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Environment and the Border

[ 2 ] December 3, 2013 |

Michelle Chen provides a useful overview of the intertwined environmental and humanitarian disaster of American policies toward the Mexican border. She covers several important issues. To excerpt from her introduction:

The parts of the border that take the form of an actual, physical barrier are an intrusion on the landscape, an eyesore to many — and to millions, a deadly obstacle to overcome. Elements of the local environment, from deserts to the Rio Grande, have been trampled, polluted, criss-crossed by truck convoys, occupied by federal agents and factories, and traversed by migrants following well-worn and perilous trails. And each phase of commercial development and economic exchange has also left an ecological mark, from the bustle of tourists to the churn of the maquilas to the paths trod by migrants following smugglers.

Just as immigrant rights activists see the border as a violent social barrier, environmentalists see the border fence as an assault on the integrity of regional ecologies. The border environs is both a symbol of global environmental changes — transnational movement of people and natural resources, climate change, the wave of urbanization that is sweeping wild lands worldwide — and a symptom of acute environmental impacts — the footprints of stampeding livestock, baking asphalt slicing through desert, and a dense network of dams and pipelines tapping the veins of increasingly parched riparian habitats. In the border zone, life is disrupted by the armature of the state.

I Knew the Nation Went Downhill Once Ohio Joined the Union

[ 70 ] December 3, 2013 |

Ohio leads the nation in swearing.

Ohio is also the 5th least courteous state.

Personally, I blame William McKinley.

World Heritage Status for German Beer Purity Laws?

[ 129 ] December 2, 2013 |

I guess there’s nothing really wrong with granting UNESCO World Heritage status to the German beer purity laws. I mean, whatever, I guess laws holding back the development of more interesting beer is some kind of heritage. But let’s not overstate the case here:

“If Germany is still regarded as the undisputed beer nation, that is due to the Reinheitsgebot,” said Hans-Georg Eils, president of the German Brewers’ Federation.

Well, no one in their right mind who is not actually German thinks Germany is still regarded as the undisputed beer nation, so we can move on. Maybe #3 beer nation. But certainly no higher.

Rare Good News for New England Fisheries

[ 19 ] December 2, 2013 |

This is a nice change from the usual news of doom for New England fisheries, with scallop production based out of New Bedford exploding and what sounds like very responsible government regulation of the scallop beds that will keep the production going. Note: you usually know the government is doing a good job if the fishers are complaining about too much regulation.

Now, New Bedford has its issues with poverty. But between a still functioning scallop industry and something of a tourist industry, it is in a whole lot better shape than, say, Fall River or Worcester or Pawtucket.

Bye Bye New Jersey Pines

[ 15 ] December 2, 2013 |

The New Jersey Pinelands are a really neat ecosystem, the rare fire-driven ecosystem in the east. I enjoyed hiking there when I was in the area in September. Like everything else though, it is changing rapidly thanks to climate change. The lack of cold winters means that beetles are moving north since the old deep freezes that used to kill them off in northern climes don’t happen anymore. This means widespread death for the pines.

This Day in Labor History: November 30, 1999

[ 31 ] November 30, 2013 |

On November 30, 1999, protests began in Seattle, Washington against the World Trade Organization. The WTO meetings offered unions, environmentalists, and various social and economic justice activists from around the world a forum to voice their rejection of the neoliberal free trade agreements of the late 20th century that had undermined American unionism, allowed corporations the mobility to flee meaningful labor agreements or environmental restrictions, thrown millions of farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands as cheap American agricultural goods flooded world markets, and stripped people around the world of the ability to influence the economic conditions of their nations and the social and economic safety nets created in the twentieth century to provide people with a modicum of dignity. These protests raised an important hue and cry against this injustice, but became most known for the violence that took place on the streets.

The general story of what went down on the streets is pretty well known. A loose coalition of people opposed to free trade agreements decided to target the WTO meeting in Seattle as a general point of protest. The protest was supposed to be nonviolent, but as is usually the case, there wasn’t much of a mechanism to ensure that it actually was so. The idea quickly caught fire and at least 40,000 people came to the protests, making it the largest international protest against free trade in world history. I don’t want to spend much time focusing on the idiotic black bloc anarchists who decided to break Starbucks windows during the protest and undermine the nonviolent mission of the protests without permission from the other stakeholders. I also don’t want to focus on the fascistic police response by the Seattle Police Department, which should allay any mythology that the police will ever be on the side of working class protest, unless it is very much in their own interest to do so. I’d rather focus here on the role of the labor movement. But by the evening of November 30, the streets of Seattle were at war and the labor and environmental organizations who had planned the thing found their message swamped in a sea of violence and the media coverage of it.

Labor’s involvement in the protests came in the wake of the federation increasingly realizing that the good old days were no longer true. There was a lot of denial and trying to ignore the problem of labor’s collapse in the 90s, although the defeat over NAFTA and the ascendance of John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO were clear signs that at least some people were trying to take it seriously.

The first moment of the protests, and really more accurately the weeks before the protest, saw an uptick in conversations about how labor was finally reaching out to other social organizations. “Turtles and Teamsters” was the phrase used to describe this phenomenon, an apt one as this came just a few years after the resolution of the ancient forest campaigns and spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest that saw environmentalists and labor at each other’s throats. But environmentalists and labor had long had much in common and had for the last three decades had off and on alliances over specific issues. So this was not unprecedented but was meaningful at this point, particularly in its public nature. And at the protests, Steelworkers and Earth First members were making many of the same points–that free trade agreements undermine both good working conditions and environmental standards, that workers breathe in the same air as environmentalists, and that without meaningful protections on labor and environmental standards, a race to the bottom would ensue around the world, which is of course exactly what has happened.

After the protests, recriminations were everywhere, particularly against the Seattle city government and police, as well as the anarchists. Organized labor’s role in the whole event was largely forgotten. Left leaning discontent quickly moved on to the Nader campaign, while 9/11 changed the course of the nation’s history, or at least so popular culture likes to believe. But in the narrative of the left, 9/11 is what killed any chance of meaningful continued actions against unfair trade.

Even without the black bloc protestors and 9/11, we can legitimately question whether any real movement would have developed out of Seattle that would have led to meaningful alliances and a program for change. I am skeptical. It was immediately clear that this was a moment where various people could protest against something but that what would come next was a question no one was prepared to answer. That isn’t denigrating the moment, but everything that happened at Seattle was the easy part. That’s why I’m a little skeptical about the 9/11 claim; it seems like a cop-out for the fact that there wasn’t really any meaningful alliance building going on that would lead to an obvious next step. Once host cities and countries isolated the protesters from the function of the meetings, there wasn’t much else the various movements could do because there wasn’t any other plan. It’s possible that had the AFL-CIO and environmentalists placed the repeal of NAFTA and other free trade agreements as the one and only thing on their agenda and fought like the devil to make it happen–well–it probably still wouldn’t have worked given the overwhelming dominance of neoliberal ideology among the Republican and Democratic Party at the time. But that was probably the only concrete place where such alliances could have really made a difference where it counts–in the law. And in any case, such an alliance was not really feasible. I don’t disagree that on a national activist scale, 9/11 and the War on Terror dropped economic concerns from a high priority–and even today, look at so many of the people progressives claim to love and how little many of them ever talk about economic issues–but honestly, there’s not a whole lot of evidence from the last 40 years that what passes for the non-union left in this country has had much real impact on the nation’s trajectory.

But that doesn’t mean that commenters of the time didn’t hope it was so. The WTO protests was the first time I remember labor writers and activists and historians make statements that I’ve seen over and over again since–at the Wisconsin protests, during Occupy, after the Chicago Teachers Union strike–that this is the moment when labor will turn it around. This is almost entirely wishful thinking and it places a big burden on those trying to build a movement, but once people started realizing that the American labor movement was in very real trouble, they began hanging enormous expectations on whatever pocket of labor uprising popped up at a given moment.

So what to make up the WTO protests for labor? Ultimately, it’s not much. It is an important moment in public perception. But the ultimate effect of these protests upon the American working class was basically zero and the odds were long against it ever becoming something more than zero, even if the protests and the aftermath nationally took an entirely different course.

This is the 83rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Happy Thanksgiving

[ 131 ] November 28, 2013 |

My belief that Thanksgiving is the most overrated food day of the year is well-documented so I won’t go over the arguments again here except to say that most everything on the traditional Thanksgiving table (or at least the traditional Thanksgiving table of the 1980s that frames my experience with its boxed stuffing and canned cranberries, both of which are still hugely popular if not hip today) would be better replaced by something else in the same genre. Still, turkey would be better replaced by any other meat imaginable, pumpkin pie is at the bottom of the pie genre, etc. I’ll be doing part for the big family meal, making a ton of roasted vegetables with garlic and herbs while the wife creates a huge pot of mashed potatoes with enough butter to drown a small child.

Or maybe you are having a tasty TV dinner since ye Indians are hungry tonight.

And really if you are going to have to eat turkey, it would make sense to take some advice from our neighbors to the south with their superior culinary traditions.

As for the sides, Alexander Abad-Santos and Elspeth Reeve rank Thanksgiving sides fairly accurately, particularly noting that even the worst of them is better than the turkey. Also, roasted vegetables and macaroni and cheese are superior dishes at almost any meal. Of course, why ham is a side instead of the main course is something I can’t figure out. On the other hand yam/sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and Karo corn syrup is responsible for me not eating sweet potatoes until I was 30. Does it come with a side of insulin? And why don’t I ever go to Thanksgiving dinners that serve ham with turkey so I can just eat the ham? I need to know different people.

On a more serious note, Aaron Bady:

Also, obviously, the holiday is a racist and nationalist celebration of American manifest destiny, an expression of gratitude for God’s gift of “America” to the (white) people who arrived and took it by force from the (non-white) people who were living there. There are always debunkers, who point out that the original Thanksgiving never really took place—and they’re partly right, in that the “first thanksgiving” narrative is total bullshit—but the truly damning thing about the holiday is that it actually does go all the way back to John Winthrop’s corn-stealing and grave-robbing shenanigans in 1624 (albeit by way of a protracted editorial campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Abraham Lincoln’s canny deployment of this nationalist myth in the middle of the civil war). It was in the 19th century that the ritual practice took shape, and the holiday was created, but the events which it sanctifies not only symbolically happened, but they kind of actually really happened. The darker and more grisly version of the story—as David Murray tells it in Indian Giving: Economies of Power in Indian-white Exchanges—is of starving and traumatized Englishmen wandering through a unsettled and uncanny ghostly landscape, digging up graves for food: some of the objects they grave-robbed, they put back—realizing that it would be an abomination to keep them—and others they ate, though they pledged they would make some kind of recompense to the Indians if they could ever find any living ones. They didn’t, of course. In the end, they decided that that it wasn’t to the Indians that they owed their salvation: it was to God they gave their thanks for the Indian death they had found.

In any case, enjoy your in-laws and your turkey if such a thing is possible and remembering that the Detroit Lions exist for one day a year.

Home Care Workers

[ 46 ] November 26, 2013 |

For those of you who like long, detailed reports about the struggles of working people to earn a decent living in the United States, this report on home care workers is very much worth your while. An excerpt:

In-home workers are more than 90 percent female, and are disproportionately immigrants. One out of every nine foreign-born female workers with a high school degree or less works in an in-home occupation. In-home occupations are growing rapidly, driven by sharp growth in direct-care work, including personal care aides and home health aides.

In-home workers receive very low pay, and many have trouble getting the hours they need.

The median hourly wage for in-home workers is $10.21, compared with $17.55 for workers in other occupations. After accounting for demographic differences between in-home workers and other workers, in-home workers have hourly wages nearly 25 percent lower than those of similar workers in other occupations.

In-home workers are more likely to work part time than other workers. This is due in many instances to their own preferences, but it is also the case that a larger share of in-home workers than other workers want (and are available for) full-time jobs, but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

The median weekly pay for in-home workers who have or want full-time work is $382, compared with $769 for workers in other occupations. After accounting for demographic differences between in-home workers and other workers, in-home workers who have or want full-time work have weekly wages 36.5 percent lower than those of similar workers in other occupations.

In-home workers rarely receive fringe benefits.

Only 12.2 percent of in-home workers receive health insurance from their job, compared with 50.6 percent of workers in other occupations. The majority of in-home workers who receive health insurance from their job are agency-based direct-care aides (18.4 percent of whom have employer-provided health insurance). Only 4.9 percent of maids and 6.3 percent of nannies receive employer-provided health insurance.

Only 7.0 percent of in-home workers are covered by a pension plan at their job, compared with 43.8 percent of workers in other occupations. The majority of in-home workers who are covered by a pension plan at their job are agency-based direct-care aides (10.7 percent of whom are covered by a pension plan). Less than 3 percent of maids and nannies are covered by a pension plan.

In-home workers have a higher incidence of poverty than workers in other occupations.

Nearly a quarter—23.4 percent—of in-home workers live below the official poverty line, compared with 6.5 percent of workers in other occupations.

Twice the official poverty threshold is commonly used by researchers as a measure of what it takes a family to actually make ends meet. More than half—51.4 percent—of in-home workers live below twice the poverty line, compared with 20.8 percent of workers in other occupations.

One of the strengths of SEIU comes from its ability to organize some of these workers and deliver concrete improvements in their lives. Given the growth of this sector of labor and the desperation of those who work at it, not to mention the fact that they lack the common shopfloor experience that has traditionally bound workers together, SEIU’s work organizing these workers is all that much more important.

Emissions Reductions

[ 33 ] November 26, 2013 |

As these researchers point out, it absolutely makes sense to engage in a significant emissions reduction program, even if India and China are going to pump out as much into the atmosphere as they can. Ultimately, preparing early for climate change is going to pay off down the road. But the political benefits of doing so, which are all short-term benefits, are very hard to see and discourage any action. Of course, as the huge methane emissions of Oklahoma and Texas demonstrate, we are far from showing any leadership on this issue.


[ 5 ] November 26, 2013 |

Shocking that Tom Coburn’s report on the national parks would be nothing but a justification for slashing budgets, eliminating the Antiquities Act (one of America’s best laws and one that western legislators have hated ever since it was passed in 1906 and Theodore Roosevelt used it to get around the despoiling businesses and legislators of the West) and opening up lands for oil exploration.

Executed Today

[ 29 ] November 25, 2013 |

If you think your life isn’t depressing enough, reading the excellent history site Executed Today is a good way to do accomplish this task. What is Executed Today? It’s a website with daily postings about someone executed on that day in history. Good times, no? Today in 1838, Tsali, a Cherokee who refused to leave his home in North Carolina to go to Oklahoma, was executed. An excerpt:

So it’s also fitting to remember that this day in 1838** was the execution of Tsali, the hero of those escaped North Carolina Cherokee whom Brown mentions — a man tied to a tree and shot this date by the U.S. Army for resisting “Indian removal”.

While assimilated Cherokees like Chief John Ross were themselves right in the thick of the debate about deportation, Tsali was a traditionalist farmer in North Carolina who had little contact with such sketchy political machinations.

When Washington’s ethnic cleansing policy shed its diplomatic cover for naked force, Tsali and his family killed some of the soldiers sent to capture them for removal.** General Scott was not amused.

The individuals guilty of this unprovoked outrage must be shot down; & there is another object demanding equal & immediate attention, viz: –the protection of the white families, residing in that region, who are, doubtless, much alarmed (& may be in great danger) at the most unexpected spirit of hostility evinced by the fugitive Indians about them by the murders in question.

A Union Thanksgiving

[ 81 ] November 25, 2013 |

A useful list of food products for your Thanksgiving made in union shops. If you have a choice, choose union-produced food.

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