TV Political Ads: Ditching Democracy 30 Seconds at a Time

 

by Walter Brasch

 

        There's good news this week. There's only about two weeks before the midterm elections.

          Now for the bad news. There's still about two more weeks to be garroted by TV ads.

          Back-to-back-to-back, we are choking on lies, distortions, and half-truths. This year may go into history as having the most vicious attack ads since the "dark ages" shortly after the nation was founded. Biggest difference? More than two centuries later, most of the ads scream at you from television rather than partisan newspapers.

          Between $3.5 and $4.5 billion will be spent on campaign ads this season. That's one to two billion more than was spent during the midterm elections four years ago.

          One of the reasons for the increase in spending is that the conservative wing of the Republican party has launched an all-out assault to once again take over Congress. Another reason is that they got a supreme assist in January. The Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote along party lines, decided in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission [130 S.Ct. 876] that the First Amendment applies to corporations, which now would enjoy the same protections given to citizens and associations of citizens. The decision essentially obliterated the gains made by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known as the McCain–Feingold Act) and a Supreme Court decision (McConnell v. FEC; 540 U.S. 93) a year later that ruled most of the Act constitutional.

          In a strongly-worded dissent in the Citizens United case, Justice John Paul Stevens declared the Supreme Court's decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. . . . [It is] a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt." Justice Stevens further argued that, "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." President Obama called the decision, "a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."

          Eight of the 10 groups that have bought the most TV advertising this election lean to the Republicans, according to an analysis of by the Wesleyan Media Project.

          And that brings us to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, second in spending only to the Republican Governors Association. The Chamber of Commerce, along with the National Rifle Association, was one of the most vigorous supporters of the Citizens United legal case to extend First Amendment protections to corporations. At one time, the Chamber was non-partisan. During the past decade, it has become an advocacy group for conservative candidates and ideology. For this election, it has promised to spend about $75 million in campaign ads. Because the Chamber, a non-profit agency, doesn't need to report its contribution and spending to the Federal Elections Commission, the nation is left wondering if it's true, as the President charges, that significant donations are from foreign companies and governments. Those contributions are illegal under U.S. law. The Chamber claims it does receive foreign money but doesn't use it for political advertising—but refuses to disclose specifics. Even if the Chamber doesn't use foreign money for political ads, the revenue it receives from foreign money frees up its budget to increase spending for a right-wing agenda. Four years ago, almost every organization disclosed where their funds came from. This year, according to FEC data, only about one-third of the organizations have done so.

          Republicans have put a "face" on their attack ads, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appears in more anti-Democrat campaign ads than any Democrat running for office, is seen as everything evil. Perhaps it's because she is a powerful woman who represents San Francisco, a district that is racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse. Pelosi, and most Democrats in hotly contested races, are portrayed as Pelosi puppets who voted for the stimulus bill and health care reform, both seen erroneously by the ultra-conservative wing as socialist or Marxist programs. Most objective analysts say that the stimulus bill, even with its flaws, kept the nation out of sinking into a Depression, and that health reform, derisively known as Obamacare, has significantly improved the nation's health care while keeping costs down. However, President Obama doesn't appear in too many attack ads. For the Party on the White to emphasize the "evils" of President Obama could result in a backlash.

          In response, the Democrats have charged Republicans as being the "Party of NO," with no social conscience and no political agenda, a party that blocks any reform or progress solely for political reasons. What the Democrats didn't do is more important than what they did do. The Democrats have been unable to effectively use campaign advertising to portray the Republicans as the party in power when the nation entered into an unjustified $1 trillion war in Iraq, created the greatest deficit in American history, refused to stop Wall Street and bank greed, allowed the mortgage crisis to develop and undermine American security, brought about double-digit unemployment, and shoved the nation into one of its greatest recessions.

          But, here's another reality. TV ads, like newspaper editorials, seldom change anyone's preconceived opinions. Liberals continue to support liberals. Conservatives continue to support conservatives. The "independent" middle, sometimes known as a "soft vote" because both parties try to grab it, is largely a myth. The "soft middle" may not be influenced by any campaign ad—and they may not even vote.

 

          So, what is the purpose of TV ads and the significant increase in funding? Simply, it's to hold and reinforce the base. Conservatives have done much better to rally their base than have liberals this year. If the conservatives retake either or both houses of Congress, it will not be because the Obama administration failed. It will be because the conservatives spent significantly more on a full-range media campaign that included a dominant TV presence, rallied their base, controlled the news media, which controlled the agenda, and effectively blocked an ineffective Democratic response that failed to counter lies, distortions, and half-truths.

 

[Walter Brasch's latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty and probing look at the media and American culture. It is available from Amazon.com and other stores.]

 

 

 

Another Swing and a Miss for Congress

 

by Walter Brasch

           A federal grand jury last week indicted retired pitcher Roger Clemens on charges he lied to Congress.

           In February 2008, Clemens, a seven time Cy Young winner, voluntarily met with a House committee and testified he didn't knowingly use steroids or human growth hormones. The only evidence against Clemens appears to be the testimony of his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who claims to have injected Clemens with the drugs about 40 times between 1998 and 2001. Clemens says he was led to believe the injections were Vitamin B-12 and an anesthetic, Lidocaine, both legal under Major League Baseball guidelines. McNamee cut a deal with the Department of Justice to avoid prosecution. Clemens could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

           Probably half the country thinks Clemens took illegal drugs. Probably half the country thinks he didn't take the drugs and was set up by his trainer. But that's not the important issue.

           First of all, does anyone know why the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform even held a hearing about steroid usage among baseball players? Was there a dry spell and the Committee couldn't find anything in the government that needed to be reformed?

           If the committee thought public figures taking illegal drugs was bad, why didn't it look inside itself first? If it did, there would be a high probability it could easily have found members of Congress and their staffs who also took steroids, snorted coke, or mainlined harder drugs. Stoned and wasted Congressional staffers pose a greater danger to society than any athlete.

           This is the same body of legislators who created the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the early 1950s to strip Americans of their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and association. It also ordered contempt of Congress charges and perjury against witnesses who told the truth—but not what Congress wanted to hear.

           This is the Congress that in 1994 didn't ask for convictions for perjury for any of the seven CEOs of major tobacco companies who testified under oath that nicotine wasn't addictive. But that, and much more, is history. The present 21st century Congress has much more to answer about its actions.

           This is the Congress that ran in fearful circles, put its tail between its legs and in 2001 passed the PATRIOT Act, which stripped Americans of six Constitutional amendments and the constitutional right of habeas corpus. Four years later, Congress reauthorized the Act to prevent several sections from automatically expiring. The terrorists had done their job well—they put so much fear into Americans that the Americans created their own terrorism.

           This is the Congress that failed to question the Bush–Cheney administration's claims of why it needed to spend about a trillion dollars and invade Iraq.

           This is a Congress that was slow to respond to well-documented evidence that the U.S. was committing torture—and which, against the professional advice of the CIA and FBI, housed large numbers of elected legislators who saw nothing wrong with torturing those who may or may not have been terrorists, the election year "buzzword."

           This is a Congress that had provided negligent oversight of companies that provided billions of dollars worth of service in the war zone—and fraudulently overbilled the taxpayers.

           This is the same Congress that allowed the banking and investment industries to make billions by scamming Americans, gave multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses to its senior management, and helped bring about the greatest recession since the 1920s.

           This is the Congress that by negligence allowed lax oversight of environmental regulations.

           This is the same Congress that was blind to the Bush–Cheney administration's failure to properly regulate the oil industry, and probably should be considered to be an unindicted co-conspirator in the BP oil spill.

           This is the same Congress that has allowed a Republican minority to become the street bully and block needed legislation, including legislation to assist small business. But because of a weak Democratic response and archaic procedures, the entire Congress must suffer a black eye.

           This is the same Congress that did pass health reform, but allowed itself to be sunk by the fear of a Republican filibuster that what was passed was a watered-down version of what was necessary.

           There are so much more important issues than investigating steroid usage among millionaire athletes that it is easy to believe that Congress muffed its responsibility to the American people by its righteous political gesturing to make voters believe their elected officials actually cared about health.

           If Congress is so upset that others lied to them and the American people, maybe it could ask the FBI to investigate and the Department of Justice to bring indictments against not only some of its own members but also some members of the Bush–Cheney administration.

           [Dr. Brasch is author of America's Unpatriotic Acts, the first major book to expose the Constitutional violations of the USA PATRIOT Act. He is also author of critically-acclaimed books about the Bush Administration (Sinking the Ship of State), and Hurricane Katrina ('Unacceptable'). His current book is the witty and probing investigation of the mass media (Sex and the Single Beer Can.) All books are available at amazon.com and other sites.]

 

 

 

'No Drama Obama' Needs a Strong Second Act

by Walter Brasch

           The Obama administration is a welcome change from the Bush–Cheney years. Against severe Republican opposition, President Obama has kept campaign promises to reform health care, curb Wall Street excesses, create a federally-funded stimulus program to help bring the nation out of the recession, and to remove American troops from the needless Iraq war, which has already cost Americans more than $740 billion and 4,400 lives. He has also pledged to eliminate the Bush–Cheney tax cuts for the rich, while not raising taxes on the middle- and lower-classes.

           However, much of what the President is doing appears to be little more than an extension of Bush–Cheney values. And that is not what the Americans voted for when they elected him to office.

           Candidate Obama ran, and won office as an anti-war politician. President Obama has increased American presence in Afghanistan. In July, 66 American soldiers were killed, the highest number for any month during the war.

           Candidate Obama pledged to end the PATRIOT Act, which has done little to protect American safety and much to destroy American Constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, due process, and protection against unreasonable governmental invasion of privacy. However President Obama signed legislation to extend the Act for yet another year.

           During the 2008 campaign, both candidates Barack Obama and John McCain promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, President Obama, apparently scared by the right wing paranoids, hasn't transferred any prisoners to maximum federal security prisons in the U.S., any one of which should have little difficulty dealing with suspected enemy combatants among the general population of killers and rapists.

           President Obama had failed to clean up the corrupt Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior, which under the Bush–Cheney administration had become little more than feckless advocates for Big Oil. About a year into the Obama administration, the MMS exempted BP from filing a full environmental impact statement. Against the advice of environmentalists, and his own statements while a candidate, President Obama allowed continued deep water drilling in the Gulf, claiming that safety concerns were met. About a month later, the BP oil rig ruptured, killing 11 workers and leading to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It took five weeks before President Obama finally placed a six month moratorium on deep well drilling, only to have that moratorium overturned by a Louisiana judge with financial ties to the oil industry. The Obama administration appealed that order and issued a broader moratorium. By then, more about 200 million gallons of oil had spilled into the gulf, killing wildlife, the fishing industries, and tourism.

           Although Candidate Obama  promised better transparency in government—and to a certain extent has succeeded—as President he allowed BP and his own government to place severe restrictions upon the media that were trying to give full coverage to the spill. 

           The transparency credibility issue surfaced again this month when the Defense Department rejected the application for Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings to accompany troops in Afghanistan. Hastings had accurately reported the political statements by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led the President to fire him for the nature of his comments that "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of the democratic system."

           Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama had said he believed in gay marriages. However, President Obama, although extending the rights of gay couples, has yielded to the fears of irrational conservatives and says he opposes same-sex marriages, but believes in civil unions. Unlike President Obama, supporters of same-sex marriage include Bill Clinton, Laura Bush, and Cindy McCain.

           The Republican leadership tried to block extending unemployment benefits during the Recession; it was weeks until President Obama spoke forcefully against the Republicans, which has earned its label as the "Party of 'No.'" Hopefully, President Obama will be quicker to denounce the prattle of Republican leaders who are mounting a campaign to reduce Social Security benefits.

           Solely for political reasons, the Bush–Cheney administration took gray wolves off the endangered species list one week before Barack Obama became president. Slightly more than a year after taking office, President Obama officially continued the Bush–Cheney policy. The action by both administrations allowed the killing large numbers of the 1,600 wolves in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana, often by state officials from helicopters and often into the dens that housed pups. No matter what the federal government said about wolves not being endangered, there were two realities. First, the Cattle Industry lobby wanted wolves removed, although federal subsidies reimburse ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves. The second issue is that wolves are competition for hunters, a majority of whom tend to be conservatives or supporters of Republican philosophies. While wolves kill for food or to protect their pack, human hunters may claim they hunt for food, but go to extraordinary lengths and expense to stuff and display their "trophy kills," and often will kill animals, such as bears, prairie dogs, and coyotes that have no food value. Unlike their human competitors, wolves usually don't use guns with telescopic sights, buy all kinds of whistles and electronic calls that mimic the cries of other animals, use elevated shooting stands, send out decoys, or even create elaborate steel-jaw traps. They never take their prey back to a cabin, consume 6-packs, and tell stories with other wolves. A federal court this week ruled that gray wolves in the Rockies were not only an endangered species, but stopped state-supported wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.

           Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, against severe opposition, pushed through some of the most critical social legislation in the nation's history. Harry Truman stood up for his principles and for the benefit of the people when he lashed out at a "do-nothing Congress." Candidate Obama was elected on a forceful campaign mantra of "Change you can believe in," and not "A slight variation of present policies that you can maybe live with."

           President Obama is known as "No Drama Obama" because of his quiet intellectualism.  He needs to be more forceful, both in fully supporting social legislation he and his base believe in as well as attacking the vicious smears, lies, and distortions from the extreme Right Wing. If President Obama continues to pandering to the conservatives, and continues a slide into compromise that dilutes necessary social justice legislation instead of trusting the millions who voted for that change he promised, especially when he has both the power of the presidency and the votes in Congress, he will be a one-term president, hated by both the right and the left.

 [Assisting on this column was Rosemary Brasch. Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, which discusses governmental neglect that magnified both the damage from the hurricane and the BP oil spill. Both books are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu.]

 

 

 

 

Shining the Light of The New Colossus Into Arizona

 

 

 by Walter Brasch

           Two things are assured this coming week. One is that Arizona will do its best to put into practice its controversial anti-immigration bill. The other is that a federal district court will rule whether that law is constitutional.

           The Arizona law requires all law enforcement officials who stop anyone for any reason to determine if that person may be an illegal resident. If the person can't produce documentation, the police are required to detain the individual and to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

           The Arizona law is mostly based upon the fear by Arizonans that the state is being overrun by Hispanic illegals, and that the federal government isn't curbing the problem. However, the Obama administration has increased both personnel and funding for immigration enforcement. Critics have also complained about President Obama's recommendation for a one-time general amnesty for undocumented workers and their families who have no criminal records. That same proposal by George W. Bush, which included other immigration reform, was never enacted into law because of the opposition by the extreme right wing.

           Most law enforcement officers, including most Arizona police don't like this law. It takes away time and resources; it also creates a barrier between police and undocumented workers, who often cooperate with the police in their investigations because they know the police will not notify ICE. There is no doubt that police will have a serious problem locating undocumented workers who could be witnesses. More important, police community relations will deteriorate under the new law.

           Contrary to the panic and fear demonstrated by certain citizens, contrary to the politician rants to get media attention, and contrary to the media which have under-reported the good that minority cultures bring to the nation but have exaggerated criminal activity, most undocumented workers are neither lazy nor are criminals. Most don't use the welfare system or hospital ERs because they are afraid of being caught and deported.

           The federal lawsuit avoids the Constitutional issues of civil rights and due process violations. It asks the federal district court in Phoenix to rule that the Constitution reserves all immigration issues and enforcement solely to the federal government. No matter what the ruling, it is likely there will be an appeal, which will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

           Perhaps it's time to reflect not upon the words not of myriad bloggers, pundits, and politicians, who have flooded the airwaves with their own opinions, mostly unsupported by facts, but upon the words of one American poet from more than a century ago.

           At the base of the Statue of Liberty, carved into bronze, is a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus in 1883. It was written in support of a fund-raising drive to get enough money to build the pedestal. The sonnet is titled, "The New Colossus":

 

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

  

          Emma Lazarus was a relatively wealthy Portuguese Jew, whose family had emigrated to America and lived in New York City for generations. But in 1882, the year before she wrote her sonnet, she began working with masses of Russian Jews who had come to America to escape poverty and persecution. She helped teach them English and job skills. But in America, the Jews were discriminated against—often by the children of immigrants from other cultures who now worried that America was being overrun by immigrants.

           Perhaps Arizonans and the nation, most of whom are the descendants of immigrants, need to again hear the words that the descendant of immigrants once wrote—the words that America is a place of refuge for the tired, the poor, the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

 [Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and Sinking the Ship of State, an overview of the Bush–Cheney presidency. Both are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu]

 

 

Heat Wave Washes Away American Ideals: LeBron James, the Media, and the American Soul

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            Millions of Americans had pleaded with basketball superstar LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and come to their city when he became a free agent. Bloggers, media pundits, and reporters of every kind seemed to devote much of their lives to figuring out what team James would be a part of for the 2011 season. 

            The speculation ended, Thursday, July 8, when ESPN opened a full hour of prime time for some pretend-journalism and an interview with James, who 28 minutes into the infomercial announced he was leaving Cleveland and going to the Miami Heat.  Floridians were ecstatic. With multimillionaire James joining multimillionaires Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, they were sure the Heat would once again win an NBA championship, something that had eluded James in Cleveland. The day after the ESPN show, the man known in Cleveland as "King James" held court with Wade and Bosh in Miami's American Airlines arena, surrounded by 13,000 screaming fans, all of whom watched South Beach and Miami city officials give the three superstars keys to their cities. Two days after the announcement, Miami Heat fans began buying replicas of James jerseys, with his new number, 6, stitched across the back. Most NBA jerseys sell for about $50; these were priced up to $150.

            In other basketball franchise cities, millions of fans who thought their team would have a chance to sign the man who wears a tattoo, "Chosen 1" across his back, wailed incessantly, as if their high school's Prom Queen had just rejected their mournful bid to go steady. On the day of the "decision," ABC-TV, a sister company to ESPN, devoted two segments on its nightly news to the forthcoming spectacular. The other networks settled for one segment. Following the "decision," the TV networks and local stations ran "breaking news" crawls beneath scheduled shows. The next morning, newspapers gave the announcement front page coverage, with extensive commentary inside. The New York Daily News devoted almost its entire front page to a picture of a scowling James, and the whining headline, "Hey, New York, we're the greatest city in the world, so . .  .WHO CARES!" The New York Post front page headline was a bold "LeBum."

            But, it was Cleveland where hatred unified a city of about 450,000, part of a metropolitan area of about 2.2 million. Within minutes after James announced his decision, the Cleveland fans threw his cardboard images into trash cans and burned jersey replicas, the same ones they had proudly worn for seven years. Within two days, they began tearing down a Nike-sponsored 10-story mural that featured LeBron James, his head thrown back, his oversized arms spread out, saviour-like. This city would not have any graven image of the traitor they once worshipped as a "hometown hero." Thousands even proclaimed they would boycott all companies—including Allstate, Nike, and McDonald's—that have endorsement contracts with James. Between tears and rage, Cleveland fans, aided by numerous sports commentators, claimed that the James defection would cause the city to lose at least $20 million in revenue and, for all we know, doom it to be a third world country. A bitter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who had not received the courtesy of even a pre-announcement phone call from James, lashed out in a letter to his fans, calling the decision, a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal," and that the hometown Cavaliers, unlike James, "have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you." But, Gilbert's most important statement might have been his observation of the entire process. Although Gilbert would have praised James and the TV coverage had he remained in Cleveland, the Cavaliers' owner pointed to an underlying truth. The decision, said Gilbert, "was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."

            Even when the hyperbole is stripped away, a truth remains. For at least a week, it didn't seem there was any other news. But there was.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," another heat wave washed over America. In this one, three people died from the heat wave that gripped the northeast; hundreds more, mostly senior citizens and the homeless, had to be treated for heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," about 15 million Americans were unemployed, and 46 million Americans had no health insurance.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," the BP oil spill in the Gulf was in its 79th day. On that day, 2.5 million gallons of oil polluted the Gulf. As much as 160 million gallons have now leaked into the Gulf, destroying wildlife, plants, and the livelihoods of several hundred thousands residents.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," three British and two American soldiers and two UN workers were killed. American deaths in Afghanistan since the war began now total 1,171; about 6,700 have been wounded.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," at least 60 civilians died from bombs in Iraq; about 360 were wounded. Since the beginning of the American-led invasion of Iraq, 4,412 American soldiers have died; almost 32,000 have been wounded, according to Defense Department records. Civilian casualties are estimated at 110,000, according to the Associated Press. Other reliable sources place the totals well over a half-million civilian deaths from hostile action.

            On the day of the "Decision," if you added up the yearly salaries of only the American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began, they would not equal the money that LeBron James makes in just one year. And, that, more than anything else, says a lot about America.

 

[Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and Sinking the Ship of State, an overview of the Bush–Cheney presidency. Both are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at Brasch@bloomu.edu]

 

 

 

The Civilian and the General: he Reality Behind the McChrystal Interview Fall-Out

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            For a few days last week, the harpies of the extreme right assaulted the president of the United States for first considering, and then firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan.

             In a 10-day interview with Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone, McChrystal and his senior aides poked fun or criticized almost every civilian in the highest levels of the chain of command, including the President, Vice-President, and National Security Advisor James L. Jones, former Marine Corps commandant who, an aide told the magazine, was a "clown." Another aide told Hastings that Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) "turn up, have a meeting with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it's not very helpful."

             Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and almost the entire tea bag movement supported McChrystal. They screeched that it was not McChrystal who should be fired but Obama for his war strategy. That would be the same strategy that was designed and executed by—Gen. McChrystal.

             This wasn’t the first time McChrystal was out of line. Previously, he tried to box in Obama. His tactic was not to be a part of a vigorous discussion with other military leaders and the Commander-in-Chief about the strategy in Afghanistan. He decided to just go to the media and "tell all," essentially begging the President to significantly increase troop presence in Afghanistan and widen the war, which has now lasted more than eight years. This is also the same general who we now know was one of the major players in covering up the cause of the death of former NFL millionaire star Pat Tillman who became an Army Ranger, and then was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. This is also the general who was in command of a task force that had 34 of its members disciplined for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

             McChrystal wasn't about to get any sympathy from his superiors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had served George W. Bush prior to being asked to stay by President Obama, said that McChrystal "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment." Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supported the firing. But, it was the words of three leading senators who should have provided the beacon to the unenlightened of the reactionary right. In a joint statement, the senators said they had "the highest respect for General McChrystal and honor his brave service and sacrifice to our nation," but that his comments were "inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between Commander-in-Chief and the military." The three senators, all known hawks, were Joe Lieberman, an Independent; and Republicans John McCain, a former Navy captain; and Lindsey Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

             For his part, Gen. McChrystal knew he was out of line. “I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said, and noted that he believed that in his 34-year military career, he "lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity [and what] is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard."

             Of course, the attacking force on the right flank, who were silent when the Bush–Cheney administration choked the First Amendment rights of civilians, put both their brain cells together and claimed Obama was stifling free speech. Here's some constitutional law that will enlighten even the dimmest bulb. Freedom of speech, by law, does not extend to the military. That applies to privates as well as generals. The extreme right, which has proven embarrassing to true conservatives and the Republican party itself, apparently overlooked the fact that George W. Bush, while President, fired or marginalized senior officers for disagreeing with civilian policy. Gen. Peter Pace, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not get a usual second term after he not only challenged the Bush–Cheney Administration on its stand about torture and on Administration claims, later proven to be false, that Iran was supplying munitions to Iraqi insurgents. Sealing his fate, however, was his public belief that gays were immoral. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's Chief of Staff, had bluntly told the Senate Armed Forces committee in a mandated appearance that there were significant problems with the Bush–Cheney–Rumsfeld plan for the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. He retired without the customary recognition by civilian leadership. Adm. William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was terminated for challenging the Bush–Cheney strategy that might have led to war with Iran. The reality that Shinseki and Fallon were eventually proven to be right was of little consequence. The President, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, has authority to discipline his senior officers for disagreeing with him, even privately.

             While President Obama, perhaps more than most of his predecessors, encourages debate and vigorous discussion, he couldn't have a field commander publically disagreeing with him. McChrystal’s statements, said the President, represent conduct that “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system." It was a concept fully supported by Gen. George Washington before and during his presidency.  

             When the right-wing got tired of attacking President Obama, they attacked the messenger. Rolling Stone, they shrieked, wasn't even a good magazine. Gen. McChrystal shouldn't even have been talking to it. It was—you know—an entertainment magazine, thus proving how little they truly know about the media or journalism.

             The 24/7 cable news networks, ecstatic that they had a brief diversion from the Gulf Coast oil spill and athletes not kicking soccer balls into nets, for their part brought in all kinds of experts to spew opinions that sometimes seemed to make the pundits look brilliant by comparison.

             Somehow in all this orgasmic hyperbole, Fox's Gretchen Carlson told the "Fox and Friends" audience that being president involves making "these tough, huge, monumental decisions." But then she explained that the work of TV anchors—the real journalists, apparently—was similar to that of the president of the United States, since they have to make decisions on breaking news stories under near-battlefield conditions all the time, and "they would have to carry a story all along." This is the same news anchor who called Ted Kennedy a "hostile enemy" and whose own combat experience was restricted to fighting with double-sided tape to hold her swim suit intact during the Miss America competition.

             There is no question that President Obama needed to relieve Gen. McChrystal of his command or risk appearing to be weak and ineffective during wartime. But there are other realities. The extreme right wing, blinded by their venomous hatred of President Obama, used the words of Gen. McChrystal to bolster their attacks upon the President. The left-wing, already upset with the expansion of the war, piously screamed their support of the President, but only if he got rid of the "troublemaker."

             Lost in the war of words is the reality of who and what Stanley McChrystal is. He is a loyal American who grew up in a military family and who has siblings and in-laws who also were career soldiers. He is, by training and disposition, not a diplomat but a warrior, the kind you want on the front lines of any war. He was obviously frustrated by the lack of progress in Afghanistan, by a war that seemed to be doomed to failure no matter whose strategy was used, by an Afghani army and a civilian population that was easily compromised by warlords and the Taliban, by a country whose cash crop isn't grain but opium.

             McChrystal understands the military system; he has little understanding of civilians and the media. Perhaps in the field, he and his senior aides would have been more cautious than on a diplomatic mission in Paris and Berlin hotels and nightclubs, areas that invaded their comfort zone. He was poorly prepared and ill-advised about being so open when talking to a reporter who had a notepad, a tape recorder, and made clear the rules of the interview. For a junior officer to make these mistakes is understandable; but, a four-star general should have known better. And that, not his words, was his downfall.

 [Among Walter Brasch's 17 books are Sinking the Ship of State, an investigation of the Bush–Cheney administration; and Sex and the Single Beer Can, a humorous and sometimes sarcastic look into the mass media. Both are available at amazon.com and other stores.]

 

 

 

'R'Oil Indignation

WANDERINGS, with Walter Brasch

for release: after June 11, 2010

brasch@bloomu.edu

 

'R'Oil Indignation

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            The British are upset with the United States. That's not too unusual. There was this revolution thing a couple of centuries ago.

            But America's Number 1 ally is upset that Americans are blaming BP for that nasty little oil spill in the Gulf. You know, the one where as much as 1.7 million gallons of crude oil a day has given us new species of no-flight pelicans and black-skinned dolphins.

            The Brits' FaceBook pages, blogs, radio comments, and letters to newspapers are full of nasty comments about how America is over-reacting, how Americans are unjustly blaming Britain, and all that is holy about corporate incompetence. Boris Johnson, the conservative mayor of London, told BBC Radio he worried about "anti-British rhetoric . . . that seems to be permeating from America." Ian Cowie, London Daily Telegram feature columnist, bluntly wrote, "Much of the rhetoric from other American politicians is plainly jingoistic claptrap with a beady eye on their own chances in the U.S. midterm elections." He is partially accurate; many American politicians, more than a few of whom were in the bed of the oil companies throughout their political careers, may be grandstanding. But, there is truly justifiable outrage by all Americans and all politicians.

            In response to President Obama's tough accusations and threats to BP, the Daily Telegram headlined its story, "Obama's Boot on the Throat of British Pensioners," a reference to a reality that BP stock dividends provide a huge source of pension revenue. BP expects to pay a $14.7 billion quarterly dividend, about a 9 percent return, or roughly nine times what the average American earns in a savings account. Attorney General Eric Holder is planning to force BP to suspend dividends and is also contemplating criminal charges, something that will interfere with a delightful afternoon tea. A 40 percent decline in BP stock is attributed not so much to the disaster that BP caused but to President Obama's tough stance.

            The British also upset that some people, including President Obama, are calling the world's fourth largest corporation, and the largest one in the United Kingdom, British Petroleum, its former name, and not BP, its legal pseudo-anonymous name. So far, no one's calling it the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, its first name—or the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, its second name. And hardly anyone remembers that Dwight Eisenhower, in the first year of his presidency in 1953, authorized a CIA bloody coup to retake the company that had become nationalized by the Iranians after World War II.

            That economic value includes sales of about $239 billion last year, including $2.3 billion from the Pentagon, and employment of 80,000 persons, most of whom know how to find, drill, and sell oil, but apparently have no clue of how to stop oil disasters.

            The Brits do believe that most—they hardly ever say all—of the disaster is BP's fault.  BP did try to save money by not installing adequate oil rig protections, and didn't have a solid disaster plan. But, in fairness, some of the disaster is distinctively America's fault. The Department of the Interior had become too cozy with the oil industry. During the first decade of the 21st century, dozens of Interior and oil company officials traded jobs, as if they were trading baseball cards. The U.S., unlike many nations, especially those in the North Atlantic, also didn't require better disaster plans.

            British Prime Minister David Cameron, while saying he was "frustrated" by the oil spill and its effects, also stated that "It is in everyone's interest that BP continues to be a financially strong and stable company." George Osborne, England's Chancellor of the Exchequer, reminds Americans of the "economic value BP brings to the people in Britain and America."

            Peel away some of their own rhetoric and anger at America, and you get something familiar to Americans: BP is just too big to fail. You know, too big like those large mega-corporations that the Bush–Cheney administration threw billions of bailout dollars to in order to keep them from failing—and then watched as they failed and took hundreds of thousands Americans with them.

            But not getting much benefit are the Gulf Coast's fishing industry and shrimping industries. They're apparently not too big to fail. Perhaps that's because the income of a ship's captain, the deckhands, or just about anyone involved in the industry is only a tiny fraction of the $6 million that the BP CEO made last year.

            Also not apparently too big to fail is the environmental campaigns to save the animals and plants of the Gulf coast. Thousands of unpaid volunteers have come to the Coast to help wash and rehabilitate the pelicans and other marine life, to try to help humanity by helping preserve our oceans, beaches, and wildlife.

            More than 50 passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, tell us we must be good stewards of the land and all its life.

            We aren't doing a very good job.

 

            [Assisting on this story was Rosemary R. Brasch. Dr. Brasch's latest book is a humorous and sarcastic look at American media, Sex and the Single Beer Can, (3rd ed.), available through amazon.com and other companies.]

 

 

 

Oily Politics Led to Environmental Disaster


by Walter Brasch

           Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) had a good idea to slow or stop the Gulf Coast oil spill from reaching shore. Build artificial barrier islands, he told the federal government. He wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River to strengthen and connect the existing barrier islands. The $350 million plan, which Jindal demanded be paid for by BP Oil, would establish an 80–85 mile barrier, about 200 feet wide and six feet high. The barriers would also protect the marshlands, the federal wildlife preserves, and a fragile ecosystem.

           When the federal government didn't respond, he threatened to have Louisiana do the job itself, and had his attorney general notify the Corps of Engineers that under the 10th Amendment the state had a right to protect itself during an emergency. After two weeks of discussion and analysis by the Corps, President Obama ordered the first of six islands to be built. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, the on-scene commander, said the first island would be a prototype; if it worked, five more would be built.  Jindal wants 24 islands, but believes the first six are a good start.

           The oil spill, more than 200,000 gallons a day and entering its sixth week, is now the size of Delaware and Maryland combined. Eleven workers are dead, 17 are injured, from the explosion of BP's Deep Water Horizon, April 20. Several hundred thousand marine mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have been killed by the spill. Even those oil-soaked birds and mammals that hundreds of volunteers have helped clean may be only days from death. About 34,000 Brown Pelicans, recently taken off the endangered species list, and seagulls continue to dive through the oil-soaked ocean to get to the food supply. Thousands of migratory birds, during a two to three week rest in the Gulf Coast barrier islands on their flight north from South America, are dying. Sea Turtles, manatees, and dolphins still need to come up through the oil slick for air; eye irritations are the least of the problems they encounter. For about 5,000 dolphins, this is also their birthing season; mothers who survive may have oil on their teats; their calves may die from lack of nutrition or from ingesting the oil. The affected areas of the Gulf are also the spawning grounds for tuna, marlin, and swordfish. Even the fish, which may survive by staying below the spill, are affected by the oil. The coral reefs are being destroyed by the oil and what is needed to be done to break up that oil. More than 700,000 gallons of chemical dispersants, used to help break up the oil, add to the destruction of the balance of nature. Its toxicity may affect sea life for at least a decade.

           The $2.5 billion fishing industry, a major part of the life of the Gulf, has been devastated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has closed about 46,000 square miles of fishing fields, about one-fourth of all fishing waters in the Gulf. The lucrative shrimp, oyster, and clam industries are not only closed, but the effects will last for more than one season. Boat captains and their crews are idle. Tourism at the beginning of what is normally a lucrative summer season is almost non-existent.

           Had the barrier islands been in place several years ago, the effects of the spill would have been significantly less. Erosion, combined with deep water oil drilling long before the Horizon explosion, had destroyed natural barrier islands and wetlands. A $14 billion proposal by the Corps of Engineers, supported by Louisiana, environmentalists and the oil industry to restore the area levees, wetlands, and barrier islands was rejected by President George W. Bush. Both he and Vice-President Dick Cheney, former oil company executives, were more concerned about protecting the oil industry than the people who would be affected by Big Oil.  Besides, they had a war to wage in Iraq, and $14 billion was too much to spend on domestic protections.

           Much of the $100 billion damage from Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, was not from the wind and rain but from the failure to provide adequate protection.

           It is that same protection, those same barrier islands that were destroyed by the oil industry years ago, that would have significantly slowed or stopped the nation's worst environmental disaster, one caused not by nature but the incompetence of mankind.

           "Drill, Baby, Drill" was once an in-our-face slogan of certain politicians and the oil industry that feeds them. It is now but a reminder that when mankind destroys the environment, there will be tragic consequences.

           [For more information about the barrier islands as protection for the environment, read Walter Brasch's critically-acclaimed book, 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, available at amazon.com and other bookstores.]

 

 

Arizona and the Alien-Nation of America

by Walter Brasch

             My father, a federal employee with a top secret clearance, carried a copy of his birth certificate when he went into Baja California from our home in San Diego. Many times, when he tried to reenter the U.S., he was stopped by the Border Patrol. He had thick black hair and naturally dark skin, and the Patrol thought he was a Mexican brazenly trying to sneak back into the country by claiming to be married to the black-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned woman he claimed was his wife.

            If my father were still alive, and chose to drive into Arizona or to walk on the streets of any of its cities or towns, he probably would be stopped and asked to provide identification. Naturally, he wouldn't be carrying a U.S-issued visa or Mexican-issued passport, since he was an American citizen. He probably wouldn't even be carrying his birth certificate, since he would have assumed he was traveling within the United States, and there was no need to carry it. He would probably have a Social Security card and his California-issued ID card—he didn't have a driver's license because he was blind in his left eye—but both of those could easily have been forged.

            After a few minutes, he would probably be released by the local police officer, perhaps after providing his federal identification. But, maybe a few hours later, he'd be stopped again, perhaps by a sheriff's deputy, constable, or even a mall's part-time security guard.

            Everyone under SB1070, signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, April 22, can be stopped and searched by any officer for any reason, and required to produce documentation that they are in the United States legally. A hastily-added amendment a week later modified the original law to require that police have to have a reason to stop persons. The reason could be as simple as the officer claiming the suspect was loitering, jaywalking, or playing a car radio too loud. The law also allows any citizen to file suit against any law enforcement agency if the citizen believes the state law isn't being followed. Pushed by a fearful citizenry and a politically opportunistic Republican party, the bill takes effect in August.

            Legislators from several states, including Pennsylvania, have followed Arizona's lead. Pennsylvania State Sen. Daryl Metcalf (R-Butler) filed HB2479, which almost duplicates Arizona's law. With inflammatory rhetoric at the bill's introduction, Metcalf told about rapes and murders, about the "financial drain" upon the state's economy. The bill will probably die in committee. Even if it should get majority votes in both houses, Gov. Ed Rendell says he will veto it.

            Forget the constitutional concepts of "due process" and "probable cause." Under Arizona's new law, persons are presumed guilty until they produce identification that they are innocent. And, disregard the Constitutional mandate that immigration is the responsibility of the federal, not the state, government. What Arizona saw was that about a half-million persons, mostly Hispanic, were in their state illegally. They saw that the federal government wasn't effective at sealing the southern border, even after 9/11. They saw that President Bush had tried to reform immigration policies, only to have to back down when he faced a divided Republican party. They saw that President Obama has tried to assure the safety of Americans, but that a squabbling Congress rendered any reform inert. And they also realized that for many years, adequate funds were not put into the budget of the Border Patrol.

            They also saw a significant increase in crime, including drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder by illegal immigrants. They saw thousands of immigrants living in squalor, dozens in the same room, forced to work at starvation wages to pay back the gangs that brought them north. Anglo and Hispanic residents had become afraid of living in their own houses because of the gangs.

            They also saw myriad problems caused by illegal immigrants who came north and gave birth to what are known as "anchor babies," so the children would become U.S. citizens and the parents, still in the country illegally, could not be deported. They saw that undocumented workers were somehow "stealing" their taxes by getting food stamps, welfare, and aid to families with dependent children.

            Although there is increased crime because of the presence of persons from Mexico and Central America who are in the country illegally, most undocumented workers are law-abiding residents. They don't go to the ER and get "free" medical help or try to scam the system by claiming welfare payments, since most believe that just registering for medical help or welfare could lead to them being identified as illegal residents and deported. But they do want their children to be in school, to get an education, perhaps to become American citizens.

            The Hispanic immigrants, with their gangs, are no different from those of any other culture, which developed gangs and societies that were originally designed to help and protect them from exploitation, but did so using fear and criminal activity. The Irish came to America in the mid-1800s, but they also developed Tammany Hall and the Molly Maguires. The Chinese had to deal with the Tong gangs. The Italians brought with them the Mafia. The Russians and eastern Europeans in the latter part of the 20th century are dealing with the Bratva, the "brotherhood," sometimes known as the Russian Mafia. But, like most Hispanics, most Irish, Chinese, Italians, eastern Europeans, and every other cultural minority, were and still are law-abiding citizens who only want to live in peace. Americans have a long history of hatred for newly-arrived immigrants, who later become assimilated, and continue the hatred against the next culture to try to assimilate into American society.

            There is also another part of American history that is overlooked by the masses. When the Native Americans first greeted Columbus, they met a man who spoke his native Ligurian, as well as Portuguese and Spanish. It would be more than a century until the first English-speaking settlers arrived. (Ironically, the top name for baby girls born last year was Isabella.) The French owned a large part of what is now the Midwest, often called Middle America. Mexicans and Native Americans civilized much of the Southwest, including Arizona, long before Anglos moved west in what they believed was their "manifest destiny" that would lead to what centuries later would be called "ethnic cleansing" if it occurred anywhere but in the United States.

            The day Gov. Brewer signed the bill, massive protests began. They saw this new law, essentially racial profiling since fair-skinned blondes were unlikely to be stopped, as violating everyone's Constitutional rights, and as a desperate attempt to control a problem that became magnified by media-savvy politicians and the compliant news media.

            At a rally in Phoenix, Mayor Phil Gordon spoke against the law, which was roundly condemned by numerous Hispanic celebrities, including Grammy-winning Colombian singer Shakira. "I came here to offer support and defend human rights," said Shakira, who said she opposed the law "because it is a violation of human and civil rights and goes against human dignity."

            President Obama said the law undermined "basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe." Most law enforcement officers don't want to expend their resources to enforce what they believe is an illegal and unwieldy law. Chief Robert Davis of San Jose, Calif., president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, points out, "immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively effect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities." The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police said the law "will negatively affect the ability of law enforcement agencies across the state to fulfill their many responsibilities in a timely manner," and argued that although the police chiefs recognized that immigration was a problem in Arizona, "it is an issue most appropriately addressed at the federal level." Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County (Tucson is the closest major city to the border), not only said he wouldn't enforce the law, which demands compliance of every police official, but filed suit in federal court against the state. The law, said Sheriff Dupnik, is "disgusting," "unnecessary," and "racist." It is that same law that, if fully enforced, will likely cause significant overcrowding in jails, and force local government and the state to spend millions to house persons whose only "crime" is to live in the United States.

            More than two dozen major national organizations have already said they will not hold conventions in Arizona, hoping that an economic boycott will force the state to reconsider the law that was written, voted upon, and passed in the juices of hate and fear. Two decades earlier, economic boycotts led Arizona to declare Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday only after the NFL had pulled the Super Bowl from Arizona in 1993 because the state refused to follow the rest of the country in recognizing Dr. King. Major League Baseball is deciding whether to pull next year's all-star game from Phoenix. About one-fourth of all major league players are Hispanic; several teams conduct about two months of Spring training in Arizona; about a dozen teams in the Arizona Rookie League each have at least five Hispanics players, all with legal status to work in the U.S. On Cinco de Mayo, every member of the Phoenix Suns wore jerseys identifying them as team members of "Los Suns," their support of the state's Hispanic population.

            University of Arizona President Robert Shelton told students and employees at his university that the families of several out-of-state honors students who accepted admission to UA, "have told us that they are changing their plans and will be sending their children to universities in other states." He also said that UA students and employees, all of them citizens or who have legal visas, fear they "may now be subject to unwarranted detainment by police" although they "are from families that have been residents of Arizona for generations."

            Even the national Republican party may have been blindsided by the swift passage of the law and the national outrage. Under President Bush, the Republicans had tried to increase the number of Hispanic voters in the party, and is now faced with the reality that there could be a massive retaliation. Phoenix, along with Tampa and Salt Lake City, were the remaining three cities for consideration for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Suddenly, it seems as if a $100 million economic advantage for Arizona would turn into a political liability.

            Many prominent conservatives, including Karl Rove, have also spoken out against the law as a major infringement on personal freedoms. Rove, the architect of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, said he saw not only "constitutional problems with the bill" but that he wished Arizona "hadn’t passed it."

            The Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law by Ronald Reagan in November 1986, was a comprehensive reform of immigration law, and supported by strong majorities of both major parties. It granted amnesty to illegal residents who were in the country continuously prior to Jan. 1, 1982, protected the rights of persons illegally in the U.S., and imposed heavy penalties upon businesses that hired workers who were not citizens or did not have appropriate work visas. Unfortunately, the law has not been as effective as planned.

            Corporations and small businesses are all too willing to violate federal law by hiring undocumented workers, pay them significantly less than they pay American citizens, give them no benefits, pay no Social Security or unemployment taxes, and allow them to live in poverty. Even when there is a relatively rare raid on their premises, usually the owner or corporation pays almost no penalty, or one that is a minuscule part of its profits. Corporations, including Walmart, also found a major loophole in the law by working with subcontractors who provide laborers at a fixed rate; thus, the workers are never considered to be employees.

            American citizens who wrongly complain about immigrants taking their jobs are also a part of the problem, since they don't seem to have a problem with outsourcing or low factory pay, as long as it allows them to buy cheaper goods.

            My father, who survived the Depression, the Communist witch hunts, and was a part of the fight for civil rights, was subjected to bigotry and racism, as was my mother, but was spared the viciousness of a White population in a neighboring state that passed a law in 2010 that could only be seen as not much different from laws and "police practices" in the Deep South in the 1950s. The South learned; Arizona hasn't.

 

[Dr. Brasch's current book is Sex and the Single Beer Can (3rd ed.), a humorous and sarcastic look at the media and American culture. The book is available at amazon.com, and other stores. Rosemary Brasch assisted on this column.]

 

 

 

Hammering Out a Contract: Exploiting Low-Paid Workers at a Vo-Tech School

 

by Walter and Rosemary Brasch

           Art Welch, the in-school suspension supervisor at the Columbia-Montour Area Vocational Technical School (Vo-Tech) in Bloomsburg, Pa., earns $8 an hour, only 75 cents above minimum wage. In the six years he has been at Vo-Tech, he has never had a raise.

           Mary Avery, who has worked in the cafeteria for 28 years, earns $9 an hour; some years, she only received a nickel an hour increase.

           Wendy Zajac, who also works in the cafeteria, has been employed at Vo-Tech seven years; she is the only one of a bargaining unit of 25 workers who received a raise in four years. She now earns $7.25 an hour. The school's management had no choice except to raise her salary so it would be in compliance with the federally-mandated minimum wage.

           Welch, Avery, Zajac, and 22 others, went on strike in March after more than three years of patiently waiting for the school's Joint Operating Committee (JOC) to ratify a contract. The support staff had voted in October 2006 to become a part of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). Since then, there have been no raises and no contract for the school's lowest-paid workers, many of whom are forced to work second jobs; three are receiving public assistance, their wages so low they fall below the federal poverty line. More than half of the members of the bargaining unit have annual wages below $22,050, the federal poverty line for a family of four; about one-third have salaries barely above $14,570, the federal poverty line for two persons.

           In an industry in which degrees matter, and which usually result in higher wages, the support staff, about half of whom have at least an associate's degree, are not compensated for their post-high school education.

           Prior to Summer 2005, when the last raises were given, pay raises were haphazard, says Welch. Paula Fritz, who has been at Vo-Tech 25 years, cites a case where the male custodians one year received 50-cent an hour raises, but she, the only female custodian, received a raise of only 35 cents an hour. "There was no logic behind it, no evaluations, and I was sure that it was based upon gender rather than performance," says Fritz.

           Dr. Thomas Rushton, Vo-Tech's administrative director and former principal, simply declares that wage increases "come from the JOC." While technically correct, prior to Rushton becoming administrator during the middle of the contract negotiation, wage increases were always recommended by the principal and administrator. In addition to arbitrary pay raises, Vo-Tech never had a formal evaluation process for its staff until three years ago. It also has a history of arbitrary hiring practices, with senior administrators hiring friends and colleagues; never in the school's history has it employed a female in any of the top five administrative slots.

           The Vo-Tech, opened in 1969, has about 700 students in 17 training programs. Seven local public school districts are "sending schools"; the Vo-Tech JOC, essentially a school board, is comprised of 14 members, two from the boards of each district. A major problem with the JOC/Vo-Tech system is its unwieldy structure and a perceived, although not open, bias against vocational-technical training. Board members and the public say they support the concept of vocational and technical training programs in high school, but the reality is that some don't necessarily believe that Vo-Tech education is parallel to that of the other public schools. Board members who voted against the proposed contract have given workers in their home districts better contracts and wages than they do for Vo-Tech. The low wages has led to a heavy turnover among administration at the Vo-Tech. "I'm on my sixth principal in 12 years," says Holly Diltz, union president and the school's Child Accounting/Transportation Specialist and administrative specialist for the Pennsylvania Information Management System.

           Several members of the JOC claim they are merely watching out for the public, that economic times are bad, and that the $4.30 an hour raise spread over a five year contract, which was asked for by the union was too much. However, even with heavy turnover and generally lower incoming salaries, the JOC granted its five administrators a combined $22,367 raise between their 2006–2007 and 2009–2010 salaries. It also granted in the 2009–2010 school year a combined $10.60 an hour raise to four employees of the classified non-union staff, and a $6,190 raise over two years to its adult education coordinator. The current administrative director earns $85,348 a year; the principal earns $70,000 a year; the business manager earns $68,000 a year. The school has also already paid its lawyer almost $22,000 to negotiate its side of the contract. However, the union estimates the cost by the time the contract is settled will be closer to $31,000. Labor lawyers in Pennsylvania typically earn $200–$350 an hour, or about 20–30 times an hour that of the bargaining unit's median wage.

           Contrary to claims of protecting taxpayer interest, Vo-Tech has about a $1.5 million surplus, about 20 percent of its budget. Because it receives funding from the seven sending districts and not directly from the taxpayers, it isn't restricted to the state-mandated 8 percent limit. Rushton says that the balance isn't a "surplus," but a "fund balance." Because of heavy costs associated with the maintenance of equipment not used by other public schools, Vo-Tech needs a balance higher than other schools. Diltz says a balance is necessary; but says the current balance is excessive, especially since she was responsible for writing about $500,000 in grants over a three year period that covered significant equipment repair and replacement. She earns $23,000 a year.

           If the Committee would agree to the proposal currently on the table, it wouldn't even increase the proposed budget," says Welch, one of the union's negotiators and budget specialists, who points out the raises have already been figured into the budget.

           A tentative agreement had been reached, and signed off by lawyers for both  Management and the workers. But in December 2009, the JOC arbitrarily declared it wanted 44 substantive changes; several of the changes involved items previously proposed by the JOC, agreed to by the union, and then deliberately changed by Committee negotiators. A 10–1 vote blocked acceptance of the tentative contract. Among those who voted against the contract were the director who had moved to accept the contract, the director who had seconded that motion and, surprisingly, two board members who are retired teachers, both of whom were PSEA members.

           "The members were cherry-picking" at the contract," says John Holland, PSEA field director, who believes that one of the major reasons why JOC members didn't accept the agreed-upon contract was "because they may have been influenced by their own districts."  In response, Bob Fogarty, chair of the JOC and the Negotiating team, says he "doesn't believe it was cherry-picking at all." Nevertheless, recent negotiations have been stalled because Management continues to pick apart issues that were previously decided. Fogarty, the only one of the Committee who had voted to approve the contract in December, says one of the reasons the contract wasn't approved by Management was because the union made changes to the contract. "We made absolutely no changes," says Diltz emphatically. "We knew in December the contract was voted down," says Diltz, "but we didn't see the counter proposal until March."

           Among issues the JOC decided weren't acceptable were the agreed-upon pay raise, which had been about 3 percent a year, but was arbitrarily reduced by the JOC to less than 2 percent a year. Other changes from the agreed-upon contract were elimination of both overtime pay for snow removal and two emergency/personal days a year, a provision to eliminate walkouts and layoffs, the number of holidays, which would have been less than what teachers and administrators receive, and the refusal to allow more than one year's retroactive pay, thus assuring that the lowest-paid workers would not receive a raise for at least the first two years after they organized.

          Prior to organizing, Vo-Tech staff workers did not pay for their health insurance. However, in what is legally known as anti-union animus (commonly known as retaliatory actions), Management required the workers to pay the same amount for health care costs as the school's higher-paid teachers, and twice what the administrators pay. That amount (originally about $1,500 a year) was later reduced by negotiation. However, not taken out of the proposed contract was a provision that Management, at its discretion, could change health care coverage and fees at any time during the contract.

           However, one of the most critical negotiating point is Management's refusal to yield to "Just Cause" provisions, which requires full and fair grievance procedures, including progressive discipline, and forbids the employer from reprimanding, disciplining, and suspending support staff without having "just cause."  Some members of the JOC claim that because Pennsylvania Act 195 covers the right of public workers to organize and mentions "just cause," it is not necessary in the contract. However, if it is in Act 195, then Management should have no qualms about allowing its inclusion. The reality is that some board members are ignorant of the scope of Act 195; others reveal their own opposition to unions, and a belief that employers should be allowed near unlimited rights to run a company any way they wish, even to the extent of trampling the rights of the working class. "If 'Just Cause' isn't in the contract," says the PSEA's Paul Shemansky, "employees can become targets of the employer." An employer, who isn't subject to "Just Cause" protections, will often adhere to Management's will, even if the employer's actions are ethically questionable. The absence of the "Just Cause" provision, says Shemansky, "can make life so miserable that the employee will quit." He says the PSEA is convinced that Management's insistence to keep "Just Cause" provisions out of the contract may be because "they want to punish the workers for having gone out on strike," and don't wish to be subjected to having to prove charges against employees. If "Just Cause" is not part of a contract, says Shemansky, "we can't argue for the workers during arbitration."

           In contrast to what the JOC wants for Vo-Tech, the contracts from the "sending districts" include provisions, including "Just Cause," that the JOC denied to the Vo-Tech staff.

           Renegotiating after agreeing to a contract is "unheard of in any union negotiation; it is the most egregious act I have ever seen in 20 years," says John Holland, who was employed by school boards and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry before his employment 11 years ago with PSEA. Two separate independent mediators, who had been active in the bargaining for the past three years, had even cautioned Management's attorney against certain inflammatory comments, and stated they had never seen such action on the part of Management in their own experiences, according to a source present during negotiation sessions.

           Shortly after the union went on strike, the school's computer system went down, forcing staff to do all work on paper, and delaying the issuance of grades for more than a week. Had Jeremy Adams, the school's technology specialist not been on strike, the problem would have been solved quickly. It was almost a week after the problem was detected that the systems were back online. The Administration had to call in an outside consultant from a "sending" school district. Adams, the bargaining unit's highest paid employee, receives $18.46 an hour, significantly less than outside consultants or what he could make in private industry.

           To cover for the strikers, Vo-Tech administration has taken some of the duties, even though they aren't qualified for those jobs. The Administration has also recruited "volunteer" students to do the cleaning, mopping, and sweeping. It has used students to tutor other students; it has used students to prepare food and serve it in the cafeteria. To a question of whether Vo-Tech has used students to cover for union employees, Rushton only answers, "No." He doesn't elaborate. However, several of the workers say the Administration has several times taken students out of their academic classes to cover duties previously associated with the striking workers. One student wrote into the local newspaper's comments column, "[W]e're running just fine without the support staff," missing the irony that if the school was, indeed, "running just fine" without support staff, perhaps any future job she would have would become irrelevant if "anyone" could do it. Another student claimed, "We don't appreciate being called scabs, we are not doing anything different from what we have been doing when the workers were there." Every member of the bargaining unit has avoided direct talks with students, and has refrained from issuing any public derogatory comments or calling anyone, especially students, scabs. The students, says Diltz, "are being fed misinformation," but it is definitely not from union members.

           Management also suggested that a prolonged strike by support staff could lead to prolonged class sessions, delayed graduation, and the withholding of grades, distinct threats to students and, quite probably, unfair labor attempts to force students to reject strikers' issues.

           The PSEA has filed charges with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) against the school and its JOC for failure to bargain, conditional bargaining, and bad faith bargaining, all violations of state law. Resolution of the complaints could be several months, mostly because the PLRB is underfunded, and has fewer hearing officers than the workload demands.

           Several community residents have called into the local newspaper to complain that the workers should be happy just to have jobs and shouldn't be protesting low wages and exploitation benefits. Evy Lysk, who had been a board member from Benton School District, one of the seven "sending districts," and a member of the Vo-Tech JOC from January 2004 through November 2007, has repeatedly written into the local newspaper to oppose unions and raises for workers. Becky Heller, who had been a school board member from the Berwick Area School District for the first three of the four years the workers didn't have a contract, in the public comment section of the local newspaper argued that Management should "Fire striking Vo-Tech union members and replace them with people who want to work," a violation of Pennsylvania law. Heller also erroneously claimed that the strikers "got ample raises each year before they unionized." She falsely claimed, "The union moved in and now they are on strike. So, how's that union working for you? They got their dues, you didn't get a raise. Do you GET IT yet?" The PSEA has not collected dues in the three and a half years since the members voted to organize, and by law cannot collect dues until a contract is in place.

           However, even in a rural area in which the local newspaper and a large number of residents who frequently write into the newspaper's "30 Seconds" and letters-to-the-editor sections have a strong anti-union bias, community residents have been "largely supportive," says Diltz. "They have driven past the picket lines, and given "thumbs-up" signs, sometimes stopped to chat or donate food," she says. In support of the strikers, most of the teachers have refused to take on additional duties at the school. Other unions, including the Teamsters, have refused to cross the picket lines. Deliveries are made to the "sending" schools, and then trucked to Vo-Tech by district personnel.

           Following the JOC monthly meeting, April 20, at the request of the union, negotiating resumed for four days. Fogarty believes "We are close" to a contract. Diltz says the two sides "are still far apart." Diltz says the union, as part of its rights, will continue to demand that the contract include the "just cause" discipline, which would forbid Management from admonishing, reprimanding, or suspending any employee without having "just cause."

           The support staff say they didn't have a need to organize prior to October 2006. "We were like a family," says Diltz. What changed was when Dr. Cosmas Curry became administrative director in the 2006–2007 school year. Curry, who had been principal, believed in top-down rule, not taking in worker suggestions or opinions and, say the strikers, treated them not with the respect they had earned. Fogarty says he never "saw any instance" of Curry not respecting the workers. Nevertheless, it was at the beginning of the Curry's administration that the workers organized after not receiving raises. Curry's tough stance may have been a tactic to scare the certified teachers, also members of PSEA, whose contract was also coming into negotiation. The support workers realized at that point, says Diltz, they were no longer family. Rushton, the current administrative director, was principal at the time the workers voted to organize. (Curry, whose final salary was $86,993, an increase of $4,993 over slightly less than three years, left the district in November 2008 to become superintendent at another local school district; Rushton, who did not meet state certification guidelines, became administrative director on an emergency credential.)

           A strike is the last act not only indicative that bargaining has gone wrong, but also of worker exploitation. For three and a half years, the workers didn't have a contract, wage increases, or a reasonable procedure to handle grievances. It was too much for the 25 workers of the newly-formed PSEA bargaining unit. To strike, when every other remedy had failed, they fully understood the financial and emotional sacrifices they would have to make. But they were willing to make those sacrifices to achieve a greater good for all workers.

           On April 27, about four weeks after the strike began, the union voted 15–2 to return to work two days later. The members, however, also voted, 14–3, to go back on strike if conditions didn't improve. "The kids really needed us," says Diltz. Other members talked about students who worried that without the tutors they wouldn't be able to pass their courses by the end of the semester. "We couldn't do that to them," says Diltz.

           There was also another reality to the strike. The workers honestly believed Management would bargain in good faith, and that the two sides would be able to negotiate a fair contract. But, one month after the strike began, the lowest paid workers at the school also realized that Management was obstinate in some of its demands. Although the PSEA gave members loans with no interest, the members still have to pay back those loans. "Some of our members who were sole support for their families just couldn't handle the stress anymore," says Diltz.

           "We're all aware there will be vindictiveness [by Management] when we return," says Diltz. Without a contract that includes the "Just Cause" provision, Management actions, which could include undocumented retaliation against workers, will undoubtedly continue until there is a contract.

           Union membership throughout the country has declined from a high of 35.5 percent of all workers in 1940 to 12.3 percent in 2009. Part of that decline is that as the nation moved from an agrarian economy into the Industrial Age, and now into an Information Age, more workers consider themselves to be professionals and not in need of a union. It is an incorrect perception, unsubstantiated by the reality of forced layoffs, arbitrary discipline and terminations, outsourcing of work to other countries, and a failure to provide adequate health care and workplace safety.

     

      The Vo-Tech workers made two mistakes. The first mistake was that they, like many workers in most American companies, believed that even if there were arbitrary and capricious actions by Management, the administration, professional, and support staff were family. The second mistake was not to have formed a union when they were still feeling they were part of a family, in order to protect themselves against that time when their family would turn against them.

 [You may contact the Brasches at   brasch@bloomu.edu / Walter M. Brasch is a former union officer, a member of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America and the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty, and a former member of several unions, including the Writers Guild of America and the United Auto Workers. He is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor and currently a professor of journalism. His latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture; among his 17 other books is With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist. He holds a Ph.D. in mass communications. Rosemary R. Brasch is a former secretary, Red Cross family services specialist, staff officer of the largest AFSCME local in the nation, a specialist in both labor history and grievance actions, and instructor at Penn State. She has an M.S. in labor studies. The Brasches are award-winning syndicated columnists.]

 

 

 

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