Labor

Zombie Bill Springs Back From the Dead

(Flickr/welovethedark)

Tuesday was a day for bills to come back to life—zombie bills you might call them. In Virginia, the Senate passed a revised version of its pre-abortion sonogram measure, which had looked dead only a few days before. And in Arizona, senators passed one of the measures aimed at killing public employee unions weeks after the measures appeared to have stalled out. Quite a day for the undead.

The Moral Calculus of Online Shopping

Amazon fulfillment center in Scotland (Flickr/Chris Watt)

I don't know too many liberals who shop at Walmart. The primary reason is principle—the company is notoriously cruel to its largely low-wage workforce, works to crush the faintest hint of a desire for collective bargaining with a ferocity that would be the envy of any early 20th century industrialist, and imposes vicious cost-cutting all the way down its supply chain. But not shopping at Walmart is also easy. The stores are rare in the urban areas where lots of liberals live, and elsewhere, there's probably a Target nearby where you can get stuff just about as cheaply (Target's own corporate citizenship is a complicated topic for another day). So it isn't like not shopping at Walmart is some kind of hardship or costs them any money.

But what about Amazon? A few months ago, Harold Pollack explained why he no longer shops there: nearly every sin of which Walmart is guilty, Amazon also commits. And the online world has its own particular sweatshop: the fulfilment center, where people who work not for the place you bought your book or toothpaste from but for a logistics company or a temp agency toil in conditions that are absolutely hellish. That's the topic of Mac McClelland's article in the latest Mother Jones, in which she spent some time working at a fulfilment center, and reports on the physically brutal, psychologically dehumanizing, low-paid work that drives the cyber-economy.

I tried to find one excerpt to give the flavor of the piece, but you really have to read the whole thing to grasp the full awfulness of what it's like to work at one of these places, where you're treated like crap, you run around like a maniac for 10 hours getting objects ready for shipping, and despite the low pay you know there are a dozen people back at the temp agency eager to take your place if you slip up. If you've ever ordered something off Amazon or a similar retailer and said, "How the hell can they sell that thing for only three bucks?", this is part of the reason why.

So where does that leave us consumers? It's awfully hard, if you're just getting by yourself, to choose to pay more for the things you get every day. And unlike walking by the struggling Mom & Pop's Grocery to go to Walmart, where you interact with the people whose working conditions you know to be substandard, online you interact only with a bright, cheery website where all you have to do is click "Add to Cart" and you're done. The moral implications of your consumer choices are physically remote and concealed. But as online retailers, particularly Amazon, have grown so big, it's a question all of us are going to have to confront. I'll confess that I haven't yet begun my own personal boycott—the prices are just too damn good. But the moral questions are getting harder to ignore.

Wisconsin Poll Results: Should Walker Be Concerned?

(Flickr/OnTask)

On its face, the latest poll from Wisconsin doesn't seem to offer much in the way of conclusions. But dig a bit and the poll offers a guide to the potential pitfalls of the Scott Walker campaign in the upcoming months, as the governor prepares for a likely recall election.

The Fashion Week Bill of Rights

Two veteran runway models work to bring safe labor practices to the glamour industry.

(AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

At the height of the 1990s supermodel boom, Linda Evangelista famously said of herself and her catwalk colleagues, “We don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000.” While Evangelista and her cohort, which now includes household names like Gisele Bundchen and Heidi Klum, commanded six-figures for their photo shoots, the reality for most working models then and now is that they earn close to the minimum wage and face long hours in unregulated working conditions. Models, many of whom are teenage girls, are also vulnerable to sexual harassment and pressure to pose nude.

What Real Class Warfare Looks Like

(Flickr/

So it looks as though Republicans are going to cave on the extension of the payroll tax cut, pretty much the only tax cut they don't like, seeing as it doesn't do much for the wealthy. But on their way to that capitulation, they made sure they could exact a price: drug testing of people applying for unemployment compensation! After all, we need to send these people a message.

Arizona's Dissolving Case Against Unions

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

In a state that's already prevented unions from having any clout in the private sector, this was supposed to be the month Arizona put public employee unions on the chopping block.

Private Prison Bill Dies in Florida

(Flickr/Tom Pearce, Los Gatos)

In Florida, a coalition of Democrats and a few moderate Republicans killed what could have been a major expansion of private prisons. The measure would have privatized 27 prisons and displaced more than 3,500 corrections officers. In the Florida Senate, nine Republicans voted against the measure, along with all 12 Democratic state senators. It was a rare victory for both Democrats and the labor unions that fought the bill.

Ohio Governor John Kasich's Tightrope Walk

AP Photo/Al Behrman

John Kasich is in a bit of a bind. The Ohio governor is, on the one hand, the tough Republican who tried to bring right-to-work legislation to Ohio and reduce government spending. He's also the guy whose efforts to limit collective bargaining got knocked down by Ohio voters. Partisan divides seem to be growing in the Buckeye State. All of which was likely on his mind when Kasich gave his State of the State address today. The governor opted to give the speech at a school rather than at the state capitol, where it's traditionally given. It wasn't the only unusual choice of the day.

Does Right to Work Actually Lead to More Jobs?

Flickr/quinn.anya

Most people watching the Super Bowl last night probably had no idea that only a few days before, in the same city of Indianapolis, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a law that will cripple unions. As I've written before, Indiana is the first Rust Belt state to pass a right-to-work law, which prohibits both mandatory union membership and collecting fees from non-members. The news, however, has hardly gotten the attention the labor-minded might have expected. Blame it on the big game or the GOP presidential primary. Or blame it on the loss of union power that allowed the law to pass in the first place.

Indiana Senate Passes Right-to-Work

The Indiana Senate has passed so-called right-to-work legislation, paving a clear path to Gov. Mitch Daniels' desk. The passage was expected—after Democrats in the state House ended their boycotts and efforts to water down the legislation last week, there were almost no major road blocks left. Republican majorities in both chambers were already in favor of the bill and Daniels has repeatedly voiced his support. As I wrote this morning, the move marks a major turning point in labor history as Indiana becomes the first state in the traditionally pro-union northern block to pass the measure. The legislation forbids mandatory union membership and keeps unions from collecting fees from non-members. 

Indiana Wades into the Culture Wars

Indiana is hardly a state known for its intense culture wars and political battles. Mostly, it's known for one of the greatest sports movies of all time. But this year, Indiana is entering territory usually occupied by places like Kansas and Texas. The state legislature is not only about to pass a controversial bill to decrease union power; a measure to teach creationism has already passed out of the state Senate's Education Committee.

Wisconsin Walk-Through

Wisconsin activists shocked onlookers last week when they presented more than one million petitions asking for Governor Scott Walker to be recalled. Since then, the pendulum has seemingly swung in the governor's favor: high fundraising numbers, a state of the state address celebrating his policies, and a poll showing him leading four potential opponents. But there's still a lot of time left to go: two months of verifying signatures, and then, assuming at least 540,000 are valid, an election six weeks later. If there's a Democratic primary, the process will be even longer.

Go Big or Go Home

For those watching labor fights, the two very close, hard-fought games for the AFC and NFC championships yesterday (I'm talking football here, people), might have echoed what's happening in Indianapolis, host city to this year's Super Bowl. The battle over collective bargaining in one of the country's original manufacturing havens has already spawned teams, rules, and some hard-hitting tackles. And soon, one side may be trying for a Hail Mary.

Recalling History

Governor Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was recalled in 1921 after accusations that he was a socialist. AP Photo

Yesterday, Wisconsin activists turned in more than one million petitions supporting the recall of Scott Walker. It was almost double the number they needed to turn in. The Republican governor prompted mass protests last year when he slashed public-employee benefits and then began dismantling collective-bargaining rights in the state. Unions, Democrats, and others affected by the policies were all eager for political payback.  "This is the most participated major recall in American history," Meagan Mahaffey, executive director of the coordinating group United Wisconsin, told me with evident pride.

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