About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Banning the First Amendment

by Walter Brasch

            Parents demanded it be banned.
            School superintendents placed it in restricted sections of their libraries.
            It is the most challenged book four of the past five years, according to the American Library Association (ALA).
            “It” is a 32-page illustrated children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, with illustrations by Henry Cole. The book is based upon the real story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins, who had formed a six-year bond at New York City’s Central Park Zoo, and who “adopted” a fertilized egg and raised the chick until she could be on her own.
            Gays saw the story as a positive reinforcement of their lifestyle. Riding to rescue America from homosexuality were the biddies against perversion. Gay love is against the Bible, they wailed; the book isn’t suitable for the delicate minds of children, they cried as they pushed libraries and schools to remove it from their shelves or at the very least make it restricted.
            The penguins may have been gay—or maybe they weren’t. It’s not unusual for animals to form close bonds with others of their same sex. But the issue is far greater than whether or not the penguins were gay or if the book promoted homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. People have an inherent need to defend their own values, lifestyles, and worldviews by attacking others who have a different set of beliefs. Banning or destroying free speech and the freedom to publish is one of the ways people believe they can protect their own lifestyles.
            During the first decade of the 21st century, the most challenged books, according to the ALA, were J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, apparently because some people believe fictionalized witchcraft is a dagger into the soul of organized religion. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was the 10th most challenged in 2010. Perhaps some parents weren’t comfortable with their adolescents having to make a choice between werewolves and vampires.
            Among the most challenged books is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the vicious satire about firemen burning books to save humanity. Other books that are consistently among the ALA’s list of most challenged are Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut), The Chocolate War (Robert Cormier), Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), Forever (Judy Blume), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), regarded by most major literary scholars as the finest American novel.
            Name a classic, and it’s probably on the list of the most challenged books. Conservatives, especially fundamental religious conservatives, tend to challenge more books. But, challenges aren’t confined to any one political ideology. Liberals are frequently at the forefront of challenging books that may not agree with their own social philosophies. The feminist movement, while giving the nation a better awareness of the rights of women, wanted to ban Playboy and all works that depicted what they believed were unflattering images if women. Liberals have also attacked the works of Joel Chandler Harris (the Br’er Rabbit series), without understanding history, folklore, or the intent of the journalist-author, who was well-regarded as liberal for his era.
            Although there are dozens of reasons why people say they want to restrict or ban a book, the one reason that threads its way through all of them is that the book challenges conventional authority or features a character who is perceived to be “different,” who may give readers ideas that many see as “dangerous.”
            The belief there are works that are “dangerous” is why governments create and enforce laws that restrict publication. In colonial America, as in almost all countries and territories at that time, the monarchy required every book to be licensed, to be read by a government official or committee to determine if the book was suitable for the people. If so, it received a royal license. If not, it could not be printed.
            In 1644, two decades before his epic poem Paradise Lost was published, John Milton wrote a pamphlet, to be distributed to members of Parliament, against a recently-enacted licensing law. In defiance of the law, the pamphlet was published without license. Using Biblical references and pointing out that the Greek and Roman civilizations didn’t license books, Milton argued, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable create [in] God’s image,” he told Parliament, “but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God.” He concluded his pamphlet with a plea, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
            A century later, Sir William Blackstone, one of England’s foremost jurists and legal scholars, argued against prior restraint, the right of governments to block publication of any work they found offensive for any reason.
            The arguments of Milton and Blackstone became the basis of the foundation of a new country, to be known as the United States of America, and the establishment of the First Amendment.
            Every year, at the end of September, the American Library Association sponsors Banned Book Week, and publishes a summary of book challenges. And every year, it is made more obvious that those who want to ban books, sometimes building bonfires and throwing books upon them as did Nazi Germany, fail to understand the principles of why this nation was created.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Newspaper Editor Files Suit Against Philadelphia Police for Constitutional Violations


by Walter Brasch

            A former managing editor for an online newspaper, OpEdNews, has sued the city of Philadelphia and eight of its police officers for violating her Constitutional rights.
            Cheryl Biren-Wright, Pennsauken, N.J., charges the defendants with violating her 1st, 4th, and 14th amendment rights. The civil action, filed in the U.S. District Court, Philadelphia, is based upon her arrest during a peaceful protest Sept. 12, 2009, at the Army Experience Center (AEC) in the Franklin Mills Mall.
            According to the complaint, Biren-Wright, who was not a part of the demonstration but at the mall as a reporter-photographer, was arrested and charged with failure to disperse and conspiracy, second degree misdemeanors. The charges were subsequently dropped by the Philadelphia district attorney.
            The Philadelphia police also arrested and charged six protestors with conspiracy and failure to disperse—Elaine Brower, 55, New York, N.Y.; Richie Marini, 35, Staten Island, N.Y.; Joan Pleune, 70, Brooklyn, N.Y.(one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961); Beverly Rice, 72, New York, N.Y.; Debra Sweet, 57, Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Sarah Wellington, 26, Piermont, N.Y. Two months after Biren-Wright’s case was dropped, the six protestors were found not guilty in Philadelphia Municipal Court.
            Paul J. Hetznecker, who represented the six defendants in the criminal trial, and Biren-Wright in her civil suit, believes that police over-reaction to protestors, as well as their lack of knowledge or appreciation for Constitutional protections, may be “a systemic problem throughout the country.” Hetznecker says under Constitutional and state law, “There can not be an arbitrary and capricious decision to end the civil rights of the protestors.”
            The civil suit complaint charges that police violated Biren-Wright’s First Amendment rights to “gather information . . . to cover a matter of public interest including the law enforcement activity in public places.” Actions by the police deprived her of 4th and 14th amendment rights that, according to the complaint, protect against “unreasonable search and seizure,” “loss of physical liberty,” and “freedom from excessive use of unreasonable and justified force.”
            The suit lists six separate counts:
            ● Abridgement of her rights under the First Amendment to observe and record news in a public place.
            ● False arrest and imprisonment
            ● Use of excessive force by the police.
            ● False arrest under state law
            ● Common Law Assault under state law
            ● Failure of the City of Philadelphia to adequately train and supervise its police. The complaint charges that because of accepted practices, the defendants may have believed “that their actions would not be properly investigated by supervisory officers and that the misconduct would not be investigated or sanctioned, but would be tolerated.” The policy, according to the complaint, “demonstrates a deliberate indifference on the part of the policymakers of the City of Philadelphia, to the constitutional rights of persons within the City, and were the cause of the violations of the Plaintiff’s rights. . . .”
            Named in the suit in addition to the City of Philadelphia are Lt. Dennis Konczyk, officers Tyrone Wiggins, John Logan, Robert Anderson, Donald West, William Stuski, and two unnamed John Does.
            The Philadelphia Police Department refused to comment about the suit as a matter of policy regarding “issues in court,” according to Jillian Russell, Department spokesperson.

            In August 2008, the Army opened the AEC, a 14,500 square foot “virtual educational facility” with dozens of video games. The Center, deliberately located near an indoor skateboard park, replaced five more traditional recruiting offices, and was designated as a two-year pilot program. The initial cost was $12 million.
            Army recruiters could not actively recruit children under 17, but could talk with the teens and answer any of their questions about the Army. Among the virtual games was one in which children as young as 13 could ride a stationary Humvee and shoot a simulated M-16 rifle at life-like video images of Muslims and terrorists.
            Because of the emphasis upon war, and a requirement that all persons had to sign in at the center, thus allowing the recruiters to follow-up as much as four or five years later, peace activists began speaking out against the AEC.
            To counter what was quickly becoming a public relations problem, the Army sent out news releases, picked up by the mainstream media, and established a full social media campaign to explain the “benefits” of the AEC. The protests continued.
            Elaine Brower, whose son was in Iraq on his third tour of duty, told OpEdNews a day after her arrest: “The AEC is giving guns to 13-year-olds, drawing them in with violent video games. As more and more Afghan civilians and U.S. military are being killed in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, we’re saying ‘no’ to these wars. We’ve got to stop the flow of youth into the military, where they're being used to commit war crimes in our name.”
            With a police permit, and escorted by officers from Philadelphia’s Civil Affairs Unit, about 200–250 protestors—most of them middle-aged or senior citizens, many of them veterans—had come to the AEC, believing their First Amendment rights were being protected. The protest, although noisy at times, was peaceful; the counter-demonstration wasn’t.
            According to the complaint, “The counter-demonstrators [members of an organization known as The Gathering of Eagles] yelled, jeered and taunted the AEC protestors. At no time did [the police] direct, or attempt to limit the First Amendment activities of the counter-demonstrators,” nor were they ever told to disperse.
            Throughout the demonstration, the protestors had not given any indication that they posed any physical threat to others. However, about 45 minutes after the demonstration began, the police, under direction of Lt. Konczyk, ordered the protestors to disperse.
            At that point, Biren-Wright, according to the complaint, “placed herself outside the immediate area . . . so as not to interfere with the police activity.” She continued to photograph and report on the demonstration. The complaint charges that Lt. Konczyk, “without just cause or legal justification,” directed several officers to arrest her, walking past several protestors and counter-demonstrators. She says she told the officers she was a member of the press. At no time, she says, did she participate as a demonstrator nor verbally or physically threaten anyone. The officers, says Biren-Wright, arrested her without any warning. The arresting officer’s “degree of anger—he was clearly red-faced—was inappropriate,” she recalls. The police, says Biren-Wright, “were clearly targeting me, trying to keep me from recording the demonstration and their reactions.”
            One officer, says Biren-Wright, “unnecessarily twisted my arm.” Another officer seized her camera and personal items. One of the officers put plastic cuffs on her wrists “so tight that it caused significant pain, swelling and bruising, and an injury that lasted for several weeks,” according to the complaint.
            Biren-Wright’s 15-year-old daughter was shopping in the mall during the protest, but had reunited with her mother shortly before the arrests. Her daughter, says Biren-Wright, “came closer upon the arrest and I told the officer she was my daughter and a minor and would be alone.” The officer, says Biren-Wright, snapped, “You should have thought of that before.” At the processing center that police had previously set up at the mall, Biren-Wright told several officers that he r daughter was alone in the mall and was from out of state. “None of them did anything to ensure her safety,” she says. The daughter, unsupervised, eventually found Rob Kall, OpEdNews editor, who drove her to the jail to take her mother’s keys and then drove her home, where she spent the night alone.
            Outside the mall, counter-protestors shouted obscenities as those arrested boarded the police bus. “They were standing at the door to the bus,” says Biren-Wright, “and posed a safety issue to us since we were in handcuffs.”
            The six who were arrested and Biren-Wright were initially taken to the 15th District jail. Richie Marini, the lone male arrested, was kept at the district jail. The six women were transferred to the jail at the Philadelphia Police headquarters, known by locals as the “Roundhouse,” where a nurse took each woman’s vital signs and asked if there were any injuries. “I showed him my wrist and thumb that were already red and swollen” from the restrictive handcuffs, says Biren-Wright. His response, she says, was “That doesn’t count.”
            Biren-Wright, along with the other five women, was held for 14 hours. At 5 a.m., she says, they were released from the “Roundhouse” onto a dark and barren street—there were no taxis anywhere near—and locked out of the police station. Although the women had cell phones, they had not been allowed to call for rides while in the jail area. Outside, they called friends, but waited until help arrived. Marini was released from the district jail later that morning.
            The only reason Biren-Wright’s pictures of the demonstration survived is because she had secretly removed the memory chip during her arrest. When the camera was finally returned, “all of the settings were messed up and the lens was not replaced properly.”
            The Army closed the AEC at the end of the pilot program. It had claimed that because of increased enlistments nationwide, the Center was no longer needed. It never acknowledged that the protestors and the public reaction may have been a reason for the closing.
            In an unrelated case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in October 2010 [Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle] that recording police activity in public places is protected by Constitutional guarantees. This month, the ACLU settled a case, for $48,500, in Pittsburgh when a University of Pittsburgh police officer arrested Elijah Matheny and charged him with felony violation of the state’s Wiretap Act for using a cell phone to record police activity. Matheny spent a night in jail following his arrest. [See: Matheny v. County of Allegheny, et al.] The ACLU charged that the district attorney’s office “had engaged in a pattern of erroneously advising law enforcement that audio taping police officers in public violates Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act.” Following the Third Circuit’s decision in the Kelly case, a conviction against Matheny is expected to be overturned.
            The arrests in Philadelphia, Carlisle, and Pittsburgh underscore two major problems, both prevalent throughout the country. The first problem is a lack of understanding and respect for the Constitution by a large number, although not a majority, of police officers. For that reason, all police forces and district attorneys offices, from small isolated rural communities to the largest urban departments, need to have constant education about civil rights and Constitutional guarantees—and the penalties for violating those rights.
            The second major problem is inherent within the mass media. Reporters need to know how and when to challenge authority to protect their own and the public’s rights.  A camera crew from the PBS “Frontline” series was at the protest, but abruptly stopped recording the demonstration after Brower was arrested and either before or during Biren-Wright’s arrest. Rob Kall later said that a member of the “Frontline” crew told him the police informed them they would be arrested if they continued to film the demonstration.
            Police threats, which violate Constitutional guarantees, place a “chilling effect” upon the media to observe and record actions by public officials. Even without a direct order by a public official, reporters may do what they perceive to be what others want them to do. The media, like police and public officials, also need constant education to know when police orders are lawful and when they are not. An order to move away from a scene may be lawful. An order to stop filming a scene upon threat of arrest is not.
            In federal court, in the case of Biren v. City of Philadelphia, et al., these issues, and others, will be raised. But had there been an understanding of the Constitution by the police, the case would never have gotten to the point of a federal civil suit.

[Walter Brasch is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor. He is author of 17 books, the most recent one Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, journalistic fiction about the counter-culture as seen through the eyes of a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her story for three decades. The book is available at www.greeleyandstone.com, amazon.com and other stores.]

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Mugging of SpongeBob SquarePants

by Walter Brasch

            SpongeBob SquarePants may be hazardous to your mental development—if you're a four-year-old. At least that's what two psychologists at the University of Virginia claim, based upon a study they conducted that may have as many holes as the average sponge who lives under the sea.
            In the first paragraph of an article published this week in the academic journal Pediatrics, Angeline S. Lilliard and Jennifer Peterson set up their study with a pick-and-choose somewhat slanted view of television. According to these psychologists, "correlational studies link early television viewing with deficits in executive function . .  . a collection of prefrontal skills underlying goal-directed behavior, including attention, working memory, inhibitory control, problem solving, self-regulation, and delay of gratification." Translated into English, we conclude that psychologists don't speak English.
            To make sure no one misreads the study as anything but pure empirical science, they toss in "covariant assessment," "covariate," "posthoc analyses," "backward digit span," "encoding," "cognitive depletion," and something known as the "Tower of Hanoi," not to be mistaken, apparently, for the Hanoi Hilton, or the Tower of Babel, which this study seems most likely to emulate.
            For their subject group, they rounded up four-year-olds from "a database of families willing to participate." Three groups of children were given the same four separate tasks. Those who watched a truncated version of a "SpongeBob" cartoon, which has scene changes an average of every 11 seconds, fared worse in the measurements than did the groups that watched a more "realistic" and "educational" PBS cartoon ("Caillou") that had an average scene change of 34 seconds. The third group (known as a "control" group) drew things and participated in all the tasks. On all four tests, "SpongeBob" lost. The fact the researchers labeled "Caillou" as educational could reveal pre-conceived bias; even a cursory look at "SpongeBob," although primarily entertainment, reveals numerous social and educational issues that could lead to further discussion.
            The pre-schoolers were mostly White, from middle-class and upper-class families. Thus, there was no randomly-selected group, something critical in most such studies. The researchers do acknowledge this, as well as a few defects in the study itself. Possibly salivating over future grants, they tell us that "further research . . . is needed."
            The reality may not be that four-year-olds who watch "SpongeBob" and similar cartoons had developmental defects but that they are far more interested in the cartoon than in other activities and temporarily suspend those "good quality" activities while they remember the cartoon and think of other events or issues that SpongeBob and the cast got into. The researchers measured the students' responses shortly after watching the cartoons; perhaps measurements a few hours or a week later might have given different results.
            Nevertheless, the researchers—hung up on standard deviations, regression analysis, and Cronbach's Alpha, among other empirical tests—didn't do the most basic of all research. They didn't ask the children what they thought about the cartoons, nor any questions leading to why the children who viewed "SpongeBob" may not have performed as well the other two groups on tests that may or may not be of value. It's entirely possible that watching fast-paced well-written tightly-directed animated cartoons may be more fun—and more productive—than watching slower-paced educational cartoons. But we don't know because the research was quantified.
            The wounded response by Nickelodeon, which airs "SpongeBob Squarepants," isn't much better than the academic study. Squeezed into a sentence, the comment is that the cartoon is for 6–11 year olds, not the four-year-olds who were tested. The Nick PR machine wants us to believe that even if everything the researchers said was true, it doesn't matter because the cartoon isn't aimed at four-year-olds.  Apparently, even if older siblings are watching "SpongeBob" or their parents are watching horror, adventure, or war movies it doesn't matter because those forms of entertainment aren't for four-year-olds.
            For more than eight decades, animated cartoons have come under fire by all kinds of academic researchers and certain "we-do-good" public groups. From 1930 to 1968, the Hays office, ensconced in Puritan ideals of morality, censored films and cartoons for all kinds of reasons. By the 1960s, academic researchers began questioning the violence in cartoons, focusing primarily upon the Warner Brothers characters. For a few years, television programmers, either believing themselves to be great pillars of morality or afraid of losing sponsors, forcibly retired many of the most popular cartoons from the screen.
            At least half of the studies concluded that watching violence could be one of the factors that lead to violent acts. Another group of studies showed little correlation. But, stripping away the academic verbiage, the most logical conclusion of all the studies that denuded a small forest was that persons pre-disposed to violence may become violent if exposed to violence in cartoons. Certainly, watching Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons won't cause a Quaker to go out and mug Baptists.
            The mugging that SpongeBob (and other characters in quick-sequencing action) got is another attempt to quantify life by exorcizing a small part of life, running tests, and trying to explain human cognition and development without understanding humans.
[Walter Brasch has a Ph.D. in mass communication. That means during his career he has been subjected to more than his fair share of annoying academic studies. Among his 16 books, he is the author of Cartoon Monickers: A History of the Animation Industry, and Before the First Snow, a novel about the history of America and its counter-culture between 1964 and 1991.]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Crocodile Tears on a Cash Register Patriotism

by Walter Brasch

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Walter Brasch has written dozens of columns, human interest stories, and investigative articles about 9/11 and its effects. He was one of the first to write about the PATRIOT Act violating civil liberties and parts of the Constitution. He was one of the first, using extensive investigation techniques and inside information, to question the statements from the Bush–Cheney Administration about the reasons for the impending invasion of Iraq. This column, written about a month after 9/11 shows the hypocrisy of some American business, and suggests if they wish to be patriotic they might wish to do more for their workers.]

            The news release spoke boldly: “In view of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this is the time for Corporate America and all government agencies to enhance the safety and security of the nation’s high profile buildings.” Not exactly a revelation. It didn’t take another sentence to underline the company’s intent. “Windows and doors are normally the weakest static construction elements in a building,” continued the release, “and are therefore the first to fail during violent activities and brute forces of nature. . . .  Your property needs protection!”
            The next few hundred words explained how my readers could choose a security level—and color—of windows to provide that security—”from burglarproof to hurricane resistant and ultimately bullet and blast resistant.”
            Thousands of businesses, like the window company, obtrusively used the tragedy to sell their product.
            One investment company told me that if I followed world events, “you probably know that the prices of commodities and stocks reflect international politics and tensions!” It explained that as the “U.S. prepares its response, tensions could escalate even further in the Middle East. This could have a DRAMATIC IMPACT on the supply of oil and gas therefore increasing worldwide prices. If this happens, oil and gas companies and THEIR SHAREHOLDERS could be poised to MAKE MONEY from any price increases.” To make money from the tragedy, I just had to contact this company to learn which “undervalued” stocks I should buy.
            A writer offered newspaper editors about 400 words detailing Osama bin Laden’s aura, hoping to lure them into buying her weekly column, “Ask Your Aura,” identified as “the personal pull of an advice column, the celebrity appeal of a gossip column, the mystery of astrology.” Not surprisingly, she determined that not only is “love, compassion, and spiritual joy [in bin Laden’s] heart chakra ... about as big as a donut hole,” but that this spirituality is “connected to a preference for evil.”
            Most corporate America had pulled all advertising from the TV networks and national news magazines for up to a week following the tragedy while they re-evaluated their campaigns. When they returned, they had draped themselves into red-white-and-blue bunting, and told us it’s patriotic to spend money in a lagging economy.
            A fairly large publicity firm, targeting book authors, ran a small American flag next to its logo, and told us the company “continues to offer our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to those touched by the events,” that it salutes “the heroism of those who continue to work tirelessly in rescue and relief efforts,” and will continue to work with the media “to provide our clients with the optimum level of exposure.” In case we didn’t understand the last sentence, it told us the time to pull back on advertising and promotion isn’t now because “our experience has shown us that events like this, although very saddening, create unique opportunities that might not have presented themselves before.” To take advantage of this “unique” opportunity, the company even developed a program that for only $750–$3,000 would target the media with our message.
            One-shot magazines, full of color pictures, began coming off rotary presses within hours after the towers collapsed. Books about the tragedy are being rushed to press; almost any book that has even the remotest tie-in is being hawked. Fueled by internet rumor that 16th century French physician-clairvoyant Nostradamus predicted such a tragedy, thousands of Americans have flocked to bookstores and on-line companies to buy copies of his books, edited by others. One book, with a Sept. 27 publication date, is well within the top 100 titles on Amazon.com.
            On thousands of fiberglass and plastic highway signs, words of hope trumpet words of advertising. Below “God Bless America,” we see “Chili Fries, $1.49.” Below “United We Stand,” we’re told “special prices on carpets.”
            During the 1960s, war protestors who wore clothes with the American flag design were beaten by “patriots”; now the fabric of America is patriots wearing just-manufactured high-priced T-shirts, pants, and bandannas, all with images of American flags and slogans.
A flyer I received at home combined the flag, a patriotic call, a message of sympathy—and my inviolate right to buy sofas on sale. General Motors, trying to sell cars, declared “in this time of terrible adversity, let’s stand together. And let’s keep America rolling.”
            A laser eye surgical conglomerate tried to convince us getting clearer vision was somehow patriotic. Its newspaper images were of an exhausted firefighter, and of someone it claimed to be an FBI agent who praised the company’s health plan for federal employees.
            A Cleveland mayoral candidate ran TV ads, declaring “If tragedy strikes, who could lead?” On the screen were still photos of the towers and a woman holding a flag.
            Perhaps these patriotic businesses all mean well. Perhaps they are saddened by the tragedy, and want to let us know they care about the victims and our country. Perhaps, we can hope they have been tortured by the magnitude of evil and the shards of the American fragment that will haunt us for a generation that they will realize the best way to celebrate the American spirit is to treat their own workers better, and to absorb a smaller profit this year rather than to lay off workers. But as long as businesses try to mix sentiment and hard sell, there’s no question our traditional red-and-green Christmas season will be lathered in a red-white-and-blue jingoism of fourth quarter crocodile tears pouring over a cash register patriotism.

[Walter Brasch’s current book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution. It is available at amazon.com and http://www.greeleyandstone.com/]

Monday, September 5, 2011

Corporate America Sends a Labor Day Message


by Walter Brasch

            For most Americans, the only significance of Labor Day is that it concludes a three day weekend.
            For Kirk Artley, it means he has about six weeks left of employment.
            On Aug. 24, RR Donnelley, a Chicago-based megacorporation that claims to be “the world’s premier full-service provider of print and related services,” told Artley and the other 283 workers at the Bloomsburg, Pa., plant that “economic conditions” forced the closing of the book printing facility. The workers said they would take significant pay cuts if that would save the plant. RR Donnelley rejected the offer.
            Most of the workers live in Columbia County, a small rural county of about 65,000, with unemployment about 8 percent, slightly less than the national rate. Adding 284 persons would significantly increase that rate.
            Under the termination agreement, the workers, both management and labor, wouldn’t have priority rights to bid for jobs at any other plant. “We were told we could apply for open jobs just like anyone else,” says Artley, a bindery technician and president of Local 732C of the Graphic Communications Conference, a Teamsters division. Apparently, there was no way to integrate a couple of hundred workers into a corporation that employs about 58,000. What the corporation that had about $10 billion income last year did agree to do, after negotiations with the union, was award severance of one week pay for every year of service, and to pay for half the health insurance for up to nine months, depending upon length of service.
            The corporation told the workers the Bloomsburg plant was no longer profitable. They claimed there was no way the Bloomsburg plant, with its eight rotary offset web presses and five bindery lines, could be competitive in an industry that was moving to digital books. They said other plants would absorb the work. If the company had even contemplated changing the nature of production at Bloomsburg to deal with a changing industry, and re-training the workers, that was never made known to those still employed. Every day, the workers did their jobs, put up with Management, and then went home.
            By federal law, there has to be a 60-day notice to the workers. But there is no law to require corporations to tell them the truth.
            Contrary to corporate statements and a popular belief that print books are doomed by the emergence and significant increase in publication and sales of digital books, there is still a consumer interest in print. Overall, about 2.57 billion books were sold in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008, according to data compiled by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Net sales revenue last year was $27.94 billion, a 5.6 percent increase from two years earlier. The AAP reports there were 603 million copies of trade hardcover books published last year, a 5.8 percent increase from two years earlier, with net sales revenue up about 0.9 percent. For trade softcover books, sales were about one billion copies, up 2.0 percent from 2008, with net sales revenue of about $5.27 billion, according to the AAP. The only significant decrease was mass market paperbacks (sometimes known as the supermarket or rack paperbacks). In 2010, net unit sales were 319 million, a decrease of 16.8 percent from 2008; net revenue was $1.28 billion in 2010, down 13.8 percent from two years earlier, according to the AAP. The Bloomsburg plant printed Harlequin romances and some other mass market paperbacks, but they were a small part of the overall production.
            RR Donnelley itself, with assets of about $9 billion, is profitable, although its stock has had wide fluctuations in 2011. Its net sales for 2010 were $10.02 billion, up from $9.86 billion the year before. For the first half of 2011, Donnelley had net sales of $3.86 billion, up about 5.7 percent from $3.65 billion a year earlier. Its second quarter net sales were $2.62 billion, an 8.6 percent increase from a year earlier. The company CEO, Thomas J. Quinlan III, earns about $2.6 million in total compensation, with a five-year combined compensation of about $13.6 million, according to Forbes. In contrast, hourly workers in the Bloomsburg plant received an average of 2 percent pay raises each year.
            “Just last month, the company told us we were profitable, that it had no plans to close us down,” says Artley, “and now they say we aren’t profitable?”
            No well-run corporation makes a decision in less than a month to close a 370,000 square foot plant, with an estimated market value of about $8.4 million. But, that is what the corporation wants the workers to believe. The union did get Donnelley to agree it would not shut down the plant and then re-open it and resume printing books. There was no corporate agreement that it wouldn’t “re-tool,” and establish other printing or digital services. And there was definitely no agreement to retrain or rehire any worker. Based upon past practices, RRD Donnelley is more likely to try to sell the empty building and land.
            A clue to what the corporation was going to do may have been disclosed in October 2010 when it trumpeted that it had developed the ProteusJet, high-speed ink jet printers, and was shipping one a month to various plants. The printers were designed to handle short run and one copy at a time print-on-demand publishing. None of those printers were scheduled to be delivered to Bloomsburg.
            Bloomsburg still produced several long-run publications for major publishers, including the Idiot’s Guide and Twilight series, as well as several fiction best-sellers. But, it was developing a specialty as a short-run printer (generally 1,000–3,000 copies of a title), with a three-day turn-around. In the current book industry, shorter runs with faster turn-around times are becoming more of an industry standard, especially with the rise of more small independent regional publishers. Yet, Donnelley was closing a plant that could have been part of a major expansion to meet the new publishing platforms. “That’s one of the things that baffled us,” says Artley.
            At its peak, the Bloomsburg plant was averaging about seven million books a month; that number dropped to about two million a month, and then picked up to five million in August. Although Donnelley kept reaffirming that the change to digital technology, combined with a decreasing economy, were the problems, there are other truths it didn’t tell the workers.
Undermining Its Best Customer

            Lower production in Bloomsburg could be because RR Donnelley sales people were leading some potential customers to the company’s Crawfordsville, Ind., or Harrisonburg, Va., plants. However, one major customer balked at moving the contract. The Penguin Group, one of the five largest publishing conglomerates in the world, wanted to keep a major part of its production in Bloomsburg. Penguin, which owned one of the presses and one of the bindery lines in the Bloomsburg plant, accounted for as much as three-fourths of all titles produced in Bloomsburg, according to Artley.
            One critical issue for Penguin was that RR Donnelley wanted to determine where the books would be printed, perhaps yet another sign that it was planning to phase-out Bloomsburg production. One source in Donnelley management who is familiar with the Penguin situation, and who asked that his name not be used, says that the publishing company preferred the quality produced at Bloomsburg, and the close access to its distribution warehouse in Pittston, Pa., about 50 miles northeast of Bloomsburg. The Bloomsburg plant is also close to I-80, a major interstate that connects the New York City metropolitan area with San Francisco. The union had even agreed in January to extend its current contract, and then signed a two-year agreement, assuring Penguin executives there wouldn’t be any labor issues in Bloomsburg. About that time, Donnelley finally agreed to allow Penguin to have its books printed in the Bloomsburg plant and signed a two-year contract. The closing of the Bloomsburg plant, and requiring Penguin to have its books printed in Harrisonburg, Va., and then shipped about 300 miles northeast to Pittston, would increase transportation costs about three times, according to one person familiar with the contract. Because Penguin signed a two year contract with the assurance that books would be produced in Bloomsburg, it would be justified to declare a breach of the contract and move its work elsewhere, or to demand financial considerations from Donnelley.

‘More Interested in Profits than in the Workers’

            In 1993, RR Donnelley bought Haddon Craftsmen, which produced numerous books that reached best-seller lists, and which had developed a reputation not only for high quality printing but also as a good place to work. Haddon Craftsmen had begun during World War II as a merger of three companies. The Bloomsburg plant was added in 1964. In 1980, six employees bought Haddon, which now had plants not only in Scranton, its main plant, but also Dunmore and Allentown. Sullivan Graphics bought the company in 1989 and then sold it to RR Donnelley four years later. Within two years, Donnelley announced it was thinking about closing the 400,000 square foot press and bindery in Scranton, and unify all operations in Bloomsburg. Steve Zeisloft, a union officer for 10 years, including four years as vice-president, recalls Donnelley “essentially told us the company could expand if we worked with them, and if we didn’t they would shut down the plant and take the work elsewhere.” The threat of shutting the Bloomsburg plant, however, was undoubtedly a scare tactic. The Scranton bindery was in an old brick building; the Bloomsburg plant was newer, and had significant room for expansion.
            Donnelley had several demands. It demanded government concessions and assistance. The Commonwealth gave the company $350,000; the county, local school district, and local township all waived taxes the first year and gave extremely favorable reduced rates the next four years. For the new contract with the union, known as the Green Contract, the corporation also demanded that most hourly workers take pay cuts, that they pay more for health care, that it would now take 15 years instead of 10 years for workers to earn a four week vacation, and that their union gives up the “closed shop” mandatory membership requirement.
            Union workers would keep their jobs, but new employees would be allowed to choose whether or not to join the union. More important, new employees would not have to pay “fair share” contributions for representation, something common in unionized shops. Thus, the union would negotiate contracts, deal with workplace conditions and grievances, and provide for the common welfare of the workers, but receive no compensation from non-union members. In exchange, Donnelley agreed to increase the size of the plant and the number of employees. The “Green Contract” went into effect in June 1996, the same month the bindery expansion was completed.
            Kirk Artley was one of more than a thousand who applied for a couple of hundred new jobs. He had been a Marine for 14 years and held jobs in other factories. The company, he says, “discouraged us from joining the union,” but like many, “I saw the necessity to be a member.” For the next 15 years, union- and non-union employees worked side by side. “We were family,” says one 30-year press technician, “and some employees saw a reason why the union was necessary.” Only because more than half of the workers were union members could Management not request decertification and the elimination of the union.
            Several long-time employees say the atmosphere under the new owner changed. “The rules and regulations weren’t as stringent under Haddon, yet we still produced the quality,” says Mark Harris, a press technician who was union president 1998–2006. Donnelley “kept telling us quality is the most important part,” says Harris, “but at the same time they kept telling us they wanted more numbers.” Adding to the workers’ frustration was that most plant executives had never worked in production.
            The new owners were “more interested in profits than in the workers,” says one 30-year employee, who asked that his name not be used. Another employee, who worked under Donnelley and the previous owners, says, “We did what we could with what we had, but you could only do what they let you do.” Artley explains, “We were constantly giving extra maintenance to the presses, trying to maintain quality.” Pride of workmanship was the main reason there wasn’t a significant decline in overall quality. Some of the presses were three decades old; with one exception, any “new” presses brought into the plant were already used. Because the four Harris presses were obsolete, says Artley, “we had to do our own machining to create parts.”

Mentally and Physically Exhausting

            Mark Harris recalls that in addition to good wages and benefits, Haddon provided the “little things that helped our morale,” including company-paid Christmas parties. However, Donnelley cancelled the Christmas party and all other socials. “If we wanted a Christmas party,” says Artley, “we had to set it up and pay for it ourselves.”
            But, with a physically demanding 13/1 schedule, parties were rare. With few exceptions, hourly employees, most of whom stood most of their shifts, were required to work 13 straight days with one day off, beginning in the late 1990s. Many worked double shifts. “You don’t mind it if the business is dying, because you do what you have to in order to make it work,” says Zeisloft, “but this was a profitable company, and there was always work.”  
            During the past few years, Donnelley cut back on the 13/1 agreement, but would resort to new contract language that limited hourly workers to “only” 311 days a year. Families, especially the younger ones, became used to a good annual income. They did not get used to the reality that there was little family time or that there was significant physical and mental stress because of the work conditions. Even if there was a reduction of printing contracts, the company apparently had plans only to reduce forced overtime, not eliminate it. “We looked forward to June and October,” says Zeisloft, “because those were the slowest times during the year, and we could be with our families more.”

Blocking and Stalling

            Management tended to “blame everything on the union,” says Harris, who had been at the plant 32 years. Under the union contract is a three-step grievance process. If a problem couldn’t be resolved at one of three levels it went to arbitration. Under Haddon, problems tended to be solved internally, says Mark Harris. But under Donnelley, there was “a lot of blocking and stalling,” with some grievances taking as long as three years before going to arbitration. In some cases, says Harris, the union couldn’t afford the cost of arbitration, especially when faced by a corporation that seemed to have endless legal resources and the desire to never admit it did anything wrong. Nevertheless, the union, says Zeisloft, “fought as hard for the non-union workers as it did for its own members.”
            The corporation’s blatant anti-union attitude was clearly seen in 2007. The United Network International (UNI), a federation of more than 1,000 unions representing 20 million unionized workers on four continents, had sent three detailed letters to Thomas Quinlan to request a meeting to discuss workplace conditions in the corporation’s overseas plants. The alliance specifically wanted to talk with the CEO about following the recommendations of the International Labour Organisation and various national laws about the rights to join a union, bargain collectively, and issues of discrimination and child labor. Quinlan ignored the letters. In May 2008, a delegation from UNI and the Teamsters went to the Chicago headquarters to meet with Quinlan. They left a letter of concern with an assistant; Quinlan had refused to meet with them.
            The corporate attitude to workers, reflected in numerous ways in Bloomsburg, extended even after the closing was announced. On Friday, Sept. 2, the state sent a Rapid Response Team to Bloomsburg. The purpose was to give the workers information about numerous social services available, to discuss government benefits, including unemployment, and to help them find other work. At a preliminary meeting, with four union officers and three from Management, the team outlined what it wanted to do and to secure the company’s assistance. According to those who were there, the Human Resources manager, who was also on the list to be terminated, asked how long the meeting with the workers would be. She was told it would be 90 minutes. “Can it be done after work hours,” she asked, “because we have production goals to be met.” Alan Robinson, of the state’s Dept. of Labor and Industry, replied, “You’re not going to like this answer. You can pay now or you can pay later.” He was referring to the reality that the longer workers were unemployed the more RR Donnelley would be paying its share in unemployment taxes. “We were all surprised at her question,” says Artley, but they were even more surprised by what she said later. Reaffirming a Management attitude, she suggested, “Can we send these [workers] back to the floor . . .  because we have production goals to meet.” The planning meeting ended at that point. “We stood outside just shaking our heads in disbelief,” says Artley.

Rhetoric is all that it Is

            Kirk Artley is 56 years old. Like most of those who have been terminated, he’s not old enough to retire; in a nation that values youth, he’s not a prime candidate for employment, no matter what his competence and experience are. But, he’s more worried about his co-workers. “They have mortgages, they have bills like everyone else,” he says, “and now they’re out a job in an area that has few new jobs.” More important, most of those terminated are not only skilled labor, but have a long history in a highly technical field. Their knowledge and abilities will be lost if they are forced into other employment.
            In the RR Donnelley Corporate Social Responsibility Report are four guiding principles. One is “Treating others the way that we want to be treated.” It’s nice rhetoric. If it were true.

[Bloomsburg plant management referred all calls to the Chicago headquarters. Three calls in a week to the Chicago headquarters for comment were not acknowledged or returned. Most workers at the Bloomsburg plant who voluntarily talked about the problems and issues asked that their names be concealed. Many refused to talk until after Oct. 24, the final date of their employment. One worker said, “You never know what they could do to us even in our last month there.”  Another said his reason for not saying anything was, “They could fire me and deny me the severance benefits,” even though he and the company had signed a severance agreement. That fear of retaliation, whether real or perceived, was seldom seen under the management of Haddon Craftsmen.

Walter Brasch, a retired professor of mass communications, is a syndicated social issues columnist, and a member of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America, Authors Guild, and National Society of Newspaper Columnists. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available through bookstores, Amazon.com, or the publisher’s website, www.greeleyandstone.com.]