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Mapping LA Sprawl

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |

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If you like cool visualizations of how sprawl in Los Angeles occurred by noting the age of every building in the city, then this is for you.

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Can We Stop the Trans Pacific Partnership?

[ 8 ] June 5, 2015 |

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Probably not at this point, but we have to try. Maybe the fact that the Senate fast track bill funded assistance for workers who will lose their jobs thanks to the TPP from Medicare money will convince House Democrats to unite with the Obamahaters to torpedo it. I suspect that won’t work, but maybe.

Focusing on the actual labor conditions of the nations we are encouraging companies to move American jobs to in this agreement certainly can’t hurt. I rarely agree with Bob Menendez about much of anything concerning American foreign policy, but his recent conversion to including minimal labor standards like not engaging in human trafficking is welcome. The recent discovery of mass graves at human trafficking camps on the Malaysia-Thailand border has convinced him that Malaysia should be dropped from the TPP. Given that it is one of the most important nations in it, evicting Malaysia would be a very big deal and would set precedents for nations to uphold labor standards in trade deals that could be expanded to include more stringent policies on goods that will then be sold in the United States.

It’s a hard fight, but we have to try anything to kill the TPP.

What a Glorious Anniversary!

[ 60 ] June 5, 2015 |

Andrew Cuomo

A year ago this week, the Working Families Party decided to endorse Andrew Cuomo for governor. He made “promises” to promote parts of the WFP platform. Guess how that worked out!

From a strict scorecard perspective, the fact is that none of the legislative items that were supposed to have been part of it—from a full women’s equality package, public financing of elections and decriminalization of marijuana, to the Dream Act and a statewide minimum wage indexed to local markets—have become reality.

Same for the political goals: The Independent Democratic Conference is still allied with the Senate Republicans, and the mainline Democrats are still in the minority.

What happened?

W.F.P. says the governor simply broke his end of the bargain.

“The promises Governor Cuomo made would have amounted to a real difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers,” the party’s New York State director, Bill Lipton said in a statement to Capital. “He didn’t keep his promises.”

Clearly no one could have seen this coming!

The WFP not only made a mistake in endorsing Cuomo, but it was an obvious mistake that many commenters noted at the time, including myself. It was terrible politics and it will take a long time for WFP to live it down.

Condiment Wars, Revisited

[ 237 ] June 4, 2015 |

What Cheer Tavern in south Providence already had a legitimate claim to the best bar in the state. And then they gave me this menu tonight:

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I like this place even more.

Post-Prohibition Whiskey Raids

[ 23 ] June 4, 2015 |

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I’ve long said that the passage of the 18th Amendment was the worst day in American history, but even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states and counties could continue to ban the sale of liquor. Doing so incentivized people to fill the gap by producing their own. Here’s a good series of photos of cops busting bootlegging operations in Alabama over the decades, including the photo above, from 1964.

Race, History, and Naming Buildings at the University of North Carolina

[ 57 ] June 4, 2015 |

William Saunders

The University of North Carolina has long had a building named for former KKK leader William Saunders. Public protest has finally moved to renaming the building “Carolina Hall” (which really, could you be more bland?). But the school’s Board of Trustees can’t go all the way and confront the past. UNC law professor Eric Muller:

The Board of Trustees decreed that the new “Carolina” Hall must feature a historical marker that “explains Mr. Saunders’ contributions to UNC and the State of North Carolina,” the circumstances that led an earlier Board of Trustees to name the building for him and the reason why the current board has chosen to remove his name.

What is noteworthy is the decision to perpetuate the celebration of William Saunders. His name comes down, but an explanation of his contributions to the university and the state goes up. Why does Saunders, gone for almost 125 years, continue to command this honor, an honor bestowed on the KKK leader by his grandchildren’s generation at a time when many were celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and enforcing Jim Crow? Why are we obliged, almost a century later, to perpetuate that generation’s decision to single him out for honor from among all Carolina alumni who had made contributions to the university and the state? Why must we still publicly venerate his “contributions” on the walls of a university building?

The trustees also required the university to adorn the renamed building with a plaque that reads as follows: “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At first glance, the statement is pleasing in its timeless generality. But therein lies the problem. The society that Saunders lived in, and the society of two generations later that honored him with the naming, did not practice oppression as a generality. Whites oppressed blacks in the service of white supremacy. Why can this not be said? Indeed, why remember generic “injustices” when what we are actually remembering is “racial persecution”?

The statement even lets the oppressors subtly off the hook. It refers to them as people who “would” deny others their rights. The conditional word “would” strips their persecution of its terrible effectiveness. The truth is not that white supremacy merely aimed to deny blacks their rights – and at times their lives. The truth is that white supremacy actually did those things. Why the equivocating use of the conditional verb?

That’s pretty ridiculous. Whether this all means the Board of Trustees is really perfectly happy with the politics of William Saunders is an open question and one that’s especially salient given the current racism of the North Carolina state government and the Moral Mondays movement that has tapped into the state’s civil rights traditions to resist it. In any case, it’s amazing that not naming a building after a Ku Klux Klan leader is still contentious in 2015. But then an open confrontation with slavery, white violence, and Jim Crow could get awful uncomfortable for people who are doing all they can to strip the franchise from as many African-Americans as possible in the present.

Teaching Tenure Track

[ 38 ] June 4, 2015 |

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Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth have a very solid proposal for create tenure-track teaching positions for what would now be contingent faculty. In part:

In our recently published book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, we argue that the crisis in American academe has nothing to do with the intellectual content of research and teaching in the humanities, and everything to do with the labor conditions of most American college professors. We therefore propose, as a way of undoing the deprofessionalization of the profession of college teaching, a teaching-intensive tenure track for nontenure-track faculty members with Ph.D.s and good teaching records.

We know it is difficult to measure teaching, and we do not recommend that departments rely solely on student evaluations. Teaching can and should be evaluated not only by students but by extramural peer observation, by review of syllabi and course plans, by examples of professorial feedback on student work, and by careful review of professors’ own accounts of their classrooms.

Not surprisingly, our proposal has met with mixed responses. The most predictable is the complaint that our plan is too utopian or ambitious: that tenure was meant only for research faculty who can be evaluated by a national or international body of their peers, and that a teaching-intensive tenure track would dilute the very meaning of tenure. This view is not merely blinkered but mistaken; the academic freedom tenure ensures is as important for teaching and shared governance as it is for research.

I think this is a solid way forward. I don’t know that administrations would buy into it since they are turning to cheap contingent faculty in order to save money. Providing an alternative tenure track would give those faculty power, which is probably not what the average provost wants. But as far as a just yet realistic proposal from faculty on how to create better lives for contingent colleagues, I think this is a good way forward. As far as some of the professionalization questions some faculty have risen, I basically agree with Bérubé and Ruth up and down the line on how this would improve faculty lives.

Noncompete Clauses

[ 107 ] June 4, 2015 |

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Chris Murphy and Al Franken have introduced a bill to ban one of the most egregiously oppressive practices against low-wage workers: noncompete clauses.

The bill from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) would ban noncompete clauses for workers making less than $15 an hour or $31,200 annually, or the minimum wage in the employee’s municipality.

The move follows reports the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops requires some of its low-wage workers to sign two-year noncompete agreements prohibiting them from working at retail stores that make at least 10 percent of their sales from sandwiches.

The legislation is dubbed the “Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerable Employees (MOVE) Act” and is also supported by the National Employment Law Project.

There is no reason at all for noncompete clauses on low-wage workers. If a Jimmy John’s work learns how to make a sandwich and then takes her skills to Subway, Jimmy John’s does not suffer at all. This is why I push back against those who say that the employer assault on workers is about money. It’s not. It’s about power. Money is a big part of power, but there are plenty as aspects to this assault that have nothing to do with money. Noncompete clauses in the fast food industry is one of them. This is all about employers doing this because they can and because it intimidates workers from quitting. It should be illegal and hopefully this bill will make it so.

What Should Labor Have Done Differently?

[ 91 ] June 3, 2015 |

george-meany-resize-1Above: George Meany, 1967

Stephen Lerner spoke at a plenary session during last week’s Fighting Inequality conference. He asked us to engage in an intellectual exercise. If you could take a time machine back to 1955, what is the one thing you would tell the labor movement to do differently so that it the situation it faces in 2015 wouldn’t be so bad?

It’s an interesting question. My first response is that there probably isn’t that one thing labor could have done differently because the problems it faces are structural rather than a failure of leadership. I know the leadership hasn’t helped, but we need to keep our legitimate criticisms of poor labor leadership in their proper context. One thin labor could have done a lot better is dumping George Meany as head of the AFL-CIO and replacing him with Walter Reuther, but I’m not sure the final outcome is all that much better. From a moral perspective, telling labor to stop working with CIA and supporting American Cold War foreign policy is a good one, but if the AFL-CIO is a leader in opposing the Vietnam War, what is really different today except maybe that others on the left trust the movement a bit more? Certainly telling labor to think of a real response to outsourcing and capital mobility is very tempting. UAW members destroying Toyotas with a sledgehammer might have felt cathartic, but it’s hardly a response of value.

I think the best answer is to urge them to never think of management as a partner. Maybe the biggest mistake labor made was thinking that they had long-term deals with the employers that would create permanent stability for the working class. Labor’s power forced employers to tone down their anti-union rhetoric in public, but they never accepted unions as partners. As soon as labor let its guard down, employers started pushing back against everything they had given up to workers. At first, it was around the margins, but it became a full-fledged assault by the 1970s. And labor had no response to that because it had deemphasized organizing and worker activism, instead relying solely on the boardroom and courtroom as spaces of contention and negotiation. Those strategies definitely had great value and those who wish for a more activist labor movement overly romanticize direct action on the shopfloor. But that doesn’t mean that worker activism isn’t a necessary part of a labor movement. Marginalizing that in favor of thinking of employers as permanent partners that would get workers a growing piece of a growing pie, that was a pretty deadly error of judgement.

Oil and Outrage

[ 2 ] June 3, 2015 |

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I have a new piece up at Counterpunch on the Santa Barbara oil spills, 1969 and 2015:

The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.

But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.

Of course, we all know that a bill which passes unanimously in the Senate means that Richard Nixon is a liberal who deserves all the credit for signing it.

Sohel Rana Charged with Murder: Does it Matter?

[ 17 ] June 3, 2015 |

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Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza where over 1100 workers were killed in the largest workplace accident in industrial history, has been charged with murder in Bangladesh. 42 others are also facing charges, ranging from murder to building code violations.

This is a necessary step for justice. But there’s a long way to go before justice is actually served and an even longer path before the system that created these deaths is fixed. First, Rana still has a lot of friends in the Bangladeshi government. Will he be convicted? And if he is, what sentence will he receive? That remains to be seen. But I think the bigger issue is that it was not just a corrupt Bangladeshi political and economic system that created this disaster. It was a global apparel industry that asks no questions about means of production so long as the goods are cheap. The western apparel companies like Walmart, Primark, The Children’s Place who had contracts with Rana are as guilty as he is. And yes most of the companies have responded to these deaths by changing absolutely nothing about their sourcing practices. They remain completely unaccountable.

This is why we need an international system of governance where the survivors and families can seek compensation not only from Rana and his fellow perpetrators, but from the companies actually responsible for this exploitative system.

Once again, there is absolutely no reason for apparel production to be unsafe. There is very little inherently dangerous about it. But it is unsafe because the entire model of production is based upon outsourcing and exploitation to increase corporate profit. Until that changes, the prosecution of Sohel Rana isn’t going to stop future workplace disasters from occurring.

Gawker Unionism

[ 28 ] June 2, 2015 |

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Tomorrow, Gawker staffers vote on whether to form a union. This has been really interesting to watch play out because the company has allowed its writers to debate the issue on the site. Most of the writers who have contributed have favored the union. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but a victory here would be important for two reasons. First, it would be an expansion of unionism into new media. Entering any new industry and especially a growth area is always important for unions. Second, ten years ago, I really don’t think Gawker’s audience would be interested in hearing about labor unions and reading multiple articles about writers joining them. But times have changed and maybe this suggests a shift among the sort of educated, somewhat left-leaning readers of the site on unionism. Ultimately, a revival of American unionism is not going to happen before everyday people think they have value. Largely positive public discussions of unions are important. Union victories are even more important. I don’t want to overstate the importance of this, but it would be a nice victory.

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