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Behind the Kitchen Door: Serving Food While Sick

This is an excerpt from Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door. Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, appeared on Moyers & Company to talk about food workers’ fight for a living wage and better working conditions. 

I had a really bad cold. My nose was running, I was sneezing, and I had a bad cough and a fever. I could not call in sick because no work meant no money and I couldn’t afford it at that time. My kids were very young, so I went to work to see if I could make it through the day. Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing, and runny nose got worse. I said to the manager, “I am really sick and need to go because I could make others sick and I am dealing with food.” She laughed and told me, “Try not to cough then.” So I had to work that day sick, and who knows how many customers I got sick because I couldn’t go to the back and leave the counter to wash my hands after every sneeze or nose wipe. Later on, all of us got sick, one by one, and all this came from another worker who came to work sick, like me, and was not allowed to leave work.

— Fast-Food Worker, Woman, 10 Years in the Industry, Detroit

It’s common sense: the meal that arrives at your table when you eat out is not just a product of its raw ingredients. It’s a product of the hands that chop, cook, and plate it, and the people to whom those hands belong. Still, how our food is handled in a restaurant, and by whom, is something over which we have almost no control. Most of us have experienced food poisoning at least once, but we don’t usually know what, or who, caused it.

My own experience was unforgettable to me, though a common experience of many. Mamdouh and I were in the process of trying to open ROC’s first worker-owned restaurant. The restaurant was Mamdouh’s idea. After losing his job at Windows on the World, he’d dreamed of opening his own restaurant with a group of his former coworkers. All of them — the survivors — were jobless after 9/11.

We finally did open it, a restaurant called COLORS, which reflected the workers’ extraordinary diversity — but it took many years of struggle and conflict, help from a lot of different friends, and lots and lots of meetings. One of those meetings was with Brian Glick and Carmen Huertas, law professors from Fordham University and the City University of New York who’d agreed to work with us to draft the bylaws and governing documents for the restaurant. Early in the process, Brian invited Mamdouh and me to eat lunch at an Indian restaurant in Midtown near the law school. Brian was treating and it really was a treat. The restaurant was beautiful — gold-plated silver dishware, ornate chairs and tables, fancy folded napkins and delicious food. Customers here expected perfection, and it definitely appeared as though they got it. It was a joy to be talking about the thrilling prospect of opening a worker-owned restaurant over creamed spinach, eggplant curry and chicken tikka masala.

When I got home several hours later, my stomach started to feel strange. It had been an incredibly busy day, and I tried to relax by watching television. By nine that night I was doubled over in pain. I hadn’t yet made the connection between my stomach pain and eating out at the fancy Indian restaurant. All I could think about was my discomfort. What happened after that is familiar to most of us, and not something I need to describe. At some point in the middle of my misery I thought about what I’d eaten in the last 24 hours. The only meal that had been unusual for me was the one I had eaten at the Indian restaurant.

I was up most of the night and barely able to get out of bed the next morning. At the time I was helping Floriberto and his coworkers fight for their stolen wages and end other abuses at the restaurant where they worked, so I had no choice but to attend a major settlement conference with the restaurant’s defense lawyers that afternoon. I hobbled into the fancy law firm clutching my Pepto-Bismol. The opposing counsel joked that the defense counsel had made me “that sick.”

Saru Jayaraman on All Work and No Pay

From Poverty Wages to Poor Sanitation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans suffers from food poisoning each year, and 3,000 of us die from it. This seems only natural, given that most of us eat out at least once a week. We’re bound to get sick at least once or twice with a foodborne illness when many different hands are touching our food. Incidents of food poisoning are of course not unique to Indian restaurants. Most of us do wonder, though, after getting sick, How did this happen? Where did this come from? And what exactly happens behind the restaurant kitchen door is a complete mystery to most of us.

Although we have become obsessed with healthy, local, sustainable, organic, grass-fed, wild, and generally “better” food, we usually have no idea how that food is prepared and under what conditions. We should, however, know this: the health and safety and overall working conditions of restaurant workers in the United States directly affect the health and safety of consumers.

ROC has found in industry-wide surveys that the vast majority of restaurants across the country pressure their employees to work while sick or injured.
ROC has found in industry-wide surveys that the vast majority of restaurants across the country pressure their employees to work while sick or injured — giving us, the diners, an extra helping of germs with our meals and putting us at risk for foodborne illness. If this doesn’t surprise you, consider another pattern: the “low road” restaurants that don’t take great care of their employees, especially with regard to wages, tend to be the same restaurants that don’t take great care of their customers, especially with regard to food safety.

ROC research shows that the employers who steal tips, don’t pay overtime, force employees to work off the clock and don’t provide health benefits are the same employers who pressure their workers to engage in practices that threaten the health and safety of customers. In our experience, this is because employers who cut corners and steal from their workers are also likely to cut corners when it comes to customer health and safety.

Isn’t that common sense? If a restaurant isn’t responsible enough to pay its workers properly, how can we expect it to be responsible enough to make sure that the food doesn’t include an extra helping of germs?

 


Excerpt from Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman, published by Cornell University Press. © 2013. All rights reserved.

The GOP Prefers Lawsuits and Fear Mongering to Health Care

Since they took control of the House in 2011, Republicans have voted to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act fifty times. Conservative governors across the country would rather see millions of their most vulnerable citizens denied health coverage — and hospitals that serve low-income families go under — than expand Medicaid.

And even as the Supreme Court hears an argument that the law’s preventive care provision burdens corporations’ “religious liberty,” another suit working its way through the federal courts seeks to exploit a minor drafting error in the text of the law to deprive millions of other Americans of the subsidies that make their insurance affordable.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, wrote that the American public needs to be better informed about who is “holding up their health care.”

Vanden Heuvel writes:

With one week remaining before the March 31 deadline for health coverage this year, a Republican filing a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act has become a familiar, if tiresome, sight.

But Republicans filing a lawsuit against the law on the grounds of copyright infringement? That’s something new.

Yet that is effectively what happened this month in Louisiana. On March 14, the state’s lieutenant governor sued the progressive group MoveOn.org over a billboard criticizing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid in the state. The billboard uses Louisiana’s tourism slogan — “Pick Your Passion!” — and adds: “But hope you don’t lose your health. Gov. Jindal’s denying Medicaid to 242,000 people.” The lawsuit claims that the MoveOn ad will “result in substantial and irreparable harm, injury, and damages” to the Louisiana tourism office — as if denying health insurance to the neediest will not cause the state “substantial and irreparable harm.”

Legal experts say Jindal’s ploy has no chance of succeeding, thanks to the First Amendment. (This would be the same First Amendment that the governor passionately invoked in defense of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson’s right to spew racist and homophobic vitriol.)

Jindal’s reason for refusing to expand Medicaid is as specious as his reason for suing MoveOn. He claims, falsely, that the expansion would divert funds that now go to disabled individuals under traditional Medicaid. In reality, the health-care law doesn’t harm the existing program. It creates several programs to improve care for the disabled receiving Medicaid; Jindal enrolled Louisiana in three of them. But this hasn’t stopped him from blaming the ACA for his own bad policies, including cuts he made to state Medicaid funding for pregnant women.

Louisiana isn’t the only state where Republicans are preventing thousands of low-income Americans from receiving health care. In Virginia, where state lawmakers refuse to expand Medicaid, hospitals will face higher costs and reduced services as a result. One million Texans will be denied access to coverage if the state continues to reject the Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is willing to leave 300,000 of his neediest citizens uninsured. His reasoning? He’s afraid that the law might be repealed, leaving his state no way to meet its commitments — an ironic stance for a Republican to take, since they’re the ones trying to repeal it!

Read the entire column at The Washington Post.

NY Fight Over Private School Tax Credits

Cardinal Timothy Dolan talks to reporters after meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the Capitol on Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. Dolan and bishops from around the state are advocating for a new tax credit for charitable donations made for educational purposes. The legislation would eventually add up to $300 million a year for education, with half going to public school programs and half going to scholarships for students who attend private schools. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Cardinal Timothy Dolan talks to reporters after meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the Capitol on Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Albany, NY. Dolan and bishops from around the state are advocating for a new tax credit for charitable donations made for educational purposes. The legislation would eventually add up to $300 million a year for education, with half going to public school programs and half going to scholarships for students who attend private schools. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

At the end of this week’s edition of Moyers & Company, a conversation with public education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch, Bill mentions the current debate here in New York State over a proposal that would grant an individual tax credit of up to a million dollars for donations to schools, whether public or private.

Such a credit would include religious schools, and advocating for the tax credit is the Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. “Anything we can do to help education to help our kids, we want to do it as vigorously as possible,” the cardinal told a news conference as reported by The New York Times. But, The Times notes, the legislation is controversial and divisive:

Indeed, though 17 labor unions support the plan, saying it would help children of their members, leaders of those representing teachers see it as a thinly disguised voucher program redirecting state revenue to private schools. On Friday, hours after the State Senate approved plans to include the policy in this year’s budget. Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers, said it was a “fundamental and disgraceful attack” on public school pupils. The lawmakers, he said, “have chosen their benefactors, hedge funders and financiers over the 97 percent of New York’s children who attend underfunded public schools.”

In New York, the lobbying and public relations efforts have been paid for, in part, by the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, an advocacy organization founded by Peter M. Flanigan, an investment banker and former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, and the hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner, said Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for the initiative’s supporters.

Read the complete story at The New York Times.

Update: The Buffalo (NY) News reports that prior to the announcement of the official New York State budget, the individual tax credit plan for education “died in last-minute budget talks.”

Tax Dollars Are Increasingly Paying to Teach Kids Creationism

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Students from City School in Grand Blanc test the strength of their small, handmade boats at the Sloan Museum in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/The Flint Journal, Samuel Wilson)

“School choice” is an appealing label, but in today’s Politico, Stephanie Simon reports that deep-pocketed advocacy groups — both religious and secular, including the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity — are pushing to direct more tax dollars to private schools that aren’t subject to the same science curriculum standards as their public counterparts.

Simon writes:

Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies.

Now a major push to expand these voucher programs is under way from Alaska to New York, a development that seems certain to sharply increase the investment.  

Public debate about science education tends to center on bills like one in Missouri, which would allow public school parents to pull their kids from science class whenever the topic of evolution comes up. But the more striking shift in public policy has flown largely under the radar, as a well-funded political campaign has pushed to open the spigot for tax dollars to flow to private schools. Among them are Bible-based schools that train students to reject and rebut the cornerstones of modern science.

Decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design. But private schools receiving public subsidies can — and do. A POLITICO review of hundreds of pages of course outlines, textbooks and school websites found that many of these faith-based schools go beyond teaching the biblical story of the six days of creation as literal fact. Their course materials nurture disdain of the secular world, distrust of momentous discoveries and hostility toward mainstream scientists. They often distort basic facts about the scientific method — teaching, for instance, that theories such as evolution are by definition highly speculative because they haven’t been elevated to the status of “scientific law.”

And this approach isn’t confined to high school biology class; it is typically threaded through all grades and all subjects.

One set of books popular in Christian schools calls evolution “a wicked and vain philosophy.” Another derides “modern math theorists” who fail to view mathematics as absolute laws ordained by God. The publisher notes that its textbooks shun “modern” breakthroughs — even those, like set theory, developed back in the 19th century. Math teachers often set aside time each week — even in geometry and algebra — to explore numbers in the Bible. Students learn vocabulary with sentences like, “Many scientists today are Creationists.”

Some 26 states are now considering enacting new voucher programs or expanding existing ones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. One concept that is gaining popularity, on the table in eight states: setting up individual bank accounts stocked with state funds that parents can spend not just on tuition but also on tutors or textbooks, both secular and religious. On Friday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the approach constitutional; lawmakers there are already working to broaden eligibility.

Voucher advocates talk of soon reaching a tipping point, at least in a few key states, when so many students will receive private education on the public dime that everyone demands the option.

Read about the groups that have “spent heavily to campaign for sympathetic lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans — often targeting primary races to knock out anti-voucher candidates early,” at Politico.

Paul Ryan and the Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males

Rachel Noerdlinger and her son Khari, 14, sit at the edge of the Hudson River near their home in Edgewater, NJ, on Tuesday, June 28, 2011.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Rachel Noerdlinger and her son Khari, 14, sit at the edge of the Hudson River near their home in Edgewater, N.J., on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) comments about poverty arising from the culture of “inner city” men stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy. 

Recent Moyers & Company guest Ian Haney López argued that whatever Ryan’s true intent may have been, the historical context of dog whistle politics is impossible to ignore. Slate’s Dave Weigel came to Ryan’s defense, saying that his only crime was “talking about inner cities while… being a Republican.” And Salon’s Joan Walsh noted some context missing from Weigel’s piece: Ryan cited the work of Charles Murray, author of the controversial — and many say racist — book, The Bell Curve, which posited that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the more nuanced social critics writing today, took on the issue at The Atlantic. 

Coates writes:

On Sunday, I took my son to see two movies at a French film festival that was in town. The local train was out. We walked over to Amsterdam to flag down a cab. The cab rolled right past us and picked up two young-ish white women. It’s sort of amazing how often that happens. It’s sort of amazing how often you think you are going to be permitted to act as Americans do and instead receive the reminder—”Oh that’s right, we are just some niggers. I almost forgot.”

Getting angry at the individual cabbie is like getting angry at the wind or raging against the rain. In America, the notion that black people are lacking in virtue is ambient. We see this in our vocabulary of politics and racism, which has no room for the decline in the out-of-wedlock birthrate and invokes Chicago with no regard for Chicago at all, but to deflect all eyes from the body of Trayvon Martin.

But I was angry, and very much wanted to approach the cabbie, idling there at a red light, in ill disposition. I was also with my son. And more, I am a 6-foot-4 black dude who tries to avoid the police. I think, 15 years ago, with nothing to lose, I would have made a different decision, if only because the culture of my young years made a virtue of meeting disrespect with aggression. This culture was not wrong—the price of ignoring disrespect, in the old town, was more disrespect. The culture was a collection of the best practices for making our socially engineered inner cities habitable. I now live in a different environment. I now have different practices.

Last week, Paul Ryan went on the radio to address the lack of virtue prevalent among men who grew up like me, my father, my brothers, my best friends, and a large number of my people:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I’m not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are “not holding up their end of the deal” as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship

Read the entire essay at The Atlantic.

Dems Target Koch Brothers to Highlight America’s Growing Plutocracy

Two weeks ago, the normally mild-mannered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) caused a stir when he used some harsh words to describe the Koch brothers and the big-dollar ad campaign their organization, Americans for Prosperity, is mounting against politicians who voted for Obamacare. ”It’s too bad that they’re trying to buy America,” he said on the Senate floor. “And it’s time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers who are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine.”

The statement wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark, and Reid isn’t alone in calling out the Kochs. Today, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post’s Plum Line explained that there’s more than meets the eye in the Democrats’ rhetoric.

Sargent writes:

The Dem strategy of tying Republican Senate candidates to the Koch brothers continues to be portrayed simplistically, as little more than an effort to tar Republicans with the image of distant and menacing plutocrats.

But to understand what this strategy is really about, watch this new Senate Majority PAC ad that’s airing in Louisiana, tying GOP Senate candidate Bill Cassidy to the Kochs in response to Americans for Prosperity attacks on Senator Mary Landrieu:

A Dem source tells me the spot is backed by a $200,000 buy.

Script:

Out of state billionaires spending millions to rig the system and elect Bill Cassidy. Their goal: Another politician bought and paid for. Their agenda: Protect tax cuts for companies that ship our jobs overseas. Cut Social Security and end Medicare as we know it. They even tried to kill relief for hurricane victims. Cassidy’s billion dollar backers: They’ve got a plan for him. It’s not good for Louisiana.

As I noted the other day, this is all about creating a framework within which voters can be made to understand the actual policy agenda Republicans are campaigning on. This is what the Bain attacks on Mitt Romney were all about: Dem focus groups showed voters simply didn’t believe Romney would cut entitlements (per the Paul Ryan plan) while cutting taxes on the rich. The Bain narrative made Romney’s actual priorities more comprehensible.

The Koch attacks are designed to do something similar. They aren’t really about the Kochs. They are a proxy for the one percent, a means through which to tap into a general sense that the economy remains rigged in favor of the very wealthy. Placed into this frame, GOP policies – opposition to raising the minimum wage; the Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint, which would redistribute wealth upwards; opposition to the Medicaid expansion, which AFP is fighting in multiple states –  become more comprehensible as part of a broader storyline. In that narrative, Republican candidates are trying to maintain or even exacerbate an economic status quo that’s stacked against ordinary Americans, while Dems are offering solutions to boost economic mobility and reduce inequality, which are increasingly pressing public concerns.

In many ways this strategy is born of necessity. The 2014 fundamentals are stacked heavily against Democrats, who are defending seven Senate seats in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 that are older, whiter, and redder than the diversifying national electorate. This is made even worse by the midterm electorate, in which core Dem groups are less likely to turn out.

GOP attacks on the health law in red states are not just about Obamacare. They are, more broadly, about casting Senate Dems as willing enablers of the hated president and blaming the sputtering recovery on #Obummer Big Gummint, to channel people’s economic anxieties into a vote to oust Dem incumbents. With the law and its author deeply unpopular in these states, Dems can’t really run on any Obama accomplishments. So they need to make these campaigns about the fact that Republican candidates don’t have an actual agenda to boost people’s economic prospects, and indeed are beholden to a broader agenda that has made the problem worse, even as Dems offer a concrete economic mobility agenda of their own. The goal is to boost turnout among Dem constituencies while minimizing losses among the older, blue collar, and rural whites that predominate in these states.

Note to Paul Ryan: There’s No Dignity in Low-Wage Work

Demonstrators protesting for $15/hour wages and proper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Demonstrators protesting what they say are low wages and improper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

The fast-food workers’ “Fight for 15″ campaign — a series of one-day strikes — was never only about low wages. It was also about dignity at the workplace — not being forced to work in harsh conditions, or being given unpredictable and constantly changing schedules or facing disciplinary actions for minor mistakes or retaliation for organizing.

At The Huffington Post, Emily Swanson and Arthur Delaney compare the realities people at the lower end of the labor market face with Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) rhetoric about the joys of making $7.25 per hour as a fry chef or a
dishwasher. 

They write:

Paul Ryan says the government safety net may protect Americans from the vicissitudes of life, but that handouts leave people unfulfilled in a more profound way.

“The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul,” the Wisconsin Republican said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. “People don’t just want a life of comfort. They want a life of dignity — of self-determination.”

But most Americans don’t think handouts steal dignity from the poor, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll. And few think there’s anything dignified about working for bad pay.

Ryan cited free school lunches as an example of something less-than-dignified, but by a 63 percent to 19 percent margin, most Americans said that giving free food to poor people does not undermine their dignity.

And although Ryan’s speech highlighted his belief in “the dignity of work,” the poll suggests not all work automatically pays in dignity. Only 30 percent of Americans said they think people working in low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough for basic expenses gain dignity from those jobs simply by virtue of working. Fifty-eight percent said they think a job needs to at least cover basic living expenses to give a person dignity.

Read the rest at The Huffington Post.

 

A Deeper Look at the Phony “Texas Miracle”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth. June 2012. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth. June 2012. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Texas’ fast-growing job market has become a popular talking-point for conservatives. They claim that the “Texas Miracle” is proof that a low-wage economy built on union-busting and limited public interest regulations works. This, they say, is America’s future.

But at The Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman takes a much closer look at Texas’ economy, and he finds that it’s nothing to which the rest of the country can or should aspire.

A few excerpts:

The first and most obvious question to ask about the Texas boom in jobs is how much it simply reflects the boom in Texas oil and gas production. Texas boosters say the answer is very little, and play up how much the Texas economy has diversified since the 1970s. And indeed, Texas has more high-tech, knowledge-economy jobs than it did forty years ago. But so does the rest of America, and the stubborn truth is that, despite there being more computer programmers and medical specialists in Texas than a generation ago, oil and gas account for a rapidly rising, not declining, share of the Texas economy…
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Florida Offers a Case Study of How ‘Unintended Consequences’ Can Lead to Poverty

Image: Highway Patrol Images

The US incarcerates a greater share of its citizens than any other country on planet Earth. For millions of Americans, that sprawling criminal justice system is an engine of poverty and inequality. In some ways, that’s obvious — even a minor criminal record makes it harder to land a job and decreases one’s lifetime earning potential. But in other cases, the mechanisms by which people get sucked into poverty are less intuitive.

At The Atlantic Cities, Mike Riggs looks at one of the latter: the widespread suspension of driver’s licenses for various offenses unrelated to driving.

Riggs writes: MORE

Are We Facing a Future of Invisible Workers?

This undated photo provided by Facebook shows the server room at the company's data center in Prineville, Ore. (AP Photo/Facebook, Alan Brandt)
This undated photo provided by Facebook shows the server room at the company's data center in Prineville, Ore. (AP Photo/Facebook, Alan Brandt)

At The New Yorker, George Packer considers one significant way in which this Gilded Age differs from the last one.

Packer writes:

A hundred years ago, the popular image of the worker was a sweaty toiler, his face smudged with coal dust or scorched by the blast furnace, oppressed by the industrial machine but not its total victim. He was coiled with potential energy that was frightening to some and inspiring to others — he had the country’s future in his muscular hands. By the time Studs Terkel published his oral history “Working,” forty years ago next month, that image had blurred. The Chicago steelworker at the start of the book was a working stiff, bored and trapped by his job but still able to take its existence for granted. And he now had company — among others, a hospital aide, a supermarket cashier, a pair of hair stylists. These were the last days of secure blue-collar work, and the beginning of wage stagnation in the service economy.
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VW Workers May Block Future Expansion in the South

Workers check VW Golf cars at the assembly line of the Volkswagen plant in Zwickau, eastern Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz)

Workers check VW Golf cars at the assembly line of the Volkswagen plant in Zwickau, eastern Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz)

American workers tend to take undemocratic workplaces for granted, believing that’s just the way the capitalist world works. But to varying degrees, working people in other developed countries enjoy far more say over how their companies operate.

In Germany, the law requires that workers be represented on companies’ supervisory boards. Known as Mitbestimmung, or co-determination, the practice gives workers significant voice in determining a company’s future.

Last week, workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant voted against joining the United Auto Workers, and hostility toward organized labor among Tennessee politicians played a key role in the UAW’s defeat.

Today, Andreas Cremer reports for Reuters that VW’s German worker representatives are considering how to respond.

Cremer writes:

Volkswagen’s top labor representative threatened on Wednesday to try to block further investments by the German carmaker in the southern United States if its workers there are not unionized…

Chattanooga is VW’s only factory in the U.S. and one of the company’s few in the world without a works council.

“I can imagine fairly well that another VW factory in the United States, provided that one more should still be set up there, does not necessarily have to be assigned to the south again,” said Bernd Osterloh, head of VW’s works council.

“If co-determination isn’t guaranteed in the first place, we as workers will hardly be able to vote in favor” of potentially building another plant in the U.S. south, Osterloh, who is also on VW’s supervisory board, said.

The 20-member panel – evenly split between labor and management – has to approve any decision on closing plants or building new ones.

Osterloh’s comments were published on Wednesday in German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. A spokesman at the Wolfsburg-based works council confirmed the remarks.

“The conservatives stirred up massive, anti-union sentiments,” Osterloh said. “It’s possible that the conclusion will be drawn that this interference amounted to unfair labor praxis.”

Read the rest at Reuters.

Former FCC Commissioner Warns of Internet Crisis

Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner, frequent Bill Moyers guest and now a special consultant to the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, has written an open letter to the news media over at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Copps, who was the only commissioner to vote against Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal in 2011, notes “the stunning announcement” of the proposed Comcast takeover of Time Warner for more than $45 billion. “That would make this one of the biggest mergers in media history,” he writes, “and I fear it will run roughshod over consumers in the end.”

More broadly, Copps writes of his initial excitement at joining the Federal Communications Commission in 2001 and his subsequent disillusionment.

It was a heady time when even normally sensible people believed that technology would bring the revolutionary wonders of the open Internet to all of us. New media would complement the traditional media of newspapers, radio, TV, and cable, ushering in a golden age of communications. I was on fire to make good things happen.

The FCC that I joined had a different agenda. It had fallen as madly in love with industry consolidation, as had the swashbuckling captains of big media. The agency seldom met an industry transaction it didn’t approve. The Commission’s blessing not only conferred legitimacy on a particular transaction; it encouraged the next deal, and the hundreds after that. So Clear Channel grew from a 1970s startup to a 1,200-station behemoth. Sinclair, Tribune and News Corp. went on buying sprees, too, and the major networks extended their influence by buying some stations and affiliating with others. Gone are hundreds of once-independent broadcast outlets. In their stead is a truncated list of nationwide, homogenized, and de-journalized empires that respond more to quarterly reports than to the information needs of citizens.

Copps says that he was expecting “change for the better” after the election of Barack Obama. “After all,” he remembers, “Senator Barack Obama had opposed the pace of media-industry consolidation and had affirmed that public interest considerations should drive FCC decision-making. The senator’s letters to the FCC are an eye-opening matter of public record. To this day, two years after retiring from the FCC, I pull copies from my file drawer and shake my head at what might have been if performance had matched promise.”

To those who see the explosion of cyberspace as a more than acceptable tradeoff for “the shrinkage of traditional media,” Copps warns, “The Internet is at a vulnerable crossroads, and decisions made in the public realm generally, and at the FCC specifically, will have as much to do with its success as will innovation and technology.” Copps sees the challenge as two-fold.

One is much greater deployment of the broadband that enables Internet communications. The other is guaranteeing a truly open Internet (often uninformatively called ‘network neutrality’). Some would have you believe that America is a veritable broadband wonderland, but stubborn facts belie their optimism. In fact, our country has fallen from leader to laggard in broadband. American consumers are paying more and receiving less than broadband customers in other industrial nations, thanks in no small part to industry-friendly FCC deregulations that passed over objections like mine. Broadband is the critical infrastructure that will fuel 21st century jobs, health, education and democracy, just as roads, bridges, railways, highways and rural electricity fueled the earlier growth of our nation. But until we develop a sense of mission to bring high-speed, low-cost broadband to everyone — no matter the particular circumstances of their individual lives — the future will belong to others. This is partly an FCC job, but also that of our top government. Our forebears moved America forward with infrastructure often supported by innovative private-public partnerships. It is time to do this again.

Unless the FCC responds to a recent Federal court ruling overturning the concept of Net neutrality, Michael Copps writes, “Internet service providers are free to fashion the Internet into something like cable television, with the most desirable news and information behind pricey pay-tiers. It is a very real threat to the delivery of news. Under the current rules, a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service. Such frightening scenarios should galvanize anyone who cares about journalistic freedom.”

Read Copp’s entire article at the Columbia Journalism Review »

Watch Michael Copps’ 2010 interview with Bill Moyers on Net neutrality »

On the Money: What a Tangled Web We Weave

Campaign websites in 2014 aren’t always what they seem -> Deceptive political ads are not new to hardball campaigns, but Time Magazine’s Denver Nicks reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee is mastering fakery on a new frontier — the Internet. The RCC bought hundreds of Web addresses in the names of Democrats running for office and, at last count, had designed 16 fake campaign websites. If people don’t read the fine print they might, unknowingly, donate to the NRCC while they think they are supporting a Democrat. For many it’s debatable whether the tactic has crossed a legal line, but not for Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center who tells Nicks that the mock websites he’s perused “seem to clearly violate Federal Election Commission regulations.” A New Jersey political group, the Atlantic Country Democratic Committee, is fed up with these mock sites, reports Buzzfeed’s Kate Nocera, and has filed the first complaint with the FEC. The group is asking for a federal investigation into the practice of using a candidate’s name to profit “in bad faith, through false, fraudulent and deceptive tactics.”

Fight over minimum wage illustrates web of industry ties -> Eric Lipton of The New York Times investigated the funding of the Employment Policies Institute, a widely quoted and seemingly independent nonprofit research center in Washington, DC. He learned that the institute may be cooking up biased research to benefit the restaurant industry. The institute is run by Richard Berman who also runs a for-profit public relations firm and has, reports Lipton, “made millions of dollars in Washington by taking up the causes of corporate America.” One of those causes is the restaurant industry’s desire to defeat the minimum wage. So it’s no surprise that the academic reports produced by the institute consistently find that increasing the minimum wage could harm the economy. What is surprising is that the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own. They all work for the profit-driven, advertising side of Berman’s enterprise. Berman then “bills” the nonprofit for the services his employees provide. It seems to be a win-win situation – for Richard Berman and the industry he represents. MORE

How Corporate Interests Are Shaping the Minimum Wage Debate

A Scottish poet said over a century ago that, “Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts — for support rather than illumination.”

Supporters of fast food workers protest outside of Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum as they rally to show support for the employees's of the McDonald's restaurant located inside on December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. The protest is part of a 100-city nationwide fast food strike seeking a $15 livable wage for fast food workers. (Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Sipa USA)

That’s what is happening in Washington these days on both sides of the political divide, and little is revealed about who’s behind those “supporting” statistics. As investigative journalist Eric Lipton writes in today’s New York Times, conservatives and liberals are working to get legislatures and the public to take their side in “hot-button issues” with reports issued by shadowy think tanks that “mask the intentions of their deep-pocketed patrons.”

For example, the debate over the minimum wage is being guided, in part, by research coming out of the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a nonprofit group run by a right-wing public relations firm that represents corporate interests, including the restaurant industry.

Reports coming out of EPI, often quoted in articles, usually do not reveal the group’s web of industry ties and the motivated groups or individuals funding its research warning that raising the minimum wage would likely increase unemployment and poverty.

Here’s what Lipton writes about the EPI and Berman:

The Employment Policies Institute, founded two decades ago, is led by the advertising and public relations executive Richard B. Berman, who has made millions of dollars in Washington by taking up the causes of corporate America. He has repeatedly created official-sounding nonprofit groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that have challenged limits like the ban on indoor smoking and the push to restrict calorie counts in fast foods.

In recent months, Mr. Berman’s firm has taken out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and plastered a Metro station near the Capitol with advertisements, including one featuring a giant photograph of Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is a proponent of the minimum wage increase, that read, “Teens Who Can’t Find a Job Should Blame Her.”

These messages, also promoted on websites operated by Mr. Berman’s firm, including minimumwage.com, instruct anyone skeptical about the arguments to consult the reports prepared by the Employment Policies Institute, most often described only as a “nonprofit research organization.”

But the dividing line between the institute and Mr. Berman’s firm was difficult to discern during two visits last week to the eighth-floor office at 1090 Vermont Avenue, a building near the White House that is the headquarters for both.

The sign at the entrance is for Berman and Company, as the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own. Mr. Berman’s for-profit advertising firm, instead, “bills” the nonprofit institute for the services his employees provide to the institute. This arrangement effectively means that the nonprofit is a moneymaking venture for Mr. Berman, whose advertising firm was paid $1.1 million by the institute in 2012, according to its tax returns, or 44 percent of its total budget, with most of the rest of the money used to buy advertisements.

Writing for Slate, David Weigel, says the story is not only about lobbying but about “lazy journalism.”

Why would journalists grab quotes from EPI? Because they need to get “anti” quotes in their stories, and because the EPI is there. The group’s spin is incredibly easy to see through. The Metro ads are too cute by half … The genius of EPI, like other Berman groups, is that it produces research for ideologues and donors who know what they believe already but need to balance coverage in the press.

That’s a lot of leaning on posts at a time when illumination is in short supply. Read Lipton’s entire article at The New York Times »

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