Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Two Supreme Court Cases That Could Be Big Trouble for Organized Labor

In the Atlantic, Matt Bruening and Elizabeth Stoker look ahead to two Supreme Court cases that could devastate organized labor:

The first case concerns the president’s ability to appoint members to the National Labor Relations Board. Vacancies on the NLRB must be filled promptly because the board shuts down without a 3-member quorum. When Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s NLRB appointees, the president started filling the board with recess appointments. So, the Senate Republicans used procedural tricks to keep the Senate in perpetual “session” and thereby prevent recess appointments. The White House argues that the president should be allowed to make recess appointments anyway because the senate isn’t really in session if no business is being conducted. If the White House loses this case, the Senate Republicans will be able to paralyze the body that enforces the nation’s labor laws indefinitely. 

The second case could doom one of the most effective new organizing strategies to come along in years:

[M]ulhall v. UNITE HERE Local 355, calls into question what is probably the most successful union organizing strategy of last decade. Because our labor laws are so unfriendly to workers, major unions – including SEIU, UNITE HERE, and CWA, among others – often seek to enter into so-called “organizing agreements” with employers. These deals establish the rules that the unions and employers must follow in subsequent organizing battles. The most common provisions require employers to remain neutral about the union and to recognize it as soon as the majority of their employees sign cards authorizing it to represent them.

In Mulhall, these agreements are being challenged under anti-corruption laws that prevent employers from providing “things of value” to unions. If the Supreme Court decides that organizing agreements are unlawful, the only promising unionization strategy in recent years will die. 

It’s unclear to me how an organizing agreement counts as a “thing of value” for the purposes of an anti-corruption statute that is intended to prevent the improper exchange of tangible things of actual value–like suitcases stuffed with $100 bills. But to further muddy the waters, the Mulhall case involves an employer that agreed to a neutrality agreement in exchange for $100,000 worth of political support from the union for a casino gambling vote and a promise not to strike. A federal judge found that the agreement was legal, but the 11th Circuit disagreed. Unite Here said in a statement that it was pleased the Supreme Court decided to review the case. 

[Photo credit: Sad Panda, Jason Scott Jones, Creative Commons.]

Michael Grabell of ProPublica Wins July Sidney for Portrait of Our "Permatemp" Nation

Michael Grabell of ProPublica has won the July Sidney Award for “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants are Getting Crushed,” a portrait of our new permatemp nation. There are 2.7 million temporary workers in the United States, more than ever before. Temps earn 25% less than their full-time counterparts and they are more likely to be injured on the job. 

Across the country, workers rise before dawn and gather at labor centers to wait for assignments. If they are chosen, they are often pressured to ride to the job site in overcrowded minivans. The graphic above is based on a diagram that a New Jersey worker drew to show how his lagency crams seventeen people into a single van by making passengers sit on baby seats, perch on milk crates, and ride in the trunk. Just getting chosen and getting to work can take over 2 hours, and none of this time is paid. Agencies may also charge temps fees, which can drag their already meager pay below minimum wage. 

Companies use staffing agencies to insulate themselves from an employer’s usual responsibilities to workers. If temp workers in Walmart factories are taking home less than minimum wage, or their immigration status is going unchecked, Wal-Mart can outsource the blame to the staffing agency. 

Temps aren’t just stop-gap labor anymore. Since the 1960s, the staffing industry has waged a marketing campaign in the business press to convince employers that their staffs are a burden rather than an asset. Many companies, including Walmart, Nike, and Frito-Lay, bought the marketing pitch and made a huge pool of temporary workers a permanent part of their business models.  

Grabell and I talk more about the permatemp boom and its effects on workers and the American economy in our Backstory interview. 

[Graphic: Michael Grabell and Krista Kjellman Schmidt, ProPublica, Templand: Working in the New Economy.]

Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons Without Approval

Doctors under contract with the California prison system sterilized 148 female inmates without required state authorization between 2006 and 2010, according to a bombshell story by the Sacramento Bee and the Center for Investigative Reporting. As many as 100 others were sterilized in procedures that date back to the late 1990s. Forced sterilizations of prisoners and the mentally ill used to be common in California, until state lawmakers banned the practice in 1979. Today, in order to ensure that all sterilizations are truly voluntary, doctors must get regulatory approval before performing the surgery. Records obtained by the CIR show that the rule was ignored for years. 

The prisoners were sterilized when they came to prison infirmaries in Corona or Chowchilla to give birth. Prison officials insist that the women consented to tubal ligations, but some inmates say they felt pressured to have the surgery. 

Yet Kimberly Jeffrey says she was pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section in 2010, during a stint at Valley State. She had failed a drug test while out on parole for a previous series of thefts.

Jeffrey, 43, was horrified, she said, and resisted.

“He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’ ” Jeffrey said. “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went into a straight panic.” [SacBee]

An inmate who worked in the prison infirmary said she often heard staff urging women who had served multiple prison terms to get sterilized. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” she told a reporter. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

 

[Photo credit: Derekskey, Creative Commons.]

If You Strike at the King, You'd Best Not Miss

At least one as-yet-unidentified Republican lawmaker tried to kill the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism by driving the watchdog from its home at the journalism school at UW Madison. Over the weekend, Governor Scott Walker vetoed the budget provision after an aggressive lobbying campaign by WCIJ and its allies. Anna Clark has the full story in the Columbia Journalism Review

Now that the Center’s future is secure and its coffers have been topped up by a successful fundraising campaign fuelled by public outrage at the stealth attack, those anonymous Republicans are probably getting very nervous. 

[Photo credit: This badger is judging you, GOP. By Night Owl City, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Temp Army; Building the Wrong Fence; Michael Sullivan, RIP

  • With immigration reform hanging in the balance, Hillman judge Harold Meyerson pens a scathing op/ed urging the Northern U.S. states to build a fence to protect their people from the low-wage, anti-worker climate of Southern U.S. 
  • Michael Sullivan, a longtime producer for the Hillman-Prize-winning PBS show Frontline, died this week at the age of 67. He leaves a legacy of outstanding journalism for the common good.
  • Dark-skinned and Plus-sized,” how the media use dehumanizing stereotypes about race, class, and body size to discredit 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin before he was shot to death by George Zimmerman. 
  • In the wake of the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, E.J. Graff reflects on her personal and political journey from radical lesbian activist to happily married woman.

 

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons]

Fast Food Fight: Workers' Groups Urge New York State to Let NYC Set Its Own Minimum Wage

New York City Council meets today to discuss wage theft in the fast food industry

Workers’ groups plan to rally outside the meeting. They want New York State to let New York City set its own minimum wage for the fast food sector. The state legislature voted to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 over the next three years. Nine dollars an hour is a step in the right direction, activists say, but it’s still nowhere near a living wage in New York City. 

Advocates for low-wage fast food workers will call on the state Legislature to bequeath wage-setting powers to the City Council at a rally planned at City Hall Thursday afternoon.

Under pressure from unions, progressive groups and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state lawmakers voted to increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour over the next three years from the current rate of $7.25. But employees at fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Burger King should be earning more than that, and the city should have the power to set those wages, advocates plan to argue Thursday. [Crain’s Insider]

The state is already turning up the heat on fast food. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is reportedly investigating wage theft in the industry. 

 

[Photo credit: A_Minor, Creative Commons.]

Tonight on Frontline: "Rape in the Fields"

Tonight, PBS Frontline airs “Rape in the Fields,” a documentary about sexual violence against female farm workers. In the United States, an estimated one half to three quarters of all farm workers are undocumented. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable to sexual harrassment on the job because they are reluctant to complain, for fear of being  deported. 

 

[Photo credit: leadenhall, Creative Commons.]

Bangladeshi Union Leader Talks Safety, Freedom of Association

Labor leader Nazma Akter talks with two World Policy Journal editors about the Bangladeshi garment industry. Akter, the founder of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, describes working conditions in local factories and explains why designated garment districts with modern infrastructure are a vital part of any plan to make the industry safer. Akter also explains why weak protections for freedom of association are hampering the labor movement in Bangladesh. Workers are regularly fired for attempting to organize their workplaces. 

[Photo credit: Dhaka street scene, AdamCohn, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Plummeting Wages, Scam Debit Cards, "All of Me"

The best of the week’s news:

  • FBI agents were exonerated of wrongdoing in 150 shootings, or, in an incredible 100% of cases.
  • The Los Angeles Times showcases All of Me, the acclaimed documentary about weight-loss surgery by Hillman Executive Director Alexandra Lescaze.
  • In response to speculation surrounding the cause of the car crash that killed investigative journalist Michael Hastings, a well-written piece about how and when car crashes cause fires

 

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Friends Remember Hastings as Mentor to Young Journalists

Thirty-three-year-old reporter Michael Hastings died Tuesday in a car crash in Los Angeles. Hastings is best known for his devastating Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McCrystal, which led to the general’s resignation.

Hastings wasn’t afraid to make enemies to expose the truth, but he also cultivated many friendships. National security reporter Ali Ghirab was one of those friends. He recalls Hastings as a generous mentor to younger journalists, a sentiment echoed by many who knew him:

Michael the reporter was a thing to behold, and no less Michael the friend. He disdained low-level aides and flacks—”his target was always the principal,” Smith wrote. That parsing of the pecking order, though, didn’t extend to his personal life or interactions with colleagues. It can be tough to get a word with star reporters, but not Michael. Young journalists flocked to him, and he talked freely with them. He cared about what even his most junior colleagues thought. He gave and gave and gave to young reporters, who wanted to know his secret (“devote your life to journalism”—and he did); he employed his well-honed bullshit detector and, if everything was copacetic, deferred to them.

[…]

Watching Michael with younger reporters, or doling out advice to aspirants, it was easy to see him years down the road, still baby-faced and energetic, but with some gray hair and a couple extra pounds on his slender waistline. He’d still be coaching, still be helping colleagues achieve their ambitions, and still making time for his friends, to discuss grave matters or just laugh for a while (or both at the same time). Then there’re the expectations for the important work he would have produced. The journalism industry, the country and the world are worse off for losing him. He was a model journalist just as he was a model friend—it’s impossible to know which he was better at. He will be sorely missed.

Dave Weigel of Slate remembers Hastings fondly from the 2012 campaign trail, where Hastings’ utter disinterest in currying favor with powerful sources set him apart from most of his colleagues. 

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