“[Slavery] started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here and a court order there, and a little more regulation here and a little more regulation there and, before we knew it, America had slavery. It didn’t come over in a ship to begin with as an evil slave trade.” —Glenn Beck, during his October 1, 2010 radio program

“The slowdown has reached such a wide range of countries that they’re now feeding on one another.” —Alan Ruskin, chief international strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital, on the global economy

10 Percent of U.S. Post-Docs Now Have a Union

Higher education workers scored a rare union victory in August 2010 when University of California (UC) post-doctoral researchers ratified their first contract with the administration. The post-docs’ PRO/UAW union was officially recognized in 2008, but the union charged the administration with negotiating in bad faith—over proposed pay scale rates—for nearly the next two years.

Post-docs organized direct action protests at chancellors’ offices, refusing to leave until a call had been placed to the UC president; filed unfair labor practice charges with the state; and pressured members of Congress to investigate UC’s stalling. After the House Committee on Education and Labor convened an investigation on the sluggish process, the Government Accountability Office initiated an audit of UC’s finances to investigate the university’s spending of federal research money. Finally, the UC administration entered into productive contract negotiations.

As with graduate student unions, postdoctoral researchers face numerous arguments that seek to disqualify them from unionization. Most revolve around the apprenticeship model of higher education—post-docs are “paying their dues,” receiving training, or accessing a “privilege” by working for full professors. In fact, post-docs—who have already earned Ph.D.s—work long hours for low pay, often as little as $10 per hour. They are responsible for a great share of the country’s scientific output (particularly in projects funded by the National Institute of Health), but receive few of its rewards. The number of post-docs more than doubled from 1981 to 1997 and has since accelerated, far outpacing the hiring of tenure-track faculty.

Around half of all post-docs come from overseas and have visas particularly suited to their work. Many have kept quiet about workplace concerns so as not to jeopardize their status.

The new five-year contract will improve pay, benefits, time off, and labor protections. The PRO/UAW union, representing sixty-five hundred UC post-docs, is by far the largest of its kind in the United States, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all such researchers nationwide.

Franchise Restaurants Are Impossible to Unionize—or Are They?

In early September, nine Jimmy John’s restaurants in Minneapolis, Minnesota experienced something that franchises rarely do: a work stoppage. Walking out to demand better wages, sick days, workers’ compensation, and overall better conditions, the Minneapolis workers announced the creation of the Jimmy John’s Workers Union (JJWU). Affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World—which still exists in small grouplets across the country—the newly formed union filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

JJWU has not been recognized by the franchise ownership. Franchise management implied that it would soon be making layoffs through its announcement that it would be hiring at all of its restaurant locations. As a result, JJWU supporters picketed outside Jimmy John’s in thirty-two states on Labor Day—one of the few real labor actions to take place on the day. On October 22, the union lost a very narrow citywide vote, but it is now appealing.

Franchise restaurant workers have been notoriously difficult to organize for a variety of reasons: high turnover, low concentration of workers at each site, structural roadblocks, and unremitting corporate opposition. In a 1994 trial, McDonald’s executives acknowledged that in the early 1970s alone, they defeated some four hundred unionization efforts. It remains to be seen whether the Jimmy John’s effort will be a bellwether for further labor actions in this historically difficult sector.

Take Back the Land Movement Stirs During National Housing Crisis

n 2006, a group of activists caught national attention when they seized public land in Liberty City, Florida to build what they called the Umoja Village Shantytown. The direct-action tactic of seizing land or abandoned buildings probably had not been seen since the Depression era, but it has begun to spread to other cities in the last two years. In May 2010, activists were arrested while attempting to “liberate” a property as part of a “Right to Return Weekend” in New Orleans, where there are twenty thousand homeless people and sixty thousand abandoned homes. In July, activists set up a similar tent city in a vacant lot in Washington, D.C., defying police orders to disburse for months.

More spontaneously, tent cities have begun to crop up in Northern Virginia, California, and Nashville, Tennessee. Cities reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness since 2007, but tents have even become more common in U.S. suburbs, where foreclosed homeowners have simply camped out in front of their former properties. Many of the country’s new homeless are not completely accounted for, as they have moved into their cars or RVs.

Global Warming + Free Market = Food Riots

Public outrage over high grain prices erupted on September 1 in Mozambique, leading to three days of rioting that left thirteen dead. In a country where 90 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars per day—and which recently experienced doubledigit increases for water and energy costs—the grain price shock was simply too much to take.

The spike in prices resulted from major fires on Russia’s grain fields, which in turn were caused by climate change. Russia, which produces 8 percent of the world’s wheat, issued a temporary export ban to satisfy its domestic market, leading to buying panics, shortages, and speculative price hikes worldwide.

In 2007-2008, food riots in thirty-one countries captured worldwide attention and led many commentators to proclaim that, despite major technological advances in agriculture, the world had seen the end of the “era of cheap food.” Food commodities had once been considered unshakeable, but importers are now starting to talk more openly about food self-sufficiency.

The Return of “Debtors’Prisons” in the United States

Outlawed by most states—and at the federal level in the 1830s—a pre-industrial penal institution has made a shocking return to the United States: the imprisonment of insolvent debtors. According to a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a growing number of people in at least thirteen states have been incarcerated for failure to repay legal fees. The ACLU study found that states especially target those who have just completed their criminal sentences. Seven states suspend voting privileges for those who cannot repay, while eight suspend driving privileges.

Of the handful of cases highlighted in the ACLU report, the most shocking is that of Kawana Young, a 25-year-old single mother in Michigan jailed five times for being unable to pay her fees. Young attempted to use her community service hours to satisfy her debts but was rejected on the grounds that she had volunteered for a non-profit organization.

State governments have justified this practice, which was ruled unconstitutional in a 1980 Supreme Court case, by pointing to growing budget deficits. Even the economic logic is spurious because, as the ACLU report made plain, there is a much greater taxpayer cost involved with sending someone back to prison.

Chicago Parents Launch Weeks-Long Sit-in to Demand Public Library

Only a few weeks into the 2010-2011 school year, a group of fifteen to twenty parents in Chicago occupied a school field house (dubbed “La Casita”), demanding that the building be converted into a public library rather than be demolished (as the city has ordered).

According to the parents at Chicago’s Whittier Elementary School, which serves a predominantly Latino community, the neighborhood lacks a library and the planned demolition will be more expensive than the cost of converting the building. The parents have even offered to run the library themselves, collecting donations to buy books, paint, curtains, and other supplies. They fear the lot will be sold to a nearby private school and turned into a soccer field.

The parents have been supported by the Chicago Teachers Union and a variety of community organizations.