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AFTER PITTSBURGH: HOW WE DEFEAT THE HARD RIGHT

Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

October 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In August 2017, over 40,000 Bostonians marched on Boston Common to tell a small gaggle of nearly incoherent hard-right louts that they were not welcome in our city. Especially in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of a left-wing counterdemonstrator by a young Nazi. At the time, I was concerned that by drawing too much attention to the tiny affair, protestors risked giving the local hard right more power than they deserved—and helping them grow their numbers in the process. But I understood why so many people reacted so viscerally to it, and supported their decision to call what turned out to be one of the largest political actions of any kind in Hub history against it.

 

With Saturday’s slaughter of 11 older parishioners at a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburgh by a heavily armed, raving anti-Semite—literally screaming for the death of all Jews—we’re not precisely entering a new era. After all, we’ve seen a number of mass shootings by the same kind of white guy in the brief period since Boston’s big protest against hate. Including the killing of two African-Americans in a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger supermarket just three days before the Steel City incident. But events are starting to look increasingly similar to the dawn of an earlier era. The Nazi era. And any moderately well-educated adult that failed to hear the shattering glass of Kristallnacht in the bullet casings that hit the floor of the Tree of Life synagogue as the killer pumped lead into the bodies of innocents has learned precisely nothing from history.

 

So, I think it would have been appropriate for Bostonians from all walks of life to call an even larger rally this week than last year’s to take up an old slogan, “Never Again,” in memory of the honored dead of Pittsburgh. And to put all latter-day Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists on warning that we will not allow them to take control of Boston, or Massachusetts, or the United States.

 

However, the Red Sox won the World Series the day after the attack. Making it less likely that the kind of rally we need—a show of force that would inspire people around the nation—will happen here in this critical moment.

 

Which is a pity. Since this is one killing spree that we can absolutely blame President Donald Trump for instigating with his disgusting and completely fallacious attacks on the caravan of asylum-seeking refugees fleeing government persecution in countries like Honduras and poverty in general.

 

As Adam Serwer put it in an excellent Atlantic piece (“Trump’s Caravan Hysteria Led to This”), “The Tree of Life shooter criticized Trump for not being racist or anti-Semitic enough. But with respect to the caravan, the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture.’


“The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election.”

 

So Trump needs to pay a political price for his propagandizing in the service of increasing the right-wing turnout on the sixth of November. And a lot of big protest rallies—perhaps galvanized by a successful Boston action—right before one of the most important elections in decades would have gone a long way toward exacting that price where it hurts him the most.

 

But it was not to be this time around. Which is OK. As there is a lot more that people of good conscience can do to deflect the rise of the hard right before they become strong enough to take more direct and long-term control of significant American political institutions… and start legally murdering their opponents in great numbers. Because if there’s one attribute that Nazis and fascists and white supremacists have in common, it’s a thirst for the blood of their many enemies. As such, they must be defeated politically—and defeated definitively—by people from across the compassionate political spectrum to forestall that possibility from ever becoming a reality. While they are still a small force relative to the population.

 

Before I continue, though, let me just lay out a couple of ideas that are important to any discussion of defeating the hard right.

 

First, the perpetrators of the recent wave of deadly attacks on African-Americans and now Jews (and other targeted groups) aren’t crazy. Sure, they have psychiatric issues. Lots of people do. But they’re generally quite clear about what they’re doing and why. And they are not lone nuts. They are soldiers. Even if they’re not members of a hard-right organization.

 

Second, the attacks these killers are carrying out are not random. Even if, as with the recent massacre, some of them seem to be done on the spur of the moment. They are part of a strategy. The killers are not generally the authors of that strategy. Hard-right leaders are. The strategy and the tactics that comprise it are laid out every day across thousands of channels of communication—most obviously social media discussions. The basic directive of the strategy is to attack “soft targets”—unarmed people who are members of groups deemed enemies by Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. To kill as many of those people as possible. To spread fear in those enemy communities and beyond. And, most importantly, to encourage an armed response from those communities and/or their allies.

 

Allies like young left-wing activists who sometimes put on on masks and try to defend vulnerable communities. Often called “antifa” rightly or wrongly. And demonized by right-wing pundits up to and including Trump as some kind of massive army ready to undermine the very foundations of our republic. Which is purest fantasy. But absolutely a truism in current right-wing circles… be they hard or soft.

 

The goal of the strategy is to trigger a civil war. Which the hard right—being armed and trained and having infiltrated the military and many police forces for decades—fully expects to win. Once it’s won, democracy can be replaced with dictatorship. And the bloodbath they so desire can begin.

 

To stop that strategy from succeeding, the overwhelming majority of Americans and immigrant residents that are not on the hard right must out-organize them politically. And here we arrive at the work that everyone can do. Whatever walk of life you come from. Whatever your background is. Whatever age you are.

 

Study. If you don’t have a basic grounding in history and politics relevant to the fight at hand, get one. If you’re rusty, brush up. We have lots of great public libraries and bookstores in the Boston area. Use them. Look for works by academics and researchers recognized as experts in their fields. If you need suggestions, ask librarians and bookstore clerks. If you need formal instruction, and you’re not a student, enroll in courses at adult education centers and community colleges. If that’s too expensive—or as an adjunct to coursework—form study groups with friends, read key texts together, and discuss them.

 

Organize. Either start or join political groups that are committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and tolerance for the broad array of political, economic, religious, social, and cultural views that don’t involve slaughtering other people. If you’re launching one in your community, and you already started a study group, you can build your organization out of that. It’s also great to start chapters of existing organizations. Definitely don’t “reinvent the wheel” unless you have to. Whether you decide to work with an existing political party or start your own is purely up to you. Political groups can do a lot of useful work outside of political parties. You can also both join or start a political party and join or start extraparliamentary political organizations. Just don’t spread yourself too thin.

 

Educate. You’ve got some knowledge. You’re doing political organizing. Now get out there and talk to as many people as you can. Hold public educational events on important issues of the day. In election years, hold candidate forums and panel discussions on referendum questions. The important thing is that you don’t just do this in neighborhoods already friendly to your core ideas. Go to places that the harder edge of the right wing is known to dominate. Talk up your positions. Spread the word that there is more than one way to think about the world. Also, work with democracy-friendly media outlets (like BINJ and DigBoston). Write opinion pieces for publication. Get on talk shows. Start your own news outlets if necessary. At least a blog and a podcast can be a great start. Use social media judiciously. Build an audience carefully, and encourage its members to join your organization.

 

Debate. This is key. Constantly engage in debate with the broad right wing. You may not exactly win hearts and minds every time. But you may very well stop run-of-the-mill conservatives from turning into hard-right fanatics. You will also learn more about their ideas in conversation than most anything you could glean from your readings. And you will learn to better express your own ideas through practice under some duress.

 

Mobilize. Defend and expand democracy through direct political action. Hold rallies, marches, and pickets against the hard right. Don’t let vulnerable communities struggle alone. Join with them. Work with them. Meet the threat of violence with determined nonviolence. Then beat politicians that support the hard right at the ballot box.

 

Build. Establish small- and large-scale institutions that enshrine democratic values and make them part of everyday life. Social clubs. Sports facilities. Cultural centers. Institutes. For the long haul.

 

In short, create the more democratic society that you want to live in. Run the hard right to ground with the force of your ideas and the people you mobilize politically. Not with guns. Make it impossible for Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists to find significant audiences for their rhetoric of hate for the foreseeable future. And you will have won.

 

We will all have won.

 

NOTE: Since this article went to press, a rally has been called for tomorrow (Thursday, November 1) at 6pm at the New England Holocaust Memorial next to Faneuil Hall. Boston Shiva: Rally Against Antisemitism and White Supremacy. Full info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/330051917546731/. Check it out!

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

MAINE EVENT: PAGU MAKES A SUPER FINE LOBSTER ROLL

PAGU black lobster roll. Photo by Jason Pramas.
Photo by Jason Pramas

 

October 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

People all over the US labor under many misapprehensions about the Boston area—to the extent they think about us at all. One of the worst of these is the idea that lobster rolls are a local delicacy. Or that Bostonians eat them all the time. Or that we have lots of joints that specialize in their production.

 

This is not, of course, the case. It’s certainly true that lobster rolls are a regional speciality, found all over New England. But they’re really a Maine thing. So, it’s not particularly easy to find a really good lobster roll in or around the Hub. Not to say that there aren’t several places that do a nice job with the old standby and a few spots that even specialize in it.

 

So it was with some surprise that I found a great lobster roll at PAGU—a fairly upscale Cambridge establishment at which I recently chose to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Because, heretofore, I’ve been something of a purist when it comes to the crustacean creation in question. The roll has to be a split-top hot dog roll. White bread, naturally. I allow for either of the two traditional condiments: melted butter or mayonnaise. But nothing else. And the lobster itself has to be as fresh as possible. Having had rolls featuring lobster that had literally just come off a boat, I can’t accept frozen product or meat more than a day out of the ocean. It should be lightly boiled or steamed by an expert hand so it has that all-important snap when you bite into it. If it’s chewy at all, it’s not going to make a good roll.

 

I had already heard about PAGU’s version long since. It, and chef owner Tracy Chang, have hardly lacked for write-ups. Which is why I knew it was notable for its black roll. And figured, “What the heck, I might as well try it.” Very glad I did. It was super fine. The roll was made with squid ink and sake, and just tasted like really light savory bread—which it was. Instead of mayo or butter, the lobster was dressed with pear, avocado, and an unusual soy aioli. Giving it a really bright flavor without adding unnecessary and distracting acidity. And the meat had that perfect snap.

 

Some might consider the portion small for the $23 PAGU was charging the day of my visit. But I think of the eatery’s offering as a more traditional-sized roll. Like the ones I very occasionally got to enjoy on trips to the Pine Tree State in my childhood. Before the fad for “overstuffed” sandwiches took hold. With the house-made chips it’s served with, it’s solid light supper for the average person. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off, or that I was in need of more lobster when I was finished. And its price point is comparable to other rolls around town. So check it out some evening soon. Sit at the bar, as I did—obviating the need for a reservation—order a roll, let friendly and knowledgeable mixologists like Andy and Veronica take care of your libations, and reflect that the old ways of doing things are not forever the best ways.

 

PAGU. 310 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. GOPAGU.COM.

EDITORIAL: A NOTE TO BOSTON-AREA JOURNALISM STUDENTS

Let’s talk

 

October 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”

 

Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.

 

Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.

 

Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.

 

Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.

 

Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.

 

The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.

 

Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.

 

For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.

 

Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.

 

We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.

 

It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at internships@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART III)

Jason Pramas, summer 2018
Jason Pramas, summer 2018

 

October 10, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In parts one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6) and two (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 40, p. 6), I discussed how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. And how I drove myself one-handed through a snowstorm on country roads in the middle of the night to an emergency room—only to receive substandard care as a poor person. Leading me to make the mistake of letting cheaper chiropractors hurt me more over the next six years. In this final installment, I review my turn to labor activism on behalf of myself… and workers in bad jobs everywhere.

 

I recovered from my spinal injury within a few months. To the point where I wasn’t hurting all of the time. Just some of the time. Yet, as with other life-changing experiences before and since, I wasn’t the same afterward. Physically or psychologically. I was left with the sense that anything could happen to me at any time. Something I had known intellectually before getting hurt, but literally knew in my bones going forward.

 

Regardless, once it was clear I wasn’t going to be entirely disabled, I resolved to move ahead with my life. Which took some time. But by the summer of 1990, I had returned to Boston from Vermont, I was dating the woman who later became my wife, and I had founded New Liberation News Service (NLNS)—the international wire I would run for the next couple of years.

 

Journalism had gone from being an occasional thing for me to a regular thing. Unfortunately, NLNS was a small nonprofit serving the left-wing campus press, the remnant of the ’60s underground press, and some larger community media outlets. Most of which were too broke to pay much for the news packets my service was producing for them. Thus, I wasn’t able to make ends meet doing it for very long. And by 1991, I was temping again on the side.

 

No more manual labor for me, though. That was over, given my damaged vertebrae. This time any temp assignments I took had to make use of my writing, editing, and research skills—which I had developed over the previous few years, despite not having a college degree… and not getting one until 2006.

 

After a number of short assignments, I found a long-term editing gig via a jobs bulletin board at MIT that anyone in the know could just walk up to and use. Faxon Research Services, a now-defunct database company, contracted me through a temp agency. It was March 1992.

 

Over the months, I did well enough at the assignment that I was granted my own office and more responsibilities. I also helped the other NLNS staffer of the time to get a similar gig at Faxon. He, too, started getting more responsibility at the office. Soon, I was being groomed for a full-time job by one vice president. He was being groomed by another vice president. The two vice presidents were at odds with each other. My vice president lost the inter-departmental war. And my temp contract was ended in December 1992. Just like that.

 

Because that’s how temp jobs, and indeed most forms of contingent employment function. Employers want the freedom to use workers’ labor when they need it and to get rid of them the moment they don’t. While paying the lowest wages possible. Saving labor costs and increasing profits in the process.

 

Faxon assumed that, like every other temp, I was just going to take the injustice of losing my shot at a long-term full-time job lying down.

 

But not that time. And I would never accept injustice at any gig ever again. I had learned one key lesson from getting badly injured from the Manpower temp job at Belden Electronics three years previous: If I was treated unfairly in the workplace, I was going to fight. And keep fighting until I won some kind of redress.

 

So, I did something that temps aren’t supposed to do: I applied for unemployment. Because temp agencies and the employers that contract them use such arrangements in part to play the same “neither company is your employer” game that Manpower and Belden played when I got a spinal injury on Belden property.

 

However, I realized that I had been at this temp gig full-time for nine months and figured I had a chance of convincing the Mass unemployment department of the period that I was a Faxon employee in fact even if I was officially a temp at an agency that played so small a role in the gig in question that I can’t even remember its name.

 

My initial unemployment filing was rejected. And I appealed it. And testified to an unemployment department official. And won my unemployment. A small victory, true. But an important one for me, and possibly for other temps in similar situations in the years after me. Faxon didn’t fight the ruling. I got my money.

 

Fortunately, I didn’t need the unemployment payments for long. Back in February 1992, writing as I did not just for NLNS, but also for other publications, I had a chance to join a labor union in my trade. Not the traditional union I had dreamt of helping organize at Belden Electronics prior to—and certainly after—my injury. It was called the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers Local 1981. A small but trailblazing formation experimenting with organizing any of several types of contingent writers—with a constituency of freelance journalists, book authors, and technical writers.

 

I immediately got active in the Boston “unit” of the local. Was elected as a delegate to the national convention in the summer of 1992. Was the youngest candidate for a open vice president’s seat. Lost, but not too badly. And won enough notoriety in the Boston branch that they hired me as their half-time director in December.

 

My fight for justice for myself and millions of other people in temp, part-time, day labor, contract, independent contractor, migrant, and many other kinds of bad unstable contingent jobs besides took off from there. In 1993, I joined the New Directions Movement democracy caucus within the rapidly shrinking but still super-bureaucratic and timid United Auto Workers union, and learned a great deal about how all those purposely precarious employment arrangements were being used by employers to crush labor.

 

In 1994, I started the small national publication As We Are: The Magazine for Working Young People. In 1995, I wrote an article in its third number about the attempt by the radical union Industrial Workers of the World to start a Temp Workers Union, and began actively looking for a way to start a general labor organization for contingent workers. In 1996—just after I published the fourth As We Are, folded the magazine for lack of funds, and took a long-term temp assignment with 3M’s advertising division as a front desk person—I helped launch the Organizing Committee for a Massachusetts Employees Association (OCMEA) with Citizens for Participation in Political Action. A group that straddled the line between the left wing of the Democratic Party and socialists just to their left in the Commonwealth. In January 1997, I quit the 3M assignment a few days before being serendipitously hired by Tim Costello of Northeast Action as the half-time assistant organizer of his Project on Contingent Work there. We rolled the OCMEA effort into our new project and also helped start a nationwide network of similar contingent worker organizing projects called the National Alliance for Fair Employment later that year.

 

In June 1998, I left the National Writers Union gig—having helped build the Boston branch’s membership from just over 200 members to over 700 members in my six-year tenure—and took one final long-term half-time temp editor assignment through Editorial Services of New England at Lycos, a competitor of Yahoo and other early commercial search engines on the World Wide Web. I organized a shadow union of over 25 fellow temp editors— which won pay parity for men and women on the assignment—before leaving to help Costello break away from Northeast Action and begin raising money to form our own independent contingent workers’ organization in September 1998.

 

Finally, in January 1999, we had the funding to found the Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW), the extremely innovative labor organizing network that did much to help workers in bad jobs in Massachusetts over the six years of its existence.

 

That year we also expanded the national contingent organizing group into Canada to form the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE)—which was also based in Boston. Ultimately, Costello was the coordinator of that group and I was coordinator of CCW. And in 2003, during conversations with the CEO of Manpower about a temp industry code of conduct that NAFFE had drafted, Costello started telling him the story of my injury on a Manpower assignment. The CEO cut him off a few sentences in and said, “Forklift?” And Costello said, “Yes.” And the CEO apparently said that years after my injury, so many workers had been hurt driving forklifts in Manpower temp jobs that there had been some kind of settlement with them and the company had instituted reforms. I never bothered to verify the tale. But I don’t doubt its veracity.

 

Because employers can only push workers so far before we start to push back. And I’ve written this series for one reason: to encourage readers in bad jobs in the (now rather old) “new economy” to push back. To fight where you stand. To stop accepting unstable gigs with no benefits for low pay. To start demanding a better deal. Together with your fellow workers. And to keep demanding it. Until we live in a world where no one will ever have to work a bad job. Or get permanently injured the way I did.

 

Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part two here.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART II)

Photo by ekamelev. CC0 Public Domain.
Photo by ekamelev. CC0 Public Domain.

 

October 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In part one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6), I related how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. At the conclusion of that narrative, I was standing in agony in an empty parking lot outside an empty factory in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. My left arm was essentially paralyzed. I was completely alone.

 

I staggered the remaining distance to my car. Struggled to get the keys out of my left pants pocket with my good right arm. Unlocked the door. Opened it. Tumbled into the driver’s seat. Pulled the shoulder belt over my numb left arm. Waves of pain coursed through my body. Got the car started.

 

“Can’t pass out,” I told myself, “Don’t have much gas left, and once it’s gone, the heat goes. I can get hypothermia before anyone notices me in here. Could die.”

 

It was hard to hold my head upright enough to drive, but I managed it. Harder still was getting the car in gear and then driving stick with only my right arm. In a snowstorm. In the middle of the night. Drifting each time my hand was on the stick. Nearly braking into a spin each time I approached top speed in a gear while my hand was on the steering wheel. Nearly stalling whenever I downshifted. And, yeah, that busted second gear I mentioned in part one? That was a real problem. It was tricky enough jumping from first to third gear and back when I wasn’t injured. Doing it while badly hurt and trying to drive one-handed on dangerously icy roads for the roughly half hour I figured it would take me to get from Essex Junction to the emergency room at the big Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington? That was just asking to get put out of my misery the hard way.

 

But that was what I set out to do. Why? Not sure. I was fairly lucid, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. Still, not much was open after 9 pm in the rural suburbs of Burlington in the late 1980s. Especially with the snow falling harder with each passing minute. My recollection is that, given the route I was taking, the first gas station that was likely to be open was close enough to the hospital that I might as well drive the full distance myself and skip an ambulance ride I couldn’t afford. And I hadn’t lived in the area long enough to know if there were any emergency rooms closer to my location.

 

The other problem I faced was the the hypnotizing effect of my headlights reflecting off snowflakes as I drove down unlit back roads. To avoid accidentally getting confused, losing the road, and slamming into something solid, I stayed mostly in first gear. So it took longer to get to my destination. Maybe 45 minutes. Fortunately, I encountered little traffic on the way. And made it to the emergency room.

 

There I got treated the way people without insurance get treated all the time in America. Like dirt. I sat in the waiting room for over an hour. The bored resident that eventually saw me gave me a cursory examination and sent me for an X-ray. More accurate MRIs weren’t yet common and certainly wouldn’t have been given to patients without coverage at that time. I spent the next couple of hours in an emergency room bay. There was a heroin epidemic in Vermont in that period, so I was offered no pain killers in case I was just another junkie “drug seeker” trying to pull a fast one on the staff for a quick opiate fix.

 

Finally, the resident returned, and told me that I had dislocated two vertebrae. He gave me a few Tylenol, told me to put heat on my injury, rest for a few days, and see a general practitioner if my arm function didn’t fully return. I was not admitted for more tests or observation. I was not offered stronger pain meds. I was incredulous, but could do nothing. Naturally, I didn’t pay the medical bill when it arrived.

 

I shuffled back to my car and drove the mile to my apartment. Down the quite steep and icy hill from the University of Vermont campus where the hospital was located to the Old North End. Still one-handed, although I was getting some feeling back in my left arm by that time. At least the snow had let up.

 

It was 5 am. I got the front door open. Closed it. Got a glass of water. Took some Tylenol. Went to my room. Shut that door. Collapsed onto my futon on the floor of my dingy place that was cheap even by the standards of Burlington in that era. Slept fitfully.

 

Woke a few hours later to the first day of my new life as a bona fide member of the walking wounded.

 

It should go without saying that in the days to come both Belden Electronics and the temp service they used to hire me, Manpower, refused to accept responsibility for my injury. Neither company even informed me of my workers’ compensation rights. And I was too young and inexperienced to know much about labor law on my own. So, I proceeded with no money for medical treatment.

 

Surrounded, as I was, by wide-eyed hippies of the type that Vermont is justifiably infamous for producing, I was strongly encouraged to drop the idea of seeking help from “Western medicine” and seek assistance from one or more of the profusion of “holistic healers” that littered the hills and valleys of my temporarily adopted state like so many locusts. I went with the modality that most closely mimicked actual scientific medicine: chiropractic. Because, you know, its practitioners like to wear white coats and pretend they’re doctors. Regardless of whether they’re in the small minority of their colleagues that restrict their practice to scientifically proven treatments, or the majority that does not.

 

Unaware that a) with rest and some physical therapy my injury would probably heal to a tolerable baseline on its own within a few weeks, and b) that the neck twisting employed by less scrupulous chiropractors when “treating” injuries like mine carried a very real risk of inducing a life-ending stroke, I gamely allowed to a succession of chiropractors to twist my neck really fast until its vertebrae cracked. In addition to a fairly random grab bag of similar “treatments.” First once a week and later once a month for the next six years. At $30 a visit to start—up to about $60 a visit by the time I realized my trust in chiropractors was misplaced and stopped letting such charlatans violate my person—the price was significantly cheaper than any medical care I thought I could get without insurance.

 

So, despite feeling worse after every session than I felt when I walked in, I kept it up for far too long. Which was the goal of too many chiropractors. Whatever brings you in their door, they aim to keep you coming back regularly for the rest of your life. Assuming they don’t inadvertently end it. Or merely hurt you badly. As happened when my last chiropractor decided to try electro-muscular stimulation near my head and my vision exploded into whiteness, which faded for an unknown amount of time until I awoke with my face on the quack’s chest. Weak. Somewhat confused. And very angry. I walked out and never came back.

 

But five years later—over 11 years after the initial injury—I discovered that more damage had been done to my spine. No doubt in part from such ungentle and unschooled ministrations. A story for another day.

 

Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part three here… and for more information on why chiropractic is best avoided, check out the Science-Based Medicine blog (sciencebasedmedicine.org/category/chiropractic/) and the older Chirobase (chirobase.org).

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

EDITORIAL: WHY ADVERTISE WITH DIGBOSTON?

To support independent journalism and beat back marketing propaganda, for starters

 

September 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many people have taken to loudly bemoaning the supposedly sudden arrival of “fake news” since the 2016 presidential election… while becoming belatedly aware of the accompanying slow decline of print newspapers that are—whatever else one might say about them—the beating heart of American journalism.

 

Every other kind of news media owes its existence to these “dead tree” publications. Traditional radio and TV news outlets, and every form of digital news operation on the internet, are all possible because print newspapers—most commercial, some nonprofit—have been fielding thousands of reporters in hundreds of cities for decades. Doing the kind of deep ground-level reporting that makes all the hot (and more often shallow) takes on other media possible.

 

Advertising has been the main source of income for commercial print newspapers since the mid-19th century, and the advent of web-based online advertising blew a vast hole in that revenue stream. Precipitating, in no small part, the downward spiral in their fortunes over the last quarter century.

 

One result of newspapers shrinking and all too often ceasing to exist has been what one might call the rise of the marketers. With fewer and fewer full-time reporters doing their jobs, marketing firms have leapt to the fore. Offering a flood of “free” content to every conceivable type of news operation. Ceaselessly expanding the empire of the original fake news in the process. A fake news that, make no mistake, has existed for as long as there has been news.

 

Because rich and powerful institutions have always hired marketers or their equivalents. And marketers—in thrall to whichever institution hires them—are paid to lie to the public. And are therefore the polar opposites of (most) journalists. Especially journalists at an independent metro newsweekly like DigBoston.

 

As a journalist-owned, journalist-run newspaper, we send reporters out into the communities we cover every week in search of information that’s as close to whatever truth may be happening as it can be. We then do our damnedest to faithfully report what we observe to our audience.

 

So, we can say with certainty that no human organization is good all of the time. Least of all the big corporations that run our society. But big corporations are the very institutions that spend the most money on paying marketers to spew propaganda at every level of news media.

 

And increasingly, understaffed and underfunded news outlets take even this worst of free marketing copy—this disinformation, this fake news—and run it. Day in and day out. The public, for their part, can be forgiven for having trouble discerning reasonably honest reporting from unreasonably dishonest marketing copy. There’s nothing new about that either. Some people are critical about any news they encounter. Some are not. But marketing has gotten so sophisticated and so pernicious that even the wary have trouble telling the difference between journalism and propaganda.

 

At DigBoston, our audience doesn’t have to worry about that quandary. We exist to report the news in the public interest. In our own way, and with our own unique broadly left-leaning voice, to be sure. But we take our job very seriously, and we work very hard week in and week out to do it to the best of our collective ability. For 20 years and counting.

 

Given that, if you know nothing else about us, know this: We do not run the propaganda that paid marketers fill our email inboxes with 24/7. Like this morning’s stupid, stupid example entitled “Wondering about a sponsored post.” That is, “wondering if you all are brainless enough to run this marketing copy for free and pretend it’s a real article by an independent journalist.” To which my colleague Chris Faraone gave our standard mocking reply, “$2,000 a post”—a price we know no marketer will ever pay.  

 

However, we’re a free newspaper. As such, even more than those bigs that have a number of different ways to make money, we rely almost completely on advertising to keep publishing.

 

We offer advertisers a lot for their money, even in today’s viciously competitive media market. Our ads are obviously cheaper than larger publications. More importantly, though, they reach people who read, who support music and the arts, who are tastemakers, and who… patronize our advertisers.

 

Because of that fact, our existing advertisers love us. And we love them back.

 

But we need more of them. We need to grow our news operation if we’re going to give the many communities in Boston and environs that we cover the constant attention they deserve. To do that we need to be able to pay more full-time reporters, and part-time ones, too. To do that, we need a bigger business staff and more salespeople.

 

All of which is only possible if more institutions that could advertise with us—all the local businesses and charities who serve the communities we cover—step up and do so.

 

Rather than spend advertising dollars on marketers who straight-out lie to people and harm our struggling democracy rather than help it.

 

Folks interested in advertising with DigBoston can email our sales staff at sales@digboston.org.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

HOW TO MANAGE YOUR PROFS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR THE NEW COLLEGE STUDENT

September 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a first-year undergraduate. You’re in college to cram your head full of knowledge, true. But you’re also there to build your personal network. Because the friends and allies you make while taking courses could very well stay with you for your whole life. And the stronger you build this interlocking web of connections, the better your job prospects (and existence in general) will be. The best way to do that—the most lasting and meaningful way—is to graduate. Everyone who does so has a profound experience in common. A strong bond forged in the fires of a seemingly endless series of term papers, labs (for you scientists), crits (for you artists), and exams. You get through that together, you can do anything… together.

 

However, to graduate you need to meet the standards of the people who stand between you and your degree of choice: your professors. And it may seem to students new to higher education that the profs hold all the power in the relationships they have with you and your classmates.

 

Two considerations should mitigate this concern. First, some professors—the best of them—will become part of your network. Help you get jobs, get into grad school, and so on and so forth.

 

Second, you are living in an era where professors have less power in the academy than they’ve had since the Renaissance (American higher education being based, as it is, on older European models). You see, if you had been a college student in, say, Italy in the 16th century, you (being a rich male, as you would have had to be) would essentially be hiring older (also male, but often pretty broke) scholars to teach you what you wanted to study. The universities of the period were basically groups of students paying groups of professors to teach them. Each group had certain rights and responsibilities, and power on campus was distributed between them.

 

In the intervening centuries, professors seized more and more control over higher education—culminating in the mid-20th century when they pretty much controlled the academy from top to bottom. Most of them were granted “tenure” by their colleges, guaranteeing them a permanent job in the interest of academic freedom.

 

Fast-forward to today, and many professors—at least at the undergraduate level—have fallen upon hard times. Over the last half century, American higher education has become more and more corporatized. Colleges today are run like businesses. And many are big businesses indeed. Campus administrations have professionalized. Most key staff are no longer professors, but specialists trained to run universities along capitalist lines.

 

One important job these administrators have is to keep students relatively happy—while extracting the federally guaranteed student loan money most bring with them. The better to convert them to donors after they graduate and become alumni.

 

Unsurprisingly, as time has gone on, administrators have sucked up larger and larger portions of college budgets. So, less and less of most schools’ budgets are being spent on professors. Causing faculty power to decline. Thus, in today’s higher ed establishment, a smaller and smaller percentage of professors are tenured faculty with good salaries and lifetime sinecures.

 

A slightly larger percentage of lower-paid professors are tenure-track faculty spending several years at the mercy of their administrations and tenured colleagues in hope of landing a rare tenured professorship. And the vast majority of faculty are adjuncts—contract professors who, at many institutions, don’t know whether they’re going to have enough courses from semester to semester to pay their rent and keep food on the table. Unless they unionize (a movement that’s spread across public universities in the last quarter century and is gradually taking hold in private ones), the amount of money they get per course can be very low indeed and job security will be nonexistent. Yet even when unionized, adjuncts have trouble making ends meet.

 

And where does all this leave an enterprising student like yourself? In a bit of a catbird seat, if you know how to manage your profs.

 

Doing that involves four simple steps. The first three are practical tactics you’ll want to focus on with your most helpful professors. And the fourth is a “nuclear option” you can deploy if you’re unlucky enough to get a bad teacher while completing your undergraduate coursework.

 

1) Do what your professors ask you to do

If you want to convert your professors from indifferent functionaries to active allies, you’ve got to get their attention. In a good way. And how best to get a prof’s attention? Follow directions carefully. Give them what they ask for in homework assignments, papers, and tests. Don’t go overboard. Good professors understand you have other courses. Just do what they want you to do, the way they want you to do it. Right there that puts you in the top 10 percent of students in a typical undergrad class. Particularly with adjuncts who have very little time to spend with each student, since they need to teach as many courses as possible—sometimes at more than one school—to attempt to make a living wage. The less work you make for professors, the more they will be pleased with you. The more pleased any faculty member is with you, the better your educational experience is going to be.

 

2) Give your professors good evaluations

Every semester, at most colleges, your administration will ask you to give a fairly comprehensive evaluation of each course you take. This, in effect, allows you to evaluate your professors’ performances. What most students don’t know is that faculty are usually shown the evaluations—minus their students’ names. And what even fewer know is that many faculty members can tell which students gave which evaluations. Meaning they know who trashes them, and who praises them. So, be sure to mention something in your write-up that will help your professors know which eval came from you. Don’t be too glowing in your praise. But be fair. They will be much more likely to become your allies going forward if you are.

 

3) Help your professors with their careers

Professors, especially adjuncts, are always looking for chances to stand out from the pack. In hopes of getting more secure long-term employment. Or, if they already have tenure or are tenure-track (or at least have a solid union contract), in hopes of getting the types of “gold stars on their foreheads” that lead to better gigs. Those desired promotions come by making administrators like deans and provosts happy. And stuff like winning grants for flashy research projects is exactly the type of thing that makes such top dogs happy in today’s academy. Because it makes them look good to their higher-ups: campus presidents and boards of trustees. Given that, if your professor mentions an opportunity to assist them with some grant writing or research work or preparing for a big conference or whatever—and you can spare some time—help them out. Don’t be a suck-up or teacher’s pet. Don’t jump on every opportunity that presents itself. That can backfire, or become inappropriate in any number of ways. But maybe once a semester do them a solid. That’s the kind of thing that leads to a long-term connection and adds professors to your personal network.

 

“But surely,” you’re now thinking, “every professor isn’t good.” Isn’t helpful. Some professors are, in fact, obstacles that could stop you from getting your degree and solidifying your all-important personal network of classmates and good faculty.

 

Correct. In a system of higher education where most professors didn’t get any practice teaching unless they were in the minority of graduate students that decided to be teaching assistants instead of research assistants, bad teachers are an unfortunately common fact of college life.

 

And here’s where your newfound knowledge of the falling status of professors comes into play.

 

4) The enemy of your enemy is your friend

If you have a bad professor… and I don’t mean a professor that makes you work for your grades. Those are generally the good ones. I mean if you have a professor who is feral. Arbitrary and capricious in their teaching method and in their treatment of students. Someone who gets off on giving low grades because they think they can do so with impunity. If you get a teacher like that, do not waste too much time complaining to them directly. Nasty professors are inclined to think they’re better than you—even if you make more money working at Starbucks than many of them make as academics. So they’ll tend to ignore your protestations. Better to try a different tack. Remember how administrators have steadily taken control of today’s corporatized academy? And how they want students to be happy? You go complain to them. To the highest level administrators that will sit down with you. In person. And encourage your classmates to do the same. And keep doing it. If enough people complain, and the complaints are legitimate, it will negatively affect problem professors’ careers. To forestall that—and being unable to retaliate since the eyes of the administration are on them—said profs will likely moderate their behavior. And you will have won.

 

Have a great school year, folks. Study hard, don’t party too much, be decent to your fellow beings, and you’ll be fine.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He has also been both an adjunct and a “regular” professor at some college or other. And helped organize faculty unions at same. He has degrees and stuff.

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART I)

spool of wire

 

September 5, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Every once and a while, I move slightly differently than usual. Maybe I shift position too fast. Maybe I pick up something a bit too heavy. Maybe I’m sitting askew for just a bit too long. Whatever the cause, one second I’m fine… and the next, my old spinal injury flares up. It’s that fast. Pain radiates outward from my core to my extremities.

 

It traces a burning track to the tips of my fingers. I am aware of exactly where each nerve runs back to damaged vertebrae. And there is nothing much I can do in the way of palliative care but let the latest flare-up run its course. I mean, sure, I can do light exercise. I can do some special stretches learned over years of occasional physical therapy. I can use ice, then heat, then ice again. Then I can rest. And start over again the next day.

 

With luck, after a week or three, whatever inflammation I caused calms down. The pain comes with decreasing regularity. And then I return to my “normal” state. The state that has made me unable to do manual labor for many many years. And unable to drive in recent years. If my friends or family need help moving, I can’t do it. If anyone needs me to jump in a car and pick them up, they have to ask someone else.

 

As I type these words on Labor Day, I have just had such a flare-up. Which is, it must be said, kind of ironic. Yesterday, I sat texting someone in a marginally different posture than usual… and bang, I’m hurt again. So it hurts to type. A lot. But I’m pushing through anyway. Like I always do. Like I’ve done for decades.

 

Because I was first injured directly after leaving the last shift of a job in late March 1989. But it was not an actual job. It had neither security, nor benefits, nor decent wages. It was certainly labor, though.

 

The incident occurred at the conclusion of an eight-week temp assignment for Manpower—then, as now, one of the largest so-called “staffing agencies” in the world. The company I worked for—yet didn’t work for—was Belden Electronics. The plant in question was in Essex Junction, Vermont. I had moved up to the Green Mountain State the previous year and was never able to find a decent “job job” in the two years I lived there. Or in several years before or after my “mountain sojourn.” Like many other members of my generation coming of age in the 1980s, I was discovering that the “good jobs” my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation had enjoyed after WWII were already becoming a thing of the past. The late ’80s recession under the first Bush presidency only made things worse.

 

Prior to the factory gig, the temp assignments I had gotten were shorter term. And I wanted something that lasted for longer than a week at a time. The better to pay my rent and keep my car on the road. So when Manpower offered the Belden assignment, I took it. It was swing shift, and I’d be working from 3 pm to midnight, Monday through Friday. I was a night owl, and that allowed me to do other things I was doing in Vermont at that point in my life. I was told I’d be driving a forklift—which I thought sounded interesting. I was 22 years old.

 

So one fine afternoon in early February 1989, I coaxed my old car with manual transmission and a busted second gear I couldn’t afford to fix into driving the half-hour from Burlington’s more or less urban sprawl into the deep woods where some genius had thought it was a good idea to drop an industrial park. Snow was piled 10 feet deep on either side of the country roads as I pulled into a large parking lot outside the commodious Belden facility for the first time.

 

Inside, I was given a quick tour of the factory floor, break room, and bathrooms. Then I was “trained” to drive two kinds of electric forklifts for a total of three hours. One of which involved watching a video. The other two of which involved a manger running me through my paces on actual equipment at speeds much lower than I was going to be expected to drive in the coming weeks. Then I was sent out onto the floor to start work. I received the rest of my training, such as it was, from the guy whose job I was helping eliminate. After working there eight years, he was to be replaced by temps like me.

 

He was a devout Mormon. Many folks don’t realize it, but Mormon church founder Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in the early 1800s. So there are more of that flock about on the starboard side of Lake Champlain than one might think. My trainer and his wife were doing their level best to increase that flock, too. So he had several children. And that was why Belden let him stay on after using me to render his job redundant. He was allowed to work on a machine station, after being forced to accept a pay cut. To make ends meet, he had already started a second job as a janitor at his Mormon temple. Yet despite all this adversity, he never said an unkind word to me—the guy who was to be the first in a series of temps to work his old job—or anyone else in the plant.

 

He was, in fact, one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. Toward the end of my brief tenure at Belden, he gave me a Book of Mormon that he and his family had inscribed with their best wishes. I read it, and discussed it with him. Explained that I was still searching for a spiritual home, but was honored and humbled by his gift. Then went back to work.

 

And what was that work? Well, the factory made wire for electronics companies—including the nearby IBM works. The wire was then spooled. And the spools ranged in size. From little ones that might weigh 10 pounds each. To huge ones that weighed 1000 pounds or more. I am 5’6”, and at the time I weighed 132 pounds soaking wet. My job was to lift or roll those wire spools onto the tines of either of my forklifts—the fast one (which I loved) or the slow one. And take them from station to station, machine to machine, where the wire went through the various stages of its processing.

 

All that lifting and pushing of spools took its toll on me in the brief time I was there, but my body seemed to handle the stress ok. After all, I was young and bouncy. But I didn’t realize that, in the absence of proper training or safety equipment, I wasn’t doing anything correctly. Not to say that I wasn’t a good worker. People from management on down were quite decent to me, as far as it went. I was, however, putting a great deal of strain on my spine.

 

Meanwhile, I was essentially participating in the forced speedup of a nonunion factory by corporate management who were trying to increase profits by cutting labor costs. Driving from station to station, I got to talk to lots of workers—many of whom, like my trainer, had been there for years. They were very stressed out and unhappy. They were working harder and longer for less money with worse benefits. And I began to wonder why they couldn’t unionize.

 

I didn’t know much about unions. Though I was aware that the only recourse working people have on a bad job is to start one. So I actually tried to get a longer-term contract with Belden in hopes of being able to try to do just that.

 

But there was no way they were going to hire a temp they were using to keep their longer-term workers off-balance. And at the end of March, I worked that fateful last shift. Shortly after midnight, I said my goodbyes—taking a few minutes to fill out whatever paperwork Belden and Manpower needed me to complete on the way.

 

By the time I walked out the plant door with the remaining manager, everyone was gone. There was no third shift at that time, so the parking lot was already empty. The manager’s car was parked next to the plant, and he drove off straight away. The door had locked behind me, and there was no one in sight. Except for a lone car in the middle distance that I hadn’t noticed. Which started up unexpectedly, causing me to snap my head to the right to see whose it was.

 

And then I heard a sickening crack. Followed by a massive wave of pain—emanating from my spine—that coursed through my body from head to toe. And then I realized my left arm wouldn’t move.

 

I was only halfway to my car. There was no one around. In the middle of a large parking lot. In the middle of the night. In the middle of the woods. On a freezing Vermont night many years before cell phones became common. A light snow was falling.

 

I was completely alone.

 

Part II coming soon…

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.