At the heart of the latest feud between business groups and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an 11x17 sheet of paper that blandly recites the basics of a statute. But depending on whom you ask, the future of labor, the First Amendment, and freedom from state interference are at stake.
On Friday, the Fourth Circuit became the second federal appeals court to strike down the NLRB's requirement that employers hang a simple poster advising employees of their right to join a union—the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reached a similar ruling last month. The notice resembled the signs in so many break-rooms and copy nooks that advertise the minimum wage or anti-discrimination and health-and-safety laws. This particular poster, however, enraged groups opposed to organized labor and pulled the Labor Board into extensive litigation. The NLRB had intended the sign to educate workers—most of whom hardly know what a union is or what it means to organize for better conditions. But opponents saw the poster requirement as federal activism and argued both that the Labor Board lacks authority to take such a proactive measure and that the notice tramples upon employers' free speech.
I arrived in Seoul from New York on January 30, having lost half a day somewhere over the Pacific. On the airport shuttle bus, a flat-screen TV played and replayed the Naro satellite launch: South Korea's encore attempt to put its first in orbit. The news spliced in footage of a cheering crowd, gaze heavenward, waving small Taegeugki flags outside the space center. It was like watching a dated Space Race reel.
Two weeks later, as I was leaving Seoul, I again rode the airport shuttle. This time, the dashboard broadcast was much more grave. A red-backed news ticker announced North Korea's suspected nuclear test, nearly confirmed by seismic measurements. The images were again of mid-century intensity: mushroom clouds and infrared surveillance, menacing portraits of a Mao-suited dictator. This news, I gathered from cuts to president Obama, had gone international.
My trip was thus bookended by hot actions on a Cold War peninsula—a divided nation still technically at war. Politics, including the recent election of a hawkish, first-ever woman president, were in the air, though I'd gone to Korea for personal reasons.
Twelve years ago, "Janie"—a round-faced, single mother of four—said goodbye to her children and life as she knew it in Manila. She agreed to follow a family to the U.S., where she would fulfill a contract for live-in domestic work. In her employers' Pennsylvania home, she cleaned and cared for the children seven days a week, 24 hours a day, without any days off. Her employers held her passport, and kept her at home—not once in seven years did she see friends or family. And her pay was a fraction of the minimum wage: a mere $400 per month, most of which she sent to the Philippines. When her employers moved, Janie, who asked that her real name not be used for legal reasons, found another job. She negotiated a better salary but met a new challenge: constant verbal harassment by her employer's mother. She recalls, "I cannot bear it anymore. I'm nothing to [them]. So they gave me pay, and I said I had to leave." Janie moved on to her current job, working for a family in New York. The hours are still long, the work emotionally taxing, but, she says, "I just keep thinking about my kids—that's all."
The annual, indie-heavy CMJ Music Marathon—sponsored by the weekly trade magazine that was once called College Music Journal—brought more than a thousand acts to New York City last month, for gigs stretching late into the night. When not playing, black-clad rockers wielded badges and tote bags around the West Village. There, the festival convened such panels as "Copyright Enforcement on the Edge," "A Day in the Life of a Successful Career DJ," and "Fan-durance: Sourcing Funding from Fandom."