Wednesday :: Apr 21, 2004

The Last American With A Job

by pessimist

One of my favorite books is Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, in which he looks at what the United States might be like once no one has a job anymore.

The novel depicts a technologically advanced, highly regulated society set in a future United States. While everyone is provided for, only an elite of technicians and managers has any real purpose, and eventually the protagonist, Paul Proteus, joins with those made useless by technology in a rebellion against the system.

The title derives from the fact that the player piano, with its key-punched paper rolls displacing the pianist, is one of the earliest applications of automation.

[Taken from ''Player Piano'' Overview]

Written around 1950, America was a much different country back then. People still had a sense of belonging to a community which tied them to our society. Thus, when the characters in Vonnegut's book no longer have any work, they don't resort to violent anti-social behavior to fill their time, opting instead to drink and socialize in bars, and join marching societies and hold parades.

Some of his characters join several societies, and have to rush to change costumes as one finishes their march and another is about to begin.

Except for the fact that those characters affected by unemployment join marching societies, Vonnegut was quite prescient. Substitute 'marching' for 'working several low-wage jobs', and he tells the story of too many modern-day American workers. There are thousands, if not more, workers out there who find themselves changing their costumes, not for parades, but for another part-time job at another fast food restaurant or Wal-Mart. This is where the American workplace is headed when Owwer Leedur plans such actions as these:

Bush Stiffs Workers on Overtime

While touting the economy this month, President Bush said, "A more productive worker makes more money" [President Announces New Education Initiatives for Stronger Workforce, 04/06/2004.]. But if he has his way on new overtime regulations, that will no longer be the case for tens of thousands of workers.

In a move designed to blur the issue, the Administration today said it was revising its previous effort to terminate overtime protections for 8 million workers ["8 million may lose OT pay", CNN Money, 06/27/2003.]. But even by the Bush Administration's own admission, the "new" regulations will mean that tens of thousands of lower-income workers will be cut off ["Administration to Revise Overtime Plan", New York Times, 04/20/2004.].

Oh Where, Oh Where, Has The Overtime Gone?

Opponents of the Administration's plan say that the revisions would still cause problems for mean millions. The regulations are so bad for workers that some state legislatures have even rushed through legislation to block them ["Senate votes to preserve overtime pay", Associated Press, 04/16/2004.].

The new overtime regulations come just four months after AP reported that the Bush Labor Department began "giving employers tips on how to avoid paying overtime to some of the 1.3 million low-income workers" ["U.S. offers tips on avoiding overtime pay", MSNBC, 01/05/2004.]. The Administration specifically told employers they could "cut workers' hourly wages and add the overtime to equal the original salary, or raise salaries to the new $22,100 annual threshold, making them ineligible." Labor Secretary Elaine Chao testified before Congress that too many workers were filing "needless litigation" in efforts to force employers to pay them back wages ["More workers filing overtime-pay lawsuits", Seattle Times, 04/11/2004.]. Her insult to workers belied the fact that judges have ordered the government to "collect more than $212 million in back pay for workers" - the most in a decade and a strong signal that the efforts to fight worker abuse are far from "needless."

Of course, The Best Government Multinational Corporate Campaign Contributions Can Influence has something to say about this!

GOP Embraces Changes to Bush's OT Plan

Republicans on Tuesday embraced election-year revisions to the nation's overtime pay rules, saying changes to an earlier Bush administration plan will take away extra pay from far fewer white-collar workers.

Note that they aren't saying anything about the blue-collar workers who are the real target of this action. More white-collar workers already are not eligible for overtime pay than are eligible anyway.

And what of the clients of The Best Government Multinational Corporate Campaign Contributions Can Influence?

Retailers Welcome New Overtime Regulations

The National Retail Federation today welcomed the Department of Labor's release of new federal white collar overtime regulations, saying the long-sought update would help put an end to costly litigation from disputed overtime decisions. "The Department of Labor has given us the first comprehensive update of overtime regulations in half a century," NRF Vice President for Legislative and Political Affairs Katherine Lugar said. "That is a victory unto itself, regardless of the details. Employers have spent too many years trying to shoehorn modern jobs into regulations that haven't been updated since Elvis was a teenager. We've finally got regulations that will mean something in the 21st century workplace."

Lugar cautioned that NRF has not had time to fully review the just-released regulations but that the update was certain to be an improvement over existing rules. DOL, which released a draft of updated Fair Labor Standards Act regulations in March 2003, unveiled the final version of the regulations at a news media briefing in Washington this morning. "The problem that employers have had is that the old overtime rules were vague, outdated and confusing," Lugar said. "The lack of clarity has made it difficult to know that you're making the correct decision about who gets overtime and who doesn't. That created a gold mine for trial lawyers trolling for clients they could convince to sue their bosses. This update should give us the clarity to know for certain who should get overtime and put an end to that explosion of lawsuits."

"We know this isn't the end of the political battle," Lugar said. "Businesses have been trying to get these rules updated since the Carter Administration but the Bush Administration has been the first to get this far. That's taken political courage and stamina and we're going to back up President Bush on any congressional challenges. We will work with Congress to ensure that lawmakers understand that updating these regulations benefits both businesses and workers and see to it that nothing is done to sidetrack that victory."

Pinching The Penny Until Lincoln Screams

"The idea that this is an attempt to take overtime away from anyone it was intended to cover in the first place is just plain fiction," Lugar said. "Just the change in dollar levels alone means that employers are going to have to pay overtime to more workers. This will cost businesses money but most would rather spend money on wages that benefit their employees than spend millions of dollars defending themselves in court time and time again."

The National Retail Federation is the world's largest retail trade association, with membership that comprises all retail formats and channels of distribution including department, specialty, discount, catalog, Internet and independent stores as well as the industry's key trading partners of retail goods and services. NRF represents an industry with more than 1.4 million U.S. retail establishments, more than 23 million employees -- about one in five American workers -- and 2003 sales of $3.8 trillion. As the industry umbrella group, NRF also represents more than 100 state, national and international retail associations.

What of The Best (And Only Viable) Opposition Party American Workers Have To Resort To?

But Democrats questioned those claims, pointing to a lengthy list of jobs that the regulations, released Tuesday, say are generally ineligible for overtime. The administration, said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, "simply is not trustworthy on the issue." Harkin and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said they would continue to try to block portions of the regulation that could take away overtime pay from workers. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., urged them on. Miller said he and other Democrats intend to spend "the next couple of days determining whether or not the administration is telling the truth. But I must tell you, it's very hard to believe they are."

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said in a statement that the changes "strike a severe blow to what little economic security working families have left as a result of Bush's failed policies."

Those generally exempt from overtime include a broad range of professionals: pharmacists, funeral directors, embalmers, journalists, financial services industry workers, insurance claims adjusters and human resource managers. Others are management consultants, executive and administrative assistants, dental hygienists, physician assistants, accountants, and chefs. Even athletic trainers with degrees or specialized training, computer system analysts, programmers and software engineers are generally exempt. "The devil is in the details, and we just got the details," said Harkin, who led Senate opposition to the earlier version of the proposed regulations.

[I've downloaded these proposed regulations. It's a huge PDF file, and I have had time only to skim these proposals.]

Arbeit Macht Frei

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said "few, if any" workers would lose their overtime pay protections. Officials said legal challenges and case law show that those jobs aren't eligible for overtime pay anyway. Chao said that while about 107,000 white-collar workers earning $100,000 or more a year could lose their eligibility, that's fewer than in a draft proposal issued 13 months ago. Also, about 1.3 million lower-wage, white-collar workers will be newly eligible for overtime, she said. "Workers will clearly know their rights and employers will clearly know their responsibilities," she said. The revisions, which do not need congressional approval, will take effect in 120 days.

The revisions come at a time when jobs and pocketbook issues are among voters' chief concerns. President Bush has improved his standing in polls on domestic issues, but questions linger about the strength of the labor market and his plan to create jobs. When the overtime plan was issued in March 2003, the administration drew ferocious criticism from organized labor, Democrats and some Republicans over concern that millions of workers would lose overtime pay.

The guidelines were drawn up at the urging of businesses and employer groups battling mounting lawsuits from workers challenging their status. "Employers have spent too many years trying to shoehorn modern jobs into regulations that haven't been updated since Elvis was a teenager. We've finally got regulations that will mean something in the 21st century workplace," said Katherine Lugar, the National Retail Federation's vice president for legislative and political affairs.

The regulations could save employers $250 million to $500 million annually in penalties or damages from those suits, department officials said.

The regulations will not apply to workers covered by labor contracts. Still, union officials said they feared the changes would strengthen the hand of companies in future bargaining. "The fact that President Bush is slashing overtime pay for even a single worker is outrageous," AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham said.

On the Net:
Labor Department overtime plan:

Overtime-proposal changes welcomed

Michael Eastman, U.S. Chamber of Commerce director of labor-law policy, said that the rules appear to have changed significantly and that Labor had done an awful lot to respond to concerns. He hopes that all stakeholders will read and understand the regulations before doing anything, such as seeking another vote on the Harkin amendment. Eastman did say that he believes the dynamics of any new vote on the amendment are likely to change.

AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel said he hopes that lawmakers will reserve judgment until the new regulations are analyzed, adding that the Bush administration’s Department of Labor (DoL) has a history of overstating the benefits of its overtime rules.

"If anybody loses coverage under the regulations they should be blocked," Samuel said. He argued the Harkin amendment would allow parts of the rules adding workers to the list of those eligible for overtime pay and would only prevent DoL from implementing those portions of the regulations that would rescind overtime benefits.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted for the Harkin amendment last September, said she wants to see if her concerns about Alaskans losing their overtime eligibility had been addressed and would “take it from there.”

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who supported the Harkin amendment, said he would keep an “open mind” on the issue.

Kerry Statement on the Release of the Bush Overtime Rule

Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry issued the following statement on the White House's plan to revise overtime regulations: "The Bush administration's changes to overtime pay strike a severe blow to what little economic security working families have left as a result of Bush's failed policies. Overtime pay makes up a significant part of workers' income. To deny this long-established right to workers is an outrage. Denying it to millions of American working families during this jobs crisis demonstrates once again the Bush administration's disregard for the struggles every day Americans are facing. Today's action - imposed over the opposition of the vast majority of Americans and much of the Congress - demonstrates the urgent need for leadership committed to strengthening the economic security of working families, instead of undermining it." --- John F. Kerry

American Federation of Teachers Statement on Bush Administration's Proposed Changes to Fair Labor Standards Act

Though the Bush administration is attempting to pass off last- minute tinkering as meaningful changes to its final overtime proposal, that proposal still cuts millions of workers' pay by denying them overtime compensation. Instead of helping the millions of Americans who are looking for jobs, this administration has given employers another reason not to hire new employees and instead forces current workers to work overtime for free.

Our nation's strong work ethic is based on the principle that a person's earning potential should not be restricted by anything but their own willingness for hard work. The president's proposal contradicts this and the original intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was to discourage employers from forcing any worker -- no matter what how much or little they earned -- to labor inhumanely long hours.

President Bush's proposed changes are particularly disturbing for healthcare professionals and the patients for whom they care. Research shows a clear link between excessive overtime and an increased number of medical errors. With overtime pay eliminated, hospitals and other healthcare providers have little incentive to end mandatory overtime and hire more staff to ensure safe staffing levels and improve the quality of patient care. Since the initial proposal was released, the Bush Administration has consistently understated and misrepresented the true impact of this rule.

At a time when Americans are facing lower wages, double-digit increases in healthcare costs and job insecurity, we need a President who will protect workers' rights and their economic well-being, rather than shortchange them. We are deeply disappointed that this administration believes it is appropriate to strip any worker of the right to overtime protections.

As Americans have strapped themselves to the hilt buying all those toys like HDTV and Humvees, they have few options open to them if they aren't willing to surrender these lifestyle extravagances. The irony is, if they are out working multiple low-wage jobs to pay for these goodies, when will they have time to enjoy them? During the few hours available to them for sleep?

This assumes that the flood of jobs leaking out of the country is dammed at some point, for as more workers lose jobs and can't find new ones, existing jobs will dry up due to a lack of paying clientele. This will put more workers out of work and into the job market at the same time fewer jobs are offered. (Anyone who doubts this should rent Michael Moore's Roger and Me and see what happens to Flint, Michigan after General Motors closes their plants there, idling thousands of Flint residents.) And the cycle will continue until something gives.

The something that would give is a belief in the American Way of Life.

Fears rise anew over homegrown terrorists

"All of this homeland security, all of the orientation of the government's war on terror is about protecting our borders," said Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors right-wing groups. "We're moving back into this period where radical right-wing activism is being dismissed as goofy and loopy, whereas the Al Qaeda threat is around every corner. But the right-wingers are much closer to home. And they are still there."

Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League, noted that criminal acts by right-wing extremists "remain at a very high level," including the slayings of three law enforcement officers last year.

Michigan trooper slain

In one incident, Pitcavage said, a member of the Michigan Militia allegedly killed a Michigan state trooper after a traffic stop, while in South Carolina, a family of "sovereign citizens"--right-wing anarchists who reject all government power--allegedly ambushed and killed two local police officers.

Many militia cells withered after the Oklahoma City bombing, their potential members put off by the magnitude of the crime, while the predicted Year 2000 apocalypse failed to materialize, leaving many disillusioned survivalists with basements filled with dried beans. Meanwhile, other white supremacist groups were hit with a series of criminal and civil prosecutions that depleted their memberships and bank accounts.

While the more marginal followers and hangers-on have dropped away, the hard-core members of extremist groups have increased their resolve, experts say. And anti-Muslim sentiments that have grown in the country since the Sept. 11 attacks are providing fertile ground for new recruitment efforts. "When the threat is foreign, brown and speaks a different language, that plays into exactly their whole rap to attract people," said Toole.

Secretive extremist enclaves, such as the white-supremacist Elohim City in Oklahoma, are thriving, while new skinhead groups have surfaced in the Pacific Northwest, experts say. "With distillation, you usually get a purer form of something, and with these groups you get a purer form of militancy," said Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door, a study of domestic terrorist groups published in 2002.

`More and more extreme'

"If you look at the cycle of rebirth of these movements over the last century, each cycle is more and more extreme," Levitas said. "Now we have William Krar in Texas building a fully functional chemical weapon. You've had paramilitary activists produce ricin. It's only a matter of time before one of the more hard-core remnants of the militias decides to one-up Timothy McVeigh."

As bad as that bombing was--168 people were killed when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was destroyed--federal officials say that Krar's chemical weapon, had it been used, could have been far worse.

When FBI agents searched a rented storage locker in a small east Texas town last year, they were alarmed to discover a huge cache of weapons and the ingredients to make a cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands. Just as startling was the identity of the owner of the arsenal, which included nearly half a million rounds of ammunition and more than 60 pipe bombs. He was not some foreign terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda but a 63-year-old Texan with an affinity for anti-government militias and white supremacist views.

William Krar, an itinerant gun dealer, quickly pleaded guilty to possession of the chemical weapon and then promptly clammed up, leaving federal officials to wonder what he intended to do with his deadly arsenal and whether his conspiracy extended beyond two known accomplices who pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Among the remote-controlled bombs, machine guns and silencers discovered during the FBI's April 2003 raid on Krar's storage locker were containers of hydrochloric, nitric and acetic acids, as well as more than 800 grams of sodium cyanide. Mixed together, the ingredients would have turned into the same poison once used in gas chamber executions, and Krar had enough of the materials to create a bomb capable of killing everyone inside a 30,000-square-foot building, authorities said.

Experts who track domestic terrorist groups would like to know as well, but anti-government right-wing extremists remain a largely hidden threat of unknown proportions.

With focus abroad, militias may thrive

With the nation focused on terrorist threats from abroad in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, experts wonder if the Krar case, which FBI agents discovered only by accident, could be a harbinger of homegrown attacks to come.

So much for the USA Patriot Act, which was in force when this accidental discovery happened. And just how would a multi-trillion dollar anti-missile system have helped? By bankrupting the nation so that Krar couldn't afford all this stuff?

Also discovered when Krar was pulled over for a traffic violation in Tennessee in January 2003 were cryptic documents titled "Trip" and "Proceedure" that contained instructions, meeting places and secret codes for a cross-country trip. One set of code phrases detailed in the documents employed references to the weather to communicate various levels of threat. "`Tornadoes are expected in our area'--Things very hot; lay low or change your travel plans," stated one of the instructions, which were included in an affidavit filed by the FBI as part of its request for a search warrant for the storage locker.

The documents, along with other evidence of Krar's manufacture of fraudulent identification documents and his connections to militia groups, suggested "a much more involved criminal scheme which could potentially include plans for future civil unrest and/or violent civil disorder against the United States Government," FBI Agent Bart LaRocca wrote in the affidavit.

Krar faces a maximum penalty of life in prison when he is sentenced on May 4. He claimed that the coded instructions were intended to help a girlfriend escape an abusive ex-husband, but revealed no information about his plans for the arsenal. Federal prosecutors have issued more than 100 subpoenas in their efforts to determine how far any conspiracy might have spread.

The wrong address

Krar first came under scrutiny in 1985, when he was convicted of impersonating a law enforcement officer. In 1995, federal agents investigated him for alleged illegal gun dealing, though he was not charged with a crime, according to the FBI affidavit.

The FBI stumbled upon Krar again in 2002 after he sent a package containing numerous forged identification documents to a member of the New Jersey Militia. The package was mistakenly delivered to a resident of Staten Island, N.Y., who turned it over to police. "The Justice Department is to be commended for having aggressively pursued that investigation and tracked Krar down," said Levitas. "But the fact that they made this discovery entirely by accident, and Krar slipped through their fingers and off their radar screen on numerous occasions, is extraordinarily troubling. There are thousands of William Krars out there who aren't being pursued."

Still think that the (mis)Administration George Warmonger Bush is keeping you safe from terrorism? Any idea just how much the following is going to help the cause of the William Krars of America?

Targeting Voters in the Worst Way

It is not quite the same as kissing babies, but Vice President Dick Cheney beamed as he dandled an antique rifle for his photo-op last weekend at the National Rifle Association convention. Mr. Cheney, the administration's most famous duck hunter, was on a reassurance mission, drawing cheers as he trumpeted President Bush's commitment to hunters' constitutional rights. Mr. Cheney's personal visit signaled how much of a fence-mending charade the White House is staging to soothe the politically powerful gun lobby.

Some N.R.A. members are still miffed at Mr. Bush's ostensible promise - left over from his 2000 campaign - to sign a renewal of the 10-year-old ban on assault weapons if that vitally needed measure should ever manage to be passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. But, of course, the Capitol's pro-gun leadership has already made sure that the president's promise bobs as lifelessly as an election-year decoy.

Banning assault rifles simply protects society from fast-fire attack weapons designed for waging war, not hunting. But Mr. Bush never once pressed Congress to pass the renewal. Instead, he spent his political capital on the gun lobby's outrageous proposal to grant immunity from damage suits to irresponsible gun manufacturers and dealers.

This is the Bush-Cheney team's true record on gun control.

Too few voters are aware that the assault weapons ban will certainly expire in September while the president declines to lift a finger to save it. The law's demise looms as another national gun tragedy, even as politicians in both parties calibrate how much more pandering to gun owners will be needed in the hunt for votes in the swing states.

The blame for the current lack of action has to rest on the desk in the Oval Office - and on the guy who pretends to be working there. Should another Columbine occur, or another Oklahoma City, or any of another of several domestic terror examples, will the (mis)Administration of George Warmonger Bush try to claim that there was no warning information? That there was no reason to believe that something was going to happen? That the threat was real?

Let's hope we don't have to find out.

''You think I'm insane?'' said Finnerty. Apparently he wanted more of a reaction than Paul had given him.

''You're still in touch. I guess that's the test.''

''Barely-- barely.''

''A psychiatrist could help. There's a good man in Albany.''

Finnerty shook his head. ''He'd pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close on the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.'' He nodded, ''Big, undreamed-of things -- the people on the edge see them first.''

-- From Player Piano

pessimist :: 3:54 PM :: Comments (0) :: Digg It!