Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

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.”

Calvin Trillin Looks Back on the Freedom Rides

The first Freedom Ride began May 4, 1961 when thirteen civil rights activists set out from Washington, D.C. on a public bus bound for the Deep South. Seven black and six white riders sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality set out to defy state segregation laws. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the previous year that segregation of interstate bus and rail facilities was unconstitutional, but Southern authorities ignored the ruling and continued to enforce state laws while the federal government looked the other way.

Ten days into the journey, a white mob in Birmingham attacked one of the Freedom Riders’ buses. Their other bus was firebombed in nearby Anniston. A few days later, students from the Nashville branch of the sit-in movement, energized by their successful campaign to desegregate their city’s lunch counters, travelled to Birmingham to pick up where CORE left off. In all, about 400 men and women took part in the protest.

In this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin recalls his yearlong stint as a young white reporter covering what was known as “the Seg Beat” for the Atlanta bureau of Time from the fall of 1960 through the fall of 1961. Trillin completed various assignments, including an early story about the eponymous founder of the John Birch Society, who believed that Dwight. D. Eisenhower was a secret Communist agent. “Mostly, though, I’d be at the airport early in the week for a flight to someplace where Jim Crow was being challenged,” he writes. During Trillin’s time on the “Seg Beat,” the New Orleans school system desegregated, sit-ins integrated lunch counters in Nashville and Atlanta, and the Freedom Riders passed through the Deep South. Trillin reported from the bus as the Freedom Ride passed through Alabama and Mississippi. Trillin discusses his essay in this free New Yorker Out Loud podcast.

Trillin almost didn’t get on the bus in the first place. He wasn’t sure whether getting on board would be crossing the line from reporting to activism. In the end, he decided it was a public bus and the press had as much right to be there as anyone else.

Besides, his goal as a reporter was to be fair, not to act as if the segretationists had an equally valid point of view, despite all historical, legal, and moral evidence to the contrary. “I didn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides–the side that thought, for instance, that all Americans had the right to vote and the side that thought that people who acted on such a belief should have their houses burned down–had an equally compelling case to make,” Trillin writes.

Trillin recalls how controversial the Freedom Ride campaign was, even within the civil rights movement. In retrospect, the campaign seems like a natural outgrowth of the successful sit-in movement. However, Trillin notes that many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, didn’t initially see it that way.

The central lie of the pro-segregationist movement was that Southerners of all races were happy with their region’s segregated “way of life.” Actually, Jim Crow wasn’t an ancient way of life, it was a post-Reconstruction-era backlash, but the segretationists weren’t counting. In an astonishing feat of rhetorical jiu jitsu, they claimed the real cause of racial conflict wasn’t black southerners chafing against their second-class citizenship, but rather, outside agitators bent on causing trouble where none existed.

Many civil rights leaders were concerned that Freedom Rides would validate the oppressors’ narrative by pitting outsiders against locals. The Freedom Ride organizers countered that no one was an outsider because they were all Americans.

The tactical dispute fell by the wayside once the Freedom Riders got bogged down in the Deep South under assault. The larger movement and the Kennedy Administration were forced to defend them. The audacity of the Riders ultimately carried the day. After nearly five months of riding, the Interstate Commerce Commission formally banned segregation in interstate bus and rail facilities.

The Freedom Rides are now remembered as an early and important victory in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.

To learn more about the Freedom Rides, check out this free full-length documentary: Freedom Riders, produced by WGBH American Experience, and directed by Stanley Nelson.

Media Critics Respond to Jose Antonio Vargas's Immigration Revelation

Jose Antonio Vargas’s Sidney Award-winning account of his life as a reporter and undocumented immigrant has sparked a range of responses from fellow journalists since it appeared in the New York Times Magazine last month.

Vargas came forward nearly twenty years after family sent him to the U.S. from the Philippines at the age of 12. He says he didn’t learn about his immigration status until he tried to apply for a drivers’ license at the age of 16. He decided to forge ahead with his life in America, including his dream of becoming a reporter. He describes how he used forged documents to obtain a drivers’ license and falsely claimed to be a citizen when he applied for various media jobs.

Jack Shafer of Slate argued that Vargas undercut his own credibility as a journalist by admitting to a pattern of deceit:

I get on my high horse about Vargas’ lies because reporter-editor relationships are based on trust. A news organization can’t function if editors must constantly cross-examine their reporters in search of deliberate lies. I’m more disturbed with Vargas for lying to the Washington Post Co. (which—disclosure alert!—employs me) than I am about him breaking immigration law. His lies to the Post violated the compact that makes journalism possible. It also may have put the company on the hook for violating immigration law [PDF], which slaps employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants with legal sanctions and fines. This may be the case in the Vargas episode: In his story, he writes of telling one Post manager about his immigration status, and that manager, Peter Perl, took no action. blogger M.S. took issue with Shafer’s thesis, arguing that media organizations should take necessary steps to make sure that journalists tell the truth in print and ignore their personal lives:

There are many reasons why people lie. The way to tell whether you can trust your reporters is to subject them to withering scrutiny during their introductory phase on the job, and then, periodically and without warning, to subject them to withering scrutiny again. The responsibility for scrupulous accuracy is a procedural responsibility that needs to be instituted at an organisational level by management. Trustworthy organisations are run by people who build systems that produce reliable information; they’re not clubs composed of people who possess innate characterological trustworthiness. A newspaper editor should care whether his reporters are telling the truth in their professional journalistic work, and it’s that editor’s responsibility to institute reasonable procedures to ensure that they do so by making sure that systematic liars get caught quickly. Whether they’ve told their daughter that her father isn’t actually her biological father, or whatever, is none of the editor’s business. As I understand things, Jayson Blair doesn’t seem to have become a systematic liar until after he started working in the newspaper business.

M.S. argues that even journalists deserve a certain amount of leeway with regard to certain sensitive personal details because circumstances sometimes force otherwise trustworthy people to tell isolated lies in order to survive. I made a similar argument at Big Think in a post I wrote before I joined the Hillman Foundation. Some secrets have such devastating consequences that people are basically forced into lies. For example, we understand why an LGBT person might feel compelled to lie about their orientation in order to protect themselves from discrimination, social ostracism, or even violence. We don’t assume that every closeted person who comes out must therefore be less credible in other areas of their life. Holding them fully responsible for lying, without acknowledging that they never should have been put in that position in the first place, is a way of compounding the damage of an unfair system.

Vargas’ story illustrates how broken our immigration system is. He was brought to this country as a child and he learned his true status while he was still a minor. Did anyone seriously expect a 16-year-old to pack up and go back to the Philippines after his family had spent a relative fortune to bring him to the U.S.? He was trapped in someone else’s lie. His other option would have been to skirt the issue by going underground and taking menial jobs where no one would inquire too closely about his immigraiton status.

Yes, Vargas exposed his employers to some risk by lying about his immigration status. What’s worse? Consigning a promising young man to literal or figurative exile? Or subjecting an institution to the hypothetical risk of a fine between $275 and $2200 for hiring an undocumented person?

Other critics, including Vargas’s former boss at the San Francisco Chronicle, have suggested that Vargas undercut his credibility because he wrote about immigration issues without disclosing that he himself was an undocumented immigrant.

Dick Rogers wrote at

In an e-mail, Vargas, who went on to write for the Washington Post and Huffington Post, said he omitted his status “because I was afraid and fearful of the consequences.”

That’s exactly the point. Over his career, what else did he fail to report or write? It’s difficult to divine. The majority of his stories were routine: fires, crime, features. He also wrote often about diversity and immigration. Just as it’s hard to prove a negative, it’s hard to know whether Vargas listened sympathetically to some and less so to others, whether he was more inclined to hear one side of a story than others, whether he omitted information that hit too close to home.

This argument tacitly assumes that citizenship or legal residency is the default neutral position from which immigration should be covered. You could just as easily ask whether reporters who take their U.S. citizenship for granted might listen more sympathetically to some stories than others. Do anti-immigration activists get more sympathetic coverage because reporters are more likely to be documented than undocumented? Everyone has a stake in immigration policy. It’s not as if citizens and legal residents are inherently neutral and undocumented people are biased.

It’s a little more complicated if a reporter is lying about their immigration status, as opposed to simply not disclosing. But, as discussed above, sometimes people have good reasons to tell isolated lies about their personal lives. Refusing to cover immigration would only have attracted suspicion to a young reporter of color who was living in constant fear of exposure. Under the circumstances, demanding total transparency would be tantamount to demanding self-incrimination.

Vargas has become an advocate for the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would help resolve the untenable position that Vargas and countless other undocumented young people face after being brought to the U.S. as children. We can all agree that it’s better for society and for journalism when people can be open about who they are. Instead of pointing fingers at individuals who lie after the fact, we should reform our institutions to make it easier for everyone to live and work with integrity.

Watch: Jose Antonio Vargas on the Colbert Report


June Sidney Award winner Jose Antonio Vargas appeared on Colbert Report last Thursday to talk about his explosive story, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

In the runup to his appearance on Colbert, Vargas gathered over 90,000 signatures to his Define American pledge, a virtual petiton advocating for immigration reform.

Colbert, who plays a blustery right wing talkshow host on his Emmy-Award winning Comedy Central show, has a longstanding interest in immigration issues. Last September, Colbert testified in character before the House Judiciary Committe about the hardships facing America’s farmworkers, an essential workforce that comprised largely of immigrants, many of whom are undocumented.

Jose Antonio Vargas wins June Sidney Award

The Sidney Hillman Foundation is very proud to announce that Jose Antonio Vargas is the winner of this month’s Sidney Award for excellence in journalism for his powerful and thought-provoking autobiographical story, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

When Vargas’ mother put him on a U.S.-bound flight from Manila one late summer morning in 1993, the twelve-year-old had no idea he was about to become one of our nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. He thought he was imigrating legally, as his grandparents, a security guard and a food service worker, had done years earlier. Vargas learned his true immigration status four years later when a clerk at the DMV informed his that his Green Card was forged. Like many immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, Vargas was trapped. He reasoned that if citizenship hadn’t been given to him by birth or bureaucracy, he’d have to earn it.

With the help of an “underground railroad” of sympathetic friends and mentors, Vargas rose from his hometown paper to the heights of American journalism. Along the way, he shared a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Viriginia Tech massacre, saw his reporting turned into a documentary, and profiled facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker.

All this time, Vargas was haunted by his immigration status. The strain of keeping such a terrible secret ate away at his sense of security and his ability to feel close to others.

Vargas had hoped that the DREAM Act would pass before his last piece of official ID expired on his 30th birthday. The DREAM Act is 10-year-old piece of bipartisan legislation, currently stalled in Congress, that would give undocumented young people who were brought to this country as children the opportunity to earn legal permanent residency by going to college or serving the the military.

When the DREAM Act failed in the Senate, Vargas realized that the involuntary charade had gone on long enough. He decided to come forward in the hopes that his story would catalyze a more realistic debate about immigration in this country.

Learn more about Vargas and his piece in the Backstory, an email Q&A with Lindsay Beyerstein.