Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Glue Fumes Cripple Workers in North Carolina

Sheri Farley suffers from an excruciating and debilitating condition known as “drop foot,” a form of nerve damage caused by five years of breathing glue fumes at an upholstery plant in North Carolina:

For about five years, Ms. Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names like Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Ms. Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years. [NYT]

Some 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work, Ian Urbina reports for the New York Times, ten times as many as are killed in industrial accidents, yet the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) devotes less regulatory energy to making sure workers breathe clean air on the job. 

Backed by over 200 pages of source documents, Urbina’s feature is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking, it deserves to be widely read. 


[Photo credit: mag3737, Creative Commons.]

Indictments in School Cheating Case Exposed by Atlanta Journal Constitution

Heather Vogell, Alan Judd, and John Perry of the Atlanta Journal Constitution won the 2012 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism for their expose of suspicious standardized test scores in the Atlanta public school system. They found a pattern of suspicious erasures that pointed to the biggest academic fraud in American history.

The State of Georgia has taken the AJC’s reporting very seriously. The coverage sparked an official investigation that proved wrongdoing once and for all. Thirty-five educators linked to the scandal were indicted on Friday, including ex-superintendant and alleged ringleader Beverly Hall:

In a scathing report released in July 2011 that was the blueprint for the grand jurors, state investigators uncovered what they called a decade of systemic cheating in Atlanta Public Schools and concluded that Beverly Hall knew or should have known about it. Investigators named nearly 180 educators, including more than three dozen principals, as participants in cheating on state curriculum tests.

The report’s release culminated more than two years of inquiries into Atlanta’s huge gains on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis first detected statistically improbable increases in test scores at one Atlanta school in 2008. The following year, the AJC published another analysis that found suspicious score changes on the 2009 CRCT at a dozen Atlanta schools. The newspaper’s reporting ultimately led to the state investigation.

ProPublica has compiled a brief history of America’s greatest standardized test cheating scandals from 1987 to the present day, including the Atlanta scandal.

As Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.”


[Photo credit: Jasper Nance, Creative Commons.]

Past Hillman Prize and Sidney Award-Winners Nominated for National Magazine Awards

The finalists for the 2013 National Magazine Awards (ASME Awards) have been announced and we are delighted to see so many past Hillman Prize-winners and Sidney Award-winners on the shortlist:

  • Sarah Stillman, winner of a 2012 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism, is a finalist for “The Throwaways,” a New Yorker story about how juvenile offenders-turned-informants have become canon fodder in the drug war. 
  • Mac McClelland, winner of a 2010 Sidney Award, is in the running for “Shelf Lives,” a work of participatory journalism about terrible working conditions in the warehouse industry, published in Mother Jones

Best of luck to all the finalists. 


#Sidney's Picks: Freelancers Union; Herbalife; Paid Sick Days


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Sucks to Be You, Wal-Mart...

What if there was a Wal-Mart and nobody came? That’s basically what’s happening right now. Wal-Mart stores are in disarray because the nation’s largest retailer can’t find employees to stock its cavernous new dens of commerce:

It’s not as though the merchandise isn’t there. It’s piling up in aisles and in the back of stores because Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves, according to interviews with store workers. In the past five years, the world’s largest retailer added 455 U.S. Wal-Mart stores, a 13 percent increase, according to filings and the company’s website. In the same period, its total U.S. workforce, which includes Sam’s Club employees, dropped by about 20,000, or 1.4 percent. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million U.S. workers. [Bloomberg]

I wonder why nobody wants to work at Wal-Mart? Hmmm.

Costco don’t seem to have any trouble attracting qualified employees and turning huge profits while raising its minimum wage:

“At Costco, we know that paying employees good wages makes good sense for business,” Jelinik said in a statement last week. “Instead of minimizing wages, we know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty. We support efforts to increase the federal minimum wage.” [HuffPo]

[Photo credit: racineur, Creative Commons.]


Robocall Scoop Sparks Call for Sweeping Reform of Canadian Elections Law

Canada’s top election official is calling for sweeping changes to the country’s elections law to make sure that voter-suppressing robocalls, like the ones uncovered by Canadian Hillman Prize-winners Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, never happen again:

OTTAWA — Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand wants Parliament to overhaul Canada’s elections law to prevent deceptive telephone calls by adding stiffer penalties and giving new powers to investigators.

In a recommendation aimed directly at the calls received in Guelph, Ont., on the 2011 election day, Mayrand says Parliament should close a loophole in the Criminal Code and make it illegal to impersonate an Elections Canada official. He advises maximum penalties on conviction of violators of $250,000 in fines and five years in jail.

Read the rest in the Ottawa Citizen.

Wal-Mart Sues UFCW Over Strikes

Seemingly determined to lose friends and alienate people, the nation’s largest retailer is suing the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Our Wal-Mart over last year’s strikes in Florida: 

Wal-Mart Stores Inc has sued a major grocery workers union and others who have protested at its Florida stores, the latest salvo in its legal fight to stop “disruptive” rallies in and around its stores by groups seeking better pay and working conditions.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc has sued a major grocery workers union and others who have protested at its Florida stores, the latest salvo in its legal fight to stop “disruptive” rallies in and around its stores by groups seeking better pay and working conditions. [Reuters]

The store alleges that activists trespassed on Wal-Mart property during rallies.


[Photo credit: matteson.norman, Creative Commons.]

Grifterology: 6 Ways to Avoid the Broken Bottle Scam

At the Hillman Foundation, we’re all about shedding light on society’s ills. Usually we hail journalists exposing white collar criminals. But today we bring you a fun piece by Justin Peters of Slate exposing a more down-market racket known as the “broken bottle scam.” In this con game, the conman bumps into the mark and starts yelling about how the mark broke his expensive bottle, or his glasses, or something else. The mark is intimidated and shamed into coughing up cash on the spot.

My favorite tip for avoiding the mark’s fate:

Extend the encounter. Here’s an interesting example of how to deal with a scammer: “Nair (Naim) Jabbar had two pairs of broken eyeglasses in a bag when cops arrested him last month. The ex-con bumped into his latest victim on W. 53rd St. and Fifth Ave., court records show. ‘You broke my glasses! You own me $125!’ Jabbar, 41, yelled. But when his victim asked him to come back to his office to figure out a solution, Jabbar slunk off, court papers said.” This strategy makes sense, and is perhaps something to consider. Who doesn’t hate going up to offices?

[Photo credit: Funkyeah, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Trans Issues; Iraq War Anniversary; Ta-Nehisi's Close Call

  • “Born This Way?”: Beth Schwartzapfel explores the most controversial issue in transgender medicine today for the American Prospect.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

2013 Canadian Hillman Prize Photos

More photos of the 2013 Canadian Hillman Prize ceremony at the Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto, Ontario.

Photos by James Yigitoz.