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With its dazzling array of exorbitantly priced eco-friendly products, Whole Foods Market fosters a love-hate relationship with customers who’ve gotten hooked on its cornucopia of guilty-liberal indulgences. But the company’s labor relations are even more sour, as workers grow increasingly frustrated that their workplaces aren’t nearly as progressive as the green-branding rhetoric.
Going beyond the usual grumbling about hipster commercialism, some rank-and-file workers are challenging the management to live up to the company’s purported values when it comes to treating its workers fairly.
Last week, dozens of Whole Foods employees in San Francisco partnered with the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to protest a labor system that they say degrades workers while catering to wealthy consumers, and contributes to the city’s economic polarization. This Friday, they are taking their grievances to the regional corporate office in Emeryville, California. Their demand is simple: “a $5 an hour wage increase for all employees, and no retaliation for organizing their union.” Their message for Whole Foods—to live up to its brand’s much-hyped enlightened capitalist values—is more complicated.
The campaign kicked off at the South of Market Whole Foods, where workers rallied and presented a petition, signed by about fifty employees, demanding better working conditions. Like other retail workers, they say that their earnings, at $11.25 to $19.25 per hour, lag behind the exploding cost of living (about $30 an hour is needed to afford a regular one-bedroom apartment in the area). Today, they plan to threaten further job actions if the management did not heed their concerns.
Campaigners say that while sustainability is on display on many of the store’s labels, it’s in short supply for employees whose wages cannot provide for their basic needs, even as the company champions green capitalism as a path to prosperity for workers and consumers alike.
“It’s basically impossible to live in the San Francisco area or in many parts of the country on what people get paid at Whole Foods,” says Tim Maher, an organizer who used to work in the specialties department at the Bay Area store and now works for Whole Foods in Boston. “The long-term trajectory is even more frightening. Just seeing people who’ve been there eight or ten years, and knowing that they’re making just a couple dollars more, makes it really difficult to think about having a family, or supporting more than just myself.”
Though Whole Foods boasts of socially responsible business practices—including support for farmworkers’ rights campaigns and fair-trade growers abroad—the campaign says its own shop floors “reflect the low industry standards that dominate food and retail industries.” They complain of “constant understaffing, inconsistent hours” and “[c]ondescending managers who prioritize ‘growth’ while slashing labor.” Their day-to-day jobs involve “uncreative, emotionally destructive, and irrational work,” and more direct hazards like “repetitive motion injuries [and] customer abuse,” which all adds up to a workplace climate rife with the demoralizing stress and high turnover typical of many low-wage sectors.
The campaigning workers demand regularly scheduled raises, more comprehensive healthcare and retirement plans, and more paid time off, which “allows us to live a life beyond work and to participate with our families and communities.” This call for work-life balance is surely something slow-food lifestyle enthusiasts would appreciate, right?
But can Whole Foods customers appreciate the real value of the labor of overworked cheese department staffer, who cuts back on time spent with her kids while juggling evening and weekend shifts? Because workers are also fed up with the store’s scheduling practices. Despite the management’s past promises to offer more stable shifts with advanced notice, Maher says, the San Francisco store would keep both full-time and part-time workers in limbo by giving them only a few days lead time when posting the following week’s shift schedules, which left him “not knowing, basically, three days ahead of time what my schedule is going to be like, and knowing it could change at any moment. And there’s just no consistency.”
Workers also claim the company is driving to expand part-time positions to displace full-time work, which would make working conditions even more precarious. Meanwhile, however, the company just launched a campaign to market its corporate morals, trumpeting credos like “Employees need more love,” and “Values Matter.”
Whole Foods, which has been accused of monopolistic practices in its dominance of green-agriculture markets, has previously thwarted attempts by workers to organize. (A campaign to formally unionize workers in Madison, Wisconsin, crumbled in 2004 after the management launched a hostile propaganda campaign.)
But the San Francisco activists hope to bank on the perfect storm of economic pressures in the Bay Area: massive gentrification hollowing out the city’s working-class communities; neoliberal labor market driving workers in all sectors toward harsh and unstable working conditions; and rising public consciousness about holistic sustainability, based on equity across the food chain, from the farm to the produce aisle.
With its radical syndicalist ethos, the IWW has been working to organize the unorganized laborers of this new precariat, including that other yuppy icon, Starbucks. Still, with the Whole Foods empire spanning hundreds of stores in the United States, Canada and Britain with 80,000 employees, the San Francisco campaign has plenty of retail organizing to do, store by store.
According to Maher, a formal union election, under the federal certification process, seems unnecessarily arduous, because already, “We have an organized group of workers willing to take job actions to win our demands, and that’s all we need to be a successful union.”
The San Francisco store actions might spark a movement that spreads to other regions, but Maher says it depends on whether veteran workers maintain faith that they can improve conditions by building solidarity inside the workplace: “If any real changes are going to happen, it’s because the people who have been there the longest are going to stand up and fight and continue that struggle.”
Maybe Whole Foods employees have taken the “values matter” credo to heart in ways that their boss didn’t anticipate.
Within one day’s time, the defeated, lame-duck Senate Democrats did one very smart thing—they created a new leadership position for Elizabeth Warren so that she can help shape messaging and policy and serve as a liaison to progressive groups—and they did one very stupid thing: they reversed their position and decided to allow a long-delayed vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, next week. It’s an attempt to save pro-energy industry Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu in her in December 6 runoff against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, and it’s worse than futile.
Harry Reid and company are apparently trying to compensate for all the Party money that’s dried up for Landrieu since the midterms (you can barely find her ads on TV, while Cassidy’s are flooding the state). By debating and co-sponsoring the Senate’s Keystone bill, Landrieu will get lots of free media time. But barring a miracle, there’s no way she can win. In the midterm, the third candidate, Republican Rob Maness, won nearly 14 percent of the vote, the vast bulk of which will now go to Cassidy. Who, not coincidentally, was made the lead sponsor of an identical Keystone bill in the House.
Rachel Maddow did a terrific piece (below) on the Dem’s Keystone crap-shoot last night, and summed it up like this:
It will not help Mary Landrieu now anyway, but it will kind of screw the environment, give the Republicans what they want, upset the Democratic base, set the president up for a painful presidential veto, and split the Democratic Party in Congress, and depress Democratic donors….It will win Democrats nothing, at great cost.
Landrieu was on TV today saying that her last-minute push for a Keystone vote “is not about the credit, this is not about the glory, it is not about politics.” That’s ridiculous. It has as much to do with politics as did her brave statement before the election that “the South hasn’t always been the friendliest place for African-Americans” or for women. No doubt she said that to appeal to the black and female electorates, but it was also the obvious and true thing to say, and she took a lot of disingenuous flack for it. But in oil-happy Louisiana, pushing for the pipeline is politics pure and simple, without the truth-to-power garnish.
We’ll be seeing a lot of grandstanding over the next week from the GOP, the right-wing media, and the newly emboldened cluster of conservative Democrats about all the jobs that the toxic tar-sand-carrying Keystone pipeline will create. So a little reminder: after the construction phase, according to Politifact, Keystone will create only about thirty-five permanent jobs. We’re not even talking about the high two digits.
Maddow on Keystone and Landrieu starts at about 1:50:
In a cockeyed attempt to save one of their own, Senate Democrats are poised to do something truly stupid. Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, after failing to win enough votes to avoid a runoff in her Senate race, is centering her prolonged bid for re-election on a bill to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline. Democrats have long blocked such legislation in the Senate, but all of a sudden they’ve decided to bring it up for a vote, likely before Thanksgiving.
The decision is both hypocritical and irrational. Landrieu’s victory or loss will not alter the balance of the Senate. More importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that passing a pro-KXL bill will improve Landrieu’s chances in the runoff, where she faces Representative Bill Cassidy, a Republican who is just as pro-Keystone as she is. (He sponsored the House version of Landrieu’s bill, and the lower chamber is scheduled to vote Friday.) Landrieu’s entire re-election campaign centered on her being big oil’s best friend; voters know that already, and it wasn’t enough.
Landrieu finished ahead of Cassidy by less than a percentage point, and both were far below the 50-percent threshold needed to win outright thanks to Tea Party candidate Rob Maness, who captured a startling 13.8 percent of the vote. Maness is now stumping for Cassidy; just three days after the election, the two men and their wives went on a double date. Even if the pipeline were the only issue motivating Maness’s supporters in the runoff, it’s not clear why holding a KXL vote in the Senate would convince them to support Landrieu, because again: the vote will do nothing to distinguish her from Cassidy.
It’s far-fetched, even downright loony, to think that voters will forget about their hatred of Obamacare and alienation from the Democratic Party just because the Senate held a vote in November that would have been held next year anyway. Those voters were never Landrieu’s ticket to victory, although she pandered to them throughout her campaign by running to the right on everything from immigration to the environment. She captured less than 20 percent of the white vote. Now, Landrieu’s only realistic path to re-election depends on turning out virtually all of what remains of Louisiana’s shrunken Democratic base. Is KXL—which really has nothing to do with Louisiana—really what’s going to get them to the polls?
What makes the least sense of any of this is the timing. If Harry Reid really, truly believes that the pipeline is a magic bullet for Landrieu, why in the world didn’t he bring her legislation up for a vote months ago—when the entire Senate hung in the balance? Polls consistently indicated that Landrieu would have her best chance to beat Cassidy in the general election, not in a runoff, so there was no reason to save the bullet.
If Democrats want to help Landrieu now, they could fund her campaign. Instead, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled more than $1.6 million in advertising space it had reserved in Louisiana media markets. The result? Ninety-six percent of the TV spots concerning the runoff in the past week are pro-Cassidy.
Politics aside, what Senate Democrats are considering is a terrible bill. Fast-tracking the pipeline before its route is even finalized means that the project would be exempt from requirements in the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protections. And taxpayers would bear the cost of cleaning up leaks and spills since companies who transport oil from tar sands are exempt from paying taxes to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
“If you were 100 percent for the Keystone pipeline, you would have to have a problem with the legislation on the floor, because it exempts the TransCanada pipeline initiative from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a press briefing on Thursday at the Capitol. “God willing there would never be a leak. But if there is, [TransCanada] would be totally off the hook.”
It’s not certain that Landrieu’s bill will actually pass the Senate. A Democratic aide told Businessweek that at least thirteen Democrats would vote for it. That leaves supporters just shy of the fifteen needed from the left side of the aisle, assuming unanimous support from the GOP.
If it does pass, Obama could veto it, which his press secretary hinted he would do. “The administration, as you know, has taken a dim view of these kinds of legislative proposals in the past,” Josh Earnest told reporters in Myanmar, where Obama is traveling. “We have indicated that the president’s senior advisers at the White House would recommend that he veto legislation like that.”
But veto or no, a pro-Keystone vote in the Senate abetted by Democrats would be a new low point for the party in an election year where so many Democrats ran against their own party, failed to present a coherent policy vision, and lost decisively. The only winner will be the GOP. Republicans won’t even have been forced to concede anything in return.
Landrieu could lay down the pipeline with her bare hands in front of a hundred cameras and it probably still wouldn’t save her. It would, however, generate $100 billion for the Koch brothers—who, incidentally, have more than $2 million reserved to defeat her.
The anti-Iran pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) claims as its mission to stop the Iranian nuclear program. A big part of its effort revolves around what it calls “private sanctions campaigns”—attempts to get consumers to boycott or otherwise pressure companies doing business with Iran, while at the same time “striving not to punish the Iranian people,” as the group’s mission statement puts it.
But the pledge to avoid harming “the Iranian people”—heard from many who take a hard line against Iran—rings hollow amid the breadth of UANI’s advocacy. A Nation investigation into UANI’s Iran Business Registry reveals a more muddled picture. The registry lists more than 1,100 companies doing business with or in Iran—legal or otherwise. While UANI accuses many of the companies of violating US or international sanctions, the listings also target for public pressure some companies doing entirely legal, humanitarian trade with Iran, including those engaged in selling Iran medicines—economic activity that is specifically exempted from sanctions by the US Treasury Department.
The result appears to be an attempt to impose an unofficial total embargo on Iran. When successfully enacted as official policies, total embargoes have wrought extreme harm to the peoples of targeted countries. The most draconian period of sanctions against Iraq, for example, coincided with increases in malnutrition, and infant mortality there rose from one death per thirty births in 1990 to one per eight in 1997. One of Washington’s most vociferous Iran hawks, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), whom UANI regularly praises and whose legislative initiatives it supports, has said, “It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths” of the Iranian people to punish their government for its misdeeds.
Intrigue seems to swirl around everything about UANI: its finances, ties to mining interests and policy positions have all raised many unanswered questions. And yet the group wields considerable clout in Washington. Its executive director, Mark Wallace, a former George W. Bush–appointed ambassador to the UN, has testified three times before Congress since taking UANI’s helm in 2008, and former intelligence chiefs from Germany, Israel and the UK lend their credibility by serving on the group’s advisory board. In September 2013, Dr. Gary Samore joined UANI as the group’s president following his retirement from the Obama administration as the White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. At UANI, Samore now leads a group campaigning for blacklisting companies doing humanitarian trade, some of which received Treasury Department licenses while he was still in the administration.
UANI’s Iran Business Registry is aimed at “increasing the economic isolation of the Iranian regime by pressuring corporations to end their Iran business,” according to the group’s website. But unlike most of UANI’s name-and-shame campaigns, the registry makes no claim that all its listings expose sanctions violators—those doing illegal business in Iran in contravention of US and international bars on such trade.
The Nation found at least five well-known pharmaceutical companies engaged in Treasury Department–xempted humanitarian trade listed in the registry. In an informational document on Iran sanctions, the Treasury Department explicitly acknowledges its aim of allowing humanitarian trade with Iran, noting that “under U.S. law, the sale and export of nearly all types of food and medicine to Iran are broadly authorized, and require no specific license or special authorization.”
Nonetheless, UANI includes these companies on their registry, citing news articles about legal trade with Iran. Boston Scientific and Abbott Laboratories are listed with a citation to a December 2010 New York Times list of “Companies with Permission to Bypass Sanctions.” The permission came in the form of special licenses, most of them for “humanitarian” purposes, issued by the Treasury Department. Sanofi, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline wound up on the registry after they were named in a December 2013 Wall Street Journal article on targeted sanctions relief for humanitarian trade, specifically loosening financial restrictions on the trade of food, agricultural and medical products to Iran.
Contacted for comment about the five pharmaceutical companies listed on UANI’s business registry, a Treasury Department spokesperson confirmed to The Nation that none of the five pharmaceutical companies had at any point been announced as violators of Iran sanctions. “These companies have each been listed [by the Treasury Department] for being awarded different exemptions or licenses,” the Treasury spokesperson said.
UANI, for its part, has denied that it advocates for cutting off humanitarian trade with Iran. Last year, the group tweeted that “our campaign stance is that there is no legitimate trade w/ #Iran EXCEPT humanitarian (food, pharm included).” It added that the Iran Business Registry “is a comprehensive directory of all biz in #Iran. UANI does not campaign/advocate 4 divestment from humanitarian co.’s.”
But that doesn’t appear to be true. The Iran Business Registry’s automated “Message Center” allows users to contact “all companies with recently reported business with Iran” and send them a pre-written e-mail demanding that they end their trade with the country.
Neither Samore nor UANI responded to requests for comment to clarify the apparent contradictions.
The Iran Business Registry’s listing of trade in medicines isn’t the first alleged instance of UANI’s targeting and trying to cut off legal, humanitarian trade with Iran. Such allegations also appeared in a bizarre lawsuit wending its way through court. In 2013, UANI accused Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate, of violating Iran sanctions and, with an associate, acting as “front-men” for the Iranian regime. Restis sued UANI for defamation. In his suit, Restis contended that he’d done no illegal business with sanctioned entities in Iran and, according to The New York Times, that “his ships made only authorized humanitarian shipments” to the Islamic Republic, including legal shipments of soya beans.
Last week, we reported that Restis’s lawyers now allege in court filings that UANI continues to spread false information about the Greek shipping magnate. In that instance, the alleged conduit for the UANI’s allegations, an Israeli newspaper, retracted the claim after concluding Restis had shipped soya beans to Iran in a legitimate humanitarian transaction that violated no sanctions.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
As Barack Obama makes an unprecedented second visit by a US president to Burma, the bad news just keeps rolling in. But he can still make the trip a success. Backsliding reforms, attacks on civilians and evidence of war crimes are among the troubling reports that came out just ahead of Obama’s visit. Harvard Law researchers have presented evidence of war crimes by high-level military officials in Kachin State. Human rights watchdog Fortify Rights released reports detailing attacks on civilians in Kachin State and the complicity of Burmese officials in trafficking Rohingya Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom states that the Burmese government is “unable or unwilling” to address attacks on Muslims and Christians. And Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi publicly decried the “stalling” of reforms, saying that the United States has at times been too optimistic about the reform process.
President Obama can hardly be caught by surprise by this wave of evidence of backsliding on reforms. In the two years since his first historic visit, some 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have remained displaced in apartheid-like conditions, with the government making clear and deliberate decisions to make their living conditions worse. Earlier this year the government expelled Doctors Without Borders, the main source of health care for hundreds of thousands. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have fled the deplorable conditions in western Burma by boat since 2012, including 14,500 Rohingya in just the past three weeks.
Who Are the Rohingya?
An estimated 1.3 million Rohingya live in Burma—mostly in the western Rakhine State near the border with Bangladesh, from which the first Rohingya came to Burma centuries ago.
As Muslims in a majority Buddhist country, they have faced decades of marginalization. The Burmese government considers the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” immigrants despite the fact that most were born in Burma and that many can trace roots there that go back for generations. A controversial 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of citizenship, making the Rohingya one of the largest stateless peoples in the world. Because past military governments have focused on promoting a singular Buddhist and Burmese identity, the Rohingya have become not only marginalized, but also isolated and demonized.
Now the government of Burma is taking this one step further. Rohingya were blocked from this year’s census, and weeks ago the government released a proposed “Rakhine State Action Plan” that would deny their very existence. Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has made this point clear, saying “There are no Rohingya among the races” in Burma.
Indeed, the government has been actively pressuring foreign officials not to use the word “Rohingya,” a point highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights as she reminded the government and UN General Assembly that self-identification is a basic right under international human rights law.
Reforms Remarkable but Fragile
The failure of the United States to speak out more forcefully or to take more concrete actions against these deteriorating conditions can be understood in the broader context of the remarkable reforms in Burma over the past few years. The military junta that had ruled for decades has given way to an ostensibly civilian-led democratic system of governance with greater press freedoms, outreach to ethnic minority groups and the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now in Parliament. The United States hopes to encourage further notable reforms.
But even these much-lauded reforms have proven fragile and reversible. The Constitution still bans Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president and guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in Parliament. Efforts to reach a national ceasefire with ethnic minority groups have been delayed by new Burmese military offensives and continued reports of attacks on civilians, widespread rape, torture and other severe human rights abuses. Political prisoners continue to be arrested. And attacks on the press are on the increase, as highlighted by the recent death of a prominent journalist in military detention.
In fact, of the eleven commitments for reform that President Thein Sein made to President Obama on his first trip to Burma—which were reiterated during Sein’s first visit to the White House six months later—only one, the signing of the Additional Protocol allowing inspections by the UN’s nuclear agency, has been completely fulfilled
What Obama Can Do
President Obama can still make his trip to Burma a success. He should start by just saying the name “Rohingya.” He used “Rohingya” in a call with President Sein on October 31. But in a trip by Secretary of State John Kerry in August, there was no public use of the forbidden word. Use of the word Rohingya should not even be a question.
Just as important, while in Burma, Obama should address immediate humanitarian needs by demanding unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Burma. To address the longer-term root causes of the persecution of the Rohingya, Obama should also demand reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law that labels them illegal “Bengali” migrants. Finally, Obama should insist that President Sein live up to perhaps the easiest of his remaining ten commitments by allowing the opening of a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Obama should also be clear that further backsliding on reforms will lead to revoking rewards, including the possible reinstatement of the sanctions that have been lifted so quickly over the past two years. The recent addition of Aung Thaung, a prominent Burmese lawmaker, to the targeted sanctions list for undermining reforms and perpetuating violence was a start. Several more names should be added to that list, based on emerging evidence of abuses.
The wave of bad news coming out of Burma may make it impossible for President Obama to claim Burma as the foreign policy success he would like. But clear messaging and concrete actions can do a great deal to stem the tide of deteriorating conditions.
Read Next: Burma’s political prisoner problem
A recurrent criticism of our cryptic cluing style has surfaced among some of our test solvers. They don’t like part of the answer to appear as is in the clue. For example:
IMPETUS I’m American, having internalized animal energy (7)
The answer’s IM is there, in plain sight, at the beginning of the clue.
The objection may stem from a feeling that this makes the clue too easy. Of course, by and large, our test solvers are sophisticated cryptic crossword solvers, and their “too easy” may be someone else’s “finally a clue I can solve!” We don’t mind having some “too easy” clues in every puzzle, as we know our solvers’ experience with cryptics ranges all over the map. And in fact, even an experienced solver may need some easy clues to provide an in to an otherwise tough puzzle.
Another reason to object is the lack of consistency between different parts of the clue. In the example above, the beginning is given in plain text, as it were, but the remaining two parts of the charade require the solver to start by taking the extra step of finding synonyms or near-synonyms to “American” and “animal.” We admire consistency as much as anyone, but we don’t think it trumps all other considerations. For example, a better surface reading for a clue is reason enough to do this, to produce something that’s either less awkward or more entertaining. We’d rather be consistent with our overall priority (entertainment) than with abstract principles.
It’s not that there are no alternatives. For example, we could have used “Yours truly is” instead of “I’m,” but that seems silly. Or perhaps “Instant message American, …” but is using an abbreviation (especially one that may not be familiar to everyone) an improvement? Those are the sorts of conversations we have with each other, and with our test solvers.
Once in a while, we do end up giving away part of the answer. Here are some more examples:
IONIC One-on-one chat to begin with ancient Greek dialect (5)
ITALICIZE Emphasize it with unnatural zeal around here (in Marseilles) (9)
LAMASERY Scurrilous smear lay outside Buddhist cloister (8)
LINGONBERRY Alien warrior loses head by swallowing stray fruit (11)
You will note the giveaway is usually very short, no more than three letters. That’s rather mild in the scheme of things—especially if you compare it to a famous crossword puzzle created by Mark Gottlieb for the 1997 MIT Mystery Hunt. His goal was to make his puzzle harder by breaking a rule all solvers take for granted: that no form of an answer word can appear in its own clue. So Gottlieb used “Mosaic tile” to clue TILE, “Muenster or gouda” to clue MUENSTER, and so on through literally every clue in the puzzle, hiding each answer in plain sight.
Now, that’s a free lunch.
Today’s clueing challenge: FREEBIE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.
As of October 11, the average American woman who works full time, year-round started working for free.
That’s because she makes just 78 percent of what a man makes. If a man’s pay lasts the whole year long, hers doesn’t even make it to Halloween.
Women of color have been putting in even more time. Black women have been working for free since August 21. Hispanic women have been doing so since July 16.
Even if we take into account things like the fact that women tend to go into different industries and occupations, stay in the labor force for less time (often thanks to raising children), and are less likely to be in a union, women should still walk away from work beginning Black Friday and not come back until New Years Day.
The fact that women’s work comes so heavily discounted has inspired unions in Denmark for the last five years to call on Danish women to take the rest of the year off after they reach that point—and they have just a 17 cent pay gap, one of the world’s smallest. “It’s a way to remove the gender pay gap in a split second,” Lise Johansen, who heads the campaign for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, told Bloomberg News. “Go to a tropical island for the rest of the year!”
Women aren’t just working for free when they leave their houses, of course. They’re working for free every day of the year when they go home and raise children, cook meals, and clean house. They devote far more time to this than men: they spend a half hour more on child care, housework, cooking, and household management each day compared to men. That’s double the time men spend on child care.
That time may not be rewarded, but it still has a value. Take the effort women put in caring for elderly parents, which they are far more likely to do compared to men. If all the informal elderly caregiving by family and friends were instead replaced by someone paid to do it, the total would be $522 billion a year. That’s a half trillion dollar gift (mostly) women give to society.
So maybe they should get even more time off than just what the gender wage gap allows, since they’re putting in so much unpaid, unrewarded labor. Given that they do seven hours more housework each week, or fifteen extra days a year, and eight hours more child care a week, or seventeen days a year, let’s call it even if they get another month tacked on to their early vacations. Being generous, that means women could have thrown in the towel when we reached the end of October.
What would happen if American women stopped working inside and outside the home for two months out of the year? It’s all obviously relegated to the world of thought experiments. Even in Denmark, where three-quarters of the workforce belongs to a union, women won’t actually heed the mostly joking call to stay away from work, and here in the United States union power is far lower.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and when it comes to the wage gap, these are increasingly desperate times. The gap was closing quickly and steadily between the 1960s and 1990s and continued to shrink in the 2000s, but over the last decade, it’s only budged by 1.7 percentage points. At this rate, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates it won’t close until 2058. While President Obama has issued executive orders related to equal pay and Democrats in Congress have proposed bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, none of these measures will close the gap on their own. In the meantime, the pay gap contributes to more women living in poverty, relying on government benefits, and facing economic instability in their retirement years.
Maybe what’s needed is for this issue to jump from a talking point to a day of action. Perhaps if the country witnessed what it would be like for half the population to refuse to type a word, ring up a purchase, pick up a wrench, or to wipe a booger or a counter, women’s value would be brought into sharp focus. Then we might see some aggressive action to correct for the discrimination that still suppresses women’s wages. Until then, women should at least slack off as much as they can for the remainder of the year.
Senator Elizabeth Warren will be part of the Democrats’ leadership team in the Senate, the party decided on Thursday morning. At the urging of majority leader Harry Reid, a new position was created for Warren: strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.
Several outlets have reported Warren will be a liaison to liberal groups, which will indeed be part of her duties—but a source close to Reid stressed to The Nation that Warren was brought into leadership to help steer policy and communications decisions.
Senate Democrats have a number of important decisions to make as the minority party in the coming two years: which Democratic proposals to highlight, which Republican bills to aggressively oppose and what amendments to propose to must-pass legislation. (Soon-to-be majority leader Mitch McConnell says he will embrace an open amendment process.) Senate Democrats will also be an important potential counterweight to any compromises that President Obama may try to work out with congressional Republicans if Democratic votes are needed.
The source close to Reid said Warren will be a “crucial” voice and vote at the leadership table when strategic decisions are being made. It’s hard not to conclude that progressives will thus have a stronger ability to steer the party’s strategic course going forward.
Warren is an outspoken opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal, which is likely to come up for fast-track consideration some time next year. Both McConnell and Obama favor it, while Reid and many (but not all) Senate Democrats oppose fast-track authority.
She also is vocal about closing tax loopholes for corporations and not only protecting Social Security but expanding it. Corporate tax reform is also something Obama and McConnell both ostensibly want, and Social Security could come up during tense budget standoffs between the White House and Congress. (Senate Republicans are already planning a commission to “study options” on Social Security.)
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a major Warren backer, immediately sent a triumphant e-mail blast to one million PCCC members, declaring that “This is a good reminder that when we invest early in progressive leaders, it’s not just about winning elections in the short term—it’s about building power over time.”
Of course, no development involving Warren can happen outside the vacuum of 2016 presidential politics. “Her new role shows that Warren is incredibly influential and is going to be a leader in shaping the Democratic Party and politics in general,” Erica Sagrans, an Obama campaign alum who now runs Ready for Warren, told The Nation the new leadership position “gives her a bigger platform, but an even bigger one would be a presidential run.”
We are stuck in the political equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day. In the absence of constitutional reform that renews the authority of citizens and their elected leaders to enact meaningful campaign finance laws, America is destined to repeat from election cycle to election cycle the sordid process by which our politics and our governance are bartered off to the highest bidders in ever-more expensive auctions for the souls of elected leaders and both major parties.
The final spending totals for 2014 will not be known for months, and in this era of increasingly dark, dark-money campaigning, some of the details will never be adequately revealed or understood. But even the bare minimum figure established just prior to the election by the Center for Responsive Politics is acknowledged as a record. “Every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the one before it, and predictably the 2014 election will follow that path, CRP has projected—though the total projected cost of $3.67 billion is only a slight uptick over the price tag of the 2010 midterm,” the center noted. “Counting all forms of spending—by candidates, parties and outside groups—Team Red is projected to have spent $1.75 billion, while Team Blue’s spending is projected to ring in at $1.64 billion.”
The final figures will be much higher for several reasons. First, many types of spending are not revealed until weeks, sometimes months, after elections. Second, formal filings and investigative reports will over time reveal more details of supposedly “independent” and dark-money spending. Finally, and most significantly, details of spending on state and local contests will boost that $3.67 billion figure dramatically. The able researchers at CRP focus on federal races for the US Senate and the US House. Yet, some of the biggest spending of 2014 took place in competitve state races for governor, for attorney general and for control of key legislative chambers. Additionally, spending skyrocketed in state and local judicial races in 2014. And spending on initiatives and referendums was in the hundreds of millions.
Add all this additional largesse in and the 2014 spending figure will be well in excess of $5 billion.
This spending does not buy higher turnouts—2014 saw the lowest level of voter participation since 1942, when World War II created some complications.
The spending does not produce better debates on a wider range of issues—the 2014 campaign was broadly derided as “the election about nothing.”
And it does not result in better or more responsive governance—on the eve of the 2014 election, the approval rate for Congress fell to 8 percent.
That final factor is the most consequential. While much is made of the impact that election spending has on particular contests and on the broader struggle for control of the Congress, there is far too little consideration given to the reality stated by Congressman John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who says, “A lot of the moneyed impact. and in some ways, the most sinister is on the governing that happens after.”
Americans recognize this. An April 2014, national Reason-Rupe poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe all politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists. Other surveys, asking the question in other ways, have found even higher levels of cynicism about arrangements between economic and political elites.
The American people also know that without the restoration of basic American ideals and standards with regard to elections—rooted in the premise that corporations are not people, money is not speech and votes must matter more than dollars—each new election cycle will be more expensive and more negative and much less likely to produce high turnouts and results that reflect the will of the great mass of citizens.
There is a sense of urgency, well expressed by US Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, when he said just after the 2014 election: “If we don’t move quickly and forcefully to get big money out of our elections, it will give the wealthy a vice grip on our government. It will drown out the voices of regular folks. And it will embolden those with the deepest pockets to take further action to keep shaping the electorate how they see fit. We need action, and we need it now.”
Most importantly, Americans are acting on that knowledge. The hidden story of the 2014 election cycle was that, amidst all the shameless fundraising and spending, a popular revolt was brewing at the polls.
This was not about Democrats or Republicans.
This was not about liberals or conservatives.
This was about democracy.
In states across the country, voters signaled that they are ready to take the steps that are necessary to constrain the “money power” of billionaire campaign donors and corporate lobbies in order to restore honest debates, honest elections and honest governance.
Counties, cities, villages and towns in Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin took up the question of whether the US Constitution should be amended to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down century-old limits on corporate spending to buy elections.
The demand was clear and unequivocal. While the questions on ballots across the country varied modestly, they all paralleled the message of the ballot question that earned 70 percent support in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: “Shall the United States Constitution be amended to establish the following? 1. Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”
Across Wisconsin, a dozen communities took up the question, and a dozen endorsed it with support running as high as 82 percent. Notably, in a number of communities that voted to elect Republicans (including free-spending Governor Scott Walker), support for an amendment was overwhelming.
The same was true in other states. In red regions, in blue regions, in urban cities and rural towns, Americans backed the calls for an amendment. There were almost three dozen votes November 4, in jurisdictions that are home to the better part of 2 million Americans, and the message was overwhelming. “Nearly all Americans share the sentiment that corporations should not have the same rights as people, and big money in politics should be removed,” declared Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, the national director of Move to Amend. “It is time for Congress to pass the We the People Amendment and send it to the states for ratification. The leadership of both parties need to realize that their voters are clamoring for this amendment, and we are only going to get louder.”
The number of commuities that have made the call for an amendment now exceeds 600.
The number of states is at sixteen, and it will rise.
The crisis is real, and so is the movement to address it.
Just ask Katie Schierl. She helped organize the petition drives to put the issue in the cities of Neenah and Menasha, Wisconsin. In a region where Republicans won with relative ease, Neenah voted 79 percent for an amendment, while Menasha gave it 80 percent.
“We need the power of the people to change this situation,” said Katie Schierl, a leader of the petition drive in Neenah and Menasha. “That’s the only way it’s going to happen. This movement is growing all across America—it’s going viral.”
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As someone who has reported from most of the Olympic sites since 2002, I have written—often—that these games, so treasured by athletes and fans, operate off-camera as a colossal scam. It doesn’t take Naomi Klein to see that the games arrive with a shock doctrine of debt, displacement and militarization of public space. This has always been the case, but since 9/11, as the security needs for the Olympics have exploded alongside the profit margins of private security and tech firms, it has become an utter disaster for host cities. In fact, staging the games has become so burdensome that the only countries which seem to want the them are places that have a more, let’s just say, dictatorial method of handling cost overruns and dissent among the general populace.
This however is not stopping the United States Olympic Committee from undergoing a full court press to host the 2024 summer games, and in fact the USA is considered “the favorite” to win the bid by Olympic watchers. The cities in play are Boston, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with DC and Boston said to be the front-runners. Consider this column a clarion call to these four remarkable cities: start organizing now to keep the games the hell out of your town.
In Boston, they are already erecting the political barricades. An organization called No Boston Olympics has launched an effort in advance of the USOC’s December decision as to which city will represent the United States in the bidding process. One of their members, Chris Dempsey, responded to my query by e-mail:
The core of No Boston Olympics is a group of young local residents who believe that an Olympics would be a costly distraction from more important and pressing civic priorities. Our grassroots campaign is focused on three priorities: (1) direct outreach to USOC members to make them aware of independent public polling that shows Massachusetts voters do not support a Boston bid, (2) educating civic leaders and citizens about the substantial downsides of an Olympic bid, and (3) exploring opportunities to provide the public with a voice in a process that has otherwise been conducted behind closed doors.
Here is hoping that activists throughout the city of Boston are successful. I spoke with someone connected to the International Olympic Committee who told me that Boston has rocketed to the top of their consideration list because of how the city was able to shut itself down after the Boston Marathon bombing. Few things expose the disturbing thought processes of the IOC quite like this logic. The post-marathon paralysis of police and surveillance and the frightening exercise of total power that was whipped out as quickly and lethally as a switchblade would become the Olympic-norm for three weeks. Anyone who felt a particularly neon-bright target on their back in those chilling days, because of their religion, their dress or the color of their skin, would have that affixed to them like a semi-permanent tattoo for a full year in the lead-up to the lighting of the Olympic torch. A city that brands itself as a cradle of liberty would be defined by drones, thousands of new cameras and a level of military hardware that—based upon what I saw in Rio for the World Cup—has to be seen in order to be believed. Imagine August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, except with fleeting glimpses of Olympic horse dressage, seen through the haze of military-grade tear gas, and you can understand why No Boston Olympics is fighting back.
As for the other cities in contention, I would ask the people of the Bay Area and Los Angeles to think about the gentrification-on-steroids that is already taking place in their cities, pushing people to spend $750 a month to sleep in someone’s laundry room, and then imagine all of these issues worsening dramatically. In the case of DC, the Olympic viruses of debt, displacement and militarization are business as usual in the nation’s capitol. The idea that the Olympics could actually exacerbate these profound problems can seem unimaginable, but to paraphrase Lawrence Fishburne in Deep Cover, the thing about cities is that the reality can always get worse.
To be clear, this missive is not a call for the people of the United States to band together, in the spirit of NIMBY, and kick out the Olympics in the hope that a nation with even greater social ills than the USA has to shoulder the burden. It is the hope that the cities of Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and DC join the international community of cities, such as Oslo and Krakow, that have, because of public pressure, just said “hell no” to hosting the games. If every city followed their lead, we could hound the IOC back to their tax haven in Lausanne, Switzerland… a place, come to think of it, that would make one hell of a host city for the next twenty Olympics.
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