Working In These Times

Monday, Oct 27, 2014, 5:30 pm  ·  By Kari Lydersen

Remembering the Deadly Donora Smog

Air pollution from the Donora Zinc Works covered the town for two days, killing 20 and hospitalizing thousands—eventually helping produce the first regulations to restrict air pollution.   Bethlehem Steel, Baltimore (Dave Hosford / Flickr)

DONORA, PA — Forty-six years ago this week, a thick noxious cloud enveloped Donora, a steel mill town on a lush hillside above the Monongahela River 37 miles south of Pittsburgh. Residents were used to pollution from the town’s cluster of industries that formed the bedrock of the region’s economy making steel, wire and nails.

They were used to plumes of smoke billowing into the sky and seeing everything covered in red dust from the iron ore used to make steel, as Charles Stacey, a long-time resident, teacher and local historian, told In These Times on a visit in June.  

Stacey grew up by the river across from the Donora Zinc Works, where no vegetation grew because of the fumes.

“I didn’t see grass until I was 50,” he says. “Air pollution was a way of life in Donora. You put your hand out and you couldn’t see the tip of your fingers. You could trip off a curb because you couldn’t see. But usually by lunchtime, the wind would blow it away.”

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Monday, Oct 27, 2014, 4:42 pm  ·  By Aviana Willis

The Super Bowl Will Gross Half a Billion Dollars This Year, But the NFL Really Needs Your Free Labor

Maybe the NFL should also pass the hat for donations at this year's Super Bowl. (Philip Robertson / Flickr)  

Americans love football—so much so that fans are willing to donate their time to the NFL, one of the wealthiest sports brands in the world, for the Super Bowl.

The NFL has again sent out the call for 10,000 volunteers for this year’s Super Bowl in Arizona. Apparently the league hosting the biggest-grossing sports event in the country can’t afford to hire any workers to staff it.

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Monday, Oct 27, 2014, 11:30 am  ·  By Yana Kunichoff

Meet the High School Social Studies Teacher Taking On Chicago’s Right-Wing Democrats

Social studies teacher Tim Meegan, independent candidate for Chicago's city council, at a community meeting at the Centro Autónomo in Albany Park earlier this year. (Meegan 4 Ward 33 / Facebook)  

Chicago’s formal political scene is often a small one, aldermanic candidate Tim Meegan will tell you.

Take the positions of alderman for the 33rd Ward on the city’s northwest side. It’s a classic example of Chicago political nepotism, says Meegan, a high school social studies teacher who’s running for alderman in that particular ward.

Until this past spring, the alderman for the 33rd ward was Dick Mell, who had achieved some degree of infamy in his 38 years on the City Council. Mell played a key role in the “Council Wars” led by white aldermen against the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. During the struggle over who would succeed Washington after his untimely death, Mell had gone so far as to stand on a table and yell to be heard. 

When Dick Mell retired, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed the longtime alderman’s daughter Deb Mell to her father’s former seat. Present at Mell’s swearing-in at City Council was her sister, Patti Blagojevich—wife of the former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is currently behind bars for corruption charges related to an attempt to sell President Barack Obama’s Senate seat.

Similarly, when Rahm Emanuel left the Obama White House to become Chicago’s mayor in 2011, the brother of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, William M. Daley, replaced Emanuel as the president’s chief of staff.

But that was then. A recent wave of discontent aimed at Mayor Emanuel’s policies of closing schools and mental health clinics while his donors make millions from development deals that will benefit relatively few Chicagoans has rubbed much of the city the wrong way. Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is out of the city’s mayoral race, but politicos in the city are closely watching the city’s aldermanic races.

A group of candidates coming out of Chicago’s grassroots movements, including teachers, labor activists and an environmental organizer, are challenging incumbents in next year’s election. And unlike many of the candidates jumping on an anti-Rahm ticket, they are running not as Democrats, but as independents.

Tim Meegan is one of them.  

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Monday, Oct 27, 2014, 9:00 am  ·  By Amien Essif

Grave Digger: “You’ve Got to Uphold Some Type of Integrity”

(Sunchild57 / Flickr)  

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication,Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers—has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working's 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here

Elmer Ruiz spoke to Terkel about the difficulty of his work as a gravedigger, exacerbated by the mathematics as well as the art of presentation involved, especially in the winter when the earth is as hard a cement. “Not anybody can be a gravedigger,” he said. “You have to make a neat job.”

Ron, the sole gravedigger at a large cemetery in Chicago, told In These Times a similar story: “If I’m at home and I think of something I did earlier in the day and now that I’m thinking about it a little bit more, I think ‘Oh, maybe I could have done this a little different.’”

I used to work at a paintball shop. One of my customers used to be the cremator here, and he told me they were looking for people. I needed a better job so I came in and applied, and the superintendent gave me a chance. It’s working on 10 years now.

I bury people, bury cremated remains, set headstones—basically uphold the integrity of the cemetery, enforcing the rules and regulations.

A lot of people don't like to hear that they're doing something wrong, but if they are, you've got to tell them they can't do that: Stone rubbings, bicycling inside the cemetery, jogging, tripod photography, novelty photography. We don't allow people to dress up out here like it's Halloween and use this place as a backdrop for photos. When you get people coming in here dressed up as nuns with crazy makeup on their faces and skeleton costumes, you kind of go, "I'm sorry, we just don't allow this in here." It's disrespectful. And it's been the rules and regulations for as long as I've been here. You've got to uphold some type of integrity.

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Friday, Oct 24, 2014, 11:30 am  ·  By Will Craft

House Democrats Call for an Investigation into Jimmy John’s Non-Compete Clauses

The sandwich chain's noncompete agreements may soon be under investigation by the federal government.(Melanie Levi / Flickr)  

Are Jimmy John’s non-compete clauses so absurdly restrictive that they're actually illegal? House Democrats are looking into it, as they plan to request a federal investigation from the Labor Department and Federal Trade Commission into the punitive measures of the fast-food sandwich chain's employee contracts, the Huffington Post reports

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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014, 9:30 am  ·  By Kevin Solari

Nervous, Cuomo? Green Party’s Howie Hawkins Draws 6 Teachers Union Endorsements

The Green Party's Brian Jones (left) and Howie Hawkins (right) have made impressive inroads in gaining the support of teachers unions, a typically solid Democratic constituency. (HowieHawkins.org)  

New York’s incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo may be the poster child for the Democratic Party’s rightward shift in recent years. After much handwringing among progressives in the state about his campaign for reelection and Cuomo’s effectively neutralizing the Working Families Party, those who can’t stomach voting for the incumbent governor seem to have been left with one choice: voting for the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins.

While Hawkins’s campaign, like any third party run in the US, is clearly a longshot, he has also amassed an incredible amount of support from one of the Democratic Party’s most historically solid constituencies: teachers unions.

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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014, 4:54 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

The Sharing Economy’s ‘First Strike’: Uber Drivers Turn Off the App

Uber drivers went on strike in five different cities on Oct. 22, including San Francisco. (@YayneAbeba / Twitter)  

Silicon Valley types often wax lyrical about the way that the app-based “sharing economy” disrupts existing business models and create new forms of social relations. When tech magnates extol “disruption,” of course, they likely aren’t talking about the sort caused by labor actions.

But on October 22, tech-giant Uber got a taste of its own disruptive medicine when drivers in at least five cities who work on the ridesharing platform turned off their apps and stopped picking up passengers, in protest of what they say are unjust working conditions and a dwindling share in the company’s profits. Some drivers are calling this action the first strike in the “sharing economy,” a sector known for its aversion to labor organizing.

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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014, 1:10 pm  ·  By Diane Krauthamer

“The Show Must Go On”: Guitar Center Workers Push for First Contracts

Guitar Center workers say management is dragging its feet on their first union contract. (Jeepers Media / Flickr)  

Guitar Center store workers are fighting for fair wages and improved conditions at stores around the country. The company has responded with a fierce anti-union campaign.

“We love music and our jobs. But many of us barely make more than minimum wage,” said Jeff Loehrke, Guitar Center drum department manager in Chicago.

The Retail Workers Union (RWDSU) won elections at three Guitar Center stores last year, in New York City in May, Chicago in August and Las Vegas in November. But workers at the three unionized stores are still struggling for a contract.

Over the past year, the union and Guitar Center have had several bargaining sessions in each city. Management is dragging its feet in all three.

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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014, 11:02 am  ·  By Miles Kampf-Lassin

Karen Lewis’ Replacement at the CTU Has a Message for Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey is ready to take the reins in Karen Lewis' absence. (photo via Chicago Tonight)  

It may not seem very long ago that Chicago teachers were turning city streets into a sea of red shirts as they rallied for a fair contract during the 2012 strike. But new contract talks—and the possibility of another strike—are just around the corner. And this time the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has a new interim leader—CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who is stepping in while Karen Lewis recovers from a serious illness.   

Lewis' health issues have sidelined her from the upcoming mayoral race in the city, in which she was expected to make a progressive, populist challenge to Rahm Emanuel. But they have also elevated Sharkey during a critical juncture for the CTU: While still reeling from the closure of 50 schools last year, public education in Chicago is facing steep budget cuts and a major lack of resources, all as teachers prepare for another round of contract negotiations with the current contract expiring at the end of this school year. 

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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014, 2:30 pm  ·  By Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Wall Street and Major Retailers Agree That Inequality is Killing Us. Why Don’t Republicans?

Republicans continue to stand alone in the fight for income inequality.   Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

Income inequality is killing the economy. Retailers, bankers and Democrats agree on that. Really.

It’s only Republicans who continue to insist that income inequality is great, so no one, least of all them, should make any effort to constrict the abyss between America’s struggling 99 percent and Americans who indulge themselves in $475,000 bottles of House of Creed Bespoke perfume

Now that Wall Street and Main Street have endorsed Democratic economic principals to reduce inequality for the sake of the economy, voting Nov. 4 is easy. Vote Democrat. That’s the party both bankers and retailers say has the solution to economic revival. 

Admittedly, this is all a little hard to believe after Republicans have diligently depicted themselves as business and bank huggers for so long.

Turns out, though, that’s a sad, one-sided relationship. Bankers and retailers aren’t returning the love when it comes to economic policy. They’ve recognized the enemy to their bottom lines, and it is the rising costs and stagnant wages borne by workers since the dawn of the recession.

And both bankers and retailers want action. They want incomes, consumer confidence and purchases all to rise, triggering business profits to do the same. They’ve discovered that extra personal jets, mega yachts and $475,000 perfume purchased by the one percent have failed to stimulate the economy.

What’s essential to revival is more buying by the hulking mass of everybody else. That’s what Wall Street firms have said in recent reports. And that’s what the Center for American Progress, a think tank that supports middle-out economics, found in an analysis of the financial statements of 65 of the nation’s top retailers. 

Here, for example, is what Morgan Stanley economists had to say last month in their report Inequality and Consumption:

“So, despite the roughly $25 trillion increase in wealth since the recovery from the financial crisis began, consumer spending remains anemic. Top income earners have benefited from wealth increases but middle and low income consumers continue to face structural liquidity constraints and unimpressive wage growth. To lift all boats, further increases in residential wealth and accelerating wage growth are needed.”

In other words, the prescription to cure consumer spending anemia is raises for workers. Remember, it is Republicans who have blocked raising the federal minimum wage from its poverty-level $7.25 an hour, with some party darlings, such as Michele Bachmann, a former candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, contending that the minimum wage should be abolished because no wage is too low.

Then there’s the August report from rating agency Standard & Poor’s titled: How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, And Possible Ways To Change The TideIt says:

“The challenge now is to find a path toward more sustainable growth, an essential part of which, in our view, is pulling more Americans out of poverty and bolstering the purchasing power of the middle class. A rising tide lifts all boats…but a lifeboat carrying a few, surrounded by many treading water, risks capsizing.”

Apparently, Wall Street economists love boat metaphors.

To haul the many out of the water and into a more stable economic ship, S&P suggests this:

“That said, some degree of rebalancing – along with spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure, for example – could help bring under control an income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.”

Remember, it is Republicans across the country that have cut spending on education and refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

It is Republicans in Congress who have repeatedly stomped on attempts by Democrats to stimulate the economy by spending on desperately needed repairs to infrastructure—that is facilities such as roads, bridges, public buildings and sewers. Numerous economists have pointed out that the cost of borrowing for these job-creating projects is so low right now that the loans are virtually free.

Wall Street and Main Street have had their disputes since the Great Recession. But they agree that for the good of the country’s economy, incomes must rise for the majority. In a report issued earlier this month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) documented retailers’ belief that stagnant wages are damaging business. It’s called Retailer Revelations: Why America’s Struggling Middle Class has Businesses Scared.

CAP tabulated the risks to business stability that the nation’s top retailers reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. CAP found that 88 percent said weak consumer spending imperils stock prices, and 68 percent said consumers’ flat or falling incomes threaten business profits.

The CAP report lists large retailer (Kohl’s and Sears) after large retailer (Best Buy and J.C. Penney) suffering faltering sales. It quotes Container Store CEO Kip Tindell saying, “Consistent with so many of our fellow retailers, we are experiencing a retail funk.”

CAP explains the funk, “The fortunes of the retail sector and the middle class are inherently linked – when family incomes fail to rise, when the cost of living increases, or when workers cannot find jobs, retailers’ sales decline.”

Some retailers have taken action themselves. Earlier this year, for example, Gap Inc. and IKEA announced plans to raise their workers’ wages to at least $10 an hour. Costco increased wages by $1.50 an hour during the recession, so workers start at $11.50 an hour.

CEO Craig Jelinek explained: “I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits. It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.” Costco’s stock prices have tripled since 2009.

Still, not every retailer is going to raise wages voluntarily. The world’s largest, Walmart, for example, just cut its workers’ health benefits. That’s where government steps in. For the good of struggling Americans and the ailing economy, government can order employers to pay a living wage. To create jobs and stimulate the economy, government can invest in infrastructure. As during the Great Depression, a government of the people, by the people, for the people can act for the benefit of the majority of the people.

Republicans oppose that. They prefer the failed trickle-down economics that sunk the middle class. So on November 4, vote to ship them home. Retailers, bankers and workers across America will thank you. 

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