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Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Stop asking women to change to make men feel comfortable in the workplace

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Numerous women have said that film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed or raped them. But rather than blaming the man responsible for the sexual assault, conservative commentators, former White House officials, and journalists alike are turning their focus on eliminating interaction between men and women.

Last week, the New York Times published an investigation on the experiences of actresses who were alone with Weinstein and the allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Weinstein, which occurred over the span of three decades. On Tuesday, The New Yorker published an article detailing the experiences of multiple women in excruciating detail. It also exposed the ways in which the industry protected Weinstein and how his employees helped him meet women, despite their discomfort in doing so.

Weinstein has been fired from the company he co-founded, and A-list celebrities, such as Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Judy Dench, George Clooney, and Jennifer Lawrence, have spoken out against him and his treatment of women he worked with. On Tuesday, Weinstein’s wife of a decade, Georgina Chapman, said she’s leaving him. On the surface level, it seems that Weinstein’s career is over and that his accusers have found justice. But the response to the Weinstein sexual harassment reports proves that instead of putting blame where it belongs — on sexual predators — some men are still interested in blaming women and their presence in the office for their own abuse.

Former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka, tweeted that all of these sexual assaults could have been avoided if Weinstein simply didn’t meet with women one-on-one. He referred to Vice President Mike Pence’s rule of not eating alone with any woman other than his wife, Karen, and suggested if Weinstein simply hadn’t met with women alone, he wouldn’t have assaulted them.

Gorka’s tweet laid bare the real argument that is being made when men say they can’t be alone with women. It perpetuates the cultural pretense that when men are sexually violent, it is simply an impulsive mistake, a part of their nature that they can’t control, instead of a decision they made to prey on particular women they know they can control or whose reports won’t later be believed. The New Yorker’s investigation into Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults clearly shows that his decisions were calculated and followed a pattern. For example, Weinstein reportedly used female executives to give the women he harassed a false sense of security before he met with them alone. The New Yorker piece read:

Some employees said that they were enlisted in subterfuge to make the victims feel safe. A female executive with the company described how Weinstein assistants and others served as a ‘honeypot’—they would initially join a meeting, but then Weinstein would dismiss them, leaving him alone with the woman.

Other men noted that women shouldn’t have met with Weinstein in hotel rooms, as if Weinstein didn’t also sexually assault women in his own place of business.

Weinstein used every tool available to him to manipulate women into meeting with him, including his colleagues and the impunity he enjoyed at his workplace. One of Weinstein’s producers told a woman that she was meeting several people for a Miramax party at a hotel, but when the woman arrived and the producer led her to the room, Weinstein was the only person there, according to the New Yorker. Weinstein also reportedly sexually assaulted a woman during daylight hours inside his Miramax office. He expected that some of the women he harassed and assaulted would speak out, and he made the consequences clear to them. The reporting on Weinstein shows that he is a man who knew how to intimidate and control women to force himself on them and keep them silent. There is nothing accidental about it. He was inventive, cunning, and powerful enough that a formal workplace culture never would have stopped him from sexually assaulting women.

Still, none of these details have stopped people from suggesting that a different kind of workplace would have solved the Harvey Weinstein problem and magically stop men from sexually harassing women. Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, wrote that the real problem is fun office cultures. Barro wrote for Business Insider:

But there are industries with cultures that involve after-hours social activities that blur the lines between business and leisure and can easily appear inappropriate for colleagues who could be suspected of sexual involvement.

Barro doesn’t think that getting rid of after-hours socializing will hurt women. He thinks it will break up all-male networks. To that, I laugh heartily. Men may not go to official after-hours events that their boss encourages them to attend, but such a ban certainly doesn’t prevent men from meeting with each other after work (and why should it?). The only result is that there isn’t an official employer-endorsed space for both men and women to gather. If women already feel shamed for meeting with men alone, it certainly won’t help for employers to make mixed-gender socializing seem strange, or even harmful.

In response to the Times piece detailing men’s concerns about accusations of sexual harassment or the “appearance of impropriety,” Barro wrote that instead of dismissing these men’s fears, the whole office culture must adapt to them and their concerns. He said it requires more than “just the hand wave of ‘don’t harass women, it’s simple.’”

But it is that simple. The office culture that needs to be destroyed is not one that has happy hours. It’s one that has no real system of accountability for powerful men who could easily crush the careers of their subordinates. The reports about Weinstein follow a series of high-profile sexual harassment cases across a range of industries over the last year, including Fox News personalitiesactorsmusicians, and Silicon Valley investors and executives.

Still, Barro isn’t alone. The flurry of reports of sexual harassment have caused some men to decide to avoid one-on-one interactions with women altogether. As one orthopedic surgeon told the New York Times, “I’m very cautious about it because my livelihood is on the line. If someone in your hospital says you had inappropriate contact with this woman, you get suspended for an investigation, and your life is over. Does that ever leave you?”

The men interviewed didn’t mention the effects sexual harassment has on the career of the women who come forward, nor did they appear to understand the career risks women take to report sexual harassment. If they did, they might understand that it is not a flippant choice. By saying they’re not interested in interacting with women because they’re scared of sexual harassment allegations, these men demonstrate one of the main reasons why women don’t come forward with allegations sooner: they don’t want to be shut out of career opportunities.

Unfortunately, this view is all too common. A 2010 Center for Talent Innovation study found that almost two-thirds of male executives said they stopped having one-on-one meetings with junior female employees because they feared that people would think they were having an affair. Nearly two-thirds of people interviewed for a May poll by Morning Consult said people should take caution when meeting with people of the opposite sex at work. Fears that other people may view their meetings as improper stop the majority of senior men from meeting with women, even though women’s careers benefit from having sponsors.

Demanding that entire industries that revolve around evening cocktails and building relationships with colleagues outside of work hours stop all off-hours socialization is unrealistic, but even if it were possible, it still wouldn’t prevent sexual harassment. Weinstein himself met with women in a variety of settings, but he also found ways to cleverly shift where and when meetings would take place. The former assistants and executives mentioned in the New Yorker piece, some of whom facilitated the meetings, said there was a “culture of silence” around sexual assault.

Other sexual harassment allegations show that men don’t need social events or “fun” workplace atmospheres to harass women. Regarding a sexual harassment case at SoFi, an online personal finance company, the plaintiff said that he saw his manager put “explicit sexual innuendo and statements into normal workplace communications.” A former Fox News host, Eric Bolling, was accused of sending lewd photos to his female colleagues via text message in August. Should male colleagues no longer send professional communication to all co-workers or have their female colleagues’ phone numbers? That would be ludicrous. The best solution is for men to be as considerate to their female colleagues as they are to their male colleagues, to no longer shut them out of business meetings for the sake of “appearances,” and to work to create an environment that supports their female colleagues when they do come forward with harassment allegations.

Here’s another thought: They could also stop sexual harassing women.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

The Trump administration is quietly making it easier to abuse seniors in nursing homes

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

The Trump administration is poised to undo rules issued by the Obama administration last year to protect seniors from a common tactic used by businesses to shield themselves from consequences for illegal conduct.

Under these rules, issued last September, Medicare and Medicaid would cut off payments to nursing homes that require new residents to sign forced arbitration agreements, a contract which strips individuals of their ability to sue in a real court and diverts the case to a privatized arbitration system.

But last month, the Trump administration published a proposed rule which will reinstate nursing homes’ ability to receive federal money even if they force seniors into arbitration agreements.

Forced arbitration can prevent even the most egregious cases from ever reaching a judge. According to the New York Times, a 94 year-old nursing home resident “who died from a head wound that had been left to fester, was ordered to go to arbitration.” In another case, the family of a woman who suffered “two spine fractures from serious falls, a large, infected ulcer on her heel that prevented her from walking, incontinence from not being able to get to the bathroom, receding gums from poor hygiene assistance, and a dramatic weigh loss from not being given her dentures,” was also sent to an arbitrator after they sued the woman’s nursing home alleging neglect.

Moreover, as law professor and health policy expert Nicholas Bagley notes, arbitration tends “to favor the repeat players who hire them—companies, not consumers.” Several studies have found that forced arbitration typically produces worse outcomes for consumers and workers. An Economic Policy Institute study of employment cases, for example, found that employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator, and that they typically receive less money if they do prevail.

The Obama-era rules were never allowed to take effect. Shortly after the regulations were announced, a George W. Bush-appointed judge in Mississippi issued a decision blocking the rule—although Judge Michael Mills did caveat his order by stating that “this case places this court in the undesirable position of preliminarily enjoining a Rule which it believes to be based upon sound public policy.”

Important parts of Mills’ opinion rely on dubious reasoning. At one point, for example, he cites a doctrine limiting the federal government’s power to use threats of lost funding against state governments in order to impose similar limits on federal efforts to encourage good behavior by private actors.

But let’s be honest. If the Trump administration wasn’t preparing to end the Obama-era rule, conservatives on the Supreme Court most likely would have done so themselves.

Prior to Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority took such a sweeping and expansive view of companies’ power to use forced arbitration that it is likely the Obama administration’s rules would have been struck down in a 5–4 decision. Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies Scalia’s seat, Republicans once again have the majority they need to shield arbitration agreements.

In the alternative universe where the winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election was inaugurated last January, Justice Merrick Garland was likely to provide the fifth vote to uphold the Obama-era rule. But we do not live in that universe. And neither do the many elderly nursing home residents who will be worse off thanks to the Trump administration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received his JD from Duke University and clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His writings have appeared in a diversity of publications, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, the American Prospect and the Yale Law & Policy Review.

Corporate Rewards: Controlling U.S. Trade Policy

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Leo GerardReal men, real human beings, with feelings and families, fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the Union, to ensure, as their president, Abraham Lincoln, would say later, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perversely, afterwards, non-humans commandeered the constitutional amendment intended to protect the rights of former slaves. Corporations wrested from the U.S. Supreme Court a decision based on the 14th Amendment asserting that corporations are people with rights to be upheld by the government – but with no counterbalancing human responsibilities to the republic. No duty to fight or die in war, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded those rights – ruling that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to surreptitiously spend unlimited money on political campaigns.

Today, Lincoln would have to say America’s got a government of the people by the corporations, for the corporations.

The proposed trade agreement with South Korea illustrates corporate control of government for profit. It’s the same with efforts to revive the moribund trade schemes former President George W. Bush also negotiated with Panama and Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country by far for trade unionists, with 2,700 assassinated with impunity in the past two decades, 38 slain so far this year.

Nobody likes these trade deals – except corporations. They’re all modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), both of which killed American jobs while giving corporations new authority to sue governments (read: taxpayers) for regulations – like environmental standards – that corporations contend interfere with their right to make money.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the South Korea so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would cost America 159,000 jobs and enlarge its trade deficit by $16.7 billion in its first seven years.

Americans, now suffering though corporate-caused 9.6 percent unemployment, know a deal when they see one – and the South Korea FTA is not one. In a September poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of Americans said so-called free trade agreements have injured the country. Only 17 percent said those trade schemes benefited the United States. Disgust with these deals spans party lines, including Tea Partiers, 61 percent of whom said they’re bad for America.

Many politicians, particularly Democrats, abhor the schemes as well. In July, just after President Obama announced that he would try to get the South Korea pact passed, 110 House Democrats described their disdain for the deal:

“We oppose specific provisions of the agreement in the financial services, investment, and labor chapters, because they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers.”

In addition, during this fall’s midterm election campaign, 205 candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran on platforms condemning job off-shoring and unfair trade, and house Democrats who ran on fair trade were three times as likely to survive the GOP “shellacking” as Democrats who supported so-called free trade schemes.

Significantly, the South Korean public and some South Korean politicians also oppose the trade proposal. In the week leading up to the G-20 meetings in Seoul, trade unionists, farmers, peasants and students filled the streets in marches and candle light vigils to express outrage with the proposed agreement, including its provisions giving U.S. corporations the right to challenge South Korean laws in private tribunals.

In October, 35 South Korean lawmakers joined 20 U.S. Representatives in writing President Obama and Korean President Lee Myunk-bak to protest the proposal.

Despite all that opposition, when Obama and Lee emerged from talks without an agreement, the American press, pundits and “analysts on both sides of the aisle,” described the situation as a major diplomacy failure, “a serious setback for the president.”

They were wrong. It wasn’t a setback for Obama. It was the president refusing to sign a bad deal for American workers.

It was, however, a humiliation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which just spent at least $50 million from secret corporate donors to elect Republicans who will do its bidding. The South Korea deal is a priority for the Chamber. Here’s what Chamber senior vice president for international affairs Myron Brilliant told the New York Times after the South Korean negotiations broke down and Obama pledged to attempt to complete the deal over the following six weeks:

“This will be an early test for this president with the new Congress, particularly the House leadership.”

The “Brilliant” test is whether the president of the United States will comply with Chamber demands to complete trade deals that kill jobs and that Americans despise.

When Obama went to Seoul, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was there to, as he put it, help win the trade deal. He also was among 120 executives given exclusive access to international leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev in a conference before the G-20 meeting.

The international organizers didn’t invite to the trade talks or the conference the students, farmers, environmental groups, organized labor and untold millions of individuals who oppose the so-called free trade deals. The human beings who will be hurt most by the trade deals didn’t get a seat at the table. The corporate-people who stand to gain everything did.

Brilliant’s comments express the corporate sense of entitlement. They spent tens of millions to get what they wanted from politicians to increase profits. Now they expect it to be delivered. It’s their recompense, their corporate reward.

If fatter profits mean fewer American jobs and wider trade deficits, that’s simply not a problem for corporations. That’s among the perks corporations got when the Supreme Court awarded them the privileges of personhood in America but none of the pesky personal and patriotic responsibilities of actual people in American society.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

Assert Yourself, America; Don't be an Illegal Trade Victim

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.

More Salvos in the False “Class War” on Public Pensions

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

amytraub4Repeat something often enough and it becomes, if not true, at least a solid bit of conventional wisdom. Consider Ron Lieber’s column in Saturday’s New York Times, which neatly recycles an editorial the Wall Street Journal ran back in March. The issue: the pensions that guarantee public employees a middle-class standard of living in retirement have become more difficult for cities and states to afford. This, according to Lieber and the chorus of conservatives singing the same tune, means a “class war” pitting sanitation workers who deferred compensation so that they could retire with dignity against “have-not” taxpayers who would like some retirement security of their own. Lieber even knows the outcome: public workers should to get ready for many more states and municipalities to engage in “rare acts of courage” and break their promises to pensioners.

Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic asks the obvious question “to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?”

It’s a point I’ve been making as well:

One out of three working Americans has no retirement savings to rely on beyond Social Security, many others have saved very little, especially now that the value of their homes has been destroyed. When it’s public pensions that are falling short, it’s very visible. When it’s the private savings of millions of individual households, it’s easy to overlook. But when we start to hear that it has become “too expensive” to provide teachers and police officers with a decent retirement, we know no one else has a chance at retirement security either.

Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, quoted in Lieber’s article, takes the point to its logical conclusion, arguing that “the New Deal is demographically obsolete.” Translation: we’d all better get used to the new normal of low pay, few benefits, and no retirement, sooner rather than later. After all, demographics are inexorable. Resistance is futile.

As Paul Krugman points out in today’s Times, the same air of inevitability hangs over the provision of critical state and city services. Cities and states are broke, the argument goes, there’s nothing we can do. We can neither keep streetlights on nor let teachers retire. Except that in both cases the argument is false:

We’re told that we have no choice, that basic government functions — essential services that have been provided for generations — are no longer affordable. And it’s true that state and local governments, hit hard by the recession, are cash-strapped. But they wouldn’t be quite as cash-strapped if their politicians were willing to consider at least some tax increases.

Krugman’s point about how we got here is equally true of the debate around public employees and their pensions:

It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

Unfortunately, Lieber’s column effectively adds to that rhetoric.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

The ‘Blame the Teacher’ Movement, and the Public-Sector Union Crisis

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Richard GreenwaldWill government workers join the race to the bottom?

I was stopped dead in my tracks and felt a cold chill run down my spine while reading the current issue of The Atlantic. Its cover story is “The 14 3/4 Most Powerful Ideas of the Year,” which is a Top 10 list that makes fun of Top 10 lists (hence the 3/4).

Idea number 13 is the one that got me. It was written by The New York Times’ David Brooks and titled “Teachers are Fair Game.” As Brooks sees it, it is now open season for intellectually assaulting teachers. To be honest, Brooks aims mostly for the teachers unions. The result is yet one more mainstream media outlet joining the echo chamber claiming that teachers and their organizations are at fault for the poor state of education in America.

What I call the “blame the teacher” movement is smart politics for those on the right. It shifts public debate away from funding and economic equity issues to teachers on the frontline. In some ways it is like a Fordist speedup without the $5 day. Newly proposed policy would tie teacher salaries, merit pay, and even tenure to student test scores. The pressure is up, but, with diminished funding, resources are down.

Now, improving education is something everyone favors. It’s like democracy. But how one gets there is the million-dollar question. Can you improve education by putting increased pressure on teachers to raise classroom test scores in a time of declining public funding for education? We are about to see.

In my last Working ITT blog post, I bemoaned how we seem to hate “career” teachers as a culture. We love the young, idealistic missionary teachers. And we should: These recent college graduates are energized, smart and dedicated. But they have a short shelve-life, lasting a short time in the classroom before they are off to other careers. One could argue that even this is good, as the experience of a 2-3 years in a classroom changes them for the better.

Frankly, most teachers, it must be said, last only a short time in the classroom. The challenges are so great, the emotional costs as well as the salaries force many to rethink their career choices. Those that stay in education (I mean in the classroom) do not typically do so because they’re losers, or can’t find better jobs. They stay with it because they care and believe they can make a difference despite the hardships. It is precisely these teachers who have the nation’s eyes focused on them. I can almost hear the collective buzz in their ears from all this talk about them.

This public attention on teachers is part of a bigger public shift. There seems to be a major reset (to use a phrase from geographer Richard Florida) in the way we see public servants. It used to be that those that worked in public service were seen as civic. They worked hard, were valued and seemed to deserve their salaries and benefits. Up until the 1970s, public-sector salaries lagged far behind private-sector salaries. So state workers were working for less than market value.

But as private salaries for blue-collar and clerical jobs dropped and state salaries remained relatively stable, public-sector jobs looked better. Now, there is an attempt to downsize state payrolls, and get rid public servants. But rather than defending their service, we now see public servants as having it easy. They simply had what most American had, and lost.

What’s stopping many governors from this slash and burn are public-sector unions. So we need to see the current push against teachers as part of a larger push against public-sector unions. Rather than let each union deal with this shift, the labor movement should see the attack for what is, and coordinate a campaign to reverse this cultural shift.

Returning to David Brooks and teachers, we learn

…that a new cadre of reformers have come on the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America. These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit. The reform environment they find themselves in is both softhearted and hardheaded. They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship. This includes union rules.…

Put simply, teachers unions stand between teachers and the public for better or for worse. Brooks points out some of the worse, but what of the better?

I’m a historian, so it’s important that I place this issue within its larger historical frame. Teachers unions have only been around for a little more than 100 years. They developed in large urban systems, such as New York City and Chicago. These systems were totally dysfunctional, patronage machines rife with politics. Professional educators joined together to advance professionalism over politics and patronage and to protect academic freedom.

These organizations were not like the trade unions of the day. They were much more professional societies, part of a period drive toward professionalization that historian Rober Weibe called “The Search for Order.” One hundred years ago teachers could be fired for all sorts of reasons, few related to the quality of teaching. Female teachers could be fired if they married, for instance.

Teachers were respected culturally, but it was not a profession. These early reformers demanded higher and better training for teachers as well as licensing. They cared about their students and fought to find ways to help them. But they also wanted decent wages and better working conditions and as professionals, they demanded some limited shared governance, or control over the educational mission (their classrooms). They did not see these aims as being in conflict. This professional focus has led to a more conservative style of unionism for teachers that the public and the right seems to have forgotten. They never felt fully comfortable as workers and their unions often walked that fine line between professional association and labor union.

Jump forward to the 1980s, when these unions were firmly established. As budgets were slashed and a call for accountability began to be heard, it was the teachers unions who mounted a campaign to retore public support for school funding and who also joined the reform efforts. Now, yes funding for schools helps their members. But, it is not just salaries. Stronger school budgets mean better support, newer books, smaller class sizes etc.

But teachers unions are now in a tough place. They seem to have lost their ability to claim they speak for “education” as they had in the 1980s. And if they can’t speak for public education, who can?

Today unions are at a crossroads. The majority of union members are public-sector workers. And these are precisely the same workers on the chopping block today. Unions need to find a better way to protect these workers than simply hiding behind the contract. The contract will protect workers in the short run, but in winning the battle they will lose the war.

We are losing an important aspect that informed public policy since at least the age of Herbert Hoover: The public should be held to higher standards than the private sector. My grandfather always told me it was a sad day when New Yorkers had to to pay to take public transportation. I remember him telling me if you pay, it ain’t public.

He was smart enough to know that his taxes paid for the fare. But he also understood that while income taxes were progressive, subway fare weren’t. He also knew that eventually the fares would just keep rising. He died some years ago, but I think he was right. What we need is a better sense of the public. If there are fewer good-paying jobs left, we all suffer.

Put simply: If federal, state and local government workers join the race to the bottom, we may well be doomed.

About The Author: Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. He is currently a professor of history at Drew University. His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, and The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county’s leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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