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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, July 20, 2014

Due process targeted along with teachers

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 17, 18 or 19

A lot of attention is understandably being paid to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent “Harris v. Quinn” ruling, which eliminated agency-fee arrangements for Illinois’ home health care workers who benefit from union representation but don’t want to contribute to collective bargaining.

However, an earlier court decision that hurts labor – especially teachers – shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Vergara v. State of California” undermines the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence.

True, “presumption of innocence” isn’t exactly in the U.S. Constitution.

In fact, guarantees spelled out there don’t even exist in workplaces – unless a union contract establishes rights such as due process.

But now, after a stunning June 10 court ruling in California, the presumption of innocence and due process may not be allowed even in collective bargaining agreements.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down teacher tenure, layoff rules, seniority and other employment-related provisions as unconstitutional, opening up the possibility of retaliation against educators and a move to privatize public education. The decision is being appealed.

The case was brought by corporate special interests that seek to blame teachers, not inequitable funding or other factors that affect children's ability to learn, according to teachers unions.

Treu claimed that he believes that due process is essential, but he ruled California’s protections for teachers unconstitutional because he believes two years is not long enough for probation.

“This lawsuit was never about helping students,” the NEA said, “but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education. Research shows experience enhances teacher effectiveness and increases student productivity at all grade levels.”

In the private sector, probation is usually weeks, often 60 days. In academia, from public schools to universities, tenure isn’t earned for years, and even then it’s followed by annual retention evaluations.

Like any employees, teachers can be discharged for misconduct, incompetence, etc. But like any workplace, job security is vital. In education, it’s called tenure, a protection against unfair acts by management that can include discipline or discharge. Built around due process established in union contracts by grievance and arbitration language set up to maintain operations while disputes are settled, the presumption of innocence is akin to the criminal justice system’s protection against incarceration, execution or “lynch law” based solely on suspicion or malice.

In U.S. jurisprudence, the presumption of innocence derives from English common law and the Magna Carta. It’s accepted to be implicitly part of the 5th and 6th Amendments in the Bill of Rights (prohibiting citizens from being deprived of life, liberty or property without due process, among other things, and a speedy trial by an impartial jury, respectively). Also, the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, extends such protections to the states.

Employment, of course, is livelihood, not life; a real stake, if not precisely property. But the parallels are there.

“Our opponents have spent months – and millions of dollars – vilifying California teachers to push a political agenda,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “If we want every child to have a chance to thrive, we must retain and support a stable teaching force – especially in high-poverty schools. By attacking the rules that protect and support teachers, the ‘Vergara’ decision destabilizes public education.”

Indeed, the ruling “may do little to systemically raise student achievement,” wrote Dana Goldstein, author of the forthcoming book “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” in The Atlantic.

“For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing,” Goldstein said, “and the ‘Vergara’ decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates.”

Focusing on who should be laid off in times of budget crises, Treu omits the bigger problem of adequate funding of schools so kids have access to the classes and opportunities they need.

“While the court used its bully pulpit to criticize teacher protections,” Weingarten said, “there was no mention of funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that have been proven to affect student achievement and our children.

“The judge argues that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom,” she continued. “We agree. But in focusing on teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, he strips the hundreds of thousands of good teachers of any right to a voice.”

[PICTURED: AFT union president Randi Weingarten at a rally in Detroit, from ei-ie.org.]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Baseball’s been very, very good … to some

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 14, 15 or 16

Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Game is this week at Minneapolis’ Target Field, but the contest between owners and their employees who aren’t players is in extra innings.

Most people know that ballplayers are paid well – as movie stars, recording artists and other entertainers are. Fewer know that that resulted not from benevolent owners, but players who organized.

For decades, baseball players had few rights beyond whatever their owners decided to grant them – low pay that required off-season jobs, weak pensions, no real compensation for the wear-and-tear on their bodies, and no freedom to determine for what team they played. Players were “owned” by teams through the “reserve clause” through their careers; they couldn't play for another team unless it was OK’d by the owner who either first drafted and signed him, or traded with another owner.

That bondage was changed starting in 1968, when former steel-union attorney Marvin Miller led the Major League Baseball Players Association to the first collectively bargained contract in sports history.

The next year, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star outfielder Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenged the reserve clause in federal court when the Redbirds tried to trade him to the Phillies, but his case established that the reserve clause was a legitimate subject for collective bargaining.

In 1972, baseball players engaged in the first major work stoppage in professional sports history, and the players association helped overturn the reserve clause in 1975. Players became free – free agents.

Of course, while organized labor made gains for its athlete workers, owners made baseball and their franchises even more profitable, as labor reporter John Buell has noted.

“They manipulate their franchises in the same way manufacturing CEOs treat their factories,” he wrote. “They relocate wherever they can get the most lucrative subsidies.”

Yes, sometimes, baseball owners’ greed mimics their corporate brethren who violate labor law.

And players’ fellow workers – off-the-field employees of Major League Baseball teams – are saying, “Play ball!”

The federal Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recently fined the San Francisco Giants $764,000 in two cases for violating wage and hour and overtime pay laws. The division also fined the Miami Marlins and is investigating pay schemes at the Oakland A’s and the Baltimore Orioles.

Further, the Labor Department has warned the rest of baseball – major and minor leagues – about pay practices. Four years ago, when the Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis farm team, was under different management, the government caught them breaking the law, too.

The baseball investigations are more incidents of a common phenomenon: wage theft. Employers steal hundreds of millions of dollars from workers by misclassifying them as “independent contractors” ineligible for overtime pay, or paying them below the minimum wage, or denying overtime pay.

A Wage and Hour settlement, announced in May, found the Giants – in one of the most pro-union, pro-worker cities in the country – broke the law for a second time by paying 78 workers, most of them interns, stipends, and not the minimum wage and overtime. DOL said the interns worked in baseball operations, group sales and elsewhere, and were due back pay totaling $220,000 for the group.

In the first settlement, announced last year, the Giants paid $544,000 in back wages and damages to 74 employees. DOL said some were clubhouse workers who earned $55 daily but worked so many hours that their wages fell below the federal hourly minimum of $7.25 and California’s then-minimum, $8. They also got no overtime. DOL ruled then that the Giants improperly classified some workers as exempt from overtime pay. In a separate action, a lawsuit, the Giants last season reached a $500,000 settlement with security guards who’d claimed back pay for overtime and for working through breaks and meals.

In Miami, the Marlins will pay $288,000 in back pay and damages to 39 clubhouse and office workers, said Wage and Hour spokesman Jason Surbey. Clubhouse workers clean and prepare the locker room for games but were paid $50 a day. But they worked up to 11 hours on game days, so the Marlins also broke the minimum wage and overtime law.

The Labor Department concluded from the first Giants investigation that such pay practices “are endemic to our industry,” according to an MLB memo last Fall.

Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil said, “Whether in America’s factories, fields or ball parks, a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. Unfortunately, in our recent investigations of Major League Baseball teams, we found employees not being paid the minimum wage and overtime to which they are legally entitled. That’s unacceptable and I am pleased we have been able to secure back wages for those workers.”

[PICTURED: Graphics from fairwarning.org]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

‘Business’ model hurting college access, sparking colossal debt

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 10, 11 or 12

College costs and student loans aren’t being discussed enough, but maybe last week’s increase of student-loan interest rates will start something. Last summer’s Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act tied the interest rate to 10-year Treasury note rates, which this spring increased 8/10ths of a percent.

That meant on July 1, Stafford loans went from 3.86 percent to 4.66; graduate Stafford loans from 5.41 to 6.21; and Direct PLUS loans from 6.41 to 7.21 percent.

(Last week, incidentally, banks’ prime rate was 3.25 percent, the Federal discount rate 0.75 and the Fed Funds rate 0.25; somebody’s making a lot of money off students and their families.)

Student loans and the enormous debt they create are a problem, and they’re connected to costs that too much of higher education ignores. Tuition hikes add to many graduates’ debt, at best; at worst, they limit access to higher education, adversely affect enrollments, and hurt the U.S. economy. Borrowers starting out cannot buy durable goods, cars or homes.

In private and public institutions, enrollments are falling, legislatures are cutting funds to public-supported schools, and families are burdened or excluded; college employees increasingly face more belt-tightening (although few administrators talk about pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs for themselves).

Too many college teachers are now badly paid part-timers – just 30 percent of today’s professors are on “tenure-track” (meaning with job security), compared to twice that number 40 years ago.

Thomas Frank – author of "What's The Matter with Kansas?” – reports that U.S. college costs are up more than 1,000 percent since the 1980s. About 40 million Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion from going to college, and new grads seeking jobs owe an average of $33,000 in loans, the Wall Street Journal says.

President Obama recently ordered the Education Department to make lower annual student-loan payments available to those who borrowed money before October 2007, plus renegotiate with companies that service federal student loans. His Executive Order helps 5 million Americans unable to participate in the federal Pay As You Earn program, which caps monthly payments at 10 percent of borrowers’ income.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten endorsed the order and also attempted legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“No student should have to face the triple threat of skyrocketing higher education cost, high interest rates and crushing student loan payments,” Weingarten said.

Senate Republicans disagreed, as the GOP (except for Maine’s Susan Collins, Tennessee’s Bob Corker and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski) last month blocked Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The measure would have let students refinance loans with interest rates of up to 7 percent to rates as low as 3.68 percent. It wouldn’t have erased debts, but made them more manageable – as consumers do in refinancing.

The act would have paid for itself by closing tax loopholes for people who make more than $1 million a year. The vote was 56-38, but 60 votes were needed to break a filibuster and debate it.

This would have let millions of Americans – including thousands in their 60s who still collectively owe $43 billion, she said – save money and stimulate the economy.

Obama asked how anyone can justify letting “tax loopholes for the very, very fortunate survive while students are having trouble just getting started.”

Over the last few decades, there’s been a trend to operate colleges according to a management approach that’s business-oriented (a model that arguably resulted in an economy enriching an elite and causing everyone else to struggle). Even rising administrator pay is justified as being “very competitive,” echoing the excuse for excessive CEO pay at corporations.

Colleges blame utility costs, new buildings, regulations such as Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and, of course, faculty. Some administrators even point to falling enrollment, which blames the victims. Others claim higher prices will be justified by future financial returns, a gross oversimplification.

A recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York study added perspective. With unemployment for 20- to 24-year-old college grads so high – 10.6 percent – it’s not unreasonable for students and their families to question the value of a degree and the whether it’s worth going in to such much debt to earn one, say co-authors Jaison R. Abel, Richard Deitz and Yaqin Su.

“It has become more difficult over the past decade for recent college graduates to find jobs that utilize their degrees,” they write.

Administrators should stop thinking of college strictly in commercial terms and revive the idea that education is a social investment that helps create and maintain a public good.

Meanwhile, as Congress considers reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, it must seek ways to lower college costs and help borrowers.

[PICTURED: dshort.com data chart from http://boulderisstoopid.com/]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Benghazi? Been there…

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 7, 8 or 9

Six years ago this week, when George W. Bush was still President, terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, killing six.

Ten years ago on July 30, also during the Bush administration, terrorists attacked the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, killing two.

From 2002 to 2008, there were at least eight other attacks on U.S. diplomatic sites (not counting Baghdad), yet not one Republican – nor any Democrat – exploited the tragedies to complain about lax security, inadequate response, or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s competency.

The hype and hypocrisy about Benghazi is as exaggerated and duplicitous as Hollywood’s worst.

On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, a mob attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. Since then, many Republican officials have been unrelenting in their criticism of President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the incident.

Within days of House Speaker John Boehner creating the “House Select Committee on Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi,” I happened to watch an old movie I’d recorded from TCM: “Bengazi” (with an old spelling). It’s difficult to determine which is worse: a low-budget imitation of “Casablanca” or a high-profile witch hunt engineered by Right-Wing extremists.

The 1955 RKO movie starred three personal favorite “Richards” (Conte, Erdman and Carlson) plus the always-entertaining Victor McLaglen and the able Mala Powers. But the plot – an American with a shady background teams up with a corrupt Irishman to go after gold previously hidden by Arabs in a deserted mosque during World War II battles in North Africa – lacks almost as much credibility as Fox News and talk radio.

As of this month, there already have been at least 10 Benghazi inquiries, including a 16-month probe by a bipartisan panel, and investigators have found that an amateur video that some Muslims found insulting did play a role in the protest, that security was inadequate (and underfunded by Congress), that there was no proof that some official intentionally sparked the attack, and that no cover-up took place.

Nevertheless, Republicans’ Right Wing has pressed for another look, this one led by Tea Party Congressman Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who seems to see conspiracies everywhere, notably in his judgment about the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of groups applying for tax-exempt “charity” status (examination required by law and targeting conservative and progressive groups alike).

Two House members from Illinois, U.S. Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Hoffman Estates), are on the 12-member Select Committee, but insiders say it may be September before public hearings occur.

Gowdy in May complained, “No one has been arrested, prosecuted or punished for the murders of our fellow Americans,” but the FBI and U.S. troops on June 17 captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected ringleader of the Benghazi attacks who’s pleaded not guilty but said that he and the others there initially were demonstrating because of the controversial video. Some Republicans in Washington conceded that was good news.

As with almost everything since Americans elected Obama in 2008, much of the GOP on Capitol Hill are exaggerating and politicizing something rather than addressing real problems, and this election year promises to see more of that do-nothing mindset.

If the committee is NOT just political posturing, it could ask about atrocities allegedly committed by anti-Moammar Gadhafi rebels in Libya, about why NATO aircraft bombed a Libya TV station (killing three), about the continuing and escalating violence there, and about investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s stories that the whole Libyan mission was a cover for the CIA to smuggle arms to anti-Assad rebels in Syria – some of whom are now attacking Iraq, in a twisted lesson for foreign-policy mistakes and U.S. involvement in places Americans don’t want our troops and treasures to be risked.

“Bengazi” is better as an old movie than a new excuse to condemn Obama, raise campaign contributions and avoid the hard work of shared governance.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Where is corporate America’s patriotism?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 30, July 1 or 2

As flags unfurl, fireworks explode, and independence celebrated this week, patriotism seems absent from many corporate boardrooms, and an effort to encourage America-first business with roots in downstate Illinois lies dormant since being introduced eight years ago.

In early June, business lobbyists were pressuring Congress for a “tax holiday” to let them “repatriate” billions of dollars of profits earned overseas and untaxed. The move would let U.S. companies “return” the money to this country at a tax rate of about 5 percent instead of the 35 percent “marginal” rate (before deductions).

U.S. corporations have offshore profits of more than $2 trillion, according to the research firm Audit Analytics. Tax havens permit them to escape their share of the nation’s tax obligations. Leading the group of corporations with money off-shored in foreign accounts are Apple (with $54.4 billion), General Electric ($110 billion) and Microsoft ($76.4 billion).

Recently, U.S.-based Medtronic announced its intention to buy the Ireland-based Covidien for $43 billion and move its “principal offices” to Dublin to avoid U.S. taxes.

“These transactions are about tax avoidance,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). “Corporations [are] shifting their tax burden onto their competitors and average Americans.”

A previous, one-time tax holiday passed by signed by President Bush in 2004 didn’t work, opponents say. Drug companies benefited while many corporations repurchased their own stock. A second “one-time” effort was defeated in the Senate in 2009.

U.S.-chartered corporations enjoy incentives and bailouts, publicly-financed research and other privileges, and still resist contributing to society’s expenses, from the infrastructure that companies use to the subsidies they demand.

Some policymakers say rather than rewarding tax avoidance, outsourcing, etc., government should reward responsible business practices that recognize corporations’ responsibilities to employees, customers and, yes, the country, as much as shareholders.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) and 12 co-sponsors introduced the Patriot Corporations of America Act in 2006, when on the same day it was referred to committee and died. Based on research by Monmouth College political science lecturer Robin Johnson and former State Rep. Bill Edley, the bill would have given preferential treatment in government contracts and a 5-percent tax cut to corporations that produce at least 90 percent of their goods and services in the United States; comply with federal regulations on labor relations, consumer protection, and the environment; contribute a minimum of 5 percent to a portable pension plan; remain neutral in worker organizing drives; and refrain from price-gouging customers.

Such incentives would have been paid for by closing corporate off-shoring loopholes and trimming some tax breaks for millionaires.

“The bottom line is, we’re saying that we’re going to target the tax incentives for corporations to companies that care as much about the American worker as they do about the American market,” Edley said “It’s fine if they want to move to Mexico. But why are we providing the tax incentives for them to do it?”

That’s a reference to Maytag, which in 2004 moved 1,600 Galesburg jobs to Reynosa, Mexico, to make its profitable operation even more profitable, despite the cost to everyday Americans – who buy about 90 percent of the corporation’s products.

Schakowky said, “Our government continues to provide carrots – and no sticks – to companies harming our economy. We must stop rewarding outsourcers and tax dodgers, and start rewarding companies that care about America and American workers.”

Indeed, the Center for Study of Responsive Law has surveyed corporate executives about whether they pledge allegiance to the flag and its reference to “liberty and justice for all,” but few responded.

Where is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in promoting business loyalty to the nation?

Where is the American Legion, which claims to advocate for Americanism?

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has written about corporations and American ideals.

“It is our country that chartered them into existence and helped ensure their success and survival,” Nader said. “And these corporations now wield immense power in our elections, in our economy, over our military and foreign policies, and even in how we spend time with our friends and families.

“The 4th of July is an ideal time to call out these runaway corporate giants who exploit the patriotic sensibilities of Americans for profit,” he continued, “but decline to be held to any patriotic expectations or standards of their own.”

Schakowsky added, “Patriot Corporations are an expression of the American spirit of our forefathers and -mothers when they took that brave step of declaring our independence and creating the United States of America.”

[PICTURED: "Corporate States of America" flag graphic from teamsters355.com]

Thursday, July 3, 2014

‘Chain store’ fight timely but not new

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 3, 4 or 5

The problem of chain stores exemplified in recent battles about big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart is a current one, but neither it nor possible solutions is new.

Last month saw mass demonstrations and selective strikes against Wal-Mart’s low pay, bad benefits and retaliation against workers who speak out. Protests ranged from suburban Wal-Mart locations to the corporation’s annual meeting in Bentonville, Ark.

But U.S. big-box stores emerged in 1962, when Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart all opened their first stores. Further, the phenomenon is traced to the 1920s, when merchants and shoppers alike started objecting to the commercial effects on their communities – effects that continue in even worse ways today.

Midwest playwright Neil Schaffner of the tent-repertoire show the Schaffner Players (“Toby & Susie”) in 1929 wrote a popular comedy, “Chain Stores,” that dealt with the competition that new chain stores presented for local businesses. That play is being revived July 18-20 and 25-26 at the Museum of Repertoire Americana theater on the grounds of the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and also is scheduled to be performed during the Old Threshers Reunion there Aug. 28-Sept.1.

Now, rather than comedies from touring theater companies entertaining small-town and rural audiences, the country watches as organizations such as OurWalMart and its spinoff, “Wal-Mart Moms,” try to change the retail monster, for the better, from within. Although supported by organized labor, Our WalMart isn't a union, but its members still strive for what other workers want: decent pay, benefits and working conditions, respect on the job, and enough pay to feed their families.

Wal-Mart has about 1.4 million workers – some 1 percent of the U.S. workforce – making the giant corporation the world's largest private company. At the end of 2013, Wal-Mart had 4,700 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico (compared to Target operating almost 1,800 locations and Kmart just over 1,200. Wal-Mart reported sales of $444 billion in 2012, when it held the No. 1 spot in the Fortune 500.

“I've had enough of choosing between paying the electric bill and the heating bill or paying for shoes for my kids,” Wal-Mart Mom Linda Haluska of Glenwood, Ill., told Press Associates Union News Service. “My son didn't go to his high school prom because he didn't want to burden me with the cost of the tuxedo rental. How do you think that makes a mother feel?”

It’s a nagging feeling others endured decades ago.

“In view of the fact that ’Chain Stores’ [is] the most discussed topic in America at this time, this play is particularly timely,” Schaffner wrote in 1929.

After the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. economy rebounded, thanks in no small part to the labor movement.

“In the 1950s, General Motors’ rising wages and good benefits, negotiated with the United Auto Workers, set the pace for other companies and led to the creation of the U.S. middle class,” wrote Press Associates’ Mark Gruenberg. “In 2014, Wal-Mart's low wages, bad benefits and virulent anti-unionism set the pace for other firms, leading to corporate trashing of unions and destruction of the middle class.”

Research supports such criticism.

A 2008 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that Wal-Mart’s rapid expansion in the 1980s and 1990s was responsible for 40 percent to 50 percent of the decline in the number of small discount stores. Plus, according to 2014 research in the journal Social Science Quarterly, a similar effect continues: On average, within 15 months of a new Wal-Mart store opening, as many as 14 existing retail establishments close.

Also, other research has found that the arrival of Wal-Mart stores is associated with increased obesity of area residents, higher crime rates compared to communities that have no Wal-Mart stores, lower employment at the county level, and lower per-acre tax revenues than mixed-use development.

Nevertheless, despite such well-documented effects, big-box retailers are often courted by government officials, as suggested by a 2014 paper from the Harvard Kennedy School.

For local residents and the elected officials who purport to represent community interests, the questions become, “If politicians propose tax-based incentives for a retail project, is that an appropriate use of public funds? What are the potential effects, long and short term, on other retailers and employers in the area? Could an expansion of low-wage jobs increase use of taxpayer-funded assistance programs?”

Answers were neither immediately obvious nor enacted in the 1930s or since, but the continuing problem demands an answer.

[PICTURED: Illustration by Chicago cartoonist Ferd Himme from 1929 -- the same years as "Toby & Susie" head Neil Schaffner wrote his tent-theater play "Chain Stores,"from buylocalwausau.com.]

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Workers rights here worse than dozens of countries

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

The only nations with lousier climates for workers rights than the United States, according to a comprehensive new study by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), are authoritarian regimes or places suffering “open violent conflict.”

ITUC’s appraisal of labor-related criteria – based on 97 indicators of fundamental human rights and workers’ rights, as defined by International Labor Organization conventions – ranks the United States as bad as Argentina, Botswana and Indonesia when it comes to workers’ rights.

What company do U.S. workers find ourselves in? El Salvador, Hong Kong, Iraq, Pakistan, Thailand and Yemen are some of the 30 nations that were given a grade of 4 on a scale of 1-to-5, with 5 being worst.

The study considered factors such as workers’ ability to protest or strike, to engage in collective bargaining, and to enjoy basic civil liberties.

Issued at ITUC’s recent congress in Berlin, the report shows that only 200 million of Earth’s workers – 7 percent – are members of non-government-controlled unions.

“The guarantee of the free exercise of workers’ rights is a guarantee of a more equal and prosperous society,” the report says. “When workers enjoy the freedom of a collective voice, can bargain for safe workplaces and fair wages, and are free from discrimination, productivity and economic growth can flourish.

“Workers are struggling everywhere for their right to collective representation, and deficits exist in degrees in most countries,” it continues. “Abuses of rights are getting worse, not better, and too many countries take no responsibility for protecting workers rights in a national context or through corporate supply chains.”

In at least 53 nations, workers are disciplined or discharged for attempting to negotiate better working conditions, ITUC says. In most of those places, they got little or no legal protection.

“Employers and governments are complicit in silencing workers’ voices against exploitation,” it said.

The situation didn’t happen accidentally. Over the last few decades, corporate America and the 1% have waged an all-out economic war on workers and their unions. In fact, in the last few years, more than a dozen corporate-friendly and Republican-controlled states limited collective bargaining for public employees, and 19 other states have pushed for Right To Work laws that hurt the financial stability of workers’ unions.

There have been unintended consequences in this war on workers. The corporate juggernaut’s advances didn’t just cause the labor movement to retreat. The whole U.S. middle-class became “collateral damage.”

Either corporate America and its GOP cronies in Washington don’t understand that America’s economy is strongest when the middle-class is thriving, or they don’t care.

“Unions in countries with the rating of 4 reported systematic violations against workers,” the ITUC says. “The government and/or companies are engaged in a serious effort to crush the collective voice of workers, putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.”

The ITUC rates almost all the planet’s nations. Judgments were based in factors such as the right to organize, threats against workers, murders of union activists, exclusion from collective bargaining or the right to strike, and whether there are “effective legal guarantees against anti-union discriminatory measures.”

The organization could not rate Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and some republics in the South Asian region of the former Soviet Union.

ITUC gave its lowest rating of 5 to 24 nations, including China, Colombia, Guatemala and Korea. Another eight nations are “failed states,” ITUC says, countries that are so disrupted by revolution (such as Syria), war (both Sudans, Ukraine) or occupation (Palestine), that ITUC gave them a 5+ mark, explaining that workers have “no guarantee of rights due to the breakdown of the rule of law.”

Besides China and Korea, other major U.S. trading partners received marks of 3 or better. Countries with marks of 3 include Britain, Canada, Israel and even Venezuela. The 29 nations with a 2 rating included Japan and Russia. At the top, the 18 countries given a rating of 1 are France, Germany and 12 other European nations, plus South Africa, Togo and Uruguay.

[PICTURED: ITUC report cover art.]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reunion a reaffirmation – and fun

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

A lifelong seamhead, I passed up a chance to play catch with “Field of Dreams” star Kevin Costner at a Father’s Day weekend event in eastern Iowa to play catch-up with dreamers from Back in the Day in western Illinois.

A successful reunion is like your own wake – except you’re alive. A recent gathering of musical-political-social zanies who survived sizzling through the 1960s and ’70s together at a rural Illinois college town stressed that binds exist that can hold us together through decades of separation, success and loss (also proving wrong Robin Williams’ line, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren't there”).

Alternately dubbed the “No Class Reunion: The Roots Run Deep” and the “Zombie Roundup – a Musical Gathering of Those Who Refuse to Die,” it was held at a community building at a Macomb, Ill., retirement center (prompting my wife and son to acknowledge it as a “hippie geezer” get-together). There was no smoking, which caused more than one participant to ask, “Nothing? Or just pot?” But there was a lot of playing, talking and eating – a restaurateur and his crew from the era re-created the great Italian beef, Chicago-style hot dogs, etc. from the legendary Shlocky’s menu. The music was a counter-culture soundtrack: folk and bluegrass, blues rock and classic bar-band rock ’n’ roll.

Ably organized since February, the reunion drew more than 150 people from most of the country – southern Missouri and northern Minnesota, Chicago and New York, Seattle and Atlanta – all momentarily leaving behind careers and obligations to return and remember mutual moments. There was a judge and attorneys, an environmental activist and a union electrician, college professors and retirees, a CEO and a self-described Hindu guru, farmers and a marketing exec, the guy with maybe the toughest gig – a professional clown at a children’s hospital – and a guitar-playing drug and alcohol counselor (whose rendition of his original tune “Drinkin’ and Thinkin’ ” may have been shortened in performance to just “… Thinkin’ ”).

Conversations resumed after a 40-year interlude; laughter filled the rooms; family news updated – with fellow unindicted co-conspirators from campus groups, student newspapers or radio stations; with former co-workers in kitchens and cafeterias; ex-roommates, classmates or lovers; wives of old running partners; and friends of friends, like the Democratic Party activist from Champaign or the speech-pathologist buddy of a mutual pal.

Some couldn’t make it; a few had died, from cancer, heart trouble, a car accident, a fire.

One woman – a one-time waif with wide eyes and a big heart who now teaches literature –said, “I had no idea how rich and memorable the gathering of the tribe would be. Sharing little vignettes of each other from our youthful adventures offered us pictures of our forgotten selves that were fascinating and endearing. Old bonds reaffirmed. New bonds forged.”

Memories flowed like wine, as it’s been said and sung, and recollections ranged from building takeovers to outdoor music fests, from all-night jam sessions to late-night production of magazines, from start-up record stores to marathon Frisbee bouts through parks, from softball games to art and fashion and undeniable, irreplaceable camaraderie.

The “Those Who Refuse to Die” tag line became more appropriate as we shared experiences of having lived days like they were our last.

Other comments: “An incredible musical lovefest,” “I am still abuzz,” “Nearly 200 peaceful folks who are still bonded by their positive values – I really feel the love!” “A fantastic event: the best people in the world.”

Throughout the building were old photos and posters, books and articles, t-shirts and vinyl records and even pages from FBI files and much more: Survival.

It’s a survival without sacrificing or surrendering most of the ideals or dreams we held and have, those beliefs and passions that took root when we thought we had all the demands and questions and most of the answers.

Of course, as Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver said, “It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

That, and the love that’s stitches all the knowledge, hope and faith together.

[PICTURED: Graphic from event flyer by Ad Image Communications.]