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
Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News has won the January Sidney Award for her eye-opening joint profile of a McDonald's fry cook and the CEO of the company. The fry cook, Tyree Johnson, would have to work over 1 million hours a year in order to earn as much as the former CEO of McDonald's, but in fact, he's lucky to get 40 hours a week because neither of the two McDonald's restaurants he works for will give him full-time hours.
Patton shows how the fast food industry is typical of our increasingly unequal economy that generates historic profits for executives and investors while leaving ordinary workers behind.
In 1979, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green beret doctor, was convicted of the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. MacDonald has steadfastly maintained his innocence, claiming that a band of intruders wandered into his house and slaughtered his family. In his new book, Wilderness of Error, filmmaker Errol Morris argues that MacDonald was wronged by the criminal justice system and might even be an innocent man. In his a new e-book, Joe McGinnis, author of the bestselling book on the MacDonald case, Fatal Vision, recaps MacDonald's post-conviction history and argues that justice was served in 1979 and MacDonald has been grasping at straws ever since. I review both books for the Columbia Journalism Review. Side-by-side, these two volumes amount to a journalistic sumo match where two heavyweights square off for control of the MacDonald narrative.
[Photo credit: Public.resource.org, Creative Commons.]
They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. Reporters at Southern Weekend, a relatively liberal paper in Guangzhou, are on strike against excessive censorship by their provincial government.
On Monday, hundreds of people turned out to support the strikers at the newspaper's headquarters and celebrities are championing the journalists' cause online:
“Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter,” Li Bingbing, an actress, said to her 19 million followers on a microblog account. Yao Chen, an actress with more than 31 million followers, cited a quotation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel laureate and dissident: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”
Many of the people who showed up Monday at the newspaper offices in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, carried banners with slogans and white and yellow chrysanthemums, a flower that symbolizes mourning. One banner read: “Get rid of censorship. The Chinese people want freedom.” Police officers watched the protesters without immediately taking any harsh actions. [NYT]
Some political analysts see the strike as a test of the Chinese central government's commitment to press freedom. If the new party cheif, Xi Jinping, sides with the reporters, that could be a sign that he's prepared to loosen state controls on media.
[Photo credit: White and yellow chrysanthemums, like the blossoms carried by the strike supporters to symbolize mourning for press freedom. NTLam, Creative Commons.]
- In These Times recaps the Top Labor Stories of 2012.
- Check out the Daily Beast's Best Longreads of 2012, including an expose of child abuse at an evangelical school and the story of a rust belt teen's climb from poverty.
- A California court ruled that a man who admitted to impersonating a sleeping woman's boyfriend in order to trick her into sex is not guilty of rape because he didn't pretend to be her husband.
- Did unleaded paint and gasoline cause a historic drop in violent crime?
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
The latest from September Sidney-winner Erich Schwartzel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the worsening plight of the Woodlands, a small Pennsylvania community forced to live without running water after its wells were mysteriously befouled:
CONNOQUENESSING TOWNSHIP -- With each passing week, more and more residents in the Woodlands start to live in a waterless world.
The backwoods neighborhood of 200 homes and trailers about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh has exhausted nearly every option for official help since private well water began running orange or drying up altogether in early 2011.
In just the past four months, the number of homes collecting gallon jugs of donated fresh water has more than doubled to 25. The community set up a water bank at a local church to accommodate the growing demand -- the latest step in a two-year saga that started when neighbors called each other with the same complaint: The well water was getting very bad, very fast.
Many suspect that nearby fracking operations have tainted the well water, but so far, government tests have found little difference between pre- and post-fracking levels of contaminants. However, a professor from Duquesne University professor is digging deeper and he says his unpublished results show a host of anomalies in the Woodlands' tap water:
"We're finding a multitude of problems, but the common theme is essentially the water table for the community has changed," [Prof. John Stolz] said.
"Something is pushing the water around."
Each week, more residents report that their tap water has become undrinkable, and in some cases even irritating to the touch.
Electronics manufacturer Foxconn, China's largest employer, became a byword for dismal working conditions and rock bottom morale. After a spate of suicides and strikes, Foxconn has pledged to clean up its act. According to Keith Bradsher and Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, the company is making good on at least some of those promises.
Maple syrup might be the world's least liquid liquid asset, but somebody came up with an intricate plan to steal $18 million worth of the precious golden fluid beloved of Canadians. The bounty was taken from the industry's Fort Knox: A Quebec warehouse controlled by the Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, the cartel that determines how much Canadian maple syrup flows onto the world market.
The heist sparked months of fevered speculation among Canadians, Canadian expats, and hypoglycemics everywhere. Who stole the syrup? Was it a band of hoser ninjas? The RCMP? Jealous Vermonters? After an extended investigation, police finally think they know the answer, but they're still not naming names. They say the suspects set themselves up as maple syrup dealers in the freewheeling province of New Brunswick and sold it to unsuspecting Americans at full price.
[Photo credit: Jemasmith, Creative Commons.]
Security guards at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport have paused their strike now that the Port Authority has asked their employer to meet with them.
The guards at JFK will have lots to talk about with AirServ, starting with the fact that they, the professionals who keep terrorists from skirting TSA checkpoints, earn poverty wages and don't get sick days:
[Prince Jackson, a guard at JFK's Delta Terminal] wasn't thrilled about the wages—less than he'd made in other security jobs—but Jackson was desperate. He has been working the overnight shift ever since—except for a week last year when he got a severe stomach flu.
Jackson found a clinic in Astoria that would treat him for $15. "When I came back the next week, I brought a doctor's note, so they didn't fire me. But we don't get sick days, so I didn't get paid. That really put me in the hole. I'm still behind on my rent."
On its website, Air Serv describes itself as a people company. "To have satisfied customers, you must first have employees who feel valued and are recognized for exceptional job performance. . . . Once a year, 110% Club galas are held across the country to recognize those employees who play a huge role in our success."
Jackson isn't convinced. "We never heard anything about a 110 Club," he says. "The first time they mentioned that was when we started talking about a union." [Village Voice]
The guards are working with SEIU 32BJ, which specializes in organizing security workers and other support staff. Even if the talks go well, the AirServ guards are still expecting a long fight for fair pay and decent working conditions.
[Photo credit: Prince Jackson, JFK guard, by Dania Eliazov.]
The New York Times expands its ground-breaking expose of Walmart's Mexican bribery spree. In one shady deal, the retailer used bribes to literally wipe zoning obstacles off the map, in order to build a mega-store in the shadow of an sacred heritage site:
The plan was simple. The zoning map would not become law until it was published in a government newspaper. So Wal-Mart de Mexico arranged to bribe an official to change the map before it was sent to the newspaper, records and interviews show. Sure enough, when the map was published, the zoning for Mrs. Pineda’s field was redrawn to allow Wal-Mart’s store.
Problem solved. [NYT]
The article describes Walmart as an "an aggressive and creative corrupter." The company didn't just use bribes to expedite legal processes, it paid big bucks to flout the law completely.
[Photo credit: Crawfishpie, Creative Commons.]
Sidney Award-winner Spencer Soper chronicles the ongoing struggles of Amazon warehouse workers for The Morning Call:
Months after she suffered heat exhaustion and lost her job in an Amazon.com warehouse in Breinigsville, Rosemarie Fritchman sat in a small conference room pleading for unemployment benefits of about $160 a week.
Opposing her at the hearing before a state referee, who would decide whether Fritchman was eligible for the benefit, was a human resources agent representing her employer.
The testimony of Gwen Golbreski, the human resources representative, was brief and procedural: "She was terminated for attendance," said Golbreski, who attended multiple hearings involving Amazon warehouse workers that day. "We have a no-fault attendance policy."
Fritchman, 67, remained poised and gave a detailed account about how she struggled working in brutal heat until medical personnel examined her and told her to go home. Following company policy, she provided a doctor's note upon returning to work, and she was still terminated without explanation, she said.
A "no fault attendance policy" is the most Orwellian corporate buzzword I've heard all day. What a charming way to indicate Amazon accepts no excuses for missing work, not even heat prostration caused by Amazon's overheated warehouse.
[Photo credit: Soumit, Creative Commons.]