Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Are OSHA Standards Tough Enough to Protect Workers from Solvents?

Workers at a foam plant in Selma, Alabama that makes headrests for Hyundais suffer from a high incidence of respiratory disease. Are OSHA standards tough enough to protect them from chemicals like toluene diisocyanate? Hillman Prize-winner Seth Freed Wessler investigates for NBC.


[Photo credit: aidenjewell, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Monsanto Linked to Mystery Disease

The Best of the Week’s News


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

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.]

#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.