Airport Workers Say, “Poverty Doesn’t Fly!”

The cold wind bit my cheeks as I gratefully pulled on an SEIU purple stocking cap emblazoned with an image of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Destination: JUSTICE.”

This was our way to commemorate Dr. King. My wife, daughter and I joined a rally for airport workers who want to form a union with 32BJ, an affiliate of SEIU. About 100 of us gathered under the bright sky near the King Memorial on the National Mall.

Yikes, it was cold! We stamped and hopped around for warmth while workers took turns speaking nervously at the microphone. We heard from sky cab drivers and the workers who push wheelchairs for passengers at DC National Airport. Neither of those jobs pay the federal minimum wage, because they’re classified as tipped workers. I was shocked to learn the minimum in Virginia for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour!

Every few minutes, chants broke out: “What do airport workers want? $15 and a union! What do airport workers want? $15 and a union!” and “If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN! If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN!”

IMG_0351Some workers work three full-time jobs, and don’t even have enough time to go home after work. They just sleep at the airport and wake up for the next shift!

“We’re busted and disgusted! We’re tired of working with no healthcare and no benefits!”

One of the speakers was a grandmother who spoke from cards so she wouldn’t get too much stage fright. She said she cleans airplane cabins for $8 an hour. Her pay barely covers her bus fare to work. She’s only able to get enough to eat with help from Food Stamps. She wishes she could provide for her kids and grandkids. That’s why she wants a union.

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton told the crowd that Dr. King had gone to Memphis for the same reason we gathered today. The wind was cold. She declined a hat, joking that she was too vain to mess up her afro. The crowd loved it.

Then we all marched past the King Memorial, where we stopped and sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” led by Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.

We marched to Independence Avenue, stopping occasionally to pray and chant, until we reached the corner on 14th Street SW.

“Everybody down!”the organizers hollered. We all sat down in the middle of the intersection. There was a long prayer. The 14th Street light turned green, but nobody moved. The traffic backed up. After a few minutes, we all rose together. Dozens of airport workers boarded busses to get to go back to work.

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Liberals Need to Stop Being Right for the Wrong Reasons

The most telling line in the celebrated and supposedly morally powerful novel and movie about race and justice, To Kill a Mockingbird, is when the dad, Atticus Finch, tells his daughter not to use the “n” word.

The line has been lauded more than 50 years, but his reasoning is wrong. “Don’t say [it]. It’s common,” he explains.

Our celebration of Atticus Finch is why the hosts of “Fox and Friends” can feign outrage about the movement to rid America of the Confederate flag. The subject on this Sunday’s show was a decision by a school district in Tennessee to ban banners, including the Confederate flag, from display at its schools. Confederate FlagThe schools will still fly the American flag on flag poles.

Here’s what co-host Tucker Carlson said, “This is a about a long-term trend where the people who run everything — the elites in Washington, New York, and L.A. — despise rural America and its culture, suspect anybody who doesn’t live in their cities of being a bigot, and they’re trying to crush that culture by banning its symbols.”

It’s a ridiculous argument, except for its grain of truth.

Quite a few people who hold liberal views do think the Confederate flag is a sign of ignorance or poor education or hillbilly culture. It’s not. Nor is it “common.” And it never was. Slavery was a product of educated elites, not country folk. Slavery paid major dividends to a few predatory families. Everyone else—the enslaved workers and anyone whose labor competed with them—lived in dirt-road  hand-to-mouth poverty.

The flag of the Confederacy is an ugly and violent symbol of a landed gentry in America. It’s the opposite of democracy and patriotism. That’s why it’s offensive. The same goes for the “n” word.

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Three Words Behind the Gawker Union: What About Us?

“What about us?” was what Gawker reporter Hamilton Nolan asked as he wrote about talk of Vice workers forming a union. Nolan’s beat is work and jobs, but the subject resonated with him at his job.

What followed came fast. Nolan spoke with Justin Molito of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), who talked him through the nuts-and-bolts of organizing a union.

Nolan and others at Gawker didn’t wait for the full old-school process, though. The next thing Molito knew, Nolan and others had posted a meeting invitation on Facebook. Forty people came. The next morning a bunch of Gawker writers were posting about their desire for a union.

“This is something we waged publicly, because that’s how Gaw

From left to right at the table: Freddy Kunkle of the Washington Post talked about organizing among skeptical media workers while NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Hamilton Nolan of Gawker look listen.

From left to right at the table: Freddy Kunkle of the Washington Post talked about organizing among skeptical media workers while NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Hamilton Nolan of Gawker look listen.

ker operates,” Nolan said. Then something rare happened. Instead of resisting the idea, Gawker CEO Nick Denton agreed to a private ballot vote. On June 4, about 120 Gawker workers voted to unionize by a margin of 3-1.

This Wednesday afternoon, Nolan and Molito joined NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Freddy Kunkle, co-chair of the Washington Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild for a discussion on at the AFL-CIO on organizing in digital media. The News Guild has been organizing in new media for 20 years and counts about 2,000 new media members.

Gawker workers wanted to publish at every step along the way, beginning with an early position piece on why workers there wanted to organize. That openness continued with a public discussion of how people planned to vote and why.

“It can almost be a tutorial for organizing,” Nolan said.

He’s not kidding. The discussion is frank, and even raw at times. The workers literally wrestle out issues in real time.

“If new media industry is going to grow up—and it is growing up—we need to do this,” he said.

If you’re interested in organizing at your workplace, please take this survey. Or you can simply email me. I’m a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

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The Problem With Atticus Finch

To Kill a Mockingbird

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch—small town lawyer, single dad and principled moral force—admonishes his first-grade daughter, “Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common.”

That crucial line in one of America’s most beloved stories about racial justice has reinforced an elaborately wrong lesson about racism in America for more than 50 years.

The problem is simple: Epithets aren’t rude like bad manners that education and “good breeding” can fix. The words are tools for enforcing a social structure in which some people have and wield absolute, extra-judicial, life-and-death power over others.

Yet the appeal of a calm voice speaking against such an ugly word for any reason has proved to be incredibly enduring. The 1960 novel by Harper Lee, which is set in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb during the sleepy years of the Great Depression, has consistently been described as “brilliant” and “full of useful truths.”

When it comes to works of fiction which tackle the thorny issue of race and equality in America, nothing else even approaches To Kill a Mockingbird for sheer popularity and reach. At one point in the 1980s it was estimated to be required reading for three-quarters of all American high school students. More than 30 million copies have been sold. The book has never gone out of print, and has been praised uniformly for its literary and social merit, beginning in 1961, when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

And yet for all the glory given this tale about a man taking a stand for justice, the story actually carries a gristly lesson in dehumanization all the way to its deadly conclusion. And when the death occurs, it’s treated as a triumph.

This is not a reference to the sad demise of Tom Robinson, the upstanding black man wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman and who later is shot by guards at a prison work farm. That death, in the book, is simply regrettable.

I’m talking about the death of Bob Ewell, the lazy lay-about town drunk who lives with his filthy family at the dump. He’s also the father of the woman who accused Tom of rape, even though, according to the narrator’s insinuation, everyone in town knows the old lecher had been raping his daughter himself.

Harper Lee’s portrayal of Bob Ewell follows the same kind of so-called logic that racists use. Racism always has twisted justification, you know. Bigots claim to be nothing more than honest, nothing worse than protective, nothing less than vigilant defenders of justice and time-honored values. And that’s the moral ground Harper Lee’s narrator claims for herself while the story maligns Bob Ewell as a low-down and dangerous animal. His bad breeding and other un-redeemable qualities are why it’s so important for him to die.

We first learn about the Ewell clan by meeting an over-sized lice-infested first-grader in Scout’s class named Burris Ewell. So right away we know they’re filthy.

The Ewells are mean, too. The disgusting kid makes his teacher cry by calling her a “snot-nosed slut.”

The narrator doesn’t mince words: “Every town the sized of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.”

Later, in the courtroom, Bob Ewell makes a mockery of justice. He lies like a dog and struts around like a “little bantam cock of a man.” The judge “looked at Ewell like he was a three-legged chicken or a square egg.”

Yet for being so ignorant and vile, Bob Ewell manipulates the courtroom like an idiot savant, goading and prodding the jury and the gallery with his folksy phrases and ignorant country ways.

The pillars of Maycomb society are powerless in the face of this piece of white trash who plays to the local townsfolk and farmers by shouting from the witness stand stuff like, “I seen that black [n-word] yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!”

It’s easy to hate Bob Ewell. The story demands it. We blame him for the miscarriage of justice when the jury convicts Tom Robinson. It’s especially galling after Tom loses his case on appeal. In despair, Robinson runs for the fence at the prison farm and a guard shoots him dead.

Still, like any truly detestable critter, Bob isn’t done. He can’t stand a black family that’s held in higher regard than his own, and so he harasses Tom’s widow until the shopkeeper she works for threatens him. Bob even plots to go after the judge and Atticus.

In the closing chapters of the book, as Scout and her brother are coming home in the warm blackness of a Halloween night, the drunk and disgusting specter of Bob Ewell has become an evil presence, lurking in the novel’s shadows. He’s armed with a razor sharp knife. He’s cowardly. And vicious.

Bob Ewell stabs at Scout and her brother, but his knife gets caught in her brother’s costume. A reclusive well-born neighbor named Boo Radley appears in the blackness. He’d been keeping an eye on the kids the whole time. Boo kills Bob with his own knife and then carries Scout’s brother into the Finch house to safety.

That’s when we see the true power of the depiction of Bob Ewell.

His death isn’t serious. It’s hardly notable, except as a good deed. It warrants no official action. As the doctor sets the boy’s broken arm, Atticus and the sheriff simply decide to cover up the circumstances. As the sheriff says, “‘There’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ‘em. Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it takes to shoot ‘em.’”

In the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, those at the top of the local hierarchy bear no responsibility for society’s ills. Racism to them is a confounding thing that well-meaning folk like Atticus can only understand as a “local disease” afflicting poor but otherwise honest folk. Powerless against the disease are the sheriff, the newspaper publisher, the judge and, of course, Atticus.

Think of Judge Taylor, whose only vice, says Atticus, is chewing tobacco. The judge struggles to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, so much so that one night after Tom’s death Bob Ewell tries to sneak into the judge’s house for revenge. The judge hears something and investigates, only to find his screen door swinging open and a fleeting shadow in the dark at the corner of the house. When the judge’s wife comes home later she finds the aging jurist snoozing in a chair with a shotgun on his lap. The judge seems to be a blunt but ineffective force of justice, but history tells us a different story. Local judges in the Jim Crow South played pivotal roles in maintaining the peculiar system that allowed for racist vigilante violence to coexist alongside law and order.

The sheriff in the novel is just as good as the judge. His only fault is that he’s too gullible, too harmless. For instance, the sheriff never intended to leave Tom Robinson unguarded at the jailhouse the night the white mob attempted unsuccessfully to lynch him. He was lured away by a trick of the racists. The sheriff can’t even kill a mad dog. He asks Atticus to do it, because Atticus has steadier hands.

But far from being essentially well-intentioned but powerless against the scourge of prejudiced poor white farmers, it’s a clear matter of public record that law officers actively and routinely enforced the racist social order with guns, whips, chains, clubs and dogs.

Over the decades, thousands of people have been tortured and killed by or in the presence of law officers, often in organized groups of whites-only councils made up of a town’s leading citizens.

In Florida, one typical sheriff was named Willis McCall. He was elected and re-elected for decades, as he carried out a reign of terror into the 1950s, often under the direction of the owners of the region’s orange groves. Near the end of McCall’s career, while transporting two black men for trumped-up charges of raping a white woman, the sheriff shot his two handcuffed prisoners. He claimed the two had attacked him. One of his victims miraculously lived, though, and later told of being ordered from the vehicle and riddled with bullets. Still, the survivor was later dragged from his jail cell and killed by a mob, while a coroner’s inquest of the shooting found McCall had acted in self-defense.

Such travesties of justice were considered normal for decades.

McCall wasn’t a rare example. He was part of the notorious normal. It’s no secret where the law stood when it came to America’s caste system. In 1916 in Texas, for example, a 17-year-old farmhand was castrated, mutilated and burned alive by a cheering mob that included the town’s mayor and chief of police. The lynching was memorialized in a postcard, which shows the well-dressed townsfolk merrily laughing and mugging for the camera, while the charred body of the black man dangles above them. The presence of local bigwigs wasn’t outrageous but entirely ordinary.

And then there is Atticus Finch, himself, a lawyer by training and a legislator. The book is mute on his legislative service, but details in the story suggest he would have first won election sometime around or before 1920 and could well have retired from the legislature about 15 years later in the mid-1930s.

Atticus, from a small town in Alabama serving in the 1920s, was without question a member of the Democratic Party. The party had an almost complete monopoly on Alabama politics at that time, especially in rural districts, and Jim Crow laws received unanimous approval from Democratic politicians. As a result, a legislator like Atticus Finch would have voted to segregate elementary and high schools. He would have helped pass the “one drop rule,” which said even one black ancestor made someone black, and he would have voted to make miscegenation a felony.

Atticus would also have voted for laws that expanded segregation to include movie theaters, restaurants and other public places. He may have voted for laws that criminalized non-crimes like vagrancy, which was one of many legal excuses used to terrorize black people and to sentence them to long terms at prison work camps in virtual slavery.

No Democratic state legislator in Alabama of that generation opposed the bill that segregated public buses, which had only just come into wide usage in public transportation. The character of Atticus would have helped pass the law that the famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks protested against in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

It’s tempting to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as an aberration, that it must be the only story to so fully shift blame from those who created and enforced Jim Crow segregation to the poor white people who were only better off than blacks because, as Harper Lee said, “if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”

But actually there’s a long history of exactly this type of thing. One of the most telling examples involves a doctored photograph from likely more than a century ago.

Fake Ben Tillman

This is the fake photo of “Pitchfork” Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina. 

The black-and-white photograph depicts an impassioned politician in the back of a wagon, mid-speech, one finger raised in a jabbing gesture, while a crowd of slouching white farmers in country hats and overalls stand clustered around.

The politician is “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a Democratic governor and U.S. Senator from South Carolina, who launched his political career by leading wild white-supremacist brigades and lynch mobs and who engineered widespread election fraud in the 1870s and 1880s before becoming a state and national leader in public office, from 1890 to 1918.

The photo is one of the few images of Ben Tillman at work in his native element, rousing hardscrabble Southern whites to homicidal rage and legislative triumph, except for one thing.

The photo, accepted without question by historians for nearly a century, is a fake.

The Staged Photo

This is the portrait of Sen. Tillman, which was trimmed and pasted onto the country scene above. 

The fakery was discovered, almost by accident, by a historian named Stephen Kantrowitz in the mid-1990s, who spotted that distinctive jabbing finger of Pitchfork Ben in a staged portrait at the Library of Congress.

Kantrowitz took the original from the Library of Congress and compared it to the fake. It became instantly clear that Tillman’s image had been carefully trimmed out of the former and pasted onto the fake setting of the latter.

“That finger isn’t something you forget,” said Kantrowitz, explaining how he randomly spotted the original. Kantrowitz then searched until he found a real photo of an actual Tillman speech. In that one, the senator was surrounded not by shabby farmers but by well-dressed businessmen and bankers in the sharp attire of urban notables.

Major landowners like Tillman often portrayed white supremacy as arising instinctively from lower class white southerners. It was a handy justification for Jim Crow laws to skeptical Northerners because it recast elites as actually the protectors of African Americans, who would otherwise suffer a worse fate from a seething mass of lower class whites of “staggering ignorance and almost primal viciousness,” writes Kantrowitz.

“Elites like… Tillman sought to appear gravely law-abiding while they arranged a lynching,” Katrowitz writes in his biography, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

Later, this same rationalization was invoked by U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi in 1938 when he successfully filibustered federal anti-lynching legislation by saying such a law would fling open the “floodgates of hell.”

Lynch mobs, he argued, actually maintained peace in the South, by keeping blacks at bay, and preventing the outright slaughter of black men by whites who “will not tolerate” the violation of white women!

The centerpiece of Sen. Bilbo’s argument is that blacks naturally provoke the deadly hatred and violence of lower-class whites. It’s up to the “better class,” the lawyers and doctors and politicians to maintain the Southern caste system to protect black people.

That’s pretty much the picture painted by Harper Lee. The story’s appeal is easy to see. It may be comforting to think that America’s ugliest traditions are the fault of low-class hillbillies rather than the people in charge, the wealthy and educated, but it’s not true. And it’s a dangerous untruth.

The Real Tillman

Here’s Sen. Ben Tillman, possibly around a century ago, talking to a typical well-dressed South Carolina audience. 

Like the rants of racists like Sen. Bilbo, the social lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird are meant to prove the uselessness of any effort to stop the injustices heaped on black people, or to lift poor whites from their permanent lower-class status.

The novel’s truth is a profoundly reactionary vision of the world, one of stratified layers of humanity and no possibility of economic or political justice or even any social mobility at all, nothing except the death for those deemed worthless.

 

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Want to be Like Gawker?

Over the past few weeks, workers at Gawker in New York City voted to form a union and now the staff of Salon seems set to follow suit.

By using our collective voice, staff members at media companies can negotiate with our employers for fair pay and benefits.

What I’m trying to say is this: You work hard. You produce value. That’s true, whatever your particular job happens to be. Together, we can win some of that value and transform jobs into careers. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen without some effort. But it’s doable, and it’s worth it.

With this blog post, I want to begin to gauge interest among media workers in the greater-DC area for organizing.

If “media worker in the greater-DC area” describes you (more or less), please take this short survey. If you’re interested in reading sample contracts, click this link. If you want to interact with someone, feel free to email me.

I’m a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, and my union wants to help you organize. Workers at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Bloomberg’s Bureau of National Affairs and quite a few smaller organizations are part of this union local. We’d love to talk to you about joining us.

Please take the survey. I’ll leave the survey open for several weeks, and then I’ll post the results. Check back at this URL, if you’d like more information.

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Rally at the Washington Post for Career-Quality Jobs

Well, it’s been some time since I’ve posted. You know how things go. You get busy. Time flies. And yet here we are again.

Another unit within my local union is made up of the staff of the Washington Post. For years, I’ve been a low-key activist in my local who volunteered time here and there, but lately I’ve taken things up a notch.

One place where I’ve done more is with the Washington Post. You can read about it below….

WAPO Rally: Workers Defend Career-Quality Jobs at Top-Tier Newspaper

Oct28Post ActionScores of workers at the Washington Post rallied with a boisterous crowd of supporters including a small marching band on the sidewalk in front of the Post building on 15th Street NW during the noon hour today.

The message was clear: The workers at the Post will defend the legacy and the future of this newspaper, no matter the odds.

At stake are career-quality jobs at one of the nation’s cornerstone media institutions.

Post owner Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest individuals and the founder of Amazon.com, bought the Washington Post Company last year. He has asked the workers at the Post for wage cuts of up to 17%, and those cuts would grow over time.

On the picket line, Post newsroom and business-side staff alike spoke of the pride they have in their work.

“We serve a bigger mission than just ourselves, and we want to be treated with respect. We don’t want the world. We just want what’s in our contract,” said reporter Matt Schudel.

“We want this paper to thrive! I love the Post!” said Lori Aratani, who’s a reporter on the paper’s metro desk.

“We help hold institutions accountable, and that’s important. We give a voice to people who maybe don’t have a voice. It’s important for us to be accurate and fair, and that takes a lot of experience and education both in school and on the job,” Aratani said.

Most galling to the workers is the fact that the proposed cuts seem ideological, not business-driven.

“These cuts are absolutely unnecessary!” said Fredrick Kunkle, who co-leads the Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

Nobody goes into journalism to get rich, Post workers said, but neither do they want to work at jobs without good health care, good pay or retirement benefits.

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The Erosion of the Franchise

Get any group of journalists together, and you’re likely to hear a lot of belly-aching about the end of news.

Newspapers, we so often tell each other, are an endangered species with a shrinking habitat and no good source of protein. I mean, what about the aging readers? What about the… gulp… Internet? Clearly, newspapers are finished.

That’s bull.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that newspapers are in financial trouble, but news corporations are stuck in a whirlwind of their own making. Newspapers and media companies haven’t been swept up by some freakish storm. News isn’t the victim of some unrelenting force of nature.

Every day, good journalists all across this great country—and I would contend that almost no field in America has such a depth of talent and professionalism as journalism—witness the slow erosion of the quality and integrity of the news organization that employs them. Each ding is small. Each new affront seems minor. Maybe the coverage of your state legislature gets cut back, or two old jobs get combined into one. Or what was once a flagship beat gets rolled into the beat of an already over-worked reporter.

Does this sound familiar?

And as the staff has shrunk, so the quality has always… sometimes slightly… declined. Fewer copy editors. Fewer designers. Oh, you’ve heard your editor, defensive, insisting that the paper will always be committed to the highest quality of… whatever kind of reporting has just been hamstrung.

That… and nothing else… pushes news organizations toward the brink. When I was a journalism student, one of the best young reporters in my class said, “We trade in our word,” and I knew when I heard it that, as a journalist, “my word” was my franchise. If I respected it. Grew it. Protected it. Developed it. Then I’d be all right.

And the same is true of the entire world of media. We trade in our word. When we erode our word, we erode our value. And without our value, well, we’re worthless.

And no amount of cost-cutting can prop up the value of a product in consistent decline. That’s just common sense. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a study about how fewer people trust news organizations.

Check this out. Here’s a story on “This American Life” about the outsourcing of local reporting.

Here’s another study about how advertising dollars continue to rise, but the short-sighted knuckleheads who run newspapers aren’t capturing much of that revenue.

And here’s a story about how Gannett cut costs aggressively to make its papers more “competitive,” and then turned around and gave those millions in savings to its top executives in bonuses.

Smart, huh?

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