Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

So Close Yet So Far: Wisconsin Democrats Shatter Recall Record But Fail to Retake the State Senate

Democratic hopes of retaking the Wisconsin State Senate were dashed in Tuesday’s recall election. The Democrats, backed by organized labor, successfully recalled two Republican senators but failed to unseat four others. In order to retake the Senate, Democrats would have had to win three recalls yesterday and save two Democratic senators from recall next week.

Historically speaking, two recalls in one day is unprecedented. Only 13 U.S. state legislators have ever been recalled and voters have never recalled more than two representatives in a single year. On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters recalled as many legislators in one day as they’d recalled in last 80 years.

Most recall races are strictly local affairs, but the recall fight in Wisconsin was a counterattack against a state-level agenda, an agenda that other governors and state legislators are trying to replicate across the country.

Scott Walker did not campaign on a promise to eliminate collective bargaining for public sector workers, but that’s what he did. Republicans control both the State Assembly and the State Senate, so, once elected, Walker had broad power to enact his previously unspoken agenda.

Yesterday’s attempt to recall Walker’s allies en masse was the latest in a series of bold and creative assaults on the Walker agenda. In February, the Democratic state senators fled the state to stop Walker from passing his anti-collective bargaining bill by denying a quorum in the Senate.

While the senators were in exile in Illinois, tens of thousands of anti-Walker, pro-union protesters converged on the state capital. One day in early March, 150,000 braved freezing temperatures to hold one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post won a Sidney Award for his coverage of these protests.

After a three-week standoff, Walker and his allies used procedural tricks to pass the bill without the absent senators, but the fight continued in the courts. Walker’s opponents scored some early victories in the lower court and the implementation of the law was delayed. Hoping to tip the balance of power on the State Supreme Court, which would ultimately hear challenges to Walker’s law, progressives backed challenger JoAnn Kloppenburg against incumbent David Prosser. Kloppenburg lost. In June, the deeply divided court reinstated Walker’s law.

Sargent summed up yesterday’s results as follows:

Yesterday unions and Democrats fell just short of victory in Wisconsin, winning two of six races to recall GOP state senators, in a battle that had unexpectedly emerged as ground zero in a national class war, partly over the fate of organized labor. There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Unions and Dems failed in their objective as they defined it, which was to take back the state senate, put the brakes on Scott Walker’s agenda, and let the nation know that elected officials daring to roll back public employee bargaining rights would face dire electoral consequences.

But nonetheless, what they failed to accomplish does not diminish what they did successfully accomplish. The fact that all these recall elections happened at all was itself a genuine achievement.

The struggle in Wisconsin is often portrayed as a clash of well-matched opponents–Democrats vs. Republicans or Big Labor vs. Big Business. In fact, the Democrats and their allies have been waging an irregular war against a much more powerful opponent. The Republicans control every branch of state government.

In each skirmish, the Democrats and their allies have faced long odds and achieved far more than anyone in the political establishment would have predicted. The anti-Walker forces have proven implacable, even in defeat. Their resiliance proves that public sector workers are not the easy targets that Republicans assumed they would be.

Insurgents can’t expect to rout their enemy in any single decisive battle. If they win, they win by wearing down their opponents over time. 

[Photo credit: Sue Peacock, Creative Commons. Madison, WI, March, 2011.]

Kroll Handicaps Tomorrow's Recall Elections in Wisconsin

On Tuesday, Wisconsinites will decide the political fate of six Republican state senators who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda. In order to regain the majority in the state senate, and check Republican power in Wisconsin, Democrats must recall three out of six GOP legislators tomorrow and successfully defend two Democratic legislators against recall votes next week.

Knock out three, hold two. Sounds manageable, right? However, as Craig Gilbert notes at the Journal, U.S. voters have never recalled more than two state legislators in the same year in the entire history of recalls. Only 13 state legislators have ever been recalled, period. There are 16 legislators facing recall in Wisconsin right now. Then again, Gilbert notes, the Wisconsin race is unprecedented in many respects. This is the first time a state-level recall battle has become a national referendum. Money and media attention are pouring in from across the country. 

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones has assembled an invaluable election-eve cheat sheet, based on publicly available polling data and interviews with progressive insiders. By Kroll’s count, the Democrats have a clear lead in two races, the Republican is ahead in another, and three more are still too close to call.

This is uncharted territory. Anything could happen.

Fake News, Real Union: Onion News Network Writers Join WGAE

Writers for the Onion News Network announced this week that they had joined the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO and negotiated their first contract with ONN management.

The agreement will cover the second season of the show, which will begin airing on the Independent Film Channel on September 30.

The agreement calls for minimum compensation increases and health and pension contributions, retroactive to the start of writing earlier this summer. The producers also agreed to hire more writers and add extra writing weeks to the schedule.

The contract is a landmark. Until this agreement was reached, the Onion News Network was the last live-action scripted comedy show to employ non-union writers.

“Writing comedy is hard and time consuming work which makes Guild membership all the more important,” WGAE Director of Communications Elana Levin told the Hillman Blog, “Having more comedy writers in the Guild is beneficial to the working standards for all comedy writers regardless of where they work.”

Over 70 WGAE members from major New York-based comedy shows signed a letter of support on behalf of the ONN writers and hundreds of Guild members emailed the ONN producers.

The ONN writers stood together and won real improvements,” WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson said in a statement.  “We welcome them into the WGAE and we look forward to a productive relationship with the company.”


Video: "Vilnius Mayor A. Zuokas Fights Illegally Parked Cars with Tank"

The Mayor of the City of Vilnius, Arturas Zuokas, a self-proclaimed “militant cyclist,” is sick and tired of drivers parking their luxury cars in his city’s bike lanes. So, he teamed up with a Swedish TV show to create what may be the greatest PSA in the history of media.

“In the past few days, expensive cars have been illegally parked in almost the exact same place - a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari. What should the city do about drivers who think they are above the law? It seems like a tank is the best solution,” says the mayor.

To underscore the threat, His Worship jumps into an armored vehicle and crushes an illegally parked blue Mercedes. The shocked owner emerges to find his car flattened. The mayor shakes his hand and says, “Next time, park legally.”

Whereupon the mayor sweeps up the broken glass with a push broom, gets on his bike, and carries on down the freshly cleared bike lane.

Politifact is going to deduct points because this ad features an armored personnel carrier and not a tank, but who cares?


Ikea Workers Vote to Unionize in Viriginia

Last week, workers at an Ikea-owned furniture plant in Danville, Va voted overwhelmingly to join the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). The unionization vote passed by a margin of 221-69, despite the best efforts of an anti-union consulting company.

The organizing drive, which was fought as much in the international media as on the factory floor, successfully highlighted the contradictions between Ikea’s gleaming global brand and its treatment of workers in a remote U.S. town.

Nathaniel Popper of the Los Angeles Times won the April Sidney Award for his story about the grim working conditions and rising tensions between workers and management at the plant. Workers complained of eliminated raises, the frenzied pace of work, and punishing amounts of mandatory overtime. Six African American employees had filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC.

A majority of workers had signed cards indicating their interest in joining a union and the company hired the notorious anti-union consulting company Jackson Lewis to derail the organizing drive, Popper reported.

Popper noted that, while the tensions at the Danville plant were still a sleeper story in the United States, they were front page news in Sweden, a heavily unionized country where Ikea is regarded as a symbol of humane Swedish values. 

“It’s ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico,” Bill Street who was trying to organize Danville for the machinists told Popper.

Popper later explained in our Q&A Backstory that he was drawn to the story because of the study in contrasts. Ikea is a global brand that holds itself up as a good corporate citizen, yet it set up shop in the isolated community of Danville to pay lower wages to a non-union workforce.

In Sweden, workers earn $19 an hour and accrue 5 weeks of government-mandated paid vacation a year, while full-time Danville workers, who assemble similar bookshelves and tables, start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days per year, 8 of which must be taken at a time of the company’s choosing. When the story ran, a third of Danville’s workforce were temporary workers who earned even less and received no benefits.

In a follow-up piece in June, Popper reported that Ikea had ended the Danville plant’s heavy reliance on temporary workers under pressure from the pro-union advocacy group American Rights at Work. 

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran with the Ikea-as-colonist meme. “Sweden is everything America used to be – dominant, arrogant and so much more beautiful – while America has become Sweden’s Mexico,” according to the segment’s tagline. I’d guess that half the Daily Show’s audience watched that segment from the relative comfort of an Ikea couch. Talk about bringing the message home.

I emailed Popper to ask how the IAM organizers won, in spite of the anti-union drive. He argued that the decisive factors were Ikea’s sensitivity to bad publicity coupled with complacency on the part of management at Swedwood, as the Ikea-owned Danville plant is known:

I got the sense that the public spotlight made Ikea nervous. They wanted to resolve the situation and were hesitant to do anything that could have caused more public embarrassment. They did not try to prolong the election battle – or do any number of other things that companies do when they want to keep unions out. That probably made it much easier for the union to get its case across to the employees.  That said, the local Swedwood management also seemed to think that workers were not interested in unionizing (as Ken Brown said in [this] NPR piece). So perhaps they thought they didn’t need to do much.

Now that the union has been recognized, the next step will be for the IAM to represent the workers at the bargaining table and, hopefully, negotiate their first contract.

Judge Orders Release of Nixon Watergate Testimony

A federal judge has ordered the public release of Richard Nixon’s secret grand jury testimony about Watergate. Nixon was grilled for two days in June of 1975, 10 months after he resigned from office. He was the first former U.S. president to testify before a grand jury.

Historians believe that Nixon’s grand jury testimony will shed light on the president’s involvement in the Watergate burglary and subsequent coverup. It was reported at the time that Nixon was questioned about the notorious 18½-minute gap in the Oval Office tapes, a $100,000 campaign contribution from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and other as-yet-unsolved mysteries of Watergate.

Thirty-six years after the testimony, and 17 years after Nixon’s death, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth decided that the unusual historical value of the 297-page transcript justifies a rare exception to grand jury secrecy. This isn’t the first time a court has ordered the unsealing of grand jury testimony of exceptional historical interest. For example, courts released grand jury testimony from the Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg cases.

The special circumstances presented here – namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records – far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records,” Lamberth wrote. “The Court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy.”

Nixon’s testimony won’t be released immediately because the government still has the option to appeal.

Don't Sweat On My Leg And Tell Me It's Raining: Conservative Pundits Deny Heatwave

Global warming deniers have graduated from denying climate change to denying the weather, Jess Zimmerman reports on GristList:

Rush Limbaugh says “almost no temperature records were broken” during the recent heat wave, and Newsbusters writer Noel Sheppard says there were “only 34 new all-time daily temperature records set.” Only 34? Why, that’s barely a record-breaking heat wave at all! Except for the fact that a) 34 records is nothing to sneeze at and b) by “34,” Sheppard means “somewhere between 70 and 7,612.”

“All-time daily record” is not a thing, but there are daily records and all-time records. Daily records compare the max and min temperatures that day to the same date in previous years. All-time records compare the max and min temperatures that day to every day in every year ever. And July set 70 all-time maximum and 175 all-time minimum records (which are maybe more important). That’s leaving out the daily and monthly records completely; when you add those in, it’s over 7,000. Sheppard’s number isn’t even in the ballpark.

Denying the weather takes some serious chutzpah. Climate is the average of weather patterns over the long term. It’s an abstraction. A determined denier can easily obfuscate by shifting the terms of debate.  The weather is what’s happening right now. We’re experiencing it. Meteorologists are measuring it with great precision and keeping meticulous records. The fact that the U.S. summer of 2011 is a scorcher is not up for debate.

As Zimmerman notes, one bout of extreme weather doesn’t necessarily indicate climate change. Since the climate is the average, one blistering heatwave could just be a blip on the curve of a generally stable climate. However, as Limbaugh remarked, these daily max and daily min records are shattered every year. Indeed many are. If, year after year, each day tends to be warmer than that same day last year, that’s what we’d call a warming trend. 

Drugging Teen Inmates in Louisiana

Incarcerated youths in Louisiana are being dosed with powerful antipsychotic drugs even though they haven’t been diagnosed with the major mental illnesses that these drugs are usually prescribed to treat, Matt Davis reports in The Lens.

Davis’s old school, data-driven investigative report raises troubling questions about the juvenile justice system in Louisiana. First, are young inmates being medicated for social control, as opposed to medical need? Second, are inmates with genuine mental health issues getting appropriate care?

Watch an interview with Davis about his story on WVUE FOX 8 News.


Shadowy "Fourth Bureau" Mines Consumer Data

Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, called on members of Congress last week to investigate the “fourth bureau,” an obscure corner of the private sector that collects and sells miscellaneous consumer data to potential lenders, landlords, employers, and health-care providers, all with little oversight.

In her letter to lawmakers, the head of the Consumers Union cites an expose by Ylan Q. Mui in the Washington Post.

Mui explains that the three major credit bureaus keep tabs on consumers who are enmeshed in the mainstream financial system through credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, and other debts. But what about people who don’t have that kind of paper trail? How is their creditworthiness reckonned? 

The answer increasingly lies in the “fourth bureau” — companies such as L2C that deal in personal data once deemed unreliable. Although these dossiers cover consumers in all walks of life, they carry particular weight for the estimated 30 million people who live on the margins of the banking system. Yet almost no one realizes these files exist until something goes wrong.

Federal regulations do not always require companies to disclose when they share your financial history or with whom, and there is no way to opt out when they do. No standard exists for what types of data should be included in the fourth bureau or how it should be used. No one is even tracking the accuracy of these reports. That has created a virtually impenetrable system in which consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, have little insight into the forces shaping their financial futures. [WaPo]

Mui introduces us to Catherine Taylor, an Arkansas woman who was accidentally blacklisted by a forth bureau firm for someone else’s criminal charges. Her ChoicePoint report falsely stated that she’d been charged with methamphetamine-related offenses. Taylor says a stranger with the same name and birthdate racked up those charges.

The innocent Catherine Taylor only learned of the undeserved blemish on her record after she was turned down for a job at the Red Cross several years ago.

In a sense, Taylor was lucky. The Red Cross sent her a copy of her ChoicePoint record, which alerted her to the error. Otherwise, she might never have found out. Consumers have the legal right to free copies of their Big Three credit reports annually. There are dispute resolution processes to enable consumers to correct erroneous information. Not so with the fourth bureau.

The fourth bureau is a Catch-22 for consumers. There’s no official list of fourth bureau agencies, so you might be a blacklisted by a company you don’t even know about.

Taylor has hired an attorney to help clear her name, but the damage has already been done. Her blemished record has apparently been redistributed to other companies. Gatekeepers are still making decisions about her based on flawed information and there’s no easy way to correct the record once and for all. Years after the original mistake, the error has ravaged her credit rating so badly that she can’t even get financing for a dishwasher. 

The fourth bureau’s verdicts are shaping the lives of some of the most vulnerable consumers, without their knowledge or consent.

The verdicts of this unregulated sector can determine whether someone ever gets access to the mainstream financial system in order to build a regular credit rating. Consumers can be stuck with higher interest rates and fees because some fourth bureau company’s secret algorithm deems them sketchy.

This kind of secrecy puts honest businesses at a disadvantage as well. They want to know if prospective applicants are good risks. Without transparency, for all they know, they might be paying for the use of a black box that operates on the Garbage In/Garbage Out principle.

The Consumers Union is right: Congress must investigate the fourth bureau.

"What Were They Thinking?" Elizabeth Drew on the Debt Ceiling Debacle

In the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew thoughtfully pre-explains a question that will no doubt baffle future generations of historians:

Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist.

Drew’s essay is essential reading for anyone who’s unclear on why the United States seems poised to commit what a blogger at the has dubbed “the biggest unforced error in history.”