Tag Archives: Josh Eidelson

How Could Mere Toil Align Thy Choiring Strings? A Breviary of Worker Intimidation

20 Oct

In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of articles about employers coercing or intimidating workers to vote for their preferred candidates (usually Republican). This is not a new topic on this blog, but the brazenness of these efforts is beginning to get a fair amount of traction elsewhere (in part because of the election).

Anyway, here’s a quick roundup:

1.  Alec McGillis kicked off the most recent round of stories with this report in The New Republic on Murray Energy’s forcing its workers to support Romney. (Though I had already commented on this story back in August, McGillis has a lot of new details.)

2. Mike Elk then broke the story, in In These Times, of the Koch brothers trying to get their workers to vote for the right candidate. (In case you missed Gordon Lafer’s followup on the hypocrisy of the Kochs, check this out.)

3. Mike then followed up—again, in In These Times—his piece with a report on Romney’s own role in encouraging this kind of behavior.

4. George Zornick contributed to the Nation some additional reporting on Herman Cain’s role in all this. (The Nation also ran an additional piece summarizing some of these stories.)

Then there was a bunch of thoughtful analyses of what all of this means…

5. In Salon, Josh Eidelson placed it in some historical context (with some quotes from me).

6. In The New Republic, McGillis speculated that it reveals how vulnerable employers now feel.

7. At Gawker, the inimitable Mobuto Seko Seko—no, not that one—did what only he can do, which includes, in what may be a first, citing a Crooked Timber post at Gawker (the one I wrote with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch last summer.)

8. And last weekend, Chris Hayes had a lengthy roundtable on the issue (though I think most of the panelists, especially Josh Barro, got the free speech implications of the issue almost completely backward.)

But if you really want to understand what this all means, and why it happens, you should buy my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Part II—”Fear, American Style”—explains not only how it is that a liberal democracy can tolerate all this employer intimidation and coercion, but why and how it actually encourages, even requires, it. You also get to see one my favorite lines from Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge” —”How could mere toil align thy choiring strings?”—put in the service of political analysis: to suggest how central work and the workplace are to the organization, coordination, and execution of political repression in America.

Update (11 pm)

For some idiotic reason, I forgot this excellent piece from Mark Ames on the same topic. I can’t think of anyone in the media who has devoted as much attention to this issue, throughout the years, both as a reporter and as an analyst. Mark was also one of the very few, from the very beginning, to take notice of my work on this issue, and he’s continually made sure to keep it right there in the spotlight.

Update (11:05 pm)

Steven Sherman, a FB friend, reminds me of this piece in Business Week, just one of several, on David Siegel’s instructions to his employees.

Update (11:07 pm)

Bill Moyers is on it!

Who’s the Greater Threat to Freedom? Chicago or Chick-fil-A?

3 Aug

Whatever you think of Chicago’s and Boston’s attempts to prevent Chick-fil-A from setting up shop in those cities because of its president’s anti-gay views—there’s been a great discussion about this issue among progressive, led by Glenn Greenwald, who’s got the better of the argument, it seems to me—one thing is clear.

No matter how much of a threat to Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s freedom of speech Chicago and Boston’s actions pose—and for the record, I don’t think it’s much (there’s little evidence to suggest Cathy’s fortunes would be so altered by these two individual actions as to compel him to change his positions; that’s not to say, however, that these actions don’t set bad precedents, which is why they must be opposed)—it’s miniscule in comparison to Chick-fil-A’s infringements upon the freedoms of its employees.

As Josh Eidelson makes clear in this must-read from Salon:

It’s now common knowledge that Chick-fil-A wears its brand of Christian conservatism on its sleeve. In a 2007 article, Forbes’ Emily Schmall described how that ethos infused the company’s employment policies. It meant extensive vetting of franchise operators, including interviewing their children and asking about their involvement in “community, civic, social, church and/or professional organizations.”  “If a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business,” Chick-fil-A founder and chairman S. Truett Cathy told Schmall.

But operators weren’t the only ones being judged on their private lives: Schmall wrote that Cathy “says he would probably fire an employee or terminate an operator who ‘has been sinful or done something harmful to their family members.’”

In 2002, Houston restaurant manager Aziz Latif allegedly was fired the day after he declined to take part in a prayer to Jesus during a training program. He sued Chick-fil-A for discrimination and reached a settlement whose terms have not been made public. Last year, Aziz’s attorney, Ajay Choudhary, told The Collegian that his client had been fired “for not conforming.” “Prayer,” he added, “should be, if anything, a private purpose, not a corporate purpose.” (Choudhary did not respond to a request for comment.)

Praying to Jesus isn’t the only activity Chick-fil-A employees claim has been illegally imposed on them. Brenda Honeycutt, who was hired by a Georgia Chick-fil-A in 1991 and promoted to general manager in 1997, charges that last year her franchise owner/operator began excluding her from management meetings and then fired her so that she would be home with her kids. In May, Honeycutt filed a Civil Rights Act lawsuit against the owner/operator and Chick-fil-A, Inc. The suit alleges that the owner told Honeycutt and three other witnesses “that he terminated the Plaintiff so she could be a stay at home mother.” In the period prior to firing her, it states that he “routinely made comments” to her “suggesting that as a mother she should stay home with her children.” It says she was replaced by a man.

In California, workers charge they were retaliated against for exposing abuse. In a pair of lawsuits, six current and former workers allege a multi-year pattern of sexual harassment by their supervisor. Their attorney, Fernando Tafoya, told Salon that the supervisor has been “using his authority as a manager to abuse the women in the workplace,” including “forcibly kiss[ing] the women, the manager putting his hands down the bra of some women as they’re getting ice from the ice machine, grabbing their genitalia, slapping them on the ass, constantly rubbing up against them when he passes by them.”

“I want this to come to an end,” one of the women, Norma Duarte, told a San Diego CBS station, “and I don’t want him continuing to harass other women in the future like myself.”

Tafoya said that when workers brought complaints to the franchise owner, she “basically just ratified the conduct,” telling them the supervisor “was just playing around, or not taking it seriously.” Tafoya also said that appeals to Chick-fil-A’s corporate office “basically fell on deaf ears.” Now that the lawsuits have been filed, Tafoya said that the national company, through its attorneys, has claimed “that the women are lying, and they’re in a conspiracy to gain money from the employer.” The women range in age from 18 to 40; some speak English, some Spanish.

According to Tafoya, the supervisor called immigration authorities and tried to have two of the six workers deported in retaliation for speaking up: “These are women who have worked loyally for Chick-fil-A, for some [up] to six years, and it wasn’t until they complained about the sexual harassment that suddenly there was an immigration issue.”

Tafoya said he was “shocked” that, when employees raised the issue internally, “the initial response of the corporation wasn’t to order their local franchise to resolve this problem immediately.” In contrast, he said, “The Chick-fil-A national headquarters keep a very strong arm in terms of making sure that Chick-fil-A operates in a certain manner and is putting out a certain message.” The case is currently in discovery, which Tafoya said will determine whether the national corporation becomes a named defendant.

Let me be clear: I very much agree with Greenwald and other liberals that governments cannot punish corporations because of the views of their CEOs. That seems obvious and straightforward.

But let’s be equally clear about two other things:

First, while many of us on the left were made quickly aware of Boston’s and Chicago’s actions against Chick-fil-A and spoke out against them, how many of us had ever heard of these actions against Chick-fil-A’s employees and said anything about them? That’s not an accusation: I myself had never heard of them, and I try to keep up with these things. It’s just a commentary on the state of our discourse where government infringements upon our rights rightfully get attention while the private sector’s don’t.  Once upon a time, that wasn’t the case on the left.

Second, while we are right to protest Boston’s and Chicago’s actions, we need to be mindful of the power differentials. People with lots of money and power can withstand infringements upon their livelihoods; people with not so much money or power can’t. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest Boston or Chicago (and the precedents those actions might set). But it does mean that we need to restore some sense of sociological realism to our analysis of rights and power.

If we think that a wealthy CEO’s freedom of speech can be restricted by putting constraints upon his livelihood—and that, we should remember, is what Chicago and Boston were threatening to do (as opposed to more traditional modes of censorship)—how much more so is that the case when the victim in question is a low-wage employee?

The fact that the offender in the one case is the city of Chicago while in the other it’s a corporation is neither here nor there. As libertarians never stop reminding us, employees who don’t like their employers can take their labor elsewhere.  Well, so can Chick-fil-A.

Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Endless Arguments about It on the Internet

4 Jul

The Crooked Timber post on libertarianism and freedom that Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I wrote has been heating up the interwebs. So much so that the three of us have now been dubbed “BRG.”  We’ll be responding in due time, but for now here’s a roundup of all the links.

Tyler Cowen: “I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?…If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.” [As one wag on Twitter said in response: "I tend to be more sympathetic to libertarians than @coreyrobin, but it's like Tyler Cowen is *trying* to prove his thesis."

Alex Tabarrok: "Workers have more rights than employers since workers are not subject to anti-discrimination law; that is, employers are prohibited from discriminating against African American workers but workers are not prohibited from discriminating against African American employers." [In 2007, 7.1 percent of all non-farm businesses were owned by African Americans. They hired 921,032 workers, constituting 0.8% of all paid employment in the US. Admittedly, I'm not an economist, but something tells me that the real force protecting whites from having to work for blacks is not the absence of anti-discrimination laws compelling them to do so but the fact that black people, on the whole, don't have enough money to hire white people.]

Arnold King: “Just be careful about assuming that there must be a perfect option. For example, if the exit option is imperfect, that does not mean that the voice option works perfectly. My own view is that neither option is perfect.” [Our own view is that neither option is perfect either. We aren't saying exit isn't a potential antidote against workplace tyranny, just that it isn't sufficient.]

John Holbo: Excellent restatement and elaboration of our thesis via a nimble use of Hayek: “Freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom….So how do you maximize freedom? Here rubber meets road. You don’t maximize it by ensuring property and contract rights the way Hayek and other libertarians want. As BRG say, this will sometimes result in less freedom, overall, than you might otherwise attain, due to the fact that ensuring these rights is consistent with the emergence of highly coercive, freedom-destroying private regimes of power.Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom….What they can’t say is that contract rights guarantee freedom, much less that guaranteeing contract rights maximizes freedom.”

Adam Ozimek: “I think a major point of this entire debate is that liberals wish libertarians to admit that overall freedom can be increased by restricting some freedoms. I don’t have any problem admitting this is possible, but I also don’t think it matters much in the real world.”

Jessica Flanigan: “BRG propose law, regulation, and economic democracy. They call it more voice. I call it more bosses. I see that BRG have a different conception of rights and freedom. What I still don’t see is why workplace democracy and regulation would be liberating on any conception of freedom. Why are these self-proclaimed liberals are so hostile to the UBI?…How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that what workers really need is less choice?” [Again, we're not hostile to the UBI; we just don't think it does all the work that the Bleeding Hearts think it does. We also don't think they've fully faced up to the taxation and redistribution issues it raises.]

Matt Yglesias: “My standard approach to this is that in almost all political contexts, including this one, both the concept of freedom and the concept of property rights are red herrings.”

And while this article by Josh Eidelson on Facebook firings is not a response to our piece, it’s certainly worth mentioning in this context.

So that’s it, for now.

Obama Awards Billions in Government Contracts to Labor Law Violators

25 Apr

Josh Eidelson, one of the best up and coming labor reporters around, writes at Salon:

A 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the federal government had awarded over $6 billion in contracts in fiscal 2009 to contractors that had been cited for violating federal labor laws, from wage and hour rules to organizing rights. Earlier in 2010, the New York Times reported that the White House was planning to implement a “high road” contracting policy that would direct more government contracts to companies with better labor and environmental records. But by 2011, Obama OMB nominee Heather Higginbottom told senators in a confirmation hearing that there were no such plans afoot.

Imagine the outcry if the government was giving big contracts to companies that violated anti-terrorism laws.

Read more here.

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