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Veto Override Battle Next Step in D.C. Living Wage Campaign

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Image: Mike HallFollowing Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray’s veto Thursday of a living wage bill for workers in big-box stores such as Walmart, backers of Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA) are mounting a campaign to override the veto.

The bill, which sets a $12.50 wage for workers, passed the D.C. City Council in June by an 8–5 vote, and an override requires nine votes. TheMetropolitan Washington Council’s Union City reports that LRAA backers are focusing on D.C. Council member Tommy Wells for the ninth vote.

Metropolitan Washington Council President Jos Williams called on the City Council to “stand up for D.C. workers and override this veto.”

District resident Kimberly Mitchell said Gray “had the opportunity to stand up for the residents of this city, but instead he allowed large, out of town companies, like Walmart, to threaten him and ultimately dictate the policies of our city.”

Shortly before the Council passed the bill, Walmart threatened to scrap plans to build three stores planned for the district and possibly halt construction on three others that are under way.

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, of Plymouth United Congregational Church of Christ and Faith Strategies, said:

If we cannot demand higher wages and good jobs from the nation’s and world’s largest corporations, D.C. will not be able to remain a diverse and vibrant city. We strongly urge the City Council to override this misguided veto.

If you’re in D.C., contact Wells at 888-264-6154 asking him to support the LRAA and override the veto.

This article was originally printed in AFL-CIO on September 13, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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‘Harsh Reality’ of Workplaces for Transgender Americans Examined in New Report

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seiu-org-logoTransgender workers are up against alarming inequities in the American workplace today–facing difficulty finding and keeping good jobs, accessing benefits and obtaining health insurance, according to a new report from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), the National Center for Transgender Equity (NCTE), the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), all SEIU partner organizations.

The study, “A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers,”notes that transgender workers report unemployment at twice the rate of the population as a whole (14 percent versus 7 percent); nearly half of transgender people who are working are underemployed; and transgender workers are nearly four times more likely than the population as a whole to have a household income of under $10,000.

Examples of transgender discrimination range from wage disparities and the inability to update identity documents to denial of promotions and unfair firing.

“Workplace fairness means more than freedom from harassment; it means equal access to the benefits that transgender employees need to live healthy and productive lives,” said Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president of external affairs at CAP.

“This new report underscores the harsh reality of what it means to live and work as a transgender person in this country,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of NCTE.
Read the report (PDF) or learn more.

SEIU members at the union’s 25th Convention in Denver last year unanimously approved a resolution calling on local unions to bargain for trans-inclusive health care.

Other partners supporting the report are Freedom to Work, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on September 6, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Beau Boughamer for SEIU.


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Lessons From the Tomb of Frank Little

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Mike ElkIn June of 1917, 168 workers died in the Speculator mine disaster in Butte, Montana—many from asphyxiation. That July, legendary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union organizer Frank Little arrived in Butte to help organize a recognized union and lead a strike against the owner of the mine, Anaconda Copper Company. A month later, Little was found lynched above Butte’s train tracks with a note on his chest that said, “First and last warning.”

Little was buried later that month in Butte in a ceremony attended by more than 2,000 copper miners. His tombstone read, “Slain by Capitalist Interests for Organizing and Inspiring His Fellow Men.”

Over the years Little’s tombstone fell into disrepair—until 2008, when Mike Boysza, then a member of the now-defunct of Butte Area Carpenters Local 112, and a number of local union activists decided to repair the tomb site. They wanted to create a permanent reminder for all trade unionists of the tough fights of the past.

“I think it is important to know where your struggles came from,” says Boysza. “The reason you get the wages you get, the reason you get the benefits you get, is because somebody else struggled.”

Such struggles are familiar in Butte. Since Little’s time, unions in the area have fought, sometimes through bloody means, for the right to organize and receive fair wages. In 1914, miners blew up the Western Federation of Miners union hall in Butte’s business district because they felt the union was working too closely with the Anaconda Copper Company. About 50 years later, according to Boysza, union construction workers reacted to the proposed building of a non-union hotel in the city by setting fire to the footing for the half-built structure.

“That is the kind of thing that you have to do to say ‘No, quit fucking with us,’ ” Boysza explains. “We had a Super 8 that was coming to Butte and they had all the material and the ditches dug. [Union activists] pushed what they could into the ditch for the footing and burnt it all. This was in the 1970s. We didn’t get a Super 8 here [for] almost 20 years—and when they built a Super 8, it was built union.”

In fact, while Montana is not thought of as a union hotbed by most outsiders, until recently, almost all of the commercial construction in the city was done by union workers—a distinction that even major union towns like New York City can no longer claim.

In the last few years, however, the organizing power exemplified by Butte’s history has been slipping for local unions. Butte’s Continental Pit mine, which closed in 2000 after transferring ownership from the Anaconda Copper Company to Montana Resources, reopened in 2004, but this time without its workers being represented by their previous union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Outside competition and fractured leadership have also begun to threaten the rights of local construction workers like Boysza. According to Boysza, under their old contract, wages for carpenters in Butte typically started $22.50 an hour. Then, after the regional council of his union  forced his local to merge with a statewide union of all Montana carpenters, the council changed the union contract last year to be consistent with the entire state’s. Boysza says this reduced the starting wages of Butte carpenters by more than four dollars.

That move didn’t make any sense to Boysza. “They said they lowered the wages so we could be competitive with the non-union [carpenters], but there are no union carpenters here that are out of work,” he says. “I thought it was unnecessary.”

And at a time when carpenters in Butte are being forced to take wage cuts, instead of placing resources and decision-making power into the hands of the local rank-and-file workers, the regional union has instead made the union and its voting process less accessible to Butte carpenters. Rank-and-file Butte carpenters can no longer make decisions about the day-to-day functioning of their union at their old hall in Butte; instead, they have to make the two-hour drive to Great Falls.

“They have informational meetings here now,” Boysza explains, referring to the historic Carpenters’ Union Hall built in 1906. Boysza’s local union was forced to go to court earlier this year to prevent the regional council, the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, from selling the building and forcing several local unions into the street. “But if you want to go to a union meeting you have to go to Great Falls … It’s 160 miles away!”

Boysza’s sentiment echoes those of other workers who have come together on the Summer of Solidarity tour, which aims to connect union members across America. They, like Boysza, claim that labor leaders who run unions at the regional and national levels have lost touch with local unions and their history. Boysza says that in giving concessions so easily and losing touch with instigating rank-and-file militancy, leaders have forgotten the efforts and legacy of union organizers like Frank Little.

“It’s these guys from Washington. They don’t have a clue what the labor strife was to get to where we are at today,” says Boysza as we drive near the railroad tracks where Little was dragged behind a car shortly before he was hanged.

Meanwhile, as Boysza’s union wrestles among its own ranks, more non-union construction projects have begun to creep into the Butte area. Thirty years after union workers reportedly set fire to a half-built Super 8 to protest its construction, the first non-union hotel in the city has opened its doors. This time, it’s a Holiday Inn Express.

“They just opened it up a month ago,” says Boysza. He laughs. “When it was just a wood-framed structure, they should have burnt the fucker to the ground.”

This is the fifth in a series by In These Times staff writer Mike Elk, who is traveling for two weeks with the Summer of Solidarity tour. To help In These Times cover his travel expenses and to send more reporters to cover grassroots activism around the country, donate here.

 This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on September 10, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

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IRS Addresses Same-Sex Marriages Post-Windsor

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philip_miles_smallFederal agencies are starting to stake out their positions following the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor. The Court struck down the part of DOMA that defined marriages as only those between one man and one woman for over 1,000 federal statutes.

The IRS recently issued Rev. Rul. 2013-17, which addresses same-sex marriages for purposes of federal taxes. Cutting straight to the holdings:
1. For Federal tax purposes, the terms “spouse,” “husband and wife,” “husband,” and “wife” include an individual married to a person of the same sex if the individuals are lawfully married under state law, and the term “marriage” includes such a marriage between individuals of the same sex.

2. For Federal tax purposes, the Service adopts a general rule recognizing a marriage of same-sex individuals that was validly entered into in a state whose laws authorize the marriage of two individuals of the same sex even if the married couple is domiciled in a state that does not recognize the validity of same-sex marriages.

3. For Federal tax purposes, the terms “spouse,” “husband and wife,” “husband,” and “wife” do not include individuals (whether of the opposite sex or the same sex) who have entered into a registered domestic partnership, civil union, or other similar formal relationship recognized under state law that is not denominated as a marriage under the laws of that state, and the term “marriage” does not include such formal relationships.

Now, if you’re wondering what this will mean for employers, my friend Mike Chittenden emailed me about some IRS Q&A on benefits plans (and other issues arising from the new ruling). Specifically, check out Q&A 16-19. For example, qualified retirement plans must recognize legal same-sex marriages based on where the couple married, regardless of where they live (but domestic partnerships and civil unions do not count).

This article was originally printed on Lawffice Space on September 3, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Philip K. Miles III, Esq. is the creator of Lawffice Space.  He is an attorney with McQuaide Blasko, a full-service law firm headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania.  He belongs to the Labor and Employment, and Civil Litigation Practice groups.  Lawffice Space is an independent law blog focusing on labor and employment law.


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You Say Let’s Talk Severance/Your Employer Hears I Quit (Or, Employees Are From Pluto, Employers Are From Uranus)

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Donna photo redAs sometimes happens when you’ve been practicing as long as I have (hint – I may have had a pet with a name ending in -saurus), you find yourself chatting with an opposing counsel with whom you’ve had many encounters over the years. These conversations can sometimes lead to some frank exchanges. I had one of these conversations a few days ago.

The topic was what it means when an employee says they want to talk about a severance package. He insisted it meant the employee had resigned. I hear this all the time from management-side lawyers, and I understand where they’re coming from.

However, my clients never see it that way. I told this fellow attorney-saurus that I’ve never had a single client who meant they were quitting when they said to their boss or HR that they wanted to discuss severance. My colleague seemed shocked by this. “Then what did they mean?” he asked.

I had to explain that employees who say they want to discuss severance are usually making a cry for help. They’ve gone to the boss or HR with some dire problem. Maybe they’ve been sexually harassed or discriminated against. Maybe it’s a bullying situation. Sometimes they’ve blown the whistle and are suffering retaliation. They’ve reported it and gotten no relief. So they say, “Fine. Let’s talk severance.”

What they probably mean is, “If you won’t help me, you risk losing me as an employee.” They’re usually hoping that this final cry for help will result in some action being taken. They sometimes mean, “Rather than torture me into making me quit, let’s just part ways amicably now.” They’re still hoping the employer will come to their senses.

I’m not sure why there’s such a large communication disconnect between employer and employee on this, but my management-side colleague seemed genuinely surprised by my analysis. So I thought I’d share it.

Employers use any mention of a severance package to get rid of a complaining employee. They’ll claim you quit before you can finish your sentence. And guess what? If you quit, you usually don’t get severance. To an employer, severance goes to employees who have been laid off or fired with little or no cause. Quitters get squat.

So I’ll say this to employers: Listen more carefully. If you like this employee, you may be able to salvage things if you act quickly. Plus, if they’ve just reported sexual harassment, discrimination or blown the whistle on something illegal, you might have handed them a lawsuit by escorting them quickly to the door.

To employees everywhere, be warned: If you even mention a severance package, your employer will claim you quit. Wait for them to bring it up. Then you might actually get some money to tide you over while you’re looking for something else. If you were the victim of discrimination, illegal retaliation or sexual harassment, you might also have leverage to negotiate a better package if the employer fires you for reporting it.

I’m sure there are other things that employees and employers hear differently. Do you have any other examples where employees are from Pluto and employers are from Uranus? I’d love to hear them.

This article was originally printed on Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home on August 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Donna Ballman‘s new book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, was recently named the Winner of the Law Category of the 2012 USA Best Books Awards and is currently available for purchase. She is the award-winning author of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She’s been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, was named one of the 2011 and 2012 ABA Blawg 100 best legal blogs and the 2011 Lexis/Nexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Law Blogs.

She has written for AOL Jobs and The Huffington Post on employment law issues, and has been an invited guest blogger for Monster.com and Ask A Manager. She has over 6000 followers on Twitter as @EmployeeAtty. She has taught continuing legal education classes for lawyers and accountants through organizations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association, Sterling Education Services, Lorman Education Services, Alison Seminars, the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, and community organizations.  Ms. Ballman has published articles on employment law topics such as severance, non-compete agreements, discrimination, sexual harassment, and avoiding litigation. She’s been interviewed by MSNBC, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Lifetime Television Network, the Daily Business Review, and many other media outlets on employment law issues. She was featured on the Forbes Channel’s “America’s Most Influential Women” program on the topic of severance negotiations and non-compete agreements.


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Would raising the minimum wage help Walmart?

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Laura ClawsonWould a higher minimum wage be good for business at Walmart? Many experts say so—after all, a higher minimum wage would give many Walmart customers a little more disposable incometo spend at the store:

David Cooper, an economic analyst with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, agrees with Demos’s Ruetschlin that the sluggish economic recovery means a boost in the minimum wage could push low-income workers to spend more, and in many cases they’d spend that money at low-priced outlets like Walmart.“If suddenly all these low-wage workers have more income, they are likely to spend that money right away,” Cooper said. “If these retailers want strong, stable sustainable growth in the U.S. economy, then they should also want strong, stable increases in wages to their employees.” […]

The data linking an increase in wages to a rise in consumer spending — particularly at a specific retail outlet — is a bit thin, but there’s “very strong anecdotal evidence in support of that claim,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

Walmart definitely knows that when its customers don’t have money, business suffers; the company’s chief financial officer recently said, to explain a drop in U.S. sales, that “The consumer doesn’t quite have the discretionary income, or they’re hesitant to spend what they do have.” And in fact, in the past, when the minimum wage has gotten too far below the poverty line, a Walmart CEO has explicitly said that was a problem: “The U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour has not been raised in nearly a decade, and we believe it is out of date with the times … Our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between paychecks.”

A yacht store is unlikely to see much of a boost from an increase in the minimum wage, in other words, but Walmart, where people go for cheap, basic necessities, will do better. Walmart’s opposition to paying an actual living wage, one that doesn’t force workers to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, is well known. But if Congress doesn’t act and raise the minimum wage, we might get back to a point where Walmart admits it would benefit from an increase. Which would, more than anything, be a sign of how embarrassingly bad Congress is—can you imagine lagging behind Walmart on wage issues?

Join Making Change at Walmart and Daily Kos in telling Walmart and the Waltons to respect their employees and pay a real wage.

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos Labor on September 4, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos


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Labor Day 2013: Things Have Never Looked Worse for Workers—Or Brighter

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David MobergFour young men breakdancing on the Federal Plaza last week in downtown Chicago say a lot about why this Labor Day provides occasion for both celebration and protest.

 

The dancers—black, white, Latino, all of them putting on a spectacular show—were fast food and retail workers on strike for the day for $15 an hour pay and the right to form a union without retaliation. They were among about 400 low-wage workers from more than 60 stores convening for a celebration after a day of delivering their key demands—with specific additional grievances tailored to each workplace—to their employers, who, from McDonald’s to Sears, make up a  Who’s Who of brand-name fast-food and retail companies.

 

It was the third strike for many of the workers. The strike wave began last November in in New York, with Chicago holding protest marches late last year as well, and it spread in July to five other traditional union strongholds. On Thursday—just after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—thousands of workers from a total of approximately 60 cities joined a national day of action, the largest yet. Strikes cropped up in the South, in cities such as Raleigh, N.C. and Memphis, Tenn., and in smaller Northern cities, such as Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. In tiny Ellsworth, Maine, a community-labor group demonstrated support for higher pay fast food workers even though none went on strike. In some cases, workers appear to have organized themselves after hearing about the earlier actions, calling whomever they could contact and asking how they could take part in the next strike.

 

The dark side of this jubilant surge of activity is the many reasons why it is needed—weak job growth, underemployment, flat or declining wages, feeble labor standards, a stalled union movement, an occupational structure shifting toward more low-wage service jobs, growing inequality, and widespread abuse of power by the very rich.

 

The decline in the official unemployment rate masks the degree to which American workers face a very grim world of work. Much of the improvement in the unemployment rate simply reflects a growth in the number of discouraged or “marginally attached” workers (people who want a job but have given up looking). The share of the workforce working part-time involuntarily has risen as well.

 

Such slack in the demand for labor, along with the declining power of unions and the cuts in pay demanded by both private and public employers (often accompanied by outsourcing or, at public employers, privatizing), holds down—or pushes further down—wages that had improved little even from 2000 to 2007, when the recession began. Between 2007 and 2012, even as productivity grew by 7.7 percent, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of the workforce, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.

 

The weakness of the labor movement, especially in growing, low-wage sectors like retail and fast food, accounts for much of the decline, but the diminishing value of the minimum wage plays a big role. According to another recent EPI study, by Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts, if the federal government restored the minimum to its peak value in 1968, the minimum wage would be $9.44 today in inflation-adjusted dollars, not $7.25. And if it matched in real terms the $2.00 minimum wage demanded 50 years ago by the March on Washington, the minimum wage would be $13.39—not far from the striking fast food workers’ demand and not far from the minimum in many advanced countries (approximately $12 an hour in France and $15 an hour in Australia, for example). If the minimum wage had risen as much as worker productivity since 1968, it would be $22 an hour.

 

Any rise in the federal minimum would especially help people of color and women, Allegretto and Pitts report. Contrary to stereotypes of low-wage workers as teenages, a raise would help many adult, family-supporting workers. In a report for EPI published in March, David Cooper and Dan Essrow calculated that with even the modest $10.10 minimum proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the average age of low-wage workers whose pay would likely increase is 35. Eighty-eight percent are over 20 years old, and 35.5 percent are 40 or older. In addition, 44 percent of the beneficiaries would be workers with some college education, and 28 percent with children.

 

The plight of low-wage workers is becoming a much more acute problem as the nation’s occupational structure, that is, the kinds of jobs being created or retained, has changed. According to Daniel Alpert of the Century Foundation, 70 percent of the jobs created in the second quarter of this year were low-wage, like retail and hospitality work, about twice the percentage of such jobs in the overall workforce. And about 50 percent of all new jobs in the first half of 2013 were part-time.

 

Wages have risen for the top 5 percent, however, especially for the very richest. The top 1 percent—mainly executives and financial managers—captured 121 percent of the nation’s new income during the first two years of the recovery, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez. How do they do that? Essentially, they direct all national income gains to themselves while simultaneously taking more away from the 99 percent.

 

Looking more closely makes the picture even uglier. The success of the very rich often involves large elements of chicanery, fraud and exploitation of public resources, according to a new study, “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” the 20th annual Labor Day edition of the Executive Excess reports from the Institute for Policy Studies. The researchers compiled data from 20 years of their studies, which relied on annual Wall Street Journal surveys of CEO pay.

 

Their final survey covered 500 CEOS—the 25 highest-paid CEOs each year for the two decades. IPS reports that 38 percent of these CEOs had performed extremely poorly as executives of their firms. Of those poor performers, 22 percent of the top pay winners led their firms into bankruptcy or bailout; 8 percent were fired (but got golden parachutes worth $38 million on average); and 8 percent were found guilty of fraud.

 

Then there are simply the super-excessively paid, making over $1 billion during their tenure, and other executives who fed at the “taxpayer trough,” collecting top pay while their companies profited as major government contractors.

 

Any move towards equality will have to hold down the excess at the top as well as raise the bottom. But beyond basic fairness, society would reap additional benefits—faster and more stable growth (and therefore a speedier, more robust recovery); less crime and social tension; a stronger democracy; and better health, longer life and lower medical expenses, to mention a just few. (See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.)

 

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was not speaking rhetorically, but quite practically, when she told strikers in Chicago, “These workers are among thousands and thousands of low-wage workers around the country, who have a really reasonable and simple request, and that is that they be paid a living wage. …These are the makers; they are the takers. I want to thank these brave workers who walked out. They are doing it for themselves and they are doing it for America.”

 

And it seems the strikers are doing it their way, with people volunteering and reaching out to other workers to spread the word. Most events include raps composed by strikers about their work, and protest strategies reflect their decisions. For example, in Chicago, the strikers this time wanted actions at every store where someone walked out, not just a couple of highlighted targets, as in the July strike. And they wanted a celebration at the end. If the fast food fight succeeds, it will be a result of that insurgent sentiment.

 

The spirit was there in the breakdance—introduced in Spanish and English, as all the program was before the crowd of comfortably mixed ethnicities, performed under a banner reading, “Fight for 15, Valemos Mas.” Dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” two stands-in for CEOs in mock-suits faced off against two workers from Potbelly’s.

 

The workers won. It wasn’t Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers singing “Roll the Union On.” But I’m sure Pete would have approved

This article was originally published on Working In These Times on September 2, 2013.  Republished with permission. 

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. .


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