June 2014 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

June 2014

#Sidney's Picks: NLRB Upholds Union Worker's Right to Tell Boss to Go #$#!@ Himself

The Best of the Week’s News

  • Truly, there is power in a union: The NLRB rules that a Starbucks worker cannot be fired for telling his manager to go #$@#! himself.
  • Four Alabama newspapers collaborated for 5 months to produce an in-depth expose of the state’s prison system.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

3 UN Experts Agree: Cutting Off Water Violates Detroiters' Rights

Activists in Detroit appealed to the United Nations to stop the city’s plan to disconnect water service to thousands of households that have fallen behind on their water bills. The activists argued that cutting off water would be a human rights violation. This week, three UN officials agreed with their argument: 

Three U.N. experts responded Wednesday that the shutoffs could constitute a violation of the human right to water.

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying,” human right to water and sanitation expert Catarina de Albuquerque said in a statement issued from the United Nations in Geneva. “In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” [AP]

de Albuquerque and the UN have no direct enforcement power over the water company, but their solidarity strengthens the activists’ claim that cutting off water to those who legitimately cannot pay is a human rights abuse. 


[Photo credit: Detroit fire hydrant, by Carl Ballou, Creative Commons]

Activists Appeal to the UN as Detroit Shuts Off Water to Thousands

Detroit’s water company announced in March that it would be shutting off the taps of over 3000 residents who are behind on their bills. The shutoffs are part of a new iniative to crack down on customers in arrears. Community activists have appealed to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation for help. They argue that the city is gouging its poorest residents and violating their human rights in the process: 

“What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” said Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project. “The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it.”

The groups accuse DWSD of charging unaffordable rates to Detroit citizens, and placing the burden of the city’s fleeing tax base on its poorest residents. They say DWSD is trying to rid itself of low-income customers in a bid to make the utility more attractive for a private takeover. DWSD denies the charge. But the city has acknowledged that at least a partial privatization of DWSD is being considered as Detroit attempts to shed some of its $18 billion in debt. DWSD accounts for $5 billion of that sum. [Al Jazeera America]

The water company says it’s not being malicious. Half of its 323,000 accounts are reportedly in arrears and the company is owed $175 million dollars in unpaid water bills. Officials tried to ease the strain on the company by integrating it with the water systems of some wealthier communities, but the deal fell through. There is talk of privatizing Detroit’s water system. 

[Photo credit: “Detroit River Days 2012,” by JoyVanBuhler, Creative Commons.]

The McAllen Monitor Makes Innovative Use of Storify to Track "Immigrant Influx" Story

The McCallen Monitor, a small newspaper serving the border city of McAllen, Texas, is using the social media compilation service Storify to aggregate coverage of the immigrant influx across the Mexican border, a story that is unfolding in part in the McAllen area.

Reporter Karen Antonacci is using the web service to aggregate infographics, documents, tweets, stories, and other information. It’s a good example of how a small paper can use social media tools to deliver more value to readers. 

Sidney's Picks: Scott Walker, Mass Graves, and Threats

The Best of the Week’s News

  • Total Recall: WI Gov. Scott Walker fought off recall with an elaborate and illegal fundraising network, prosecutors allege.
  • Is it illegal to threaten to kill your wife (or an FBI agent) if you do it with bad Facebook poetry? The Supreme Court will decide.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Shortlists Announced for the 2014 PEN Literary Awards

The shortlists for the PEN Literary Awards have been announced. PEN awards recognize excellence in many different kinds of writing, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, translation, and the literary essay. Finalists for the prize for outstanding essay collection include feminist writer Rebecca Solnit and cultural critic James Wolcott.

The list for the Pen/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award includes neuroscientist Carl Hart and physician/journalist Sherri Fink. Hart is shortlisted for his book on addiction, “High Price,” and Fink is shortlisted for “Five Days at Memorial,” an account of tragic events at a hospital cut off from the world after Hurricane Katrina. 

Korean Restaurant Workers Say They Were Forced to "Volunteer" as Farm Workers

Kum Gang San, a popular Korean restaurant in New York City, is accused of blackmailing employees into unpaid labor with threats of deportation, Sukjong Hong reports for Gothamist:

Servers and bussers at a popular Korean restaurant say they were forced to work 18-hour shifts without overtime, attend church before work on Sundays, and “volunteer” their time picking vegetables at a farm outside the city. According to a federal lawsuit they filed against the management of the restaurant, any refusal to heed the owner’s extraordinary demands resulted in humiliation, termination, and threats of blacklisting and deportation.

Former employees report that if they declined the “invitation” spend their days off as unpaid farmworkers gathering kimchi ingredients, they were expected to drop to their knees and beg their boss’s forgiveness. 

In addition to being forced to attend 90-minute unpaid church services before work on Sundays, former employees say they were expected to take turns paying $150 out-of-pocket for catering after the sermon! 

The former employees aired their grievances in federal court during a civil trial that concluded on Monday. 

[Photo credit: Word to Table, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Arizona Faces Prison Health Care Crisis; AFL-CIO Backs Medical Marijuana in NY

  • Mother of seven dies in jail, serving a 48-hour sentence to erase her kids’ truancy fines


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Beth Schwartzapfel Wins June Sidney for Expose of Vast Prison Workforce

Beth Schwartzapfel wins this month’s Sidney Award for her expose of the United States’ huge and exploited prison workforce. Some 870,000 prisoners work full time, a workforce equal to those of Vermont and Rhode Island combined. The average wage in state prison is 20 cents an hour and inmates have virtually no rights at work.  They aren’t eligible for disability, OSHA doesn’t protect them as carefully as workers on the outside, and they don’t pay into Social Security.

We tend to think of prison jobs as rehabilitation, but Schwartzapfel found that job training programs are few and far between. The vast majority of working inmates are assigned menial jobs to keep their own facilities running. The image, above, is digitally stylized treatment of a CAD drawing by an inmate named Joshua, who works in a rare prison job program. In his spare time, Joshua designs and builds grandfather clocks, like the one partially pictured in the illustration. 

[Image credit: Illustration based on a CAD drawing by “Joshua,” an inmate-worker, who in his downtime at work at the Brown Creek Metals Plant in Polkton, NC designs and builds grandfather clocks.]

Walmart Shrimp Succored by Slave Labor

A widely-exported line of farmed shrimp from Thailand is fed on fishmeal made by slave labor, a six-month investigation by the Guardian has revealed:

The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

CP Foods supplies shrimp (or prawns, as they are known in the UK), to grocery giants including Walmart, Costco, and Tesco.