Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Costs of Becoming a Journalist

A report by the British Cabinet Office released this summer offers stark evidence of the disappearance of the working class from the journalism profession, and the study offers some relevant observations for American media as well.

The report, Unleashing Aspirations, notes, among other things, that journalists born since 1970 predominantly come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds.  And Journalism ranks third in the list of the most socially exclusive professions, just behind doctors and lawyers.

The study finds that:

Between the 1958 and the 1970 birth cohorts, the biggest decline in social mobility occurred in the professions of journalism and accountancy. For example, journalists and broadcasters born in 1958 typically grew up in families with an income of around 5.5% above that of the average family; but this rose to 42.4% for the generation of journalists and broadcasters born in 1970.

The National Union of Journalists told the panel compiling the report that a 2002 Journalism Training Forum poll showed that fewer than 10 per cent of new journalists came from a working-class background and only three per cent came from homes headed by semi-skilled or unskilled workers.

One of the many troubling findings of the report, and the one most readily applicable to the profession here in the US, is that a prerequisite for entrance into a career in journalism is at least one internship experience, and that many, if not most, are unpaid. A cursory glance at available internships here in the US reveals that of 50 intern opportunities listed on journalismjobs.com, only 15 offer pay. Of the 50 internships posted, another 15 offer no pay but college credit, which at many universities, ours included, means that doing an internship actually costs a student tuition money.  Here at YSU, students can earn six hours maximum for internships, but at many universities, 12 to 16 are allowed, paving the way for students to spend several thousand dollars (at least) to get an entire academic semester of work experience.  .

If the student can afford this luxury and the cost of living in the city in which he or she interns, s/he in theory gains the passkey to an entry-level position somewhere upon graduation. Of course, many of the most prestigious internships are located in the media hubs of New York and Washington D.C. where the costs of living are beyond the reach of a student from an average, let alone below average wage earning household.

Of the 15 internships listed that offer pay, the average salary is just under $250 per week for an average of 35 hours, before taxes. If a student is working to pay his or her tuition and rent and also, in many cases, supporting a family while going to school, even the paid internship is an impossibility.

This means, of course, that only students who can afford to work for free for several months are gaining the credentials to access their chosen profession.

The broader implications of this exclusion from the journalism profession are obvious and have been documented by ourselves and others—fewer opportunities for working- class students to enter the profession equals fewer journalists attuned to the complex issues facing the working class and fewer stories about the issues facing working-class people.

Of course, the best-case scenario to remedy this inequity would be if news organizations paid living wages to interns, but in the current media market, one in which many outlets are struggling to survive, this seems unlikely.

And, if the current enrollment trends in journalism programs continue, there will be ample supply of candidates ready to pay to work or work for no pay. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that despite the dismal outlook for jobs upon graduation, more and more students are choosing journalism majors, increasing the competition for scarce jobs and furthering the entrenchment of unpaid internships as a means to gain a leg up on the competition.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson even suggests that while the current practice is clearly exclusionary, “It’s not the responsibility or the interest of the businesses like magazines and non-profits who operate on slim budgets and narrow margins to design an internship that can accommodate even the least fortunate.” Rather Thompson argues that colleges should instead expand their acceptance of accredited internships or provide financing.

Some schools, like Dartmouth College, have done just that by providing financing for students to complete internships. The college has grants available for students to take on unpaid internships, and offers additional funds for financial aid recipients based on need.

But for working-class students at colleges and universities that lack the deep pockets of Dartmouth the choice still most often comes down to an unpaid internship that will drive them deeper into debt or a job that allows them to pay another year’s expenses– not much of a choice.

The consequences of this increasing social exclusivity of the profession are dire, and more complex than a matter of equal class representation within the ranks of professional journalists for the sake of equality or diversity.

If journalists increasingly come from a more privileged social class or segment of society, even the best of them will likely not question the master narratives that have victimized the working class for decades: maximum profit takes precedence over fair and equitable treatment, what’s good for business is always good for America, and so on.

The end result will be more stories that fail to question these fundamental assumptions, stories that inevitably reduce the worker to a trite anecdotal device, a narrative stepping stone to “really important” people and issues.

Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco

Lessons from the Health Care Debate

Now that Senate Finance Committee Chair and Blue Dog Democrat Max Baucus has introduced his overdue and incredibly inadequate version of health care reform legislation, all eyes are on the Obama administration and House and Senate leaders as they stuff the provisions of five different bills and hundreds of amendments into the Congressional sausage-making machine and attempt to grind out a palatable reform package.

Away from the spotlight, however, strategists aligned with both political parties are already engaged in an exercise that is even more important than fixing the nation’s crippled health care delivery system.  Democrats are busily attempting to figure out what went wrong and how they can make sure they don’t screw up like this again, while Republicans want to figure out how to make sure that it happens again, and again, and again, until we end up back in power?

The answers have far deeper implications than the provisions of the health care bill that will eventually reach the president’s desk.  The side that finds the right answers will control the policy and electoral battlefield for years to come.

Among those offering answers are William Galston, Stan Greenberg, and Ruy Teixeira, the influential editors of the web-based journal The Democratic Strategist. In their most recent issue, they and writer James Vega assert that the Democrats’ difficulties were not caused by the administration’s flawed strategic and legislative decisions related to health care reform.  Instead, they place the blame on the Obama team’s failure to create and organize around a clearly defined core message within one month of taking office.

Their prescription for curing what ails the Party?  They suggest that the President clearly define himself and his agenda, that the Democrats establish a highly motivated corps of volunteers dedicated to spreading the word about the message, and that the Party develop local activities, including selling or distributing coffee mugs, tire gauges, and soap emblazoned with the words “Yes we can,” that will eventually involve into “enduring” institutions.

My reaction: wrong diagnosis, wrong cure.  And that’s dangerous because Galston, Greenberg, and Teixeira are so influential that some Democratic leaders may actually attempt to implement their misguided strategy instead of focusing on fixing what’s really gone wrong—and what most threatens the Democratic grasp on the reins of power.

Let’s start with their contention that the president’s failure to define his overall message, rather than his flawed health care strategy, is to blame for the current debacle.  This ignores the fact that the American people were extremely familiar with and supportive of Mr. Obama’s overall philosophy and agenda immediately before and after he took office.  They knew health care reform was his signature initiative, they overwhelmingly agreed that the system needed to be fixed, and in poll after poll, including one recently conducted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, they name him as the person they trusted most to get the job done.

It wasn’t necessary to lay out the big picture—everyone got it, including the suddenly cooperative health care stakeholders and dispirited conservatives: reform was inevitable.  Not even Rush Limbaugh, who assumed virtual leadership of the GOP after the 2008 election, or the incredibly bizarre Glenn Beck could stop it.

Then the President made a strategic blunder. He turned responsibility for crafting the final plan over to Congressional Democrats.  The minute he did so the public’s confidence in and support for reform began to erode, especially among critically important independent voters.

That created the opportunity for conservatives to gain control of the debate.  As five separate Congressional committees dithered for months, anti-reform activists began spreading lies about the various proposals.  Suddenly we heard about government-run death panels that would cavalierly kill grandma, dangerous cuts in Medicare, and Canadian-style socialized medicine that would leave Americans dying in the streets as they waited for heart operations and chemotherapy.

As the falsehoods gained traction in the media, reform advocates grew increasingly frustrated.  Not because no Democratic activists were prepared to enter the fray.  To the contrary, the nearly ten million members of Organizing for America were eager to become involved.  But without a concrete reform plan to counter the lies being spread by Limbaugh, Beck, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannitty, and Sarah Palin, they found it hard to fight.  You can’t beat something—even a compendium of BS—with nothing.

And that’s all the Democrats had until the president addressed a joint session of Congress on September 9.  Reclaiming ownership of the issue, he used his impressive rhetorical skills to inspire supporters, engender trust among skeptics, and shame the liars.  We won’t know for months whether he acted in time.  But at least reform, which had entered a permanent vegetative state during August, is now showing spasmodic signs of life.

No matter the outcome, Democrats must learn some important lessons from the current battle.  The first is that Barack Obama was elected to lead and despite his apparent compulsion to seek consensus, he must do exactly that when the stakes are high.  Damn the Republicans and the Blue Dogs.  Take charge. Get the job done.

A number of difficult issues remain on the table, including reshaping the American economy, re-regulating Wall Street, and restoring workers’ rights.  The outcome of those battles is entirely dependent on whether the president will use his personal political capital to fight for what’s right.  If he does, progressives will win.  If not, they will almost certainly lose.

The second lesson is not to re-invent the organizational wheel.  Democrats weren’t out-organized on health care.  They were out-communicated.  The millions of Organize for America activists who check their e-mail everyday hoping to be called to action would have totally overwhelmed the conservative wing-nuts if only they’d been given the message they needed to do so.

Finally, Democrats don’t need to waste time, effort, money, and energy building a new organization or printing up a bunch of doo-dads emblazoned with “Yes, we can.”  Organize for America has already demonstrated that.  And they’re out there waiting for the opportunity to show that they can do it again.

Leo Jennings

Growing Food, Growing a Movement

Until recently, I’ve been largely ignoring the movement to change how we eat.  Too much of the movement focuses on upper-middle class denizens of big coastal cities, people sipping on soy lattes as they drive their Volvo stations wagons out to do a shift of sweat equity on a small community-supported farm and who pay twice what I’d be willing to spend for organically-raised free-range buffalo meat.  Of course, I sort of belong to that group.  I love to cook, I grow my own poblano peppers and Japanese eggplant, and I can be as much of a snob as Alice Waters when it comes to what I eat.  But I just couldn’t embrace a movement to improve the eating habits of wealthy white people, even though I’m one of them, because it mostly ignored the fact that thousands of people eat poorly or go hungry in this country every day because they either can’t afford good food or don’t have access to a decent grocery store, much less an organic farm.

But lately I’ve been hearing about a different version of the good food movement, a version that explicitly addresses the needs of poor and working-class people of color in urban communities.   And clearly I’m not alone: the September 21 issue of The Nation focuses on food, with a cover headline promising to tell us “how to grow democracy.” The food movement, it seems, has discovered the working class.

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with two men who are part of the working-class wing of the good food movement, men whose work goes far beyond feeding people.  They also foster cross-class coalitions in support of good wages, fighting crime, and improving the environment.  Their work reminds us that some of the most promising organizing in working-class communities these days is happening on street corners, in food pantries and shelters, at schools, in churches, and on empty lots transformed into community gardens.

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  When I interviewed him in July, he told me that more than 36 million Americans can’t afford to buy enough food, and about a third of them are children.  Food banks help, but he says the real problem is low wages.  Most of those who don’t have enough food live in families where at least one person works.  The problem is that too many working-class jobs won’t support a family.  His answer to hunger in America:  livable wages.  In All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, he describes the problem, explains why so many people are going hungry, and challenges President Obama and other political leaders to eradicate hunger by ensuring that workers are paid enough to afford to feed themselves and their families.

Will Allen runs Growing Power, Inc., a multifaceted urban agriculture project that not only raises thousands of pounds of good food in the heart of urban Milwaukee and Chicago every year but also provides good jobs for 35 full-time workers and summer jobs for hundreds of urban teenagers.  Allen “grows soil” through a massive composting program, but he also grows community by teaching young people from schools and juvenile justice centers how to plant and raise their own food.  His farm provides fresh organic vegetables, honey, and even meat and fish to low-income families.  Best of all, Growing Power has designed a sustainable non-profit organization, supporting most of its programs by selling the food and gardening supplies that it produces.  Urban agriculture expands on the model of community gardens, demonstrating that feeding the hungry can also provide jobs and contribute to local economies.  Allen has been spreading this model around the US and around the world.  He’s helped local groups start urban farms in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, Kenya, and the Ukraine.

Allen was in Youngstown earlier this month, in part to help a local organization, Grow Youngstown, develop its urban agriculture program.  Grow Youngstown is just one part of an emerging movement to stop complaining about how economic change has battered us and start finding creative ways to transform the local economy and the local landscape.  In Youngstown, as in other cities built around the steel and auto industries, neighborhoods are full of abandoned houses and empty lots.  When their laid-off owners could no longer make payments, the houses fell to decay, arson, and demolition.  While many have noted the ways that these vacant properties undermine community agency as well as property values – indeed, John Russo and I have made that argument ourselves –, organizations like Grow Youngstown view them as resources.  In a low-income neighborhood near my house, amidst too many trash-strewn empty lots, a small plot is being transformed.  For now, it’s mostly about growing soil – composting, bringing in worms, preparing the ground for planting – and planting a few trees and small gardens.  Neighbors, community organizations, and a summer day camp have all been involved.  And the organization will soon hire its first employees.

One more urban farm won’t, of course, revive our national economy, nor will it soon solve the problems of hunger among poor and working-class residents of the city, or even of this one neighborhood.  But livable wage campaigns and sustainable urban agriculture programs offer good models for how to improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods.  Together, they combine advocating for policy change with grassroots economic development, working from both sides of the economic system to foster concrete, realistic changes.  And that I can embrace.

Sherry Linkon

Stop Stealing from Workers

Late last year I sat in the office of an Ohio County Prosecutor and provided her and the County Sherriff thick notebooks documenting a systematic theft of workers’ wages by a local construction contractor by means of misclassification under Ohio Prevailing Wage Law and systematic underpayment. The theft was compounded by the fact that company officials signed false verifications of compliance with state prevailing wage laws under penalty of perjury.   To add insult to injury, the job on which the wage theft took place was being paid for with tax dollars from that same county.

I asked the Prosecutor what would happen if a local construction contractor had brought evidence that one of their workers, perhaps a bookkeeper, had fraudulently written herself tens of thousands of dollars in checks from funds belonging to the company and then lied about the theft on government mandated reports signed under penalty of perjury. The Prosecutor, Sherriff, and their assistants and deputies all assured me that the culprit would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I smiled, certain that  these law enforcement officials, ethical office holders, and civil servants would be as anxious to arrest and prosecute the owners of the construction company for stealing wages from their employees and lying about it under penalty of perjury as they would be to prosecute that bookkeeper.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

They flatly refused to treat the wage theft as a criminal offense.  Instead, the company’s conduct was treated as a “mistake,” blamed on failure to understand the law.

Enforcement was left to the Ohio Department of Commerce, which could only require the company to pay back wages.  While more than $40,000 was ordered to be paid to the 9 employees and a 100 percent civil penalty assessed, the company owners were spared the life changing consequences of a criminal prosecution.

My experience was put into disturbing context by Kim Bobo’s new book, Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—and What We Can Do about It (New York: The New Press, 2009) .  Bobo documents a wage theft crime wave across the United States. The victims range from illegal immigrants who fear deportation if they report violations to skilled construction workers who are forced to kick back parts of their paycheck on government projects, and includes childcare and home healthcare workers, sales clerks, and many others.  Bobo makes a compelling case that wage theft is far more pervasive than most of us understand or would like to admit.

Bobo draws her analysis primarily from her experience in running Interfaith Worker Justice Center in Chicago and cases handled by other worker centers throughout the country, and  a recent study of over 4000 low wage workers dramatically verified Bobo’s conclusions.  The study, “Broken Laws: Unprotected Workers,” makes stunning discoveries of the rampant nature of wage theft in America. Here are a few of the conclusions:

  • 26 % of respondents had been paid less than the minimum wage in the previous workweek.
  • 25% of the respondents had worked more than 40 hours in the previous week but a  whopping 76% of them were not paid overtime.
  • 70% of workers who arrived early or stayed late at their employer’s request were not paid for the extra time.
  • 69 % of workers entitled to meal breaks didn’t get them.

Wages are stolen from tens if not hundreds of thousands of American workers every day.  If employers were stealing from customers in such a systematic way, law enforcement at all levels would be forming task forces and putting thousands in jail.

Why should theft of wages from American workers be different?  Bobo suggests that most instances of wage theft can be traced to old-fashioned greed.  Greed is sometimes dressed up with rational sounding names like “pressure from competitors in low wage countries” or “innovative” compensation schemes.  But at the end of the day employers steal from those who work for them in order to make more money.

Bobo correctly points out that wage theft is also driven by the greed of consumers who demand low prices.   That demand leads some companies to indirectly encourage wage theft.    Bobo quotes the Congressional Testimony of MIT Professor Thomas Kochan, regarding the poster child for wage theft in America: “Wal-Mart executives have established corporate policies that are ethical and appear to conform to legal requirements. However Wal-Mart has also established financial and business objectives that managers find difficult to achieve without circumventing those rules.”  This is a scenario not unique to Wal-Mart. Despite ethical, legal policies, many companies repeatedly steal from their employees in order to reduce labor costs.

But perhaps the biggest factor is the lack of consequences.  Wage thieves are only rarely caught, and those who are face almost no legal, financial, or societal consequences.  Often the worst penalty for a wage theft is being forced to pay workers what they should have been paid to begin with and then only for the period of time allowed under the statute of limitations (often as little as two years).   Weak enforcement of relatively weak laws is as much to blame for the widespread practice of wage theft as employer or consumer greed.

Wage Theft in America proposes a variety of potential solutions to the problem.  Bobo’s proposals range from creating more worker centers to dramatically beefing up the enforcement capacity of Federal and State Wage and Hour Enforcement Agencies to policies that increase the number of workers represented by labor unions.  While her proposals would work, much of what she suggests would require legislation and appropriations that are politically unattainable even with Democratic control of all three branches of the federal government. (See the recent collapse of card check provision of the Employee Free Choice Act, if you have any doubt about this).

However, some less controversial and inexpensive strategies can help.   Congress needs to simplify economic protection laws and make it easier for employees to report wage theft offenses.  In particular, workers need reliable protection against retaliation for reporting violations.  Workers currently risk of termination or other workplace punishment if they report wage theft.

But ending wage theft may not require new laws.  Instead, government agencies should simply enforce existing regulations.  It won’t take many well-publicized arrests to persuade employers to stop cheating workers.

Making that happen will require political pressure.  Activists, religious organizations, and labor unions need to reignite the kind of moral outrage that brought about our current labor laws almost a century ago.  Rooting discussions of wage theft in religion can help.  Bobo argues that religious teachings from the Old Testament to the Quran demand that workers receive their fair day’s pay.  Because of this, religious organizations can be fertile ground for generating moral outrage against those who exploit the least among us.

Labor Unions and political activists should educate elected prosecutors and sheriffs about wage theft and how it undermines local citizens and the community.  And they should pressure law enforcement officials to do their jobs.  Local business communities should also support such efforts, since cheating competitors have an unfair advantage over ethical businesses that follow the law.  And since Bobo’s book demonstrates that companies with labor unions are less likely to commit wage fraud than their competitors, union leaders should engage their counterparts across the bargaining table to join in efforts to encourage more serious enforcement.

Unions and their lawyers can devote resources to investigating and documenting wage theft, providing overburdened state and federal officials the evidence they need to bring cases.  Efforts by construction unions to promote “fair contracting” have forced non-union competitors to comply with prevailing wage laws. Organized labor should embrace these efforts as tools to strengthen unionized competitors in every industry and for organizing more companies in the future.  Such efforts also show management and potential members the added value that having a union can bring to a company and its workers.

Wage Theft in America frames the debate as about not just the value of labor unions in the workplace, but also the value of workers themselves.  Reframing wage and hour violations as crime, reclaiming the moral high ground, and refusing to tolerate wage theft not only discourages cheating of workers but also reminds companies that operate ethically, as most do, that wage theft cuts into their bottom lines.  Such changes in the public debate would certainly have changed the outcome of my efforts to prosecute the cheating contractor in Ohio.

Marc Dann is a lawyer in Cleveland who represents labor unions and workers seeking fair wages and contracting practices and has been a community affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies for four years .