Wednesday, January 24, 2007

We're Back and We've Moved Again

This blog, old as it is, still gets occasional traffic from - I presume - the few loyal readers who remember it fondly from the Old Days (only on the internet could 2 1/2 years be considered ancient history), so I thought I would let those few know the next time they came back that Trenches is once more in business.

You can find the new Dispatch from the Trenches on WordPress. I've imported all the posts I wrote here, and you can find your favorites, should you have any, by using the Search function at the top of the sidebar. Unlike the Google Search Blogger uses, this one actually works and a keyword or two should find whatever you're looking for double-quick.

Some recent posts include:

Developing White collar Unions, Pt 1 (first in a series)

Retirement in the Age of the Ownership Society: Keep Working

Wal-Mart's Phony Health Care


Unions and Conservative Conservation Group Hook Up

among others.

Hope to see you there, and thanks for your continued support.

Monday, September 20, 2004

We've Moved!

Anybody who's been checking Omnium as well as here knows that my frustration with Blogger's growing list of glitches, shutdowns, lock-outs, and random idiosyncracies has reached a peak. All summer I have wasted many hours I don't have to waste trying to get a post published or a link added to the template. After suffering through the third time in one day that Blogger simply refused to publish posts and then, when it finally did, double-posted them, I decided to bite the bullet.

As the Editor of this site, I made an executive decision to pack up and move along. It's time anyway. We've been growing past the limitations of Blogger's programming, and some of the stories I'd like to pursue and the resources I'd like to offer are simply not doable here. The new site is much more flexible and offers a much wider range of presentation options.

# We've been able to give our Recommended Reading list its own page, along with links directly to Our new webhost has an arrangement with amazon, and in a month or so when it kicks in, anything bought from amazon through one of our links will generate a small kickback to us that may help pay for the site.

# There's now a Movie page of relevant films, complete with reviews. Matewan and Norma Rae are currently featured with The Grapes of Wrath and Silkwood to follow shortly. More will be added as time goes on.

# We now have the capabilty to host photo galleries complete with thumbnails. At present we're featuring the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans (Lange is up already; Evans will be added today), and in the future we'll have galleries of workers, union activities, strikes past and present, and photo essays connected to stories we've done and events in the working-class world.

# We even have the potential to host video presentations and musical selections that you can watch and listen to or even download for your own use, though I haven't gotten around to figuring out how to do that quite yet.

# In the near future we're going to have a Resource page of readable and downloadable files of articles, selected essays from the Trenches archives, and data complied by think-tanks and govt sources to help us understand the connections between individual stories and the larger social and political framework in which they play out.

# Most exciting perhaps is the Discussion program, which allows for independent and interconnected discussion threads that don't disappear but let on-going conversations develop on various topics over a period of time. The first is based on Karlo's observation in Comments on the 'Open Thread' post that people seem to think of class much the same way they think of religion. Another, to be added today, takes up eRobin's very disturbing comment on the 'Slavery' post that she sees no end to this kind of activity without direct action.

While the new Trenches doesn't look much like this one, we think the added features will make Trenches a more diverse and interesting place to visit and provide you with a lot more ammunition you can take with you as you wage the War with Moloch. The new address is:

(copy and paste the link or simply click the title of this post)

Our first post--on the battle for presidency of the Hollywood Writers' Guild--is up now, and from today on we'll be posting there rather than here. Please change your bookmarks accordingly, and let us know what you think of the changes when you drop by.

Housekeeping: For the time being this site will remain up, housing the Archives until I decide whether or not it's worth moving them.

Also, a note that a new, smaller site replacing Omnium called Arran's Alley is up and running--or at least walking--with a new post that is, to say the least, a total departure for me. Titled 'Women Tell Stories. Why?', it's a tongue-in-cheek essay based on a simple observation. While the more serious political analysis and social commentary you're used to will certainly continue as before, Arran's Alley is going to be a lot more free-wheeling and a lot looser. I'll only be posting to it once or twice a week (you can sign up to be notified by email when there's a new post), and I intend to use it to sound off about whatever crosses my path. From movie reviews to Bush-inanities, from somber reflections on the Mid-East situation to comic observations like 'Women Tell Stories', nothing is off the Alley's table. I think it will be more fun and more intriguing to read; I know it's more fun to write. See you there.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Five-and-a-Half Year Boycott Forces Contract with Farm Workers

Growers' Group Signs the First Union Contract for Guest Workers

Published: NYT, September 17, 2004

The North Carolina Growers Association, which represents 1,000 farmers, signed a union contract yesterday covering 8,500 guest workers from Mexico - a move that the association and union said was the first union contract in the nation for guest workers.

At the signing ceremony at a church in Raleigh, the Mount Olive Pickle Company, the nation's second largest pickle company, announced that it had signed a separate contract with the union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, ending a five-and-a-half-year boycott campaign against the company.

The two contracts end a long, bitter dispute in which the Farm Labor Organizing Committee accused Mount Olive of using cucumber growers who mistreated their workers. In organizing a boycott that was backed by the National Council of Churches, the union said that workers employed by Mount Olive's growers often lived in squalid housing and that one worker had died of heat prostration and another of heat prostration or exposure to pesticides.

"The company is tremendously relieved to have the boycott ended,'' said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which is based in Toledo, Ohio. "They were getting tired of all the negative publicity."

Bill Bryan, Mount Olive's president, said the boycott hardly hurt the company's sales, except in pockets of the Midwest. But he acknowledged it was time-consuming and annoying to have to respond to questions about why his company was being boycotted.

"We have always said we would be interested in settling the boycott if we could do so with reasonable terms that we felt were appropriate for our company," said Mr. Bryan, who asserted that the boycott was based partly on inaccurate information and unfair accusations.

The agreement with the North Carolina growers is unusual because it is the first union contract ever signed by farmers in the state, which has a history of hostility to unions, and because the contract provides for a union hiring hall in Mexico to help supply guest workers.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Velasquez hailed the agreement with the growers' association because it gives unionized farm workers a foothold in the South and because it should encourage workers to speak up without fear of retaliation. He also praised the agreement because it provides grievance procedures and a seniority system, which he said would effectively eliminate a blacklist that prevented guest workers who complained from being rehired. Spokesmen for the growers denied that any blacklist existed.

'Sign the Contract and I'll Let You In'

In a scene straight out of the Soprano's, LA's Wilshire Grand Hotel locked out its laundry workers in the middle of contract negotiations and hired scab replacement workers, telling the members of the union, Unite Here, that they could return to their jobs only if they signed the contract the LA Hotel Employers' Council was offering.

By Ronald D. White, LA Times Staff Writer

The contract standoff between a union and nine Los Angeles County hotels escalated Thursday after the Wilshire Grand locked out its laundry employees and quickly filled their jobs with replacement workers.

At 6 a.m., 17 members of the Unite Here union learned that they had washed and folded their last bedsheets, tablecloths and towels for the downtown Los Angeles hotel. As for the 55-year-old hotel's laundry, it didn't skip a beat.

"We brought in replacement workers. We had them all lined up in case this happened," said Wilshire Grand general manager John Stoddard, one of the most vocal members of the Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council, which has handled the 7-month-old contract negotiations with the union.

The laundry workers are among more than 100 members of Local 52 of the Union of Needlestick, Industrial and Textile Employees, which recently merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, creating the union Unite Here.

The union and the hotels have been negotiating since March for a contract to cover 2,800 hotel and restaurant employees of another Unite Here group, Local 11.

The Local 11 workers on Monday gave their union the authority to strike, as did hotel unions in San Francisco and Washington. And a lawsuit was filed Thursday by some workers at two of the local hotels — the St. Regis and the Westin Century Plaza — accusing them of failing to give workers mandatory meal and rest breaks.

At the Wilshire Grand, Stoddard said he replaced the laundry workers because he couldn't risk an expensive planned upgrade of the aging laundry operation without the assurance of a long-term contract and a reliable workforce. He said he took the action knowing that it might prompt a strike in support of laundry workers.

Cristina Vazquez, deputy administrator of Local 52 and western regional manager of Unite Here, called the ouster an illegal lockout, though she said she wasn't asking for a strike.

"For them to do this is just outrageous," said Vazquez, noting that her local was negotiating a separate contract for laundry workers with several of the hotels, including the Wilshire Grand, on Wednesday.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of Unite Here Local 11, said its 2,800 workers would strike if asked. The hotel is "trying to provoke a citywide dispute," Durazo said.

One of the laundry employees, Rosa Olivares, has been on the Wilshire Grand payroll for 32 years and said she felt betrayed. "Through all of those years, I have been an excellent worker," said Olivares, 57.

Stoddard said Olivares and the others could return to their jobs if they agreed to a new contract. He also said that their being replaced with temporary workers wouldn't trigger an agreement forged by the nine hotels in which they each would lock out union employees if certain conditions were met.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Solidarity vs. the force

Gary Oldman has dropped out of the next Star Wars movie.
Oldman's spokesman explains, "Gary was excited and looking forward to working on the film. The snag is that the movie is being made without members of the Screen Actor's Guild.

"It means Gary would have been working illegally overseas. Out of respect and solidarity with the other members, he could not and would not consider violating the rules of his union."

I imagine this will only get covered a show business and sci-fi fandom news, but it deserves broader coverage. It's not often that we get a nice story about a high profile person taking a stand on union solidarity. This would have been a very profitable job for Oldman and he's rich enough that he could have ignored the union. Instead, he chose his union over the money. For that, he deserves our applause.

Response to Mr Mulvey

Now that you've had time to digest what Mr Mulvey had to say, here's my response.

Your writing is very cogent. Colleges don't teach that. They serve as a superstructure for the foundation that should have been taught in grammar and high school. With only 1 year of college before the money ran out, you appear to have been given the foundation and acted as your own contractor in building the superstructure. The whys and hows of the money situation are known only to you and really don't matter based on the product you produce. That is as American as it gets

Compliments are always welcome but not at the expense of facts.

My writing has always been 'cogent'. What it hasn't always been is organized, structured, or coherent. I have talent, and no, colleges can't give anybody a talent they don't have going in, but that's not what they're for. Schools teach skills; that's all they can do but it's bloody important.

I'll tell you what's 'as American as it gets'--the fact that because I couldn't afford to go to college to acquire those skills, it took me 30 years of trial and error to acquire them on my own, and that as a result I'm not writing for a living today.

Have you ever heard of Mark Smith, the Wisconsin laborer who makes movies on a shoestring budget? Somebody did a documentary about him a few years back that had a short vogue. He was on Letterman and Leno, they showed clips from his films, and for a while he was the Flavor of the Month. Experts said that despite the rawness, poor acting (he had to use local actors and neighbors), and grainy, low-rent look from the low-tech equipment he had to use, he had a remarkable eye for framing and a real talent for telling a story. Then he spent a frustrating couple of years trying to get the same people who had praised him so highly to return his calls--an agent, a producer, a banker--anyone who could help him put together the budget for a real film.

Mark never went to college, you see, never studied film, never made the connections so vital to getting ahead (which is the other half of what college is good for). He was just an ordinary guy with a boatload of talent who came from a working-class family and went into the factories when he got out of high school. In other words, he was a novelty. People thought he was interesting and what a great human interest story but Jesus, hire him? Put a multimillion dollar film in the hands of a some factory worker from Wisconsin who doesn't have a degree in film or at least a nodding acquaintance with Steven Spielberg's editor's second cousin by marriage? Uh-uh, no way.

That's your American story: a waste of talent, maybe genius for all we know, because he was born in the wrong place and into the wrong class. So the premise you're starting with is already seriously flawed. Education matters.

The fact is the education system in this country is broken. I offer the following: The business owner is looking for basic 9th through 11th grade high school skills as a condition of employment that his applicants simply did not possess.

That's the part that's not credible. You expect me to believe that--whatever Tampa's problems may be--he can't find a dozen high school graduates who have approproate math skills in a city that size? If you read the article, that guy isn't a corporation with a need for hundreds of such workers, he's got a small business with a limited but growing clientele. I just don't buy it. There has to be something else going on there. The education system may be broken (that's a discussion for another time) but it ain't that broken.

There's a girl--19 or 20--who runs the cash register at a convenience store near my house. She was a math whiz in high school--calculus, trigonometry, abstract algebra, you name it--and if you bring 5 or 6 items to the counter she can tell you the total while she's still scanning them. But she can't get a job using those skills because a) there aren't a lot of jobs around here, but mostly because b) she's black and female.

I strongly suspect that something like that is going on in Tampa--he's getting applicants who have the skills but he's turning them down for subsidiary reasons and blaming a low skill-level. Maybe they don't interview well, maybe they don't dress the way he thinks they should for an interview because they don't have the money to dress well, maybe they don't speak standard English well enough or have an accent he thinks will scare off his customers. Maybe they all drive cars with Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers on them and fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. I've seen people turned away for a lot less. Whatever it is, I can assure you it's NOT the skill-level.

You propose the business owner to pay for educating the perspective employees in return for a year or two of work.

I didn't 'propose' it. I suggested that it was the obvious solution and wondered why it hadn't even occured to him. Even if I accept your 'double-dipping' argument, what's that got to do with the price of tomatoes? He's supposed to be a practical businessman dealing with reality, so what's the practical reality? That regardless of where the blame lies, he claims to be losing business because of this right now. If I was in his position, I'd pick the best of my candidates and offer to pay for night school in return for a reasonable minimum commitment, say 6 months to a year, on the job. There's nothing remotely illegal or even questionable about such an arrangement (there's a big trucking company, JB Hunt, I think, who's doing something just like that because there's a shortage of drivers), and I would not only be solving my problem, I'd be giving somebody a leg up and out of an exploitive system. If he's refusing to do that because of some dopey ideological imperative, then he's doing what my mother would call 'cutting off his nose to spite his face' and he deserves everything he gets.

I never proposed--nor would I--making my suggestion to him mandatory. I meant that it was plain common sense, good business sense, and dynamite public relations, yet--for whatever reason--as far as he's concerned it isn't even on the table. There's some kind of prejudice working there.

Responsible parents want their kids to have more opportunities for choice than they had themselves. Maybe the answer is in a school voucher system which ironically is supported more by parents in poverty than by any other socio-economic group.

This is much too long a discussion to have today, as I said. The education system needs to be tackled but it's a much longer and more complicated subject than the simple answer of 'vouchers' would suggest. I'll say only a couple of things for now:

1) The public schools are operating under intense pressures parochial schools can't even imagine in their worst nightmares, pressures which would break the parochials like a hard taco if they were ever faced with them.

2) Since the tax-cutting frenzy began, the public schools have been starved for money. The amount of money spent per-pupil is 3-4 times in private schools what it is in most public schools. Part of the reason for that is that private schools can limit their enrollment as well as cherry-pick the cream. Public schools don't have that luxury; they have to take everybody and split the pie many more ways.

3) Of course poor parents support vouchers--it's a way to get their kids an expensive education they couldn't otherwise afford. But they understand something you don't seem to: vouchers are a lottery system--a few lucky kids will get a break, the vast majority will remain in crumbling, understaffed and under-equipped schools that offer no future because they're basically warehouses, not educational institutions. That's no solution for any except the lucky few, and in the richest country on earth, it's a disgrace.

Continued success in your writing.

Thanks. You, too. And please think this issue through some more. You're leaving a lot out of your calculations.

Nation Gets 'F' in Affordable Colleges

The cost of a college education has risen dramatically in the past few years while wages have stagnanted and inflation, mild as it's been, has eaten up most of what few gains have been made. In real dollars, a lot of us are making less now than we were twenty years ago, making paying for college for our kids a struggle at best, impossible at worst. During the Clinton years, federally-funded or backed financial aid helped close the gap, but in the past three years Bush's tax cuts have forced that money out of the system. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says the result will be to bump less affluent college students out of the system as well.

The report card evaluates states on the performance of their private and public four-year schools and community colleges in five categories, with grades ranging from A to F.

On affordability, the report card contradicts some recent studies that argue increases in financial aid have kept pace with recent tuition hikes, so real college costs have stabilized.

The report card, titled ``Measuring Up 2004,'' grades affordability in part by comparing net college costs with the average family income in each state. By that measure, the study claims, college is becoming less affordable in most states.

In New Hampshire, for instance, college costs amount to 32 percent of average family income compared to 23 percent a decade ago. In New Jersey and Oregon, colleges cost 34 percent of family income, compared to 24 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in 1994.

David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an adviser on the report, said the combination of higher prices and a population boom among college-age people is likely to bump students from four-year colleges to more affordable community colleges, and from community colleges out of the system.

``For at least another five to eight years we're looking at a real denial of opportunity,'' he said.

The report also claims states have made some progress over the last decade preparing students for college, as measured by such factors as the percentage of students taking advanced math and science. In West Virginia, for instance, the percentage of high schoolers taking upper level math and science courses has nearly doubled, and the percentage of eighth graders taking algebra has more than doubled to 25 percent.

But the report notes that higher education, by failing to bring more students into the system, hasn't met its end of the bargain.

``We can no longer attribute all of our college access and quality problems to the failure of public schools,'' said Patrick Callan, the center's president. ``The fact is, high schools have improved over these last 10 years and we haven't seen commensurate higher education gains.''

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The right thing to do

I'm glad to see Lynne Gobbell's story getting some coverage in the mainstream news media. As of this morning Google shows 89 sources running it (most are just running the short AP version, but a few have more detailed coverage). This is the kind of story that we should all have printed out and ready to hand to our coworkers and kin who are concerned about Kerry's "character."

Here's a short summary. Lynne Gobbell was a line worker who put in 50-60 hours a week at an Enviromate insulation factory near Moulton, Ala. Last Thursday she showed up for work with a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker in the rear window of her Chevy Lumina. The owner of Enviromate is a bankrupcy lawyer named Phil Geddes, an enthusiastic Bush supporter who has included pro-Bush flyers in his employees' pay envelopes. After a break she was approached by her supervisor who passed on an order from Geddes to remove the bumper sticker or be fired. She confronted Geddes and exchanged hot words. A few minutes later her supervisor told her to leave wit the words, "I reckon you're fired. You could either work for him or John Kerry."

The story got some local coverage, but little else from the mainstream media. But the bloggers got hold of the story and spread it far and wide. By Tuesday Geddes--who was being called a massive pile of elephant dung by bloggers in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and several foreign countries-- was being driven to distraction by calls for comment. He sent a subordinate to apologize and offer Gobbell her job back. Gobbell said she wanted a guarantee that she wouldn't be re-fired after the heat was off Geddes. While waiting for his answer, she got a call from John Kerry. Timothy Noah of Slate got hold of her a few minutes later and got the details: "He was telling me how proud he was that I stood up.He'd read the part where Phil said I could either work for him or work for John Kerry. He said, 'you let him know you're working for me as of today.'" The Democratic National Committee called her later Tuesday to work out the terms of her new job.

No doubt the Republican slime machine will kick into action later today. They'll find co-workers to testify that Gobbell was a troublemaker, bad worker, and had terrible taste in music. At the same time the right wing punditocracy will swing into action tut-tutting that Kerry would take advantage of this poor woman (the right thing to do, they will tell us, would have been to leave her unemployed and at the mercy of an employer who thinks he's a feudal master). Well, they are all wrong. Gobbell took her knocks for Kerry, it's only right that he should repay her for her loyalty.

This is real character. It's also a symbol of what we are fighting for in this election. Why do companies and employers like that still exist in the 21st century? This is why unions and an administration that is friendly toward them are still relevant.

Modern Slavery--The Real Thing, Not a Metaphor--Is Booming

It doesn't look like the old chattel slavery model. In fact, it works even better--for the owner. It's called 'contract slavery' and it's happening all over the world, including here in the US.


For most of us the word slavery conveys images from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Tragically, however, slavery hasn't disappeared; it's just taken on a new, modern form.

Because of the clandestine nature of modern slavery, it is impossible to determine precise numbers. Both Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves have documented more than 30million slaves alive today, more than all of the people stolen in the time of the trans-Atlantic trade!

What matters most now is less color, tribe, or religion, but, weakness, gullibility, and deprivation.

Slaves are working mostly in simple, non-technological, traditional work. They are hidden among the population of domestic servants working in Great Britain. In the United States, Mexican farm workers have been found to be working simply as field slaves.

Enslaved Thai and Philippine women have been freed from brothels in New York, Los Angeles, and, yes, even Seattle. Slaves work in mining, jewelry making, and in cloth and carpet factories. Slaves clear forests, and work in a variety of small factories throughout the world. Child brick-industry slaves are all too common in South Asia.

How can this be?

One of the striking features of globalization in the rural areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America is how easily traditional families have been shattered by the forced shift from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture and government policies that suppress farm income in favor of cheap, often imported, food for cities.

Poverty has soared as incomes have plummeted. Then, too, corrupt and undemocratic political elites have focused on economic growth and commercial opportunity, too often for their own benefit, and have paid little attention to sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor.

Public understanding of modern slavery is often confused with reports of low-wage workers in substandard working conditions. However, modern-day slaves differ from these workers because they are, in fact, imprisoned, threatened, beaten and shackled.

In the past slavery meant one person legally owning another person. Today there is no place in the world that allows legal ownership of human beings. In many cases, however, non-ownership turns out to be in the interest of the slaveholder, who now enjoys all of the benefits of slavery without any responsibilities. Thus, modern slavery is not typically chattel slavery, where a person is born, captured, or sold into permanent servitude.

It is debt slavery that is most common today. A person pledges to work against a loan of money, but the length and nature of the work are not defined and the loan may never get paid off, the debt sometimes passed down for generations.

Contract slavery, the most rapidly growing type of slavery today, shows how modern labor relations are used to hide slavery's basic brutality. Contracts are offered that guarantee employment, but when workers are taken to their place of work they find themselves enslaved. If legal questions are raised, the contract can be produced, but the reality is that too often the "contract worker" is threatened and paid little or nothing.

Government corruption, and often collusion, plus the threefold increase in the world's population since World War II, have led to literally a glut in potential slaves. Slaves have simply become so cheap that they are not seen as a capital investment.

In this way the new slavery mimics the world economy in a shift away from ownership and fixed asset management. The new slavery simply appropriates the economic value of individuals while keeping them under violent control -- but without asserting ownership or accepting responsibility for their survival. There's no easy profit in infants, the ill or the elderly, who become disposable.

The direct value of slave labor in the world economy may be small, but the indirect value can be significant. Thanks to the global economy, slave-produced products move smoothly around the globe.

One industrial example, well documented by Kevin Bales, author of "Disposable People," is the slave-produced charcoal that is crucial to making steel in Brazil. Much of that steel is used in the cars, car parts and other metal products that Brazil exports. Slavery lowers production costs, and raises profits.

An agricultural example includes the use of slave labor on cocoa plantations in West Africa, or in the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic, to supply the raw materials for chocolate products enjoyed all over the planet.

Most of us don't want to believe that slavery still exists. But it does, and one of the first tasks is to admit our ignorance.

Tom Thompson, an economist, is a consultant for several human rights organizations.

I should be shocked. I'm not. Somehow the whole idea fits into modern corporate methodology like a hooker fits into the Republican Convention--with surprising ease and hardly a raised eyebrow. It's the logical extension of policies and practices they've been following for years and, in their deepest dreams, the place they'd like us to wind up.

They'll tell us it's 'for our own good', that we're lucky to have work at all, that they're looking after us, that they have our best interests at heart--and then they won't bother to tell us anything because their power over us will be so complete they won't have to talk to us except to issue orders backed by brute force. It's a dark vision but it's a vision they embrace--all things are justifiable in the name of Profit, and inhumanity becomes just another way to lower expenses.

And why not? We're one measly step above animals, aren't we? It's not as if we could boast their finer feelings for expensive cigars and the romance of bulging stock portfolios. Besides, there's millions of us. We breed like rabbits, right? They use us up, throw us away, buy a few more of us. Simple, cost-effective. And, as we know from history, there's always somebody willing to separate himself from the herd by his willingness to wield the lash. It's a fine and perfect world where there's a place for everyone and everyone knows his place. It's paradise.

Thirteen thousand years they've been at it, give or take. These guys never quit.

PBGC Fights For Pensions

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp is trying hard to live up to its name. In the story Trenches has been following about the airline industry threatening to renege on its pension obligations as hard times and exceptionally poor management practices shove the carriers one after the other into bankruptcy, PBGC has emerged as both a whistle-blower and a champion of its trust. It could have sat back, as the S&L guarantors did, and evolved strategies aimed at protecting itself at the expense of the pensioners, letting the govt pick up what was left of the pieces--or not. Instead, PBGC is taking an active role, asking Congress to give it the power to put liens on airline assets in order to safeguard the interests of pensioners.

Pension Agency Seeks More Power
Federal Insurer Wants to Put Liens on Companies in Bankruptcy

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page E03

The government's pension insurer said yesterday that it wants the authority to place liens on the assets of companies in bankruptcy such as US Airways when those companies do not make required payments to their pension plans.

US Airways told a bankruptcy court in Alexandria on Monday that it doesn't plan to make a $110 million payment due today to pension plans covering its mechanics and flight attendants. The airline said its pension obligations total $531 million over the next five years.

In July, United Airlines refused to make a $72.4 million payment to four of its pension plans, and said it would not make $500 million in payments due this year.

The government agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., argues that the failure to make required payments is illegal but that it lacks power to do anything about it under bankruptcy law. Yesterday it said it should have authority to place liens against the corporate assets of a bankrupt company so that the amount of the missed payment can be preserved for the pension plan participants. It already has such power over companies not in bankruptcy.

Such authority would require a change in the law.

"Failure to act will increase the risk that participants will lose promised benefits and that the pension insurance program will suffer larger losses. We need to make clear that pension contributions are required whether a company is in bankruptcy or not," Executive Director Bradley D. Belt said in a written statement yesterday.

The agency also wants companies to be required to notify pension plan participants within 30 days of a bankruptcy filing of the plan's funded status and of legal limits on the agency's guarantees, which in some cases are substantially less that the pension promised to an employee under the plan.

A federal judge in New York ruled in 1991 that the PBGC has no priority over other creditors in bankruptcy and that the PBGC cannot compel bankrupt companies to make payments required by pension law. PBGC officials said at the time that the ruling created a dangerous situation for the agency. Legislation was introduced to overturn that ruling but never passed.

If only more corporations had PBGC's sense of honor, loyalty, and responsibility.

Unfortunately, the corporate-owned Congress is unlikely even to consider such a request, let alone pass the appropriate legislation, and tens of thousands may lose their pensions behind this mess. The next time somebody touts de-regulation to you, you might mention the disaster it had on the airline industry. Corporate honchos are like 2-yr-olds with ADD--they're incapable of seeing past their own greed or the day-after-tomorrow and have to have a minder to keep them from jamming their hands into electric outlets because they have this fantasy it will make them super-charged like Batman. De-regulation is strictly for adults, and as both the airline and energy industries have shown, today's corporate decision-makers--with rare exceptions like PBGC--aren't ready for the responsibility.

'Ownership Society'=A Tax on Wages

An editorial in today's NYT nails what one part of Bush's 'Ownership Society' actually means: the elimination of taxes on the wealthy and shifting the burden to anyone who lives off wages rather than investments. It's a direct strike at what's left of the middle-class and, as usual, he's lying about it.

Taxes for an Ownership Society

Published: September 15, 2004

When President Bush talks about an "ownership society," hold on to your wallet. The slogan, like "compassionate conservative" before it, is sufficiently vague to mean many things to many people, and the few details that Mr. Bush has provided - bolstered home ownership and new tax-sheltered savings plans - seem innocuous enough. But in tax terms, "ownership society" means only one thing: the further reduction, if not the elimination, of taxes on savings and investments, including taxes on dividends and on capital gains on stocks, bonds and real estate. That, in turn, means - by definition - a shift in the tax burden onto wages and salary - or, put more simply, a wage tax.

The regressive results would be appalling. The richest 1 percent of Americans earn just about one-tenth of total wages and salary, but almost half of all income from savings and investments - income that would be largely, perhaps entirely, untaxed in an "ownership society." In contrast, taxable wages and salary make up almost all of the income of most Americans.

The Bush camp has been floating the idea that what the president is getting at is a consumption tax. But the administration is not talking about a true consumption tax, which would apply to spending regardless of where the money comes from - from your paycheck, cashing in your stocks and bonds, selling your house, or borrowing. It is, in effect, talking about a tax on wages.

Properly understood, a consumption tax is intended to increase national savings by making it relatively more attractive to save than to spend. The main argument against it is that it hits hardest at low-income and middle-income families, who tend to spend most of what they earn. But as Peter Orszag, an economist at the Brookings Institution, pointed out in a recent speech at Georgetown University, Mr. Bush's de facto wage tax would be the worst of all worlds: it would have all the regressive aspects of a consumption tax and none of its potential for increasing national savings.

When Mr. Bush talks about new tax-favored savings accounts, he never mentions that most people don't even take advantage of existing plans. They won't be turned into owners by new tax breaks for interest, dividends and capital gains. To turn Americans into owners requires a strong economy in which the people who work for a living share in the benefits of economic growth.

A good place to start would be to tackle the obstacles to sustained growth that currently exist, like spiraling health care costs, dependence on foreign oil and the administration's mania for unaffordable tax cuts - in short, to reverse, not intensify, the trends in the current economy.

In the past nearly three years of economic recovery, the distribution of economic growth has become more skewed than at any other time in modern memory. Currently, 47 percent of growth is flowing to corporate profits, by far the largest share during any of the other eight post-World War II recoveries. Fifteen percent goes to wages and salary, the smallest share of economic growth in more than 50 years. To make matters worse, the share of compensation that is devoted to health and pension benefits is far larger during this recovery than any other, representing a further squeeze on the wages and salaries of ordinary Americans. In 2004, take-home pay as a share of the economy dropped to its lowest level since the government started keeping records in 1929.

All of this would make the drive for a wage tax laughable, if only it were a joke. And yet, when he says "ownership society," a wage tax is exactly what Mr. Bush is driving at.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

In Humor, Truth

President Bush, working the stump, meets a waitress at a downtown diner and tells her he created 144,000 jobs in August.

'I know,' the waitress replies. 'I'm working three of them.'

Maybe this isn't so funny....

Welfare to Work: Did It Work?

NY Times reporter Jason DeParle's new book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, And A Nation's Drive To End Welfare, follows the lives of three mothers in Milwaukie after Clinton ended 'welfare as we know it'. An interview in Mother Jones this month shows Mr DeParle to be in some ways startlingly naive in his thinking about poverty, but what else is new? For example: Bill Clinton set out to “end welfare as we know it.” Did he succeed?

Jason DeParle: Well he certainly succeeded in overhauling the law and substantially increasingly employment rates among low-skilled women. It was a big success as an employment program, but it was less of a success as a program for social mobility. Implicit and sometimes explicit in [Clinton’s] thinking about welfare was that when mothers went to work their children would do better in school. He talked a lot about hope and dignity and role models and said the families would experience a different social and economic trajectory. But I found a lot less evidence of that taking place.

Most of the debate at the time was, If welfare recipients could go to work in substantial numbers, would there be enough jobs for them? Could they hold the jobs? Could the jobs pay enough for them to survive on? On that level the law worked surprisingly well. Two of the women I followed became workers; Angie had been on welfare for 12 years, Jewell for 8, and neither had a high school degree. Yet they adapted to the workplace very quickly. I think that the evidence would show that their experience was typical in that regard. You could say that welfare reform worked better than we expected and better than we had a right to expect.

So two of them managed to get jobs in what he admits later on was the hottest economy in 50 years and held their familes together in the face of the higher costs. He makes this sound as if such movement was unusual before welfare 'reform'. In point of fact, it was the norm.

The majority of single mothers on welfare were on it for only a few years until their children were old enough to go to school, earlier if they were lucky enough to live in a relatively enlightened state--like Wisconsin--which funded low-income pre-schools so they had someplace safe to leave their kids while they worked. Membership in the welfare club was overwhelmingly transient before the so-called reform--something like 3/4 of single moms were on it less than seven years--so at best, it would seem that reform only slightly accelerated the process; at worst, it's taking credit for a good deal of what would have happened anyway. DeParle admits that Wisconsin was especially generous and that he doesn't know what would have happened to the women he followed if they'd been living somewhere else. What are some of the policy changes that you feel should be adopted to better serve needy workers?

JD: The Earned Income Tax Credit was crucial to Angie and Jewell’s well-being, and because Wisconsin has a generous one, each of them was getting four to five thousand dollars a year from that program. Their lives were tough enough as it was with that subsidy; I can’t imagine how they would’ve gotten by without it. Simply leaving welfare for work doesn’t make them free of the need for ongoing support, both in the forms of tax credits and food stamp support. That’s a sustenance agenda. To really experience an upward mobility economically they’re going to need to update their skills, and that’s been a real challenge for both of them, there hasn’t been a way for them to combine their work with training opportunities, that’s certainly a place for more policy initiatives. (emphasis added)

What Mr DeParle has done is echo the standard conservative line about welfare being a problem arising from chronic laziness and lousy attitudes about work that was never true to begin with, and rather than acknowledge that, he gushes about what a success reform has been and how easily the women 'fit in' to a work environment.

That was never the real issue. The real issue was always the lack of support for women on welfare who wanted to better their lives--no day care, no help covering the huge gaps while they made the transition, penalties for trying to go back to school, no or minimal training programs. In this interview (I haven't read the book) he slides over an issue that was crucial for a lot of the welfare mothers I used to know when I worked as a pre-school teacher in the 80's--health care.

As Angie’s earnings went up, her welfare went down, but it wasn’t a complete wash. In the book, I compared her last four years on welfare with her first three years off. Her earned [income] tax credit went up by about $12,000 and her welfare and food stamps went down by about $8,000. She looked on paper like she was $3,400 ahead, but she then had work expenses on top of that -- child care, a car -- so factor that in and you wipe out most of the gain. She also lost her health insurance. At one point she said she didn’t feel any difference between where she had been when she was on welfare and when she was working, and at first I thought it was just a good-natured complaint. But she released her welfare and earnings records from the past dozen years, so I was able to actually plot what it had been, and when you look at numbers she’s right, it really wasn’t much difference. (emphasis added)

There was a huge difference: her children no longer have health insurance. She worked in a near-minimum-wage job (she recently got a raise to almost $9) with, naturally in America, no employer-provided health insurance; paying for a family policy would cost her--at that level, pretty literally--her paycheck--$4-600/month out of a take-home pay of around $800. The fact that Mr DeParle thinks there 'really wasn't much difference' means he didn't count those kids' health costs--the care they're no longer receiving--in his bottom-line match-up. This is either devastating naivete or deliberate fudging. The breadth of that naivete--if that's what it is--explodes from a single sentence. Some of the women you profile were themselves raised by working mothers.

JD: That was one of the surprises for me, they were raised by working mothers, but it didn’t keep them from dropping out of high school and becoming pregnant. At some point during the kid’s adolescence it just left them with less supervision.

Hello, New Gingrich. He's shocked, shocked that the fact that they were working--the conservative cure-all--didn't solve all their other problems. He doesn't mention racism (all three women are all black)--that doesn't exists any more, right?--or the lack of sex-ed programs thanks to conservative 'abstinence-only' SWAT teams or the reality of living in a social setting where kids are forced to adapt like adults in order to survive and in the process lose all sense of where the adult/child line is and what is or is not age-approipriate behaviour. No, it's a matter solely of too little parental supervision '[a]t some point during the kid’s adolescence', and he can't even be bothered to make the connection between that lack of supervision and the fact that the parents involved were working long hours, or how that may have fed into his subjects' decision to go on welfare instead so they could be home with their kids.

Maybe he does all that in the book, I don't know, but based on this interview, I ain't holding my breath. In any case, its value is dubious at best in the effort to try to understand what happened after welfare reform passed because it's following women who participated in the single most expensive welfare-to-work experiment in the nation, a program larded with training and support programs and--as DeParle says--'awash in money' that wasn't available anywhere else. Wisconsin's experience is so far out of the usual that it can't be considered as anything other than an anomaly.

I'm putting the book on the sidebar anyway, but with this caveat: its relevance must be understood to be strictly limited at best and misleading at worst. If somebody wants to read it and post a review, have at it. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Increasing Corporate Demands Spur Drug-Use by Workers

Jesus, I hate to see shit like this, but in retrospect it was almost inevitable and we should have seen it coming. Corporate productivity demands on workers have increased to such an extent that stress levels are going through the roof. Since management is refusing to hire more workers during this so-called 'recovery', the ones they have are forced to find ways to keep themselves going for the longer shifts, the longer weeks, and the fewer hours of rest and recuperation. Drugs, unfortunately, are the easiest way to do that.

By Daniel Costello, LA Times Staff Writer

Lawyers use it to deal with grueling workloads. Movie executives say they like how the buzz keeps them focused as they multi-task throughout the day. It's most popular, researchers say, on construction sites and in manufacturing plants where workers need to stay alert during long hours of repetitive work. And the cost — as little as $100 a month — makes it affordable to many.

While methamphetamines have long been a bane to law enforcement, and treatment experts say the number of meth addicts has been increasing for years, the drugs have graduated into a formidable problem in the workplace.

The illegal drug, also known as "ice," "Tina" or "crystal," is a powerful stimulant: A single dose can keep users high for up to 14 hours. At least initially, people say it makes them feel like a superhero — confident, untouchable and able to accomplish a day's work in a few hours.

It may be particularly attractive for the growing number of American workers who, studies show, are putting in longer hours and being asked to do more by their employers. For some, the drug seems to provide a good solution to busy work schedules and demanding bosses. Anecdotally, users talk of stirring meth into their coffee in the morning before leaving for the office.

"A lot of people look at this like it's No Doz — just another way to keep them awake and on message," said Nancy Delogu, a Washington, D.C., attorney and an expert in workplace substance abuse.

Still, the problem of meth use remains largely unnoticed by much of corporate America. While a small number of employers are recognizing meth as a problem, researchers, treatment counselors, and state and federal regulators say most employers have done little to address the issue or the myriad problems — erratic behavior, accidents, increased sick days and health costs — that are attributed to its use. Although there are no government or private statistics on meth use in the workplace, a major national survey in 2002 found that an estimated 77% of people who use drugs of any type are employed.

We're going to pay a terrible price, all of us, for allowing the corporate economy to destroy our personal lives in the name of 'efficiency'.