would fail in the face of the engineering problem and deaths, but with such great poverty throughout the Caribbean Basin, it wasn’t because the French couldn’t find workers.

When Roosevelt stole Panama from Colombia in 1903, he was determined that a canal succeed and wanted to learn from the French mistakes. Once again, the workforce was primarily West Indian. The Jamaicans remembered what had happened twenty years ago and largely refused to go, so the U.S. targeted Barbados, whose citizens would make up nearly half the total workers who labored on the Canal during its construction. To say the least, the natural conditions that had plagued workers in the 1880s hadn’t changed. Poisonous snakes were rampant. The rainy season created six months of mud. The original housing was the falling apart workers’ housing the French had built. The hygiene was still terrible. In 1906, 80 percent of the Panama Canal labor force was hospitalized for malaria. By this time, doctors were learning more about tropical disease, but continued to believe that people of African descent were uniquely capable of resisting it and so applied none of the new medicine to protect these workers. Yet with poverty still dominating the region, tens of thousands of workers from around the Caribbean and Central American flocked to Panama for work.


The U.S. hoped to build on the French failure to build a canal through the application of newly discovered sanitary principles, even if they held on to their racialized beliefs about African workers. Sanitary engineers descended upon Panama to make the landscape livable. Draining standing water to protect against malaria, paving streets, screening windows, quarantines of the sick, preventing the fecal contamination of water, and other measures were used to protect against epidemic disease. This all built on the work of Walter Reed and other physicians to fight against avoidable death during the U.S. conquest of Cuba, which killed a lot of troops. In fact, Reed was in Panama to expand upon this work. The doctors forced the Army Corps of Engineers to give the black workers better living quarters because pneumonia was moving through the cramped housing at tremendous speed. The death rate for black workers plummeted from 18.8 per 1000 in 1906 to 2.6 in 1908 thanks to these changes. Even in the harshest conditions and with the most despised and exploited workers, basic sanitary reforms could save the lives of thousands.

Racial discrimination was also rife, with the U.S. determined to hold the segregation line in its empire as it was at home. So in its new colony of the Philippines it was strictly segregating many parts of life while doing the same in Panama. Not only were white workers paid better but they were paid in gold, while non-white workers were paid in Panamanian currency. Those workers were crowded into cramped barracks while white workers lived in conditions that would be acceptable in the US (not that this was necessarily a high standard in 1910). Mess halls for the non-white workers did not have chairs. Conditions for whites improved quickly after 1905 when a 75 percent turnover rate convinced the canal builders of the need to make whites want to be in Panama. They received increasingly luxurious housing, received cold-storage facilities to improve their diet, paved roads, baseball teams, YMCA recreational facilities, and all the other amenities that would later be associated with the company unionism of the 1920s. Black workers would eventually rise somewhat in the labor hierarchy because of the need for labor, but racial discrimination would remain stark.

Panama Canal Workers

The work was far more dangerous for the West Indians than the whites, largely because the former was in charge of the dynamiting. Dynamite was always dangerous to deal with because it could be placed incorrectly or not explode, thus creating a hazard later. The worst single workplace death incident in the building of the Canal was on December 12, 1908, when prematurely exploding dynamite killed 23 workers. There was also significant labor discontent, with black workers protesting the unfair treatment they received at the hands of the Americans and local Panamanians outraged at the division of their new country by the U.S. But the overwhelming number of poor workers meant that meaningful work stoppages never occurred.

Ultimately, the opening of the Canal would allow the products of American imperialism around the world to move around the planet at a much faster rate, connecting rubber workers in Asia with fruit workers in Colombia and miners in Montana.

I consulted David McBride, Missions for Science: U.S. Technology and Medicine in America’s African World, in the writing of this post.

This is the 154th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

World’s Smallest Violin

[ 75 ] August 15, 2015 |


Boy, it sure is sad to see Erick Erickson whining about anger on the right from Donald Trump supporters.

But I know we cannot beat Hillary Clinton with this level of anger. We won’t be able to draw people to our side and our cause like this.

I get the anger. I do. I am angry at the betrayal and the repeated lies from Washington Republicans who say they love children, but won’t even defund Planned Parenthood.

I get the anger of voters who sent men and women to Washington to fight Obama only to give him a blank check and keep Obamacare funded.

But I don’t get this anger. If this is the anger that flows out of Trump supporters, I do not think it is sustainable. Yet it comes daily. It is poisonous to debate, to democracy, and to the soul itself.

More poisonous to the soul than any given Erick Erickson spouting? I doubt it. But won’t someone think of the poor bloviating racist who suddenly finds himself not bloviating or racist enough for his readers? This is sad stuff my friends.

Joint Employers

[ 54 ] August 14, 2015 |


There is potentially huge news coming out of the National Labor Relations Board that would reclassify temp workers as joint employees of the company where they are temping, thus stripping away much of the reason why companies want temp workers and making them part of potential union bargaining units.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is widely expected to rule by month’s end that Browning-Ferris Industries, a Houston-based waste-disposal company, is a joint employer of workers provided to the firm by a staffing agency, experts say. As a result, the company would be forced to collectively bargain with those employees and could be held liable for any labor violations committed against them.

Such a decision could hit companies from a host of industries, including hospitality, retail, manufacturing, construction, financial service providers, cleaning services and security.

The expected action would be the latest in a string of major wins for labor groups under the Obama administration, which has already issued several sweeping executive actions on worker protections and wages.

Backers say it is a necessary step to protect a vulnerable class of temporary workers and independent contractors. But business groups fear the decision will wreak havoc throughout the private sector.

“It has the potential to change the entire way businesses operate in this country,” said Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

“There are so many business relationships in the economy that rely on companies providing services to other companies,” he added. “So you can imagine that any business sector could be impacted by the decision.”

This could be gigantic and is another example of how the Obama NLRB has issued decisions favoring workers.* The public persona of temp workers that companies like to employ is something like needing to bring in an extra office worker to catch up on some work or replace someone on maternity leave. But as many of you know, that’s not the case at all. Rather, companies use temporary work as one of their many strategies to shield themselves from liability, training, wages and benefits, and unions. They use pliant state legislatures to carve out broader and broader room for temporary work, effectively creating an entirely new class of worker outside of unions’ ability to organize them. So now you have cases like the Toyota plant in Kentucky, to take one of many examples, where you have long-term workers doing the exact same work as the person next to them except that they don’t work for Toyota and they don’t get the wages and benefits of their co-worker. Not only are these workers presently ineligible for unionization, but they create divides in the workforce that benefits employers by undermining solidarity. There’s absolutely no good reason for this system to exist except to benefit corporations. So you have temp workers in the California lettuce fields who have been there for 10 years and who lack the ability to improve their lives on the job. The NLRB seems to understand this and feels a correction is necessary.

*I do find it hilarious however that the reporter claims it is “the latest in a string of major wins for labor groups under the Obama administration.” Except that whole Trans Pacific Partnership thing! But hey, if you take that tiny little issue out of the equation, I suppose it’s true! But then the story itself is pretty hackish, basically just presenting the corporate point of view, including on McDonald’s controlling its franchisees labor policies but shielding themselves from responsibility through the franchise.


[ 70 ] August 14, 2015 |


Should Democrats reject Charles Schumer as Majority Leader because of his position on the Iran deal? I’ve been wondering over the last few days if we’d see a backlash against his coronation because of it. Josh Marshall makes a strong case on why Senate Dems should find someone else.

I would take it a step further. I think Schumer should be disqualified on the basis of this decision alone. In fact, I would personally find it difficult to ever vote for Schumer again as my Senator, though I doubt he’ll lose much sleep over that since he is amazingly entrenched as New York’s senior senator.

I say all this with some regret since I’ve always liked Schumer. And I should make clear that I see fidelity to a President of one’s own party – even on an issue central to his presidency – as a non-issue in this case. The issue is that this agreement is a matter of grave importance. And Schumer’s position is wrong. Indeed, what makes it an issue for me is that it is more than wrong. His stated arguments are simply nonsensical and obviously tendentious. In this case, Schumer’s ample brain power stands as an indictment against him. There are plenty of senators who are voting against this deal because of a combination of bellicosity and partisan fervor. And there are a good number of them who either cannot or do not care to apply a real logical analysis of the question at hand. Let’s put that more bluntly, they’re either lazy or dumb. And of course this general point applies to senators on both sides of the aisle.

But Schumer is neither lazy nor dumb. And that’s why his decision is really unforgivable.

He argues for instance that even if even if the agreement keeps Iran from building nuclear warheads for a decade (false time frame, by the way), this deal makes things worse because the nuclear Iran ten years from now will be a supercharged Iran made more powerful and bold by sanctions relief.

This is a stupid argument.

So why did Schumer oppose the deal? I think he moves in circles, personal and financial, where this deal is simply anathema and he doesn’t feel he can or wants to buck that opinion. He may also believe he can have his cake and eat it too – vote against, satisfy, and stay good with key supporters and not block its adoption. This is actually what I see as the most likely answer. He may also feel uncomfortable enough on this hot seat that he simply won’t look at the logic of the situation.

I can know and frankly I don’t care. The bright line is that he’s smart enough to know better.

I’ve heard some say that this creates tension for him “on the left” in his quest to become Minority or Majority Leader. This is silly pundit talk. This isn’t the public option. This isn’t something supported by the foreign policy “left”. It’s very basic and mainstream and necessary. The fact that the neoconservatives who gamed the country into the Iraq disaster favor it does not change that.

Democratic senators who don’t reconsider support for Schumer as the leader of their caucus are making a big, big mistake. He should be ruled out of consideration for the job.

I know that much about the majority leader is position is largely procedural and that person does not totally control the caucus. And we know that Harry Reid, hardly a leftist, provided capable leadership even on issues where he personally disagreed with most of his caucus. We can also ask whether, were Schumer currently majority leader, whether the fate of the Iran deal would be any different. My sense is probably not since every senator can vote for it. But it is worrisome that on major issues with enormous national and international importance the majority leader would take untenable and dangerous positions that could lead to war and thousands of dead Americans. That’s just irresponsible and there’s no good reason for Democratic senators to vote for him when they have many other very capable options, including Dick Durbin and Patty Murray to name a couple who would like to have the job.

A Pretty Good Deal

[ 41 ] August 14, 2015 |


The sound you hear is the continuing implosion of Jeb Bush.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said on Thursday during a campaign stop in Iowa that “taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal,” according to multiple reports.

The Beast reported that Bush went on to say he didn’t want to hypothesize about what would have happened if his brother, former President George W. Bush, had not ordered the invasion of Iraq, which led to the toppling of Hussein.

“Then that’s back to the future and you could make a movie,” Jeb Bush said, according to the Beast.

Is that movie The Hurt Locker? Or is it In the Valley of Elah? Or some other purely fictional film about Iraq?

Bush has previously said “premature withdrawal” in Iraq created the void for the the Islamic State terror group.

I’m sure another Friedman Unit would have eliminated ISIS forever and the pure free market capitalist state his brother’s idiotic administration attempted to institute would not only have generated, but would have taken down Iran through the irresistible ideas of Milton Friedman as well!

Today in Offensive Arguments

[ 78 ] August 14, 2015 |


Above: The conservative dream for all union-dense cities with lots of black people

Kristen McQueary of the Chicago Tribune presents the conservative argument that Hurricane Katrina was awesome because it destroyed those teachers’ unions and pesky city workers’ labor contracts. She wishes it on Chicago.

Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.

That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.

Residents overthrew a corrupt government. A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. New Orleans’ City Hall got leaner and more efficient. Dilapidated buildings were torn down. Public housing got rebuilt. Governments were consolidated.

An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.

Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.

Yes, let’s wish a Hurricane Katrina on everyone! Even better, let’s wish some conservative post-hurricane governance with Michael Brown’s effective response and George W. Bush’s clear caring about the situation. And obviously New Orleans is a better place today than it was a decade ago, what with its half-rebuilt neighborhoods, migration out of much of its African-American population, and increasingly exclusive and white French Quarter. Isn’t that every conservative’s dream, to bust unions and whiten the city?

It’s been awhile since I read something so utterly loathsome. Sounds like Fred Hiatt will be giving McQueary a call soon enough.

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