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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.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Profits-above-all nothing new, Eastland tragedy showed

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., July 27, 28 or 29


It can be tempting to think 21st century business is running roughshod over everything.

However, though it’s timely to fret about “too big to fail” banks and business-smooching “turnaround agendas,” persistent “trickle-down economy” theorists and stark income inequality, Big Business’ power over government elected by voters to represent everyday people also is timeless, as shown by one of Illinois’ worst tragedies, which occurred a century ago this week.

A new book and an old dispatch from Illinois writer Carl Sandburg both connect the Eastland tragedy and the trouble with unaccountable business.

About 7 a.m. on Saturday, July 24, 1915, the 260-foot Eastland steamship boarded about 2,500 Western Electric workers and their families for a trip from Chicago to a company picnic in Michigan City, Ind. While still docked, the ship rocked, tipped and finally capsized in 20 feet of water yards from shore near the Clark Street Bridge over the Chicago River, and 844 people died.

The outing was to be a perk for workers (who had little choice and, in fact, had to pay for “proper attire,” according to later reports). The catastrophe was avoidable, according to journalist Michael McCarthy, whose book “Ashes Under Water” (Lyons Press) reveals that he ship’s owners knew the dangers but delayed making needed repairs.

McCarthy’s years of research with the National Archives and other sources show that the Eastland’s owners realized the ship was unstable but dismissed safety concerns for business reasons.

Prosecutors “tried to bring charges against the crew, the inspectors and the ship owners,” said McCarthy, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor. “There were exhibits that showed that the owners knew there were mechanical problems with the boat and they planned to repair it.

“One of the officers of the company started asking questions about repairing the stability of the ship,” McCarthy said, “and they decided to postpone them. This is where the really heartless side of this is: basically they said, ‘Let's not hold up ticket revenues’.”

It was after progressives in Washington started reining in monopolies and uncontrolled business, just a few years after “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s novelistic expose of conditions in the meatpacking industry. But a few reforms weren’t enough to save the hundreds of Eastland victims.

No one paid the price, McCarthy writes.

“People who were responsible were exonerated,” he said. “It was one of the great injustices of the 20th century.”

That didn’t escape the notice of Galesburg native Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, poet and journalist then working for Scripps’ Daybook newspaper. A few months after the disaster, Sandburg wrote a column for the International Socialist Review, blasting business and government officials who kowtowed to industry – especially U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Redfield.

Redfield was an acolyte of renowned “efficiency expert” Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose ideal based on time-and-motion studies seeking to improve production had been instituted by many businesses.

“Why didn't this ideal work out in the bureau of Steamboat Inspection Service directly responsible to Redfield?” Sandburg wrote. “There's one answer. Business required it.

“Grim industrial feudalism stands with dripping and red hands behind the whole Eastland affair,” he continued. “The business interests who run the Great Lakes and the coast and the oversea steamship lines told Redfield everything was all right … and there was no danger. So he, like a faithful bureaucrat, considering himself responsible only to business [and] lifted no finger.”

Redfield and the Eastland’s owners had been warned about the risks by unions but to no avail, Sandburg wrote, so “the Eastland became a coffin boat from which truckloads of dead working people were hauled away.”

The faulty Eastland had sunk “to the river bottom like a dead jungle monster shot through the heart,” Sandburg wrote, “the ghastliest commentary on American efficiency so far written into national history.”

Ghastliness remains, from billionaires buying political candidates thanks to the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling, to bills written by the Koch brothers’ American Legislative Exchange Council, to the sheer number of influential lobbyists who demand attention from lawmakers who are supposed to listen to constituents.

Such business practices could cause today’s ship of state to founder.

[PICTURED: A 1915 photo of some of the hundreds of drowning victims from the Eastland disaster.]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Flags can deny facts

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 23, 24 or 25

Rewriting history to claim the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery is a fantasy, like claiming the Union was saved by Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Following the Confederate flag furor, there’s news that Texas schools this fall will have history textbooks that stress state’s rights, not slavery, as the main cause of the Civil War.

Within days of a white racist murdering nine African Americans in a South Carolina church, a bipartisan demand to get rid of the divisive symbol bore fruit, and Confederate flags were removed from its capitol. Some still object, saying it’s part of the South’s heritage and should still fly.

Of course, the answer to hate speech isn’t censorship but more speech. So just as Nazis should have the right to march in predominantly Jewish communities or the Ku Klux Klan should have the right to leaflet neighborhoods, Americans have the right to fly the Confederate flag. People offended by that symbol of white supremacy – or a swastika or burning cross – can counter with facts, also protected by the First Amendment.

That said, the Klan, Hitler Youth and fans of the defeated Confederacy cannot expect displays to be underwritten by public funds. Using tax money to display them is an endorsement, advocating beliefs.

And it’s difficult for children to argue with “endorsed” schoolbooks altered by politicized officials, even if they’re dead wrong.

I was a child of about 10 at the Civil War centennial, when dime stores sold cap guns that shot cork mini-balls, and blue and gray felt caps to wear playing in backyards. I became fascinated by rebel officers Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart – until my dad pointed out that they owned slaves.

Southern leaders wanted to enslave people, according to their own documents, and became traitors.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens admitted that in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he claimed “the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man.”

Slavery, Stephens told a Savannah, Ga., audience, is “the immediate cause of the late rupture.”

But today’s 10-year-old Texans will be indoctrinated that slavery was a “side issue” to states rights, as Texas’ State Board of Education sanitized books for the country’s second-largest textbook market – even omitting mentions of the Klan and the unjust “Jim Crow” caste system.

American Historical Association director James Grossman told the Washington Post, “The war happened only because of the determination of the leadership of 11 states to defend the right of their residents to own other human beings.”

It’s not just academics. Jeremy Stern of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute said the Board was “molding the telling of the past to justify its current views.”

And Republican Rod Paige, a member of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, said, “We may not like our history, but it’s history.”

Indeed, Southern states’ 19th century secession announcements didn’t pretend otherwise. South Carolina’s complained about the U.S. government’s hostility “to the institution of slavery.” Mississippi’s said it “identified with the institution of slavery” and blasted the North because it “advocates equality.”

(Ironically, Mississippi also accused the North of “prejudice” against it, of destroying “the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood,” and cited “justice” in its action.)

Incidentally, Lincoln’s home state isn’t without its share of shame. The late, great Illinois author and politician Paul Simon in his book “Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years” recalled an 1862 vote by Illinoisans to “not admit additional Negroes into the state” and “not to allow Negroes to vote or hold office.”

But the South started the war – over slavery. South Carolina, again, dismissed emancipation for African Americans as foolish since they’re “incapable of becoming citizens.”

Today, U.S. citizens of all colors and creeds have rights – to wave flags and also to vote and to learn facts from our past.

Rewriting the past hurts the present and our future, replacing lessons learned with fantasies.

[PICTURED: Illustration from jjusa.org.]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Infrastructure lousy, lawmakers gridlocked

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., July 20, 21 or 22

The Prairie State’s roads and bridges, airports and rails all are no better than the nation’s, which needs some $3 trillion of upgrades to improve, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). As an example, of the 607,380 bridges in the country, 1 in 9 is structurally deficient, ASCE says: more than 67,000, which people travel across daily.

Adding dumbness to danger, lawmakers in Springfield and Washington have done little, like their batteries are dead.

The U.S. House last week passed an $8 billion, stop-gap measure to fund infrastructure through Dec. 18, but it’s opposed by Republican Senators and also Democrats who object to its funding: taking money from federal workers’ pensions.

Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said, “They’re never going to move that bill.”

GOP Senators want to push the next highway deadline to after the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, the money that federal, state and local governments together spend on such construction has dropped compared to the overall economy since 2000.

In May, during “Infrastructure Week” – assisted by groups as varied as the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Manufacturers – labor federation president Richard Trumka said, “Talk is cheap in Washington. We hear a lot of noise about priorities, but we see very little action.

“Well, let me give you an American priority,” Trumka continued, “– one shared by working people and business leaders everywhere: big public investments in America’s infrastructure. Roads. Bridges. Sewers. Pipelines. Transit. Waterways. Ports. Electrical grids. Airports. Internet and phone lines. Drinking water.

“Those investments benefit everybody,” he added. “Those investments create jobs. Those investments build America.”

It’s not just unions, contractors, businesses like trucking companies or railroads that call for adequate funding to fix America’s infrastructure. The “Accelerate Illinois” group, which advocates for an increase in the gas tax tied to inflation, includes ComEd and Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), the Illinois Soybean Association and AARP.

The gas tax in Illinois has been the same for more than 20 years, so its relative value has declined as inflation has gone up. Worse, more than $100 million in transportation user-fee revenues in recent years were diverted to non-transportation spending by Illinois’ state government.

Ray LaHood - the former moderate Republican Congressman from downstate Illinois’ 18th District and also President Obama’s Transportation Secretary – endorsed raising the gas tax a dime a gallon to pay for the country’s crumbling infrastructure. However, despite backing from various groups and deadlines for the highway-mass transit bill and the Highway Trust Fund that pays for such projects, the proposal was dismissed by the Republican-dominated Senate Transportation Committee, which seems to oppose all tax hikes.

The federal gas tax hasn’t gone up in 22 years and remains at 18.4 cents a gallon. With no new highway-mass transit law, the feds can’t collect it after July 31.

Federal legislation could create jobs as well as repair and replace roads, bridges and transit systems. Calculations show that every $1 billion spent on such projects means 40,000 construction jobs.

“Whether it’s on our roads, in the air, in our ports or on our rails – our nation’s infrastructure is falling apart,” LaHood said. “That is causing us to lose our economic competitiveness and to negatively impact our quality of life. The nation’s roads are essentially one big pothole.”

Deteriorating bridges and roads also cost people money and time, LaHood added: $800 per driver a year due to congestion on major roads, repairs, etc.

After the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in May – at least indirectly linked to inadequate maintenance and a rail system incapable of letting trains travel as fast as other countries’ – former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers told the New York Times that more spending on infrastructure would make accidents less likely and bring economic benefits.

“A major infrastructure investment program would reduce long-run deferred maintenance liabilities, raise demand and G.D.P., put construction workers back to work and raise investment,” said Summers, an economics professor and president emeritus of Harvard University. “Interest rates may not always be as low as they are now, so it’s high time to get started.”

Does Congress need a jump-start?

“OK. Now try it.”

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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

‘Liberals’ come in from the cold

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 16, 17 or 18

A decade ago, when a reporting colleague suffering his newspaper’s short-sighted retrenchment heard that my son planned to major in journalism, he said, “What are you telling people instead? That he’s opening a meth lab?”

Likewise, there was a time when conservative Republicans bullied some Americans into hiding their political preferences except in the privacy of the voting booth, so folks became reluctant to say they were liberal or progressive.

Times change.

Americans have, too, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Progressive values also are gaining acceptance in the campaign rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidates Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, and even Hillary Clinton. But none of them – nor any Republican presidential candidate, for that matter – is drawing the crowds that self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders is attracting to his appearances across the country. Some right-wingers (and lately, Clinton surrogates) are warning Sanders and progressive supporters that the Democratic Party is moving too far toward the left.

However, as recent Gallup shows, it’s not these politicians – nor liberal stalwarts such as Elizabeth Warren or Keith Ellison, much less a few U.S. Supreme Court Justices– who are leading the charge.

Americans themselves have changed.

EverydayAmericans are worried about income inequality and climate change; oppose discrimination and money’s influence in politics; want improved Social Security and public education; favor restoring meaningful regulations on Wall Street and Big Banks; support reforming immigration and law enforcement; don’t worry much about marijuana use or others’ religious faiths; are suspicious of trade policies and foreign military adventures; don’t think pre-marital sex, homosexuality or divorce is damning…

A Gallup poll released this spring confirms this shift.

For the first time since 1999, when pollsters starting tracking public opinion on such social issues, the percentage of Americans self-identifying as “liberals” equaled those who called themselves “conservatives.”

Apart from the reality that many self-identified conservatives also share progressive values concerning topics such as financial wrongdoing, privacy issues and equal pay for equal work, the increase is dramatic.

Sixteen years ago, Gallup polls showed that “conservatives” outnumbered “liberals” two-to-one, some probably shying away from the stigma of the term, an attack created during the post-Reagan Bush years (including “New Democrat” Bill Clinton’s administration).

But people evolved, or maybe just started standing up and owning up to their preferences, caring more about certain issues than about what trolls or other critics say.

Poll results that show that most people aren’t totally permissive when it comes to pornography, or comfortable with abortion, or advocate spendthrift economics aren’t proof of hypocrisy or inconsistency as much as a reflection that many Americans are less ideological than logical, or empathetic.

John F. Kennedy in 1960 described a liberal as “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties.”

Many self-described conservatives also fit that definition, of course. However, the extremists who control conservatives’ main media messages – from talk radio and Fox News to leadership on Capitol Hill and the Ship of Fools that carries the 15-and-counting GOP presidential candidates – don’t look to be appealing to regular Americans. Instead, they seem to be competing for the most-conservative label, outdoing each other to see who can be the best-funded (if least electable).

They’re trying to be More Conservative than Thou to ingratiate themselves to billionaire campaign contributors, or to appeal to Republican primary voters, who in many states can be disproportionately religious and socially conservative. It’s “a Republican electorate that isn’t necessarily where the rest of the country is – or is going – on religiosity and social liberalism,” said Charles Blow in the New York Times.

But the polls demonstrate where we’re at, so – as it’s said – “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

[PICTURED: Illustration from liberalamerica.org.]


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: the end of sovereignty?

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., July 13, 14 or 15

Beyond sacrificing U.S. jobs, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could end life as we know it – at least what’s understood as national sovereignty.

Organized labor has been credited or blamed for delaying TPP’s passage, but resistance to the deal also included Feminist Majority, the NAACP, the League of Conservation Voters, consumer groups, churches, the conservative Heritage Action for America and the libertarian Electronic Frontier privacy group.

Last month, House Democrats in rare defiance of President Obama initially blocked TPP’s fast-track authority, which essentially pre-approves TPP and its schemes by restricting debate and preventing amendments by Congress – which has had limited access to what it says. A week later a different version passed so it could be re-considered by the Senate, which on June 24 approved fast-track with a 60-38 tally, almost guaranteeing it and companion measures will go to Obama for his signature.

Essentially written by corporations and negotiated over the last five years, the 12-nation TPP – the largest accord of its kind – is more than a trade agreement. It’s mostly a corporate power grab masking as a trade deal, one threatening representative government. Its secret, unaccountable “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) tribunals could override laws that “impair” profits.

Empowered to enforce the TPP, the tribunals could supersede laws or regulations, with no appeals.

“The rationale for ISDS is that some of the countries in the pact do not have an independent judiciary where foreign investors can be assured of fair treatment,” says economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of “The End of Loser Liberalism.”

“This may be the case with Vietnam and Malaysia,” Baker continues. “It is certainly not the case with Japan, Canada, Australia and the United States. So we are supposed to set up this extra-judicial structure, which can in principle question almost any law or regulation, so that U.S. corporations can feel more secure with their investments in Vietnam?”

David Morris, reporting for On The Commons, further clarifies that ISDS makes rules passed by elected representatives subservient to Big Business.

“Corporations, rather than only governments, would have the right to sue,” Morris writes. “And they could sue for loss of potential profits. And they would do so via a new, extra-territorial judicial system that favors commerce over community and corporations over governments.”

In fact, similar impediments to domestic laws exist on smaller scales. On the same day that Congress initially blocked fast track, the House overturned rules requiring country-of-origin labeling for meat, responding to a World Trade Organization ruling that judged U.S. country-of-origin labeling unfair competition with meat coming from nations such as Canada and Mexico. Rather than fight trade sanctions or lawsuits from countries shipping meat into our country, Congress caved.

“If this gets signed by Obama, even the mere possibility of a lawsuit will have struck down a wholly reasonable law that protects our health and supports our local economies,” says Paul Loeb, author of “The Impossible Will Take a Little While.”

Indeed, Morris adds, “Modern, multi-faceted trade pacts have more to do with pre-empting national, state and local rules that could favor communities or regional economies or domestic businesses or the environment than with lowering tariffs.”

Despite the ISDS component, 13 Senate Democrats voted for fast track, including Dianne Feinstein of California and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. (Illinois’ Republican Mark Kirk supported it; Democrat Dick Durbin opposed.) Presidential candidates were divided. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted no; Lindsay Graham (R-S. C.) voted yes; Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) didn’t vote.

Some apparently were swayed by a Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program to help workers who lose their jobs, which passed June 24 in a separate voice vote. The TAA program – which as drafted would be funded by taking $450 million from Medicare! – is revealing in itself.

“The very existence of the TAA bill means these people in D.C. know the trade bill will be a job-destroyer. Otherwise they wouldn’t bother,” says William Rivers Pitt, author of “The Greatest Sedition is Silence.”

And despite fleecing Medicare, Capitol Hill wouldn’t be providing enough for helping Americans whose jobs will vanish to “a country with no labor laws where people work for $2 a day during 18-hour shifts making the clothes you used to be able to afford before we laid you off, so here’s $10 so you can take in a movie and get your mind off things,” Pitt continues. “It’s a button Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

[PICTURED: Illustration from economyincrisis.org.]

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dead’s ‘Fare Thee Well’ a celebration of life

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 9, 10 or 11

I wept, OK.

It wasn’t crying in pain; more like grief, or even joy – sort of a cross between a funeral and a wedding – but when I was at Friday’s Grateful Dead concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field, there were tears in my eyes from emotions: delight, a little longing, maybe even some rage at disappointment or fear of future silence.

At the first of three final shows of the legendary band, the fifth song in the first set was “The Wheel,” with meaningful words by lyricist/poet Robert Hunter: “The wheel is turning and you can't slow down. You can't let go and you can't hold on. You can't go back and you can't stand still; if the thunder don't get you then the lightning will.

“Won't you try just a little bit harder. Couldn't you try just a little bit more?”

OK.

The Dead’s “core four” – Mickey Hart (71), Bill Kreutzmann (68), Phil Lesh (74) and Bob Weir (67) – were joined by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardists Jeff Chimenti from RatDog and Bruce Hornsby. Together, they rekindled memories of optimism, happiness and kinship, like a great reunion where folks shared memories of believing that anything could happen.

Musically, magically, you can go home again, it seems. But there was heartache for absent friends who’d shared shows at the Chicago Auditorium Theater, in the Maryland woods, and the Iowa State Fairgrounds (twice!). As always, the event was a pleasant blend of a ballgame and church, with the multi-generational crowd singing along to tunes such as “Jack Straw,” “Bertha,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Playing in the Band.” Throughout the group’s wistful, energetic trademark bluegrass jazz, an undulating audience bounced, swayed and smiled with the rhythm in excitement and glee. Perfect strangers became a comfortable community.

Colors from tie-dyed clothes, flowers in hair, and beads, plus smells from patchouli and pot, all swirled through the family of 70,764 souls. More a spiritual revival than some psychedelic nostalgia, the two-set concert began as their last appearance here ended, weeks before guitarist Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death, with “Box of Rain.”

Just 53 when he died, Garcia’s passing brought old pals together by phone, as several tracked me down at a journalism conference at the University of Missouri, where we shared shock and pain. Now, with more than a “touch of grey,” and still singing the “U.S. Blues,” more than 200,000 Deadheads gathered in Chicago in a kind of pilgrimage for the band that started in 1965 as the Warlocks (recalled in Kreutzman’s fun new book, “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead”).

Fifty-year careers in music are rare, and such anniversaries are rarer. Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Grand Ol’ Opry, Elvis or the Beatles never had such happenings, perhaps because the Dead so fully accompanied a cultural change and time.

At the stadium, the music, as always, was meandering and controlled, angelic and devil-may-care, juggling improvisation with a barely adequate sound system, all ethereal yet as solid as 12-bar blues or 3-chord rock. There was “Passenger,” “Crazy Fingers” and “The Music Never Stopped,” and “Scarlet Begonias,” “Help on the Way” and “Franklin's Tower.”

Throughout the world there were simulcasts and pay-per-views, and a recording of the weekend’s three shows is expected, but there’s something special about Live Dead. They jam with unity, working and playing with independence within individual tunes’ frameworks, a dynamic tension not unlike the liberty and democracy commemorated that July 4th weekend.

My momentary sorrow gave way to lasting bliss, and I made the turn easily at the signature “celebration of life” number “Ripple”:

“If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine, and my tunes were played on the harp unstrung, would you hear my voice come through the music?”

Indeed, we’ll not go quietly into that night.

We’ll be singing.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The coward’s way out of budget cuts

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., July 6, 7 or 8

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is hiding behind his billions and trying to get lawmakers to take responsibility for drastic cuts that the first-term Republican wants made.

Rauner is bullying those who disagree with his “turnaround agenda,” too. By refusing to negotiate with lawmakers on the state budget or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on state employees’ expired contract, and by using some of his special fund of $30 million for attack ads, he seems to be whining, “If I don’t get my way, then I’ll take my ball and go home.”

His way is a one-sided scheme that would punish workers and unions, lawsuit plaintiffs who juries say deserve awards, the poor, seniors, the ill, children and universities, and would propose privatizing public services and limiting lawmakers’ terms apart from elections where they can be removed anyway.

And, again, he’s refusing to take ownership of the cuts; he’s not telling those affected that he’s singling them out.

As for Illinois’ budget, Rauner already has the power to make cuts he wants, according to political science educator and downstate-Illinois ACLU board member Randy Fritz, who recently wrote that Rauner can remove specific spending in appropriations bills through vetoes if he decides to eliminate public services he thinks are too expensive for Illinoisans to provide.

“On appropriation bills he can ‘line-item veto’ specific or general appropriation items (override-able by a 3/5 majority of both houses or they remain law as vetoed),” Fritz said. “He can ‘reduction veto’ those same line items, which can be overridden by a simple majority vote of both houses (or they become law as vetoed).

“He can also just veto an entire bill, which must be overridden by a 3/5 majority vote or the bill is dead,” Fritz added.

Rauner did recently veto all but one budget recommendation – he OK’d school funding so districts can open on time – but he never explicitly said such-and-such people don’t deserve state help. Instead of speaking in fuzzy platitudes (and discredited theories like “trickle-down economics”), a forthright Rauner would tell Illinoisans that they could no longer have energy assistance if they’re poor, programs to let infirm seniors remain in their own homes, child care, help for the mentally ill, etc.

Instead of explaining to citizens why they’ll be left out, or using his executive power, Rauner ran commercials.

Senate president John Cullerton (D-Chicago) – who concedes that the proposed state budget is $3 billion short, commented, “We find ourselves trying to work with a governor who continues to run campaigns rather than the state that elected him. He's dictating demands and threatening those who defy him.”

Concerning bargaining with AFSCME – which Rauner has unfairly depicted as overpaid, underworked or lazy – six months of negotiations seems to reveal a bad-faith approach.

As the budget stalemate continues, the state’s largest union on June 25 agreed to a 30-day contract extension to avoid a government lockout or strike by its 40,000 members.

“It allows both sides to continue to negotiate during the month of July without the threat of disruption to important public services,” said AFSCME’s statement.

Rauner is demanding cuts in wages, health coverage and pensions, privatizing some work and replacing seniority with vague pay-for-performance bonuses, which labor calls subjective, unlike basing pay hikes on objective criteria like calendars. Rauner demands less vacation and fewer holidays; the elimination of fair-share or member dues deductions; and the abolishment of the requirement to even bargain on working conditions.

Rauner would “strip away all of the standards and benefits and working conditions and pay that workers are currently experiencing,” said Chicago labor professor Bob Bruno.

Before any work stoppage, Rauner could declare an “impasse” to unilaterally impose his final offer, but that’s a legal condition that could be disputed by the union in an Unfair Labor Practice charge.

“Rauner has said that if we don’t agree to his terms, he’ll force a strike and shut down state government until we do,” said AFSCME head Roberta Lynch. “Those kinds of threats don’t serve the bargaining process or the citizens of our state well.”

Indeed, Rauner seems to cower behind the flawed notion that government can be run like a private corporation. However, government is more like a social-service non-profit, and it has many stakeholders beyond a boss, from elected representatives and workers to vendors, taxpayers and citizens who benefit from public safety and roads, parks and museums and aid.

A coward’s way out is him making threats and figuratively holding his breath until lawmakers accept blame for cutting programs, falsely declaring impasse, illegally imposing conditions, and blaming the victims, from workers to voters who elected legislators who won’t accept goofy orders from the top.

[PICTURED: Photo from thestand.org.]

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Media headlines misled fracking study conclusions

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 2, 3 or 4

Talking about drugs’ side effects, the late comic Robin Williams said, “There’s a product called Olestra, which is a very strange thing. ‘Olestra? What is that?’ It's said on the little side of the chips: ‘May cause anal leakage.’ That's not a side effect … I'd say that's an EFFECT, really!”

This came to mind when newspaper headlines about an Environment Protection Agency report on side effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) were compared to its actual conclusions.

Here’s a sampling of headlines from June: “EPA: No widespread harm to drinking water from fracking” (Associated Press); "Fracking doesn't harm drinking water: EPA" (New York Post); "Fracking doesn't pollute drinking water, EPA says" (Newsweek); and "EPA: Fracking has no broad impact on drinking water" (USA Today).

The Peoria Journal Star said, “Fracking exonerated in EPA drinking-water study” above a news story by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, who actually wrote that the review “also warn[ed] of the potential for contamination from the controversial technique used in oil and gas drilling.”

Hardly an exoneration.

No, the EPA said fracking has been found to contaminate water, but media’s misleading characterization played down the danger.

True, the EPA said it "did not find evidence" of "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources." However, the 600-page study’s 28-page executive summary says, "There are above- and below-ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources," and identified "specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells."

That’s an EFFECT, really.

Fracking is the practice of drilling thousands of feet into rock, fracturing ancient formations, and injecting at high pressure sand, millions of gallons of water, and some 400,000 gallons of undisclosed chemical additives, from lubricants to solvents, to crack open pockets of oil and natural gas.

Pekin native Sandra Steingraber, a respected biologist and author (“Living Downstream”) said, “Shale gas extraction from fracking is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent enterprise that turns communities into industrial zones. The jobs that fracking provides are temporary, toxic and carry high rates of injury, [bringing] temporary riches for a few and risk permanent ruin for many.”

The EPA said, “Specific concerns have been raised by the public about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the quality and quantity of drinking water resources [because] millions of people live in areas where their drinking water resources are located near hydraulically fractured wells” and listed some problems: “Up to nine out of 36” wells examined in Pennsylvania “are impacted by stray gas (methane and ethane) associated with nearby hydraulic fracturing activities; two Texas water wells near fracking operations were affected by increased presence of brines; and drinking-water monitoring wells had “chemicals or brine” from a blowout that happened during fracking in North Dakota.

In Illinois, fracking rules were OK’d in 2013 by a vote of 109-9 in the House and 52-3 in the Senate, and thousands of leases reportedly have been signed along downstate’s New Albany shale formation.

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce once claimed that 47,000 new fracking jobs could result (while conceding that fracking is “unproven” and that its recommendation didn’t account for environmental impacts). Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich says jobs promised there haven’t happened.

In Washington, the EPA said its research was limited by insufficient data, a lack of long-term studies, and inaccessible information, which it said "preclude a determination of the frequency of [drinking water] impacts with any certainty."

The oil and gas industry blocked EPA access to fracking data, according to InterClimate News.

Geochemist Geoffrey Thyne, a member of an EPA Science Advisory Board – an independent group of scientists who reviewed the study’s plan – commented, “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, added, “The study released falls far short of the level of scrutiny and government oversight needed to protect and health and safety of the millions of American people affected by drilling and fracking for oil and gas. It is outrageous that the oil and gas industry refused to cooperate with the EPA. This reveals the undue influence the industry has over the government and shows that the industry is afraid to allow careful monitoring of their operations.”

Nevertheless, the study at least concedes that fracking has been found to contaminate water.

However, much misleading media coverage is providing cover for industry to foul the country’s drinking water.

That’s an effect, too.

[PICTURED: Cover page of EPA report's executive summary.]