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'.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Response to the RAND Post

Via email, I received a response to 'Got a Govt Contract But You're Violating Labor Laws? No Problem' from one David P Mulvey. Mr Mulvey's reply makes a number of important points and I want to go into them because they reflect on some basic attitudes and beliefs that go toward helping to minimize and marginalize legitimate worker concerns about systematized unfair hiring and pay practices.

But the best way to do that is point-by-point, and unfortunately for me, Mr Mulvey has written a tightly reasoned and tightly organized letter; to chop it into little pieces for purposes of responding would do a violence to the overall case he's trying to make. So before I respond, I thought I would publish the letter intact and let you read it as Mr Mulvey intended it to be read--as a coherent whole.

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.

This leads to my second comment concerning a business owner saying there was a skilled worker shortage. I read that blog, as well as the follow on stating the first blog was a bit of a rant. 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. Perhaps there is a shortage of those skills in the Tampa area. Tampa is the 4th highest crime ridden city in the nation. Maybe all the people with those skills moved away. Perhaps he was not willing to pay enough to get them. 18.1% of the Tampa population lives below the poverty line. I cannot prove or disprove either hypothesis. Poverty though has historically been linked to a lack of education. Which is the chicken and which is the egg depends on your point of view.

You propose the business owner to pay for educating the perspective employees in return for a year or two of work. I am not a legal scholar, so I am not sure of legalities of such a move outside of the military (the service academies are prime examples). If memory serves me correctly, in the civilian world such an action violates indentured servitude laws. Besides, he, as well as every taxpaying person in this country, has already paid for the proper education of perspective employees up to the twelfth grade. If, when the applicants were in school, they could not execute the skills required to proceed to the next grade, specifically geometry and trigonometry, they should not have been allowed to proceed. The system did them a lifelong injustice order to placate itself. To ask the business owner to fund an education is akin to double taxation.

I attended parochial school from grades 1-8 and public high school from grades 9-12. I did not pick up a book in the 9th and 10th grades and most of the 11th. Ironically, it was a geometry book. I had already had all the subjects by the time I left the 8th grade. My folks were hard working Americans as I am sure you are. However, they did me the same injustice as the system did the aforementioned applicants. They did not question my grades (all A/B) vs. no at home study time when getting the same grades in grammar school took an hour and a half to two hours per night.

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.

Continued success in your writing.



Mull it over, comment on it, and I'll be back in a day or so with my answer.

Correction: Actually, Mr Mulvey is responding to two posts, the other one being 'A Shortage of Skilled Workers? Really?', so you may want to read that one, too, while you're at it.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

New Overtime Rules Overturned

In a stunning defeat for conservative corporate mouthpieces, several New England and Midwest area moderate Republicans joined a solid phalanx of Democratic votes to reject the Bush Adminstration's revision of the overtime rules, rules which would not only have cost workers a lot of money but would have begun the process of re-defining the roles of grunts as 'supervisors' and 'salaried employees' who would forever be exempt from extra pay for extra work.

By Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A04

The House voted 223 to 193 yesterday to block the Bush administration's sweeping new eligibility rules for overtime pay, giving Democrats a significant victory that they hope will boost the party's standing among middle-class voters in key battleground states in the fall election.

Twenty-two pro-labor Republicans, most of them from the North and the Midwest, joined a solid bloc of Democrats to prevent the Labor Department from enforcing the regulations, which took effect Aug. 23. But it is unclear whether yesterday's action will stand.

The White House warned this week that President Bush might veto the underlying bill -- a $142.5 billion measure funding education, worker training and health programs in 2005 -- if it contains the overtime amendment.

Last year, the House added a similar provision blocking the rules, but GOP leaders, under strong pressure from the White House, jettisoned it during final House-Senate negotiations on the bill. But repeating that maneuver could be more politically perilous as the election nears, according to some legislative aides.

Business lobbies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, favor the new rules, while major labor organizations have been seeking to undo them.

Yesterday's vote came after months of political contention. Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry has vowed to repeal the rules if elected, and Democrats have denounced the regulations as "the biggest pay cut in history." But Republicans contend that Democrats have greatly overstated their impact, and assert that the changes will benefit workers by extending automatic eligibility to as many as 1.3 million new members of the labor force.

"The new rules mean more overtime for more workers," Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

Bush's flip-flop on this only makes sense in political terms. Karl Rove must believe that this is one issue the voters they're targeting won't ignore. If Bush is re-elected, Tom DeLay will re-submit the bill the day after, but for now election year has let us dodge a bullet.

Friday, September 10, 2004

What To Do? - A Trenches Open Thread

In a comment on the 'Question of Class' post, reader 'Junco Partner' asks a simple question: What do we do about it?

Before I expatriated myself three years ago, I noticed how everyone in the United States was not only deceiving themselves about their class (including many who deny class exists, almost with the same violence as the English) but were also imagining that it was a matter of time before they were rich, too.

What's a class concious citizen on the United States to do? I ask this now after thinking long and hard on it, throwing in the towel, leaving the country, but I'd be fascinated to hear opinions.


Damned if I know, JP. How do you begin to deal with the very real issues of class in a country that denies there are any and can't even talk about it without breaking into a cold sweat?


Americans have three distinct fantasies about class in the US that are relevant here:

1) We believe there is no class structure in the United States

We say this despite the fact that we acknowledge at least 3: lower, middle, and upper. What we appear to mean when we say this is that there's no rigid class structure here as as there was in 19th century Britain, for example, and that we are not forever condemned to remain in whichever class we were born into. True enough legally; untrue enough in practical terms: most of us do indeed remain in the same class into which we were born.

2) We believe there are no bars to moving up

The ability of a few to break into the upper reaches doesn't necessarily translate into freedom of movement for all, and it overlooks the tremendous if intangible class distinctions, advantages, and privileges that are used to keep the majority in their place.

3) We believe, as JP put it, that it's only 'a matter of time before we are rich, too.'

This fantasy is incredibly pervasive and completely ignores the overwhelming reality that no such thing is going to happen for 99.99999999999% of us. Republicans--and Lottery officials--are adept at exploiting this fantasy at every opportunity and any attempt to ground this discussion in reality is met with vicious denial. To an extent, America itself is defined by this belief and debating it is tantamount to attacking the core reason for our existence.

Taken together, these three fantasies have successfully blocked any alternative discussion that the core of American purpose is the ceation of a fair and just society rather than of a classless one. Taken together, these three fantasies have done more damage to the poor, to real social mobility, and to economic justice than almost any other set of beliefs.

What to do about it, then?

The floor is now open for discussion.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Labor Blog--And What It Means For Us

On this past Monday, Labor Day, Nathan Newman and Jordan Barab fittingly inaugurated a new blog devoted to labor issues. Mr Newman's work on labor issues is well-known and we've referred to it before (Phaedrus in particular has often used Newman as a resource). Mr Barab is new to us--to me, anyway--but he runs another blog, also devoted to labor issues, particularly worker safety, called Confined Space which is a gold mine of information and links.

We may be somewhat later than everyone else in welcoming them to the Resistance--we were working on other things on Labor Day--but our welcome is heartfelt nonetheless. Both Newman and Barab have far larger audiences and get a lot more exposure than we do, so the possibility exists that some of the things we've been talking about here will get somewhat wider distribution at last. Let's hope, anyway.

However, as far as Trenches is concerned, this new wrinkle tends to focus down our goals even more tightly by freeing us from the necessity of following the daily news. Along with working class issues not strictly related to labor--and the usual trenchant commentary, of course--I'm going to try to use that freedom to document corporate abuses, tricks, and scams as they develop and from the horse's mouth. I'll also be reporting in-depth on individual cases of workers who have been fired or mistreated by their employers, injured or even killed while on the job. The first of these reports is in preparation now, and I'm hoping it will be ready after the weekend.

These reports are liable to be a good deal longer than you're used to, and may even be split into several different posts over the course of a week. The idea is to get a clearer picture, from ground-level, of what's going on with workers in the wake of massive regulatory rollbacks and corporate control of the machinery of govt by concentrating on single incidents and individual stories that shed light on the true overall situation of the working class.

Nobody tells our stories. We have no modern-day Upton Sinclairs or Lincoln Steffins' galvanizing public opinion with stories, articles, and books in the mainstream press. We are almost never heard, and even on the rare occasions when we are, no one listens. I don't expect to change that, but I'd sure like to help make us harder to ignore.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Commentary: A Question of Class

At an excellent blog called Collective Sigh, 'andante' writes about the tendency of Americans to 'upgrade reality' when talking about how much money they have.

The working poor would invariably describe themselves as middle class; those who have a million dollars in assets and two million in debts would describe themselves as wealthy.

A poster named Michael responded:

I've always heard anecdotally that it's a great rush toward the middle: Everyone in the U.S. claims to be "middle class," whether they're barely a step above sleeping on a subway grate or whether they could buy their own personal subway out of pocket change.

I started to answer him but Haloscan was down and anyway what I had to say was way too long for their comment limit so I'm answering here.

Michael's right, or at least more right. I've had what I'm afraid to say is extensive contact with every one of society's layers over the past 40 yrs from the destitute to the super-rich. Here's how it actually goes:

1) We poor like to say we're either middle-class or, in a pinch, lower middle class.

2) The lower middle class thinks they're solid middle class.

3) The solid middle class thinks it's barely middle class and hanging on by its fingernails.

4) The upper middle class thinks it's solid middle class and fairly stable.

5) What the upper class thinks depends on whether they're old money or neauveau riche. If they're old money, they will admit they're 'well-off' but caution you that they don't have as much as you think they do, a lot of it was stolen by--er, paid out in--taxes, and anyway a dollar isn't worth what it used to be. The NR's either brag about how much money they have, flaunt it, throw it in your face, and then grovel if they happen to meet one of the super-rich, at which point they suddenly become upper middle class, or else they're very modest about it, almost ashamed if it, and prefer not to discuss it at all. If pressed, they will say that they're really not rich, and to prove it throw out the name of someone they consider rich--Bill Gates, for example. (The latter are concentrated in the MidWest where the rich guy in the crowd is likely to be the one with a new parka.)

6) The super-rich don't like the word 'rich' but won't argue the point. Some will even admit it but usually only after they make sure you understand none of it is 'liquid' and they have a 'cash flow problem'. They tend to downplay it, describing it as 'being comfortable' or 'doing alright'.

7) The only category I can't speak to personally is the new super-rich. I haven't known any of them, but I hear there's a tendency not only to admit that they're rich but even to feel a tad guilty about it. They tend to be do-gooders, god bless 'em, but they also tend to do most of the good for themselves and be defensive about it if asked. They're looking for money to buy them a 'quality of life'.

The movement is generally toward the middle, as Michael said, pressing up from the bottom and down from the top. The rich don't think they're middle class but they don't want you to think they've got as much as they've got because they're comparing themselves to the next rung up and feeling relatively poor. The poor don't want to be seen as failures so they push up, describing their poverty as 'going through a rough patch' or 'trying to get back on our feet'. It isn't that either of them is 'upgrading' or 'downgrading', it's that their definitions of middle class are different.

# To the poor, being middle class means you can have a home, a car, and pay your bills.

# To the middle class it means being able to pay your bills with some left over at the end of the month and not having to worry too much about where the money is going to come from if the car needs serious repairs.

# To the rich, middle class is a nice house but not a mansion, a private school for the kids but not one that's on the top of your list, a new Mercedes every three years instead of every year, and the inability to buy your own private jet. Being able to own your own jet plane is pretty much the cut-off--when you can do that, you're rich and even the rich won't deny it.

The point where they all agree is the point where they're each hopelessly uncomfortable with the whole subject--and just as hopelessly dysfunctional. I've known isolated individuals in each class who are or have become at peace with their 'station in life', but not too bloody many. Most of us don't know how or even whether we should talk about it. The poor are forced to--it's the ruling factor in our existence--but the upper class has made a rule to protect itself: 'Respectable people don't talk about money.' They've simply banned the subject from polite discourse, which is handy for them. It allows them to pretend it doesn't matter for anyone else, either.

On the other hand, talk about making money is not only not banned, it's encouraged to the point of being the only allowable discourse in certain circles. Any chatter about, oh, say, art or books or science--absent the dollar figures attached to them--is considered childish, pointless prattle and, though I hate to say it in the 21st century, largely the province of women (which proves, of course, that it isn't serious).

It's Moloch, you see. We live at this point in a land ruled by Moloch: money is the ultimate, the only, socially acceptable definer, yet because we don't care to acknowledge what that says about us, we deny it, changing the definition as we go to accomodate our changing financial condition. It isn't, we tell ourselves--rich or poor--the money; it's the person, and then promptly judge the person by his wealth--or lack of it. The dichotomy is so pervasive, runs so deep, and is so unresolvable that we simply can't deal with it unless we do so through an illusion that there's nothing to deal with.

The problem, of course, is that acting this way is creating the very reality we deny: we very often become what our financial station says we're supposed to be. We define ourselves according to our bank books before someone else can do it for us, probably in a less flattering way. America is profoundly and fundamentally pathological in its attitude toward money and class, and very few of us seem to want to change that.

At least I think we don't. So few people will talk about it that it's hard to tell.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

FITE: The Corporate Crime Wave

For years corporations have been treating the US Treasury as if it were their own private piggy bank. They have lobbied for tax 'reforms' and special legislation that has not only cut their tax liability but actually paid them blackmail if they'd continue to do business here ('Pass this "tax relief" or we'll move to Thailand'--that's blackmail, folks. Tony Soprano would be so proud.)

FITE--Fairness in Taxes for Everyone--reminds us that no matter who wins the election, these corporate criminals will still be right there with their hands out.

FITE newsletter #36

The presidential campaign is now in the final stretch. Traditionally we as voters should be deciding who we will vote for by evaluating the positions taken on a range of issues we are concerned about, but this campaign is at least as notable for what both candidates aren’t mentioning.

The tough-on-crime issue, a staple of most presidential campaigns, is conspicuous for its absence. Even though the country has suffered the biggest crime wave in its history, neither candidate has mentioned it. We aren’t talking about the Willie Hortons, the average shop lifter and pick pocket, or even the so-called identity thieves and the murderers. We are talking about the corporate crime wave that embezzled as much as $10 trillion – the value of one year’s gross domestic product (GDP) – from the savings of hard working Americans.

We have documented how, with rare exceptions, just about every large corporation listed on the stock exchanges participated in this crime wave. It has been freely talked about in financial publications like Business Week, Fortune Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal.

Yet listening to the conventions – or reading the candidates’ web sites – you would think it didn’t happen. The Bush web site does mention it in one sentence, but in words so confusing that it could have been written by Bush himself: "At a critical moment in the Nation's economic history, while a recession was taking hold, America was attacked, and corporate fraud was exposed." Huh?

Neither party will mention it because both were complicit in gutting the enforcement powers of the stock market police, the SEC or the Environmental Protection Agency. The savings of hard working Americans were savaged; countless lives were ruined.

Bill Moyer’s NOW (PBS) and Lou Dobbs (CNN) documented how these very same corporations and their lobbyists were at both conventions, providing lavish parties where the media was mostly barred. Their intention was to guarantee that their massive embezzlement schemes would continue.

FITE is a non-partisan organization because it is obvious that both parties are owned and operated by the criminals whose only intention is to continue their crime wave. We have a lot of work to do now – and when the elections are over.

The Price of (Bogus) Productivity

We have spoken here before of the Productivity Trick, and we're going to speak of it again. For those of you who may not be up to speed on the Productivity Trick, it's easy enough to explain.

When economic pundits and the reporters who feed off them go into shivers of ecstasy whenever they mention the astounding rise of the rate of productivity in this country, they tend to focus on technological advances. There are two obvious problems with this, however, that nobody is talking about. The first is that technology may be helpful more often than not, but just barely. Most of the productivity gains are wiped away by increased slowdowns or stoppages due to the failure rate of that very same technology, increasingly complicated ancillary activities related to keeping the technology up to date and functional, and the increasing number of baby-sitters the technology requires.

That isn't the one we're interested in today, though. Today we're interested in the other half: workers. Studies show that they're doing more with less. Here's what the studies ignore: it's killing them.

A short case in point: A well-known Massachusetts defense contractor in the 90's wanted to increase its profits. It did so in the usual way: it fired a shitload of people--more than a quarter of the workforce. At the time I happened to be dating a woman in their Quality Control Dept. She was not laid off. Six months later, in its annual report, the company was bragging about a significant productivity increase since the layoffs--an increased production output yet with only 3/4 the number of employees as previously. It got in the papers. The corporation put it down to technological advances and more 'efficient' management techniques, and the local paper dutifully reported what the corporation had told them. From inside the company, though, it looked very different.

Before the layoffs, my girlfriend--call her 'L'--had been putting in about 45 hrs/wk, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. The layoffs slashed her dept by 20%, and when they were over she found herself saddled with all the jobs that three other people had been doing before. Now she was working 80 hrs/wk--and, of course, no overtime because she had been given a 'supervisory title' as a result of all the extra work.

She was swamped; she couldn't keep up with it. Her desk was piled high with papers and projects for which she was responsible but for which she had no time since most of it was eaten up by dealing with crises arising from the lay-offs: there were fewer inspectors, fewer workers, everybody was rushed, more mistakes were being made and ways had to be found to correct them. Faulty parts were getting through the abbreviated inspections; sometimes a whole line's production had to be scrapped because of a flaw there hadn't been anybody there to catch. The real supervisors--The Suits, guys who had never worked on a line in their lives and couldn't have told you where the beginning of it was if you didn't point it out to them--were putting pressure on everyone, badgering them, claiming they were slacking off because they were pissed about the lay-offs.

They weren't pissed--they were scared. The Suits never once considered that doubling and even tripling their employees' daily work load might be the cause of the chaos, that maybe they'd hired those people they'd just canned because they needed them to do the job right and what they were seeing was a result of those folks not being there. No, it was worker 'malingering' because the prevailing corporate fad (read: 'fantasy') was that everybody had hired too many people and leaner was better. It was certainly meaner.

'We're getting rid of the fat.' Remember that mantra? Well, that translated into more work and longer hours for the same--or possibly less--pay for the slim cadre of employees who were left. It was a different version of the old 'speed up the line' game. This time, instead of trying to work your employees to death getting the same number of people to put out a lot more product than was reasonable or efficient, you tried to work your employees to death by putting out the same amount of product with far fewer employees than was reasonable of efficient.

Inside of three months, L's dept was in ruins. There were arguments in the offices and fights on the floor. Product quality was sliding downhill so fast nobody could keep up with it. The govt was sending more and more back to be re-done or replaced even as it gave the company new contracts as a reward for their amazing productivity increase. People started to get sick more often--a lot more often--and absenteeism went through the roof. L began to suspect that some of the mistakes were deliberate sabotage--an attempt to get some relief from the pressure. She'd been there almost a decade and had never seen deliberate sabotage before.

A few months after that, she quit. She was exhausted, irritable, used up. She couldn't take any more. It was killing her. Not everybody had that option, though. And they're paying the price.

American workers are stressed out, and in an unforgiving economy, they are becoming more so every day.

Sixty-two percent say their workload has increased over the last six months; 53 percent say work leaves them "overtired and overwhelmed."

Even at home, in the soccer bleachers or at the Labor Day picnic, workers are never really off the clock, bound to BlackBerries, cellphones and laptops. Add iffy job security, rising health care costs, ailing pension plans and the fear that a financial setback could put mortgage payments out of reach, and the office has become, for many, an echo chamber of angst.

It is enough to make workers sick - and it does.

Decades of research have linked stress to everything from heart attacks and stroke to diabetes and a weakened immune system. Now, however, researchers are connecting the dots, finding that the growing stress and uncertainty of the office have a measurable impact on workers' health and, by extension, on companies' bottom lines.

Workplace stress costs the nation more than $300 billion each year in health care, missed work and the stress-reduction industry that has grown up to soothe workers and keep production high, according to estimates by the American Institute of Stress in New York. And workers who report that they are stressed, said Steven L. Sauter, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, incur health care costs that are 46 percent higher, or an average of $600 more per person, than other employees.

"The costs are significant," Dr. Sauter said, adding, "Those are just the costs to the organization, and not the burden to individuals and to society."
This has been going on for almost 20 years and nobody seems to have given a damn in all that time. After all, productivity--and corporate profits--are up and that's all that counts.

Rant of the Day: 'I CALL BULLSHIT'

Every once in a while I run across something on another site that someone has written about workers or the working class. It occurred to me that some of them ought to be re-produced and spread around a little bit more, either because they're emblamatic of ingrained attitudes against us or passionate defenses of us or, as in this case, both.

There's an excellent blog called By Beauty Damned written by one 'Maria' that I read fairly often. Maria is a hell of a writer when she wants to be, and in a way it's a shame most of her posts are copy-and-paste news articles because you aren't exposed to her wit, incision, and poetry as often as you'd like to be. She does have a small but vocal community which includes a couple of right-wing commenters who are just a hair's-breadth away from being outright trolls, so the majority of her personal writing goes into the battle with them.

The following is from a back-and-forth between Maria and one of those commenters. In a post excerpted from an article which talked about a judge citing NYC for keeping some 500 protestors locked up way past the time they should have been and then fining the city for deliberately disobeying his release order so the protestors would remain off the street until after the RNC ended, she got this response from one of the almost-trolls:

As for the protesters, F-em. The RNC is over and they'll all be going back to the jobs at WalMart and stew in their juices over their wasting a week protesting.

Posted by Mad Mikey at September 3, 2004 10:17 AM

Her answer is classic.

What is it with you republicans dissing people for the jobs they hold? While your party holds a convention at which they hail the hard working American (as all conventions do), you sit here and demean people who serve coffee and work at WalMart. What the fuck do you losers do???? That's what I want to know.

Everyone has a place in this world. A person who works at WalMart deserves your respect the same way a doctor or an accountant does. I CALL BULLSHIT on you holier-than-thou pricks!!!

As for wasting a week protesting, that may be what you think Mikey, but those people got up off their fucking fat asses from their couches and got out of the house to support a cause that means something to them. Not only were they a part of great American history and democracy, but they didn't just sit complacent when they felt they needed to act. Have some fucking respect for people who work at WalMart, and have some fucking respect for democracy and the value of speaking out against injustice - whether or not you agree.

I commend every person who sacrificed time, energy and for many, temporarily their freedom, to participate in something bigger than their average day to day concerns.

Posted by Maria at September 3, 2004 10:27 AM

And the Winner of the Tip of the Heather Feather and our highest Grand Thistle Award for Most Outstanding Rant in Opposition to Class Prejudice is--Maria!

You go, girl.

Monday, September 06, 2004

An Economy That Turns American Values Upside Down


Published: NYT, September 6, 2004

The Labor Department reported last week that 144,000 payroll jobs were created in August. Let's put that in perspective.

The number was below market forecasts. It was also below the number of jobs needed to accommodate the growth in the employment-aged population. In short, this was not good news. It's only by the diminished job-creation standards that have prevailed since the last recession that any positive spin could be put on last month's performance.

As the Economic Policy Institute tells us, in a book-length report it is releasing today: "The United States has been tracking employment statistics since 1939, and never in history has it taken this long to regain the jobs lost over a downturn."

In "The State of Working America 2004/2005," the institute shows in tremendous detail how those lost jobs and other disappointing aspects of the recovery are taking a severe economic toll on working families.

According to the institute:

"After almost three years of recovery, our job market is still too weak to broadly distribute the benefits of the growing economy. Unemployment is essentially unchanged, job growth has stalled, and real wages have started to fall behind inflation. Today's picture is a stark contrast to the full employment period before the recession, when the tight labor market ensured that the benefits of growth were broadly shared.

"Prolonged weakness in the labor market has left the nation with over a million fewer jobs than when the recession began. This is a worse position, in terms of recouping lost jobs, than any business cycle since the 1930's."

What is happening is nothing less than a deterioration in the standard of living in the United States. Despite the statistical growth in the economy, the continued slack in the labor market has resulted in declining real wages for anxious American workers and a marked deterioration in job quality.

From 2000 through 2003 the median household income fell by $1,500 (in 2003 dollars) - a significant 3.4 percent decrease. That information becomes startling when you consider that during the same period there was a strong 12 percent increase in productivity among U.S. workers. Economists will tell you that productivity increases go hand-in-hand with increases in the standard of living. But not this time. Here we have a 3.4 percent loss in real income juxtaposed with a big jump in productivity.

"So the economic pie is growing gangbusters and the typical household is falling behind," said Jared Bernstein, the institute's senior economist and a co-author of the new book.

This is the part of the story that spotlights the unfairness at the heart of the current economic setup in the U.S. While workers have been remarkably productive in recent years, they have not participated in the benefits of their own increased productivity. That doesn't sound very much like the American way.

According to the institute, "Between 1947 and 1973 productivity and real median family income both grew 104 percent, a golden age of growth for both variables." That parallel relationship began to break down in the 1970's, but it is only recently that it fell apart altogether, leaving us with the following evidence of unrestrained inequity:

"In the 2000-03 period income shifted extremely rapidly and extensively from labor compensation to capital income (profits and interest)," so that the "benefits of faster productivity growth" went overwhelmingly to capital.

American workers are in an increasingly defensive position. In a tight labor market, when jobs are plentiful, workers have leverage and can demand increased wages and benefits. But today's workers have lost power in many different ways - through the slack labor market, government policies that favor corporate interests, the weakening of unions, the growth of lower-paying service industries, global trade, capital mobility, the declining real value of the minimum wage, immigration and so on.

The end result of all this is a portrait of American families struggling just to hang on, rather than to get ahead. The benefits of productivity gains and economic growth are flowing to profits, not worker compensation. The fat cats are getting fatter, while workers, at least for the time being, are watching the curtain come down on the heralded American dream.
(emphasis added by me)

Workers: Not So Damn Dumb After All

Extol Brains as Well as Brawn of the Blue Collar
Could you match up the angles of a four-gable roof?

By Mike Rose

I am watching a carpenter install a set of sliding French doors in a tight wall space. He stands back, surveying the frame, imagining the pieces as he will assemble them.

What angle is required to create a threshold that will shed water? Where might the sliding panels catch or snag? How must the casings be remade to match the woodwork in the rest of the room? And how can he put it all together fast enough and smart enough to make his labor pay?

This isn't the usual stuff of a Labor Day tribute. Our typical tributes spotlight the economic contribution that the labor force has made to the country, the value of the work ethic. But what about the intelligence of the laborer — the thought, the creativity, the craft it takes to do work, any work, well.

Over the last six years, I've been studying the thinking involved in what is often dismissed as manual labor, exploring the way knowledge is gained and used strategically on job sites, in trade schools and in businesses such as beauty salons and restaurants, auto factories and welding shops. And I've been struck by the intellectual demands of what I saw.

Consider what a good waitress or waiter has to do in a busy restaurant. Remember orders and monitor them, attend to an ever-changing environment, juggle the flow of work, make decisions on the fly. Or the carpenter: To build a cabinet, a staircase or a pitched roof requires complex mathematical calculations, a high level of precision. The hairstylist's practice is a mix of scissors technique, knowledge of biology, aesthetic judgment and communication skills. The mechanic, electrician and plumber are troubleshooters and problem-solvers. Even the routinized factory floor calls for working smart. Yet we persist in dividing labor into the work of the hand and the work of the mind.

Distinctions between blue collar and white collar do exist. White-collar work, for example, often requires a large investment of money and time in formal schooling. And, on average, white-collar work leads to higher occupational status and income, more autonomy and less physical risk. But these distinctions carry with them unfair assumptions about the intelligence of the people who do physical work. Those assumptions have a long history, from portrayals of 18th century mechanics as illiterate and incapable of participating in government to the autoworkers I heard labeled by one supervisor as "a bunch of dummies."

Such beliefs are intensified in our high-tech era. Listen to the language we use: Work involving electronic media and symbolic analysis is "neck up" while old-style manufacturing or service work is "neck down."

If society labels whole categories of people, identified by their occupations, as less intelligent, then social separations are reinforced and divisions constrict the kind of civic life we can create or imagine. And if society ignores the intelligence behind the craft, it mistakes prejudice for fact.

Many Labor Day tributes will render the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight. How many also will celebrate the link between hand and brain? It would be fitting, on this day especially, to have a truer, richer sense of all that is involved in the wide range of work that surrounds and sustains us. We need to honor the brains as well as the brawn of American labor.

Mike Rose is a professor of education at UCLA and author of "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker" (Viking, 2004).

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Got a Govt Contract But You're Violating Labor Laws? No Problem

RAND Corporation, one of the premiere think-tanks with over $100Mil in govt contracts every year, several of which have to do with labor issues, continues to do business with the US govt despite admitting egregious labor violations, particularly of its female employees, going back some ten years.

RAND now faces a sex-discrimination class action filed by a group of women on its research staff, and three years ago it paid almost $200,000 to settle a government claim that it was violating the federal law that governs health and pension benefits.

In 1998, RAND settled Labor Department claims that its affirmative action plan, which federal contractors are required to maintain, was inadequate. The department found 12 violations that RAND agreed to fix - without admitting or denying liability - including the failure to keep the data needed to analyze the number and positions of the women or members of minorities it had hired. RAND agreed to compile the data and do the required analysis.

Despite these problems with federal labor laws, RAND continues to get the bulk of its contracts from Washington - more than $100 million last year.

That may sound surprising. But RAND is not unique among government contractors in continuing to do business with the government after being found in violation of labor law.

RAND, like all federal contractors, is subject to an executive order, dating to the Johnson administration, requiring it to create and put into effect an affirmative-action plan. The Labor Department, however, monitors just 8 percent of the companies it hires, according to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, the arm of the Labor Department that conducts these investigations, mostly by asking contractors to mail in a copy of their plans.

The ultimate punishment, debarment from working for federal agencies, has never been invoked against a major contractor. (emphasis added)

Let's have that again: never? NEVER? Well, then, I guess the violations weren't terribly serious, huh? Guess again.

In 2002, Judge Richard W. Roberts of the Federal District Court in Washington agreed to approve a class action for 373 women who worked at RAND from 1995 to 1998, saying that the plaintiffs had used statistical evidence to establish a "systemwide practice" of paying women less than men.

In a 1998 brief - filed under seal, but obtained before plaintiffs' lawyers removed it from a Web site about the case - the plaintiffs called women researchers "shockingly underpaid" in the 1990's. Their statistician, after examining RAND pay scales from 1992 to 1997, found that women researchers were paid, on average, $22,488 less than male counterparts in 1992. The gap narrowed to $21,408 by 1997 - but men were still paid 33 percent more, on average.

The statistician concluded that the pay disparities had been systemic even when considering factors like education and seniority. As of 1997, he said, the difference in annual pay attributed solely to being a woman was $5,907.

And it isn't like RAND is alone.

Boeing, one of the largest federal contractors, was the subject of a Labor Department investigation in 1998 over whether it was meeting its affirmative-action obligations. The issue arose in an on-site audit, and was settled in 1999 when Boeing offered $4.5 million in back pay and future pay adjustments to female and minority workers.

But Boeing refused to turn over internal studies showing that it had been aware of pay disparities between men and women since at least 1994, saying the studies were subject to attorney-client privilege. It was later forced to turn over those studies in a class-action lawsuit, which it settled in July by agreeing to pay the class members - as many as 29,000 current and former employees - up to $72.5 million.

To some people, the pay studies suggested that the problems at Boeing might have been deeper than the Labor Department realized when it settled with the company. But the lawyer for the Boeing plaintiffs, Joseph Sellers, said the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs had never contacted him to review the information.

"I think it underscores the importance of private enforcement," Mr. Sellers said, referring to the pursuit of a class-action suit. (emphasis added by me)

I would think. What's the Labor Dept got to say about all this? Listen and learn, kids.

Although Labor Department investigators asserted labor law violations against the company and settled the claims in 2001, the department continues to contract with RAND. A department spokesman - the Labor Department does not allow its spokesmen and spokeswomen to be identified by name - said that breaking the rules did not necessarily disqualify a contractor.

"If someone gets a speeding ticket," he said, "it doesn't mean they can't ever drive again."

The Labor Dept is contracting with a corporation that has admitted--admitted--breaking major labor laws in a big way, systemically, over a long period of time, and then equating those violations with a speeding ticket??

Tra-la tra-la. In Elaine Chao's Labor dept, it's NBFD. In fact, trashing your workers, especially the female ones, is pretty much a laughing matter. Nothing to be concerned about. Back to your homes, there's nothing going on here.

So how much of that $$Hundred MIL$$ do you reckon is being kicked back into one of Chao's offshore numbered accounts?