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Optimism?

[ 65 ] August 30, 2013 |

John Logan has five reasons you should be optimistic about unions this Labor Day.

First, most Americans hold favorable views of unions. According to a June 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans hold favorable views of labor unions, a 10 percent increase from the number in the same poll conducted two years earlier. This is first time since January 2007 that a majority of the public has viewed unions favorably. 80 percent of “liberal Democrats” hold favorable views on unions. Women, minorities and youth – key groups for organized labor — hold the most pro-union attitudes. There is no straightforward relationship between public approval for unions and union growth, but the labor movement must figure out how to bring into its fold the majority of Americans who like unions.

Second, bucking national trends, union membership in California increased by a whopping 110,000 members in 2012, even as it fell by 368,000 nationwide. Much of the increase in California, which has the nation’s largest number of union members, was among healthcare workers and Latino workers. In several other states with growing Latino populations, membership grew more modestly, but these states may soon follow California’s lead.

Third, some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers have been standing up for decent wages and working conditions. Wal-Mart workers and warehouse workers under contract with Wal-Mart have gone out on strike around the country. Port truckers in L.A. and Long Beach voted to unionize, as did carwash workers in L.A. and New York, and taxi drivers in New York. Following the examples of New York, Hawaii enacted a domestic worker “Bill of Rights” and California may soon do the same. Fast food workers — most of who are adults working for little more than $10 per hour — have walked off the job in New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Seattle. They won’t be able to bargain with their employers anytime soon, but few would have predicted their brave job actions last year.

Fourth, after years of Republican obstructionism, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has a full compliment of five members for the first time under the Obama administration. The NLRB election system provides weak protection for workers’ right to organize, and its influence has been severely constrained by the courts, but it remains an important bulwark against recalcitrant employers who violate workers’ fundamental rights.

Finally, as demonstrated by next week’s “open convention,” the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are more flexible, imaginative, and inclusive than ever before. They have embraced the struggles of domestic workers, carwash workers, Wal-Mart workers, fast food workers and others. They have formed deep alliances with the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Sierra Club, religious organizations, and other groups that support basic justice for American workers. And they have played a key role in lobbying for federal legislation that benefits all workers – healthcare reform, equal pay legislation, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage and paid sick leave.

Other than maybe active growth in California, I’m not sure any of this means all that much in terms of growing union power. A functional NLRB is a good thing, making meaningful, alliances is very important (although what that means in terms of concrete results I’m not sure), and I’m certainly glad fast food workers are standing up for themselves. But sweet icing can’t cover up a cake poisoned by nearly a half century of capital mobility, ideological attacks on unions, and corporate regulatory capture.

Today in Guns

[ 101 ] August 30, 2013 |

A solid rule is that the more one advocate guns in the public sphere, the less one should trust them with a gun:

A Republican state senator from Arkansas who is leading a legislative committee on the subject of giving guns to school teachers accidentally shot a teacher during an “active shooter” drill earlier this year, the local paper of record has uncovered.

Awesome.

Meanwhile, the George Zimmerman victory tour continues, this time to the factory of the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin.

….Meanwhile, Ted Nugent’s wife was arrested for carrying a gun into the DFW terminal.

Pays to Be Rich. Pays to Be White.

[ 75 ] August 29, 2013 |

Johnny Manziel has to serve a suspension of one whole half of football for selling his autograph. Which, whatever except that Ohio State was put on multi-year probation for a few players doing the same thing, players who happened to be black. As part of his “punishment,” Manziel has to give a speech to his team about what he learned. Whether he has to stand in a corner during recess or not remains unknown. Anyway, Dave Zirin imagines the speech:

I’m happy to finally have the opportunity to tell you everything that I have learned this summer. It comes down to one big ol’ life lesson. I learned, after much reflection, that if you are Johnny F—king Football and you put butts in the seats and your school is ploughing $450 million into decking out your college stadium so it will seat 100,000 people and be a “megaphone to the world” and boosters will pay $20,000 to smell your chair when you get up to go to the bathroom, then you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want. Hell, I could sign my name on [NCAA President] Mark Emmert’s head in a “Free Jerry Sandusky” T-shirt while T. Boone Pickens shoves hundred-dollar bills in my pants, and I still would have gotten only this bullshit half-game suspension. Pays to be rich. Pays to be white. Pays to be QB One. Pays to be me.

I mean, you had sports columnists out there who wanted that Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor—a black dude—tarred and feathered a couple years ago for trading his own jacket for some free tattoos, and those same sports writers are comparing me to Rosa Parks! Me! Johnny Manziel! I’m Rosa Parks, beeyotches! I had to ask my boy Drake who that even was. He didn’t know, but when I looked it up… Damn! Media peoples are crazy! Shit, I guess I’m buttering their bread too.

Look: most of you grew up poor as shit and after four years as a Texas A&M Aggie, you won’t graduate and you will still be poor as shit. That is, assuming if you make it four years. You get injured on that next play, they’ll have campus security to keep you from even going to class. Also, a whole bunch of you are black. And that’s cool. My boy Drake is black. And I’m Rosa Parks, so we cool. But straight up, if you did what I did, your ass would be on the next bus back to whatever ghetto or shit town you were born in. Dang the NCAA is more gangster than my boy Drake and my girl Miley combined. I know DRAKE, yo!

Academic Capitalism

[ 106 ] August 29, 2013 |

Thomas Frank eviscerates the system of academic capitalism that is destroying higher education in the United States. There is so many wonderful excerpts to this essay, but I’ll choose just one here:

The disaster that the university has proceeded to inflict on the youth of America, I submit, is the direct and inescapable outcome of this grim equation. Yes, in certain reaches of the system the variables are different and the yield isn’t quite as dreadful as in others. But by and large, once all the factors I have described were in place, it was a matter of simple math. Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.

Was it not inevitable? Put these four pieces together, and of course attendance costs will ascend at a head-swimming clip, reaching $60,000 a year now at some private schools. Of course young people will be saddled with life-crushing amounts of debt; of course the university will use its knowledge of them—their list of college choices, their campus visits, their hopes for the future—to extract every last possible dollar from the teenage mark and her family. It is lambs trotting blithely to the slaughter. It is the utterly predictable fruits of our simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market. It is the same lesson taught us by so many other disastrous privatizations: in our passion for entrepreneurship and meritocracy, we forgot that maybe the market wasn’t the solution to all things.

But as Frank points out later, whatever happens, whenever the bubble bursts, whenever students revolt, the inevitable answer will be MORE market, more capitalism, more of the same that puts the tuition dollars in the hands of the administrators and takes it away from teachers or doesn’t take it away from students at all. It’s incredibly depressing.

Work Them To Death For No Good Reason

[ 231 ] August 29, 2013 |

Some of you probably caught this last week, but the death of this intern is extremely disturbing:

Serious concerns have been raised tonight about the punishing hours endured by interns at City investment banks following the death of a young Bank of America Merrill Lynch employee.

Moritz Erhardt, 21, was nearing the end of a seven-week internship in London when he collapsed at home after working until 6am for three days in a row.

Around 300 interns working at various banks stay at the Claredale House student accommodation complex in Bethnal Green in east London for between seven and 10 weeks over the summer. One intern, who did not want to be named, told The Independent those in Mr Erhardt’s investing banking division group faced the longest hours.

He said: “We all work long hours, but the guys working regularly until 3am or 4am are those in investment banking. People working in markets will have to be in at 6am but not stay as late, so what time you can leave the office depends on your division.

“You’re only doing it for up to 10 weeks so there’s a general acceptance of it. I see many people wandering around, blurry-eyed and drinking caffeine to get through but people don’t complain because the potential rewards are so great. We’re competing for some very well-paid jobs.”

There are at least 3 major problems here. First is the exploitation of interns. The most serious example of this doctors and the pointless grotesquely long hours they are forced to serve during their internships, potentially putting people’s lives at risk. Can you imagine pilots having to fly 24 straight hours? Within the financial industry, there’s even less of a reason for this. What do financial workers have to do that’s so important? The answer is impress the employer enough to let them into the inner sanctum of full-time employment, which is the second problem. This is all about the brutality and masochism of our capitalists. You want to work for a company as awesome as Bank of America? Prove it. Do whatever we tell you to do. This is macho hazing and little more. The third problem is the general expectation of extreme hours and massive personal sacrifice that has come out of the tech industry and infected much of our work culture. Americans today will simply volunteer to work 60, 70, even 80 hours a week at a salaried job, simply because it is so ingrained in the culture that no one questions it.

Our national work culture of the twenty-first century is highly disturbing and needs serious reform. Bank of America effectively murdered this guy but they will go completely unpunished and do the same thing to next summer’s intern class.

Cluelessness

[ 9 ] August 29, 2013 |

Well, doesn’t this just make you feel comfortable about the safety of our workplaces and our communities:

A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many [chemical] accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, a nationally recognized expert on chemical safety who recently testified before a congressional hearing on West.

Let’s be clear, this is intentional. Corporations don’t want you to know where things are produced or under what conditions. Business has ensured that the relevant government agencies that could effectively track this information remain chronically underfunded. We can blame government and there’s no question that it isn’t enough of a priority for either political party. But one party is opposed to the sheer existence of these agencies and that makes it awfully hard to craft an effective regulatory system.

Beer TV

[ 72 ] August 28, 2013 |

Hmmm…..

Things are looking up for Delaware’s Dogfish Head. Not only were recently voted America’s best craft brewery over at the Daily Meal, there are also murmurs that a sitcom is in the works based on the brewery’s founders, Sam and Mariah Calagione.

The show would feature funnyman Ken Marino (“The State,” “Party Down,” and the Ben Stiller-produced web comedy “Burning Love”) and his writer/actress wife Erica Oyama (“Burning Love,” “Children’s Hospital”) as the husband-and-wife owners of a funky craft brewpub. Marino was Sam Calagione’s college roommate at NYU, and remains one of the brewer’s closest friends.

“It was actually my wife’s idea – she does most of the thinking in our partnership.” Marino quipped to TODAY.com. “We pitched it to Sony TV earlier this summer and they loved it.”

Fox also loved the idea, enough to purchase the exclusive rights to the show, Calgione confirmed. A pilot is in the works, and if Fox likes what they see, the show could make it to the airwaves.

This sounds disastrous. I suppose it would be funny the first time they made a Dogfish Head joke about putting pig snouts, caviar, and truffles in a beer. The 57th time, less so. But hey, I’m sure the woman will have an Asian best friend and one of the people working at the brewery will be black so success is assured.

A Metaphor for Conservative America

[ 126 ] August 28, 2013 |

Oh dear:

A special spirit day at Oral Roberts University took a tragicomical turn last week when a bald eagle released into the school’s Christ Chapel by a professional handler crashed into a window just as students began chanting “USA! USA!”

The eagle was unharmed, but many of the students could be heard screaming at the sight of America’s national animal wiping out in metaphorical fashion.

The bird had apparently become disoriented from the crowd’s patriotic hollering.

“It was a bit shocking to see, but we’re thankful the eagle is OK,” an ORU spokeswoman told Tulsa World.

After the eagle’s trainer recovered the bird, university president Dr. William M. Wilson continued with the service, at one point urging students to become “eagles for Christ.”

Ooh, can I be an eagle for Christ? Does that mean that other religions are tasty salmon that I can tear from limb to limb with my sharp beak and claws?

America’s Deadliest Job

[ 14 ] August 28, 2013 |

I’m sure the timber industry is glad it retook its historically appropriate title America’s most dangerous job.

An excerpt from my book manuscript draft, part of which explores the history of worker safety in logging. Sadly, things aren’t always so different today:

On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from the saw he worked when he fell into it, killing him. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Anderson & Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson died the following day, leaving behind a wife and child.

Many workers survived their grievous wounds. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Workers like Campbell, Lang, and Boyer faced grim futures as disabled persons, as did many people disabled on the job before the passage of the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1920, which provided occupational training and job placement for those injured on at the workplace.

Guaranteed Basic Income

[ 60 ] August 28, 2013 |

Matt and I have had our share of arguments over how to create a better life for working people, but I mostly endorse his statement about Guaranteed Basic Income.

The minimum wage typically gets debated in terms of econometric studies about disemployment impacts. But the problem with the minimum wage isn’t the alleged disemployment, it’s the freedom. Imagine a worker earning just slightly above the minimum wage, and also working under some kind of conditions that he finds annoying. He goes to the boss and asks for a change. Turn the heat up a little in the winter. Or let him pick which music plays rather than sticking with some dumb playlist that’s been assigned from the top down. Or get a more comfortable chair. Or manage the line this way rather than that one. There are dozens and dozens of little non-wage decisions in any given workplace that impact a person’s happiness and life satisfaction. But the manager looks at it and says there are sound business reasons for sticking with the status quo. Now the problem with the minimum wage is that even if the worker values the change much more highly than he values an extra 2 cents an hour, he’s not allowed to trade 2 cents an hour for an improvement in his working conditions.

Conversely, I strongly suspect that one reason empirical studies often don’t disemployment effects of minimum wage hikes is that there are a lot of non-wage dimensions to the employer-employee relationship along which things can change.

The problem with no minimum wage, however, is that the kind of freedom involved in allowing for unconstrained wage bargaining is that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The ideal solution to these problems, however, lies not in the workplace but outside of it. Exactly where King and Henry George thought it belonged—in guaranteeing to everyone a minimum standard of living whether or not they work. With that in place, employers will face a de facto minimum job quality. Your job has to beat “unemployment + living off the GBI” rather than “unemployment + homelessness.” You can reach that job quality threshold with money. Or you can reach it by providing valuable training and experience for the future. Or by having a really enjoyable atmosphere of some kind. Realistically, it’ll be a mix.

There are multiple reasons for the minimum wage, which I obviously think should be much, much higher. But part of it is that it was an achievable victory during the New Deal in a way GBI never was. It was part of the piecemeal construction of workers’ rights that reached its pinnacle between 1938 and 1965. Union recognition was also central to that and what people often forget about unions is that they weren’t only or even predominantly about wages, but about dignity at the workplace.

Matt brings up the example of the chair. Let’s expand on that. In the 1970s, the International Woodworkers of America, the union that makes up the heart of my logging book manuscript, fought very hard for the ergonomic workplace. The IWA made alliances with workers and scholars and researchers in Japan, Sweden, and Germany to bring ergonomic timber mills into the Pacific Northwest. This was part of a larger attempt to empower workers on the shop floor through enforcing OSHA regulations. The IWA was among the nation’s leading unions in this task; whereas many unions chose to focus on other issues or fell for job blackmail and employer propaganda that OSHA regulations would force companies to move factories abroad (which they were planning on doing anyway), the IWA centered these issues and made real differences in workers’ lives. If you have GBI, unions could focus even more on the importance of dignity at the workplace, however workers themselves define it. Everyone’s life is better.

As for Henry George’s Single Tax, as I’ve stated before, such one-trick ideas were too simplistic for the modern workings of capitalism, even though that simplicity appealed greatly to 19th century Americans who believed so strongly in the system and just wanted it tweaked to put it back in control of everyday people. But moving toward a tax or a system that would provide GBI is a noble goal. Once you have Guaranteed Basic Income, the world of working-class possibilities opens up. You can work to raise the GBI. Or, if it is at a respectable level, you can fight for an ergonomic workplace, the importance of which can’t be overstated for those who have suffered from its lack.

Read of the Day

[ 24 ] August 28, 2013 |

Gabriel Winant’s long-form book review of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. A brief excerpt:

People, too, suffered the violence of abstraction. Over the first half of the 19th century, up to a million slaves were transported into the Cotton Kingdom from the older slave states (the origin of the saying “sold down the river”). Shipped in barges, or marched southwest in chains, slaves were ripped out of their social worlds, alienated from the learned skills and bodily traits that had enabled them to survive in Virginia or Kentucky. The masters tried to un-people these slaves, to reconstruct them in a form dehumanized enough that they could be moved from place to place and fitted into the production process just like any other commodity. To do so, as Johnson explains in one of many resonant examples, they kept their slaves awake. Sleep deprivation was a technique of power, “implemented,” Johnson writes, “as an offshoot of bizarre anthropological theory.” Johnson goes on to quote a contemporary source, which held that it was “common opinion among the people that the Negro requires less sleep than the white man.” Sleep deprivation was one of any number of techniques “by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” Slaves were physically reconditioned for cotton-field work and for the noxious health conditions of the lower South—a process masters called “seasoning.” Planters exchanged tips in trade journals for tormenting the bodies of slaves until they were properly fitted to the cotton production system. Slaveholders didn’t just tell slaves what to do; they managed their bodies—“a recoordination of nerves and muscles, eyes and hands, which extended their dominion beyond the skin of its subjects, into the very fabric of their form.”

The simplification of bodies and the simplification of nature went together. A well-controlled labor force did the work of clearing and maintaining the physical geography of the Cotton Kingdom. In turn, a controlled landscape allowed for controlled labor. The planter’s power extended, in a sense, only as far as he could see; he or his overseer—note the word—thus removed all visual obstructions and patrolled the fields on horseback, the cotton rows serving as “a visual grid they could use to measure their slaves’ labor.” In turn, a slave’s most reliable strategy was to go “off the grid,” to hide out in the swamps and forests. (Recall: “skulking around.”) Going to ground like this, more often than making a dash for the Mason-Dixon Line, was what it meant to run away. Constant, brutal violence maintained the grid’s disciplinary force. The Cotton Kingdom, by consequence, was less “a fixed bastion of slaveholding power than an excruciating becoming: a landscape being fiercely cleared in a counterinsurgency campaign to which there could be no end.”

Very interesting discussion of Eugene Genovese as well.

I Prefer “War of Southern Treason to Defend Slavery”

[ 154 ] August 28, 2013 |

The fact that Jefferson Davis played a role in giving the Civil War its name and that the name is a product of the losers writing the history of a war they started to defend the enslavement of black people makes me want to banish the term.