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Steel and the Trans Pacific Partnership

[ 42 ] April 23, 2015 |

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There aren’t a lot of steel jobs in the U.S. anymore but the ones that remain are about the disappear as U.S. Steel announces more layoffs. At the core of layoffs is unrestricted free trade that undermines the ability of American corporations to sell its own steel because it has to pay workers decent union wages and abide by environmental standards. The Trans Pacific Partnership will just continue to undermine the ability of Americans to work industrial jobs. And before we argue this is a good thing, note that for all the workers, like the rest of the American working class, they face unemployment, decreased earnings, and increased instability in their lives. Every United Steel Workers job lost means less ability for unions to influence American economic and social policy, giving more power to corporations and moving the New Gilded Age another step forward. Those who continue to say that these free trade agreements like the TPP need to reckon with these realities, especially liberals who do not trust corporations at home but want to empower them overseas. Everything that is wrong with this nation in the New Gilded Age can be traced back to the decline of union jobs and the disappearance of working class voices from politics.

A Timeline of DDT and Rachel Carson

[ 16 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Might as well mark Earth Day, that once meaningful day that now gives corporations an opportunity to pretend they care about the planet. Let’s note it a different way. American Scientist put together a useful timeline of the history of DDT and Rachel Carson, particularly how both have been discussed in the media. Quite worthy of a bit of your time.

Today in the History of Cannibalism

[ 77 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Another reason I’m glad the U.S. broke free from these savages in 1776:

Some 14,700 years ago, in a cave in southwest England, humans were dining on the flesh of other humans and drinking from their skulls.

We know of these gory events because the Paleolithic inhabitants of this natural shelter—which is called Gough’s Cave today—left an enormous amount of fossil evidence of cannibalism, in addition to amassing a large cache of animal and human bones.

But wait, it gets creepier. According to a study published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, the bulk of the disturbing remains were deposited within a short period of time, suggesting a sudden and brutal occupation.

Moreover, the authors of the study, led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum, identified new evidence of ritual bone modification from the cave.

“The human remains have been the subject of several studies,” Bello said in a statement. “In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups.”

“During this research, however, we’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded earlier,” she continued. “We’ve found evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.”

This of course would never happen in a civilized country like the United States.

Journalism in the New Gilded Age

[ 47 ] April 22, 2015 |

Pulitzer

This certainly makes one feel bad about the future of journalism.

One of today’s Pulitzer winners for local reporting isn’t actually a reporter anymore.

The Daily Breeze’s Rob Kuznia won the prize alongside Rebecca Kimitch for a series on corruption in the Torrance, California school district. Now the former reporter, who had more than 15 years’ experience covering local affairs, is celebrating the career high in his new job… as a publicist.

Apparently, as Kuznia co-reported the award-winning series, he was slowly getting squeezed out of the journalism racket.

Appended to the LA Observed’s coverage of the awards was the following bittersweet update:

We should note that Kuznia left the Breeze and journalism last year and is currently a publicist in the communications department of USC Shoah Foundation. I spoke with him this afternoon and he admitted to a twinge of regret at no longer being a journalist, but he said it was too difficult to make ends meet at the newspaper while renting in the LA area.

The effective elimination of the profession that is most likely to expose the problems of the present sure is a great way for corporations and politicians to protect their behavior. What I do isn’t exactly journalism but I can do it because I have a full-time job of a very specific kind. Those I know who are freelancing and trying to make ends meet without being the partner of someone rich is really hard to watch. Its just a constant struggle. Even the best journalists have to leave the profession in order to eat.

Walmart Union Busting

[ 35 ] April 22, 2015 |

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Oh Walmart. You are so evil.

Wal-Mart suddenly closed five stores in four states on Monday for alleged plumbing problems.

The closures could last up to six months and affect roughly 2,200 workers in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Florida, CNN Money reports.

Wal-Mart employees say they were completely blindsided by the news, having been notified only a couple hours before the stores closed at 7 p.m. Monday.

“Everybody just panicked and started crying,” Venanzi Luna, a manager at a store in Pico Rivera, California, told CNN Money.

All workers will receive paid leave for two months. After that, full-time workers could become eligible for severance, according to CNN Money. But part-time workers will be on their own.

Local officials and employees have questioned Wal-Mart’s reasoning for the closures.

Why were these stores closed? Because they had activist employees.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said it planned to seek an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board on Monday compelling retailer Wal-Mart to rehire 2,200 employees at five recently closed stores.

The UFCW claims that Wal-Mart Stores closed its Pico Rivera location — one of the five stores — in the Los Angeles area in retaliation for protests by workers there in recent years seeking higher pay and benefits.

The voice of a worker at the Pico Rivera store:

“This is a new low, even for Walmart,” said Venanzi Luna, an eight-year Walmart worker and long-time OUR Walmart member. “It’s just so heartless to put thousands of your employees out of a job with no clear explanation on just a few hours’ notice. We know that Walmart is scared of all we have accomplished as members of OUR Walmart so they’re targeting us. Through OUR Walmart, we’re going to keep fighting back until the company gives us our jobs back. It’s unfortunate that Walmart has chosen to hurt the lives of so many people, just to try to conceal their real motives of silencing workers just like they’ve always done.”

Interestingly, this comes at the same time that the UFCW is pulling back its commitment for the expensive and rather unproductive Walmart campaign is has funded.

I suspect there will be more details about these Walmart closings coming out in subsequent days.

The Graduate Program

[ 64 ] April 22, 2015 |

PhD-Degree

Should people in History Ph.D. programs stop taking students because of the job crisis? American Historical Association president Vicki Ruiz is making that decision:

I remain hopeful that our efforts will widen opportunities for current Ph.D.’s. However, this optimism is tempered when I reflect on the job prospects for my recent doctoral graduates. Out of four accomplished junior historians (with seven prestigious research prizes and fellowships among them), only one has secured that elusive tenure-track position. Of the others, one has retreated from view, while the rest remain freeway flyers and/or part-time administrators. Trite as it may sound, it breaks my heart to watch them struggle.

With an additional four mentees in the pipeline, I have placed a personal moratorium on Ph.D. recruitment. I respect and support colleagues who desire to guide a new generation, but my priority remains on the career paths — inside and outside the academy — of people with whom I have a longstanding mentoring relationship. My personal moratorium embodies my hope that the association’s Career Diversity project will stimulate the retooling of graduate programs to prepare our students for wider opportunities. That will take time. In the interim, some of us are likely to slow the pump of history Ph.D.’s into the overflowing adjunct pool.

I have complex feelings about this. A couple of notes. First, I am somewhat associated with the American Historical Association pilot project Ruiz mentions to get programs to rethink graduate training because I am an alum of the University of New Mexico, one of the included schools because it punches way over its weight when it comes to placing PhDs in both academic and nonacademic positions. In February, I went back to UNM to talk about some of the things I do, joining a group of fellow alumni and a few others discussing their experiences. I really don’t know if it was helpful for current Ph.D. students there, but I hope it was. I do have to say that I took verbal exception to what AHA head Jim Grossman had to say and didn’t say at this event, which was basically to a) ignore the fundamental reasons why there are no jobs (the disappearance of history lines and adjunctification) and b) to tell every history PhD to basically be a business major and learn how to read a spreadsheet and learn to budget (a worthy enough skill, but no answer to the problem). On the other hand, it is absolutely vital that we assume that PhD students will not get an academic job, whether at Harvard, New Mexico, or South Carolina. This should be the assumption of every PhD advisor and every PhD student. Sometimes the student will strike it rich and win the lottery from any of these schools! I did and I know some people from all these schools who have in recent years. But usually they won’t. To me, that’s the first step advisors must take. What are students being trained for? Can advisors or other mentors offer skills that will get students actual jobs?

But even outside of that, I think the assumption that we shouldn’t take PhD students is a bit more problematic. Not that I disagree with Ruiz per se, as she takes an obviously defensible position. But the reality is that there aren’t good jobs anywhere in this economy outside of select fields. And some of us–myself included–are very smart in some ways, but not in the ways that this capitalist economy values. So the moral question around accepting PhD students I think revolves around whether they are funded or not. I would not be comfortable accepting students that are not funded. But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway. To me, this is the fundamental difference between the PhD and law school. If the student is just delaying their income earning potential, such as it is in this stage of American capitalism, then that’s one decision and a potentially defensible one. If they are going into debt for that PhD, that’s a horrible idea. I find that a compelling dividing line.

But then I don’t know. There aren’t good answers. And the balance between giving students the opportunity to pursue their intellectual dreams and career goals versus placing them at a disadvantage in their lives going forward is not an easy one to maintain. I figure many of you will have thoughts on this.

Credit Checks on Job Applicants

[ 127 ] April 22, 2015 |

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In a nation that places many injustices and indignities on the poor, it’s good to see at least one of those be alleviated in one place:

But the city where first impressions count for everything is about to make the job market a little less judgmental. New York’s City Council just voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the common practice of letting employers prejudge people based on their credit history—passing an unprecedented ban against employers use of workers’ credit background data.

The legislation, which passed last Thursday following an extensive grassroots campaign by local and national labor and community groups, restricts a boss, prospective employer or agency from “us[ing] an individual’s consumer credit history in making employment decisions.”

The final version incorporates some compromises pushed by the business lobby, such as carve-outs for positions that could involve handling “financial agreements valued at $10,000 or more,” police and national-security related jobs, or workers with access to “trade secrets.” While business groups cited these provisions as wins in a bill they otherwise chafed at, economic justice advocates have nonetheless hailed the law as a promising boost for an emerging nationwide movement.

Sarah Ludwig of the New Economy Project says, “It’s a strong law…and it’s going to cover most New Yorkers [and] most jobs by far and away. It’s a real civil rights victory.”

Enforcement of the law will be driven by a complaint process, which makes it a tricky game for the city authorities relying on workers to come forward. But Ludwig adds, advocates hope the system provides a platform for the city’s Human Rights Commission to gain new prominence under the de Blasio administration’s leadership, since the city has “this unbelievably strong human rights law” on paper but not necessarily in practice.

Not perfect, but a significant improvement. Of course, this should be a nationwide law, for what possible valid reason is there to allow employers to access job applicants’ credit histories, unless the goal is to create a permanent underclass.

Coal Companies Up to Their Old Tricks

[ 19 ] April 21, 2015 |

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The coal companies are using their traditional power in West Virginia to roll back state health and safety regulations at the same time the federal government is citing them for gross health and safety violations. Not that the companies really care since the penalties even at the federal level are too small for them to bother with.

West Virginia coal companies successfully lobbied for a rollback of state mining safety regulations in the same month that mines they own were issued more than two-dozen health and safety citations by federal inspectors. Murray Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources are all members of the West Virginia Coal Association, which earlier this year led the push for the state’s newly elected Republican-majority Legislature to pass the controversial Coal Jobs & Safety Act.

Democratic Gov. Earl Tomblin signed the bill into law in March over objections from the mineworkers’ union and workplace safety advocates. It abolished a joint labor-industry panel that reviews underground diesel equipment to safeguard air quality, removed a prohibition on transporting equipment when workers are deeper in the mine than where the equipment is being shipped and expanded the maximum distance between rail tracks and work areas. The industry said the old regulations, which were stricter than their federal counterparts, were burdensome and did little to improve workplace safety.

In February, as the Legislature debated and approved the reforms, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) visited three West Virginia mines owned by Murray, Arch and Alpha and slammed the companies with a combined 25 citations.

“Unfortunately, it’s no coincidence that while these companies are advocating reducing state mine safety provisions to match the looser federal requirements, they are also being cited by the federal government for engaging in unsafe practices,” said Kenny Perdue, president of the West Virginia branch of the AFL-CIO.

If another 29 miners died like at the 2010 disaster at Massey Energy’s Big Branch mine, the companies still wouldn’t care. They never have.

Solar Energy Batteries

[ 29 ] April 21, 2015 |

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Some potentially positive developments in the cost of batteries to collect solar energy from home-based systems, which right now is holding back solar energy development. There is some real reason to think major developments are in the offing, including that the traditional energy providers are nervous about it. Of course, we’ve been hearing these sorts of predictions for almost 40 years now. I’m also a bit curious about the water requirements of a giant new battery factory in the deserts east of Reno. But that might be a secondary concern.

Hard Brutal Living

[ 28 ] April 21, 2015 |

Rinconadapuno

Your must read of the morning is William Finnegan’s essay on the highest settlement in the world, which is an unregulated gold mine town in Peru. As I’ve said before, I’ve been to Potosí in Bolivia and those conditions were unbelievable enough. To think of an even colder, harder, worse life, yet one that thousands of people choose to do (they are working for themselves after all), is remarkable and says a lot about the economic options for the poor in these nations.

Gawker Unionization

[ 46 ] April 20, 2015 |

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I suppose I should say something about Gawker’s decision to unionize and the CEO’s seeming decision to let it happen. I don’t have all that much real insight to have. The site has been excellent on labor issues for some time. It should be said though that the limits of the bargaining unit may be pretty tight–full-time employees in a heavily contingent world. Is there some generational shift happening here? Who knows. I think it’s significant if it means that young, relatively well-educated people are going to be seeking to create unions in newer forms of business. In any case, it’s at least an interesting data point that needs further monitoring.

By the way, the above image is from a 1948 strike in New York. Mostly, I was looking for an excuse to put it up here.

Unpredictable Work Schedules

[ 199 ] April 20, 2015 |

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The plague of unpredictable work schedules, with employers changing workers’ weekly schedules as their whim, must end. It causes all sorts of problems for those workers. A few examples from Gillian White:

According to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute, this is life for about 17 percent of the labor force. So called “just-in-time scheduling” is far more common for those who work for hourly wages or are part-time employees, or both. Part-time workers—more than six million Americans—are more than twice as likely to have unpredictable hours than full-time employees.

Many workers had one week or less of advanced notice about their upcoming work hours, the study found. Such haphazard scheduling has been linked to not only lower levels of job satisfaction, but also to greater levels of work-family conflict, according to the Lonnie Golden, the study’s author. Another study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, had similar findings, linking irregular shift schedules to diminished cognition and physical health, with workers who were exposed to such schedules for extended periods showing decreases in their ability to reason, think, and recall information.

In some cases, the differentiation in weekly work hours or varying start times may reflect a move toward increasingly flexible work places, but that’s not likely the case for low-income, part-time workers, who make up such a large portion of those working with unpredictable schedules, says Golden.

Additionally, the phenomenon may be contributing to the growing economic inequality in the country, according to Golden. For example, a lack of predictable hours can lead to difficulty obtaining or keeping government benefits for some workers. A 2014 study from researchers at the University of Chicago noted that in some states, qualification for child-care subsidies are tied to the number of hours worked. That can mean that decreased hours lead to a loss of child-care benefits, which then leaves parents unavailable to work, even when shifts become available. “Work-hour requirements are based on the assumption that workers decide how many hours they work, yet because hours are a key component of labor costs, corporate policies often restrict their availability,” write Susan Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, the study’s authors.

There’s no actual reason for this sort of scheduling to exist. It should not be that hard for employers to give workers a consistent schedule that can be set weeks or even months in advance. It’s just that employers don’t want to do it.

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