Corporate America Sends a Labor Day Message

 

by Walter Brasch

 

 For most Americans, the only significance of Labor Day is that it concludes a three day weekend.

For Kirk Artley, it means he has about six weeks left of employment.

On Aug. 24, RR Donnelley, a Chicago-based megacorporation that claims to be “the world’s premier full-service provider of print and related services,” told Artley and the other 283 workers at the Bloomsburg, Pa., plant that “economic conditions” forced the closing of the book printing facility. The workers said they would take significant pay cuts if that would save the plant. RR Donnelley rejected the offer.

Most of the workers live in Columbia County, a small rural county of about 65,000, with unemployment about 8 percent, slightly less than the national rate. Adding 284 persons would significantly increase that rate.

Under the termination agreement, the workers, both management and labor, wouldn’t have priority rights to bid for jobs at any other plant. “We were told we could apply for open jobs just like anyone else,” says Artley, a bindery technician and president of Local 732C of the Graphic Communications Conference, a Teamsters division. Apparently, there was no way to integrate a couple of hundred workers into a corporation that employs about 58,000. What the corporation that had about $10 billion income last year did agree to do, after negotiations with the union, was award severance of one week pay for every year of service, and to pay for half the health insurance for up to nine months, depending upon length of service.

The corporation told the workers the Bloomsburg plant was no longer profitable. They claimed there was no way the Bloomsburg plant, with its eight rotary offset web presses and five bindery lines, could be competitive in an industry that was moving to digital books. They said other plants would absorb the work. If the company had even contemplated changing the nature of production at Bloomsburg to deal with a changing industry, and re-training the workers, that was never made known to those still employed. Every day, the workers did their jobs, put up with Management, and then went home.

By federal law, there has to be a 60-day notice to the workers. But there is no law to require corporations to tell them the truth.

Contrary to corporate statements and a popular belief that print books are doomed by the emergence and significant increase in publication and sales of digital books, there is still a consumer interest in print. Overall, about 2.57 billion books were sold in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008, according to data compiled by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Net sales revenue last year was $27.94 billion, a 5.6 percent increase from two years earlier. The AAP reports there were 603 million copies of trade hardcover books published last year, a 5.8 percent increase from two years earlier, with net sales revenue up about 0.9 percent. For trade softcover books, sales were about one billion copies, up 2.0 percent from 2008, with net sales revenue of about $5.27 billion, according to the AAP. The only significant decrease was mass market paperbacks (sometimes known as the supermarket or rack paperbacks). In 2010, net unit sales were 319 million, a decrease of 16.8 percent from 2008; net revenue was $1.28 billion in 2010, down 13.8 percent from two years earlier, according to the AAP. The Bloomsburg plant printed Harlequin romances and some other mass market paperbacks, but they were a small part of the overall production.

RR Donnelley itself, with assets of about $9 billion, is profitable, although its stock has had wide fluctuations in 2011. Its net sales for 2010 were $10.02 billion, up from $9.86 billion the year before. For the first half of 2011, Donnelley had net sales of $3.86 billion, up about 5.7 percent from $3.65 billion a year earlier. Its second quarter net sales were $2.62 billion, an 8.6 percent increase from a year earlier. The company CEO, Thomas J. Quinlan III, earns about $2.6 million in total compensation, with a five-year combined compensation of about $13.6 million, according to Forbes. In contrast, hourly workers in the Bloomsburg plant received an average of 2 percent pay raises each year.

“Just last month, the company told us we were profitable, that it had no plans to close us down,” says Artley, “and now they say we aren’t profitable?”

No well-run corporation makes a decision in less than a month to close a 370,000 square foot plant, with an estimated market value of about $8.4 million. But, that is what the corporation wants the workers to believe. The union did get Donnelley to agree it would not shut down the plant and then re-open it and resume printing books. There was no corporate agreement that it wouldn’t “re-tool,” and establish other printing or digital services. And there was definitely no agreement to retrain or rehire any worker. Based upon past practices, RRD Donnelley is more likely to try to sell the empty building and land.

A clue to what the corporation was going to do may have been disclosed in October 2010 when it trumpeted that it had developed the ProteusJet, high-speed ink jet printers, and was shipping one a month to various plants. The printers were designed to handle short run and one copy at a time print-on-demand publishing. None of those printers were scheduled to be delivered to Bloomsburg.

Bloomsburg still produced several long-run publications for major publishers, including the Idiot’s Guide and Twilight series, as well as several fiction best-sellers. But, it was developing a specialty as a short-run printer (generally 1,000–3,000 copies of a title), with a three-day turn-around. In the current book industry, shorter runs with faster turn-around times are becoming more of an industry standard, especially with the rise of more small independent regional publishers. Yet, Donnelley was closing a plant that could have been part of a major expansion to meet the new publishing platforms. “That’s one of the things that baffled us,” says Artley.

At its peak, the Bloomsburg plant was averaging about seven million books a month; that number dropped to about two million a month, and then picked up to five million in August. Although Donnelley kept reaffirming that the change to digital technology, combined with a decreasing economy, were the problems, there are other truths it didn’t tell the workers.

Undermining Its Best Customer

 

Lower production in Bloomsburg could be because RR Donnelley sales people were leading some potential customers to the company’s Crawfordsville, Ind., or Harrisonburg, Va., plants. However, one major customer balked at moving the contract. The Penguin Group, one of the five largest publishing conglomerates in the world, wanted to keep a major part of its production in Bloomsburg. Penguin, which owned one of the presses and one of the bindery lines in the Bloomsburg plant, accounted for as much as three-fourths of all titles produced in Bloomsburg, according to Artley.

One critical issue for Penguin was that RR Donnelley wanted to determine where the books would be printed, perhaps yet another sign that it was planning to phase-out Bloomsburg production. One source in Donnelley management who is familiar with the Penguin situation, and who asked that his name not be used, says that the publishing company preferred the quality produced at Bloomsburg, and the close access to its distribution warehouse in Pittston, Pa., about 50 miles northeast of Bloomsburg. The Bloomsburg plant is also close to I-80, a major interstate that connects the New York City metropolitan area with San Francisco. The union had even agreed in January to extend its current contract, and then signed a two-year agreement, assuring Penguin executives there wouldn’t be any labor issues in Bloomsburg. About that time, Donnelley finally agreed to allow Penguin to have its books printed in the Bloomsburg plant and signed a two-year contract. The closing of the Bloomsburg plant, and requiring Penguin to have its books printed in Harrisonburg, Va., and then shipped about 300 miles northeast to Pittston, would increase transportation costs about three times, according to one person familiar with the contract. Because Penguin signed a two year contract with the assurance that books would be produced in Bloomsburg, it would be justified to declare a breach of the contract and move its work elsewhere, or to demand financial considerations from Donnelley.

‘More Interested in Profits than in the Workers’

In 1993, RR Donnelley bought Haddon Craftsmen, which produced numerous books that reached best-seller lists, and which had developed a reputation not only for high quality printing but also as a good place to work. Haddon Craftsmen had begun during World War II as a merger of three companies. The Bloomsburg plant was added in 1964. In 1980, six employees bought Haddon, which now had plants not only in Scranton, its main plant, but also Dunmore and Allentown. Sullivan Graphics bought the company in 1989 and then sold it to RR Donnelley four years later. Within two years, Donnelley announced it was thinking about closing the 400,000 square foot press and bindery in Scranton, and unify all operations in Bloomsburg. Steve Zeisloft, a union officer for 10 years, including four years as vice-president, recalls Donnelley “essentially told us the company could expand if we worked with them, and if we didn’t they would shut down the plant and take the work elsewhere.” The threat of shutting the Bloomsburg plant, however, was undoubtedly a scare tactic. The Scranton bindery was in an old brick building; the Bloomsburg plant was newer, and had significant room for expansion.

Donnelley had several demands. It demanded government concessions and assistance. The Commonwealth gave the company $350,000; the county, local school district, and local township all waived taxes the first year and gave extremely favorable reduced rates the next four years. For the new contract with the union, known as the Green Contract, the corporation also demanded that most hourly workers take pay cuts, that they pay more for health care, that it would now take 15 years instead of 10 years for workers to earn a four week vacation, and that their union gives up the “closed shop” mandatory membership requirement.

Union workers would keep their jobs, but new employees would be allowed to choose whether or not to join the union. More important, new employees would not have to pay “fair share” contributions for representation, something common in unionized shops. Thus, the union would negotiate contracts, deal with workplace conditions and grievances, and provide for the common welfare of the workers, but receive no compensation from non-union members. In exchange, Donnelley agreed to increase the size of the plant and the number of employees. The “Green Contract” went into effect in June 1996, the same month the bindery expansion was completed.

Kirk Artley was one of more than a thousand who applied for a couple of hundred new jobs. He had been a Marine for 14 years and held jobs in other factories. The company, he says, “discouraged us from joining the union,” but like many, “I saw the necessity to be a member.” For the next 15 years, union- and non-union employees worked side by side. “We were family,” says one 30-year press technician, “and some employees saw a reason why the union was necessary.” Only because more than half of the workers were union members could Management not request decertification and the elimination of the union.

Several long-time employees say the atmosphere under the new owner changed. “The rules and regulations weren’t as stringent under Haddon, yet we still produced the quality,” says Mark Harris, a press technician who was union president 1998–2006. Donnelley “kept telling us quality is the most important part,” says Harris, “but at the same time they kept telling us they wanted more numbers.” Adding to the workers’ frustration was that most plant executives had never worked in production.

The new owners were “more interested in profits than in the workers,” says one 30-year employee, who asked that his name not be used. Another employee, who worked under Donnelley and the previous owners, says, “We did what we could with what we had, but you could only do what they let you do.” Artley explains, “We were constantly giving extra maintenance to the presses, trying to maintain quality.” Pride of workmanship was the main reason there wasn’t a significant decline in overall quality. Some of the presses were three decades old; with one exception, any “new” presses brought into the plant were already used. Because the four Harris presses were obsolete, says Artley, “we had to do our own machining to create parts.”

Mentally and Physically Exhausting

Mark Harris recalls that in addition to good wages and benefits, Haddon provided the “little things that helped our morale,” including company-paid Christmas parties. However, Donnelley cancelled the Christmas party and all other socials. “If we wanted a Christmas party,” says Artley, “we had to set it up and pay for it ourselves.”

But, with a physically demanding 13/1 schedule, parties were rare. With few exceptions, hourly employees, most of whom stood most of their shifts, were required to work 13 straight days with one day off, beginning in the late 1990s. Many worked double shifts. “You don’t mind it if the business is dying, because you do what you have to in order to make it work,” says Zeisloft, “but this was a profitable company, and there was always work.”  

During the past few years, Donnelley cut back on the 13/1 agreement, but would resort to new contract language that limited hourly workers to “only” 311 days a year. Families, especially the younger ones, became used to a good annual income. They did not get used to the reality that there was little family time or that there was significant physical and mental stress because of the work conditions. Even if there was a reduction of printing contracts, the company apparently had plans only to reduce forced overtime, not eliminate it. “We looked forward to June and October,” says Zeisloft, “because those were the slowest times during the year, and we could be with our families more.”

Blocking and Stalling

 Management tended to “blame everything on the union,” says Harris, who had been at the plant 32 years. Under the union contract is a three-step grievance process. If a problem couldn’t be resolved at one of three levels it went to arbitration. Under Haddon, problems tended to be solved internally, says Mark Harris. But under Donnelley, there was “a lot of blocking and stalling,” with some grievances taking as long as three years before going to arbitration. In some cases, says Harris, the union couldn’t afford the cost of arbitration, especially when faced by a corporation that seemed to have endless legal resources and the desire to never admit it did anything wrong. Nevertheless, the union, says Zeisloft, “fought as hard for the non-union workers as it did for its own members.”

The corporation’s blatant anti-union attitude was clearly seen in 2007. The United Network International (UNI), a federation of more than 1,000 unions representing 20 million unionized workers on four continents, had sent three detailed letters to Thomas Quinlan to request a meeting to discuss workplace conditions in the corporation’s overseas plants. The alliance specifically wanted to talk with the CEO about following the recommendations of the International Labour Organisation and various national laws about the rights to join a union, bargain collectively, and issues of discrimination and child labor. Quinlan ignored the letters. In May 2008, a delegation from UNI and the Teamsters went to the Chicago headquarters to meet with Quinlan. They left a letter of concern with an assistant; Quinlan had refused to meet with them.

The corporate attitude to workers, reflected in numerous ways in Bloomsburg, extended even after the closing was announced. On Friday, Sept. 2, the state sent a Rapid Response Team to Bloomsburg. The purpose was to give the workers information about numerous social services available, to discuss government benefits, including unemployment, and to help them find other work. At a preliminary meeting, with four union officers and three from Management, the team outlined what it wanted to do and to secure the company’s assistance. According to those who were there, the Human Resources manager, who was also on the list to be terminated, asked how long the meeting with the workers would be. She was told it would be 90 minutes. “Can it be done after work hours,” she asked, “because we have production goals to be met.” Alan Robinson, of the state’s Dept. of Labor and Industry, replied, “You’re not going to like this answer. You can pay now or you can pay later.” He was referring to the reality that the longer workers were unemployed the more RR Donnelley would be paying its share in unemployment taxes. “We were all surprised at her question,” says Artley, but they were even more surprised by what she said later. Reaffirming a Management attitude, she suggested, “Can we send these [workers] back to the floor . . .  because we have production goals to meet.” The planning meeting ended at that point. “We stood outside just shaking our heads in disbelief,” says Artley.

 

Rhetoric is all that it Is

 Kirk Artley is 56 years old. Like most of those who have been terminated, he’s not old enough to retire; in a nation that values youth, he’s not a prime candidate for employment, no matter what his competence and experience are. But, he’s more worried about his co-workers. “They have mortgages, they have bills like everyone else,” he says, “and now they’re out a job in an area that has few new jobs.” More important, most of those terminated are not only skilled labor, but have a long history in a highly technical field. Their knowledge and abilities will be lost if they are forced into other employment.

In the RR Donnelley Corporate Social Responsibility Report are four guiding principles. One is “Treating others the way that we want to be treated.” It’s nice rhetoric. If it were true.

 [Bloomsburg plant management referred all calls to the Chicago headquarters. Three calls in a week to the Chicago headquarters for comment were not acknowledged or returned. Most workers at the Bloomsburg plant who voluntarily talked about the problems and issues asked that their names be concealed. Many refused to talk until after Oct. 24, the final date of their employment. One worker said, “You never know what they could do to us even in our last month there.”  Another said his reason for not saying anything was, “They could fire me and deny me the severance benefits,” even though he and the company had signed a severance agreement. That fear of retaliation, whether real or perceived, was seldom seen under the management of Haddon Craftsmen.

 Walter Brasch, a retired professor of mass communications, is a syndicated social issues columnist, and a member of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America, Authors Guild, and National Society of Newspaper Columnists. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available through bookstores, Amazon.com, or the publisher’s website, www.greeleyandstone.com.]

 

 

Toxic Lead to Cover Iowa Killing Fields

by WALTER BRASCH

 

Iowa, which gave us the carnival known as the Iowa Straw Poll and artery-clogging Deep Fried Butter, will unleash another health problem, beginning Sept. 1.

The Iowa legislature last year approved a dove hunting season, the first in more than nine decades. However, the state's Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission (DNR) banned the use of lead shot and bullets.

That led to a massive all-out assault by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the U.S. Sportsman's Alliance (USSA).

In a letter to Gov. Terry Branstad, the NRA underscored its opposition by waving a veiled threat that banning lead ammunition is an "attack [on] our freedoms."

“Absurd," replied Robert Johns of the American Bird Conservancy, who explained that "the NRA continues to deliberately miscast the lead-versus-nonlead ammunition issue as an attack on hunting." There is nothing in the Constitution or in any federal court decision that would prohibit the banning of any specific kind of ammunition.

The NRA blatantly suggested the ban on lead shot "is designed to price hunters out of the market and keep them from taking part in traversing Iowa's fields and forests." For its "evidence," it pointed out the cost of non-toxic ammunition is higher than ammunition made of lead. However, the use of non-toxic shot results in only a 1-2 percent increase in total costs for hunters, according to a study conducted by the National Wildlife Research Centre, certainly not enough to justify the NRA's paranoid panic that non-toxic bullets will lead to a decrease in hunting.

Iowa's DNR, the NRA claimed, was echoing not just environmental extremism but "the unscientific battle cry of the anti-hunting extremists."

 Contrary to NRA and USSA statements, there are several hundred scientific studies that conclude that lead shot is a health and environmental danger. Lead can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, reduced reproduction, neurological damage, and genetic mutation. For those reasons alone, the U.S. bans lead in gasoline, water pipes, windows, pottery, toys, paint, and hundreds of other items.

"Wildlife is poisoned when animals scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead-bullet fragments, or pick up and eat spent lead-shot pellets[,]mistaking them for food or grit," the Center for Biological Diversity points out. As many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning, says the CBD.

Humans can be poisoned by eating animals that have eaten the pellets from the ground or which have eaten decaying carcasses of birds that have been shot with lead ammunition. Iowa is one of only 15 states that don't have some regulation that bans lead in shot and ammunition. Most European countries ban the use of lead shot for hunting.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 banned the use of lead shot in all waterfowl hunting. The NRA screamed its opposition at that time. However, the ban didn't lead to a reduction of hunting or hunters, nor did it violate any part of the Constitution.

R.T. Cox, in his column, "The Sage Grouse," notes that "bird hunters can leave 400,000 pellets per acre of intensely hunted areas." About 81,000 tons of lead shot are left on shooting ranges each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Part of the reason for so much lead shot on the ground is that doves, which can fly up to 50 miles per hour and make sharp turns, are difficult to hit. While hunters may claim they shoot the birds as a food source, such claims are usually blatant lies meant to hide the reality that the 20 million doves killed each year are nothing more than live targets. The five ounce mourning dove, hit by shot, provides little usable meat. The NRA even advises hunters that for health reasons, they should "cut away a generous portion of meat around the wound channel."

Lead on the dove killing fields isn't the only problem. An investigation by the North Dakota Dept. of Health in 2007 revealed that 58 percent of venison donated to food banks by the Safari Club contained lead fragments. A study conducted by the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2006 revealed there were toxic levels of lead in condors. During the past decade, 276 California condors were found to have had lead poisoning; there are fewer than 400 in the state. A ban on lead shot was enacted in 2007.

There are alternatives to using lead. Non-toxic bullets and shot are made from tungsten, copper, and steel, without the negative health problems. While some hunting advocates maintain that lead bullets are significantly better in the field, there is no evidence to suggest that "green" ammunition results in fewer kills.

Nevertheless, disregarding scientific evidence and facing NRA wrath, Branstad said he agreed with a legislative panel's decision to ignore the findings of the state's professional wildlife conservationists, who he said exceeded their authority, to restore lead shot hunting.

Andrew Page, a senior director for the Humane Society of the United States, has another opinion, one far more logical than the NRA/NSSA rants: "If hunters are conservationists as they say they are, they should be the first to stand up and say they won't poison wildlife or the ecosystem."

 [Walter Brasch's latest book is Before the First Snow, a story of America's counterculture as seen through the eyes of a "flower child" and the reporter who covered her life for three decades.]

 

 

 

 

‘Step Right up!’ Snake Oil for Sale

 

by WALTER BRASCH  

 

The Tea Party, mutant spawn of the Republicans, held their spineless parents and the nation hostage during the debt ceiling crisis, and is now demanding an even greater ransom.

Flushed with what they mistakenly believe is success, they have launched an all-out assault upon the presidency. Their generals, fattened by Iowa corn and midway schmaltz, are Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. Sarah Palin, hovering near the battlefields to soak up the media sunlight, much like a black hole absorbs all energy and light from nearby stars, is waiting to see how the war goes (and if she can write some intelligent sentences) before deciding to re-enter battle.

Bachmann is the winner of the strangest political non-election in the country, the Iowa Straw Poll. She won the race the old-fashioned way. She bought it.

To make sure that Iowans entered the Tents of Instant Gratification and, thus, cast their ballot the right way, the candidates, who paid $15,000–$31,000 to rent space at Iowa State, provided food, music, and carnival fun for the voters. Bachman had a petting zoo, and drew fans to a concert by country superstar Randy Travis. Cost of the banquet: $30 a ticket.

To assure there were enough votes, Bachmann’s campaign, like all other campaigns, paid the $30 admissions ticket. That would be $144,690 for 4,823 votes, plus several hundred thousand dollars in related campaign expenses. Related campaign expenses for the candidates included renting charter buses to bring voters from throughout Iowa to Ames.

But, Iowans aren’t stupid. Many wanted to see Randy Travis and eat the food of politics but didn’t plan to vote for Bachmann. About 6,000 persons took the “free” $30 tickets. Thus, she officially paid $180,000, $37.32 a vote; unofficially, with all expenses figured in, the cost could easily have been well over $200 a vote so she could be the winner and earn the title of Media Darlin’ of the Week.

The establishment media generally avoided Ron Paul, the second place winner, who “only” got 4,671 votes, 152 less than Bachmann, and 27.7 percent. Paul is a pariah in the Republican party, and something the media can’t figure out, because he actually has a core set of principles, which sometimes leads him to ally with liberals, but for different reasons.

Third place, with 13.6 percent of the vote and, according to numerous media pundits not charismatic enough to be a serious contender, went to Tim Pawlenty, who didn’t drink much of the tea and dropped out of the race after spending about $1 million in Iowa. Not dropping out were Tea Party favorites Rick Santorum (9.8 percent) and Herman Cain (8.6 percent), who lured voters into his tent with free Godfather’s Pizza. Mitt Romney, who had spent about $2 million in the 2007 Straw Poll, but skipped this year’s non-binding poll, finished behind Rick Perry, dripping tea with every statement he makes, entered the presidential race only after the Iowa Straw Poll, but did get 718 write-in votes for 4.3 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, Romney is still believed to be the front-runner.

Thus, going into the primary season, the Tea Party can arouse themselves with Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, Cain, and maybe Palin. Not identified with the Tea Party, but in its gravitational pull are Romney, Jon Huntsman, and whatever is left of Newt Gingrich’s chances.

The Tea Party began a few months after Barack Obama was elected president, with a stated purpose to reduce wild government spending. But its deep structure shows an amorphous bunch of white middle-class ultra-conservatives, aided by upper-class political consultants and media manipulators, who have developed the ability to sound impressive with only half-truths behind their rants and chants, and a zealous determination to keep President Obama out of a second term.

During the debt ceiling crisis, Tea Partiers refused to budge on a demand of not raising the debt ceiling, cutting numerous social and educational programs, and holding firm to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Everyone must cut back, especially during economic crises, they bleated. Austerity is their mantra.

But, based upon their extravagant lifestyle and the wild spending they did in Iowa, shouldn’t their mantra now be “hypocrisy”?

 

[As a young reporter in Iowa, Brasch covered everything from fairs to politics to rock concerts. His current book is Before the First Snow, a powerful look at how the collusion of Big Government and Big Business can destroy civil liberties and lead to environmental destruction and health issues. The book is available at www.greeleyandstone.com, www.amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble.]

 

 

 

A Punishing Educational Curriculum

 

 

                                     by WALTER BRASCH 

 

With the nation’s unemployment rate hovering about 10 percent, recent high school graduates are escaping reality by going to college, and college grads are avoiding reality by entering grad school. The result is that it now takes an M.A. to become a shift manager at a fast food restaurant.

Colleges have stayed ahead of the Recession by becoming business models, where students are “inventory units,” and success is based upon escalating profit. Increasing the number of incoming units, class size, and tuition, while not increasing teaching and support staff, leads some colleges to believe they are solvent in a leaking economy. Budgets for academics are decreasing; budgets for dorms are increasing. Enrollment in degree-granting institutions is expected to be about 19.1 million in 2012, an increase of about 25 percent from 2000, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Desperate to destroy their image as places of scholarship, colleges are using the 98.6 admissions criteria—admit almost anyone with a body temperature. Colleges may claim they admit only students with at least a 3.0 grade point average, which at some high schools is about half the student body, but it’s likely that students with lower averages aren’t recruited because they’re already working as lab specimens.

Across the nation, Developmental Education classes are increasing, with some departments now within the Top 5 in the college. For those who don’t speak “academicese,” that means more students are in college who have basic readin’, ’riting, and ’rithmetic problems.

Nevertheless, there are still a few hold-outs among colleges where students actually go to study, develop their minds, and hope to make great contributions to society. This, of course, in a declining economy, is not acceptable.

At Neargreat Tech, when the Admissions department failed to increase enrollment because most high school grads didn’t want to be associated with geeks, the President convened a Judiciary Review Board to reduce the college’s academic reputation. First in was the class valedictorian.

“Bennish, this is the fifth time this semester you’ve been caught sneaking into the library. This administration just doesn’t know what to do with you.”

“Sir, maybe I could increase my community service and read books to the ill and illiterate.”

“Why can’t you just go to our football games Saturday afternoons, then party and get drunk like a normal college student?”

“Because, sir, we don’t have a football team.”

“Then start one! If it’s as bad as it could be, you’ll have an excuse to drink. Next!”

Next in was a student accused of disturbing the peace.

“Rachmaninoff, your advisor says you’re a pretty good musician, but you only want to play the classical stuff. We’re assigning you to the marching band.”

“But, Dean, I play the piano.”

“Great! The band needs a pianist.”

“Sir, it might be difficult to carry a piano along Broadway. Besides, there are only 20 members in the band anyhow.”

“Even better! Pick an instrument. Banjo. Double bass. Electric guitar. They need everything! Dismissed!”

Next to be called to face a disciplinary hearing was Schopenhauer. “You were seen lying on the grass beneath a tree in the quad,” said the president. “The campus police claim you were thinking. We should give you an opportunity to defend yourself against this egregious accusation. What exactly were you doing?”

“Thinking.”

“That’s outrageous! You know we don’t like our students to think. What’s your major?”

“Philosophy, sir.”

 “That’s the problem,” the president declared. “Since you’re only a freshman, and probably don’t know better, I’ll be lenient. You are sentenced to a day of writing graffiti on the university’s bathroom walls.” He paused a moment, then snapped, “And don’t let me catch you writing anything intelligent on those walls!”

Later that afternoon, the president met with his staff.

“This isn’t going to work,” said the dejected president. “We can’t catch every practicing scholar on campus. They’re just snickering at our rules. If we can’t stop education, then we won’t be able to raise our enrollment and get performance bonuses.”

That’s when Winslow, a newly-appointed deputy assistant dean spoke up. “Perhaps we need to look elsewhere for our inspiration. What is it that almost every college but ours has?” He didn’t wait for a response when he declared the college needed fraternities and sororities.

“How do we know the students will even want to participate?” asked the president. “Most of our students have no desire to participate in a system that humiliates them, strips them of their individuality, and causes them to walk six abreast down a narrow street while singing off-key.”

Perhaps,” suggested the deputy assistant dean, “we can tap our reserve fund and build a couple of fraternity houses, maybe a sorority house or two.”

“Will that guarantee we’ll get more common students to raise the enrollment?”

“If you build it, they will party,” said the deputy assistant dean.

“Winslow may have a bright idea here,” said the president, who immediately promoted him to vice-president of academics and parties.

 

 [Walter Brasch bracketed several years as a college professor with work as a journalist and multimedia writer/producer. His current book is Before the First Snow, a light-hearted, yet tragic, look at what happens when an energy company moves into a region, lures citizens with high-paying jobs in a depressed economy, but which may have significant health and environmental issues as byproducts.]

 

The Debt Ceiling Crisis: Let’s Get Personal

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH 

 

You have a credit card with a $25,000 limit.

Because you have a good job, you only have $6,000 on the card, and routinely pay the monthly statement and a little extra on the principal.

But then you decide you need a 52-inch high-def LCD TV screen to go into your “man cave,” and your family rightfully decides they need a vacation. So, you add a few thousand to the credit card. But, it’s all OK since you just got a promotion at work.

A couple of months later, your 2008 Honda begins puffing smoke. By the time repairs are done, it’s another thousand on the card.

And then your boss calls you into her office. Your work has been excellent, she tells you. You have made numerous contributions to the company, she says. But her boss has figured out he can make even more money for himself and the nebulous apparitions known as stockholders, so he is sending much of the company’s manufacturing needs overseas, where labor (and often workmanship) is much less of a financial burden. Besides, he won’t have to deal with unions overseas. Oh, yeah, says your boss, you’ve been replaced by some guy in Pakistan who’ll work for a tenth of your salary.

But there’s good news, says your boss. Because of your long and dedicated service, you’ll get four whole weeks salary—and health care benefits for two full months. You’ll surely find work in that time, you believe.

Three months later, you’re still unemployed. The mortgage is due. Bills pile up. But, you’re optimistic. You have a good work record. You’ll find another job. Besides, your wife (who had quit her job to spend full-time taking care of the home and raising the three children) just got a job at $7.80 an hour as a clerk at a big-box department store to help out. It’s only temporary, the two of you believe. You’ll get a job soon; she’ll be able to quit her job. A few more months go by, and both of you are now working—she as a near-minimum-wage clerk; you as a part-time customer service representative for a hardware store at two bucks over minimum wage. That’s all you could find. You don’t have health benefits; hers, which cover the family, are significantly less than what you once had.

You’re depressed, but there’s no money for social workers or psychologists. You and your family are a bit testy, snapping out for no apparent reason; there’s no money for marital counseling.

The bills pile up. There’s unreimbursed medical costs, a couple of unexpected veterinary bills for your two dogs, clothes for the kids, gas for the cars so you can get to your jobs. And then that variable interest mortgage hits a new high. You put a few more necessities onto the credit card and are now are at $24,950 of your $25,000 debt limit.

So, you go to the bank—the one that sold you the house, and which gladly gave you a mortgage when times were good and it could make a lot of money—and ask for a raise in the credit limit.

But times aren’t that good right now, and the bank refuses to raise your credit limit. After all, says the banker, there’s no way you could make monthly payments.

You plead that if the bank doesn’t raise the credit card limit, you won’t be able to survive, that you’ll have to default. That means you’ll lose your house and, probably, your cars. Your credit rating, once among the best, will plummet even further. Too bad, says the banker. Get another job, he says. One that pays better. Or, maybe work two jobs. Of course, there’s no jobs at the bank, or anywhere else. But that’s not his problem.

You again plead for help, but the banker isn’t interested. It’s your fault you’re in this mess, he tells you. You spent too much, he coldly explains. Cut spending, and you’ll be able to meet your minimum monthly payment—you know, the one with the 13.5 percent interest that goes to the bank—and, well, figure out something. He has no compassion and won’t help.

But there may be hope. Another banker comes into the office, hears your story, and wants to raise your debt limit, but the other banker has taken a stand. With you in the office, the two of them talk, argue, and shout loud enough so the other bankers and customers can hear them. It’s now 3:55 p.m., and the bank closes in five minutes, at which time the credit card, because of steadily rising interest, will be maxed out.

Finally, the two bankers agree to provide a miniscule amount of help. They will temporarily raise your credit limit, but will now dictate exactly what you can spend, and how you’ll spend it.

Since you like hunting, and they like hunting, they’ll let you buy all the guns and ammunition you want. But, they can’t help you on your health bills, or even lower the insurance premiums and co-pays. And, they can’t do much for that inflated mortgage payment. Or to help you find another job.

You will have to wear old clothes, used clothes, or lower your clothing expenses, they say, but there’s a solution. They give you a catalogue of very nice clothes—men’s, women’s, children’s. The pictures of the clothes, in full color on glossy paper, is just what you need to reduce your costs so you look presentable at the next job interview. And no one notices that the clothes the banker wants you to buy are all made in Pakistan.

 

[Water Brasch’s current book is Before the First Snow, the story of a ’60s “flower child,” and the reporter who covered her life, and that of America, for more than three decades. The book is available at www.greeleyandstone.com]

 

 

‘Pssst. Hotdogs Ten Bucks Each’

 

                            by WALTER BRASCH

 

I walked straight ahead, looking neither right nor left in a darkened alley illuminated by a half-moon.

“Pssst.”

I quickened my pace, but there was no avoiding the shadowy figure.

“Ain’t gonna harm ya. Jus’ wanna sell ya somethin’.”

I hesitated, shaking. Stepping in front of me, he shoved a hotdog under my nose. “Ten bucks each,” he whispered ominously through his throat.

“Ten bucks?!” I asked, astonished at the cost.

“You want it or not?”

With Michele Obama (who chose to attack obesity rather than poverty, worker exploitation, or even hunger and malnutrition), supported by publicity-hungry legislators, hotdogs were the latest feel-good food to come under assault. A medical association whose members are vegans had spent $2,750 to place a billboard message near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The picture showed four grilled hot dogs sticking out of a cigarette box that had a skull and crossbones symbol on its face. An oversized label next to the box informed motorists and fans of the upcoming Brickyard 400, “Warning: Hot dogs can wreck your health.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine claimed that just one hot dog eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.

The Committee isn’t the only one destroying Americans’ rights to eat junk food. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which seems to come up with a new toxic food every year, once declared theatre popcorn unhealthy.  Many schools banned soda machines. Back in 2011, McDonald’s reduced the number of french fries in its Happy Meal and substituted a half-order of some abomination known as applies. Even cigarette company executives, trying to look professorial at a Congressional hearing, once said that smoking cigarettes wasn’t any worse than eating Twinkies. However, smoking a Twinkie could cause heart and lung diseases, cancer, and diabetes.

Nevertheless, in Michele Obama’s second term as First Anti-Fat Lady, I was desperate for my daily fix of hot dogs, and my would-be supplier knew it. I leaped at my stalking shadowy figure with the miracle junk.

“Not so fast!” he growled, pulling the hotdog away. “Let’s see your bread.”

"I don't have any bread," I pleaded. "Not since a zoologist at Penn concluded that hummingbirds that ate two loaves of bread a day got constipation."

"Not that bread, turkey! Bread! Lettuce!"

“I haven’t eaten lettuce in three years since the government banned it for having too many pesticides, and the heads that remained were eaten by pests.”

The man closed his trench coat and began to leave.

“Wait!” I pleaded, digging into my pockets. “I’ve got change.”

He laughed, contemptuously. “That’s not even coffee money.”

“I don’t drink coffee,” I mumbled. “Not since the government arrested Juan Valdez and his donkey for being unhealthy influences on impressionable minds.”

I grabbed for his supply of hotdogs, each disguised in a plain brown wrapper, each more valuable than a banned rap record. He again pulled them away.

“I ain’t no Salvation Army. You want ’dogs, you pay for ’dogs. I got thousands who will.”

“I need a fix. You can’t let me die out here on the streets.”

“If it was just me, I'd do it. But there’s the boys. They keep the records. If I give you a ’dog and bun, and don't get no money, they’ll break two of my favorite fingers. I don't cross nobody. And I don’t give it away.”

“Please,” I begged. “I need a ’dog. It’s all I have left to live for. I don’t care about colorectal cancer. Without hotdogs, my life is over. You can't let me die out here on the streets.” He shrugged, and so I suddenly got bold. “Give me a ’dog,” I demanded, “or I’ll tell everyone you have the stuff. You won’t be able to meet the demand. The masses will tear you apart like a plump frank.”

“You wouldn’t do that to a guy just trying to make a buck, would you?”

“Two ’dogs with mustard and onions, and I keep my mouth shut. No ’dogs and I scream like a fire engine.” He had no choice.

Walking away, he stopped, turned back, and called after me—“Tomorrow. This corner. This time. Two ’dogs. Twenty bucks. I'll see you every night."

I didn’t reply. He knew he had me.

 

[Rosemary Brasch, who likes hotdogs, assisted on this column. Walter Brasch says he prefers hamburgers, but will defend to the death the right of Americans to eat what they want. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a look at a part of America, as seen by a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her story for more than three decades, beginning in the 1960s.]

 

 

‘10 Commandments Judge’ Running for President

Alabama, Roy Moore, Republicans, presidential candidates, First Amendment, Establishment Clause, judicial ethics, judicial practices, Ten Commandments, abortion, right-to-work, wild horses, wild burros, debt ceiling

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was removed from office for defying the Constitution and a federal court order is one of 14 major candidates running for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

Alabama’s Court of the Judiciary unanimously had ordered Roy S. Moore removed from office in November 2003 after he refused to remove from the judiciary building rotunda a 5,280 pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments. Around its base were extracts from the Declaration of Independence, quotes from the Founding Fathers, and the National Anthem. The three foot square by four foot tall monument was funded by private contributions.

As circuit judge, Moore had placed onto the wall of his courtroom a wooden Ten Commandments plaque he had carved, and opened each court session with a Protestant prayer. He also had defied a Circuit Court ruling to remove the plaque and to cease prayers. A suit filed in the Alabama Supreme Court was dismissed for technical reasons, and Moore said he would continue to hold prayers before court.

His campaign for Chief Justice, supported by the Christian Family Association, was to return “God to our public life and restore the moral foundation of our law.” On July 31, 2001, about six months after he was inaugurated as chief justice, Moore personally supervised the installation of the granite monument, stating that the Supreme Court needed something grander than the wooden plaque in the Circuit Court. In the subsequent lawsuit, Glassroth v. Moore, the chief justice, using the words of the Alabama Constitution, argued  “in order to establish justice we must invoke ‘the favor and guidance of almighty God.’” The Ten Commandments, he said, are the “moral foundation” of American law; the presence of the monument recognizes “the sovereignty of God.” What Moore didn’t state is that Exodus and Deuteronomy have different versions, and subsequent Christian religions have at least three versions. It is a Protestant version that was carved into the granite.

The federal court ruled that placement of the monument, and Moore’s repeated statements that the monument represented God’s sovereignty over all matters judicial and moral, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That decision was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

With strong popular support, Moore said not only were the courts’ rulings illegal, but that he would continue to defy them. Moore frequently cited the Alabama Constitution that justice was determined by “involving the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” The message sent to the citizens was that it’s acceptable to disregard two centuries of legal history that gave the federal constitution supremacy over states, and to violate federal law if you disagree with it. For a citizen to do so carries penalties; for a judge to do so carries removal from office.

Reflecting upon the case, Moore told rockthecapital.com that even eight years after his removal from office, he “would still make the same decision.” The role of government, says Moore, “is to secure those rights that [a Christian] God has given us.”

He says that while he supports religious diversity, the “source of our morality stems from our belief in a god, and a specific god.” However, in his Dec. 13, 2006, column for WorldNetDaily, Moore stated that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim, should be denied the right to hold office because “in the midst of a war with Islamic terrorists we should not place someone in a position of great power who shares their doctrine.”

Roy Moore says he is running for the presidency because “there’s a need for leadership in the country,” and neither President Obama nor the leaders of both parties in Congress are providing that leadership. “Petty politics,” he says, are taking precedence over the needs of the country. “We can’t get anything done,” he says, “because decisions are [made] not what’s good for the country but what is good for the party.”

Moore identifies a weak economy as “the foremost problem today.” The nation “is going the wrong way,” he says. He acknowledges that much of the problem came under the Bush–Cheney Administration, “but was increased by Obama.” Although the Republicans propose cutting critical social programs rather than raising the debt ceiling, every Congressional leader, Democrat and Republican, voted to increase the debt ceiling during the past decade, with the highest increases under Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan (189%), George H.W. Bush (55%), and George W. Bush (86%). In Bill Clinton’s two terms. The debt ceiling was increased only 37 percent; Barack Obama is asking for a 35 percent increase.

Moore, a “states’ rights” advocate, shares the views of most conservative candidates for the Presidency. Among those views are:

            ● the federal income tax should be abolished.

            ● Abortion, for any reason, should not have federal funds because not only does it “contradict the right to life contained in the organic law of our country,” it violates the 14th Amendment.

            ● People should “have the right to choose their own employment,” instead of having to join unions. Therefore, says Moore, all states should have “right-to-work” laws. If Moore’s vision is enacted, these laws would effectively cripple unions from representing the workers.

            ● Same sex marriage, says Moore, violates the will of God. In one case, while he served as chief justice, he argued that homosexual behavior is “a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.”

However, on a couple of issues, his views lean closer to those of liberals. He opposes the nation’s entry into war without Congressional authorization. Moore is a graduate of West Point, who became an MP company commander at the end of the Vietnam War, and then graduated from the University of Alabama law school. He opposes the U.S. intrusion into Libya on both military and legal grounds. “It’s very easy for a president to be sucked into global wars,” he says, “but it’s not our goal to go over there [Libya] and take out a leader just because we don’t like him.” Unlike many Republicans, he acknowledges that the Libyan attack, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq under the Bush–Cheney Administration, should have had Congressional approval under the War Powers Act of 1973.

Moore, who owns horses—he once spent a year as a cowboy in Australia working for a fundamentalist Christian—believes that the dwindling population of wild horses and burros in the Southwest, and all wild animals, should be protected. Both the Bush–Cheney and Obama administrations have failed to do so, often influenced by the cattle and meat industry.

Moore, near the bottom of the pack in the polls, probably won’t become the Republican nominee. But, unlike some conservative candidates, he doesn’t parade his religious beliefs to gain votes. He lives the life of his religious convictions, and isn’t afraid to make sure everyone knows what they are, especially when they provide the base for his political and judicial views.

 [Brasch is an award-winning social issues columnist. His current book is Before the First Snow, a look at the nation’s counterculture and social problems, as seen through the eyes of a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her story for more than three decades.]

 

 

 

Our Hope for Change is Still Not Fulfilled

 

By WALTER BRASCH

 

After significant compromise with the recalcitrant Republicans who want to continue to give the wealthy tax advantages while cutting significant social programs, President Obama has finally taken a stand on debt ceiling negotiations. However, in labor, wildlife management, and the environment he is still compromising rather than coming out forcefully for the principles he and the working class believes.

 The Republican presidential candidates have torn into the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a recent decision supporting organized labor. Mitt Romney claimed President Obama packed the NLRB with “union stooges.” Newt Gingrich wants Congress to remove all NLRB funds and President Obama to stop the NLRB actions. Tim Pawlenty called the decision “preposterous.” Michele Bachman not only said the NLRB is “way out of bounds,” but declared if she were president she would appoint “free-market conservatives who believe in job growth,” thus making the NLRB a political arm of her beliefs rather than the independent agency that was created to protect workers from management exploitation.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who isn’t a presidential candidate but is strongly anti-union, declared the decision “is nothing more than a political favor for the unions who are supporting President Obama’s re-election campaign.” Other Republican senators have claimed they will block the nomination of NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon to a permanent post.

 At issue is an NLRB decision that Boeing violated federal law by trying to stop a production line in its Seattle-area plant that manufactures the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and opening a new facility in South Carolina, an anti-union “right-to-work” state. The NLRB agreed with a complaint filed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) that Boeing’s decisions was retaliation for the actions of the Seattle workers. In both public and internal memos, Boeing stated it didn’t wish to deal with unionized workers in Seattle. The NLRB suit is currently in federal court.

 At a recent press conference, President Obama sidestepped support for both the NLRB and unions by claiming, “I don’t know all the facts,” and that he didn’t wish to interfere in the process. However, he did state that corporations “need to have the freedom to relocate . . . . and if they’re choosing to relocate here in the United States, that’s a good thing.”

 When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he promised to support the working class. If there was a picket line, or if the workers were being threatened, he promised to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and walk side by side with them.

 That has not happened. He never spoke out in defense of the workers in Seattle during their two year fight against Boeing, nor after they filed their complaint in April. Nor has the President given support to the millions of of citizens in several states where conservative governors and legislatures have launched campaigns to break unions, while giving special benefits to the business and executive classes.

 Giving Mr. Obama the widest possible excuse, perhaps the Secret Service declared it would be dangerous for a president to be in a crowd of protestors, no matter how peaceful it is.

 But, there is no excuse for President Obama’s weak record on environmental and wildlife protection, something he placed high on his list as a candidate, but failed to defend as president.

 Strong words as a candidate turned to “compromise” and then near-abandonment when confronted by extremists who refuse to read or understand any of thousands of studies about the effects of global warming.

 To please the oil lobby, the same one that dominated the previous administration, President Obama approved deep-water drilling – just weeks before the BP oil disaster in the Gulf coast. And then, months after the disaster approved continued deep water drilling.

 His wildlife management policies, while based on good intentions, are not something he has rolled upon his sleeves to fight for.

 Confronted by the cattle industry lobby, which believes 10,000 wild horses and burros are threats to the existence of more than 92 million cattle, President Obama has virtually abandoned protection of the few wild horses and burros left in the country.

 And now his Department of the Interior is about to allow Wyoming to begin the wanton killing of gray wolves, including pups in dens, outside of Yellowstone national park. 

The plan yields to extremists who see wolves as threats to cattle. But, numerous research studies show that wolves seldom attack cattle. And, when they do, the government pays the rancher, even if the steer is new born or headed to a slaughterhouse the next day. But the cattle industry is as dominant in American politics as is the NRA.

 And that leaves hunters. Wolves cull the weakest animals from the herd. And that’s the problem. There are only 5,000 wolves in the continental United States. But a few million hunters see the wolf as competitors for 20 million deer, 250,000 moose, or any animal that can be killed and then mounted as a trophy in someone’s den.

 Although the mean-spirited and uncompromising vindictiveness of the ultra-right has blocked much progress, it is the President’s own actions in labor, environment, and wildlife that have deteriorated into compromise and retreat. His inability to defend the principles he believes and campaigned for threatens any chance he will be remembered as a great president.

 

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated social issues journalist. His current book, Before the First Snow, looks at an energy company that lures citizen consent because of jobs in a depressed economy, but which may threaten health, safety, and environment.]

 

 

 

Blood on the Lens

 

                                  by WALTER BRASCH

 “If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.

But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.

“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”

“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”

“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”

“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”

“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”

“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”

“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”

“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”

“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”

“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”

“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”

“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”

“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”

“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”

“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.

“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”

“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”

“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”

“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”

 “Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”

“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”

“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”    

“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”

“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”

“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.

“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

 

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

 

 

 

Government May Be Violating Tobacco Companies' 1st Amendment Rights

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

 

A controversial Supreme Court decision less than two years ago could have the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the government's 46-year campaign against cigarettes.

In a 5–4 decision, largely along political lines, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (October 2009) that not only were parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain–Feingold Campaign Reform Act) unconstitutional, but that corporations and political action committees enjoyed the same First Amendment rights as private citizens.

The government's anti-smoking campaigns, most of them the result of a combination of executive department and Congressional action, essentially have three major parts: anti-tobacco advertising and public service messages, warning labels on cigarette packs, and the outright ban on several forms of tobacco company advertising.

 

Government Advertising

 

Because the First Amendment applies only to governmental intrusion upon free expression, when the government creates advertising (whether TV ads or pamphlets), there can be no significant First Amendment issues. There may be some recourse, however small, in suits against use of taxpayer funds for political purposes, similar to the government's role during the George W. Bush administration in forcing anti-abortion education upon women and health clinics.

 

 

Labels

 

The anti-smoking campaign had begun with the 1964 Surgeon General's report that there was a strong correlation between smoking, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.. The following year, Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act that required every cigarette pack to have a health warning: "Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health." The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969,  taking effect two years later, strengthened the wording on cigarette labels to: "Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health."

However, the labels had minimal effect on reducing smoking. In 1984, unwilling to face political consequences from an outright ban, such as it enacted against any form of marijuana, Congress passed the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act that required even stronger messages on each pack.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration, acting within authority of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010, ordered all cigarette manufacturers to include nine new designs on a rotating basis on all cigarette packs. The designs take up the top half, both front and back, of every pack. Several of the messages are medically-supported statements that tell users that cigarette smoking causes cancer. One of the graphics is a pair of cancerous lungs next to a pair of non-cancerous lungs. Another label shows a set of rotted teeth. Another shows smoke coming from a tracheotomy hole.

The FDA also requires that government-approved messages appear on one-fifth of every print ad.

Based upon interpretation of the Citizens United case, it would not be an unreasonable stretch to argue that the newly-required messages, with graphics and text, place an undue burden on a corporation's rights of free speech by restricting their own message to less than half. Another argument could be made that by forcing the tobacco companies to accept pre-determined text and graphics is de facto government intrusion upon the rights of free expression.

           

Tobacco Company Advertising

 

The largest concern for First Amendment consideration is in the area of the federal government imposing restrictions upon advertising and information messages.

In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission, citing the Fairness Doctrine, required radio and TV stations that aired paid ads from tobacco companies to run anti-smoking ads at no cost. Unwilling to give up five to ten minutes a day to unpaid advertising, the stations began "voluntarily" dropping cigarette advertising.

The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which had changed the text of warning labels, also banned cigarette advertising on radio and television. In a concession to the tobacco companies, Congress permitted the law to take effect on Jan. 2, the day after the televised football bowl games. The effect of the law was a loss to radio and television stations of about $200 million a year in cigarette advertising, and a significant increase in advertising in newspapers, magazines, and billboards—and not much reduction in smoking.

A 1991 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the cartoon character Joe Camel, advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes, was recognized by 3- to 6-year-olds almost as much as they recognized Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone. The AMA charged that R.J. Reynolds, manufacturers of Camel cigarettes, had targeted children; the company denied the charges, but eventually settled the lawsuit for $10 million, the funds to go to anti-smoking campaigns.

In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was the result of years of litigation and negotiation between the four largest tobacco companies, which controlled about 97 percent of all domestic sales, and 46 state attorneys general; four states had already settled. That agreement exempted the companies from class-action tort liability by citizens filing against the companies for health effects from smoking. The federal government also agreed to provide subsidies to tobacco farmers to cover losses based upon reduction of demand for their product. In exchange, the tobacco companies agree to provide $365.5 billion, with most of the funds going to the states for anti-smoking campaigns, and to allow FDA regulation. Among other provisions, the tobacco companies agreed to cut back advertising and sponsorship of activities, especially those that targeted youth. Because this was a civil case settlement, First Amendment concerns were rendered moot.

However, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010 is a government-imposed control that brings to question distinct First Amendment concerns. That Act bans tobacco companies from sponsoring all sports and cultural events, which could loosely be interpreted as a violation of the right of association, not specifically mentioned in wording in the First Amendment but extended by the Supreme Court decisions involving First Amendment guarantees. The Act further bans tobacco companies from displaying all tobacco-related images, including their logos, on any apparel, and also requires most advertising to be black lettering on a white background. Both actions are probable First Amendment violations.

A critical side issue melds labels with the media. It would be nearly impossible for any medium to show anyone with a cigarette pack, whether in news or entertainment, without also showing the government's message. Any attempt by the government to regulate what appears on screen or in print would violate the First Amendment.

Without the Citizens United decision, the government's rights to regulate corporate advertising would probably not have significant basis for challenge. With that decision, tobacco corporate entities suddenly have a case.

 

[This column is meant to be a general overview and not a definitive analysis or detailed case study of possible First Amendment violations of government-imposed sanctions against tobacco companies. Dr. Brasch, professor emeritus of mass communications and journalism, is a specialist in First Amendment and contemporary social justice issues. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

 

         

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