Labor Day Baby


In November I will have worked in the labor movement for 25 years, a silver moment for me. From editing the AFL-CIO News, assistant to the legendary Director of Information Rex Hardesty, to producing campaign material for leading labor PR agencies, and now helping to shape message and content for all media at one of America’s great unions, AFSCME, it’s been a great ride.

10476399_10152456896406136_8243057409235245219_nI’m a Labor Day baby, born the first of September – and this year that is indeed the holiday. Labor Day has always meant more than end of summer and back to school. It’s a time to honor workers, certainly, on a holiday conceived by unions. And it’s also time to get to work. And to think about how there ought to be more reward for the work we do, and more work, period. And about those culpable politicians we need to get rid of.

Yes, Election Day is just around the corner. What I like most about working for unions is that labor has the means – millions of members and effective political alliances – and the will to fight for economic justice, and that is the fight of our lives, in my view. It’s a fight because the enemies of economic justice, the wealthiest individuals and corporations, have unlimited resources and no compunction about wielding their wealth as a bludgeon. In their warped world, the strong survive and the weak are kicked to the curb.

The opponents of economic justice, led by billionaires Charles and David Koch, are devious and pushy, as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich illustrates in another of a series of important lectures on the economy. As Reich says, we have to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Kochs and demand a level playing field, economic justice for the other 99 percent:

Economic justice to me is captured in the spirit of Norma Rae, the iconic underprivileged, single-mother textile worker who rises above her station by demanding her rights at the mill. The scene with Norma Rae, played by Sally Field in an Oscar-winning performance, jumping on the table and holding up her handmade UNION sign as the bosses rush in to haul her away, gets me every time. You go, girl!

This Labor Day, I am reminded of a call I got back in 1992 from a Hollywood “producer,” a guy looking for an idea he could pitch. He called the editor of the AFL-CIO News to ask who in the labor movement might be the next Norma Rae. Where is that great story in modern-day America?

I’m not sure who the hero is, I said, but the great story in modern-day America is how all the good jobs are leaving America, shipped to other countries by greedy multinational corporations. And how politicians are in league with these corporations, passing so-called “free trade” deals that are making the situation worse.

I could almost feel the stifling of a yawn on the other end of the line. “I know it’s not sexy,” I said, “but it’s the big labor story in America today.” We had just been through a strenuous fight over NAFTA, and President Clinton had shoved it down our throats, twisting enough arms to overcome Democratic opposition. We were already hemorrhaging jobs. Parts of towns were being boarded up. People were suffering. Everyone was affected.

Of course, no one rose from the ruins of a shuttered manufacturing plant to demand change, to defend her job or call for the right to bargain. That’s true even today, and it’s gotten worse. Now corporations that can’t outsource jobs are moving their headquarters to other countries to avoid paying taxes – Burger King is running to Canada to be a tax dodger.

It is hard to find a modern-day hero in this milieu. Sure, there are great stories out there in the organizing trenches, workers standing up for their rights against vicious management tactics, but the wins are getting harder to come by, particularly in the private sector. The laws, and the lack of enforcement, allow employers to stifle organizing drives, retaliating against organizers and intimidating workers. If you don’t like it, well, your job could be performed in Juarez or Kuala Lumpur.

So, instead of labor heroes the movie mavens give us corporate anti-heroes, people like Gordon Gecko, who proclaimed, “Greed is good” in “Wall Street.” In the Hollywood movie today, the Great Gatsby is in and Tom Joad is out. It’s a sad commentary on Hollywood, but it’s all about making money, and labor just isn’t selling in the mass market nowadays.

We can appreciate Norma Rae for what she says and what she stands for, but no sense looking for the sequel. Better to find the spirit of these times in the stories, the poetry, the songs of our generations, not necessarily in film. The storytellers become the heroes, and I like that just fine. Listen to this modern-day poet conjure up the spirit of America, suffering in Youngstown:

That’s bleak, like many of the songs on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a Bruce Springsteen masterpiece that elegantly tells the stories of struggle and hope in search of the American Dream. That dream is getting harder to find, but unions still provide a concrete path to success, despite the roadblocks being set up by the corporate class and their political lackeys.

For this Labor Day, let’s turn to a voice of hope and vitality – what happens in our cities when people come together and demand what’s right, confronting the rich and their political agents. That’s the power of unionism, and few tell it with such vibrancy as Tom Morello of the Nightwatchmen, formerly with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Wherever you are this Labor Day, make it a “Union Town.” Fight for what’s right:

Justice at Smithfield

When 5,000 slaughterhouse workers in Tar Heel, North Carolina, finally won the right to bargain over their wages and working conditions with Smithfield Foods, in December 2008, it was hailed as a great victory for the labor movement, which had stumbled and withered as the 20th century faded into history. It was indeed an important moment in the struggle for respect on the job, and it also illuminated the challenges workers still face to get justice at work. The 15-year organizing campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers showed how impotent U.S. labor laws are in reining in anti-union employers and their union-busting consultants, who would not be satisfied at Smithfield until a final sham assault on the union using federal racketeering laws did them in.

Book coverIt’s quite a story, told in great detail in Lynn Waltz’s new book, Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse. Waltz, a former reporter at one of my old newspapers, The Virginian-Pilot, now teaching journalism at Hampton University, digs deep for the personal as well as the legal and political in flavoring her story. The result of her many interviews is a portrait of real people struggling not only to survive harsh economic conditions, but also a dangerous and hostile work environment. It features many of the heroes who led the fight, including veteran organizer Gene Bruskin, mastermind of the strategic campaign that eventually brought Smithfield to the table.

In her reporting, Waltz focused originally on Sherri Buffkin, a fast-rising “company woman” whose supervisory role included firing union supporters on trumped-up charges during the course of two union votes (1994 and 1998). All the while, she endured sexual harassment from the plant manager and eventually was fired herself on trumped-up charges. Buffkin was not a union supporter but she cooperated with National Labor Relations Board attorneys investigating the union’s charges of unfair labor practices, enduring a vicious assault on her character by Smithfield attorneys and neighborhood gossips.

Buffkin’s testimony was largely responsible for the decision by the NLRB judge that Smithfield was in “egregious and pervasive” violation of labor law, throwing out the two previous elections and ordering a new one, requiring that fired workers be rehired with back pay, and other penalties. The ruling, in December 2000, was quickly appealed by Smithfield, and other legal action followed, including a sexual harassment complaint by Buffkin that the company eventually settled out of court. Four years later, in December 2004, the NLRB upheld the ruling against Smithfield, which immediately appealed to a federal court. The legal battle continued to slowly crawl through the system over many years, frustrating Smithfield workers who came and went.

The transient nature of the workforce is a major part of the story, with plant supervisors purposefully fanning racial tensions between blacks, originally the majority of the workers, and Latinos, who eventually became the majority before Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, apparently coordinated with the company, led to deportations and community turmoil. Waltz keeps a sense of these communities running throughout the story, from the daily interactions of workers in the plant to the mass civil rights and worker rights rallies that underpinned labor’s eventual success.

gene bruskin justice

Gene Bruskin, the veteran labor organizer who directed the successful strategic campaign for the Food and Commercial Workers, displays a T-shirt with the campaign logo. (Photo by Lynn Waltz)

Mobilizing community and political support for the cause of the workers fell on Bruskin, then secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Food and Allied Services Trade Department (FAST), who was loaned out to the UFCW to organize a comprehensive strategic campaign focusing on corporate misbehavior. The civil rights and religious communities rallied to call public attention to injustices at the plant, assisted by the national Jobs with Justice community activist network. The protesters also called out Smithfield customer Harris Teeter groceries and celebrity cook-promoter Paula Deen, embarrassing them with public displays while putting increased pressure on Smithfield.

The primary issue in the campaign – the abuse of workers in a hostile and dangerous workplace – inevitably became the clincher in the suit Smithfield filed against the union under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law designed to fight organized crime. Trying to prove the union maliciously sought to harm its business, Smithfield eventually realized it faced a long trial with lots of damning evidence about the way it treated its workers, as exposed in the NLRB hearings. The truth of the union’s claims during the campaign was its best defense.


Workers took their message to a Smithfield Foods shareholders meeting August 2007 in Williamsburg, Virginia, increasing pressure on the company to allow a fair election. (Photo by Sangjib Min/Daily Press, via AP/New York Times)

Also in play was a new political reality. The RICO trial was set to get underway just a week ahead of the presidential election, with favorite Barack Obama already pointing to the Smithfield case as reason why Congress should pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unionization if a majority of workers signed cards asking for representation. As Bruskin is quoted in the book, “The handwriting was on the wall. Looking at a Democratic Congress and president viewing Smithfield as the paradigm of abuse was bad business.”

Unfortunately, the settlement of the RICO suit also included an order by the judge that neither Smithfield nor the UFCW defame the other, which meant that neither party would comment for Hog Wild, posing a reportorial challenge to Waltz. She succeeded with dogged reporting, gathering all the relevant NLRB records and key witness interviews, including the recollections of Bruskin, now retired but eager to talk about a significant victory for labor in the 21st century, young as it is.

“The story needs to be told,” Bruskin says in the book’s epilogue. “I feel like it’s important for people to know. When we have a victory, we need to talk about it, study it, and it needs to be part of us moving forward.” While Hog Wild serves as a primer on how the underdog can win against the big dog by bringing the whole community into the fight, it also exposes the ineffectiveness of current labor laws, which are little more than license for employers to bust unions. Maybe we need to bring the whole community into the labor law fight, dramatizing what workers are up against in the current system.

In reading Lynn Waltz’s book, I was reminded of a long-ago call I got from a Hollywood “producer” looking for the next “Norma Rae.” The story of the Smithfield workers, as told by Waltz, has many of those dramatic elements, and maybe it will find its way to the big screen someday. It already has inspired a dramatic documentary film, released last year, that captures the spirit of the Smithfield workers and their campaign. Union Time, directed by University of North Carolina-Greenville professor Matthew Barr for the Unheard Voices Project, is narrated by actor-activist Danny Glover. As you can see in this trailer, the voices of Smithfield workers come through loud and clear:




A Time of Renewal

About this time every year, when spring sparks life all around, humankind gets busy as well. We are found celebrating, remembering, crusading – and taking it to the streets, as was the case Saturday, April 29, in Washington, DC. The People’s Climate March brought 200,000 activists to swelter in global warming-style heat in the swamp, where they called out the deniers and demanded action. The march originated in New York City in 2014, but carried a particular urgency this year.


With the temperature at a record 91 degrees, 200,000 people marched in Washington on April 29. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Just last week we celebrated Earth Day, first observed in 1970, and thousands more filled the streets across the nation to “March for Science,” and specifically the science that helps us protect the planet that sustains us. Friday, April 28, was Arbor Day, celebrating trees, and these living reminders of our bond to the Earth. Through photosynthesis, the trees yield oxygen for us and absorb the carbon dioxide that otherwise would degrade our atmosphere, and threaten life.

We live in a Green House, and our life depends on it. We are reminded of its splendor each year at this time. The air is moist with the stuff of life. We breathe deep and find renewal in the rebirth of the Earth. We try to reach beyond the bonds that hold us to this fragile planet, as the Christians do with Easter, as the Jews do with Passover, as Muslim sufi mystics and early pagans did with rebirths like Ishtar, or the Egyptian Horas. The spring equinox has always been a time of spiritual, as well as physical, renewal.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the last Saturday in April is designated “World Tai Chi and Qigong Day,” also celebrated as “World Healing Day,” when people all over the world spend an hour or two in group energy transference, through Taoist meditation, internal martial arts, and therapeutic breathing exercises. There are natural hazards this time of year with these outdoor exercises, as deep breathing may be interrupted by an assault of pollen and a sneezing attack. But being mindful brings qi energy to absorb the pollen and restore inner balance.

Ah, spring. It is a season that inspired the now ritual “Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” the fourth Thursday of April, April 27 this year. The Ms Foundation for Women concocted the event – originally just for daughters – to empower girls to excel in their eventual workplaces. The first celebration was in 1993, and I remember how some feared that the labor movement’s embrace of the event would overshadow a seminal marker in labor’s history, Workers Memorial Day.


The AFL-CIO designated April 28 as Workers Memorial Day in 1972, when unions also were successfully pushing Congress and the Nixon Administration to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each year since, the federation has demonstrated the need for new standards to protect workers on the job, even as each year the business lobby successfully fended off new standards and regulations to protect workers’ safety and health.

In the early 1990s, with support from Robert Reich and the Clinton Labor Department, we were close to gaining new standards for ergonomic safety – providing medical relief and workplace redesign to prevent injuries from repetitive motion – chronic problems for some factory workers, cashiers, office staff and others. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome, a crippling condition caused by repetitive motion on keyboards. During the Bush administration, the business lobby blew away the ergonomics standard, and it is even more empowered under Trump.

Nothing matters to our government today more than the bottom line of corporations and rich investors – and particularly those connected to Trump Inc. That’s why the most important celebration, remembrance and crusade of this time of man – May Day – is so important this year. It is the historic symbol of resistance to corporate greed and economic injustice.

May Day, May 1, has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, commemorating protestors killed at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1886, as they demonstrated for the eight-hour day. It was the beginning of a revolution in attitudes, legal precedent and government policies about how workers are treated vis-à-vis business organizations, and it sparked a wave of worker self-organization in the United States and around the world.

Now, with the resurgence of the corporate code of greed, we need this revolution more than ever. But our time of greatest need corresponds with the greatest decline in labor numbers and influence. There is a strong correlation between the two trends, and you can see how it has been manipulated through corporate campaigns that created right-wing think tanks (from Heritage to Cato), the so-called National Right to Work Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Commission and Astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Billions of dollars in corporate campaigns by the Koch brothers and others, empowered by the nefarious Citizens United ruling, have overwhelmed us with images and noise – and the greatest distraction of all, a hotel and casino magnate running the show, shaking us down. We face an enormous challenge to restore and renew our democracy against this corporate onslaught, but we can draw on the courage and convictions of those women and men who stood up and fought for the rights and protections we have today, and dare not give up.

So, let’s take heart in the people in the streets this year – from the Million Women to the People’s Climate marches. It’s spring, when a free people’s fancy turns to rising again. Happy May Day!


Relax and Breathe: The Taoist Way

It was about 35 years ago when I first consulted the Oracle from the Chinese classic I Ching, tossing coins to construct a hexagram that would offer a vision of my future. Que sera sera. What shall I be? I was casting about for the next move in my journalism career, looking for an opportunity, even a living wage. I was advised that I should wait. Good things would come.

I wasn’t asking the right questions, obviously, from the Taoist perspective. It was a beggar’s approach to a sacred text of Taoism. A “living wage,” or even fame and fortune, has nothing to do with the Way forward. I was not deserving of an honest answer, not a true believer. Still, there is almost always no harm in waiting, and I believed.

Patience as a remedy runs through the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, and it doesn’t matter if your circumstances are a step removed from the ancient remedy. Yes, it is easy to rush in, but it is almost always better to consider carefully the move you will make. Wait.

By most accounts, Bruce Frantzis rushed in. He is a Taoist priest, martial artist and teacher of the ancient Chinese arts of Chi Gung, energy work, and its ancillary martial applications of Tai Chi and Ba Gua. Rebelling against the Greek Orthodoxy of his religious upbringing in New York, Frantzis turned to martial arts, eventually at age 18 traveling to Japan to immerse himself in Zen and martial arts forms.

Inevitably, Frantzis learned the Way of waiting, moving to Taiwan, then to China for 11 years during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s purge of foreign influences, and to India for studies in meditation and yoga. This led him to legendary Taoist priest Liu Hung Chieh, who adopted him and extended his lineage to Frantzis, a foreigner. He became a celebrated master of Taoist meditation and healing through energy work.

Recently, in a suburban Washington D.C. conference center, Frantzis brought his seven-movement Chi Gung form called Dragon and Tiger to a group of about 170 students, me included. These exercises use breathing techniques to stimulate energy channels in the body, channel good energy through the major organs and dissolve bad energy. Five of the movements are condensed here:

Frantzis is a master teacher who recalls bitterly how Mao Tze Tung’s minions tortured people and discouraged martial arts, or any non-Party ideals, during the Cultural Revolution. He was required to heal the sick monsters of this political purge. Frantzis reveres the culture and history that begets the Chi Gung arts, but he is appalled by the political system that threatens people who practice.

Frantzis’s two-day Dragon and Tiger training was preceded by three hours of “Taoist Longevity Breathing,” which involves “breathing with your entire body” and from particular body parts. I am still trying to “breathe from my kidneys,” something I cannot feel but must visualize. I have a lot to learn. Fortunately, Frantzis has written nine books and is available for training sessions all over the world – although I am holding out for the lessons in his home base of Hawaii.

My quest is to understand, and realize, internal strength through energy work, particularly Tai Chi, a martial art that is also a healthful exercise and, essentially, moving meditation, my daily Taoist connection to the Earth and cosmic energy, performed outdoors when I can.

A few years ago, I explored the phenomenon of internal power with Sifu Mark Rasmus, an Australian martial artist now based in Thailand. His workshops focused on the “science of elastic force,” a unique Western-style look at the physiological and psychological power that derive from Tai Chi.

While the lessons of Mark Rasmus were hands on, with pressure, Bruce Frantzis asked you to feel, with only a little pressure, taps along the energy channels. With Dragon and Tiger Chi Gung, available through Frantzis’s Energy Arts associates, and they offer courses around the world, you learn to channel energy through your body, building inner strength.

As Frantzis explains it, all the paths to the Tao involve Chi Gung, energy work that touches and fortifies the inner body, from organs to blood circulation. You get in touch with your body, dissolve energy barriers and channel the energy of the universe. Yes, they connect.

There is obviously more here to explore. So much to learn, and feel.




Kentucky Blues

During a break in Kentucky’s dismantling of Alabama on the hardwood Saturday, announcer Kara Lawson noted that the movie “Selma” was playing in theaters around Tuscaloosa, as it was in theaters across the country. “We can’t forget the image of Governor George Wallace at the Alabama campus, standing in the school doorway, denying entrance to African American students,” she said, invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King on the weekend of his holiday.


The colorful Alabama contingent: At least it wasn’t white sheets.

No, we can’t. Thank you Kara for bringing a little reality to this college game, my favorite game, on this important holiday weekend. There is an important back story about these young men, these students and dreamers who play this game at such extraordinary levels. In this game, as in many other college games across the country, they are almost all African Americans, and they are living the Martin Luther King dream as fully as anyone who strives to achieve in our society.

Kentucky has nine McDonald’s High School All-Americans, half just out of high school, almost all on the threshold of becoming millionaires. I hedge that bet, since I don’t know who among them will not make millions playing basketball, here or abroad. The record suggests that none will fail.

Basketball truly is an international game nowadays, and many of the most talented, skilled white players come from Europe. But in the college game, African Americans still dominate. The fact that they are the heart and soul of Kentucky, the winningest team in college basketball history, and perhaps fielding the greatest team ever with this 2014-15 group, is a testament to how far we have come in the past 40 years.

As a native Kentuckian, I am keenly aware of the ugly legacy of racism that accompanies the fabulous basketball tradition of my home state, and particularly its university. Adolph Rupp was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, but the evidence suggests that he did not seriously recruit the great black players – some of whom were Kentucky schoolboys. Was he a racist? Well, he was not doing the right thing.

I remember, as a high school senior working the sports slot at my hometown newspaper, the Henderson Gleaner, in March 1966, listening (only radio back then) in disbelief as Kentucky fell to Texas Western for the NCAA title. It was insane, Pat Riley and Louie Dampier and Larry Conley and that whole cast of brilliant Rupp’s Runts, losing to a bunch of unknown black players from a minor school in Texas.

Rupp had made half-hearted overtures to Clem Haskins (1963), Wes Unseld (1964), Michael Redd (1963) and Butch Beard (1965), all great Kentucky high school players who happened to be black. Now, in 1967, the year after being dispatched by an all-black starting five in Texas Western, Rupp had a chance to make amends, and to face reality.

Instead, in a year in which Kentucky schoolboys included 7-foot center Jim McDaniels and fellow African-American hotshots Jim Rose, Clarence Glover and Jerome Perry, Rupp whiffed. All those players ended up at Western Kentucky University, which beat Kentucky, 107-83, in the 1971 NCAA regional finals and finished third overall in the tournament that year.

Rupp retired in 1972 and Kentucky basketball hasn’t been the same since, except for the winning. Joe B Hall recruited two great black players from Lexington, Jack Givens and James Lee, in 1974, and the two led the Wildcats to the NCAA championship in 1978.

Kentucky has won eight NCAA championships, second only UCLA’s 11, the remarkable record of the Wizard of Westwood, Coach John Wooden, another Hoosier refugee. This year Kentucky could have No. 9 in its sights.

If you haven’t already bet on Kentucky to win it all, sorry, it’s too late. The Wildcats are the prohibitive favorites. They feature two teams, actually, each of which could play in the NBA, and will play in the NBA. Six of these players came back from last year’s national championship game, rather than going on to play in the NBA, including the twin guards, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, at 6-6 bigger than a lot of front-court players they’re playing.


The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, tower over opposing guards.

Willie Cauley-Stein is a 7-foot defensive demon who is an NBA lottery pick even without a legitimate offensive game. Karl Anthony Towns is a skilled 6-11 freshman center who may be the second player picked in the NBA draft this year. Trey Lyles, the smooth 6-10 freshman from Indianapolis, completes the first team, the White platoon. They are imposing, to say the least, from 6-6 to 7-foot.

And there is a second platoon, the Blue team, that features 5-11 sparkplug Tyler Ulis and 6-6 shooting phenom Devin Booker, who leads the team in scoring. Dakari Johnson is a 7-footer with muscle who pounds the ball inside. And 6-10 Marcus Lee is a shot-blocking machine. Kentucky’s most athletic player, Alex Poythress, suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the campaign, but that has made room for Kentucky’s high school Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins, now a sophomore.

This is a bunch of individual high achievers, playing like one smooth machine, in large measure thanks to Coach John Calipari, the maestro of the “one-and-done.” Yes, they’re all African Americans, and they’re the best of the best. And they’ve all come together to sacrifice for a common goal, to win a championship, playing together as a team. I don’t see the Wildcats losing a game this season, and I have decidedly mixed emotions about that.

In another of my graduating years, 1976 at Indiana University, one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time finished undefeated, 32-0. The previous year, the Hoosiers had only lost one game – to Kentucky in the NCAA regional finals. That was a team – with Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and John Laskowski – that played together flawlessly. No team has gone undefeated since.

I believe they’ve met their match with this Kentucky team. Just look at the stats. The Wildcats are choking other teams, setting defensive records, leading the nation in multiple categories. Even the two overtime victories during the SEC season show their resilience more than vulnerability.

I believe Dr. King would be proud of this advancement too, that Kentucky may be a little more color blind today because of the preeminence of African-American heroes. Whether it’s sports or cinema or business or politics, black leaders are assuming their roles in our society, and that is good for everyone.

Take Kara Lawson, for example, our sports narrator during the Kentucky-Alabama game. Kara is an African American woman who rose to stardom playing basketball in my neighborhood, at West Springfield High School in Fairfax, Va., while I was coaching my daughters in a neighborhood league. She went on to star at the University of Tennessee for the great coach, Pat Summitt, and on to a WNBA championship and an Olympic gold medal.

She may be the best basketball commentator on television today, able to reflect on the messages of our times as well as the plays of the game. But her most important role may be leading my Washington Mystics back to the WNBA playoffs this season. I’m counting on her.

The Koch Machine

We’re about to learn a lot more about the Koch (pronounced “Coke”) brothers, despite their best efforts to hide behind the myriad front organizations they use to funnel cash to politicians who’ll do their bidding. “Citizen Koch,” a documentary about their power play in Wisconsin to eliminate bargaining rights of public employees and undermine labor protections generally, begins a limited run in theaters next month after being pushed off the PBS calendar by the Koch brothers, among the biggest contributors to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Another movie, Robert Greenwald’s 2013 “Koch Brothers Exposed,” has been updated with a 2014 edition to show how the industrialists have been further empowered by Supreme Court rulings allowing corporations and individuals to spend unlimited sums in election campaigns. The Kochs have attacked Greenwald’s film relentlessly, right up to the preview this week by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill. You can view it here.

Greenwald reveals how the family’s $100 billion fortune has been amassed through oil and gas pipelines – beginning with father Fred’s business laying pipelines for Josef Stalin in the 1930s – and investments in industries like paper and plastics. Koch Industries is one of the nation’s top 15 polluters, accounting for more than 300 oil spills. It was found guilty by a federal jury of stealing oil from Native American lands. The company has paid more than $100 million in fines.

After spending $122 million trying to defeat President Obama and other Democrats in 2012, the billionaire oilmen are reportedly spending $125 million during this off-year election, flooding different regions with market-tested ads, trying to lay the ground for more gridlock and their own guy in 2016. The unrestrained power of “Citizen Koch” is scary, frankly. If the Kochs go unchecked we are facing the threat of corporate oligarchy. It may already exist in practice.


That’s why I’m watching both these Koch films (Citizen Koch plays downtown D.C. on June 20) and passing along as much information about them as I can. Here‘s the nationwide schedule for the Citizen Koch showing. Check out the links in this blog, and tell me what you know. Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times recently penned a revealing portrait of the Kochs’ political odyssey over the past few decades. Back in 1980, when David Koch was running for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, which favored “the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system.” his brother Charles objected to a $2.5 million political expense. Today they spend that much in a week.

Besides more than a hundred million Koch dollars that go to front groups like the ubiquitous Americans for Prosperity, which in turn fronts for numerous Tea Party chapters, hundreds of millions more are leveraged from other right-wing individuals and groups. The Kochs, in effect, are the bagmen for a vast right-wing conspiracy that Greenwald estimates spent $400 million in 2012 alone. This is not including the right-wing think tank echo chamber headed by the Kochs’ own The Cato Institute.

While the media has focused largely on the Kochs’ massive national political machine, the brothers have been even more diabolical at the state level, where they fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft model legislation and talking points for state legislators, and canned editorials promoting the legislation that local newspapers snap up to fill column inches.

The result is a rash of bad, even dangerous, legislation – including the “stand your ground” laws that George Zimmerman used as a shield to shoot and kill an unarmed Trayvon Martin. Especially troubling to me is the Kochs’ assault on unions, not only collective bargaining but also pension security. Most recently, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity mounted a targeted strategic campaign to scuttle a Michigan state relief plan for the City of Detroit that would move the city toward solvency while minimizing pension cuts and saving the art library.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asks the right question here: “Who do you want to see suffer?”

As the New York Times’ David Firestone opined in the paper’s editorial blog:

“Under the circumstances, the proposed state contribution on behalf of vulnerable pensioners is a modest way to make up for Lansing’s decades of abandonment. But it’s too much for the Kochs to stomach. They apparently want city workers and retirees to publicly suffer for the sin of having been union members. They want bondholders and insurance companies at the front of the creditors’ line, and don’t seem to care if the Detroit Institute of Arts has to sell off its paintings and sculptures to put them there.

“As they have in so many other areas of public life, two of the country’s wealthiest citizens are using their good fortune to make life far more difficult for those at the bottom of the ladder.”

The Kochs’ pension shakedown is in keeping with the brothers’ longtime effort to change Social Security insurance into a more Wall Street-friendly investment fund, spending millions to scare Americans into believing Social Security is in peril, when it’s not. They want all pension money invested in the stock market, where the risk is high for individual investors and the reward high for the institutions. The Kochs want a piece of that giant pension pie.

We can’t let the Koch Machine run our country. Arm yourself with information. Spread the word.

Labor Memorial Day

Growing up, May Day always conjured up Maypole dances and the smell of beautiful flowers at church festivals celebrating Mary, a reputed virgin mother. I learned that it was the day to celebrate St. Joseph the worker, the patron saint of workers, which I know today only partially acknowledges the importance of the holiday.

May 1 has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, in memory of the protesters killed at Haymarket Square, Chicago, campaigning for the eight-hour workday. The labor activists had set May 1, 1886 as the day for a nationwide strike for better working conditions, but the peaceful May 4 Chicago rally quickly became a confrontation with police and agitators.

The “Haymarket Massacre” became a rallying cry for the union movement in the United States and around the world. Through the struggle of those unionists and others who have followed in their footsteps, we have won not only the 8-hour day and the 40-hour workweek, but also overtime pay, fair labor standards and protections, job safety regulations, and laws that allow us to bargain with employers over pay and conditions of work, including pensions and health care.

So, May Day is something to celebrate. It doesn’t require a march with the trappings of war, as the despots in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang have staged, or even with bullhorns and protest signs at the local Wal-Mart – although that would be appropriate. But it does require an understanding that nothing will be won in our society without a unified struggle against the corporate powers that control industry and, to a great degree, government.


Mother Jones, right, helps a little girl with her shoe at the tent encampment of miners in Ludlow, Colo., in 1886.

It’s also a good time to remember those who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of economic justice – not only at Haymarket Square but also in other seminal labor fights. This is a time when the United Mine Workers honor the memory of the 66 men, women and children who were killed in April 1914 in an attack on striking miners’ camp at Ludlow, Colo., and in the protests that followed – one of the deadliest labor confrontations in our history.

The attack on the miners, orchestrated by oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a detective agency he hired, with the assistance of the governor of Colorado and the National Guard, is one of the saddest chapters in the long-running war on organized workers in this country. While the violence may have dissipated over time, corporations still take no prisoners in their systematic assault on worker rights.

May 1 also is the day famed schoolteacher, dressmaker and union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones claims as her birthday, although the record is not clear on her birth. But she made sure the record was clear about Ludlow, where she went to help the families during the strike. Here’s her first-hand account from her 1925 autobiography:

“All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.

“Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the miners’ families burned. Coils of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners’ only water supply.

“After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found – unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bedsprings writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror. Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women. Done by order of Lieutenant Linderfelt, a savage, brutal executor of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

“The strikers issued a general call to arms: Every able bodied man must shoulder a gun to protect himself and his family from assassins, from arson and plunder. From jungle days to our own so-named civilization, this is a man’s inherent right. To a man they armed, throughout the whole strike district. Ludlow went on burning in their hearts.”

Ludlow burned into the conscience of a nation, helping to improve the lot of workers everywhere, as Colorado historians explain in a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary:

The UMWA’s two-day centennial anniversary event at Ludlow May 17-18 includes family activities including a simulated coalmine, a craft area for kids and performances by local musicians. Noted authors and academics join political and labor leaders in addressing the crowd.

Arlo Guthrie is not scheduled to play, but if he were he would certainly sing his tribute to the brave miners and their families:

For more information about why Ludlow matters, check out this article in The New Yorker.

The Revolution Will Be Blogged

Journalists are not what they used to be. The profession and the news industry have changed dramatically over the past few decades, reshaped by information technology and new media innovation that googles the mind, literally. It remains to be seen if the public is benefiting from this evolution, even as its buying habits help to shape it.

ImageNo, I’m not mourning the loss of the “ink-stained wretch” of yesteryear’s newsroom or the film editor in the broadcast booth. Journalists generally have adapted just fine, learning to love multiple platforms for story telling, or they move into another field. Some may feel like Rick Redfern of Doonesbury fame, the former Washington Post correspondent pushed onto a blogging platform … or is it a plank? Many blogs reward contributors with celebrity rather than hard cash, as Redfern discovers when word surfaces he’s out of print.


As the industry shakes out, working journalists shake with it, incurring some bumps and bruises along the way. My friend Roger was in his mid-50s when he was mustered out of a newspaper job in North Carolina. He languished for more than a year before accepting a one-year assignment teaching English in rural China. For his perseverance, Roger got a tryout and regular copy-editing gig at The New York Times. May we live in interesting times.

These changes not only dramatically affect the lives of working journalists, but also those preparing for careers as journalists – or new graduates who are searching for work in the industry. How do you prepare young journalists for a field in flux, when the job market is moving farther away from the traditional news-gathering and reporting exercises? And how do you retain the integrity of a profession founded on the public trust to inform and educate in a Wiki world?

These are questions being raised today in many Journalism schools across the nation, including my alma mater, Indiana University. To stay current, IU is creating a new Media School, combining Journalism and Broadcast with Communication and Culture (Film, TV and Digital Media), and affiliated with Computer Science/Informatics and other departments through the College of Arts and Sciences. The reorganization is not without critics and skeptics among IU Journalism alumni, a long and distinguished list of working and retired journalists.

IU-trained journalists want to know what happens to the legacy of Ernie Pyle, the legendary Hoosier war correspondent whose name graces the longtime Journalism building – and what happens with that building, long in disrepair? How will IU attract top-notch J-school faculty and scholars if it is diluted with nonprofessional communications studies, and administered through the huge liberal arts school?

These were some of the questions that the IU Media School’s Associate Dean Lesa Hatley Major and Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Larry Singell sought to answer during a “Media Roundtable” held recently at the National Press Club. I joined about 50 alumni during the informal briefing, which featured finger food and a full bar. Everyone wanted to know if IU would be able to provide the same sort of quality education that journalists across the country have come to expect.

“Well, to be perfectly candid, we haven’t been providing the quality education we have in the past,” said Major. “We have fallen down in key areas, particularly in keeping up with new media platforms, new ways to gather information and tell stories. That’s what we hope to fix with The Media School.”

Singell promised the housing of The Media School within Arts and Sciences wouldn’t diminish the principles and values of IU Journalism education. “Let’s face it: everyone is publishing today,” he said. “All you need is a PC and you can broadcast to the world. It’s the quality of information that we are concerned with, the highest standards for storytelling, and our Media School is dedicated to that.”

I am going to trust these administrators with their words, and the promise of this new Media School. I’ve read the proposal and the step-by-step plan to create the J School of tomorrow, Media writ large. It makes good sense.

Change is inevitable, so let’s get out ahead of it, anticipate as best we can. But Indiana University must build on the tradition that makes the program great – including the daily news coverage through the Indiana Daily Student and other campus and community outlets. New media platforms can enhance the IDS and other fine media already serving the IU community.

Friendships and East Asian studies were the catalysts for my interest in IU, but the IDS sealed the deal. The award-winning daily newspaper was the perfect platform for practicing daily news journalism. Most of IU’s finest alums honed their editorial skills in the IDS newsroom at Ernie Pyle Hall. I wrote editorials and columns, and some feature stories, including a 1973 interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of my fondest memories, when he was giving a commencement address, getting an honorary degree, and effectively dismissing all his characters with the publication of “Breakfast of Champions.”

Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis and studied journalism for two years at Cornell before shipping out to World War II, the life event that haunts his fiction. Although he worked as a Chicago police reporter after returning from the war, and his journalism training is evident in his spare declarative writing, he grew to dislike how the profession was evolving – particularly in its pursuit of celebrity.

Quoting Ralph Nader, Vonnegut told one interviewer that “reporters have given up on their jobs and instead are causing us to focus, as long as possible, on stories like O.J. and Princess Di,” he said. “But they never get around to having us consider what the real problems of the country are.”

Certainly this propensity for celebrity and spectacle has moved onto the Internet, alongside more sober sources of news and information. But like it or not, our media will be driven largely by consumer demand – even if big-money advertisers wield the biggest influence. We can console ourselves that at least we’re getting thousands of channels of information, however cluttered by noisemakers.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that Indiana University will continue to turn out first-class journalists and communicators – such as Suzanne Collins, who in 1985 graduated from IU with a double major in theater and telecommunications, then went on to write The Hunger Games trilogy. There is more to world-class communications than a journalism degree, as this list of IU’s distinguished graduates of arts and humanities reveals. Journalists, authors, playwrights, lyricists, sportscasters, actors, poets, folklorists and assorted other storytellers enhance us all with their gifts, and we can thank the university that stoked their imaginations and refined their talents.

A Fine Madness

March is roaring in but who cares if the weather is frightful? Inside gyms and arenas across the land, college basketball players are reaching for the brass hoop, and the crowds roar. It’s a beautiful thing, this March Madness. This year, it’s anyone’s game to win. Will Cinderella crash the party?


Few college basketball seasons in recent memory have produced such a competitive field. Any one of a dozen teams could win it all, with the right breaks. This year more than many others, it may come down to the breaks. It will pay to know the players, and consider wild cards.

Some of the traditional powers don’t even make the field this year, including Georgetown and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, who didn’t even deserve an invite to the consolation NIT after stumbling through the home stretch. Upstarts are legitimate: Wichita State is the first team to go undefeated through the regular season since UNLV in 1991, playing in Larry Bird’s old conference. Virginia got a No. 1 seed after winning the ACC for the first time since 1976.

Naturally, I’m tracking the event closely, as the inveterate basketball junkie, with a “virtual office pool” for friends and associates that is largely for bragging rights. Bracket mania sweeps the cubicles heading into Thursday’s opening games, and Yahoo and Quicken Loans are teaming for a $1 billion payoff (maybe, if you act fast, and tell about your finances and take loan pitches, etc.). Games are cropping up all over.

The Big Game is on the court, and I’ve been watching closely.  Front and center are the shooting stars, the one-and-done freshman phenoms who are positioning themselves for a top NBA draft slot. Jabari Parker (Duke), Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) are auditioning for the pros. Kentucky has at least three other freshman players who will turn pro after this tournament, and many others will come out.


Will Tom Izzo lead the Spartans back to the Final Four?

While the traditionalists may mourn the passing of the old college spirit, the steady turnover of all-stars hasn’t hurt the game that much, thanks largely to the coaches. If you follow college basketball, you know the coach is the most important part of the game – a teacher and motivator as well as crafty tactician, and strategist. Nowadays, he also has to be restoration artist, building a new team every year.

Chances are good, once again, that Rick Pitino (Louisville), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Billy Donovan (Florida) will guide their teams into the Final Four, with five championships between them. The other guy could be Bo Ryan, the steady if unspectacular defensive guru at Wisconsin, who is due (and who may have the easiest road, through the West Region).

But others are worthy, and I’ll probably change my mind before the ball goes up on Thursday. The phenoms at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke could will their teams into Final Four. Three great coaches lead those teams – John Calipari, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski – with multiple championships among them.


Does the Cinderella slipper fit Steve Alford and UCLA?

Cinderella, oddly, this year could take the form of the winningest NCAA tournament basketball program in history, UCLA, with 11 national championships. The Bruins are back after many lean years, beating No. 1 seed Arizona in the PAC-10 tournament. Guiding UCLA is first-year coach Steve Alford, the shooting guard for Indiana’s 1987 NCAA champions.

Also resembling Cinderella is Wichita State, which has a shot at being the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.  (I just can’t stop saying Indiana! Indiana! Indiana!) Leading the Shockers is Gregg Marshall, a Roanoke, Va., native who coached little Winthrop University to a series of NCAA tourney appearances before leading Wichita State to the Promised Land. Hmmmm.

But the tournament poobahs appear to have stacked the deck against Wichita State, which will come out of the Midwest Region. Hurdles include Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and Michigan, coached by John Beilein, one of the smartest coaches around. Maybe it’s his turn to win a championship.

Grab those brackets and jump in a pool! It’s March and the water’s fine.

The Big Fix to Income Inequality

Income inequality is the defining and dividing issue of our time, as President Obama has reminded us in a series of speeches over the past few months. The huge gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of us has been the subject of much debate and even “occupy” demonstrations targeting Wall Street greed and government inaction. But little is done, even though we have a prescription to reverse inequality and restore the middle class to our economy.

ImageThe remedy is presented by former Clinton Secretary of Labor and economics guru Robert Reich, who recently took us on a Mini Cooper spin through income inequality and what it means to our society. Reich is the impassioned lecturer-in-chief in “Inequality for All,” a smart and insightful documentary detailing the historic nature of the inequality problem, and how it has come to a head.

“Inequality for All” won a special award for documentary films at last year’s Sundance Film Festival but was ignored by the Academy of Motion Pictures.  The Oscar-nominated documentaries were more dramatic and visual than “Inequality for All,” I grant you, but perhaps none of them as important. Without a major commercial ad campaign, Reich nonetheless is able to push it relentlessly through his social media network – and I’m happily caught up in that loop.

The film is available via Netflix, Amazon and on-demand services. You will have to put up with the recurring lecture format to get to Reich’s keen insights and observations at the heart of the film, but you will be rewarded for your attention with a better understanding of a very serious problem in our nation. Fortunately, Reich uses humor and clever graphics to help tell the story:

The image of the suspension bridge frames the largest income gaps — between 1929, ahead of the Great Depression, and then again in 2007, just before the housing bubble burst and our extended Great Recession. We have reached a period not unlike that of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, when we should be changing the rules of the game so that the destructive nature of income inequality doesn’t eat our middle class and collapse the social order.

But the political system is responding slowly, choked by influence peddlers with a vested interest in the status quo. The robber barons of today have a lot more resources at their disposal for influencing both public opinion and political alliances. The Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, allowing unlimited spending on political campaigns, has further stalled political action.

In fact, since the beginning of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession, the top 1 percent has resumed its accelerated income gains while the bottom 99 percent has returned to stagnation and loss, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which has been tracking the trends in unshared prosperity since the 1970s. A state-by-state EPI study released Feb. 19, found that in 33 states the top 1 percent captured between half and all income growth from 2009-2011. This is continuing an alarming trend:

“The lopsided growth in U.S. incomes observed between 1979 and 2007 resulted in a rise in every state in the top 1 percent’s share of income,” EPI reported. “This rise in income inequality represents a sharp reversal of the patterns of income growth that prevailed in the half century following the beginning of the Great Depression; the share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in every state but one between 1928 and 1979.”

You can find out how your state ranks in income disparity with the EPI’s interactive feature linked to its report here:

Still, nearly seven in 10 Americans say the government should act to make sure the rich pay their fair share and more Americans share in economic prosperity, according to a CNN survey a few weeks back. And that view has held remarkably steady: in 1983, 68 percent of Americans favored government action to narrow the divide. Today, that number is 66 percent.


So, what’s to be done? Part of the solution is to get the big money out of politics. Other laws and reforms are necessary. Here’s Reich’s prescription, which you can find at

  • Raise the minimum wage. Many states have raised the minimum on their own, but it’s long past time for the United States to raise the federal minimum wage. We must ensure that fulltime jobs have wages and benefits that allow people to afford the basics.
  • Strengthen workers’ voices. Unless employees enjoy the fundamental right to form and join unions to bargain collectively with their employer, they will continue to be undervalued and disrespected in the workplace.
  • Invest in education, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to a quality education, from early childhood to college.
  • Reform Wall Street. We must ensure the financial sector is working honestly and accountably to prevent it from taking over our economy.
  • Fix the tax system so that everyone is contributing a fair share. We must reverse the Ronald Reagan tax shift that benefited rich individuals and corporations and dumped on the rest of us.
  • Get big money out of politics. New laws are needed to overturn Citizens United so that corporations can’t spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns and in return affect public policy and spending priorities.

As Reich notes in his documentary, solving the income inequality problem will require citizen action, making our voices heard over the thunder of the big-money influence peddlers. I like to think we can go back to basics, a la Dr. Seuss and the beloved Lorax: