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Teaching Tenure Track

[ 38 ] June 4, 2015 |

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Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth have a very solid proposal for create tenure-track teaching positions for what would now be contingent faculty. In part:

In our recently published book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, we argue that the crisis in American academe has nothing to do with the intellectual content of research and teaching in the humanities, and everything to do with the labor conditions of most American college professors. We therefore propose, as a way of undoing the deprofessionalization of the profession of college teaching, a teaching-intensive tenure track for nontenure-track faculty members with Ph.D.s and good teaching records.

We know it is difficult to measure teaching, and we do not recommend that departments rely solely on student evaluations. Teaching can and should be evaluated not only by students but by extramural peer observation, by review of syllabi and course plans, by examples of professorial feedback on student work, and by careful review of professors’ own accounts of their classrooms.

Not surprisingly, our proposal has met with mixed responses. The most predictable is the complaint that our plan is too utopian or ambitious: that tenure was meant only for research faculty who can be evaluated by a national or international body of their peers, and that a teaching-intensive tenure track would dilute the very meaning of tenure. This view is not merely blinkered but mistaken; the academic freedom tenure ensures is as important for teaching and shared governance as it is for research.

I think this is a solid way forward. I don’t know that administrations would buy into it since they are turning to cheap contingent faculty in order to save money. Providing an alternative tenure track would give those faculty power, which is probably not what the average provost wants. But as far as a just yet realistic proposal from faculty on how to create better lives for contingent colleagues, I think this is a good way forward. As far as some of the professionalization questions some faculty have risen, I basically agree with Bérubé and Ruth up and down the line on how this would improve faculty lives.

Noncompete Clauses

[ 107 ] June 4, 2015 |

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Chris Murphy and Al Franken have introduced a bill to ban one of the most egregiously oppressive practices against low-wage workers: noncompete clauses.

The bill from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) would ban noncompete clauses for workers making less than $15 an hour or $31,200 annually, or the minimum wage in the employee’s municipality.

The move follows reports the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops requires some of its low-wage workers to sign two-year noncompete agreements prohibiting them from working at retail stores that make at least 10 percent of their sales from sandwiches.

The legislation is dubbed the “Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerable Employees (MOVE) Act” and is also supported by the National Employment Law Project.

There is no reason at all for noncompete clauses on low-wage workers. If a Jimmy John’s work learns how to make a sandwich and then takes her skills to Subway, Jimmy John’s does not suffer at all. This is why I push back against those who say that the employer assault on workers is about money. It’s not. It’s about power. Money is a big part of power, but there are plenty as aspects to this assault that have nothing to do with money. Noncompete clauses in the fast food industry is one of them. This is all about employers doing this because they can and because it intimidates workers from quitting. It should be illegal and hopefully this bill will make it so.

What Should Labor Have Done Differently?

[ 91 ] June 3, 2015 |

george-meany-resize-1Above: George Meany, 1967

Stephen Lerner spoke at a plenary session during last week’s Fighting Inequality conference. He asked us to engage in an intellectual exercise. If you could take a time machine back to 1955, what is the one thing you would tell the labor movement to do differently so that it the situation it faces in 2015 wouldn’t be so bad?

It’s an interesting question. My first response is that there probably isn’t that one thing labor could have done differently because the problems it faces are structural rather than a failure of leadership. I know the leadership hasn’t helped, but we need to keep our legitimate criticisms of poor labor leadership in their proper context. One thin labor could have done a lot better is dumping George Meany as head of the AFL-CIO and replacing him with Walter Reuther, but I’m not sure the final outcome is all that much better. From a moral perspective, telling labor to stop working with CIA and supporting American Cold War foreign policy is a good one, but if the AFL-CIO is a leader in opposing the Vietnam War, what is really different today except maybe that others on the left trust the movement a bit more? Certainly telling labor to think of a real response to outsourcing and capital mobility is very tempting. UAW members destroying Toyotas with a sledgehammer might have felt cathartic, but it’s hardly a response of value.

I think the best answer is to urge them to never think of management as a partner. Maybe the biggest mistake labor made was thinking that they had long-term deals with the employers that would create permanent stability for the working class. Labor’s power forced employers to tone down their anti-union rhetoric in public, but they never accepted unions as partners. As soon as labor let its guard down, employers started pushing back against everything they had given up to workers. At first, it was around the margins, but it became a full-fledged assault by the 1970s. And labor had no response to that because it had deemphasized organizing and worker activism, instead relying solely on the boardroom and courtroom as spaces of contention and negotiation. Those strategies definitely had great value and those who wish for a more activist labor movement overly romanticize direct action on the shopfloor. But that doesn’t mean that worker activism isn’t a necessary part of a labor movement. Marginalizing that in favor of thinking of employers as permanent partners that would get workers a growing piece of a growing pie, that was a pretty deadly error of judgement.

Oil and Outrage

[ 2 ] June 3, 2015 |

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I have a new piece up at Counterpunch on the Santa Barbara oil spills, 1969 and 2015:

The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.

But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.

Of course, we all know that a bill which passes unanimously in the Senate means that Richard Nixon is a liberal who deserves all the credit for signing it.

Sohel Rana Charged with Murder: Does it Matter?

[ 17 ] June 3, 2015 |

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Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza where over 1100 workers were killed in the largest workplace accident in industrial history, has been charged with murder in Bangladesh. 42 others are also facing charges, ranging from murder to building code violations.

This is a necessary step for justice. But there’s a long way to go before justice is actually served and an even longer path before the system that created these deaths is fixed. First, Rana still has a lot of friends in the Bangladeshi government. Will he be convicted? And if he is, what sentence will he receive? That remains to be seen. But I think the bigger issue is that it was not just a corrupt Bangladeshi political and economic system that created this disaster. It was a global apparel industry that asks no questions about means of production so long as the goods are cheap. The western apparel companies like Walmart, Primark, The Children’s Place who had contracts with Rana are as guilty as he is. And yes most of the companies have responded to these deaths by changing absolutely nothing about their sourcing practices. They remain completely unaccountable.

This is why we need an international system of governance where the survivors and families can seek compensation not only from Rana and his fellow perpetrators, but from the companies actually responsible for this exploitative system.

Once again, there is absolutely no reason for apparel production to be unsafe. There is very little inherently dangerous about it. But it is unsafe because the entire model of production is based upon outsourcing and exploitation to increase corporate profit. Until that changes, the prosecution of Sohel Rana isn’t going to stop future workplace disasters from occurring.

Gawker Unionism

[ 28 ] June 2, 2015 |

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Tomorrow, Gawker staffers vote on whether to form a union. This has been really interesting to watch play out because the company has allowed its writers to debate the issue on the site. Most of the writers who have contributed have favored the union. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but a victory here would be important for two reasons. First, it would be an expansion of unionism into new media. Entering any new industry and especially a growth area is always important for unions. Second, ten years ago, I really don’t think Gawker’s audience would be interested in hearing about labor unions and reading multiple articles about writers joining them. But times have changed and maybe this suggests a shift among the sort of educated, somewhat left-leaning readers of the site on unionism. Ultimately, a revival of American unionism is not going to happen before everyday people think they have value. Largely positive public discussions of unions are important. Union victories are even more important. I don’t want to overstate the importance of this, but it would be a nice victory.

The End of Pensions

[ 61 ] June 2, 2015 |

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This story about how the Bricklayers union offered a real compromise on their pensions only to have it completely rejected by management is incredibly depressing. Basically, there was a moment in American history where it was possible for working people to retire with dignity. Repealing that is an explicit goal of employers. And workers just don’t have the power to do anything about it.

Working Hours and Full Employment

[ 25 ] June 2, 2015 |

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I’ll admit that what I know about the French economy can be put in a thimble. So I won’t comment on the details. But the French economist Michel Husson and Stephanie Treillet have a provocative Jacobin essay on the connection between reducing the work week and achieving full employment:

There is a close link between working-time reduction and distribution of income. There are many ways to do it, each with obviously different effects on the distribution of wealth. The thirty-five-hour week has left wages unchanged, contrary to employers’ complaints, which accuse it of increasing the costs of labor. This result was achieved in two ways: by reducing social security contributions and by raising work intensity, which has reduced the policy’s potential for creating new jobs.

In other words, employers never stopped skimming productivity gains, thereby maintaining or even increasing their profit margins. These profits were not used to invest more, but to pay out more dividends. In 2012, an employee worked an average of twenty-six days per year for shareholders, instead of nine days in 1980.

What is not paid out to employees in the form of wage increases or job creation through working-time reduction is directly seized by the shareholders. This is why the rise and solidification of mass unemployment and this form of shareholder takeover (a good indicator of financialization) are two sides of the same “medal.”

This is also why any proposal to reduce unemployment without touching income distribution is an illusion. Here the crisis reveals the violence of social relations: while employees are laid off and 90% of new hires have fixed-term contracts of less than a month, dividend growth, interrupted in 2010 at the height of the crisis, is resuming with a vengeance.

Certainly very thought-provoking. Of course we are far from adopting a 35-hour workweek in the United States, but these are the goals the American left need to prioritize.

The Population Bomb

[ 162 ] June 2, 2015 |

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The Times has a discussion of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, setting it up as so many do today–as being fundamentally wrong and tainting environmentalism as a whole with that wrongness. That’s pretty unfair. On some level of course, Ehrlich wasn’t correct in that he underestimated the technological ability to grow more crops and how higher consumption rates would lead to declining birth rates. But on the fundamental level–that the world is vastly overproducing in proportion to what the planet can handle–was not incorrect. It may be that consumption is the real threat the world faces as opposed to overpopulation. There is an upper limit of the world’s carrying capacity of humans, but the significantly greater threat in the short term is that overconsumption will lead to catastrophic climate change, as we are already seeing. It’s this latter issue why attacks on Ehrlich are problematic–because it assumes that apocalyptic environmental thinking is inherently wrong. Meanwhile, those who are seen as opposing Ehrlich’s line of thinking are portrayed as not only correct, but generally better people. But Stewart Brand, who made an entire career on optimistic environmental thinking, is horribly wrong about extinction in ways that are at least as damaging to the world as anything Ehrlich has written. Meanwhile, Green Revolution scientist Norman Bourlag was perfectly fine with the mass extinction of all the world’s animals if it meant selling more DDT.

There’s no question that focusing on population as the world’s greatest environmental problem has given cover to racists and rich world consumers blaming poor people instead of examining their own culpability. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need jeremiads about the state of the planet. With the realities of climate change just beginning to hit us, we need all the jeremiads we can get.

And as for the idea that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything, I hear this talked about as received wisdom all the time, but have never seen a single piece of empirical evidence supporting the claim.

Flipping Houses

[ 116 ] June 2, 2015 |

Pittsburgh

The expansion of extreme house flipping and rapidly rising housing prices to cities like Pittsburgh is not a positive development for those of us who value affordable and diverse cities with stable growth. Unfortunately, smaller scale versions of what has happened to New York and San Francisco can be replicated in cities around the country. Still, I don’t know what the long-term market is in many cities for people able to turn enormous short-term profits on housing.

Release Day

[ 78 ] June 2, 2015 |

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Today is Out of Sight‘s official release date
. If you like what I do on this blog, you will love this book. It combines a breezy overview of America’s history of capitalism and resistance with analysis of how outsourcing has destroyed the American working and middle class while not allowing the people of Bangladesh, Vietnam, Honduras, and Guatemala to create middle classes of their own. It brings labor and environmental analysis together on issues as disparate as apparel production, candy factories, and steel. It focuses on tales of women in the history of global production from 19th century New England to 21st century Bangladesh. And it tries to point the way forward toward global labor solidarity and reforms that could help workers of all nations. In other words, it’s by far the most important thing I’ve ever done in my political and professional life.

Not to belabor the point, but I might as well repeat some of the blurbs here:

“The arrival of Out of Sight could not have been better timed. Erik Loomis prescribes how activists can take back our country—for workers and those who care about the health of our planet.” —Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

“The rise of unbridled corporate power has been a disaster in so many ways—including the ability of the 1 percent to intimidate the rest of us into remaining silent lest we displease our masters. The story told here is tragic and important.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“In this dazzling overview of industrial history, Erik Loomis shows how we can—no, we must—fight for both decent jobs and a clean environment. We can do so by not letting the corporations escape ‘out of sight.’ We need to think and act as globally as corporations do, and force them to respect rights wherever they go. This book is a must-read for people who care about jobs and the environment.”
—Aviva Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University and author of Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal

“A passionate condemnation of the power that corporations hold over our lives, Erik Loomis shows that capitalism’s geography is a central element in class conflicts.”
—Andrew Herod, Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of Georgia

“One of the top voices chronicling the struggles of the twenty-first-century labor movement. Loomis’s blunt, witty, take-no-prisoners style always promises an exciting read.”
—Sarah Jaffe

“Erik Loomis has globalized [Upton Sinclair’s] The Jungle. He shows that the most important reason for U.S. corporations to produce abroad is to avoid the regulations that books like The Jungle produced. Perhaps Out of Sight can prompt a similar movement on behalf of workers around the world, our planetary environment, and, yes, we who wear the clothes and eat the sausage that ‘they’ produce.”
—James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me

“Well-written and informative . . . shows the many strong connections between workplace catastrophes, poor working conditions, diseases, and environmental disasters. Highly recommended.”
—Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Dhaka

“Erik Loomis shows that our systems remain broken, and it is our planet and her people, particularly the most marginalized communities, who are paying the price. However, there is hope in collective action.”
—Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program

And as my father in law put it, “my granddaughter in the 8th grade could read this.” It’s the best thing one could say about it. It’s easy to read and I hope powerful and persuasive. But you won’t know unless you procure a copy. If the world’s most famous environmentalist, the head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, several famous scholars, and a sitting senator and his dog can find time to read it, surely you can.

Argentine Sweatshops

[ 7 ] June 1, 2015 |

TO GO WITH AFP STORY A worker of the Pun

The use of sweatshop labor in the apparel industry is not just a U.S. thing and it doesn’t just take place in Bangladesh. Rather, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that needs to be fought on an international scale. This story about the terrible conditions of sweatshops in Buenos Aires is an example. Taking advantage of impoverished Bolivian workers, employers skirt laws in order to profit.

The death of two Bolivian boys in a fire and the mistreatment and sexual abuse of a young Bolivian woman put the problem of slave-like labour conditions in clandestine sweatshops back in the headlines.

The state, the textile and fashion industries, and consumers mutually blame each other for the problem.

The two brothers aged seven and 10 died on April 27 in a fire in one of the numerous clandestine garment workshops in Flores, a Buenos Aires City neighbourhood, where their parents, immigrants from Bolivia, were living and working.

A few days earlier, Rosa Payro, a 21-year-old from Bolivia, was rescued from another sweatshop on the outskirts of Buenos Aries after nearly three years of being raped, beaten, tortured and held captive by distant relatives she was working for.

These two cases reflect a complex situation, Juan Vásquez, a former sweatshop worker who now forms part of Simbiosis Cultural, a collective of Bolivian immigrants seeking to draw attention to the appalling conditions in the clandestine workshops, told IPS.

“When people talk about slave labour, they think of it as a ‘Bolivian’ thing and they don’t associate it with consumerism, with local working class people, with the connivance of the national and city governments,” said Vásquez. “We are merely the leftovers, the excluded, the exiled.”

According to the La Alameda Foundation, there are some 3,000 sweatshops in and around Buenos Aires alone, with an average of 10 employees each. The majority of the roughly 30,000 workers are from Bolivia, the region’s poorest country. But there are also Peruvians, as well as workers from other Argentine provinces.

“They live in the same place where they are exploited, and they work over 16 hours a day,” said Lucas Schaerer, spokesman for the La Alameda Foundation, which fights slave and child labour and the trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation. “They are completely under the control of their boss.”

He told IPS that “they’re forced to pay taxes, they eat in the same place they work, in inhumane conditions. Their meals, discounted from their wages, are skimpy, which is why they have a high incidence of tuberculosis. They live in concentration camp-style dormitories with bunkbeds and bathrooms shared by 30, 50, 60 people.”

Officials blame each other or take the real easy way out and talk about illegal immigration. But the reason these sweatshops exist is that no one in power cares about these people. Even the Argentine government is contracting with some of these sweatshops. There are people fighting these conditions, including Bolivian migrants, but as the story shows, the exploitation and murder of workers continues apace.

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