Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Still Locking People Up for Being Poor? Really?! It's 2014.

Go To Original

Debtors' prisons sound like ancient history, right? Unfortunately, they're all too common across the United States. In spite of the Constitution, case law, and common sense, low-income people are routinely jailed in places as far-flung as Georgia and Washington State simply because they cannot afford to pay their court fines.
Let's define court fines, because it's kind of shocking. "Court fines" could be as little as a couple hundred bucks because someone was pulled over while driving with an expired license. If you've just been laid off and have kids to feed, it might be hard to find a couple hundred extra bucks in your budget. Well, that can send you to lock up.
Not only does it cost the community quite a bit to jail someone (usually way in excess of the fine), but locking people up can trap them in the vicious cycle of poverty, debt, and incarceration that typifies the modern day debtors' prison. Individuals incarcerated because they can't pay minor court fines have lost their jobs, been evicted from their housing, suffered serious declines in their health, and faced family crises.
Not only are debtors' prisons wildly bad public policy, they are unconstitutional. And yet thousands of people are still beaten down by the justice system simply because they cannot pay their fines.
Today, as a result of ACLU of Ohio advocacy following the release of Outskirts of Hope, our report exposing debtor's prisons in Ohio, the practice has been dealt a major blow in our state. The Ohio Supreme Court released a "bench card" to every state and municipal court judge in Ohio explaining how they must avoid sending people to jail who are too poor to pay their court fines. This bench card is the first of its kind in the nation. It marks an unprecedented move by the Ohio Supreme Court to educate and hold accountable judges who ignore the law. The card provides judges with the legal alternatives to collect payments, and the procedure they must follow to determine a person's ability to pay their court fines.
Ending the debtors' prison cycle can turn lives around. Take the story of Jack Dawley, who had convictions from the early 1990's due to his addiction to drugs and alcohol. In the mid-1990's Jack became sober and tried to get his life back on track. Despite being sober for 14 years and paying what he could on his fines, Jack could not escape debtors' prison. For years, Jack faced the threat of jail every time he fell behind on his payments, or had to miss work at his construction site due to a chronic back injury. Even after Jack had lost his job and his home, his judge still threatened to send him to jail if he did not pay his fines.
Jack had reached his lowest point when he decided to contact the ACLU of Ohio.
As a result of our report and intervention, Jack's life has taken a dramatic turn. Since we released Outskirts of Hope, some Ohio courts even started changing their practices prior to release of the Ohio Supreme Court's bench card. The Supreme Court made it pretty clear that the Judge in Jack's case needed to follow the law and not send Jack to jail because of an inability to pay court fines. I spoke to Jack by phone last night to tell him about the release of the bench card and he was a different man. Jack informed me that he has a job at a fruit packing plant and was recently promoted to a floor supervisor. He saved money and was able to get an apartment, reinstate his drivers' license, and get his car working again. In 10 months, he has gone from no hope and no opportunity to professing, "the sky is the limit."
By taking action today, the Ohio Supreme Court has struck a deep blow against unconstitutional debtors' prisons and restores hope to those trapped by poverty and injustice. It's time the rest of the country did the same.

Outsiders, Not Auto Plant, Battle U.A.W. in Tennessee

Go To Original

At theVolkswagen plant nestled in Tennessee’s rolling hills, a unionization drive has drawn national attention as business groups worry about organized labor’s efforts to gain its first foothold at a foreign-owned automobile plant in the South. In a region known as anti-union, many view VW’s response as unusual, if not topsy-turvy.

Unlike most companies that confront unionization efforts, Volkswagen — facing a drive by the United Automobile Workers — has not mounted a vigorous campaign to beat back the union; instead VW officials have hinted they might even prefer having a union. And while unions that seek to organize factories often complain that the playing field is tilted because they do not have access to workers in the plant, here the union opponents are the ones protesting what they say is an uneven field.

The anti-U.A.W. forces are making themselves heard, warning that if the U.A.W. succeeds here, that will lend momentum to unionize two other prestigious German-owned plants: the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and the BMW plant in South Carolina.

Two of Tennessee’s most prominent Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, have repeatedly voiced concerns that a U.A.W. victory would hurt the plant’s competitiveness and the state’s business climate.

A business-backed group put up a billboard declaring, “Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga,” while a prominent anti-union group, the National Right to Work Committee, has brought legal challenges against the U.A.W.’s effort, asserting that VW officials improperly pressured workers to back a union.

In addition, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, has set up a group, the Center for Worker Freedom, that has fought the U.A.W. on several fronts, partly to prevent the election of labor’s Democratic allies who might increase government spending.

“It’s unusual how national groups have really gotten interested in this,” said Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University. “It seems that both the business community and labor are seeing what’s happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history.”

The billion-dollar Volkswagen assembly plant opened in 2011, aided by $577 million in state subsidies, there to great fanfare. It was expected to buoy Chattanooga’s image as a place to do business. There was no whiff of unionization.

But Chattanooga’s business community grew alarmed last September when the U.A.W. asked VW for union recognition, saying a majority of the plant’s 1,600 assembly workers had signed cards seeking union representation.

The business community reacted with further dismay when several Volkswagen officials from Germany visited the plant and hinted that it would be good to have a labor union because that would help establish a German-style works council. Such councils, comprising managers and representatives of white-collar and blue-collar workers, seek to foster collaboration within a factory as they forge policies on plant rules, work hours, vacations and other matters.

Michael Cantrell, 56, an assembly line worker, said it would be great to have a works council because it would give the workers more of a voice and help VW by fostering a smoother-running plant.

“It gives them a great competitive advantage if they do this,” said Mr. Cantrell, who has an M.B.A. and ran a tax preparation company before joining Volkswagen. “They have this standardized across the world. We feel we’re not as competitive if we don’t have this collaboration. This would be a paradigm shift.”

The U.A.W. and many legal experts say it would be illegal for an American company to set up a works council without first having a union, asserting that otherwise the works council might be an illegal, employer-dominated workers group.

Scott Wilson, a VW spokesman, said: “Volkswagen values the rights of its employees in all locations to representation of their interests.  In the United States, it is only possible to realize this in conjunction with a union.  This is a decision that ultimately lies in the hands of the employees. For this reason, we have begun a dialogue with the U.A.W.” Last Thursday, National Labor Relations Board officials said VW had not improperly pressured workers to support the union.

In another twist, Mr. Cantrell and many workers want a union even though they say Volkswagen treats them well. In their view, a union would give them a greater voice and job security and help ensure that management communicated better and was more sensitive on scheduling. Mr. Cantrell said his pay, $19.50 an hour, is fine, but “it’s not anything exorbitant.”

Don Jackson, who was Volkswagen of America’s president of manufacturing before retiring in 2012, has become an outspoken opponent of unionization and a works council. Last year, he laid into the U.A.W. at a public forum with 150 attendees.

“Volkswagen wants the works council so badly they don’t care how they get it,” Mr. Jackson said in an interview. “Quite frankly I don’t see why we need a works council.”

Mr. Jackson said he did not think the U.A.W. had majority backing. “If they truly had the support they would have already asked for a vote,” he said.

Gary Casteel, the U.A.W.’s Southern director, voiced confidence that the union would win an election. “I don’t know how Don Jackson does his math.” he said. “Volkswagen knows we have a majority, and we know we have a majority.”

Governor Haslam and Senator Corker have argued that VW should not recognize the U.A.W. based on card signings, but rather on a secret-ballot election. Senator Corker said he had been told that VW would insist on an election. “While I care about Volkswagen, what I care most about is our community and about our households being able to progress and have a great standard of living,” he said. “I’m concerned about the impact of the U.A.W. on the future efforts to recruit business to our community.”

He added, “The work rules and other things that typically come with the UA.W. would drive up costs. It would make the facility less competitive.”

Mike Burton, 56, a quality assurance worker who has set up an elaborate anti-union website, no2uaw.com, said he thought the union would lose an election. He said that in two weeks he persuaded 30 percent of the plant’s workers to sign an anti-U.A.W. petition. “When you see what the U.A.W. did in Detroit, you have to worry about what it will do here,” he said.

Matt Patterson, who heads the new Center for Worker Freedom, an arm of Mr. Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, has promoted an anti-union agenda here, writing opinion articles and forming an anti-union coalition. “When the cost of government goes up, Americans for Tax Reform isn’t happy about it,” he said. “Unions are a big driver of government. Unions are very political, the U.A.W. is one of the most political. If they help elect politicians who pass huge government programs, that requires taxes.”

Like many pro-union workers, Mr. Cantrell objects to Mr. Patterson’s presence. “He’s making money by coming into our community from Washington and telling me and my co-workers what’s best for us,” he said. “What does he know about the auto industry?”

Eric DeLacy, 33, works in the plant’s paint shop and backs the U.A.W. “The union will do everything to make this succeed,” he said. “They want this plant to succeed. The union wants this to be the first domino falling that will create a chain reaction.”

Mr. Corker predicted the U.A.W. would be “on its best behavior for three to five years,” before reverting to its traditional militancy. “They will do that to get their nose under the tent of other auto manufacturers in the South,” he said.

Japanese Government Plans to Dump Radiated, Strontium-90-Rich Groundwater into Pacific

Go To Original

All trust has been shattered. It isn’t as if the Pacific Ocean needs more radioactive mire, but the Japanese government is trying to dump their poisoned ground water into an ocean that is already quickly dying.  A senior scientist at MIT, Ken Buesseler, and co-author of Japan’s Continuing Nuclear Nightmare says, “ultimately you can’t keep putting contaminated water in tanks. You are going to have to decontaminate and release some of that water. There’s a finite amount of real estate . . .” but Tepco isn’t decontaminating that water. They simply don’t have the resources to do it. High strontium-90 levels found in groundwater are simply going to be redirected to the Pacific if the government gets approval.

My question is whose approval? Who ultimately is in charge of saying, “sure you can put so much poison in the ocean, it will never be able to support life again, and while you’re at it, go ahead and start watching that toxic, radioactive sludge travel up the food chain, until it reaches human beings, and kills them off faster than the plague.” The Nationwide Fisheries Foundation has been called upon to support the dumping, ‘as long as the water’s contamination level is far below the legal limit,’ one that has been recently changed by governments around the world.

While the measure is an attempt to keep the toxic water from piling up in tanks, it certainly isn’t a wise decision to dump it into the ocean, especially since Tepco has been imprudent in reporting the true levels of contamination up to this point. Officials are requesting a more stringent level of – how shall we put this – appropriate contamination compared to legal limits before releasing the water into the ocean, but most of us are well appraised, there are no longer any safe levels of radiation in the Pacific – sea lions, whales, deep sea squid, lantern fishsardines, sea stars, and even plankton are showing up with radiation poisoning and dying on our shores. Enough already. Japan, and the rest of the world – wake up! You are killing life on earth as we know it. Or maybe that was the plan all along.