March 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

March 2012

#Sidney's Picks: Zimmerman Security Footage; Pensions; The Ryan Budget

  • ABC News released exclusive police security camera footage of Trayvon Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, being taken into custody on the night of the killing. The police report claimed that Zimmerman had a bloody nose and a cut on his head from an altercation with Martin and a wet jacket from lying on his back on the grass. No trace of trauma or dampness is visible in the video. The footage raises doubts about . Obtaining this footage was an investigative coup for ABC. The network also obtained cell phone records that seem to corroborate Martin’s girlfriend’s claim that she was on the phone with Martin when he was shot.
  • Erin Schikowski of The Nation writes about the fight to save public sector pensions in Providence, Rhode Island. 
  • The New York Times has a bracing op/ed entitled “The Cruel Budget,” about how Paul Ryan’s budget, which Mitt Romney has endorsed, would affect the poorest Americans. The budget would cut $3.3 trillion from programs for low-income Americans and “leave millions of struggling families desperate for food, shelter and health care.” 

The Rich Get Richer

Hillman Judge Harold Meyerson supplies some striking statistics about America’s inequality crisis in his latest column:

Occupy Wall Street is not known for the precision of its economic analysis, but new research on income distribution in the United States shows that the group’s sloganeering provides a stunningly accurate picture of the economy. In 2010, according to a study published this month by University of California economist Emmanuel Saez, 93 percent of income growth went to the wealthiest 1 percent of American households, while everyone else divvied up the 7 percent that was left over. Put another way: The most fundamental characteristic of the U.S. economy today is the divide between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

It was not ever thus. In the recovery that followed the downturn of the early 1990s, the wealthiest 1 percent captured 45 percent of the nation’s income growth. In the recovery that followed the dot-com bust 10 years ago, Saez noted, 65 percent of the income growth went to the top 1 percent. This time around, it’s reached 93 percent — a level so high it shakes the foundations of the entire American project. [WaPo]

To make matters worse, intergenerational economic mobility is on the decline. Americans like to think of their country as a land of opportunity, a meritocracy where hard work is rewarded and children can do better than their parents. It’s easier to excuse massive differences in wealth if you believe that anyone can become rich. The latest statistics from the Brookings Institution show that the U.S. has less intergenerational mobility than Germany, Finland, or Denmark.

[Photo credit: Jamie H, Creative Commons.]


Fired for a Short Skirt? Anti-Worker Laws in Wisconsin and Ohio

Sarah Jaffe, AlterNet’s tireless labor reporter, takes an in-depth look at the consequences of stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio. These laws sparked national outrage when they were passed. Now the dire predictions are coming true.

Wisconsin and Ohio, where industrial democracy goes to die:

“For all its faults, the National Labor Relations Act established that it is the policy of the US government to encourage collective bargaining,” Jacob Remes, assistant professor of public affairs and history at SUNY Empire State College, told AlterNet. “The New Deal established collective bargaining as a fundamental part of democracy–what they called industrial democracy. We talk about how the New Deal era has ended, but I think one of the great things about these fights is that they reminded people–politicians, pundits, the populace–that despite the decline of the rest of the New Deal, we still believe in at least this element of industrial democracy.”

A typical Wisconsin state employee earning $40,000 a year has seen a wage cut of over $3000. Under the new law, unions must vote to recertify every year and the law stacks the deck against recertification. At least 51% of the workers in each bargaining unit must vote to recertify, 51% of the votes in the election isn’t good enough. In principle, 100% of the voters could vote “yes” and the union would still be decertified if less than 51% of the workers voted.

Without collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin’s teachers are facing increasingly intrusive dress and conduct codes from administrators bent on rooting out “moral turpitude,” a vague term that encompasses everything from wearing jeans and skirts above the knee to “friending” their students on facebook.

Some prison guards have lost their bathroom privileges when they accompany inmates to the hospital.

The assault on the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers is just the beginning. The enemies of labor know that the public sector is the last bastion of high union density in the United States. If the public sector unions are decimated, the labor movement will lose political power and become an less effective advocate for the rights of private sector workers.

[Photo credit: Self-portrait on the first day of the term, by Cathdew, a teacher from the Netherlands. Creative Commons.]

Did Car-Wash Kingpin Cheat Workers?

New York State is investigating whether car-wash kingpin John Lage is underwriting his luxurious lifestyle with wage theft. In an exclusive for the New York Daily News, Erica Pearson reports that Lage is accused of paying $1.75 per hour below minimum wage to workers at his many car washes:

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman last week slapped a subpoena on John Lage, who is linked to more than a dozen car washes and lives in a $900,000 lakefront house in Westchester.

Workers claim that the car washes pay $5.50 an hour — $1.75 less than the legal minimum — plus a pittance in tips. They don’t make overtime and complain about harsh working conditions.

Sources close to the investigation say Schneiderman is zeroing in on “serious” allegations of wage-and-hour violations.

Attendant Adan Nicolas told Pearson that he earns just $5.50 an hour at a Lage-owned car-wash in Astoria. He says that at the end of his 12-hour shifts, his nose bleeds and his vision blurs from all the chemicals he’s exposed to, but he doesn’t get overtime. Until recently, Nicolas was afraid to speak up because he is undocumented. “You ask for a raise, and they say no,” he told the Daily News, “In a certain way, they say, since we don’t have papers, we don’t have rights.”

[Photo credit: Whizchickenonabun, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The New Vigilantism; ALEC vs. Climate Science; Egg-Freezing; and More

  • The new vigilantism: How so-called “stand your ground” laws, championed by the gun lobby, have emboldened racists and crackpots to shoot first and ask questions later. [Facing South]
  • How our old friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council are passing bills in state legislatures to gut the climate science curriculum in public schools. What’s next, the Scopes Troposphere Trial? [AlterNet]
  • News anchor Diane Sawyer is touting egg-freezing as a means to extend fertility, but the American Society for Reproductive Medicine still classifies the $15,000 procedure as experimental because thawed eggs don’t reliably produce pregnancies and some of the chemicals used in the freezing process may be toxic to embryos. [RH Reality Check]
  • The UAW is stepping up its bid to unionize a West Virginia Volkswagon plant, which, if successful, would extend the union’s influence beyond its traditional stronghold in Detroit. [Reuters]

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

2012 Canadian Hillman Prize Winners

TORONTO, CANADA. Timothy Sawa, Diana Swain, and Angela Gilbert of the fifth estate accept the 2012 Canadian Hillman Prize for Scout’s Honour, an expose of decades of sexual abuse and coverups in Scouts Canada and the Boy Scouts of America. (March 20, 2012.)

#Sidney's Picks: Republicans Against Prison Labor; "Authorette" 1; Limbaugh, 0; The 40-Hour Week


  • And now for something completely different: Republicans against prison labor! When public exploitation undercuts private profit, something has to be done. Defense contractors say they’re being undercut by Federal Prison Industries, a publicly-owned company that pays inmates between 23 cents to $1.15 an hour to make clothing and other items for the U.S. military, Diane Cardwell reports in the New York Times. The defense contractors have enlisted their friends in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), to level the playing field between FPI and the private sector. Now, a bipartisan group of legislators seeks to revive a bill that would raise the minimum wage in federal prisons and increase Congressional oversight of the prison system.
  • Why the U.S. needs to bring back the 40-hour work week to preserve our sanity and our productivity, by Sarah Robinson in AlterNet.
  • Last week Rush Limbaugh attacked Tracie McMillan, the author of the critically acclaimed book The American Way of Eating as “wide-eyed” “authorette,” and an “overeducated” but unintelligent single woman. Clarissa León takes Rush to task for his ill-informed, sexist, classist diatribe in the Daily Beast: “‘Rush Limbaugh has crystallized something that is bigger than just him,’ writer Annia Ciezadlo says. ‘What he’s sort of unwittingly articulated is this hatred of the idea that working-class women will have a voice in anything that they do.’”
  • Former Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith quit the legendary investment banking house because he realized that short-term greed was eclipsing long-term greed at Goldman, Ezra Klein explains in the Washington Post. In other words, Smith felt that Goldman was more interested in wringing money out of its own clients (short-term greed) than in making them money and taking a cut year after year (long-term greed).


"Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs"

Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith explains in the op/ed pages of the New York Times why he’s stepping down today after twelve years with the organization:

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

Smith is concerned that integrity is on the decline at the 143-year-old investment bank. He’s not worried about what Goldman is doing to society at large, but he draws the line at what he sees as his former firm’s willingness to exploit its own clients.  “Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail,” he writes. That does sound like a bad sign.

[Photo credit: Erik Daniel Drost, Creative Commons.]

Minimum Rage: Will Gen-Y Occupy the Service Industry?

Young, college-educated workers are shaking up the service sector, Nona Willis Aronowitz reports in GOOD magazine:

Behind the bar of a fancy New York restaurant, a 27-year-old bartender tidies her olive-and-cherry box. She attempts to look distracted while a middle-aged financial analyst holds her captive with small talk.

“So what else do you do?” he slurs, four Manhattans deep.
“Nothing,” she says. “I just do this.”
“Oh!” he answers. “That’s cool. Did you go to college?”
“Yup. I went to NYU.”
The man makes no attempt to hide his confusion. She leans forward and wipes away a few whiskey drops in front of him.
“I have loans,” she says, with a touch of attitude. “Don’t know what to tell you.”
Emily Sanders has been a waitress or bartender, on and off, for almost a decade. She’s made anywhere from minimum wage to around $1,000 a week, which is what she hauls in now. She has no health insurance, no 401(k), and a pathetic savings account. Most days, she gets to her first job at noon and leaves her second after midnight. If she’s sick but a little short on cash, she downs some DayQuil and goes into work anyway.

Willis Aronowitz profiles Erik Forman, a former humanites student at Macalester College who now works as an Industrial Workers of the World organizer in Minneapolis.

Forman played a leading role in a hard-fought but unsuccessful campaign to unionize ten Jimmy Johns sub shops in the Twin Cities.

People didn’t want to admit that they were going to be in these jobs for a long time,” Erik says. “It’s a classist stereotype that these jobs don’t deserve to be good jobs,” he told GOOD

Organizing in the service industry has languished since the 1980s, but a new cadre of professional organizers is coming of age. These activists were raised middle class, but they are downwardly moble. Many initially assumed that the service industry was just a temporary waystation on the road to a more lucrative career, but with unemployment stubbornly high, and student loan debt pressing in, they have decided to stand and fight for the jobs they have.

[Photo credit: Jezlyn26, Creative Commons.]

No Cookies, No Contract: Ian Frazier wins March Sidney for Story of Stella D'oro Strike

Ian Frazier of The New Yorker has won the March Sidney Award for his powerful account of the 2008 Stella D’oro biscuit strike. Stella D’oro was a local landmark in the Bronx for more than 60 years, churning out anisette toasts and almond sponges around the clock and perfuming Kingsbridge with the scent of baking cookies. In 2006, the company was sold to Brynwood Capital Partners, a Greenwich-based private equity firm specializing in “orphan brands.” The new management demanded steep wage and benefit cuts and the Stella D’oro workers went out on strike. They stayed out for 10 months.

Ultimately, the workers won the strike when the National Labor Relations Board ordered them back to work under their existing contract. The Board found that Brynwood had bargained in bad faith. Unfortunately, the 134 Stella D’oro workers still lost their jobs when Brynwood sold Stella, at a loss, to an anti-union firm which moved the entire operation to Ohio and didn’t rehire any of the Bronx-based workforce.

Here’s my interview with Frazier about his story. He argues that steep economic inequality between workers and management undermined their ability to understand one another’s motives an achieve a mutually beneficial settlement. The workers refused to accept cuts because they saw themselves as making a last stand for their middle class way of life. If they accepted the cuts, many would have to move to worse neighborhoods, lose their health insurance, and be unable to afford college tuition for their children (which previous generations of Stella D’oro workers had been able to afford). Management regarded the workers as willful and impossible to deal with. Wasn’t any job better than no job at all? The workers countered that Brynwood promised its investors a 28% rate of return. By management’s logic, wasn’t any ROI better than none at all? Evidently not.

Frazier’s story emphasizes the challenges facing unions confronted with private equity owners that have no interest in keeping a business local, or running it over the long term. When Stella D’oro was family-owned, labor and management sorted out their differences quickly. When the going got tough, Brynwood unloaded Stella D’oro and allowed 134 desperately-needed blue collar jobs in the Bronx to be exported to Ohio. The irony is that Brynwood, by its own admission, lost millions of dollars in the process of unloading Stella. So much for the cold, dispassionate logic of capitalism.

[Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein, All Rights Reserved.]