Speaker of the House John Boehner has promised to pass Martha Roby’s Working Families Flexibility Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)
House Republicans are launching their first concerted effort to win back female voters on Tuesday with the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, a bill that’s being packaged as a lifeline to working moms across the country.
Unfortunately, the legislation is a particularly cruel hoax—a slick attempt to give employers more power, and hourly workers much less.
At first blush, the idea sounds good. The bill would allow hourly workers to convert overtime pay into time off: in other words, instead of getting paid for extra hours, they could stockpile additional vacation time. The pitch here is that working parents could have more flexibility in their schedule and an enhanced ability to balance work and family. “This week, we’ll pass [Representative] Martha Roby’s bill to help working moms and dads better balance their lives between work and their responsibilities as parents,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday.
The GOP is specifically invested in convincing women this bill is for them. The GOP spent $20,000 last week on a digital ad campaign focusing on so-called “mommy blogs,” like Ikeafans.com and MarthaStewart.com, and geo-targeting Democrats in swing districts. “Will Rep. Collin Peterson stand up for working moms?” one iteration of the ad asked.
A fawning National Review profile of Roby, the bill’s sponsor, explains how she wasn’t sure she could handle a run for Congress in 2009 because of concerns about taking care of her children while running for a House seat and potentially becoming a member of Congress—and how those concerns have now inspired her to push this important legislation.
But it’s not too hard to see how pernicious this legislation truly is. “Flexibility” is a word that should make hourly workers check for their wallets—employers hold most of the power in the relationship with hourly workers, which is all the more true if they are not unionized. So “flexibility” to decide if you want to get paid for overtime work, instead of getting fewer hours later on, can quickly become a way for employers to withhold payment for overtime work while also cutting your hours down the road.
Over 160 labor unions and women’s groups sent a letter to members of Congress on Monday, protesting that the Working Families Flexibility Act is “a smoke-and-mirrors bill that offers a pay cut for workers without any guaranteed flexibility or time off to care for their families or themselves.”
Republicans say this isn’t true, and that there are safeguards in the bill that would prevent employers from muscling their employees into surrendering overtime pay. “It is illegal for them to do that. There are enforcement mechanisms in the bill,” Eric Cantor said in February.
But this is where they’re being really tricky—the bill does give workers the right to sue over such intimidation, but denies them the right to use much quicker, and cheaper, administrative remedies through the Department of Labor. It also gives the Department of Labor no additional funds to investigate nor enforce provisions of the act.
So if hourly workers get intimidated into giving up overtime pay in exchange for working even fewer hours down the road, they’re more than welcome to hire a lawyer and sue—a rather improbable outcome given how expensive that might be. Otherwise, tough luck.
There also isn’t quite as much flexibility in the act as it seems. As the National Partnership for Women and Families points out, while the bill does allow hourly workers to turn overtime pay into as much as 160 hours of comp time, it gives them no right to decide when they can use that time—even if there’s a family emergency. That’s still entirely up to employers.
Further hampering workers’ flexibility is that once they bank more than eighty hours in comp time, employers can unilaterally decide to cash out any additional hours. Also, workers who decide later that they need to cash out the comp time they’ve earned can do so—but employers have thirty days to cut the check, which could certainly be a problem for hourly workers on a tight budget.
Moreover, this isn’t even a new idea. Republicans proposed this same bill ten years ago, prompting the late Molly Ivins to remark “the slick marketing and smoke on this one are a wonder to behold.”
The legislation, simply, is a straightforward boon to big employers. “It pretends to offer time off but actually asks [employees] to work overtime hours without being paid,” Judy Lichtman of the NPWF told reporters on a conference call Monday. She added that it’s simply a “no-cost, no-interest loan to the employer.”
House Democrats will be nearly, if not entirely, unified in opposition. “The Working Families Flexibility Act sounds good, but it is a sham and we are going to call it out for what it is. It would cause more harm than good and we are going to reject it,” Representative Rose DeLauro said yesterday during the same conference call.
Due to the Republican majority in the House, the bill is likely to pass on Tuesday, but Senate passage seems dubious at best, and the White House has already issued a veto threat.
Of course, if Republicans are indeed interested in providing extra flexibility to help hourly workers balance family concerns with their jobs, they could pass paid family leave legislation. Only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family leave, and the United States is the only high-income country in the world not to mandate it. Unlike the Working Families Flexibility Act, paid family leave is generally something the employee has the unilateral ability to exercise.
Unfortunately, that’s something Congressional Republicans are deeply opposed to enacting. They blocked a proposal from President Obama in 2011 that would have created a $1.5 billion fund to push paid family and medical leave programs at the state level, and several similar efforts to enact such laws at the federal level.
In 1993, when Congress considered and ultimately passed the Family and Medical Leave Act—which mandates only twelve weeks of unpaid family time off—Republicans were apoplectic. One House member from North Carolina called it “nothing short of Europeanization—a polite term for socialism.” A young John Boehner, years from becoming House Speaker, said the legislation would “be the demise of some [businesses].
“And as that occurs,” he said, “the light of freedom will grow dimmer.”
Additional reporting by Nation DC intern Anna Simonton.
UPDATE: The final vote on the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 has been pushed back to Wednesday.
Also, it's worth knocking down a particular Republican talking point on the bill, as expressed by Eric Cantor's communications director to me over Twitter, among many other places. They argue that, since federal workers already enjoy the ability to trade overtime pay for extra time off, workers in the private sector should enjoy the same rights.
The problem with this argument is that the federal government is not a profit-driven employer likely to muscle workers into giving up overtime pay in return for reduced hours. If that did happen, federal workers are unionized and enjoy many employment protections that Walmart workers, for example, do not.
It's important to note here that, during the mark-up for this bill last month, Representative Timothy Bishop, a Democrat from New York, offered an amendment that would make the Working Families Flexibility Act apply "only if the employer enters into an employment contract with the employee that provides employment protections substantially similar to those provided to Federal, State or local employees under civil services laws."
Every Republican voted against it, and the measure was defeated.*
*A prior version of this story said four Democrats also voted against the Bishop amendment, but they were just not present for the vote.
UPDATE 2: The House passed the Working Families Flexibility Act on Wednesday afternoon, 223-204.
For better news, read George Zornick on Obama’s promising pick for FHFA director.
A storefront mural of Assata Shakur. (Flickr/Gary Soup, CC 2.0.)
“My name is Assata Shakur, and I am a 20th century escaped slave.”
So begins an open letter written by Assata Shakur, formerly of both the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, currently exiled political prisoner. The letter itself dates back to 1998, but in the past week there has been renewed interest in reading Shakur in her own words, as the FBI added the iconic figure to their list of Most Wanted Terrorists and, alongside the New Jersey State Police, announced a $2 million reward (up from the $1 million offered in 2005) for any information that might lead to her capture.
Shakur’s infamy began after the May 2, 1973, killing of a New Jersey state trooper. In her letter, as well as in her autobiography, she recounts what happened that night, when she, along with Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for having a faulty tail light. One trooper drew his gun and told them to put their hands in the air, which Assata did. Moments later a shootout ensued, ending with the deaths of Zayd and state trooper Werner Foerster. Assata was also shot while her hands were up. Though the forensic evidence backed up her account, the state was able to convict her, and in 1977 she was sentenced to life plus thirty-three years. She has lived in Cuba, where she was granted asylum, since 1984, having escaped (or in the language of the movement, been liberated) from Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979. Shakur and her supporters, myself included, maintain her innocence.
“It’s incredibly frustrating that the first woman to be on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, the same list as Osama bin Laden, would be a 65 year-old grandmother in Cuba,” writer and filmmaker dream hampton told radio host Davey D. I would add that it’s also incredibly frightening. We have seen the way this country has prosecuted the “war on terror,” even after moving away from using that specific phrase, with a blatant disregard for civil liberties, human rights, international law and the rights of sovereign countries. It’s enough to make one very concerned for the safety of Shakur and those around her. If deemed dangerous enough, could an invasion of Cuba be far behind? A drone strike? How far is this government willing to go to capture (kill?) someone whose guilt in the crime for which she was convicted is not clear and poses no threat to the country’s security?
“Assata is not a threat,” scholar and activist Angela Davis, who herself once occupied a spot on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, told Democracy Now! “If anything, this is a vendetta.”
The United States doesn’t like to lose and holds a hell of a grudge. This goes beyond J. Edgar Hoover’s declaring the Black Panther Party the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and vowing to eradicate them. This is the fate of anyone, particularly those with black and brown skin, who holds views deemed anti-American—which for them only reflect their status as an oppressed people (there’s controversy in asserting that all people deserve the right to food, clothing and shelter). Because what of her actions qualifies Shakur as a terrorist? Even if you believe she is responsible for Foerster’s death, that would make her responsible for one death in the early morning hours on a New Jersey highway forty years ago. If that is terrorism, if the definition is such that this purported crime fits, then in the process of labeling Assata Shakur a terrorist, the FBI has rendered the word all but meaningless. According to Davis, “the attack on [Shakur] reflects the logic of terrorism, because it precisely is designed to frighten young people, especially today, who would be involved in the kind of radical activism that might lead to change.” But there’s no one around to put law enforcement on a wanted list.
“I am only one woman,” Shakur wrote in her open letter, but the FBI has decided to make her more than that. She is a symbol of what it means to be a black woman who dares fight back. You don’t need to be sporting one of those “red, black and green liberation jump-suits” that Gil Scott-Heron talked about in order to see that this ramped up manhunt is unnecessary and an abuse of power. But it should also remind us that the struggle Shakur and her comrades took bullets for is still not over. We’re still needed on the frontlines.
Hands off Assata, now and forever.
Read Mychal Denzel Smith on Arizona’s new gun-buyback law, which illustrates why the federal government should take the lead on gun control.
John Carlos (right) commemorated on a mural in Brisbane, Australia. (Flickr/Rae Allen)
Yesterday, I spoke with Dr. John Carlos, one of the “fists of freedoms” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (Full disclosure, I had the privilege of co-writing his memoir, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, 2011.) Dr. Carlos is as “old school” as they come: someone who believes strongly that athletes have obligations to give their time, money and physical presence to “impoverished communities, black, brown or white” and work to make the world a better place. He believes in honesty, fairness and the value of courage as a staple of whether or not a person actually has character. He taught me that over the course of your life, it’s far more important “to be a human being than to be a brand.” With that in mind, I was very curious what Dr. Carlos would say about the story scorching the sports world: the “coming out” of Jason Collins.
I simply asked old-school John Carlos what his thoughts were about Collins’s announcement that he would be the first active male athlete in North American sports to come out of the closet. Dr. Carlos’s “old school” answer was beautifully “new school,” with an old-school warning to the National Football League. Here are his words. They made me smile, and I hope they do the same for you.
I have so much respect for Jason Collins because he is telling the world that he is proud of who he is. He’s telling the world, “This is who I am. Deal with it.” That’s real courage. I support him to the upmost! I heard someone on the television say, “The NFL isn’t ready for an openly gay player.” We should answer that with, “Why the hell not? You better get ready!”
I think we all look forward to the day when a player—male or female—coming out isn’t news at all. But now it is. Jason Collins matters. And given that Collins has gone out of his way to say that he owes a debt to those in both the African-American and LGBT movement who “paved the road for me,” the support from the generation of 1960s activist athletes matters as well.
Walmart workers are heading to Bentonville headquarters, Freedom Ride–style, to speak up to shareholders. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
Investigators are blaming ammonium nitrate for the massive explosion that devastated most of the town of West, Texas, on April 17. The chemical, which was stored in large amounts at the West Fertilizer Co., is used to make fertilizer. It’s also used by coal companies to blow up mountains.
Ammonium nitrate poses a threat to human and environmental health not only when it catalyzes fatally in a dangerous stockpile but also when particles of the stuff shatter into the air and seep into groundwater from strip mining, say residents of mining communities. Opponents of so-called “mountaintop removal” are in DC this week, taking that message to the Obama administration in a week of action culminating May 8 with a delivery of toxic water to the Environmental Protection Agency.
GRITtv was in Central Appalachia the week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Texas, fire. While terrorism of the bomb-plots sort seemed far away, explosions there were a daily occurance. Vernon Haltom of Coal Mountain River Watch, who showed us around, cited estimates that more than a million acres and tens of thousands of streams have been affected since so-called mountain top removal began. Having depleted the area’s rich underground seams, in the late 1970s coal companies in Central Appalachia began blasting the tops of the mountains to get at coal just beneath the surface.
Since then, more than twenty peer-reviewed studies have raised alarms, some linking trace amounts of ammonium nitrate, benzine and silica to health problems, including low birth weights and elevated death rates in mining areas of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
People living near mountaintop mining have cancer rates of 14.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent for people elsewhere in Appalachia, studies by the West Virginia University, among others, show. “Birth defects are over twice as high than if the mother smokes during pregnancy,” says Vernon Haltom, who served in the US military as an explosives expert.
But just like giant agribusiness, Big Coal would rather keep ammonium nitrate unregulated. Activists are hoping that the explosion in West and the homemade bomb blasts in Boston will turn up the heat on regulators.
Mining companies aren’t the only ones who know ammonium nitrate’s blasting power. Readily available and easy to assemble, it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building and it’s what improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, are usually packed with.
In 2011, Obama’s EPA vetoed the largest single mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, slowing production but issuing no binding regulations. Democrats have introduced an Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, H.R. 526) which would effectively impose a moratorium. The current week of Appalachia Rising action is calling for the EPA to step in. There’s no earthly reason why the agency isn’t charged with monitoring ammonium nitrate. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is mandated to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals.
Why isn’t ammonium nitrate already on the EPA’s list? That was one of Senator Barbara Boxer’s questions to the agency in the wake of the Texas fertilizer plant disaster. Informed fingers have pointed at lobbying by the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute but up to now, Big Coal has avoided tough questions. No industry uses more ammonium nitrate for underground and above-ground explosions.
The last and, so far, the only time a federal agency proposed monitoring the chemical, the National Mining Association lobbied against it. After the Department of Homeland Security proposed regulating the of the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate for security reasons, the National Mining Association requested an exemption, citing the “undue burden on the mining industry.”
Texans and Appalachians don’t need another tragedy to know it’s long past time the “undue burden” on human life received priority. In West Virginia, GRITtv spoke with Vernon Haltom and Vernon “Hoot” Gibson, uncle of famed mountain defender Larry Gibson, whose family’s cabins sit on some of the last surviving peaks of the Kayford Mountain.
Occupy the Pipeline activists are working to prevent a New York City fracking nightmare. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.
President Obama introduces Penny Pritzker as his nominee for Secretary of Commerce. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
Did you know that in the early 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service investigated the Pritzker family, whose scion Penny Pritzker has just been tapped by President Obama to become Secretary of Commerce, because their Hyatt Corporation was paying no taxes? And that in the course of the inquiry, an IRS statement quoted an informant with access to the records of the offshore bank where they hid their assets that the family, “through their Hyatt Corporation, received their initial backing from organized crime”?
Did you know that this particular financial institution, Castle Bank & Trust of the Bahamas, was founded by a veteran of the wartime spy agency the Office of Strategic Services who specialized in creating front organizations for the CIA, and helped launder funds for attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro? That Castle operated by arranging for a Miami bank controlled by associates of mobster Meyer Lansky to accept the original deposits, which it then passed on to Castle with only code numbers, but not names, attached?
Did you know that the IRS dropped a major investigation of Castle in 1977, according to The Wall Street Journal, at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency?
And did you know one of the bank’s cofounders, the late Burton Kanter, was on the board of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, and that—as The Kansas City Times discovered in a 1982 Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation following the collapse of a shoddily constructed skywalk that killed 114 at a Hyatt in 1981—the Pritzkers were Castle Bank’s largest depositors?
Did you know that Kanter was the Pritzker family’s tax lawyer, and was able to reduce the IRS bill when patriarch A.N. Pritzker died in 1986 from the $150 million the government said the family owed for his estate only $9.5 million? (Or that family itself claimed his estate only possessed $3,000 in taxable assets?) Did you know that, twenty-four years later, a tax judge ruled that Kanter was the “architect” of “a concerted effort” to profit from kickbacks involving the siphoning off of funds managed by insurance companies? (The hustle included the invention of sham companies—“pure tax avoidance vehicles,” the judge said—the destruction of documents, and “implausible” and “incredible” testimony by Kanter.) This 2007 article by David Cay Johnston on the “overwhelming objective evidence” that led another tax judge to uphold the conviction places the Pritzker family at the center of the scam. And it notes that Kanter’s tax returns, now public, “show he never paid any significant tax. Yet he amassed a fortune big enough at one time to make him a credible bidder for the Miami Dolphins football team.”
Did you know that A.N. publicly denied ever using the legal services of fixer Sidney Korshak, for decades the notorious transit point between the mob and legitimate business interests in Chicago, before Korshak admitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission that he was in fact the family’s labor lawyer? That a Los Angeles Police investigator’s report said A.N. was “[c]losely connected with members of the Capone syndicate, Tony Accardo, and other underworld characters? It is believed by the undersigned that Pritzker may be active locally, as a front for Eastern hoodlum money to be invested in the Los Angeles Area”? That A.N.’s law partner Stanford Clinton was general counsel for the notoriously mob-connected Teamsters pension fund?
I got much of this stuff from Gus Russo’s voluminous book Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers. It’s an over-the-top book, hanging all sorts of claims on insinuation and guilt by association, so I’ve only included here the stuff I consider solid. And let’s respectfully dissent from Shakespeare, who wrote in the Merchant of Venice, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”: Penny is not responsible for the dodgy practices of her grandfather. It’s not her fault her late Uncle Jay, who bought Hyatt in 1957, deployed it as a platform for innovative “asset management” financial engineering that kept the family at arms’ length regarding risk and responsibility (nowadays with the assets coming from Chicago taxpayers). She can’t be held responsible for the way Jay, back before that, benefited from very questionable deals arising from his tenure in the Justice Department’s Alien Property office, responsible for assets seized by the government. Nor can she be held responsible for the mob money allegedly behind the expansion of Hyatt in the first place. “Behind every fortune lies a great crime,” is the Balzac quote Russo uses to introduce the Pritzker family in his book; but that’s not Penny’s fault either, is it?
But certain patterns still obtain. It is one of the most crucial stories for understanding our age: how tax-avoidance strategies of a previous generation that might have landed you in court are now legal—which does not make them any more ethical. In fact, it may make them less ethical—precisely because third-gen scions like Penny, born in 1959, have entered into the political establishment, where their representatives, their latter-day Korshaks and Kanters, do their laundering in the halls of government instead of in Las Vegas hotel room meetings with associates of Tony Accardo. The scumminess is the same, or, really, worse; as Charlie Savage wrote this week in The New York Times, “Republican senators are likely to be interested in the Pritzker family’s reputation as innovators in the use of offshore trusts and foreign bank secrecy laws to shelter their wealth from income, capital gains and inheritance taxes. Even after tax loopholes were closed, the family’s trusts were grandfathered in and it kept benefiting from them.” As well the Republican senators should. And, hell, Democratic senators, too.
The crime is what is no longer a crime. Indeed, wrote David Cay Johnston, Burton Kanter regarded himself as the nation’s premier expert at “legally eliminating taxes.” He even proudly documented his techniques in legal journals.
Savage asked the White House what made Penny Pritzker suitable for a confirmation fight she was not qualified for in 2008. The spokesman responded that back then, she “had an ongoing obligation to oversee her family’s restructuring of assets to separate out the interest of various family members.” Now, that task has apparently been completed, or, as “a White House official involved in vetting her” put it, “they had since completed dividing up their finances.”
Got that? It took lawyers four years to figure out how to divest her from the sleaze. And that’s what makes her qualified for the job—a job not unrelated to the devising and interpretation of tax policy itself. And, not incidentally, a job concerned with subjects like this:
Tax evasion by individuals with unreported offshore financial accounts was estimated by one IRS commissioner to be several tens of billions of dollars, but no precise figure exists. IRS has operated four offshore programs since 2003 that offered incentives for taxpayers to disclose their offshore accounts and pay delinquent taxes, interest and penalties. GAO was asked to review IRS’s second offshore program, the 2009 OVDP. This report (1) describes the nature of the noncompliance of 2009 OVDP participants, (2) determines the extent IRS used the 2009 OVDP to prevent noncompliance, and (3) assesses IRS efforts to detect taxpayers trying to circumvent taxes, interests and penalties that would otherwise be owed. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed tax return data for all 2009 OVDP participants and exam files for a random sample of cases with penalties over $1 million; interviewed IRS Offshore officials; and developed and implemented a methodology to detect taxpayers circumventing monies owed.
That’s the abstract to a paper published two months ago and distributed by the Commerce Department’s National Technical and Information Service. I would give far more than a penny to hear Pritzker’s thoughts about that.
Read Part One of Rick Perlstein’s Pritzker commentary.
On May 4, an open meeting between the Swarthmore Board of Managers and a coalition of student activist groups was held on campus. While the meeting was focused on fossil fuel divestment, a coalition of students broadened the discussion, transforming it into a general assembly, addressing a wide range of student concerns, including sexual assault on campus, the accountability of managers and the administration to students, and the experiences of students of color, queer students, first-generation and working-class students, as well as the central imperative of fossil fuel divestment. Dozens of students spoke, along with Swarthmore alumni, faculty, and two Board members. The discussion demonstrated an admirable solidarity and support among the students.
Robert Griffin III. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center.
It should be enough that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is the most exciting athlete to enter professional sports since Lionel Messi and has restored the thrill of the possible to our football-obsessed community in Washington, DC. It should be enough at this moment to learn that RGIII is focused solely upon rehabilitating his knee, torn to shreds in last year’s playoffs. But the Heisman Trophy winner, who also found time in college to graduate from Baylor with a degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA, has clearly committed this off-season to exercising his mind as well. According to his running Twitter commentary, RGIII spent Saturday at the museum that in my view is the Mecca of the intersection of sports and politics: the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Muhammad Ali Center is a remarkable testament to the courage of an athlete willing to take unpopular stands because of political principle. The fact that Ali took these stands at the height of his athletic powers, when he was between the ages of 22 and 26, clearly had an impact on Mr. Griffin. RGIII’s first tweet said simply that “seeing in depth what Ali did and who he was is so inspiring.” The quarterback then soaked in just how much Ali suffered for his unpopular stands against racism and the war in Vietnam and put himself in the Champ’s shoes. He wrote, “An athlete like Ali would get destroyed in today’s world even more than in his own time.” The social media–savvy RGIII then tweeted, “What Ali stood for and the way he expressed it from the boxing ring to the streets of everyday life would have him trending for weeks.” He then retweeted someone who wrote to him, “Ali transcended sports and sacrificed his most productive boxing years to stand for his beliefs. Name a modern athlete that would.”
I must say that it’s thrilling that Muhammad Ali still has such a strong effect on athletes born a decade after he last set foot in a boxing ring. It’s also quite a statement that Robert Griffin III, who comes from a proud military family, would pay tribute to the most famous war resister in human history. Yes, Ali’s radical stance in 1968 has been smoothed out for mass consumption. Yes, in today’s myriad Ali tributes, few quote him saying, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…. The real enemy of my people is here.” But the museum, to its credit, does not engage in a whitewash. RGIII was confronted with the actuality of Ali’s ideas and was deeply in awe of his sacrifice.
Lastly, I would point out that in today’s age of social media, an athlete like Ali would get far more support than in 1964. Back then, a small cabal of hard-bitten sportswriters, who were conservative, calloused and Caucasian, dominated public commentary, and were deeply resentful of the man they called “the Louisville Lip.” Today, in addition to the hate, there would be a public outpouring of support, which would also shape the coverage. The trend-lines of Ali’s resistance would have ample amplification.
There’s another side of this, however, that could not have escaped RGIII’s precise mind as he considered the concepts of sports and sacrifice: There is no way in heaven or hell Muhammad Ali, who is of African, Native American and Irish ancestry, would have ever accepted being called a Redskin. RGIII had to notice that the question of names and what we choose to call ourselves figures strongly at the Ali Center. You learn that Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., named not only after his own father but also a famous nineteenth-century white abolitionist. The political history of that name didn’t stop him from changing it upon joining the Nation of Islam. As he said, “Cassius Clay was my slave name. I don’t use it because I am no longer a slave.” The museum speaks about the boxers, reporters and even members of the draft board who called him “Clay” and how he responded with, at different times, “Say my name,” “What’s my name?” and, my personal favorite, “What’s my name, fool?”
Ali’s belief that a name was something far more precious than just a brand has found echoes across the culture in multiple forms, from Destiny’s Child, to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s Super Bowl victory speech to perhaps the most famous scene in the classic television show The Wire. Names matter. What you call yourself and what others choose to call you is a question of respect.
I wonder if RGIII took notice that the Muhammad Ali Center has a proud history of doing traveling exhibits with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, including one called “IndiVisble: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” The 2012 press release for the exhibit reads, “Prejudice, laws and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom. For African-Native Americans, their double heritage is truly indivisible.” I wonder if RGIII would ask himself how that heritage is served by the fans in feather headdresses and war paint, and the stained crimson face on the side of his helmet.
There was much made this week about a poll taken by ESPN, which showed that 79 percent of people in the US find nothing wrong with the Redskins name. RGIII—the athlete, the brand, the corporate pitchman—is someone who could look at that poll and think, “Great. Now I don’t need to say anything.” RGIII, the human being inspired by Muhammad Ali, has to look at those numbers and think, “Whether it’s 79 percent or 97 percent, right is right.” The Redskins name is racist as all hell, the creation of a segregationist owner and only possible because the people being insulted were subject to genocide: thinning their ranks, political power and voice. It’s a name RGIII’s boss Dan Snyder will only defend in the most controlled of public settings. It’s a name that Muhammad Ali would have hated because it’s a damn disgrace.
At the end of his Twitter commentary about The Champ, Robert Griffin III wrote, “The Ali Center confirmed my belief that although we, as people around this world, are different, we can all help & learn from each other.” He’s correct. But a precondition of helping and learning from one another is respect. RGIII is under no obligation to say anything about the Redskins name. But if he learned nothing else from the Muhammad Ali Center, it should be that sometimes you just have to speak out no matter the risk, no matter the trends or trend-lines.
It’s a little known part of The Champ’s history, but In 1978, Muhammad Ali joined Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Stevie Wonder and Richie Havens (who has just left us) to rally at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in the name of Native American self-determination. That was Muhammad Ali. He was nobody’s Redskin.
In a homage to the Freedom Rides, members of OUR Walmart will converge on Walmart’s upcoming shareholder meeting. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
A massive new pipeline that will carry hydrofracked gas is being constructed in New York City. The pipeline, built by subsidiaries of Spectra Energy, will carry the gas from the Marcellus Shale, a bed that lies under Pennsylvania and New York State, into New York City’s gas infrastructure. Naturally, the construction of such a pipeline, carrying controversial highly pressurized gas, has been met with resistance.
In the spring of 2012, Occupy the Pipeline emerged, raising health and safety concerns about the pipeline.
For starters, the group states the Marcellus shale has seventy times the average radioactivity of natural gas and possesses extremely high radon content. Worse, monitoring radon content doesn’t appear to be a priority for federal regulators. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stated radon risk assessment is “outside their purview.” High radon levels have been linked to increases in the risk of lung cancer among non-smokers, a claim Occupy the Pipeline restates in a video that was recently picked up by Upworthy (the video currently has been viewed over 470,000 times):
In the video, Occupy the Pipeline also addresses other safety concerns, for example, contaminated water and a 2010 explosion from a pipeline of similar size and pressure in San Bruno, California. That explosion killed eight people and destroyed thirty-eight homes. Overall, Spectra Energy has a dismal safety record that includes seventeen safety violations in 2011, a $15 billion fine for contaminated pipelines and multiple facility explosions. At one time, Spectra was named the number-one gas polluter in British Columbia.
“The pipeline is an explosion risk,” says Eric Walton, a member of Occupy the Pipeline. “We believe that installing a thirty-inch [diameter] pipeline that carries highly flammable gas at pressure greater than that of water through a fire hose directly below the street in neighborhoods as densely populated as the West Village and Chelsea is nothing short of unbridled hubris.”
“This is the first time that [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] has approved a pipeline of this kind in such a densely populated area and we believe it’s a disaster in waiting,” he adds.
The 2010 documentary Gasland, which detailed the consequences of hydraulic fracturing, documented cases of homeowners who say their water has been discolored, and in some communities, people were able to ignite the water coming out of their faucets.
“The Spectra Pipeline would increase the demand for fracked gas and make New Yorkers complicit in a method of fossil fuel extraction that is causing untold harm to the environment in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere,” says Walton.
In October 2012, George Pingeon, 27, a protester form Occupy the Pipeline, chained himself to a backhoe in order to delay the pipeline construction. Pingeon remained locked to the backhoe for an hour before police arrived and collared him. A month earlier, police arrested six pipeline protesters after they chained themselves to Spectra’s construction equipment on the Gransevoort Pier.
When Governor Andrew Cuomo attended a conference at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan last August, he was greeted by over 100 protesters who had gathered outside to protest against fracking. At the time, Cuomo said there’s a lot of emotion surrounding the issue.
“The demonstrations, we’ve seen them pro, and we’ve seen them con, all over the state,” he said. “Let’s make the decision on the facts. Let the science dictate the conclusion.”
Occupy the Pipeline activists are also fans of science, says Walton.
“We recognize the scientific consensus that fossil fuels cause global warming. We believe that the need to stop extracting and burning hydrocarbons could not be more urgent and that the construction of infrastructure to transport fossil fuels only postpones the day that we as a city and as a society free ourselves from the fossil fuel addiction that imperils the very future of life on this planet.”
Concerns over the pipeline construction extend beyond the activist community. West Village residents have tried to derail the pipeline construction (upward of 5,000 complaints have been filed by locals), and in September of last year, opponents sued the Hudson River Park Trust for allowing Spectra to build beneath the waterfront park without first doing an extensive environmental review.
A weird addendum to the story: Occupy the Pipeline activist Lopi LaRoe says she has been contacted by federal officials, not out of concern over radon levels but over her use of Smokey Bear in an anti-fracking meme that reads, “Only YOU can prevent faucet fires.”
“I was recently served a cease and desist order by the US Forest Service,” says LaRoe. “Not only is it an attempt to suppress political speech, it comes at a time when the US Forest Service is pushing hard to allow fracking in our national parks.”
When will big environmental groups divest from fossil fuels? Read Naomi Klein’s column.
Representative George Miller. (Flickr/Nancy Pelosi)
It is rare that a member of Congress calls out a major industry, especially one with a powerful presence in his home state.
It is rarer still that a senior member of Congress, with a ranking position on a powerful committee, does so.
The California Democrat is speaking to the heart of the matter.
As the death toll at the Bangladesh garment factory that produced clothing for US stores passed 650, the powerful California Democrat who has for the better part of forty years made workplace safety his congressional brief did what few in Congress or the media have the guts to do.
He explained in blunt, unapologetic language, who was really responsible.
“The reason factory managers keep their workers in unsafe buildings on the verge of going up in flames or collapsing is fear,” declared Miller. “Fear that the Western brands and retailers will take their orders elsewhere because of a missed day of production, late delivery or a minuscule increase in production costs. The brands know this. That’s why I believe they bear the ultimate responsibility for these horrendously unsafe working conditions.”
The senior Democratic member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce minced no words. And he made his statement in a forum where the fashion industry could not miss his message: a Monday morning column in Women’s Wear Daily, the industry “bible.”
To their credit, the editors of WWD placed Miller’s remarkable statement front and center, making it the top story on the publication’s website.
Though he comes from a state where many apparel firms are located, Miller offered a stark assessment not just of the horrors that have already been reported in a factory that served global brands but of the horrors to come if action is not taken.
“The death toll in Bangladesh’s garment industry is staggering, with 1,000 dead over the past several years. In the latest tragedy, an eight-story building that housed five garment factories collapsed, killing more than 500 so far, injuring more than 1,000 and leaving an unknown number of people trapped in the rubble of the Rana Plaza. And just five months earlier, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed at least 112 garment workers,” wrote the congressman, whose influence with the Democratic leadership in Congress, with responsible Republicans and with the White House means that he is taken seriously by corporate executive who are all too adept at neglecting pressure to change their practices. “These two tragedies are not isolated. Since Tazreen, at least 40 incidents causing death and injuries as the result of fires and explosions at garment factories have occurred. Undoubtedly more will follow unless the major fashion brands change their business models.”
To change those business models, Miller is calling on the corporations that produce major brands and that sell them to sign on to an initiative backed by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the International Labor Rights Forum and other groups that have for years struggled to focus attention on conditions in the garment factories of southern Asia.
“American consumers and leaders in the fashion industry have a moral imperative to ensure that these tragedies do not happen again. The only way forward for the global brands to improve conditions and worker safety is an effective, enforceable and binding commitment. That is why I have asked a number of retailers and brands to join together and sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, developed by nongovernmental organizations to prevent these types of disasters from occurring,” says Miller.
The agreement is a vehicle for addressing “the most urgent elements necessary to tackle these dangers.” As such, it includes requirements for:
detailed public reporting of fire and building audits conducted by independent safety experts
timely repairs to unsafe workspaces and buildings
termination by brands of contracts with factories that defy obligations to keep workers safe
a right of workers to refuse unsafe work without retribution
union access to factories
The great debates about global trade, conditions for workers and a just economy rarely get the attention they deserve. And, too often, as Miller notes, corporations lay low hoping for the attention of governments and the media to turn to other issues.
But the congressman, by speaking directly to the fashion industry, and by making all the noise he can about the issue, is seeking to keep the economic, political and moral debate focused on concerns that are too fundamental to neglect any longer.
“The major global brands now face a choice: They can attempt to weather the storm, leaving workers in continued danger, or they can take a different road—one that includes healthy profits without the human death toll by signing onto an enforceable safety agreement,” writes Miller. “It is time that American consumers understand which brands will accept blood on their labels and which will not.”
When will free-traders-gone-wild own up to their complicity in global workplace disasters? Read William Greider’s take.