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Clouding the Waters

[ 31 ] July 9, 2013 |

Tomorrow, something called the Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is set to release its plan to improve working conditions in Bangladesh following the April fire that killed more than 1100 workers. Sounds great, right? We all want Bangladeshi worker safety improved!

Nope. It turns out this is a front group for Wal-Mart, Gap, JC Penney, Target, Sears, and other American retailers who are trying to avoid the real accord that actually could do something for worker safety, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. What’s more, the industry group is relying on the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank funded in part by these very same corporations, to get the word out. Lee Fang has the story:

The Bipartisan Policy Center, however, has significant financial ties to the retailers they are assisting.

In its most recently published annual report, the Bipartisan Policy Center notes that the law firm Alston & Bird, one of Wal-Mart’s many registered lobbying firms, is among the organization’s corporate donors. Earlier this year, former Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) registered as one of Wal-Mart’s representatives through the firm. Alston & Bird also represents the National Retail Federation, a trade group that counts many of the nation’s leading retailers as members.

Others affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center work for the retailers involved in the rival accord. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s “Democracy Project” advisors include former Senator Don Nickles (R-OK), who is now a lobbyist for Wal-Mart, as well as Don Fierce, founder of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, a firm that helps the Retail Industry Leaders Association influence Congress. The RILA, yet another trade group supporting the alternative labor agreement, is led by a board that includes the CEOs of J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart.

In May, the Bipartisan Policy Center even received direct funding from Wal-Mart to sponsor an immigration policy event.

Wal-Mart’s financial links to the groups associated with the upcoming labor plan are a reminder of the corporation’s extensive political reach, which extends well beyond campaign contributions and other traditional forms of influence. As The Nation reported earlier this year, the company has ramped up efforts to co-opt civil rights groups and other advocacy organizations as they have pushed to expand their presence in urban centers. Wal-Mart has also won highly publicized support from the White House (including a partnership with Michelle Obama and a role in President Barack Obama’s push to hire veterans), while claiming victory on major legislative battles, from defeating sweeping federal labor reforms to credit card swipe fee legislation to the recent law to compel online companies to collect sales tax. At times, Wal-Mart’s aggressive public affairs approach has backfired. In June of last year, a lobbying firm working for Wal-Mart in the Los Angeles-area was caught sending a young staffer to pose as a reporter and gather information from labor activists at Wal-Mart affiliated warehouses.

Of course, the real benefit for these corporations is that such an action clouds the waters, confusing even people who do want to see working conditions improve in Bangladesh. Global capitalism relies on hiding the costs of production from consumers. It was seeing and experiencing these costs that helped spur the environmental and labor movements of the 20th century. Corporations fled to other countries precisely to get around new regulations that would affect the bottom line, however slight the dent in profits often was. The last thing the apparel industry wants is for American consumers to know the details of its responsibility for these deaths, not to mention the dumping of clothing dyes into watersheds, crushing labor unions, etc. By tapping into the politician-lobbyist network, it can even say that Democrats like George Mitchell and Blanche Lincoln give their approval. It makes it awfully hard for the average concerned person to know what’s going on. And that’s just how corporations like it.

Leave It to the Mining Companies to Bring the New Gilded Age In With Aplomb

[ 54 ] July 9, 2013 |

The mining industry has always loved violent labor intimidation, armed thugs, paramilitary operations against unions, and other fun parts of the Gilded Age we once thought we had left behind us. But with the new Gilded Age upon us, mining companies are happy to go old-school:

Heavily-armed, masked paramilitary forces descended upon the Gogebic Taconite mining site in Wisconsin over the weekend, much to the chagrin of local residents and elected officials.

“I’m appalled,” state Sen. Bob Jauch (D) told The Wisconsin State Journal on Monday. “There is no evidence to justify their presence.”

Jaunch sent a letter to Gogebic President Bill Williams on Monday demanding the company remove the guards, which he called “common in third world countries,” but stressed that “they don’t belong in Northern Wisconsin.”

The company brought in the paramilitary forces after being confronted by a group of about 15 protesters in June. At least one of the demonstrators, a young woman, was hit with misdemeanor charges for trying to take a camera away from one of the company’s geologists. Gogebic claims they’ve since caught several people illegally camping on their property and did not want to take any chances.

The company hired by Gogebic is Arizona-based Bulletproof Securities, which boasts that many of their employees are ex-military and many of their clients are celebrities and government officials. They certainly look the part, too: photos of Bulletproof guards at the Gegebic site published by the Wisconsin progressive blog Blue Cheddar show men who look very much like special forces soldiers, complete with assault rifles and black masks.

The protests against the iron mine revolve around the Chippewa, who have a reservation just to the north of the mine site, claiming that pollution from the mine will contaminate their land and destroy their wild rice beds, which really is even more perfect. The Gilded Age was also great for forcibly stealing resources from indigenous peoples so bringing that back would be an added bonus, right?

A couple of Wisconsin Democratic lawmakers have asked the corporation to remove the armed thugs, but you think the government of Scott Walker cares? Of course not.

Objections to Pay It Forward

[ 60 ] July 9, 2013 |

The Oregon legislature has passed its Pay It Forward bill, which creates an alternative model for funding higher education by students agreeing to pay a percentage of their post-graduation income back to the state. When I first heard about, I said I didn’t know what to think. It’s creative but also seems too easy. Matt Reed provides some objections to the plan that I think are worth noting:

- Obviously, in the interim between now and payback time, the state would have to pony up far more money than it currently does. Unless I misread the politics of it, that isn’t likely.

- The political impulse, over time, would be to phase out the state subsidy altogether, and to shift the entire cost burden to students. (Admittedly, this objection is vulnerable to “as opposed to…?”)

- Higher education would be subjected even more strongly than it already is to the vagaries of economic cycles. Since recessions hit the young hardest, and this tax would mostly hit people from their early twenties to their early forties, the hit to college budgets in recessions would be magnified.

- Students are stubbornly heterogeneous. (The positive term for that is “diverse.”) How would this work for part-time students? What about students who go back to college at age thirty? What about students who go on to graduate school and don’t make meaningful money for eight or ten years out? Transfer students? Students who repeat courses?

- Scholarships could become irrelevant. Why a state would want to replace privately donated money with its own is beyond me, but there it is.

- If you think financial aid is administratively complex now, just imagine verifying the income of graduates ten years out who have every incentive to lie. In the absence of some sort of unit record system, good luck with that.

- High-earning students would resent what they perceived as overpayment. (I’m told that this was the experience in Australia, which actually tried something like this.) Since high earning tends to correspond to high influence, I’d expect to see disgruntled high earners use their clout to minimize their obligations. To the extent that they succeed, they hollow out the cross-subsidy that would have paid for all those grad students and stay-at-home parents.

There are additional good points as well. Other points I’m less worried about. I am skeptical that most students who want to end up in wealthy fields will think ahead far enough to go out of state to avoid this plan–if they are planning that far ahead, they probably won’t go to the University of Oregon anyway. But I think this plan passed so easily in Oregon precisely because it was so vaguely sketched out. In the end, like everything, it’s going to take real choices by politicians who don’t like to make choices.

Edmund Morgan, RIP

[ 27 ] July 9, 2013 |

Edmund Morgan, the seminal historian of colonial America, has died at the age of 97. One of the five most important historians of the period in American history, Morgan’s books helped shape the field in the second half of the twentieth century. Among his most important books are American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (which I used as the basis for my This Day in Labor History post on Bacon’s Rebellion), Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, and Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. His last book was probably his most popular, an excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin.

….Although I don’t have a link, I understand from colonial historian friends commenting on Morgan’s death that his father was a radical lawyer who was on Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense team.

……Claire Potter has a really good piece on Morgan and the writing of history.

Michelle Rhee’s Organization: “They’ve Become Like the Gun Lobby in Tennessee”

[ 14 ] July 8, 2013 |

Jeff Guo has a good piece at The New Republic on how Michelle Rhee’s StudentsLast First organization has centered on Tennessee to push its anti-teacher union agenda. Yet despite the massive amount of money it and its corporate supporters have poured into Tennessee politics, they have received almost nothing to show for it. Tennessee Governor Jim Haslam hired Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, to run the state Department of Education. Rhee considers it her personal mission to crush Tennessee teacher unions and promote her own brand of corporatized education. But it turns out that the people of Tennessee resented huge amounts of money poured into local school board elections and began voting for opponents of the recipients of that largesse precisely because of it.

This hardly means Tennessee is going to become a pro-teacher union state. Probably some of Rhee’s insidious agenda will end up passing next year. What it does suggest is that Rhee has a very poor understanding of how politics actually work outside of Beltway board rooms and corporate fundraisers. In the end, money doesn’t always actually buy votes. Especially when it looks like your children are being used for an experiment.

Backlash to Debit Card “Paychecks”

[ 9 ] July 8, 2013 |

In the aftermath of all the attention paid to corporations like McDonald’s trying to recreate the Gilded Age through debit card “paychecks” that force workers to pay to get their own money, companies have begun backing off. At least some McDonald’s are now offering their workers a choice in how they receive their paychecks, while New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation of their use in his state, with the hopes for a bill outlawing them to pass the state legislature.

Time to Start Unwrapping

[ 121 ] July 8, 2013 |

Not even SEK can claim something like this, what with incredibly lame wingnut attempts at parody now including me as a central figure in their posts:

We’re having a giant girlfriend unwrapping party at the Asexual Alliance this week, y’all ought to think about coming out.

….In the last 24 hours, I’ve attended a Mexican League game and been parodied on a right-wing site. I really don’t see what goals there are for me to accomplish before I die.

When Leon Trotsky Agreed to Testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee

[ 29 ] July 8, 2013 |

In 1939, the reprehensible Martin Dies, chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee, invited one Leon Trotsky to testify before his committee on the evils of Joseph Stalin (PDF in link). Trotsky was happy to do so, although many communists and socialists were outraged and it forced Trotsky to defend his decision.

Unfortunately for the comedy/tragedy of history, Dies rescinded his invitation after it became clear that Trotsky was going to use the platform to call for an international workers movement against World War II. And soon after, Trotsky was no longer able to testify for much of anything.

The Final Five

[ 42 ] July 7, 2013 |

I’ve always dreamed of starting a grassroots campaign for Toronto Blue Jays reliever Steve Delabar for one reason or another. And now I have my chance. Of course, fans get to choose the final all-star. For some reason, all the attention this year is whether Yasiel Puig will be the choice in the NL. Not much about the AL. Maybe that’s because fans have the joy of deciding between 5 right-handed middle relievers for that spot, a situation I am sure really excites Bud Selig and the marketing team of MLB. The candidates are actually quite good–Delabar, Joaquin Benoit, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers, and Koji Uehara. Who would I vote for? Who cares. Certainly not Tanner Scheppers because of his terrible first name, not that it is his fault. I mean really, shouldn’t there be national counseling to expectant parents on the names they give their children.* Maybe Koji Uehara as a reminder to all Rangers fans what a great trade their team made in giving up a washed-up first baseman named Chris Davis for him a couple of years ago. Wonder what happened to that guy?

In other baseball news, I will be attending a Mexican League game tonight. I look forward to extreme awesomeness. I understand there are cheerleaders.

* This reminds me of a Rangers game I was at a few years ago. These racists behind me were making fun of the names black and Latino people give their children. It was very eye-rolling, very Texas. I remember especially them really laughing at the name of offensive linemen D’Brickashaw Ferguson. In these situations, I tend to hold my tongue and just keep listening for future story fodder, but my brother was getting really agitated. Then these racists called out to their daughter who was running around. Her name? Shiloh. I about doubled over laughing. You named your girl after a Civil War battle and you are making fun of black people? Then I remembered that they were racists and I was in Dallas. Good times. Good times.

Mexico

[ 12 ] July 5, 2013 |

Doing a bit of travel writing on my month in Mexico for RI Future. Put up my first entry today on the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968 and the perils of the 1-party state, both in Mexico and Rhode Island.

Improving the Human Condition

[ 26 ] July 5, 2013 |

In comments to the Pinochet post, somethingblue points us to the University of Denver honoring George W. Bush for “improving the human condition.” Not surprisingly, some people at the university have just a slight disagreement with this choice. Not former Bush hack Christopher Hill of course, who set the whole thing up. Hill is a dean at the university. We probably don’t really need a recap of why saying Bush improved the human condition is laughable, but the protest at the university provides a good one anyway:

“We do not believe that George W. Bush reflects the values, character, and leadership of an appropriate ‘improving the human condition’ awardee,” the petition states. “As President, George W. Bush’s choices resulted in greater instability and economic hardship worldwide, while even his laudable achievements, like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) were sullied by the promotion of an agenda that hampered prevention and treatment efforts. This is evidenced in the recent Supreme Court decision that ruled certain requirements of the PEPFAR program unconstitutional. Former President George W. Bush left behind a legacy of human rights abuses, including the torture of detainees in extra-territorial jails, preemptive war, domestic surveillance programs, and other egregious actions that deleteriously impact the human condition.”

Now the university has taken the wording away and is going to honor him for unknown reasons. General awesomeness I guess.

Faces of the Revolution

[ 0 ] July 5, 2013 |

An amazing set of daguerreotypes and other early photographic images of the last American Revolution veterans.