”Girl, your eyes have a mist from the smoke of a distant fire” was the chorus of a catchy but mostly forgotten 1970s’ Top 40 nugget from the equally forgotten Sanford-Townsend Band, but the lyric has a whole new meaning in 2021. I’m looking out my window trying to figure if Delco’s sickly gray sky means a chance of rain or a certainty of climate change, with choking wildfires out West. It’s past time for climate action.
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From Kansas to Pa., U.S. workers are striking against the abuses of pre-pandemic capitalism
It turns out you had no idea how much labor goes into the manufacturing of the Great American Couch Potato. At least not until the folks out there making the fuel that powers those marathon TV binge-watching sessions — Doritos, Cheetos, and assorted Lay’s brand potato chips — got mad as hell and walked off their job this summer.
The recently concluded three-week strike at Frito-Lay’s plant in Topeka, Kansas, felt like a guided tour into the horror of late-stage and pre-pandemic American capitalism, as workers spoke of the forced overtime that could often amount to 12-hour shifts in seven-day workweeks — “squeeze shifts” to the bosses, but “suicide shifts” to the exhausted employees made to work them — amid years of little or no hourly pay increases.
“I’m shocked you are so out of touch with your employees you didn’t see this coming,” Cherie Renfro, one of the striking workers, wrote in an op-ed for the hometown Topeka Capital-Journal. “This storm has been brewing for years.” She wrote about working in dense smoke and fumes, watching a co-worker collapse and die on the line, and risking their health during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak as managers worked from home. But now she taunted management: “You were a fool to not do more to keep your employees from walking out that door because many are never coming back, not with a job market so rich right now.”
Indeed, the shock of the post-pandemic job market — with some employers begging for workers, bidding up wages — is probably what forced Frito-Lay to settle with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union local. Yet the victory also felt, frankly, like a glass-quarter-full moment for organized labor. The agreement calls for workers to get a 2% raise for each of the next two years, and those seven straight 12-hour forced shifts were capped...at a mere six. “Going from 84 hrs a week to 72 hrs sounds like a 19th century labor victory,” the veteran labor writer Steven Greenhouse wrote on Twitter, also noting that while squeezing its workforce, Frito-Lay’s parent Pepsi saw profits rise by 43% to $2.3 billion.
Still, a win is a win, and the new contract for Frito-Lay workers marked a high point in one of the most important stories of 2021 yet arguably the most ignored by mainstream media — a strike wave at union shops across the United States, on the cutting edge of the larger worker revolt over low pay and lousy conditions stirred up by the chaos of COVID-19. With little fanfare, fed-up workers have walked off the job at steel plants in western Pennsylvania, hospitals in Massachusetts, auto plants in Virginia, and coal mines in Alabama.
On Wednesday, labor activists hope to get more than 1,000 protesters in midtown Manhattan at the offices of the powerful investment banker BlackRock, biggest investor in Alabama’s Warrior Met coal mines where more than 1,000 United Mine Workers have been on strike since April 1. One of the protest’s elusive goals: getting the media to care, as the next time the Warrior Met strike is mentioned on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News will also be the first.
The workers at the Alabama mines say they made massive concessions, including a $6-an-hour pay cut, and givebacks of paid holidays, to keep their owners afloat in 2016 with the promise they would gain in the next contract if the firm became profitable. But management hasn’t kept its word. The international union’s president Cecil Roberts said “these workers are tired of being mistreated on the job. They are tired of being forced to work on holidays and missing time with their families. They are tired of being tired after working 12-hour shifts six and sometimes seven days a week. Warrior Met knows it is exploiting these workers, and it’s time for it to stop.”
Yet labor unions apparently feel a little too 19th century for Big Media, which instead loves stories about angry young people shutting down a Burger King or the sudden problems of restaurant owners in finding minimum-wage servers. That’s a shame, because organized labor unions were central to American middle-class prosperity in the years immediately following World War II. And if the nation is serious in the 21st century about employees getting a living wage and restoring some dignity to the workplace, the solutions are less likely to come from government or from workers quitting the Wendy’s drive-thru, but from the power of collective action.
Even the majority of Americans who don’t belong to a labor union in the modern economy can and should express solidarity with workers seeking the promise of a decent middle-class lifestyle. In the case of the Frito-Lay strike, it would have been a powerful statement if the coach potatoes of the world had united to boycott Doritos for a few weeks, and might have helped their union get a better deal. That requires better journalism, but the broader labor movement also needs a helping hand from Democrats in Washington.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, better known as the PRO Act, passed the House back in March but is part of the growing list of progressive legislation stalled in the Senate by the GOP’s filibuster power. The bill aims to give back some of the worker powers that have eroded for decades — making it easier to organize, with stricter penalties for companies that retaliate against union activists. Getting the PRO Act to President Biden’s desk would bring a huge surge of momentum to this underrated force that could truly bring shared prosperity back to the American economy. D.C. Democrats weighing whether to ditch the filibuster need just a tiny fraction of the courage of these men and women putting it all out on the picket line.
Yo, do this
By the time we got to Woodstock...there were angry white dudes starting fires and harassing, if not assaulting, women, right and left? Yes, that’s the grim takeaway from a stunning new HBO Max documentary — first of a series of “30 for 30″-style music flicks produced by Bill Simmons — entitled Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, which chronicles the less-well-remembered iteration of the upstate New York rock festival heavy on the aggro-white-boy-rap and light on security. A vivid take on 1990s’ cultural anger (perhaps a foreshadowing?) — but also on the vain cluelessness of the baby boomers who organized this fiasco.
So many icons of the fight for Black civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s have passed away the last couple of years — the legendary Bob Moses (see below) and Gloria Richardson just in the last two weeks — that new generations must wonder what the fuss was all about. Perfect timing for HBO Max to round up the groundbreaking PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize from the 1980s and early 1990s and make it accessible to a wider audience. Starting with Emmett Till’s 1955 murder and focused heavily on the key crusades of the 1960s, these hour-long programs are packed with amazing clips and key interviews from participants when they were old enough to reflect but young enough to still remember.
Ask me anything
Question: What is the threat of an audit if you’re confident in the results of the election? Confidence in the democratic process benefits us all. — Via @VJBiv on Twitter
Answer: I appreciate this question from the right side of the room, because it does speak to an issue — election integrity — that is both important and nuanced. For most of the 21st century — since the 2000 Florida recount debacle, really — it’s been progressives expressing the greatest fears about the potential for hacking of electronic voting systems, as was attempted by Russia in 2016. I’ve in the past urged the use of paper ballots, and, yes, audits that would verify there was no electronic monkey business. What’s happening in Arizona, and proposed for Pennsylvania and elsewhere, is not that. It’s dodgy people using inappropriate methods to “audit” votes that have already been professionally recounted and verified, possibly damaging voting machines in the process. It is the complete opposite of election integrity.
The irony is almost too much to bear. America seems to be losing the last of its remarkable generation of Black civil rights leaders from the “(Not So) Silent Generation” of the 1950s and ‘60s, right when their legacy is again under attack from the nation’s inexorable forces of white supremacy. The latest to slip away from us is Bob Moses — best known for his early 1960s’ work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in registering Black voters in a violently hostile Mississippi — who passed this weekend at age 86. This was just one chapter in the remarkable life of a Harvard-educated math wizard from New York who dropped his rising career, donned a humble pair of overalls, and showed an utter lack of fear once he decided that Black freedom in the American South was his moral calling.
“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses said after his first visit to the region, capturing the can-do spirit of America’s post-war years. “I never knew that there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.” He soon learned the hard way. Moses was beaten for organizing voters in rural Amite County, Mississippi, only to watch his assailant cleared by an all-white jury. In 1963, he famously — as a passenger — grabbed the wheel of a moving car and stopped it after the driver had been shot and wounded by racist vigilantes. Then he wrote a striking second chapter when he launched the Algebra Project in 1982, teaching other Black kids to succeed in math as he did. His life story should be required reading in Washington, D.C., where those fighting the new voter suppression seem cowed in ways that violate the courage of Bob Moses and his generation. They risked everything for the right to vote. We can be doing so much more.
Inquirer reading list
It’s an idea that’s generated a lot of controversy, but leading Democrats in D.C. seem to think now that federal voting rights legislation is hopelessly blocked, and thus the only way to overcome GOP suppression tactics is to “out-organize” their foes. For my Sunday column, I profiled activist Kadida Kenner and the group she now runs, the New Pennsylvania Project. Can the methods that Stacey Abrams and friends used to swing Georgia to the Democrats work in the Keystone State?
It’s hard to criticize Merrick Garland, the man — heir to an immigrant legacy, and a tireless worker, in thrall to public service. It’s easier, though, to go after the kind of politics he represents: cautious, valuing norms over results, and suggesting to the working class that he’s not fighting for them. In my most recent column, I wondered if the elite institutionalism of Garland and, at times, the Biden administration will cement Democrats as a minority party of the college educated.
It’s easy to look at today’s Trump-fried craziness, like the bizarre election audit, or “fraudit,” in Arizona and laugh at those folks 2,500 miles away. Except that the conspiracy-mongers walk among us, even in upscale joints like Philadelphia’s Main Line — as reported this week by The Inquirer’s Andrew Seidman. He unraveled the saga of former congressional hopeful and possible 2022 GOP Senate candidate Kathy Barnette as she dug deeper into a rabbit hole of wacky election-fraud allegations, making friends along the way like “Pillow guy” Mike Lindell — and thus saw her popularity with the Republican base increase. It takes time and experienced journalists to get to the bottom of a story like this, and in Philadelphia that means The Inquirer. Please support us by subscribing.