Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Less Water and More Questions for the Woodlands

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 However, a professor from Duquesne University professor is digging deeper and he says his unpublished results show a host of anomalies in the Woodlands’ tap water: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.

Foxconn Working Conditions Improve Slightly

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.

Arrests in $18 Million Maple Syrup Heist

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.]

JFK Security Guards Pause Strike for Talks with AirServ

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.]


Walmart's Mexican Bribe Machine


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.]

Amazon Workers Fight for Unemployment Benefits

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 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.]

#Sidney's Picks: Sub-Minimum Wage, Kristof's Error


  • New York’s housing authority is sending workers into Sandy-damaged buildings without proper protective equipment. (HT: Elizabeth)


[Photo Credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons]

The CEO and the Fry Cook: A Tale of Two McDonald's

Leslie Patton of Bloomberg Businessweek contrasts the lifestyles of the CEO of McDonald’s and a McDonald’s worker to illustrate how inequality has accelerated during the economic recovery.

Tyree Johnson, a 20-year veteran of McDonald’s, is holding down jobs at two Chicago locations. The 44-year-old fry cook earns the state minimum wage of $8.25/hr, and his two McDonald’s jobs give him fewer than 40 hours a week combined. He struggles to keep a roof over his head:

Tyree Johnson scrubs himself with a bar of soap in a McDonald’s (MCD) bathroom and puts on fresh deodorant. He stashes his toiletries in a Kenneth Cole bag, a gift from his mother who works the counter at Macy’s, and hops on an El train. His destination: another McDonald’s.

Johnson isn’t one of Chicago’s many homeless people who seek shelter in fast-food joints. He’s a McDonald’s employee, at both stores – one in the Loop, the other about a mile away in the shadow of Holy Name Cathedral.

He needs the makeshift baths because hygiene and appearance are part of his annual compensation reviews. Even with frequent scrubbings, he said before a recent shift, it’s hard to remove the essence of the greasy food he works around.

“I hate when my boss tells me she won’t give me a raise because she can smell me,” he said. [Bloomberg]

McDonald’s new CEO, Don Thompson, joined the company in the early nineties, about the same time as Tyree Johnson. Twenty years ago, the CEO’s salary was 230 times times more than minimum wage. Thompson’s immediate predecessor earned 580 times minimum wage. 

In addition to a generous salary, Thompson enjoys such lavish perks as the use of a corporate jet. Johnson gets free food at one of his McDonald’s jobs, but only if he eats it in the break room, where customers can’t see him, if he gets caught eating in the lobby he’ll be fired.

[Photo credit: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons.]

Josh Eidelson of The Nation Wins December Sidney for Coverage of Historic Walmart Strike

Josh Eidelson of The Nation has won the December Sidney Award for his outstanding coverage of the historic Black Friday strike at Walmart and the ongoing strike wave working its way through Walmart’s supply chain.

Josh was the first to report the arrest of an ex-Walmart worker organizing at his store and a scripted mandatory meeting held by Walmart managers to discourage striking, as well as the first to share photos showing Walmart goods at the site of the tragic factory fire in Bangladesh. Perhaps most important, Eidelson has brought voices of Walmart workers to the center of the conversation.

Over the Black Friday weekend, Eidelson liveblogged the protests for over 20 hours.

Read my Backstory interview with Josh to learn more about the making of his Walmart blog and the prospects for unionization at Walmart.

"Right to Work" Becomes Law in Michigan, Now What?

Sweeping anti-union legislation was signed into law today in Michigan, despite vocal opposition from organized labor in the state capital. As Sarah Cobarrubius reports for Working In These Times, opponents of the new laws are already talking about ways to repeal them:

Union organizers, however, say the legislation can still be undone. There are four methods under Michigan state law through which a proposal can be placed on the ballot. While a legislative referendum cannot be used to challenge right-to-work, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan reveals that citizens could still launch a statutory initiative, though this requires more signatures. In order to do this, organizers would have to file petitions containing signatures of registered voters equal to at least eight percent of the votes cast in the last election for governor. Even if the legislature rejects the initiative, it would go on the ballot for 2014 general election.

[Photo credit: Peoplesworld, Creative Commons.]