October 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

October 2012

Walmart Faces Black Friday Ultimatum

Striking workers at Walmart have upped the ante, threatening to disrupt Black Friday sales with leafleting and flash mobs, Josh Eidelson reports

One day after Walmart employees in twelve states launched a major strike, today workers issued an ultimatum to the retail giant: Stop retaliating against workers trying to organize, or the year’s most important shopping day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, will see the biggest disruptions yet. The announcement comes as 200 workers – some of them currently striking – have converged in the Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas hometown outside the company’s annual investors meeting. It offers a new potential challenge to Walmart, and a new test for OUR Walmart, the labor-backed organization that’s pulled off the first two multi-store U.S. strikes in Walmart history. [Salon]

The Black Friday ultimatum is an innovative tactic by a weaker adversary against a much stronger opponent. The strikers, who are not represented by a union, are threatening not only to disrupt one of the most lucrative days of Walmart’s year, but to draw negative publicity during an event that has become a tradition integral to Walmart’s brand. 

[Photo credit: Inside a Walmart, by Tobin Black.]

And the October Sidney Award Goes To...

Sasha Chavkin, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, and Ronnie Greene of the Center for Public Integrity for Mystery in the Fieldsa multi-part investigation into an international public health crisis. 

A new kind of kidney disease is and killing thousands of people on multiple continents. The victims are primarily young men, typically farm workers who toil in extreme heat. They are sugarcane cutters in Central America, rice farmers in India, and coconut harvesters in Sri Lanka. They are the breadwinners of their families. When fathers die of the disease, their teen sons are forced into the fields, only to succumb themselves within a few years. 

Nobody knows what causes the disease, dubbed CKDu for “chronic kidney disease of unidentified origin,” but its incidence has tripled since the 1990s. Experts suspect that a deadly combination of pesticides and dehydration are to blame, but powerful agribusiness interests are pushing hard to discredit that explanation. 

Read my interview with Sasha Chavkin in The Backstory.

#Sidney's Picks: Walmart Strike; Life Support Drama; Dirty Meds

 

  • Democracy Now! and Huffington Post on yesterday’s one-day walkout at Walmart, the first multi-store strike in the retailer’s 50-year history.
  • A 28-year-old woman paralyzed by a brain tumor asked to be taken off life support, but her parents went to court to keep her alive. The parents lost, but later released a video purporting to show that woman had changed her mind. Kudos to Erica Pearson of the New York Daily News for breaking the story yesterday with a piece that nailed the ethical issues at stake. 
  • Unemployment fell to 7.9%, its lowest level since January 2009. 
  • A compounding pharmacy sold thousands of vials of medicine tainted with meningitis bacteria. Experts wonder why this obscure mom and pop shop was ever allowed to mix up drugs for spinal injection. 

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Walmart Strike!

 

Walmart workers in several stores walked off the job in protest today. This is the first multi-store strike in the retailer’s 50-year history:

Today, for the first time in Walmart’s fifty-year history, workers at multiple stores are out on strike. Minutes ago, dozens of workers at Southern California stores launched a one-day work stoppage in protest of alleged retaliation against their attempts to organize. In a few hours, they’ll join supporters for a mass rally outside a Pico Rivera, CA store. This is the latest – and most dramatic – of the recent escalations in the decades-long struggle between organized labor and the largest private employer in the world.

I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m scared…” Pico Rivera Walmart employee Evelin Cruz told Salon yesterday about her decision to join today’s strike. “But I think the time has come, so they take notice that these associates are tired of all the issues in the stores, all the management retaliating against you.” Rivera, a department manager, said her store is chronically understaffed: “They expect the work to be done, without having the people to do the job.” [Salon]

As Josh Eidelson of Salon explains, this is a risky move because the workers do not yet belong to a union. Even so, federal labor law protects the right of non-union workers to walk off the job to protest the conditions of their employment. The workers can’t be fired for striking. What’s less clear is whether the company could bring in scabs to replace the if the strike continues.

Eidelson interviewed historian Nelson Lichtenstein, the author of a book on unions and Walmart, and a past winner of the Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award. Lichtenstein predicts that, if the strike gains momentum, the company will be constrained more by PR concerns than by the letter of the labor law.

Today’s action is organized by OUR Walmart, an employee organization supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers. 

[Photo credit: A demonstration against Walmart’s labor practices taken earlier this month, peoplesworld, Creative Commons.]

 

Jerry Brown Vetoes Farm Worker Safety Bills

California governor Jerry Brown struck a blow for heat-related death this week, vetoing legislation that could have saved the lives of farm workers: 

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Two farm worker safety bills that target growers and labor contractors, subjecting them to lawsuits, criminal charges and stiff penalties have been vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.

SB 2346 would have allowed farm workers to enforce the state’s heat regulations themselves by suing employers who fail more than twice to comply with mandatory shade and drinking water requirements.

AB 2676 would have made it a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by jail and fines of up to $200,000 if appropriate water or shade are not provided.

Employers could also pay restitution of up to $1 million to the worker’s family. [23ABC News]

Activists brought a sheep to the capitol on Tuesday to drive home the message that livestock have more protections in California than farm workers. 

Brown also vetoed legislation to make domestic workers eligible for overtime pay. 

[Photo credit: Ambersky235, Creative Commons.]

Jerry Brown Vetoes Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

Some disappointing news out of Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed the domestic workers bill of rights:  

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have provided overtime pay, meal breaks and other labor protections to an estimated 200,000 caregivers, nannies and house cleaners in California.

Brown called their work a “noble endeavor” and said they deserve fair pay and safe working conditions.

But the Democratic governor said the bill “raises a number of unanswered questions,” prompting him to reject the measure. It was among dozens of bills he acted on in the final hours before his midnight deadline to consider bills sent to him this fall by the Legislature. [CBS]

Amongst other things, the law would have given domestic workers the right to compensation if their meal breaks and rest periods were interrupted. The California Chamber of Commerce argued that paying workers for infringements on their time off, in the words of CBS, “impractical at best and dangerous at worst.” Dangerous, how? In the eyes of the Chamber, workers who expect to be paid for their time are dangerous. Who knows what they might expect next? 

Women and people of color have always been the backbone of America’s domestic workforce. Domestic workers have historically been excluded from protections that other workers take for granted. 

Household workers were deliberately excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 in a bid to win the support of Southern lawmakers. California’s proposed law is the product of a national movement dedicated to reversing these longstanding inequities.

New York is the first and only state with a domestic workers rights law. The law went into effect in 2010 and, so far, the Empire State has not sunk in to the sea. 

Protecting the basic labor rights of workers who care for kids and elders and sick people isn’t that complicated. This is a real setback for racial and economic justice,” said Rinku Sen, president of the Allied Research Center

[Photo credit: Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons.]

"I am a job creator: A manifesto for the entitled"

Here’s a prose poem from Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post to start your week. A koan from corporate America:

I am a private-equity fund manager.

I am the misunderstood superhero of American capitalism, single-handedly creating wealth and prosperity despite all the obstacles put in my way by employees, government and the media.

I am a job creator and I am entitled.

[…]

I am entitled to fire any worker who tries to organize a union. I am entitled to break any existing union by moving, or threatening to move, operations to a union-hostile environment.

I am entitled to a duty of care and loyalty from employees and investors who are owed no such duty in return.

I am entitled to operate my business free of all government regulations other than those written or approved by my industry. […]

Read the whole thing. If you have a break room at work, consider tacking it up on the bulletin board. Stealthily…

[Photo credit: mlmdotcom, Creative Commons.]

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