A Monthly Blog
Compiled By Marty Kich
[Click the links to pdf’s of the full articles.]
I’ll begin this month with a New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse on the increasing prevalence of lockouts at large, unionized plants across the United States. The refusal to negotiate with unions, at the front end of the negotiating process, seems a private-sector corollary to the continuing political attacks on both public-sector and private-sector unions occurring in a number of state legislatures across the country.
Very prominent among these has been the ongoing lockout at the Cooper Tires plant in Findlay, which began in November. [Note: that lockout finally came to an end at the end of February.] But the most-long-running of the lockouts has been that at the American Crystal Sugar plants in Minnesota and North Dakota. As you may recall, the CEO of that corporation used a press conference as a platform for metaphorically describing the unionized employees as a cancer.
Indeed, as the article “Showdown at Caterpillar Plant 'Watershed Moment' for North American Labor” demonstrates, the corporate tactics that have been used against American unions are being exported to Canada. Writing for Nation of Change, Pat Garofalo documents that Caterpillar is asking for worker concessions as it reports record profits. She links this sort of exploitation to the exploitation of Chinese workers by Apple and other Western corporations.
Writing for the New York Times, Charles Duhigg and David Barboza have created an international firestorm with their expose, “In China, Human Costs Are Built into an I-Pad.” In the tradition of great “muckraking,” the article reveals how Apple’s Chinese subcontractors have met their contracts by subjecting their workers to absolutely atrocious working conditions. The workers not only work extraordinarily long hours for very low hourly wages, but they are regularly and variously abused by the plant’s management and warehoused in sparely furnished company dorms during their limited off hours. These dorms have become infamous for the nets strung around them to catch at least some of the rising number of suicidal workers.
In “Apple’s Insanely Profitable Made-in-China Quarter,” Salon-contributor Andrew Leonard details the ever more mind-boggling profits that are being generated, quarter by quarter, and considers the ways in which American and other consumers are complicit in the exploitation.
Responding to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels memorably equated Steve Jobs with American jobs--asserting “Contrary to the President's constant disparagement of people in business, it's one of the noblest of human pursuits. The late Steve Jobs--what a fitting name he had--created more of them than all those stimulus dollars the President borrowed and blew. “ Progressive commentators were very quick to point out that for every Apple employee in the U.S., most of whom hold retail positions, there are about ten workers in the Chinese plants to which Apple subcontracts its manufacturing.
In “The Plow and the I-Phone: Conservative Fantasies about the Miracles of the Market,” Robert Jensen documents how most innovative products have come out of research and development supported in some way by the government.
Writing for Salon, David Sirota asks, “Is China Our Future.” He suggest that “if we don't want six-day workweeks at rock-bottom pay, we need to rethink how America's free market functions.” Many working Americans will wonder if we aren’t already well along the way to what Sirota is suggesting is still avoidable.
Several articles that appeared this month explore the paradoxes defining America’s manufacturing sector. In a very substantial article for Atlantic, Adam Davidson provides several extended case studies illustrating the irony that as America’s manufacturing output has continued to increase, the number of jobs in manufacturing has continued to decline. The title of the article, “Making It in America,” ironically applies to both realities—the continuing global dominance of American manufacturing and the end of the American manufacturing sector’s longstanding role as a source of job creation—and especially as a source of the kind of steady, good-paying jobs that permit a solidly middle-class standard of living.
This article is the perfect complement to an article that I highlighted in last month’s blog and that is well worth citing again this month: “The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty And The American
Warehouse.” Written by Scott Jamieson, this lengthy and profoundly thought-provoking article vividly details the reliance on sub-contracted, temporary workers—called “lumpers”—who now perform most of the physical labor in America’s ever-expanding networks of warehouses. Most of these workers either have previously held jobs in manufacturing plants or come from socio-economic backgrounds that previously would have led them into jobs in manufacturing. They do very hard work, frequently under very difficult working conditions, for very little pay and with little or no benefits or protections if they are injured. But for these workers, these jobs are all that stand between their tenuous current circumstances and truly abject impoverishment. The author conveys what it is like to live so precariously “on the clock.”
In “How Payday Lenders Make Billions by Fleecing Americans in Poverty,” Tonya Somanader shows how nefariously multifarious the exploitation of the working poor has become.
In “Working and Poor in the USA,” Bill Quigley dispels the myth that having a job and working hard guarantees a decent standard of living in contemporary America. Quigley provides straightforward answers to eight basic questions, in each case presenting very telling statistics that will undoubtedly surprise many readers fortunate enough to have well-paid employment.
Writing for New Deal 2.0, Bryce Covert analyzes the impact of the Great Recession on the employment of women and how the impact on women ripples through the entire economy. In her article “The Womancession Will Prolong Our Economic Slump,” Covert notes that although women’s employment was not initially damaged as much as men’s employment by the economic downturn, it has since been much more acutely affected but the very modest economic growth that has characterized the recovery. Although job losses in the construction industry, still a male-dominated economic sector, initially drove the spiking unemployment numbers, the largest job losses over the last two years have been among public-sector workers, as state and local governments have confronted sometimes dramatically reduced revenues. And higher numbers of women than men have been employed in those affected public-sector jobs.
Indeed, in an article for CTI Career Search, “Men Fill Jobs while Women Go Back to School,” Yaffa Klugerman notes, “As USA Today reported, men are claiming more than two-thirds of jobs created in the private sector. A large part of that growth is being driven by many more men taking jobs in retail, an industry traditionally employed mostly by women. In the past 12 months, retailers have hired 216,900 men--far more than the 9,000 women who were hired during that time.”
At the risk of trivializing the bleak employment picture for many American women, I am happy to report, however, that, according to the Huffington Post, lingerie stores in Saudi Arabia have been prohibited from hiring male salespersons.
The recession has, of course, claimed victims beyond individual livelihoods. Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection. Once one of the iconic American corporations, it has been unable to keep pace with the changes in digital technology that have completely transformed photography over the last two decades.
In other bankruptcy news, Hostess Bakeries, the makers of Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Ding-Dongs, and Wonder Bread, have filed again for bankruptcy protection, about two years after emerging from the most protracted bankruptcy process in U.S. history. Although one can argue that the company’s signature products have become as dated as the Instamatic Camera, the Hostess story is actually much more complicated—as the attached opinion piece that I have written, “Tale of the Twinkie,” indicates.
As I point out in the piece on the Hostess bankruptcy, private equity firms, while ostensibly the salvation of that company, are actually trying to pick it clean. Writing for TPM: Talking Points Memo, Pemo Levy pointed out that, much to Mitt Romney’s political advantage, the media had not distinguished between “venture capital” and “private equity” until Romney’s GOP primary opponents began attacking him as a “vulture capitalist.” In a nutshell, “venture capitalists” invest in high-risk start-up companies hoping to get in on the ground floor of the next big idea. In contrast, “private equity” firms target existing companies whose assets can be quickly magnified by at least temporarily improving “efficiency” (typically through draconian layoffs and restructuring) in order to leverage as much borrowing against assets as possible, with the ultimate aim of driving up the stock price as quickly and as high as possible. All of this is done to maximize short-term profits that will enrich the private equity firm’s investors--but will do so at the expense of the firm’s own shareholders and employees, by leaving the company saddled with unsustainable debt after the private equity firm has suddenly sold off its shares. That some companies have survived this process is not to the private equity firms’ credit. For a fuller treatment of this issue, here is a link to another piece that I have written, “In Praise of Responsible Capitalism.”
I will close this month’s blog with three unrelated but thought-provoking items. In “America, Arms Dealer to the World,” William Astore shows that we not only spend more on defense than nations with the next dozen largest militaries in the world, taken together, but we are also, by a great margin, the world’s largest producer of military equipment for export. It became a frequent item for comment when the tear-gas canisters fired on Egyptian demonstrators were found to have a “Made in USA” label stenciled onto them. But the difficult truth is that wherever people are doing much worse to each other throughout the world, they are more likely than not doing it with American weaponry.
Writing for BusinessNewsDaily, Chad Brooks profiles “Ten Strange Businesses You Probably Didn’t Know Existed.” I actually was already familiar with several of these businesses, but the majority were a surprise. I am not sure whether these businesses more illustrate the sort of ingenuity that these hard economic times might provoke or the broader American sensibility that sees a business opportunity in just about anything--the more peculiar, the better.
Finally, in another piece for Nation of Change, David Sirota identifies and comments on ten “soon to be lost” words and phrases in the American “vernacular.” Companies such as Kodak and Hostess Bakeries may pass into history with more notice, but the same sort of inevitable obsolescence is constantly in evidence in our language—and it reflects the changes in our society and culture, including our economic enterprises and our political follies.