ARCHIVES


A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why stop with ‘Right To Work’?

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 26, 27 or 28

Sure, Right To Work (RTW) is really a misnamed way to weaken workers’ unions to lower wages since it encourages people represented by labor unions to stop sharing in the costs of negotiating wages, hours and working conditions, of enforcing contracts through grievance and arbitration procedures, and of serving the bargaining unit by promoting workers’ interests, from job sites to the political process.

But in the name of making Illinois – and now, some of its individual communities – “more competitive,” RTW is being advanced as a way to help employers be flexible and get busy, a solution to economic “needs.”

However, there are needs and needs. The U.S. Declaration of Independence talks about the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and maybe we need those. Human NEEDS include hunger, thirst, sleep and sex, according to the classic hierarchy of physiological needs.

And how does RTW address them? It doesn’t, of course.

Workers represented by unions already aren’t required to be “members” of their union, which is legally bound to represent all workers in the bargaining unit. Workers can choose to instead pay smaller “fair-share” fees (which cover costs except political contributions) and retain the wages and benefits negotiated for them,. All they lose by deciding to be non-members is the right to vote on tentative agreements, officers, etc.

When unions lose the right to collect fees covering the expenses they incur, employers can convince people they can get something for nothing, and that means a less stable union and a less powerful voice for workers. The consequences range from a return to company control to lousy economic circumstances.

Places with RTW have lower wages and standards of living, according to the Congressional Research Service, which reports from that RTW states show lower wages compared to state permitting union-security provisions: $43,641 compared to $50,867 where workers share the costs – 16.6 percent lower compensation.

“States with the lowest percentage of union members are the 11 states of the Deep South,” writes University of Illinois labor studies professor Roger Bybee. “The initial Right To Work campaign arose in the former slave states. RTW laws also translate into a new political order: uncontested corporate power and distorted public policy. RTW states generally have lower levels of educational attainment, public health and other indicators of social health, like an infant-mortality rate 15 percent higher than the national average.”

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner, parroting Big Business leaders and its GOP followers, is pushing for RTW “zones” where municipalities can choose to prohibit parts of contracts that require workers benefiting from unions that negotiate for them to share in labor’s expenses.

Since just 24 states have RTW restrictions and only Oklahoma, Michigan and Indiana have banned the cost-sharing practice in the last 20 years, it’s certainly no trend. However, it remains a Republican goal, and lawmakers in Missouri, Wisconsin, Maine and New Mexico are pushing the change.

Again, why stop with Right To Work? Remember real NEEDS.

Why not Right To Eat? That could enable people to dine where they wish and withhold payment for their food and drink. That sure would make restaurants “flexible,” right?

How about the Right To Sleep? Whether working on the job or seeking shelter, that would let employees doze at their desk or at the wheel of heavy machinery, and, for residents, make rent, mortgage payments, or even hotel room rates voluntary. Think of the enthusiasm in moving into a vacant home, an empty storefront or a fancy hotel!

What about pursuing happiness without paying taxes for roads you drive on, schools you kids attend, or troops who protect our lives? And Americans’ liberty is supposedly ensured by the Right To Vote, but it’s too often choosing the lesser of two evils (maybe why the 2014 election turnout of 36.4 percent was the lowest it’s been since World War II). Don’t we need a REAL Right To Vote, like no civic obligation to cast a ballot unless there’s someone worth supporting? A Right To Vote should include “None of the Above.”

And as for the human need for sex, Rauner’s assault on everyday working people shouldn’t count.

[PICTURED: Satirical graphic of "free rider" card in some Right To Work (for less) area.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fix roads, transit with higher gas tax, disparate groups ask

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 23, 24 or 25

Many roads are in rough shape. An Interstate bridge in Cincinnati collapsed last month. Experts say about 4,000 dams are “deficient” and almost 9 percent of the country’s levees could fail during floods. Also, mass transit systems – increasingly popular – need repairs but don’t have money to fix them.

Meanwhile, gas prices are at their lowest since 2009 – about $2.17 per gallon, more than $1.10 cheaper than a year ago, according to gasbuddy.com. That’s led groups that often disagree to all call for a hike in the federal gas tax to meet infrastructure needs.

“Now is the best time to eliminate the funding shortfalls that have plagued the federal transportation fund for years with an increase in the gas tax,” said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). “Every penny added to the gas tax would generate approximately $1.5 billion for transportation infrastructure. A few additional pennies on the gas tax would have a minimal impact on the average car owner.”

An American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report issued in 2013, "America’s Infrastructure," said the country’s infrastructure should be given a grade of D+ – barely sufficient. Almost one-third of the roads are in poor or mediocre shape, and more than 40 percent of urban highways are congested, said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“One of nine bridges is structurally deficient, and nearly a quarter are functionally obsolete,” Sanders said. “Transit systems face major unfunded repairs. Our nation’s rail network is largely antiquated, even though our energy-efficient railroads move more freight than ever and Amtrak’s ridership has never been higher.”

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates more than $20 billion annually is needed to catch up with maintenance or replacement of bridges, but the federal government is spending about $13 billion, said Sanders, who added that FHA says another $170 billion is needed to improve federal highways.

“The United States now spends just 2.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product on infrastructure, less than at any point in the last 20 years,” Sanders said. “To get our infrastructure to a state of good repair by 2020, the American Society of Civil Engineers says we must invest $1.6 trillion more than what we now spend.”

The situation is far different than past support, he added.

“For most of our history, the United States proudly led the world in building innovative infrastructure, from a network of canals, to the transcontinental railroad, to the Interstate highway system,” Sanders said. “We launched an ambitious rural electrification program, massive flood-control projects and more.

“For many years we have underfunded the maintenance of our nation’s physical infrastructure,” Sanders continued. “That has to change. It is time to rebuild America.”

Now, with deteriorating infrastructure and low gas prices, the ATU has joined a growing call by interests as different as the Laborers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asking for an increase in the gas tax to rebuild the nation’s transportation system and support public transit.

Raising the gas tax – which hasn’t increased since 1993 – would “provide operational support for our nation’s cash-strapped public transit agencies that have been forced to cut service and raise fares despite more riders crowding their transit systems,” ATU’s Hanley said.

As for roads, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund last summer was funded through this May by a previous Congress that approved the stopgap measure. But it’s unclear what a generally anti-tax Republican Congress will do given support for the idea not just from unions but the National Association of Manufacturers.

Also, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently released a paper, "Trust or Bust: Fixing the Federal Highway Fund," exploring ways to close the fund’s deficit. Congress could decide to permanently funnel more money to highway investment and less to other areas, such as the Department of Defense (which receives 27 cents of every federal tax dollar), it suggests, or the gas tax could go up.

The Highway Trust Fund shortfall was caused by better fuel efficiency, fewer miles driven, and a gas tax that hasn’t changed in 23 years. It’s time, Hanley said.

“This ‘perfect storm’ of record public transit ridership, diminishing funding, increased fares, and cut service has reduced many Americans’ access to good jobs, and slowed the pace of economic development,” he said. “The question America must ask is not ‘Can we afford to increase the gas tax?’ but rather, ‘How can we afford not to?’ ”

[PICTURED: Chart from the American Society of Civil Engineers.]

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What Rauner threatened – and what he left out

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 19, 20 or 21

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is so negative it might be dubbed “50 Shades of ‘Nay’.”

This week’s budget address may clarify some things, but if his Feb. 4 State of the State speech was any indication, the truth itself may be shaded.

Rauner seeks to make Illinois “more competitive,” but he didn’t say for whom. He omitted, evaded or erred on a lot, like advocating the “trickle-down” economic theory.

"You create a race to the bottom in terms of wages," Bill Looby of the Illinois AFL-CIO told the Chicago Tribune. "It's an ideology that the economy will do better if the top does better. But that's a tired theory that hasn't worked.”

The Republican governor said he wants to curtail public employees unions from contributing to state lawmakers’ campaigns because they’re a “conflict of interest”; limit state-worker unions’ bargaining to hours and working conditions “like federal employees”; lower workers compensation and unemployment rates; let communities declare themselves Right-To-Work zones prohibiting unions from collecting fees from workers they represent; empower municipalities to declare bankruptcy to escape obligations for pensions to firefighters and others; limit lawsuits from “shopping” for courts and cap “unreasonable” judgments; and in an executive order a few days later, abolished public-sector unions from collecting “fair share” fees to help cover unions’ costs in negotiations and contract enforcement, criticizing “closed shops.”

(Oddly, Rauner was silent on pensions and the income tax.)

As for Rauner’s claims: Where to start? First, unions whose Political Action Committees vote to contribute to campaigns don’t negotiate with individual lawmaker recpients, much less the General Assembly, despite workers’ skills benefiting state government – just as UAW members’ talents contribute to the bottom line of Caterpillar. After all, lawmakers’ successful campaigns result in their livelihood, just as good tractor sales enrich Cat and its shareholders.

Next, federal employees DO negotiate for pay. But instead of meeting management across a table, they testify before Congressional committees, then Congress “ratifies” an agreement just as a school board or corporation board of directors approves a settlement. In fact, the U.S. government’s two largest unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), this month started appearing before Congress to lobby for better compensation.

“One-percent increases are not adequate, and we have set our sights on a higher pay raise for 2016,” said NTEU president Colleen Kelley. “The NTEU is supporting legislation in the House and Senate that would provide a 3.8 percent raise.”

Next, Illinois is far from the worst in state rankings for unemployment or workers comp rates, according to nonpartisan analyses by Insurance Journal and the Tax Policy Center. Illinois’ workers comp index rate of 2.35 is better than California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Alaska and Oklahoma. Indiana’s is much lower (1.06), but that’s nothing to brag about, said one expert.

“If you’re going to compare Illinois to Indiana, you may as well compare Illinois to a Third World country,” said John Burton, a conservative Cornell University economist who’s specialized in workers’ comp issues. “Indiana’s that backwards.”

Regarding state unemployment tax rates, Illinois’ maximum rate of 8.95 percent is better than neighboring Wisconsin (9.8 percent) and Missouri (9.75 percent) and far better than many states, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wyoming.

As far as Right-To-Work cities, that’s against federal law, which says that only states can enact RTW bans. Also violating federal law is a bankruptcy scheme for cities that want to renege on promised pension benefits. Federal law permits municipalities to file for bankruptcy protection only with the permission from their state, which mean the legislature would have to approve.

Rauner’s attack on trial lawyers upends civil procedure. Attorneys representing a personal injury victim, for example, legitimately seek an advantageous venue for clients based on where an accident occurred, the headquarters of the defendant company, the home office of a complicit subcontractor, the hospital where the victim was treated, or the victim’s residence. And limiting juries’ awards defies the court system.

“What’s ‘unreasonable’?” asked Jim Covington of the Illinois State Bar Association. “Where is the fairness of arbitrarily picking a number?”

Lastly, Rauner’s criticism of “closed shops” shows his ignorance about labor relations. Closed shops were outlawed in 1947. “Union shops” are workplaces where employees who benefit from collective bargaining share in the costs of achieving the rewards workers receive.

Rauner’s anti-union message seems to idealize a powerless work force to be exploited for the profits of influential owners. Think slave-state economies in the Old South.

[PICTURED: Illustration of Mr. Rauner and Mr. Burns from chicagonow.com.]

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stalled wages hurt consumer spending

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 16, 17 or 18

Americans can’t spend what we’re not paid, an increasing number of economists, politicians and news media have discovered after the strongest job growth in 15 years and the best unemployment rate since the Great Recession combined with disappointing consumer spending this winter.

The U.S. economy added 257,000 jobs in January, according to the Labor Department, and the jobless rate held steady at 5.7 percent, just 0.1 more than December.

However, another drop – in weekly pay – reminds us that no economy that depends on consumer spending is really prospering when consumers’ wages aren't keeping up.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report set Usual Weekly Earnings at $796, but in “constant dollars” reflecting inflation, pay is the same as the 3rd quarter of 2007.

A year-to-year comparison to December 2013 shows wages up just 1.7 percent, compared to the Consumer Price Index’s increase of 1.3 percent, showing little wiggle room in household budgeting.

The last time a jobs report was this promising, in 1999, wages also improved – 3.6 percent.

But the bad news – stagnating wages – is dampening enthusiasm.

“The one indicator that hasn’t improved is nominal wages,” said analyst Elise Gould with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “Nominal wage growth has been consistently below target over the last five years.”

Lackluster improvements in pay limit working families’ ability to spend, of course.

“Paltry wage gains help keep overall inflation in check but also limit household budgets and blunt consumer spending,” wrote Jeffrey Sparshott in the Wall Street Journal.

The Center for American Progress, a think tank allied with Democrats, this winter released a report from its Commission on Inclusive Prosperity.

“The ability of free-market democracies to deliver widely shared increases in prosperity is in question as never before,” says the report, co-written by Lawrence Summers, former director of President Obama’s National Economic Council.

“The primary challenge democracies face is neither military nor philosophical,” it says. “Rather, for the first time since the Great Depression, many industrial democracies are failing to raise living standards and provide opportunities for social mobility to a large share of their people.”

“Economists typically expect a rapidly falling unemployment to deplete the pool of existing workers and spur competition among employers, reflected in higher wages,” Sparshott said. “But a robust year of job growth has yet to deliver that result.”

And, again, wage stagnation is adversely affecting consumer spending.

As for the causes of wage stagnation, economists cite several factors.

Kenneth Quinnell of EPI listed five reasons: The abandonment of full employment (policymakers instead focus on keeping inflation low); declining union density (as pro-business interests pushed policies that lowered union membership); changes in labor market policies and business practices (such as the lowering of the value of the minimum wage, the decrease in overtime eligibility for workers, misclassification of workers as independent contractors, and declining budgets and staff for government agencies that enforce labor standards); deregulation of the finance industry and the unleashing of CEOs (shifting compensation toward the upper end of the spectrum, the financial sector’s increasing political power, falling top tax rates, and deregulating finance); and globalization policies (prioritizing corporate interests over worker interests).

Ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor, author and filmmaker (“Inequality for All”) lists similar concerns: outsourcing jobs; technologies taking over jobs; millions of workers dropping out of the labor force (so employers can more easily draw applicants to low-paying or part-time work); Americans’ lack of savings (meaning they live paycheck to paycheck and feel desperate for jobs); and the war on organized labor.

“None of these changes has been accidental,” Reich wrote. “The growing use of outsourcing abroad and of labor-replacing technologies, the large reserve of hidden unemployed, the mounting economic insecurities, and the demise of labor unions have been actively pursued by corporations and encouraged by Wall Street. Payrolls are the single biggest cost of business. Lower payrolls mean higher profits.

“Big corporations and Wall Street are calling the shots,” he continued. “From the limited viewpoint of the CEO of a single large firm, or of an investment banker or fund manager on Wall Street, it’s worked out just fine.”


[PICTURED: Illustration from oldamericancentury.org.]

Sunday, February 15, 2015

As ‘pitchers & catchers report,’ nostalgia beckons

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 12, 13 or 14

Next week, the four words baseball fans long to hear will be uttered: “Pitchers and catchers report.”

Spring Training signals a rebirth of the National Pastime, a time to let the future present itself and the past to be rekindled like Louisville Sluggers in a Hot Stove League dugout fire.

The 2015 season marks 100 years since Babe Ruth hit first major league home run, and as seamheads revel in such history, speculate, and pore over statistics, it’s fun to recall memorable comments about baseball, such as Roger Kahn writing, “Baseball's inherent rhythm, minutes … of passivity erupting into seconds of frenzied action, matches an attribute of the American character.”

The past. Gail Mazur: “Baseball holds so much of the past, pulls me back to it each year, to the soothing un-clocked unrolling of the innings, to the sound of an announcer through an open car, the sweet attenuations of late summer afternoons. The sound of cleats on an asphalt drive, a bat cracking a ball, delirious cheers call out to surprise me in easy conversation with strangers.”

Compared to other sports. Stanley Cohen: “Baseball, almost alone among our sports, traffics unashamedly and gloriously in nostalgia, for only baseball understands time and treats it with respect. The history of other sports seems to begin anew with each generation, but baseball, that wondrous myth of 20th century America, gets passed on like an inheritance.”

Earl Weaver: “You can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You've got to throw the ball over the plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game.”

Bill Veeck: “It is played by people, real people, not freaks. Basketball is played by giants. Football is played by hulks. Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very un-orderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off.”

The biz. Philip Wrigley: “Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business, too much of a business to be a sport.”

Bill Terry: “Baseball must be a great game to survive the fools who run it.”

Our country. Gerald Early: “There is something about baseball’s checks and balances that mirrors those checks and balances of the Constitution, of Enlightenment rationalism, of liberalism as a 19th-century ideology, the great metaphor of self-interested individuals as self-interested association, the invisible hand of perfected design.”

Kevin Kerrane: “After Vietnam, beyond football, in spite of Astroturf and designated hitters and megabucks, we keep finding the game again every time we lose it – rediscovering it not only in major league parks, but in every corner of the country, on innumerable streets and playgrounds and sandlots, and in every corner of our selves.”

Ourselves. Thomas Wolfe: “One reason I have always loved baseball so much is that it has been not merely ‘the great national game,’ but a part of our lives, of the thing that is our own, the million memories of America. Almost everything I know about spring is in it — the first leaf, the jonquil, the maple tree, the … grass upon your hands and knees, the coming into flower of April. And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than the smell of the wooden bleachers in a small town baseball park, that resinous, sultry and exciting smell of old dry wood.”

Tristram Potter Coffin: “Sportswriters argue about whether baseball is the national game or not. It … doesn’t matter. The picture of the father shoving a glove and bat into the crib of his first son is an American cliché simply because it symbolizes something typical about American hopes and fears.”

Michael O’Connor: “Baseball is not simply a sport. The game is a rite of passage through the corridors of youth; a game whose long, rich history allows us to retrace those early steps. Baseball is an awesome trust and a sacred privilege – one I believe God somehow had a hand in creating.”

Donald Hall: “My father and I played catch as I grew up. Like so much else between fathers and sons, playing catch was tender and tense at the same time. Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard, violent and superficial. Baseball is the generations, looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls, cricket and rounders, and games the Iroquois played in Connecticut before the English came. Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growth, age and death. The diamond encloses what we are.”

“Play ball!”

[PICTURED: Tim Souers cartoon from cubby-blue.com.]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Workers ignored by GOP, even Dems’ middle-class reforms

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 9, 10 or 11

President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address last month and his budget address last week proposed ways to help restore the economic health of the middle class, but he neglected the working class.

February is Black History Month, a time when we should all remember how intertwined the Civil Rights and labor movements have been, so there was some irony to the nation’s first African-American president speaking the day after the country marked Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and not mentioning working Americans.

King once said, “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.
“In our glorious fight for Civil Rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work’,” King said. “It is a law to rob us of our Civil Rights – and job rights.

Economic injustice was identified in the 1968 report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, which is eerily comparable to complaints – legitimate grievances – today: “Despite growing federal expenditures for manpower development and training programs, and sustained general economic prosperity and increasing demands for skilled workers, about two million – white and nonwhite – are permanently unemployed,” the Kerner Commission reported 47 years ago. “About 10 million are underemployed, of whom 6.5 million work full-time for wages below the poverty line.”

This winter, the numbers are just as chilling.

This month, working Americans should re-establish the link between labor rights and Civil Rights, between Black Power and union solidarity, between common struggles and common foes.

Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson also recalled the connection King felt.

“He always taught that the freedom symphony included not only Civil Rights and the end of segregation, voting rights and the assertion of citizenship, but also economic rights – equal opportunity from the start,” Jackson said. “This, he knew, would be the hardest of all to achieve.

“Dr. King had a dream, but he was not a dreamer,” Jackson continued. “He called for investment and reconstruction in our communities, bottom up. [Instead,] we bailed out the richest, but battered and abandoned the poorest.”

Indeed, the iconic, influential “March on Washington” in 1963 was titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And King’s assassination in 1968 occurred in Memphis, where he’d gone to support sanitation-worker members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Too many people have forgotten that – and too many take for granted organized labor’s achievements, from the five-day work week, job security and pensions to child-labor protections, worker's compensation and paid overtime. Further, unions have been vital in fighting for public education, equal pay for women, and, yes, Civil Rights.

But despite being taken for granted or overlooked by both political parties, hope remain.

“There's life left in the labor movement, which remains the last, best hope for reversing skyrocketing levels of economic inequality and restoring some measure of justice and decency to the U.S. workplace,” said John Logan, director of the Labor & Employment Studies program at San Francisco State University.

Conceding that “organizing within the official National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) system is virtually impossible, and that organizing ‘outside of the law’ is extraordinarily difficult,” Logan nevertheless sees the revival of the NLRB last year as one of a handful of good-news stories about organized labor, along with the campaigns “Fight for 15” and “OUR Walmart,” the United Auto Workers’ struggle at Volkswagen in Tennessee, and the Bay Area’s “Retail Workers Bill of Rights.”

Such progress – such hopes – can fuel dreams like Dr. Martin Luther King had.

Cornell West in his new book about King, “The Radical King,” also recounts the leader’s vision beyond integration, voting and opportunity.

“His dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity,” West said.

[PICTURED: Photo from bluestatereview.com]

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sock it to snowy sidewalks

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 5, 6 or 7

This week’s snowstorm caused my mind to wander to the mid-1950s, when I walked to school, where after each snowfall, it seemed that the coal-fired furnace in the three-story red-brick building struggled to heat classrooms’ cloakrooms. There, rubber boots sat in puddles, winter coats dripped, and gloves and socks – yes, socks – dried on warm iron radiators.

Bare feet on bare hardwood floors help keep that memory as vivid as a snowball down your neck.

This winter, we should all thank not just state, county, township and municipal crews who plow the roads and streets, but the everyday folks who clear paths for today’s kids, letting students who don’t ride the bus or drive cars to get to school safe and sound – with dry socks.

We might also recall other winters from our youth, when – with no long underwear – we wore pajama bottoms beneath our jeans, wore seasonal clothes like those odd baseball caps with fuzzy ear flaps and parkas with hoods that zipped open so they could lay on your shoulders, and rubber galoshes with metal buckles few of us fastened. (I don’t remember anyone wearing bread bags, by the way.)

And we might wonder why some sidewalks are not shoveled.

True, there are a lot of good neighbors who do, plus plenty of Good Samaritans – or that special breed of zealous snow-tractor jockeys who probably watch lawnmower races on cable TV – who clear entire blocks just because they enjoy it.

But too many sidewalks remain snow-covered and sock-soaking.

Maybe it’s not indifference but dread, based on that myth that if you shovel your walk and someone falls on your property, you’ll be sued, which is a misconception or exaggeration by anti-trial lawyer types. In fact, people do not increase their liability in “slip and fall” cases because they shovel their walks.

“If you have the wherewithal to shovel your snow off a public sidewalk or off the steps, you don’t want people to get hurt,” attorney Stephen Ringkamp from the Hullverson Law Firm told KWMU public radio in St. Louis. “If you’ve done your best, the law’s not going to hold it against you."

Regardless of a mistaken fear of lawsuits, clearing your sidewalk is required by law in most towns.

For example, in the small town where I live, its city code reads: “Every person in charge or control of any building or lot of land within the city fronting or abutting on a paved sidewalk, whether as owner, tenant, occupant, lessee or otherwise, shall remove and clear away, or cause to be removed and cleared away, snow and ice from a path from so much of a sidewalk as is in front or abuts on said building or lot of land. Snow and ice shall be so removed from sidewalks in all business districts within the city by twenty-four (24) hours after cessation of any fall of snow, sleet or freezing rain.”

(OK: “legalese.” But its meaning is clear: Shovel your sidewalk.)

It’s most likely the law where you live if there are sidewalks, whether you rent or own, you’re a church or business, in the business district or a new subdivision. And if you don’t find that acceptable as a legal obligation or common sense, consider a wintry version of the Golden Rule: the “Cold Rule,” if you will – “Treat your sidewalk for others as you would want others to shovel theirs for you.”

Instead of forcing kids to walk in the street – unnecessarily dangerous for pedestrians and motorists alike – and soak their socks: Shovel. Or snow-blow. Or use your riding lawnmower fitted with a blade. Or call a service.

You could probably even get a neighbor kid to scoop your walk for a few bucks.

Maybe he’ll earn enough to buy some spare socks for blocks where folks still break the law.

[PICTURED: The author shoveling his driveway. (Yes, those are Cubs gloves.) Photo by Terry Bibo.]

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

University’s suspension of journalist goes to motive

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 2, 3 or 4

If government institutions punish journalists for reporting facts some regard as unflattering, it discourages coverage, and the public is prohibited from seeing material and making their own decisions on what’s important. But just as “NEWS happens,” reprisals against reporters occur.

On Jan. 22, under the guise of a reprimand for breaking rules, Western Illinois University penalized a journalist for practicing journalism.

Nicholas Stewart, editor-in-chief of the Western Courier, WIU’s student newspaper, was suspended for reporting on a Dec. 12 fracas outside the University Union, where police used pepper spray at close range to disperse onlookers. The suspension seems like retaliation for accurately reporting an unfortunate incident despite the fact that Stewart didn’t provoke the police reaction, much less the brawl.

It was NEWS.

On the advice of his attorney, Stewart declined to be quoted but confirmed the background and timeline reported in Macomb’s daily paper: He photographed the fight and police with his own device, uploaded it from his personal Internet connection to a media brokering service with which he’s made other material available, from news to weather images, and it was used by some media credited to “Nicholas Stewart, Macomb, Illinois” without mentioning WIU or the Courier. Only later did he post the footage to YouTube and label it “Macomb Illinois riot: 12/12/14 pepper spray” and credit himself and the Courier (so his original video wouldn’t scoop his own newspaper, which wouldn’t publish for a month).

I believe him.

Vice President Gary Biller said the suspension had nothing to do with the content of the video.

That’s hard to believe.

Biller told Stewart he “poses a threat to the normal operations of the University” and accuses the undergrad of “committing acts of dishonesty [such as] attempting to represent the University, any recognized student organization, or any official University group without the explicit prior consent of the officials of that group”; “engaging in act of theft or abuse of computer time including … unauthorized financial gain or commercial activity”; and “committing violations of rules and regulations duly established and promulgated by other WIU’s case against Stewart seems flawed.

He used his own equipment. He wasn’t assigned the story or supervised (making him an “independent contractor”). It occurred after the Courier’s last issue of the semester (and staffers are obligated to work “during the publication schedule,” according to the Courier operations manual, meaning he was acting as a freelance journalist); and there’s precedence for such effort (the past practice includes not only his previous work but other Courier contributors who’ve provided photos and stories to other media).

As for his status: Unlike faculty, students aren’t employees. Professors in their research underwritten by schools may discover or create something worth copyrighting or patenting, and schools may have claims on that. But what Stewart did is akin to members of campus theater or band; musicians can perform at bars and actors off campus and be compensated. A few Courier editors receive academic credit and modest stipends (Stewart’s pay works out to less than the minimum wage).

“If you’re just paid on a stipend-type arrangement, then you’re a freelancer/independent contractor,” said Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center outside Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t sound like there was any alternative if the student wanted to get the information published before the end of the year.”

Further, the Courier manual allows outside work, saying it’s “permissible when such work does not conflict with the staff member’s or freelance employee’s obligations to the Western Courier or Western Illinois Magazine,” although it says journalists “should” (not “must”) get prior approval from some unnamed authority.

WIU’s Publications Board (on which I served for years when I taught there) held that even for assignments, the newspaper only had “first rights” to contributions, which are not “work for hire.” That’s why contributors keep their digital files/photo negatives, artwork, notes, etc.

Also, courts have considered conflicting rights of media located on public property such as schools versus government interests, and under “public forum” doctrine have ruled for journalists. In “Dean v. Utica,” a federal judge ruled that a Michigan school’s removal of an accurate article (about a lawsuit against the school) was solely motivated by image control and was unreasonable.

A previous WIU president, Al Goldfarb, in 2006 pledged, “The Courier has my support as a free and independent newspaper.” Has something changed? Freedom of the press should be restored, and this imprudent suspension of a journalist should be rescinded.

Student journalism – whether print, broadcast or online – is part of an education, when students experience and experiment.

Hopefully, this “lesson” won’t deter Stewart from journalism.

Student journalism is journalism, protected by the First Amendment, and serves the public.

UPDATE: Late the afternoon this ran, Western Illinois University reinstated Nick Stewart as editor-in-chief of the Western Courier.

[PICTURED: Nicholas Stewart photo from news3wiu.com.]