In the quiet town of Jefferson, Wisconsin, NOW profiled a contentious and emotional labor strike, which pitted a small town against the world’s largest meat and poultry producer, and what it foretold for the future of American labor and the survival of the middle class.
Then, Bill Moyers talked to Joseph C. Hough, president of the Union Theological Seminary, where he taught and researched social ethics, theological education, the Church and ministry. Hough discussed where politics and religion intersect and why he thinks religious groups should join together to fight growing economic inequality in America. Hough has sharp words for politicians who tout their religions, but don’t apply its teachings to actions that could help those in need.
Finally, David Brancaccio interviewed former NPR Middle East correspondent Sarah Chayes, who took a break from radio to become the Kandahar director for the Afghans for Civil Society NGO. Chayes updated viewers on the situation in Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan women. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. We return tonight to one of the most important beats on this program: what’s happening to the American workplace.
It’s astonishing, but there are tens of millions of fully employed people working even longer hours than ever, who, when inflation is taken into account, earn less money than they received 30 years ago.
Take a look at these figures: in 1973, workers in the private sector were paid an average $9.08 an hour. Today in real wages, they are paid $8.33 per hour. The liberal Economic Policy Institute says one in four workers makes under $19,000 a year. So many people who get up and go to work every day still cannot meet a family’s basic needs.
Across the country big corporations are trying to push wages even lower, but in Jefferson, Wisconsin, some workers and their neighbors are fighting back. Here’s our report from correspondent Sylvia Chase and producer Peter Meryash.
CHASE: American workers — who believe they are fighting for their way of life.
For generations, their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers have earned their living on the other side of that fence at a plant that hasn’t known a strike in all its 124 years of operation…until now.
RICE: You folks have done something other people in this country have failed to do, and that’s stand up and fight for the rights of working men and women. I’m so proud of you.
CHASE: It’s a fight to hang onto the kinds of jobs that have sustained middle class communities across America, with good health benefits, pension plans and even profit-sharing.
RICE: There truly is a war going on. That war is not in Iraq. That war is right here in Jefferson, Wisconsin. That war is right here in America. That war is a war on working people.
CHASE: These working people make a product most everybody knows…the pepperoni found on some of America’s most popular pizzas. And that sausage is at the center of their struggle against another familiar name: Tyson Foods, a FORTUNE 500 company that bought the Jefferson plant in 2001.
SHULMAN: Here in Jefferson, the question is whether we’re gonna let Tyson take jobs that take care of families, and make them jobs that are really poverty jobs.
CHASE: Beth Shulman. Her book, THE BETRAYAL OF WORK, makes the case that middle-income American workers are losing ground.
SHULMAN: That issue is the issue I think facing America in the 21st century. Whether or not we’re gonna have an economy in which we have middle incomes, middle class, where we have healthy communities, where we have healthy families.
BUBOLZ: I grew up in Jefferson. I lived here all my life.
CHASE: Striker Kurt Bubolz, father of three.
BUBOLZ: And it was always a good community, you know? Middle-class. Safe. Good schools. A good place to raise your family.
CHASE: But Bubolz wonders, after union wage and benefit concessions, what becomes of the middle class? The hometown? The family?
BUBOLZ: It forces both parents to work. It forces less time with our children. It causes more stress on a marriage. You know, all of these factors, you know, that are tied in with family are also tied in with a living wage. We need a living wage in order to provide the best for my family, you know, both in time and quality of life.
CHASE: A quality of life rooted in the 19th century, when a local sausage maker built a plant that grew into an economic mainstay of the town.
FLEMING: My grandfather worked here and my older brother, my younger brother used to work there and my sister, my wife and I work there right now.
BUBOLZ: I’m the third generation, yeah. So I guess we got a good hundred years, 125 years at that plant, just, just in my family.
CHASE: And that may be why even in an era when unions are sometimes trusted as little as their corporate opponents, the strikers have seen the community rally to their cause.
At the local pizza joint, Ken’s Towne Inn, they’ve replaced Tyson’s pepperoni with a rival brand.
CHASE: Patti and Dave Lorbecki own the local Piggly Wiggly, where all Tyson products have been taken off the shelves.
PATTI LORBECKI: Everybody has either somebody they know personally, a family member, a friend, a neighbor who works for Tyson, so everybody’s affected by it. Everybody.
DAVE LORBECKI: Whether it’s the jeweler, the drugstore, or the True Value Hardware store, it just goes right on down the line. You go down any street, east, west, north, south and they all have signs, you know, supporting the Local 538 Tyson workers, because they’ve supported them in business all these years…
CHASE: The union voted to strike when Tyson stood its ground on a new contract which required wage and benefit concessions from current workers. Not only that, the contract would drastically reduce pay for new workers down from the old starting base of $11.10 to $9 an hour. That’s just $18,720 a year.
SHULMAN: We all know what it really takes to support a family. Most experts think that it takes at least double that. So, $18,000 just can’t support a family. It can’t put food on the table. Can’t pay for transportation to work, can’t pay for affordable childcare, it can’t pay for utilities, it can’t pay for the basic things that every family needs.
CHASE: Enter overtime and both parents working. A stressful solution. But how does just one wage earner manage without overtime on Tyson’s starting base pay, barely above the poverty line for a family of four?
Tyson Senior Vice President Ken Kimbro:
KIMBRO: We’re in business to compete with other manufacturers making those products. In order for us to be in business and stay in business we have to be able to manufacture at a competitive wage.
CHASE: And if that is a poverty level wage?
KIMBRO: It’s the work that we have to offer at the competitive wage that we need to pay in order for the facility to operate. That’s the only answer I can have.
CHASE: Kimbro is head of human resources for Tyson. He says new workers at Jefferson could eventually earn $11 an hour base pay. But the union points out, that top rate for base pay is 10 cents less than starting wages under the old contract.
For Tyson, the lower wages are in line with what the company pays elsewhere.
CHASE: You have said, Mr. Kimbro, that the proposed contract will bring the Jefferson plant into line with other Tyson plants. The quote that I saw was Jefferson was in a luxurious position. What did you mean by luxurious?
KIMBRO: That probably wasn’t my best choice of words. And I think what I said was that it had a luxurious contract. What I was trying to refer to is the contract at Jefferson was very expansive.
CHASE: Under the old contract, Jefferson workers paid next to nothing for their health plan. And after 25 years at the plant, they had six weeks’ paid vacation. Those sorts of benefits were indeed generous compared to the rest of the Tyson system.
Tyson is a company which has enjoyed extraordinary growth. The Arkansas rags-to-riches story goes from family chicken farm to biggest poultry and meat producer in the world, operating in 27 states and 22 countries, employing 120,000 workers. Sales last year: $23 billion. Profits: more than $380 million.
CHASE: Is the plant not paying for itself? You said you were not pleading poverty, or—
CHASE: —saying that the Jefferson plant was inefficient, or costing you too much money.
KIMBRO: Well, what I was trying to refer to there, and maybe didn’t do a good job either, is we weren’t saying that the plant was not profitable. What we’re concerned with is the long-term viability of the plant, if the terms and conditions, and benefits are aligned like they are.
SHULMAN: Tyson is a profitable company.
CHASE: Beth Shulman is also a former official of the striking union, the United Food and Commercial Workers.
SHULMAN: It’s a company that basically hasn’t had a loss in demand. Nothing has changed, other than Tyson believes it can extract this from workers.
CHASE: Tyson has contacted now several times this past week to inform us about comparable starting wages offered by other employers in the Jefferson area, some paying less than Tyson.
Those same kinds of wages can be found nationwide. In fact, one in four workers currently earns poverty-level wages for a family of four.
And the Jefferson story is being played out across America. Downward pressure on wages and benefits is at the core of a gathering supermarket strike wave rolling across the country. In California alone, 70,000 union workers are on picket lines.
The issue: benefit cuts and lower wages. The supermarkets asked for the concessions because they are feeling pressure from non-union Wal-Mart, the retail giant with 32-hundred facilities in the U.S. and the company reports 1.3 million workers worldwide.
The WALL STREET JOURNAL reported this week that Wal-Mart “— has used its low labor costs—to compete heavily against supermarkets, prompting them to cut costs.” Those “low labor costs” are estimated between 8 and 10 dollars an hour on average. In California, the unionized supermarkets pay a higher average wage of about 12 dollars an hour.
Another Wal-Mart strategy to keep costs low, says the WALL STREET JOURNAL: “new hourly workers must wait six months to sign up for [health] benefits, and part-timers—can join the plan only after two years on the job.”
SHULMAN: That’s why this is important. If Tyson’s can do it and Wal-Mart can do it, what we’re gonna see is a ripple effect throughout our society in terms of the wages and benefits.
CHASE: NOW contacted Wal-Mart. The company wouldn’t comment.
Wal-Mart has said it wants to move into Jefferson, Wisconsin too, but local businesses are trying to block them.
CHASE: What would a Wal-Mart do to this market of yours?
DAVE LORBECKI: To be very honest, I think you’d see the town become just a Wal-Mart town. That would be it. I think you’d lose the jeweler, the drug store. You’d probably lose both grocery stores. Definitely would lose the hardware store. That doesn’t leave anything else left. The shoe store would be gone. So, I don’t think there’d be anything left.
PATTI LORBECKI: And I guess until the people stand up like the Tyson workers are doing right now and say, “You know, we’re not gonna put up with it. We’re gonna stand our ground, and we’re gonna fight.” And that’s to say the same thing that Dave and I are doing, in trying to keep Wal-Mart out of Jefferson. We’re trying to stand up to a big giant. And it’s gonna be a difficult fight, but we have to do it.
CHASE: The Jefferson strikers have been fighting now for 8 months and they are paying for their defiance. That’s evident at meetings of the Union Hardship Committee, where they dig into the kitty when strikers have an emergency.
KERNAN: So you guys don’t have no insurance either, huh?
BARE: No, we had it until she got laid off from her other job, but she’s just a sales assistant right now, and there’s no insurance there.
CHASE: They turn to a free food bank, stocked by donations from townfolk, local businesses and other unions— but with only $100 in weekly strike pay, they’re all just scraping by.
FLEMING: I had all this money saved up. And now it’s my savings, and it’s all dwindling down to nothing now.
FLEMING: It’s hard to find a job, when you’ve been in that plant for 20 years. You go apply, and people look at you like, “Well, you’ve been there 20 years. If we train you and that strike ends, you’re just gonna go right back there.”
THRASHER: It’s tearing families apart because some people are putting pressure, one family member’s putting pressure on the other family member to go back to work, you know? Maybe be a scab or whatever.
CHASE: If the striking workers were to accept the contract and go back into the plant today, Tyson says their average wage would be about $14 an hour. So why do the strikers care if new workers have to start at $9 an hour?
BUBOLZ: The worker who comes into Jefferson to work, comes to Jefferson to live. And if he isn’t able to live, or even provide basic needs to himself, then he becomes a burden of the state, almost. With three kids and a wife and a husband on $9 an hour, you’re gonna get food stamps. You’re gonna get energy assistance.
CHASE: If you pay a poverty level wage—
CHASE: —which you propose to do in Wisconsin, working families — the working poor, we call them — can and do qualify for public assistance, like Medicaid, food stamps, on such wages. And I’m asking the question on behalf of taxpayers in our audience. Should we be expected to pick up the slack in a place like Jefferson, Wisconsin, because Tyson is paying poverty level wages and the workers can’t get by on what they’re earning?
KIMBRO: Well, my response is that we offer jobs. We offer jobs at what we believe is a competitive wage. We have a lot of competitors that pay much less than what we are currently offering in Jefferson, Wisconsin. We are doing that because we want to stay in business. We want that facility to continue to operate in Jefferson.
CHASE: And it’s not a question of conscience for Tyson or any other company in your view.
KIMBRO: I don’t know that I can speak for any other company. But I’m not ashamed that we offer work. I’m not ashamed of the wages that we pay.
BUBOLZ: A man should be able to stand on his own two feet. You know. Without having to go and ask for help every month. ‘Cause I can’t feed my kids. Because I can’t pay the heat. It’s not acceptable. To go and work 40 hours. And feel productive. But yet not be able to give yourself what you need. That’s insane.
CHASE: If you come to no satisfactory conclusion with Tyson, and the workers begin to go in there at $9 an hour. What becomes of Jefferson?
FLEMING: Ghost town. I believe it’s gonna be one big ghost town.
CHASE: How so?
FLEMING: I think people are gonna move out. You know, that live in this community. That work at that plant. I think they can’t afford the high taxes in this state. And where could you work for $9 an hour and pay your bills? By the time you pay for your insurance, what’s that leave you for a paycheck? Doesn’t leave you much.
CHASE: This isn’t the first time Tyson wages have been an issue. An undercover sting by the U.S. immigration service at the company’s Shelbyville, Tennessee chicken processing plant caught plant managers on tape making a deal to hire 250 illegal aliens. That’s the voice of a plant manager.
MANAGER: We’re gonna hire, we’re gonna hire every one of ’em that you bring us, you know, up to 250. Maybe by the time we get to 250, it may need to be more than that but… but we know that we can use 250.
CHASE: Tyson fired the managers involved for violating company policy. Two of them, Truley Ponder and Spencer Mabe, pled guilty earlier this year to hiring illegal aliens. They claimed qualified local people wouldn’t work for what Tyson was paying, which was $6.89 an hour according to court testimony.
In his guilty plea, Mabe claimed “—Tyson refused to raise wages to attract new and retain old employees—” so he “— continue[d] to use aliens — knowing that many of these aliens were probably illegally in the United States.”
He testified against Tyson when the U.S. government charged the company with conspiracy to violate immigration laws.
The indictment stated Tyson cultivated “a corporate culture in which the hiring of illegal alien workers was condoned—to cut its costs.”
A jury acquitted the company and three executives. The foreperson said the government lacked evidence.
KIMBRO: We spend countless amounts of money, time, and energy communicating to people that we want to only hire people who are authorized to work. It’s in our best interest as an organization to do that. We would not gain anything by knowingly hiring someone that was not authorized to work in the United States.
CHASE: So that no one here at the headquarters had any idea that this was going on in Shelbyville.
KIMBRO: No. Absolutely not.
CHASE: On a recent Friday back in Jefferson, Mike Fleming and other striking parents watched their sons play in the homecoming game. The Jefferson Eagles trounced the Watertown Whippets. Homecoming king Mike Frier says he and his mom have learned to live with the strike.
MIKE: My mom, like, cleans houses now so, like, that’s what she does every day of the week, so we’re doing alright now.
CHASE: Mike and three of his teammates are strikers’ children. They have their goals set on a college education.
But they’re beginning to understand that what their parents may once have assured them was a middle class rite of passage can no longer be taken for granted.
JOHNNY: They’re not going to have enough money and they’re not going to be spending money on me, like, if they were to help me out with tuition or whatever, they couldn’t do that. I would have to work for it myself.
CHASE: What are you going to do?
JOHNNY: I don’t know. Just hope for scholarships is all I can think about now.
CHASE: Nancy Thrasher’s long desire to help her grandchildren get a college education seems out of reach now. She spent five years of her life slicing and packing pepperoni at the Tyson plant.
THRASHER: Tyson family, what you deserve. This is what Tyson family’s got now. We have no jobs. We have no insurance for our kids. We can’t send our kids to college. We can’t buy no new houses. But we supposed to be Tyson family. What’s wrong with this picture here?
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW—
Life after war. Has anything changed for the women of Afghanistan?
MOYERS: What you just saw in Jefferson, Wisconsin, is part of a bigger story, a story of class war waged by owners, managers, and investors who are running away with the spoils of victory.
Look at this recent issue of FORBES magazine: America’s 400 richest people got richer in the past 12 months, with an aggregate net worth of — brace yourself — $955 billion, up 10% from the previous year.
Now look at this headline: the widest gap between rich and poor since 1929, more than doubling in the last two decades.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington has studied after tax income and found that if you take the 110 million poorest paid Americans, all their income combined is less than the combined income of the richest 2.8 million Americans.
Now some people say the class war is over, that with so much economic power and the means to make those big contributions to a political system that rewards donors over voters, the rich can perpetuate these extraordinary levels of inequality forever.
Joseph Hough doesn’t think so.
Hough is the president of union theological seminary in New York, called there from retirement after a lifetime as dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Tennessee, and the Claremont School of Theology in California.
He recently took a hard look at those economic facts and was outraged.
So outraged he took to the pulpit and called on the three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — to challenge to the powers that be.
You recently did a very radical thing. You called on the children of Abraham — Muslims, Christians and Jews — to engage in an act of refusal.
HOUGH: Well, my perception, Bill, is that there is a definite intentional move on the part of political leadership in this country. In the direction that I think is not at all compatible with the prophetic tradition in Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. And that is the obligation on the part of people who believe in God to care for the least and the poorest. That central teaching, that sacred code, I think, is very well summed up in Proverbs where the writer of Proverbs says, “Those who oppress the needy insult their maker.” “Those who oppress the needy insult their maker.”
And I think that it would be a wonderful thing if we could stand together, these three great Abrahamic traditions, and say, “Look, we do not countenance this sort of thing. It is not only unfair, it is immoral on the basis of our religious traditions, and we believe it’s an insult to God.”
MOYERS: And it is what?
HOUGH: The growing gap between the rich and the poor which has become almost obscene by anybody’s standards, and the stated intentional policy of bankrupting the government so that in the future there’ll be no money for anything the federal government would decide to do.
MOYERS: We’ve all heard this from economists.
MOYERS: And political pundits, and analysts, think tank experts. But we’re hearing this from the president of a seminary?
HOUGH: Yeah. You are. And the reason you are is because I think that it’s not just a political pundit issue. It’s not just a think tank issue. It is a deep and profound theological issue. And it has to do with whether we are faithful to the deepest convictions called for by our faith.
Because the central teaching of Jesus is-announced when he says, from Isaiah 61, “God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, deliverance to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee.” And as you know, the year of Jubilee was the year when land reform was supposed to take place, debts were to be canceled, slaves freed.
Jesus drew from that Jewish tradition, that Covenental tradition, and the obligation to care for the needy. Jesus Christ was a Jew. To his soul, he was a Jew. By the time he was 11 years old, people were absolutely astounded how well he knew the Jewish tradition.
He crafted his message in direct connection to the Jewish tradition, and it was no accident that Luke put Isaiah 61 in Jesus’ mouth at Nazareth. “The spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” If you go through the Gospel to Luke, the entire theme of Luke is this.
It appears also in the Sermon on the Mount. It appears indirectly in the feeding of the five thousand or four thousand, whichever you want. It’s reported four times in the Gospel, more than any other single event in the life of Jesus. In every case, and it also, in a way, it foreshadows the Eucharist. Because the Eucharistic meal was first a meal for the people who were the followers of Jesus. And if you look in Acts 3, you will see that those followers of Jesus saw to it that people who didn’t have enough to eat could come to that table and get enough to eat. That was the radical model they put out there. Nobody likes to talk about that very much. But there it is. Right in the middle of Acts.
And they continued to worship in the temple. This is a continuity with the best in the Jewish tradition, and it is also no accident that there’s some strong similarities in the Koran. And that is why I think all of us in the Abrahamic traditions who share this conviction about care for the least fortunate should simply make some kind of public declaration that enough is enough. We’ve gone far enough.
And it is not at all in the spirit of American democracy to generate inequality, and to contradict equal opportunity in our society. Those are not the norms we’ve lived by.
MOYERS: Again, I come back to the paradox, which is that these policies to which you are protesting, which you say are immoral were enacted by a Congress and an Administration elected to a significant degree with the support of the religious right — Conservative Christians who got active in politics and saw that their candidates were elected, and they’re seeing now the policies that they believe they elected those officials to carry out.
HOUGH: Well. That’s true, Bill, but my Dad, as I told you, is a Baptist preacher. He was until he was 84. And there was a notorious drunk in town who when he got drunk, he really went after preachers. But he said he was born-again Christian. And one day, someone asked my father if he thought Brother Suggs was a born-again Christian. And my father said, “Only God knows that.”
But, you know, the Lord Jesus said, “By their fruits, you shall know them.” And speaking as a humble fruit inspector of the Lord, I’d say that if this person is a born-again Christian, there’s a mixed signal somewhere.” I feel the same way.
If Tom Delay is acting out of his born-again Christian convictions in pushing legislation that disadvantages the poor every time he opens his mouth, I’m not saying he’s not a born-again Christian, but as a the Lord’s humble fruit inspector, it sure looks suspicious to me. And anybody who claims in the name of God they’re gonna run over people of other nations, and just willy-nilly, by your own free will, reshape the world in your own image, and claim that you’re acting on behalf of God, that sounds a lot like Caesar to me.
MOYERS: Can a secular democracy, in a pluralistic society, where there are many faiths, including people of no faith, can that democratic government be expected to represent the religious, prophetic imperatives of people like you?
HOUGH: Well, maybe so, maybe not, Bill. But I’m getting tired of people claiming they’re carrying the banner of my religious tradition when they’re doing everything possible to undercut it. And that’s what’s happening in this country right now. The policies of this country are disadvantaging poor people every day of our lives and every single thing that passes the Congress these days is disadvantaging poor people more.
MOYERS: I don’t think even conservatives dispute that the inequality is growing in this country. You somehow sense that inequality is more profoundly disruptive and dangerous than others.
HOUGH: I think some inequality in terms of economics is necessary. That doesn’t alarm me a great deal. It is the obscene degree to which economic inequality has taken hold in America that I think is highly questionable. There is no justification under Heaven for some corporate executives to make 1,000 times as much as their average worker. Their contribution may be great. But it’s no less than Peter Drucker, my colleague at Claremont for 25 years, said—
MOYERS: Management guru par excellence.
HOUGH: Management guru and certainly nobody’s fuzzy-headed liberal. Peter Drucker says, “This compromises the integrity of a corporate executive. Why?” Because it does not accept, and it does not in any way acknowledge the incredible contributions of people who work at various levels, the various constituencies of a corporation to its well being. It is driven by other factors than acknowledgement of who contributes to the well being of the corporation.
Now Bill, I’m not naive. Nobody believes that everybody can be exactly the same, get the same. But there’s certain bare minimums, what Amartya Sen, my favorite development economist calls. A Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen calls the capability to function in society. And Sen says that no society can claim to be fair if there are substantial numbers of its citizens who are not receiving enough assistance or income to have the capability to function. Now, what does that mean? It means to buy food, to have a place to live, to have their children educated, to get reasonable health care and a job.
And we want to ask the people of our traditions to join us is asking every single political leader we encounter, “What are you gonna do in order to help make this happen?” Let’s make that the litmus test of whether or not we’re gonna vote for a particular leader.
This is not a partisan issue. I mean, my God, who in the world could possibly stand up and say, “I’m a Christian. I don’t think we should really give much attention to the life of the poor.” Some do. But I don’t think it’s a party line thing.
I mean, I’d like for this debate to be carried on in such a way that we could, and here I’m talking about Abrahamic traditions. We could ask ourselves “What changes in the direction of this country are necessary if it really is gonna make a claim to be a democracy?” We’re not asking it to be a theocracy. A democracy. That’s what it’s about. Politically, that’s what it’s about.
MOYERS: It’s about?
HOUGH: It is about whether Democrats and Republicans who are sensitive to this move, where people who are sensitive to this move in our society politically, are able to get the will to say, “Enough is enough.” I mean, let’s stop this business, and let’s look again and ask the question, “What will really make this a country that we can be proud of, and one that that pays attention to all the people, not just a few.”
MOYERS: A recent Nobel Laureate has said that he thinks the time is coming for civil disobedience again. What do you think about that?
HOUGH: I think it may come to that. I think it may come to that, I really do. I don’t know what form it’s to take. It’s got to be civil disobedience that is not destructive. One of the problems I have with some of the demonstrations against for example, the WTO and at Davos.
MOYERS: The World Trade Organization?
HOUGH: The World Trade Organization, and the Davos conferences one of the problems I have with those is that some people seem just bent on destruction and violence. And I think Martin Luther King’s exactly right. If you try to advance your cause with violence, you provoke violence, and the way the world is structured, if you try to promote your cause with violence, you’re gonna lose. The only way to promote your cause is civil disobedience and the willingness to take the consequences for it. And I think we’re just about there.
MOYERS: Joe Hough, thank you very much.
HOUGH: Thank you.
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BRANCACCIO: Our next guest just touched down at Newark International Airport and came straight here after a 50 hour journey from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes was one of the first reporters into Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban. She covered many hot spots for National Public Radio.
But reporting can have a certain drive-by quality. Get in, get the story, and get out. Chayes wondered if there wasn’t something more that she could do for the people that she left behind. It wasn’t long after that that her life took a radical turn. Just as she was getting ready to leave Kandahar last year, an influential Afghan approached her and asked her to stay and help rebuild the country.
Today Sarah Chayes is the field director of Afghans for Civil Society. You can see her here with some of the local children. This non-profit organization works to promote democracy and improve the status of women in Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes, thanks for joining us on NOW.
CHAYES: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BRANCACCIO: Kandahar is in the southern part of Afghanistan. Traditionally a more conservative place. Give me a sense of what conditions are like for people there right now.
Kandahar is— it’s a former desert oasis. It’s no longer even an oasis. It’s a very dusty, very arid kind of windswept sort of place. Very forbidding landscape. The city itself looks almost like a sandcastle that’s partly been washed away by the sea, in way.
Because it was heavily damaged during the Soviet occupation. And the fight to rid Afghanistan of the Soviets. And that damage hasn’t been repaired. At the same time there’s a real vibrancy to the city itself. And you know, there’s lots of activity. There are lots of wild different vehicles in the streets.
The trucks are all decorated, and they have jingly bells around the bottom of the trucks, and there are rickshaws and there are horse carts, and there are donkey carts. And they’re, you know. And there’s quite a lot of artisanal activity. I mean, people make tin funnels and water vessels and all that. So there’s like noise and people rapping on things with hammers.
And so it’s this weird sort of combination of a desolation. And yet in the lives of the people you can see this determination to survive and to continue with life. No matter what is happening around them.
BRANCACCIO: I mean, some humanitarian groups there were saying that that part of the country is getting increasingly dangerous.
CHAYES: I would say on an every day level, there’s not— it’s not a bloody, violent kind of place.
But there are two things happening that are separate. One is that conditions for the ordinary Afghans are not so good because there’s a kind of liberty for gunmen. I mean, the local power structure is based on guys with guns. Guys with guns in uniform.
So basically representatives of the provincial governments meaning people wear uniforms, and often American uniforms, actually they are kind of living off the land. I mean, they are pillaging people’s houses. They are kidnapping people. Sometimes raping them. Holding them for ransom.
They are shaking down taxi and truck drivers. This kind of activity is happening. And that’s what the ordinary people are suffering from.
And frankly it’s making people look back to the Taliban regime with some nostalgia. Not because of an ideological sympathy with the Taliban project. But rather with the memory that there was at least law and order. And I mean, you know you hear taxi drivers saying, “Man, under the Taliban at least I could drive to Kabul and not be held up at gun point.”
BRANCACCIO: Back in the good old days under the Taliban?
CHAYES: To some extent. To some extent. Again not for ideological reasons. But because there was— because people knew that if they did wear their beard down to here, that they were likely not to be bothered. And they were likely not to be stolen from, and things like that.
BRANCACCIO: You need to explain though. When you say provincial government, you’re not talking about a government that reports directly back to the government of—
CHAYES: Hamid Karzai in Kabul?
BRANCACCIO: Of Hamid Karzai in Kabul?
CHAYES: It does technically, but there’s a lot of autonomy in these provinces. Largely because frankly the leaders or the rulers of these provinces were chosen to be the proxy to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar. Sorry— to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan.
Because it’s not just Kandahar that’s under this sort of war-lord rule. It’s also Herat in the west, and it’s, you know, it’s basically each region has its local strong man. And these people obtained a lot of weapons and a lot of money, largely from the United States.
Which was fair enough. In other words, we were not going to go in massively on the ground in Afghanistan the way we did in Iraq. And so we needed people to do it for us. And these were people who had been opposed to the Taliban, so why not go with them?
The problem was that this massive influx of arms and money to these guys gave them a kind of— it rooted them. It anchored them. And what’s happened now is that they report nominally to Kabul. But very little in fact.
That’s one side of the security situation. The other side of the security situation is a visible resurgence of Taliban activity. And this has been happening very— again, I don’t feel in danger in Kandahar. I don’t— it’s not on the surface of it now very grave as far as I’m concerned.
But it’s the pattern that I’m starting to feel to be a bit worrisome. Which is that there was sort of nothing for the first six months after the Taliban defeat. Then you started to see in, for example, across the border in Pakistan you started seeing Taliban showing themselves very openly in the streets with their classic clothing and all that kind of thing.
It was clearly a trial balloon to see what the reaction would be. And there was actually no reaction. And then the next phase was sermons against— in mosques against the U.S. Presidents, against the central government in Afghanistan. Against girls going to school, things like that. There were letters left in mosques and schools in Afghanistan.
BRANCACCIO: What did they call those things?
CHAYES: Night letters.
BRANCACCIO: Night letters.
CHAYES: Night letters—
BRANCACCIO: They left in the darkness of the night, and people find it the next day?
CHAYES: That’s right.
BRANCACCIO: And they’re threatening letters.
CHAYES: That’s right. They’re threatening people. I mean, the threats are rather vague. But they’re threatening people who either send their children to school, or openly work with or support either the Americans or the current government, either provincial or central. And I know of families who have taken their children out of school because of these letters and things like that. It does have an impact on people. Because they’ve been through a lot, and so they’re easily frightened, it turns out. I mean we have this image of the rough and tough, you know, war-like ruthless Afghan.
And in fact you know, people have been through so much. They’ve been so traumatized over the past 25 years that I find them to be quite fearful. Quite fearful. And quite susceptible to intimidation of this kind.
BRANCACCIO: Now Sarah, since you left NPR and you’re doing humanitarian work back there, you’ve helped rebuild houses that were destroyed in bombing. But you’ve also been spending a lot of time trying to get through to women in southern Afghanistan. What is their situation in particular?
CHAYES: On the one hand it’s enormously improved since the fall of the Taliban. In the sense that you know, there is at least a possibility of going out into the market. Of sending daughters to school. Of teaching.
But they have some problems in Kandahar going to school. For example, there’s public transportation for women. Or there’s a seat reserved in public transportation for women.
And often teachers say that they’re not picked up because, you know, the driver doesn’t approve of them being teachers. And so he can tell from their uniform under their burqa that they’re teachers. He can see the color.
BRANCACCIO: The driver makes this—
CHAYES: Makes the decision. Sure. Sure. Because he’s in control of the car. And there’s no accountability you know, or anything like that. I mean for example, in Kandahar, nobody leaves the house without a burqa.
Nobody is out without a total body covering like that. And I would say only about 20 percent of the women in town are actually even allowed to leave their house except for funerals and weddings.
BRANCACCIO: We were talking about teachers just before, the increasing number of teachers who are women. What about the students themselves? I saw UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Education Fund, talking about maybe a million girls now—
BRANCACCIO: —in school now in Afghanistan. We can see that, I mean, there are some girls in this picture. And that’s an encouraging sign.
CHAYES: We have a sister school program, where we link about a dozen American schools with about half a dozen schools in Kandahar. And it’s a wonderful, also, I mean, it’s very difficult to try to open these kinds of channels, across such a divide.
And three of the schools we’re working with are girls’ schools. And it’s wonderful. And they are, you know, full of girls. And the girls are learning. And they do wear these black and white, kind of school uniforms. And when they leave school, you see them flocking across the streets, and the traffic policemen stopping the, you know, you have these big four by fours, bristling with gunmen, and the traffic police are holding them up, so these little girls can cross the streets.
And that’s one of the really major changes that you do see. On the other hand, we found in a survey we did of women’s living conditions in Kandahar, that only 50 percent of families, even now, allow their girls to go to school. And in particular, they will only allow little girls. It’s much harder once a girl hits puberty, for her family to allow her to go out to school.
And that’s because basically the reputation of the family rests on the reputation for chastity of the women of the family. It’s not even the actual chastity. And so, almost any nasty word thrown at a female in the street is enough to blemish the honor of the family. So, almost by allowing your girl out onto the street, you risk the whole honor of the family.
BRANCACCIO: So, if an adolescent girl continues to go to school, tongues start wagging?
CHAYES: Yes. Yes.
BRANCACCIO: I mean, who? Neighbors?
CHAYES: Neighbors. Neighbors. And girls have told me, you know, that they hear stuff on the street, as they walk to school, because most of them have to walk to school, and things like that.
BRANCACCIO: Sarah, what do they make of you as you work your way through the streets of Southern Afghanistan?
CHAYES: This that I’m wearing, as I said, is a man’s outfit. And I wear men’s clothes. And this was a choice I made when I was reporting in the very beginning. And—
BRANCACCIO: I have a picture of you here I think wearing men’s clothes.
CHAYES: We were breaking ground for a vocational school in Oruzgan Province, I’m handing a stone to the governor of Oruzgan, and he’s gonna lay the foundation stone of this—
BRANCACCIO: Dressed as a guy.
CHAYES: Dressed as a guy. So, I get a lot of comments. You know, here I am, this American chick in drag, right?
I mean, here’s the governor of Oruzgan Province, who’s one of these, you know, gun toting guys. I once drove from Kandahar to a town in Oruzgan with him. And I was driving my car, and he wasn’t even driving his own car. So, here they have this female— it’s a grueling, nine-hour drive. And we left at midnight, and arrived at nine in the morning.
And ever since, he said, “Oh, Sarah has stamina.” You know, so that’s been his comment about me. So, it’s—
BRANCACCIO: That is the rap on you, that you have stamina.
CHAYES: Stamina. I don’t know if that’s a compliment, or if it’s a nice word for I’m pig-headed, you know? But so, I think there’s a kind of grudging respect, on some level. I also think that I’m one of the few people who speaks the truth. I mean, there’s a very complicated relationship with the truth in Afghanistan.
Partly, because the truth can kill. And so, there’s a very elaborate kind of courtly, almost, way of interacting, both in gestures and in words. And I tend to be pretty shoot from the hip. And I’ve decided kind of consciously to maintain that, because I think there isn’t much of a space for people daring to speak their minds.
And I feel like I enjoy a certain protection there, you know? I mean, I’m an American, and there are 3,000 Americans out there. And there’s pretty much the assumption that if somebody knocked me off, that they might get knocked off by the Americans. We’re also close to the Karzai family, because our organization was founded by the brother of President Karzai.
And so, that’s a local power base, and all that kind of thing. So, I kind of feel like if I’m not gonna speak out, enjoying all that those protections, how can one expect ordinary Afghan citizens to begin to speak out against things like, you know, these teachers that you’re talking about make $30 a month, which even half a month’s rent when the province is bringing in $10 million a month in customs dues?
And so people will— teachers will ask me, “Oh, can you bring some money from America to raise our salaries?” And I say, “Wait, you guys need to talk to your governor about this. You guys need to organize and talk to your governor.” And they’re petrified to even consider it. So, I feel like—
BRANCACCIO: Well, because you’re saying, “You need to talk to your warlord about this.”
CHAYES: Exactly. Exactly. And if I don’t stand up to their warlord, how can I expect them to gather the courage to stand up to their warlord. So, there’s that kind of a reputation that I start to have.
But then, I’m sure, also, I’m looked at, you know, as a threat. I’m looked at as a threat to a certain social order, particularly insofar as women are concerned. I mean, the traffic policemen love me. They think it’s hilarious that this chick drives in town.
But you know, I’m sure the husbands and neighbors of some of the women that we’re working with are not so happy about me, because I do represent a possible change. And dramatic change.
BRANCACCIO: If people want to know more about the work you’re doing, where can they turn?
BRANCACCIO: Sarah Chayes’ work in Afghanistan is being featured on FRONTLINE/WORLD next Thursday evening on PBS. Sarah, thanks for joining us on NOW.
CHAYES: Thanks so much for having me.
MOYERS: Before we leave you tonight, here are some recent stories we’ve been passing around our shop and wanting to share with you.
BRANCACCIO: The Associated Press reports that global warming is bringing far-reaching changes in the Sierra Nevada.
That’s the mountain range that runs down the spine of California. Its snow pack supplies the golden state with two-thirds of its water.
A new study estimates that as temperatures rise, the snow line could climb 1500 feet by the end of this century. What difference does that make? Well, it could mean a lot less drinking water for a population that’s expected to increase five-fold during the same period.
MOYERS: Also this week, the NEW YORK TIMES reported that China’s economic growth is producing a surge in emissions of greenhouse gases — the very stuff that leads to global warming. China already puts more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than any country except the United States. According to the GUARDIAN newspaper in London, global warming is likely to create 150 million environmental refugees in the coming years — that’s more refugees, the paper says, than will be created by war or political chaos.
BRANCACCIO: Global warming was the agenda at a conference in Moscow. Nations in the Arctic region gathered to discuss what they’re going to do when warmer weather starts to melt their landscapes.
The environmental minister of Norway said: “Climate change is the biggest and most serious environmental threat we face.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin had a different view of things. He has joined with President Bush to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. That’s an agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases around the world.
Said President Putin: “Maybe it would be good and we could spend less on fur coats and other warm things.”
MOYERS: That brought a smile and this press release from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, which applauds Mr. Putin’s stand.
And just who is the CEI? It’s a group funded by ExxonMobil and others in the energy lobby. For the past six years, while the earth has been getting undeniably hotter, the institute has been trying to block the release of this report. Commissioned by the national science foundation, it says that a major part of the rise in greenhouse gases is a direct result of the burning of coal, oil and natural gas-the conclusions presumably don’t sit well with CEI’s backers.
BRANCACCIO: And now for an update on a story we reported on earlier this year. Folks in Anniston, Alabama got some closure concerning those PCBs polluting their drinking water.
Monsanto and an allied company, Solutia, have now agreed to pay $700 million to settle lawsuits filed against them by more than 20,000 Anniston residents. The companies will also have to fund clean-up projects, a research facility, an education trust and some medical care.
Better PCBs than MTBE, it seems— because if a bill now making its way through Congress is passed, taxpayers affected by the chemical methyl tertiary butyl ether may end up paying for their own cleanups.
MTBE is an additive put into gasoline to help keep auto emissions a little cleaner, but it has leaked into the ground, polluting drinking water in hundreds of communities. About three quarters of MTBE is produced by companies in Texas, the home of House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who is pushing the plan in Congress to protect those companies from pollution lawsuits.
MOYERS: You may also have missed this story. Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey has returned from a tour of Iraq and informed his constituents that all is indeed well there.
Wearing a flakjacket and riding in a blackhawk helicopter, Mr. Frelinghuysen said: “From the air, Baghdad looked remarkably prosperous and totally undamaged.” He also reports that American soldiers were “very positive” about their work, but unhappy with the American press coverage. Here’s what the Congressman said: “After the war was over, the Dan Rathers of the world and others who were embedded in the front, returned home. Now they have third rate reporters there.”
BRANCACCIO: NEWSWEEK reports that trips like the Congressman’s are all part of a plan. In the administration’s shake-up of its Iraq policy, one of the four new high-level committees will make sure the American people know more of the good things happening in the war on terror.
The congressional leadership has created a new Web site to report what they say are “the real stories” of what is happening in Iraq. The site includes pictures of Congressman Frelinghuysen and his Republican colleagues on the recent visit.
MOYERS: One other note on the attempt to win hearts and minds: The WASHINGTON POST reported on Tuesday that the Bush administration has ended media coverage of scenes like these — dead American soldiers being brought back from war. The order was issued back in March on the eve of the invasion and somehow escaped attention.
BRANCACCIO: The Associated Press says that President Bush has threatened to veto the $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan if Congress converts any Iraqi rebuilding money into loans instead of outright gifts. There was also a recent report that although six in ten Iraqis are unemployed, U.S. subcontractors are hiring cheap labor from South Asia to do much of the work of reconstruction, thereby increasing their profit margins.
The Web site tracking the cost of the war in Iraq puts the total as of about 9:50 eastern time tonight at eighty-one billion, two hundred and twenty four million, seven hundred and eighty thousand dollars and climbing. The war is costing more than $1500 dollars a second—
MOYERS: That’s from our clip file to yours—for our sources, Web sites and bibliography, go to pbs.org and connect to NOW.
David and I will be back next week. I’m Bill Moyers. Goodnight.
This transcript was entered on August 13, 2015.