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When Labor Becomes Justified in Hating Environmentalists

[ 167 ] January 13, 2013 |

As someone dedicated to building bridges between the labor and environmental movements, this post from Good promoting the idea of online grocery stores makes me want to hold my head in my hands. The post never says a word about labor or workers. What it does say is this:

1. People like food variety
2. That variety leads to waste
3. Let’s use technology to just eliminate grocery stores and get groceries to consumers without the middle man!

For we technological festishist Americans, this probably sounds good. I don’t want to go to the store and I want what I want when I want it!! Problems solved and we can feel good about our impact on the planet since that food won’t be wasted.

The issue of food waste is way more complex than this and Voila! technological innovations are no solution. Something like 50% of food waste happens in the home. But I’ll leave that alone for now. Quick question though–what happens to grocery store workers? A lot of those are union jobs too. What happens to those people? Do they even deserve consideration? In our rush to replace all work with robots and technological efficiencies, what do ideas like this mean for long-term economic and community sustainability? These questions are not only unanswered (and no doubt unconsidered) in the Good article, but in our society generally. We talk about unemployment and underemployment but are extremely reticent to consider that our unstated goal that eliminating work in the name of efficiency is a positive good is a big part of the problem.

It’s at times like this that I am at a loss to defend environmentalism to organized labor.

…..I am reminded of Good Magazine’s own atrocious labor practices. Easy to believe they’d publish something like this.

Next, Dick Cheney Presents His Thoughts on Hunting Safety

[ 17 ] January 13, 2013 |

Coal mine baron and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners were killed in an explosion in 2010, shares his thoughts on mine safety. Understand that Blankenship is famous for his contempt for safety regulations. In fact, Blankenship’s overall behavior leads one to the word “psychopath.”

At the center of this, one of the most spectacular acts of geographic and cultural self-immolation ever undertaken by a free country, is Massey CEO Don Blankenship, the highest paid executive in the coal industry. He’s a West Virginia native, from Mingo County, the son of a poor single mother. From unremarkable roots he’s ascended the corporate ladder at Massey, made its powerful board his courtesans, ruthlessly suppressed mineworker unions (just 3% of Massey employees remain unionized), threatened and bullied critics, and single-handedly purchased at least one state-wide election — the 2004 race of state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, who had the gall to rule against Massey. During the campaign, McGraw was accused of allowing child rapists to go free and defeated after 12 years of service by a virtually unknown challenger.

The bigger polluters, the multinationals, pour money and effort into polishing their public images and disguising their agendas. Not so a local thug like Blankenship. In 2005, when WV governor Joe Manchin threatened to keep a closer eye on Massey operations, Blankenship sued him in retaliation, represented by Robert Luskin, Karl Rove’s lawyer.

Today, Blankenship wields political clout via his grotesquely titled 527 PAC, “…And for the Sake of the Kids,” into which he’s poured millions of dollars of his own money. (When he founded the PAC he promised to start a foundation for the actual kids, but years later that hasn’t happened.) He’s going after the only other liberal Supreme Court judge in WV, and has vowed to shift the balance of power in the state legislature to Republicans. His interest is in maintaining WV’s low taxes, paltry social services, and lax regulatory enforcement. But the attack ads now airing in the state prominently feature abortion, gay marriage, and drunk drivers. Massey has learned something from recent Republican successes.

So what does our good man Blakenship have to say about safety?

An example of our governments misdirected approach to mine safety solutions is provided by an accident that occurred at the then Massey Energy Rockhouse mine in eastern Kentucky. An experienced miner was crushed by a rock while attempting to recover a mining machine that had shut down under an unsupported roof. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) action after the accident was, and usually is, to find someone to vilify as being at fault. Those of you not familiar with mining should note that the continuous miner machine is always out from under supported roof while mining. If the miner machine shuts down due to an electrical problem for example, the government allows electricians to access the continuous miner for repair by building temporary “crib blocks” as roof support. However, the building of “cribs” requires the miners to be slightly beyond the roof bolted line and therefore puts them at greater risk.

For years the government has approved the use of this “cribbing” to access the equipment and to get it trammed back to the supported roof area. But after the Rockhouse accident mentioned above, I challenged the electricians to develop a remote control device that could reengage the tram motor breaker so that no one had to work out beyond supported roof to recover a broken down miner. They successfully did so, and today throughout the industry this remote device frequently prevents miners from having to get in harm’s way. This is the kind of real step honest leaders can take toward making sure that “this never happens again” — if their focus is on avoiding future accidents as opposed to faulting someone for one that has occurred. Simply put, MSHA often acts more like a police force than like safety professionals.

You know, if there’s one thing that the coal industry has proven over the past 150 years, it’s that it really very much cares about the safety of its employees. That’s why coal miners never went out on strike, never joined unions, and never relied on the federal government to protect their safety and health. They never suffered horrible deaths at the hands of their companies. Not at Ludlow. Not at Centralia. And most definitely not at Upper Big Branch.

Listening to an anti-safety plutocrat like Blankenship blather on about safety reminds me of “The Crime of Carelessness,” the National Association of Manufacturers film created response to criticism of factory safety after the Triangle Fire. Because we all know when workers get hurt, it’s their own fault. Or they assumed the risk when they took the job. Or whatever excuse you want so long as corporations never suffer any consequences for their actions.

Also, I just took that photo at the top of this post yesterday. It was very exciting.

Crazy Time

[ 343 ] January 13, 2013 |

1. Montpelier, Ohio decides to arm their school custodians.

“Sitting back and doing nothing and hoping it doesn’t happen to you is just not good policy anymore. There is a need for schools to beef up their security measures,” Supertendent Jamie Grime told the Toledo Blade today.

Really hard to see what could go wrong here. And given that school custodians are often poorly paid and treated as expendable labor, my thoughts that nothing could go wrong are only reinforced.

2. Miss America thinks that placing armed guards outside schools might not be an awesome idea. You can only guess what the gun nuts are saying about her.

3. How crazy is the gun lobby? When you are attacking Antonin Scalia from the right, that’s pretty crazy.

Saturday Night

[ 6 ] January 12, 2013 |

A good Saturday night song.


[ 35 ] January 12, 2013 |

Scientific research on a topic we here at LGM know a whole lot about.

What We Need to Fight Climate Change: More Austerity!

[ 74 ] January 12, 2013 |

Maybe what Scott is missing that is Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are genuises. They know that the gods are angry at America’s deficit spending and are making our climate go crazy as a divine punishment. The only thing that will appease their anger–austerity programs that fall on the poor while making wealthy Beltway pundits feel good about themselves.

Anyway, this is a really good overview of the weather craziness going on right now. Insane cold in Russia and China, record heat in Brazil and Australia, fires in Australia, 8 inches of snow in Jerusalem, etc. This is the new normal. Or maybe it isn’t since it is going to get worse.

Human civilization as we know it cannot survive this level of climate change. The political, social, and environmental implications are too great. Humans are an extremely adaptable species. We aren’t going anywhere. But the world we know and love, it is slipping away. I really remain unconvinced that one can say our children and grandchildren will live better lives than we will. And it’s not because of national debt.

Amos Oz

[ 33 ] January 12, 2013 |

I’m glad someone in Israel is still willing to speak the truth about where the policies of the Netanyahu government is taking the country–down the road to apartheid.

Also, Oz’s cat is super cute.

Air Conditioning

[ 92 ] January 11, 2013 |

Admittedly, January is an odd time for an article on air conditioning for a publication whose readership is mostly in the Northern Hemisphere. Makes sense though for those in Australia where you have probably become a carbon cinder in the last few days. But this Economist piece on the pros and cons of air conditioning is pretty interesting. The short of it is that air conditioning is great for you but awful for everyone else given the massive amount of energy they use and the effect that has on the planet, where the poor suffer from ever greater heat.

On principle, I am highly skeptical of technological fetishism that assumes better technology will solve all our problems. But this is one area where some technological advancements in air conditioning would probably save a ton of water and power. It also reminds me of how odd I continue to find it that rather than capture the manufacturing of wind energy and profit from it, oil companies want to destroy it. Why not take the lead on the future of your market? Of course the answer is short-term profit.


[ 85 ] January 11, 2013 |

Alyssa Battistoni has an interesting and lengthy piece at Jacobin about natural disasters, what will cause us to do something about them, what lessons do we leawrn, and a lot of other things. I think it’s been out for a little while, but I just read it.

The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) again and again, even when New York City gets hit by 2 hurricanes in 2 years, even when an iconic American city is nearly wiped off the map, literally nothing of consequence is done. The upshot of climate change is that we will do absolutely nothing, 80% of the world’s plant and animal species will go extinct, our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do. We will still do nothing.

One nit to pick with Alyssa. Historians need to do a better job of pushing back on the myths around the Dust Bowl. She uses it as an example of when the U.S. did react to a natural disaster:

The Dust Bowl and the Depression offer the most obvious example of successful left politics in response to dual environmental and economic crises. Driven by radical organizing, the country essentially instituted basic income schemes that paid farmers not to farm and others to do public works. It was the obvious referent for the wave of enthusiasm for green jobs and a New New Deal in the early days of the Obama administration—perhaps too obvious, failing to take into account the differences of the current situation. But those hopes have faded in the face of austerity, and with it much of whatever tentative blue-green alliance there was, to say nothing of a red-green one. Both labor and environmentalists are becoming more confrontational in their tactics, but they’ve largely retreated to their own camps. In the vacuum that’s resulted, it’s not hard to imagine newfound bipartisan attention to climate change being used to advance proposals for blunt austerity measures instead of radical redistribution, capitalizing on the popular perception of environmentalism as asceticism to justify—or deflect blame for—a familiar neoliberal agenda.

This lesson from the Dust Bowl really isn’t true (I’ll leave the contemporary issues of labor and environmental movements for now). The New Deal and Dust Bowl were almost totally coincidental. New Deal policies exacerbated what we see as a major consequence of the Dust Bowl–migration out of the Plains. Tom Joad and clan were not pushed out by the Dust Bowl, it was centralization of agriculture and the eviction of tenant farmers due to AAA policies. Two major impacts of the Dust Bowl on federal policy was the Soil Conservation Service and the National Grassland system, but neither of these were major federal responses that changed the nation in particularly profound ways (important as the SCS is from some perspectives). The other was the beginning of the agricultural subsidy system, which although heavily mutated in the 70s always had the effect of centralizing agricultural control with big farmers. Dust Bowl policies really weren’t an example of successful left politics. By the 1950s, more native prairie was plowed up than ever and the agricultural capitalism that created the Dust Bowl was more powerful than it had ever been in 1932. As a society, we learned nothing at all from the Dust Bowl.

The Rich Male Whiteness, It Burns

[ 492 ] January 11, 2013 |

A bunch of conservative Texas groups are taking history departments at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to task because they supposedly talk too much about race, class, and gender instead of rich white guys and awesome wars and America Rocks and Let’s Invade Iran! and other such things. Texas has a public school requirement that each college student must take 2 U.S. history classes. So these groups decided to look at syllabi to see what they could see. The answer, too much teaching topics that might make students question the current tenets of the Republican Party.

So I teach a wide variety of courses. Right now, that includes the first half of the U.S. history survey, Civil War and Reconstruction, Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Environmental History, and U.S. West. We have senior people who teach Labor History, but somewhere down the road I’ll be able to pick that up. If you look at my syllabi without any context as to what those classes hold, those classes probably look pretty white, pretty male, pretty middle and upper class. All of those groups are covered plenty, I assure you. On the other hand, you can only teach the Civil War without talking about slavery if you subscribe to the Louisiana Confederate Museum version of history. You could theoretically teach the Gilded Age as the Awesome Age and talk only about how wonderful Jay Gould and Henry Clay Frick were but that would not only be stupid but an incredibly boring class for me and the students. But the idea that we don’t talk about rich white dudes is crazy. Now, we don’t talk about them as heroes. And of course that’s the point for these conservatives, that we should be–John D. Rockefeller was a great man! William McKinley was totally justified in invading the Philippines. As for women, well get back in the kitchen.

My goal in teaching history is to give students a wide range of perspectives. That includes race, class, and gender. It includes nature and sexuality. It includes politics and foreign policy. It doesn’t include too much in the way of military tactics because that bores me, although obviously I have to do a certain amount of it in the Civil War course. It probably should include more on religion, but we all have our weaknesses. It includes talking about the rich and poor, white and black and Native American and Latino and Asian. It is about men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, adults and children, right-wingers and left-wingers. It’s about helping students acquire the tools to make the connections they want to make between the past and the issues they care about in their own lives. It’s about teaching students to read old documents and why that matters. It’s about exposing them to the world of silent film. It’s about teaching writing and critical thinking.

In other words, it’s just standard work in the humanities.

But of course conservatives are outraged by this. The conservative goal in teaching history is to replicate the Republican Party platform in a new generation. Conservatives see history professors as the enemy and they have declared war upon us. The only option we have is to push back, not in favor of a certain leftist ideology, because many historians aren’t leftists by any definition. But rather to push back for a multiplicity of perspectives, for presenting students with information that can help them make connections between the past and the present, whether they become more informed conservatives or outraged feminist activists or they just learn a little more about the history of the television they love so well.

And as for why we should create courses to worship Alexander Graham Bell at the college level, well you’ll have to answer that one for me.

Jack Lew: Union-Buster

[ 30 ] January 10, 2013 |

Related to my dismissal of Obama’s words about Hilda Solis yesterday (and here’s Dave Jamieson with a good run-down of Solis’ term as Secretary of Labor, Josh Eidelson has a piece up about soon-to-be Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew’s union-busting past. Lew was COO at New York University when it busted the graduate student union in the mid 2000s. While it’s hard to pin down exactly what role he played, he was certainly central to the conflict:

By the time Jack Lew left his post as NYU COO to become COO of Citigroup Wealth Management, the six-month strike was over, and the union had lost.

When we talked last year – soon after Obama had promoted Lew from his OMB director to his chief of staff — Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein told me that Lew had acted as “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against GSOC. She said that NYU’s choice to stop recognizing the union meant the membership “has had to organize from scratch.” But when I asked if she thought Lew’s role should have disqualified him for the promotion, she answered, “I would love it if he had a chief of staff who had a direct history of being very pro-union. But he was in charge of the budget at NYU. Within that context, he did what he did. Maybe he’s learned something from it.”

Maybe, but I doubt it.

Noam Scheiber has a much more positive view of Lew. But then Scheiber and Eidelson are talking about different issues. It’s entirely possible that Lew is very strong on Medicare and Medicaid. I sure hope so. But that hardly he means he is strong on organized labor. One could say this about many Democrats in 2013.

The Chavez Legacy

[ 126 ] January 10, 2013 |

Since it seems Hugo Chavez is about to die, it’s worth looking at his legacy a bit. Of course, it’s almost impossible to do so in a measured way. His die-hard supporters (relatively few as they may be in the United States) talk of him in reverent tones, as the sole man to stand up to American imperialism in the last 20 years. Those North Americans invested enough in Latin American politics to hate Chavez think he’s the antichrist and supported the coup attempt against him.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chavez not exactly an ideal guy for the left to be following. I’ve always thought his version of socialism was too much bombast and not enough good governance. Sticking your thumb in the United States’ eye may have value, but not as much as ensuring good trash pickup for poor people. Anyway, Mark Weisbrot has a pretty good overview, arguing that Chavez may have been able to be Chavez because of oil money (and outright US hostility that only strengthened his hand at home), but at least it went to improving the lives of the Venezuelan people and not into offshore bank accounts.

Like Chavez or not, but don’t deny that life for the average Venezuelan is almost certainly better than when he took power. And even if you think that’s entirely because of high oil prices, remember that corrupt leaders in the past siphoned the money into their own pockets and that Chavez’s enemies want an austerity program in the country that would fall entirely on the backs of the poor. Or for a current example of this, see Nigeria.

On the other hand, Weisbrot co-wrote Oliver Stone’s horrible, fawning, and profoundly shallow documentary on Chavez. Not sure how you live that one down.

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