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Paid time off… and labor activism in the US. April 10, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, US Politics.
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Here’s an insight into how bad things can be in ‘advanced’ capitalist economies. Slate.com notes that McDonalds is to raise wages for its workers by 10% plus. And that’s good, though as the piece notes for 90,000 employees it only brings the wages above ‘local legal minimums’. Look too at comments for a complete rundown of how McDonalds operates. Eye-opening for some, I’ll bet.

But what of this:

In addition to upping wages, McDonald’s will allow workers who have been at the company for at least a year to accumulate up to five days of annual paid time off. This is huge. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann explained in Slate last July, service workers don’t just need more money—they also desperately need some vacation. In most other developed countries, PTO for workers isn’t a benefit, it’s a national requirement. But in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 55 percent of service workers reported having access to paid vacation. The years immediately prior weren’t much different.

Interesting to see the way campaign groups on these issues are framing this, as a cross between ‘Depression-era labor organising [combined with] the uplifting power of Dr. King’s civil rights campaign’. But notable as well is how McDonalds is having to bow to a range of pressures including those campaigns…

Noncompete contracts in the US and what that says about the situation of workers… April 9, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, The Left, US Politics.
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A genuinely interesting post recently on The Verge and a thread accompanying it in relation to noncompete contracts being imposed by Amazon on its workers. First up a useful point:

Amazon is the country’s largest and most sophisticated online retailer, but it still runs largely on manual labor. Scattered around the country are massive warehouses staffed by workers who spend their days picking objects off shelves and putting them in boxes. During the holiday season, the company calls on a huge reserve army of temporary laborers.

As the piece notes, Amazon pays a bit above minimum wage. But… but…

…yet Amazon is requiring these workers — even seasonal ones — to sign strict and far-reaching noncompete agreements. The Amazon contract, obtained by The Verge, requires employees to promise that they will not work at any company where they “directly or indirectly” support any good or service that competes with those they helped support at Amazon, for a year and a half after their brief stints at Amazon end. Of course, the company’s warehouses are the beating heart of Amazon’s online shopping empire, the extraordinary breadth of which has earned it the title of “the Everything Store,” so Amazon appears to be requiring temp workers to foreswear a sizable portion of the global economy in exchange for a several-months-long hourly warehouse gig.

As the piece notes:

The company has even required its permanent warehouse workers who get laid off to reaffirm their non-compete contracts as a condition of receiving severance pay.

And the piece points to other issues:

Although companies may push noncompetes on low-wage workers to keep trade secrets from leaking, there’s also a more cynical explanation: to simply deprive competitors of employees to hire, according to Lobel. Noncompetes can also depress workers’ wages. Traditionally, a key strategy to keep employees from defecting to a competitor has been simply to offer competitive wages, but a company that uses non-compete agreements can feel less pressure to pay well.

Certainly my own experience of seeing noncompetes in operation in the private sector across a decade or so is one where they were used not so much to stymie trade secrets proliferating as a means of controlling, as best as was possible, employees who went to rivals. Or to put it a different way there was a vindictive aspect to them. That may not be true of all cases – indeed there’s a strong argument with those who cross from one area to another, public sector to private sector for example, that noncompetes are entirely appropriate in order to forestall conflicts of interest. But… as the Verge notes, that’s hardly an issue in relation to these positions.

And there’s worse again:

In this way, noncompetes can exacerbate structural inequalities in the current job market, inequalities which themselves make noncompetes easier for companies to demand. In America’s post-recession economy, job seekers continue to vastly outnumber openings for good jobs. In this setting, workers don’t have much leverage when haggling with employers over terms and conditions of work. One effect of this has been the expansion of the so-called “gig economy”, where apps like Uber and TaskRabbit draw on a pool of freelancers ready to perform quick jobs that become available with no attendant promise of benefits or job security. Large numbers of unemployed and underemployed have also fueled the boom in temp-agency staffing that has accounted for significant portions of the country’s post-recession job gains.

The underlying dynamic, or rather the other underlying dynamic is not merely to cut immediate labour costs but also to push broader labour costs onto the state. If that’s clearly problematic in partial post-social democratic welfare states it is clearly even more so in societies where safety nets are even more fragile, where they exist at all. And there’s another pressure from business interests, to strip the state of its ability to modify or ameliorate these matters by pushing for decreased taxation, etc.

The noncompete’s are perhaps particularly egregious:

A lack of negotiating power can lead workers to sign noncompete contracts, Lobel says, and those contracts further erode their negotiating power. Because noncompetes make job loss more perilous by limiting post-employment opportunities, the agreements can tether workers to their current job, making them less likely to address grievances with management or attempt to look for better or more fitting work.

It is only slightly heartening to read that in some US states there are bans on the enforcements of noncompetes. But as one law professor quoted notes:

“One way to look at this is as a kind of invidious approach to having workers sign a contract that is very likely to be unenforceable,” Garden says. “Knowing that people who have been working for 10 and 11 dollars an hour are not going to be able to hire a lawyer to fight for them later on.”

Again, the basic disparity in structural power between individual workers and their employers is manifest.

This is, to be honest, quite a frightening moment in the long history of workers in bourgeois democracies. A time when the post-war dispensation is being pulled apart quite deliberately in ways that even in the 1980s would have seemed unfeasible. In part it is because it is so much by stealth, in part because the push rightwards from the 1980s onwards was met with no countering push back from social democracy, in part because the former strongholds that workers could depend at least to a limited extent upon, unions, etc, are now so weak.

All that aside, am I wrong in thinking there is something almost intrinsically feudal about the very concept of these noncompetes – the manner in which a company or corporation can have some hold on workers even long after they have ceased working for them?

Seeing as we’re discussing the US November 27, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left, US Politics.
2 comments

…what about the anti-socialist narrative some have about Thanksgiving……I hadn’t heard of this before, but it’s an educative insight into how myths spring up and are propagated. Writing in Slate Joshua Keating notes:

…the right has its own version of Thanksgiving revisionist history—the idea that the holiday is a celebration of the pilgrims’ abandonment of socialism in favor of free enterprise.

Tell me more…

The storyline goes like this: The early settlers at Plymouth at first experimented with a system of collective ownership of farmland, which, as with their compatriots at Jamestown, led to widespread famine. When they eventually abandoned this system in favor of private ownership, farmers were more productive, the harvest was bountiful, and a feast was held in celebration. Pass the stuffing!

And:

This tale has its roots in the Cold War. “Let us be thankful for this valued lesson from our Fathers—and yield not to the temptations of socialism,” advised a 1968 column by the popular midcentury conservative newspaper columnist Henry Hazlitt.

But apparently the arrival of the Tea Party has given the line a new impetus with various groups bandying it around…

“The Pilgrims tried ‘it takes a village’ socialism and almost starved,” remarks a column in Sunday’s Salem (Ohio) News, for instance. A 1999 version of the story published by the Mises Institute, a free-market think tank, is a popular email forward. Fox News’ John Stossel is also fond of the tale, as is George Will. Not surprisingly, the leading exponent of the theory may be Rush Limbaugh, who repeats the “true” story of Thanksgiving every year around this time on his radio show. “Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? It didn’t work!” he told his listeners last year.

But… for there, is almost inevitably, a but:

As Kate Zernike of the New York Times pointed out in 2010, the timeline doesn’t quite work. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621. The system of collective ownership known as the “common course” was abandoned in 1623. And it was abandoned not because of famine but because the settlers wanted to make more money. As for Jamestown, their biggest problems were drought and malaria, not socialism.

And while it is true that:

…the Plymouth settlers abandoned a system of common ownership in favor of private property, and found it much more to their liking.

…the story is not quite the free-market folktale that its boosters would have you believe.

And:

Communal farming arrangements were common in the pilgrims’ day. Many of the towns they came from in England were run according to the “open-field” system, in which the land holdings of a manor are divided into strips to be harvested by tenant farmers. As Nick Bunker writes in 2010’s Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, “Open field farming was not some kind of communism. All the villagers were tenants of the landlord.”
There was no local baron in Plymouth, but it was a commercial project as much as a religious one, and the colonists still had to answer to their investors back in England. It was this, not socialist ideals, that accounted for the common course. Bunker writes, “Far from being a commune, the Mayflower was a common stock: the very words employed in the contract. All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole.”

There’s more and it’s actually very interesting. The conclusion is that ‘the Rush Limbaugh crowd should note that the settlers at Plymouth were rebelling against the rules set by a corporation, not against the strictures of some Stalinist collective farm or a hippie commune’.

What’s telling about all this is the way that the contemporary is justified and legitimised by an effectively fictional account of the past. There’s no great surprise there. E. Hobsbawm as we know had some thoughts on that.

What’s perhaps more telling is the fact that no one has sought to examine this critically from within the right, at least not on the evidence offered in the Slate piece, to test its credibility. And yet, in this day and age when anything and everything is open to question and in many cases easily verified it’s curious that that isn’t the case.

Does it matter? Well, yes, in so far as a narrative is being established, and a misleading one at that. It’s also worth noting that whether left or right wing in thrust, or neither of the above it tends to mask a deeply problematic history, not just of that period but after.On the Slate Culture Gabfest mention was made of this, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the book by Dee Brown from 1970. As was said on the Gabfest…

It just told the story that wasn’t told before… the story of the American West from the perspective of the native peoples… relentless litany of how the Navajo and Apache were duped and obliterated by the American Government, how treaty after treaty was broken, how massacre after massacre occurred, it’s an incredibly harrowing read, but it’s an amazing feat of truth-telling and it’s quite something to read. You will come away with a completely different view of our history… and… it struck me where is the dialogue about reparations… we’re all living on stolen land… and we’re talking about reparations for African-Amewricans about slavery which is the huge, some would say the great moral question at the centre of American life… but what about the genocide of the Native Americans… what about the other one…

And finally to finish this Thanksgiving round-up, kudos to Slate and Amanda Marcotte also for pointing to this:

Black Friday has been poaching Thanksgiving itself, as demonstrated by this disturbing piece at Huffington Post showing how major retailers are opening earlier and earlier on the holiday. This, in turn, is increasing the amount of debate over whether employers should be allowed to steal the holiday from their low-wage service workers. “Increasingly, Thanksgiving is a holiday that only some can afford to celebrate,” Jillian Berman of Huffington Post writes.

And:

Having to skip the actual meal portion of the day so you can sell cheap TVs to bored shoppers trying to escape their families is already an indignity, but, as Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones reports, the pain is compounded by many who have bosses who don’t even bother to tell them they’re working Thanksgiving until right before the holiday.

And:

The software, which uses store traffic patterns, weather, and other variables to produce timely estimations of how many employees a store will need during any given shift, helps save companies money, but only by forcing low-wage workers to live the “on call” lifestyle, not knowing from one week to the next when they’re supposed to work. That mentality does not take a holiday for Thanksgiving, with many workers who had made travel or family plans being told at the last minute to drop those plans or get fired for not showing up to work, according to Harkinson’s reporting.

Marcotte notes that this is deeply gendered, as indeed it is, and it’s also – obviously – a class issue (she expands the former point noting that in the domestic sphere… ‘Seventy percent of women expected to have to wash Thanksgiving dishes, compared with 41 percent of men. Sixty-six percent of women knew they had to cook, compared with 35 percent of men. Men only exceeded women when it came to one Thanksgiving task: 46 percent of men figured they’d spend some time watching football, while only 26 percent of women thought the same’).

It just gets worse… and the comments under the Marcotte piece display some breathtaking examples of a lack of any fellow feeling with people forced to work those hours.

That “top-secret” spaceplane… October 18, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, US Politics.
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… that would be this one, would it?

Secret Space Plane

Which an article in the Guardian notes (to the amusement of some comments BTL on the article) that it…

landed Friday at an air force base on the southern California coast.

Given that secrecy perhaps it’s a surprise to learn that it is known that…

The plane spent nearly two years circling Earth on a classified mission.

And what about it’s name, that’s surely classified… or not.

Known as the X-37B, it resembles a mini space shuttle.

Well, that’s obvious from the photos… the photos that were ‘stills from video’… stolen… no, actually, ‘made available by the Vandenberg Air Force Base’.

Well that’s none too clear, the infra red photo… so there’s still some mystery about what it looks like…

…if you haven’t seen this – credited to US AIR FORCE/Reuters.

51eddf5d-4016-4518-9c3e-cbb8c6497c47-460x276

And it’s highly implausible that much more is known, isn’t it… about it’s genesis, well other than:

The X-37B program has been an orphan of sorts, bouncing since its inception in 1999 between several federal agencies, Nasa among them. It now resides under the air force’s rapid capabilities office.

Or the numbers of aerospace craft actually built or the number of missions:

The plane that landed Friday is one of two built by Boeing. This is the program’s third mission, and began in December 2012.

Or its dimensions and features…

The plane stands 9.5ft tall and is just over 29ft long, with a wingspan under 15ft. It weighs 11,000lbs and has solar panels that unfurl to charge its batteries once in orbit.

Or future plans…

The air force said it plans to launch the fourth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next year.

But that’s it… except for this wiki page devoted to the X-37B and previous iterations.

Which contains photographs of this remarkably covert vehicle dating from… erm… 2010.

Boeing_X-37B_inside_payload_fairing_before_launch

More seriously, worth noting that the USAF has this sort of capability during a period when due to the retirement of the space shuttle the ability of the US to launch humans into Earth orbit necessitates using Russian launchers.

And a much more intriguing series of questions relate to what it actually does, and what it is intended to do.

Of course the USAF has long had a parallel programme (or used some shuttle missions) of launches. And there have been persistent rumours on the fringes of a covert USAF manned spaceflight capability, but the existence of this makes that seem unlikely.

Politically exploiting workers and suppressing political activity… October 17, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in US Politics.
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Here’s a depressing tale from Slate… early this year oil company ConocoPhillips in Alaska called workers to what was meant to be a ‘safety stand-down’ meeting, only for them to be told how to vote in the Alaska primaries.

The oil and gas industry, Schuelke said, was fighting Democrat-supported Ballot Measure 1, which sought to repeal a massive tax cut for oil companies that Alaska’s Republican-controlled state Legislature had recently passed. Schuelke told the crowd to vote against the repeal, according to the contracted worker, who was present. Schuelke claimed that many of the area’s jobs relied on the tax break. The implication was clear: Vote against repeal or your industry and your livelihood will suffer.
“I’d never seen so many confused faces and so many frowns,” the contractor said. “It was definitely an abuse of our safety culture.” (A ConocoPhillips spokeswoman said the primary purpose of the meeting was to reinforce safety measures.)

But given the nature of our societies and the rhetorical emphasis placed on ‘work’ (and by the by 6to5against had a great point here earlier about just how rhetorical that actually is) is there any great surprise in this? Simply put ‘work’ becomes its own justification, it doesn’t much matter if the work is rubbish, the wages abysmal (or if employers see no problem in that whatsoever), the fact the ‘work’ exists is enough. And it’s brilliantly deflective and diversionary because there’s no getting away from the centrality of work in life on so many different levels, albeit primarily financial.

So we see dispiriting efforts by companies to blur the division between work and all other aspects of life and so on. And in that context why not lecture your workers on how you think they should vote. Of course there was a corollary,

This particular construction worker favored repeal, which Democrats argued would allow Alaska to equitably tax oil companies to fund its struggling public school system and other vital services. Yet the contractor said that corporate management’s forceful political agenda at the site, where ConocoPhillips oversees a patchwork of oil field contractors, made it unwise to express a dissenting point of view. “The feeling was that if we didn’t stay quiet we could get blackballed from the Slope,” the contractor said. A welder and a pipefitter did jump up during the meeting to yell, “What does this have to do with safety!” and another worker walked up to Schuelke afterward to say she wouldn’t vote as he’d instructed.

And this is of a piece with all else on this issue, because there is a sense of ownership on the part of employers. They can demand so much of workers, and come back looking for more. I’ve often noted the lack of democracy in the workplace as contrasted with so many other areas of life (obviously that democracy is flawed, but once more a rhetorical, and sometimes more than rhetorical nod is made towards it). This simply is unremarked for the most part.

And the Slate piece notes that there’s a push on by employers and those on the right in the US to streamline the processes by which workers can be channelled in regard to their political choices.

…there is a common thread that links those efforts to those associated with ConocoPhillips and scores of other American companies: the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, a political organization that has attracted little media scrutiny.

And BIPAC appears to be a most interesting entity – purportedly established to ‘educate workers in companies’ which ‘works hand in glove with GOP operatives’ and ‘A BIPAC slideshow brags of having ousted prominent Dem state Sen. Joe Paskvin’ well, read on. The piece also tackles a complaint from those who seek to defend BIPAC’s activities.

… in comments to local media, Hawkins has claimed to be motivated by the political power of Alaska’s unions, some of whom, most prominently the Teamsters, joined with oil companies in the campaign to defeat Ballot Measure 1.

Certainly, labor unions have aggressively engaged their members in partisan politics, and Citizens United bolstered these efforts. Yet, when it comes to pushing politics on workers, there are important differences between unions and businesses, according to Charlotte Garden, an assistant professor at Seattle University’s School of Law. “Unions cannot fire someone from their job for voicing disagreement,” says Garden. “This is a power that employers have over employees that unions don’t have.”

But there’s more to it than just the point of having an employer, bad and all, functionally pushing a certain political line on a worker for beyond that it has a chilling effect on those who might be involved politically on the other side of the debate, because why would they feel safe in sticking their head above the parapet for fear their employer discovers they are campaigning, or activist in one way or another? In that respect it’s remarkably clever as a tactic.

And finally, and related to that, what of this?

“This might surprise some people,” says John Snyder, an attorney at Jackson Lewis, a law firm based in White Plains, New York, that often represents companies in actions against unions. “But the First Amendment does not generally stop private employers from firing employees for their political views.”

They’ve obviously never been to Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day October 7, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, US Politics.
2 comments

Thanks, I think, to the person who sent the link to this petition… a US crew bemoaning what they see as: the 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City will have homosexual activists marching under their own banner promoting the acceptance of homosexual sin.

And the outfit behind it are:

TFP Student Action is a project of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. Founded in 1973, the American TFP was formed to resist, in the realm of ideas, the liberal, socialist and communist trends of the times and proudly affirm the positive values of tradition, family and private property. The American TFP was inspired by the work of the Brazilian intellectual and man of action Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

Telling to find in amongst the homophobia exhortations against socialism and communism, evolution… you name it…

Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America – 1969 to 1980. August 30, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, US Politics.
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Fascinating podcast now available of Alistair Cooke of the BBC’s ‘Letter from America’. It’s remarkable to listen to Cooke explaining the US political system and the events of the time. One wonders if people are better informed today – I suspect they might be a little bit.

They’ve been pulled together from the tapes of two listeners, which is remarkable really. Pretty good quality too, not too much cleaning up in evidence in respect of the sound.

The one’s from 1980 are of particular interest with an insight into domestic and international events during that period, from the Presidential nomination process of the year – and how Ted Kennedy did in the primary – or rather did not, to the invasion of Afghanistan. Cooke was pretty cynical, in a gentle sort of a way. Well worth a listen.

Summer holidays August 3, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, The Left, US Politics.
4 comments

Wrote about holidays a few weeks back, and in particular some grim statistics from the US. So this piece here in the IT which reiterates much of that is of some interest.

But I had to wonder about the following:

We are more Berlin than Boston in our approach to longer holidays. EU countries take an average of 34 paid days holidays a year, compared with 25 in the US. Americans have become even more holidayphobic. The always-working culture has never been stronger. This year a study found that four out of 10 Americans do not take an average of eight days of their already limited holiday time, effectively leaving a million years of untaken leave on the tables of US employers every year.

And supporting quotes push agency back onto workers in all this…

“We can train ourselves to getting used to any length of holidays,” Farren says. “Americans can convince themselves that two weeks per year is enough, and teachers convince themselves that three months is too little.”

The problem is that this is not a ‘culture’ – that of longer or shorter or no holidays – that falls from the sky, as it were, or is ingrained in workers, but is something that is structured openly or not by employers and which workers must adhere to. Indeed the statistics in the piece linked to originally from here above is open about that. 55 million Americans don’t get paid vacation. Not that they don’t want it or don’t take it but don’t get it. And in a ‘culture’ like that it is more than obvious how that plays out across those employments where there is paid vacation.

US Senator and self-avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders… April 28, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left, US Politics.
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…in interview with Slate.com which can be found here. He sounds like he’d fit comfortably into most left social democrat parties.

Anticipating 9/11 April 26, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Uncategorized, US Politics.
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Speaking of flying as we are… last month I saw the Lone Gunmen, a spin-off TV show from the X-Files which aired in early 2001 and lasted only 13 episodes (about the same length as the late lamented Firefly – also mentioned recently). I’d heard of it – and a curious plot point – but never seen it.

I enjoyed it for a variety of reasons – not least because it’s intrinsic paranoia about government and corporations appears 13 years later to be almost insufficiently strong – but that’s a matter of taste. It’s a bit clunky, and while the leads are enormously likeable whether multiple seasons could have been maintained is an open question. It’s not quite sure of the tone, whether serious and sombre like its progenitor or almost slapstick. And as is the way it sort of falls between those stools.

What, though, was genuinely strange was its inadvertent foreshadowing of events later that year in New York.


For those who want to skip to the end look at the episode guide on this page and the précis of ‘Pilot’
. Or here.

There’s a youtube link to it here, but who knows how long that will last?

For those into (un?)popular culture note the use of the fine Cuba (one half of who was ex-Chapterhouse member Ashley Bates) track “Cross the Line” at the beginning and one more reference which the eagle-eyed amongst you may spot.

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