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Daniel Berrigan, RIP

[ 19 ] May 1, 2016 |

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The great anti-war priest has died at the age of 94.

The legendary anti-war priest Father Daniel Berrigan died today at 94. He was a poet, pacifist, educator, social activist, playwright and lifelong resister to what he called “American military imperialism.” Along with his late brother, Phil, Dan Berrigan played an instrumental role in inspiring the anti-war and anti-draft movement during the late 1960s as well as the anti-nuclear movement.

In 1968, Father Daniel Berrigan made headlines when he traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war. Later that year he and eight others took 378 draft files from the draft board in Catonsville, MD. Then in the parking lot of the draft board office, the activists set the draft records on fire using homemade napalm to protest the Vietnam War.

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Teach For America Applications Declining

[ 29 ] April 30, 2016 |

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Seems as if young people are starting to realize that Teach for America is a scam that puts them in educational settings for which they have no preparation in order to bust teachers’ unions, a position that might not make sense to some who want to become full-time teachers.

Applications to Teach for America fell by 16 percent in 2016, marking the third consecutive year in which the organization — which places college graduates in some of the nation’s toughest classrooms — has seen its applicant pool shrink.

Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s chief executive, announced the figures in an online letter to supporters Tuesday morning, describing the steps that the organization is taking to stoke interest and reverse the trend.

“Our sober assessment is that these are the toughest recruitment conditions we’ve faced in more than two decades,” she wrote. “And they call on us all to reconsider and strengthen our efforts to attract the best and most diverse leaders our country has to offer.”

TFA received 37,000 applications in 2016, down from 57,000 in 2013 — a 35 percent dive in three years. It’s a sharp reversal for an organization that grew quickly during much of its 25-year history, becoming a stalwart in education reform circles and a favorite among philanthropists.

Teach for America now boasts 50,000 corps members and alumni; some have stayed in the classroom and others have gone on to work in education in other ways, joining nonprofits, running for office and leading charter schools. Its alumni include some of most recognized names in public education, including D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.

But as Teach for America’s influence has grown, so has resistance to it. The organization — which trains prospective teachers for five weeks and demands just a two-year commitment — has drawn criticism for creating instability in troubled schools that could benefit from sustained efforts with more experienced educators.

She blamed the decline on a number of factors that are driving enrollment drops in many teacher-preparation programs, including the improving economy, which offers young college graduates more options than they had during the recession. In addition, she wrote, the public debate about education is polarized and “toxic,” driving away talented people from a profession that needs them.

“Anyone concerned with the future of our nation should be alarmed by the staggering decline in enrollment we’re seeing across the country in teacher preparation programs,” she wrote.

She tacitly acknowledged that some of the recruitment problems are due to increasingly vocal critics of TFA, including some alumni. “The toxic debate surrounding education — and attacks on organizations that seek to bring more people to the field — is undeniably pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact,” she wrote.

Who Rejects the Science Behind Climate Change?

[ 60 ] April 30, 2016 |

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Why, it’s old white men! Younger people accept climate science at rates far higher than older people and both African-Americans and Latinos at rates far higher than whites. Unfortunately, this piece doesn’t specifically break it down by gender as well, but it definitely places the blame on what it calls “the white male effect.”

The ethnicity gap (and the age gap) can likely be explained in part by certain groups’ general preferences for maintaining the status quo. Social scientists have identified what they’ve termed the “white male effect,” describing the fact that white males tend to be less concerned about various sources of risk than minorities and women. Scientists have speculated that this effect largely stems from the fact that mitigating these risks could result in restrictions on markets, commerce, and industry that have historically tended to disproportionately benefit white males. In other words, if you are already doing well from the system, you’re less inclined to change it—no matter how much the ice melts and the oceans rise. In their 2011 paper “Cool Dudes,” Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap concluded: “The unique views of conservative white males contribute significantly to the high level of climate change denial in the United States.” And climate change denialism is largely—but not exclusively—a US phenomenon.

In fact, their research found that conservative white males who express the highest confidence in their opinions about climate science and risks are the most wrong, and in the most severe denial. McCright and Dunlap concluded that “climate change denial is a form of identity-protective cognition, reflecting a system-justifying tendency.” This may also contribute to the age gap, since younger Americans have not yet benefitted from the societal status quo to the same degree as older Americans.

Minorities also tend to be disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of climate change, and realize the benefits of addressing it. For example, minorities are more likely to live in close proximity to coal power plants and their associated air pollution. Cutting carbon pollution would result in fewer coal power plants, and hence cleaner air for these populations. Many minorities have also recently emigrated from countries that are more vulnerable to climate change impacts. In other words, some minority groups (particularly Latinos) are more likely to have “transnational ties,” and an awareness of how people in other countries think about and are affected by climate change.

It’s almost like old white men may not be the cause of many of this nation’s intractable problems!

The Worst Spot in America

[ 32 ] April 30, 2016 |

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Stone Mountain, Georgia is an abhorrent place, one of the single most reprehensible spots in the United States. A beautiful geological formation, unfortunately it has served as a center of American white nationalist ideology for over a century. It was the meeting point for the founders of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. In 1916, the owner deeded the north side of the mountain to the United Daughters of the Confederacy so that figures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis could be blasted into the side, the largest and most ambitious of the new monuments to white power erected in the South during the late 19th and early 20th century. It didn’t really go anywhere for a long time, with various architects, including Gutzon Borglum, failing to make much progress. The KKK took over fundraising for it and in 1923, the owner granted the KKK an easement to hold rallies there at any time. But it still stalled out until the civil rights movement led to a new spasm of white nationalism in the South. In 1958, the Georgia legislature passed a law to buy the mountain and in 1964, the carving of the slaver heroes started. It was completed in 1972, shortly after Jimmy Carter, who won the Democratic primary against someone to his left in part by criticizing his opponent for supporting Martin Luther King, replaced the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox as Georgia’s governor.

It’s now surrounded by a theme park and a cheesy light show shines on our Treason in Defense of Slavery leaders nightly, but that doesn’t mean that the tackiness means it shines less brightly in the meth-addled eyes of current white supremacists. In fact, there was a racist rally just last weekend, which of course led to the counter-rally and then the real horror, the canceling of the evening’s laser light show.

Who Died on the Job Today and Why?

[ 11 ] April 29, 2016 |

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Who? Probably a Latino immigrant or someone working for the fossil fuel industry.

 Latino workers remain among the most vulnerable, with a job fatality rate about 9 percent higher than the national rate, partially reflecting Latinos’ prevalence in high-risk, low-wage manual labor jobs. The total number of Latinos killed at work is up slightly, from 707 in 2010 to 804 in 2014; nearly two-thirds of those killed were immigrants.

Among industries, the oil and gas trade seems deadlier than ever: Workers perished at a devastating rate of “15.6 per 100,000 workers, nearly 5 times the national average,” resulting in an unprecedented 144 deaths in 2014. Despite the global decline of the natural-gas market in recent months, Rebecca Reindel of AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department says via e-mail that even if the fracking sector sheds jobs, the occupational dangers might not decline, but instead, rise as bosses tighten budgets: “While there might be fewer workers in the industry due to those changes, experience in safety and health tells us that when businesses need to cut corners for cost, safety and health is often the first and hardest hit. So even with lower employment, safety and health hazards could get worse for workers.”

Why? Because legal and regulatory enforcement is so lax that there’s no good reason for employers to care about worker safety.

 Yet, even when regulators respond swiftly, employers have little to fear: In fiscal year 2015, the average penalty for a federal OSHA violation was $2,148, and just $1,317 for a state-level violation. A dead worker doesn’t cost much more: The median penalty for a lethal federal violation was $7,000. And while tens of millions have been injured or killed at work since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, the study notes that “only 89 cases have been prosecuted under the act, with defendants serving a total of 110 months in jail. During this time, there were more than 395,000 workplace fatalities…about 20% of which were investigated by federal OSHA.” Meanwhile, the report notes, under another beleaguered federal regulatory protection, the Environmental Protection Act, fiscal year 2015 alone saw “185 defendants charged, resulting in 129 years of jail time and $200 million in fines and restitution.”

Although there have been a few high-profile criminal prosecutions for worker deaths, sometimes under other federal or state statutes, generally corporate impunity shields even the most scandalized bosses (see Massey Coal executive Don Blankenship’s tiny misdemeanor conviction last year for his role in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster). Workers’ lives are cheap, so the ultimate economic burden of unsafe jobs is drastically socialized onto the public, as occupational injury and illness costs the country an estimated “$250 billion to $370 billion a year.”

It is true that workplace fatalities have declined over the years. But this is more about the offshoring of dangerous labor to the world’s poor as it is employers caring about workplace safety. In fact, a far more telling statistic would be workplace deaths in products made by and for American companies than the number of workers specifically who die in the United States. In a fully globalized economy, that really matters more.

Privatizing Hope, Individualizing Politics

[ 30 ] April 29, 2016 |

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Ronald Aronson has an interesting, if rather lengthy, essay about the privatization of hope, adapted from his forthcoming book. I don’t agree with all of it. He falls into the frequent trap of bipartisanism when discussing the mid-20th century without taking into account the party alignments of that time in order to say “bipartisan solutions were once possible and now aren’t and isn’t that bad,” which is a question with an actual answer that is usually ignored. And I think the New Left gets too much blame for individualizing activism, as those activists were already a creation of postwar consumerism who turned that consumer lifestyle toward activism. There are other things to nitpick about the history as well–the late 20th century didn’t invent advertising and his example of baseball and consumerism falters in the significant, if less bright and loud, advertising of prewar baseball.

But the overall essay is really interesting in thinking about how strong a role the atomized, empowered individual plays in our culture and in our politics. A couple of excerpts:

The most stunning instance of this shift is the eruption of the Tea Party in early 2009. By what political alchemy did the only movement generated during the first three years of the Great Recession demand more of the same policies that caused the crisis? The financial collapse of September 2008 refuted thirty years of deregulaton and dismantling of the welfare state but provoked little action at the other end of the political spectrum, which was busy electing the new president and celebrating his victory but not pushing him on policy or giving him needed support. Still, wouldn’t the next activist wave—after thirty-five years of top-down class struggle and increasing inequality—be a movement of the unemployed and foreclosed demanding collective action for jobs, relief, and punishment of the business executives and regulators behind the financial collapse?

Instead, the most successful activists to emerge from the recession called for even less regulation, even lower taxes, and an even flimsier safety net. Were these self-styled patriots wearing three-cornered hats out of touch with reality? Not their reality: the Tea Party is a sour, middle- and upper-middle-class wave of resentment, comprising mostly college-educated white males over forty-five years old, one-fifth of whom earn more than $100,000 per year. We must take stock of the ironies of history that brought us to this point, where the first mass mobilization with teeth since the New Left turned out to be the “libertarian mob.”

Attending to this history reveals an unmistakable irony. That mob is in important ways fueled by the spread of freedom and equality since the 1960s, often reckoned a progressive undertaking. Since the social revolutions of that era, the individual and his or her rights and responsibilities have come to count for far more than collective tasks such as combating global warming and eliminating poverty. With social revolution has come economic: the expansion of consumer society, the proliferation of personal electronic devices, the growth of free-market ideology, the defeat of alternatives to unregulated capitalism. All foster a scenario of detachment, in which each of us is free to ignore our sense of belonging to a larger society. Citizenship is being reduced to participation in regular elections that rarely offer genuine alternatives to the prevailing system, to moments of cheering for our side and honoring “our heroes.” Even such collective action as exists is increasingly pitched in terms of the self-interest of millions of mes.

The privatization of hope, then, is not simply a matter of focusing energy and attention on oneself and one’s family. It is the withdrawal of personal expectation from the wider world, the rejection of even a possible democratic solidarity on behalf of a collective life encompassing and fit for all.

And the conclusion:

Today what must command our attention is not the radical falsity of the privatization of hope, which denies everyone’s deep social being, but its debilitating consequences. We are collectively losing the ability to cope with the most urgent problems. People who experience themselves as random, isolated individuals will never find the wherewithal to understand or agree upon, let alone master, the reality of climate change. The increasingly dangerous effect of two centuries of uncoordinated actions and dangers blurred by self-interest can be brought under control only if we accept that there is an us that has transformed nature and our relationship to it. To protect our common home from disaster, humans must form a responsive global collective. We must recover and enlarge social hope in the name of survival. But how to do this if a critical mass is in denial about the problem and lacks the ability to form a consensus and act together?

Our need, according to French social theorist Francis Jeanson, is for “citoyennisation”—the transformation of isolated and impotent individuals into active, militant citizens who experience their fate collectively and are willing to act on it democratically. Those trying to make this happen will have to negotiate not only the privatization of hope, but also the widespread acceptance of the maelstrom of progress and the pervasive cynicism of today’s advanced societies. Those who are already invested in political struggle will have to work their way beyond the boundaries inherent in identity politics and the thousands of other good causes clamoring for attention.

But no matter how privatized or narrowly focused we become, our latent capacity for generosity and need for connection remain only a tragedy or a disaster away from activation. In A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), Rebecca Solnit describes those utopian moments of hope, few and far between, when catastrophes lead to the breakdown of normal order and thereby demand that people collectively take control of their lives. Her examples reach from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Let us hope other collective challenges—from the Syrian refugee crisis to global climate change—do not have to reach disastrous proportions before we overcome our passivity and isolation and recover our capacity to act together.

This focus on the individual versus the collective is I think pretty central to how a lot of the left thinks about politics. As I have said many times in the past here, politics should not be about you. Really, you don’t matter, or you shouldn’t think you do. It’s not about what you want. It’s about the people around you, your family, your friends, your coworkers, society at large. Self-centeredness is a terrible way to approach politics. Yet it is too common in an era where people, and here I’m talking specifically about the left, show off their politics like their new tattoo. “If Candidate X doesn’t support my positions of GMOs, vaccinations, and foreign policy, then there is no way I will vote for that person.” As much as I respect Bernie Sanders, this sort of formulation is pretty common among a lot of his supporters, as applied to the Great Satan of Hillary Clinton. This is the core of the third party vanity campaigns of Ralph Nader that still are attractive to large numbers of people. It’s this idea of the collective over the individual, an idea with deep roots in the labor movement, that leads me so strongly to reject an electoral politics of purity so that “I can teach the Democrats a lesson.”

Rather, the greatest good for the greatest number is a much more productive, if significantly less satisfying, way to approach politics. Yet that requires compromise and a lack of personal fulfillment. At the core of this whole problem is that we consider ourselves empowered consumers who need to be personally appealed to in order for us to grant our vote, and thus we often make personal demands of politicians who of course cannot follow through on them. Sometimes this gets channeled into a mass movement that leads to inevitable disappointment (Barack Obama), sometimes this gets channeled toward a single candidate who doesn’t quite make it (Bernie Sanders), and quite often it leads to people either not voting or voting for protest candidates (Nader, Jill Stein, staying at home talking about the need for socialism or the evils of vaccinations on Facebook).

Ultimately, we need to break this extreme version of individualism that postwar culture has created to work toward collective solutions to our societal problems, ranging from unequal schools that are exacerbated by people moving to the suburbs for their kids to climate change to a fair and equal economy. That’s a big challenge and probably not one where we will make any progress.

Should Black Lives Matter Compromise? No.

[ 129 ] April 29, 2016 |

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Meant to say this a few days ago, but I will now: Barack Obama is flat out wrong about Black Lives Matter.

At a youth town hall in London Saturday, President Obama said that activists, specifically Black Lives Matter activists, need to be willing to compromise and that sometimes, the tone of the activism can turn people off to their message.

While answering questions from students and young people, Obama praised the Black Lives Matter movement for bringing to light the issues of police brutality and racial discrimination, but he says, their tone can mean that sometimes the message gets lost.

“You can’t just keep on yelling at them and you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,” Obama said. “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable —that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.”

Obama brought up compromise often in his speech, imploring youth activists and political hopefuls to learn how to compromise and to not see opponents or those on the other side of the aisle as enemies.

“If you spend time with people who just agree with you on any particular issue, you become even more extreme in your convictions because you’re never contradicted and everyone just mutually reinforces their perspective,” he said. “That’s why I think it is so important for all the young people here to seek out people who don’t agree with you.

No.

I get why Barack Obama is saying this. It’s the world he lives in. And that’s fine. At some point, compromise happens on any piece of legislation. That’s how one kind of politics works. But that politics doesn’t happen unless people are out on the streets demanding it, refusing to compromise, and causing problems for politicians until they do something about it. The recent minimum wage increases are directly connected to the Fight for $15, for instance. That sort of direct action moves the party left and takes incredibly lame insiders like Terry McAuliffe and forces them to do the right thing, increasing people’s rights. We need an electoral politics and we need a protest politics and they don’t have to be completely intertwined. Without direct action on the street demanding complete capitulation to a given agenda, the partial victories won’t happen. Obama wouldn’t even be talking about these issues in London if activists weren’t yelling in Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland.

You know how you get Black Lives Matter to tone down its message? Allow black lives to matter. These activists might inconvenient the president. Good. Do something about it. He should advocate for the legislation you want and then accept the inevitable compromise that at least moves the ball forward. Even then, the activists should not. This is how change takes place. Those uncomfortable with protest politics need to understand this. Including the president.

The Corporation as Pop Culture Villain

[ 226 ] April 29, 2016 |

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This is an interesting discussion of how the corporation has become a popular culture villain. But I think it’s a remarkably apolitical way that doesn’t really transfer over to distrust of corporations today. The article focuses primarily on science fiction, going back to Soylent Green, which I just watched for the first time last week and which fascinated me because I wondered if it was the first major film to focus on climate change. It is, in its own way, a really interesting look at environmental problems at a time when this was just coming to be a central part of American culture.

In any case, what strikes me is that as late as today, popular culture’s consistent creation of the villainous corporation seems to not affect people’s actual vision of corporations at all. That is certainly true in recent cultural portrayals of corporations in the present. When I saw The Big Short, I wanted to go burn some banks. But that film, as well-received and relatively widely-seen as it was, seemingly had no effect on most of the people who actually watched it, even though they personally may have been completely screwed by the housing bubble. I don’t remember much of anything when it came out about what an indictment of capitalism it was. There was perhaps a bit more of this with The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps because any Scorsese film gets more cultural recognition and perhaps because he portrayed his characters in such a way that would make viewers either want to be them or loathe them with great passion. But even that film has hardly proven some cultural anti-capitalist touchstone.

So I guess the corporation is this bad guy in sci-fi culture, but I sure wish it has some connection to real life.

The Wages of the Olympics, 1988 Edition

[ 30 ] April 29, 2016 |

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I spent 1996-97 in South Korea teaching English in the public schools. It was a mind-blowing experience in any number of ways. But one thing was clear when I was there, which is that the poor were treated like garbage. There were still old-style slums when I was there. They were disappearing fast in the rapidly modernizing nation, but there were still sort of low-slung somewhat makeshift buildings where people were essentially growing rice in their back fields were right next to 12 story high-rises. I went from school to school, from the best in the province to very poor schools. And the poor basically were treated like garbage. So I wasn’t surprised to find out that the awful and American-supported Park Chung-Hee ordered the streets cleaned of the undesirable.

Food History Reading List

[ 26 ] April 28, 2016 |

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Backlist has published an excellent food history reading list for those of you interested in those sorts of things. I did a labor history reading list for them a few months ago. These are good lists and excellent primers for smart readers like you who want to read more history and support the efforts of poor historians through your generous readership.

Soil Conservation: A Southern History

[ 44 ] April 28, 2016 |

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When we think of soil conservation (a topic I know is near and dear to all LGM readers!) we think of the Dust Bowl as the central event. And in many ways that’s true, but it has deeper roots, which is fantastic erosion created in the Southern cotton regions. Above is Providence Canyon, Georgia. This is one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. It is also completely created by erosion from cotton growing. The historian Paul Sutter expands upon this and previews his new book on Providence Canyon by looking at Soil Conservation Service head Hugh Bennett.

Only a couple of years later, in 1913, Bennett traveled to Stewart County, Georgia, just south of Columbus, where a soil survey team was struggling to map a landscape wracked by the most extreme gullying he had ever seen. Again, Bennett and his colleagues mapped tens of thousands of acres of “Rough gullied land.” Some of the county’s gullies were more than 150 feet deep and hundreds of feet wide. The published “Soil Survey of Stewart County” highlighted a gully that locals called “Providence Cave,” a place that would later come to be known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.”

Witnessing such erosion convinced Bennett that something needed to be done to save the region’s, and the nation’s, soils. But several factors limited the effectiveness of his proselytizing for a federal soil conservation bureau. Federal conservation programs on public lands had developed during the Progressive Era, but instituting a program to regulate resource use on private lands had proven more difficult. The interruption of the First World War and the more conservative political climate of the postwar years also thwarted his ambitions. Bennett had to contend with another problem, too: the head of the U.S. Bureau of Soils, Milton Whitney, refused to take soil conservation seriously. Instead, Whitney repeatedly insisted that “the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses.” Everything Bennett had seen in his travels around the South had convinced him otherwise. “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation,” Bennett lamented, “could be put into a single brief sentence.”

Whitney’s death in 1927 brought on a flurry of soil conservation activity, including a formative government report, Soil Erosion: A National Menace, co-authored by Bennett in 1928. Bennett also began, as he put it, to “howl about the evils of soil erosion.” His campaign built strength over the next five years, especially after 1932 because of the Roosevelt administration’s willingness to wed federal work relief and soil conservation. Bennett continued to use the massive soil erosion he had witnessed in the American South as rationale for a soil conservation agency, citing the cases of Fairfield and Stewart County repeatedly.

The cause of soil conservation, then, was ascendant well before the first dust storms rolled off the Great Plains and into the nation’s consciousness. The devastated soils of the American South had a particularly formative influence. The Dust Bowl certainly played a major part in the final passage of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, but it was a latecomer to the stage – the latest disaster in a long history of destructive human-induced soil erosion.

SEIU and Airbnb, Revisited

[ 65 ] April 28, 2016 |

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The proposed agreement between SEIU and Airbnb collapsed under withering attack from other unions and the San Francisco left.

In a statement obtained by the Guardian on Thursday afternoon, SEIU said it does not have an agreement or deal with Airbnb and that it plans to work with Unite Here, a separate union that represents hotel workers and has strongly criticized the potential SEIU-Airbnb partnership.

“Representatives from SEIU and [Unite Here] met and have agreed to find a common approach to protect and expand the stock of affordable housing in all communities across the country and to protect and preserve standards for workers in residential and hotel cleaning while also growing opportunities for these cleaners to improve their lives,” SEIU’s statement said.

Unite Here welcomed SEIU’s decision to back away from a deal with Airbnb. “It is our clear understanding that SEIU will not have a deal with Airbnb to represent housekeeping services,” said Unite Here spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel.

Strassel continued: “[Unite Here] will continue to vigorously oppose any efforts by Airbnb to expand and push for commonsense laws to mitigate the devastating impact this company has had on our communities.”

Under the terms of the proposed deal, Airbnb reportedly would have endorsed a $15-an-hour minimum wage effort backed by the SEIU, directing hosts to use cleaners who were paid the minimum rate and trained and certified in “green home cleaning services”.

I still struggle to see the big problem with such an agreement. Airbnb is not going away, it’s not a major factor in rising housing prices, and it hasn’t led to hotels having vacant rooms. That’s not to say there’s not problems with Airbnb, including minor contributions to the above problems, customer safety, and the outsourcing of risk to independent contractors. But moving Airbnb toward promoting something like union work is not a terrible thing. Airbnb or similar companies are not going away and unions will need to figure out what to do about it. There may well have been problems with the proposed deal, but I’m not really seeing it.

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