by Lindsay Beyerstein
How our blog got its name
Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”
Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.
It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.
Clear It With Sidney
On the 50th Anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that researchers went off track decades ago when they decided that fixing poverty was a matter of diagnosing and remediating the supposedly dysfunctional culture and flawed characters of poor people. These researchers assumed that the poor stayed poor because they choose immediate gratification over long-term planning, or addiction over sobriety, or promiscuity over lawful marriage, and therefore needed moral uplift in the form of "chastity training" and other behavior modification programs. Not surprisingly, the only people who improved their economic status were the consultants who charged taxpayers big bucks for ineffective and degrading programs.
Ehrenreich thinks it's a lot simpler than that: The working poor don't rise out poverty because wages are low and being poor is insidiously but ruinously expensive. As Ehrenreich discovered while researching her book Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, if you don't have first and last month's rent to put down on a new apartment, you can find yourself stuck in an overpriced residential motel that costs far more per month than you would have paid in rent if only you'd had the cash to put down the deposit. Ehrenreich found poverty "surcharges" on everything from convenience store groceries to high-interest payday loans. Between the hidden high costs of making do on minimum wage and stagnant wages, it's no wonder that so many poor people find themselves unable to get ahead.
[Photo credit: kersy83, Creative Commons.]
A chemical spill in the Elk River left 300,000 West Virginians without water last week. Experts say the spill reveals systematic weaknesses in the state's system for managing toxic chemicals:
“We can’t just point a single finger at this company,” said Angela Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.”
She said lawmakers have yet to explain why the storage facility was allowed to sit on the river and so close to a water treatment plant that is the largest in the state.
Ms. Rosser and others noted that the site of the spill has not been subject to a state or federal inspection since 1991. West Virginia law does not require inspections for chemical storage facilities — only for production facilities. [NYT]
Critics say that the state government of West Virginia has long been hostile to environmental regulation because of the outsize influence of coal and chemical companies.
[Photo credit: "Elk River Falls," for illustration only, dmott9, Creative Commons.]
The Best of the Week's News
- An asthma epidemic in American cities is robbing children of their health and peace of mind, Dateline NBC investigates why so many kids are struggling to breathe.
- Texas abortion law drives more women to self-induce miscarriages with over-the-counter drugs.
- How Reddit became a gun market and authorized its logo on assault riffles.
- Jack Abramoff explains how lobbyists continue to ply legislators with free travel.
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
Marlize Munoz and her husband Erick were paramedics, raising a young son and anticipating the birth of their second child. On Nov. 26, Erick found Marlize collapsed on the floor of their North Texas home. Her heart was stopped and she wasn't breathing. Her doctors believe she was stricken by a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung. Her brain was completely destroyed by oxygen deprivation.
Marlize is dead according to medical science and Texas law. Yet a ventilator is forcing air into her body against her wishes and the wishes of her family because she is pregnant. Texas is one of several states that invalidates the advance health directives of pregnant women.
Marlize told her family she never wanted to be hooked up to a ventilator under these circumstances. Yet, thanks to the hospital's dubious interpretation of a Texas law, Marlize's body is being ventilated for the benefit of the 14-week-old fetus inside of it. The law applies to patients living patients, not to dead bodies. But the hospital is holding firm.
Approximately two-thirds of the workers who maintain golf courses in the United States are Latino immigrants. Some are documented and others are undocumented. The work is gruelling, but invisible by design: They rise before dawn to trim the grass, level the sand traps, and chisel weeds out of the turf. They earn about $10 an hour. Gabriel Thompson wins the January Sidney Award for "The Caretakers," which tells the stories of the men who make golf possible as a sport and an industry. Golf Digest took the unusual step of commissioning the piece because they wanted their readers to understand the huge contributions of Latino workers to the golf industry. Read my interview with Thompson in The Backstory.
Social media presence and online branding are said to be critical to success in journalism today. Important questions are debated online and professional reputations are established in this arena. So, where does that leave female journalists whose work generates huge volumionus threats and abuse over twitter and other social media? Amanda Hess's thought-provoking Pacific Standard essay on the online harrassment of female journalists should be read by everyone who cares about the future of journalism.
The web was supposed to disrupt established media power structures and give traditionally under-represented groups more ability to shape public opinion. To some extent, this promise has come true. However, women and other vulnerable groups (including young writers and writers of color) are disproportionately targeted for threats and abuse over social media. The very tools that enabled a broader reach also enable abusers to shame and harrass with terrifying precision.
Temporary work used to mean exactly that, but today's economy, "temps" have become a disposable second-class of permanent workers who can do the same work as employees for years at a time, but with lower wages, and no job security. Sarah Jaffe reports on the tempification of the American workforce for In These Times. Bosses have used temporary labor as a tool to divide their workers and forestall unionization, but Jaffe reports on encouraging signs of temp/perm solidarity at a Nissan plant in the deep south.
[Photo credit: Haughygrandeur, Creative Commons.]
- Student loan monitoring agency resorts to ruthless collection tactics.
- North Korea's weird but Kim Jong Un probably didn't feed his uncle to 120 ravening hounds.
- China's prostitutes face brutal punishments.
- An interview with Sarita Gupta of Jobs With Justice
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
The Obama administration has called on clothing buyers to use their purchasing power to improve working conditions in the global apparel industry, but the contractors who supply uniforms for the federal workforce are still sourcing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clothing from sweatshops, Ian Urbina reports:
Labor Department officials say that federal agencies have “zero tolerance” for using overseas plants that break local laws, but American government suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam show a pattern of legal violations and harsh working conditions, according to audits and interviews at factories. Among them: padlocked fire exits, buildings at risk of collapse, falsified wage records and repeated hand punctures from sewing needles when workers were pushed to hurry up.
The U.S. Marine Corps buys shirts from a Bangladeshi factory where children make up a third of the workforce.
[Photo credit: for illustration, NYC Marines.]
Nine out of ten of Dissent's most popular stories of 2013 were written by women. Lots of great writing and reporting here. Congratulations to all who made the list.
[Photo credit: Hades2K, Creative Commons.]