July 2014 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

July 2014

Esther Kaplan wins July Sidney for "Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth About the Gospel of Productivity"

Esther Kaplan wins the July Sidney Award for “Losing Sparta:The Bitter Truth About the Gospel of Productivity,” a feature in the Virginia Quarterly Review about a Philips fluorescent lighting plant in Sparta, TN, which the company offshored to Mexico, even though Philips had rated it the top plant in the company’s entire global lighting division. Politicans and economists promise that productivity will save American jobs, but Kaplan’s analysis shows that even the most productive workers aren’t safe from offshoring, because the decision to ship jobs overseas rarely results from a rational economic calculus. Companies aren’t accountable to their shareholders or government regulators to justify these decisions, and typically, little attempt is made to defend the move on economic grounds.

For many multinationals, offshoring has become a performance to impress shareholders, and a reflexive union-avoidance tactic, rather than a strategic decision. Companies think nothing of shutting down highly-efficient, conveniently located plants in the United States and relocating to less-efficient, lower-performing facilities far from suppliers and clients. Wages may be lower overseas, but the savings don’t necessarily offset the costs of the move, including the loss of the human capital of an experienced and dedicated workforce, like the staff of the Sparta plant. 

“Kaplan’s account – at once deeply moving and brilliantly analytical – of how a multinational conglomerate shuttered a lighting factory, taking the work to Mexico and destroying the economy of a small Tennessee county in the process, is one of the best articles anywhere on what’s befallen American workers in recent decades,” said Hillman Judge Harold Meyerson.

Learn more about the reporting of “Losing Sparta” in our Backstory interview with Esther Kaplan

#Sidney's Picks: Losing Sparta, Bail Bondsmen, and More


The Best of the Week’s News

  • Hillman Prize-winner Shane Bauer investigates the wild world of bail bondsmen.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Labor Journos React to Supreme Court's Big Labor Ruling, Harris v. Quinn

Yesterday, Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to exempt public sector workers in union shops from paying union dues to cover the costs of collective bargaining. Until now, these workers were exempt from paying dues to cover the union’s political activities, but they still had to pay their fair share of the cost of bargaining on their behalf. 

  • Hillman judge Harold Meyerson explains how the ruling will weaken public sector unions by giving workers the option to reap the benefits of union bargaining without paying dues. 
  • Michelle Chen notes that the ruling “pushe[s] public sector unions a step closer toward death by attrition, by eroding their ability to finance themselves.”
  • Sarah Jaffe argues that the Harris and Hobby Lobby rulings will be a double whammy for working women. 
  • Carla Murphy observes that, by weakening public sector unions, this ruling imperils a critical path for upward mobility for women and people of color. 
  • The rulings in Harris and Hobby Lobby have been hailed as narrow, but legal analyst Jeffery Toobin explains how these apparently narrowly-tailored rulings fit with the Roberts Court’s long-established tendency to issue “narrow” rulings that pave the way for more sweeping rulings in the future. 


[Photo credit: Harris v. Quinn Press Conference, SEIU, Creative Commons.]

Some Notable Takes on the Supreme Court's "Hobby Lobby" Ruling

Some timely commentary on the Supreme Court’s decision that the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act violates the religious freedom of Hobby Lobby, a family-owned chain of craft supply stores. The Court ruled that, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Hobby Lobby is a person who cannot be required to pay for insurance that covers certain forms of birth control, which Hobby Lobby’s owners falsely believe to be abortifacients. 

To learn more about the legal issues involved, check out this very thorough backgrounder from Carmen Green, a recent graduate of Georgetown Law.

  • Two-time Hillman Prize-winner Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic

[Photo credit: Nicholas Eckhart, Creative Commons.]