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Retail Employment and the Wal-Mart Effect

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(NNPA) I remember one of my first jobs. I was a senior in high school in Mount Vernon, N,Y., a suburb of New York City, and I got a job at a sporting goods store. The pay seemed decent, at least that is how I remember it. But what was noteworthy was that older adults worked in the store and had worked in the store for some time. No, I don’t mean retirees who are forced to work because their Social Security is not enough; I mean non-retirees who had made a life for themselves in the retail industry.

It was not uncommon to go to major stores and find employees who had made a career in the retail industry. But it was not just major stores. There were plenty of smaller stores like the sporting goods store that employed me that held onto employees.

Like many other industries in the USA, retail underwent changes that have produced an entirely different work environment and work force. In efforts to secure greater profits, salaries have been reduced, hours altered (and in many cases sliced), and the target workforce has become either younger adults or senior citizens. In either case, the employers do not have or promote the expectation of employment longevity. The bottom line is that it has become less and less possible for a worker to make a living working retail. This is the portion of the workforce that has been described as being the underemployed, i.e., those who have a job (whether part-time or full-time) that simply cannot sustain their living standard.

We have been hearing more and more about the horrendous working conditions at Wal-Mart. While Wal-Mart is a leader in the new retail industry—with a very vulnerable workforce—it is not standing alone. They have succeeded in promoting a precarious employment environment for their workers and, in doing so, have helped to set a pattern for the rest of the industry. As opposed to unionized retail workers of days gone by who might have had pensions and healthcare, with Wal-Mart you have no unions, few benefits, and an excessive amount of vulnerability.

I wish that Wal-Mart was the only such employer. Retail employers are failing to invest in their workforce. Claiming that they will not be able to compete, they have attempted to keep the salaries/wages of retail workers low. They are even prepared to accept a transitory workforce where it is not expected that a worker will stay for long. The problem, at least from the standpoint of the worker, is that you may sicken of a particular employer but rather than social mobility up, you as a retail worker live the life of the lateral pass, going from employer to employer, but rarely rising to a respectable living standard.

The reality is that this situation will not change until and unless retail workers win unionization. As long as employers can compete against one another on the basis of who offers the lowest wages, retail workers will not only be pitted against one another but will find themselves caught in an employment maelstrom, whirling around and around, eventually sinking.

As consumers we are being taught to close our eyes to the conditions of retail workers, only looking for the best bargains, but here’s my question, to paraphrase the words of the late president of the United Auto Worker, Walter Reuther: If we keep letting the condition of retail workers sink so that there are alleged bargains for the consumers, who will be in a position to buy the products?

I don’t see this question asked and answered on the business pages of my local newspapers. How about you?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

Obama Stands by Susan Rice

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(NNPA) All U.S. United Nations ambassadors sit in a perpetual hot seat. That comes with the assignment and to be periodically involved in public controversies is not out of the ordinary. Yet with the growing unprincipled and ultra-partisan attacks on the integrity, intelligence and competence of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, those who believe in freedom, justice, and equality cannot sit back and be silent in the face of these putrid political and undeserved personal attacks on the good character and reputation of Ambassador Rice.

Even though Rice has been one of the most effective and articulate U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations in recent memory, Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are leading the misguided campaign against Ambassador Rice in the wake of the controversies surrounding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. We all mourn the loss of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and the other three Americans killed in Benghazi. Those responsible for the killings should be brought to justice.

But instead of demanding that an emphasis be put on finding and apprehending those responsible for the violence, Republicans have a contrived fixation on besmirching the leadership and character of Ambassador Rice. The question is why? What are the Republicans really trying to achieve by continuing their political campaign to tarnish the good name of Ambassador Rice?

Both McCain and Graham have announced their opposition to the possibility of President Barack Obama nominating Rice to serve as the next U.S. Secretary of State. Graham stated, “I don’t trust her. I think she was a political choice, telling a political narrative, and either she didn’t know the truth about Benghazi—so she shouldn’t have been on T.V. – or she was spinning it…… I don’t think that’s a good resume to be Secretary of State.”

McCain claimed, “My judgment at this time is that four Americans were killed, and the information that our U.N. ambassador conveyed was clearly false…. There was overwhelming evidence that it was completely false. And she should have known what the situation and circumstances were and not tell the world on all Sunday morning talk shows.”

The fact is, however, on those Sunday morning talk shows after the tragedy in Benghazi, Ambassador Rice reported exactly and accurately the information that she had been given by U.S. intelligence officials at the early stages of the investigative analysis. This information was well known by McCain and Graham, yet they have persisted in attempting to undermine both President Obama and Ambassador Rice.

It is as if that McCain, Graham, Romney and many other Republicans are still sore losers because of the outcome of the 2012 national elections. President Obama stated, “But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me…. If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me – and I’m happy to have that discussion with them.”

Ambassador Rice also made it clear, “When discussing the attack against our facilities in Benghazi, I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community …. I made clear that the information was preliminary, and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers.”

President Obama should continue to stand up for Ambassador Rice with strong fervor and renewed determination not to be sidetracked from pushing his national and international agenda forward. As the president contemplates his new cabinet, certainly Ambassador Rice should be considered for further duty. In fact, the recent controversies have only resulted in making Ambassador Rice as stronger diplomat and public servant loyal and committed to the president’s leadership and direction. During the next four years, it is obvious that the forces of backwardness and regression will have to be challenged vigorously.

We support President Barack Obama and we stand with Ambassador Rice today and into the future. Now is the time for strong leadership domestically and internationally. American politics needs more balance from the opposition party, but it clear that the Republicans have yet to repent.

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and Education Online Services Corporation and can be reached at drbenjamin.chavis@gmail.com

Democracy on Trial

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(NNPA) On Election Day, I found myself thinking about Venezuela. In the context of a hotly contested race for the presidency of the country, all reports indicated that the Venezuelan elections were handled smoothly with very few problems. This was true despite constant warnings in the U.S. media that the Venezuelan elections would somehow be undermined by the incumbent administration of President Hugo Chavez.

Now contrast that with the U.SA. and tell me what sorts of conclusions you arrive at. For two years we have had Republican-dominated state legislatures seeking to reduce the opportunities for people to register to vote and vote. There have been efforts to curtail early voting and voting on Sundays.Teams of right-wingers were put together to show up at polling places with the objective of challenging alleged fraudulent voters, but in effect, to intimidate voters. And, of course, we had various problems with voting machines, such as the now famous machine in Pennsylvania that kept changing Obama votes into Romney votes.

I would suggest to you–and maybe I am taking a risk in raising this–that it appears that we have a problem with democracy right here at home. How can efforts to reduce the number of those who can vote be justified? Why should organizations fear the undertaking of voter registration? Why should early voting be curtailed?

While it is the case that many of the efforts at what has come to be known as voter suppression were blocked by the intervention of the Justice Department and the courts, it is not time to rest easy. Keep in mind that the forces that were attempting to block our vote have not disappeared. They are still very much with us, just like a virus that has entered our system. In addition, the US Supreme Court will be considering aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with the aim of ascertaining whether it needs to be weakened in light of the nearly 40 years of its existence. Right-wingers – and the National Black Chamber of Commerce – are suggesting that the protections offered by the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary. After watching the 2000, 2004, 2008 and now the 2012 elections, I am uncertain how anyone could arrive at such a conclusion.

The fight for voting rights is far from over. The Republicans were stung by the results of November 6 and I think that it is a fair guess to suggest that they are not going to fold up shop. With the changing demographics of the U.S.A., they will seek to return to power and in order to succeed, they will need to knock some of us out of the batter’s box, i.e., they will need to reduce the number of voters that they see as pro-Democratic.

Voting rights is not about being pro-Democratic. It is about being pro-democracy. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and many White allies stood up in the face of electoral shenanigans and insisted that they be heard. Over the coming months we will be called upon to make our voices heard loud and clear on voting rights. Silence on this matter will certainly mean that the idea of democracy in the U.S.A. will take a further hit, this time perhaps a mortal blow.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

Time for EPA to get O-U-T

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(NNPA) The votes have been cast. The ballots have been counted. And for most Americans, the day-to-day attention paid to the political process – free of the spectacle of a presidential election – fades into the background.

But what exactly is poised to happen within the government now that the spotlight has dimmed?

After one of the most polarizing and incendiary election cycles in recent memory, with billions spent on negative ads and countless accusations hurled from one side to another, we find ourselves right where we started.

Democrats retain control of the Senate by a slightly larger margin – a major disappointment for Republicans who just months ago dreamed of big pickups. The House remains in Republican hands, but not without some bumps and bruises for the majority party after having lost senior members in key committee positions, from Cliff Stearns to Mary Bono-Mack.

Most importantly, President Obama won a decisive second term in office. After having governed with one hand tied behind his back by re-election concerns for the past two years, the Obama administration is now free to pursue desired policy without the encumbrances that have kept many of the party’s favored agenda items in the barn for the past two years.

Perhaps nowhere will the impact of this mandate be more abundantly and immediately clear than on the pages of the Federal Register, where bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency are now poised to take meaningful and immediate steps forward on big-ticket – and costly – priorities that were kept under wraps by election-minded liaisons in the White House for the last two years.

Many of the initiatives pursued by EPA and others will be headline-drivers. Others, though, are poised to slide under the radar. But this lower profile doesn’t mean the impacts will be any less significant.

Take, for instance, EPA’s push to gain greater authority over chemicals through so-called voluntary programs that don’t outwardly restrict the use of specific chemicals, but implement non-binding standards that simply serve as de facto regulations – encouraging de-selection in the marketplace.

Highlighting this effort will be a push for increased authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Observers expect that the newly-unencumbered EPA will more freely utilize its authority under Section 6a, which allows them to ban or restrict chemicals. Previously, this process has been dependent upon thorough review and political input. With a new mandate, however, rulemakings are likely to be initiated far in advance of the science inherent to the process being settled.

Where direct rulemaking fails or cannot be applied, the aforementioned “voluntary” initiatives provide EPA with a backdoor regulatory opportunity – establishing controls on out of favor substances without going through the rigors of the rulemaking process or in-depth scientific analysis. The EPA’s Design for the Environment (DFE), for instance, is a voluntary program, that does not employ established, consistent and rigorous scientific criteria, is not authorized by statute and follows no formal regulatory process or guidelines making it challenging for manufacturers to effectively engage and push for standards consistent with the US risk based regulatory approach. The result is that chemicals that have been proven safe in scientific review must also seek additional voluntary endorsement or be deemed inferior.

This unscientific, shoot-from-the-hip means of regulation is a severe stretch of EPA’s mandate – and presents a real threat to the ability of this industry – and many more – to plan and compete.

Of course, EPA’s ire focuses on much more than just the chemical industry. Economically massive initiatives – delayed for political reasons in the president’s first term – are expected to slam the economy in the early days of the second term. And the implications stand to be severe.

Perhaps most prominently, a fresh revision of EPA’s ozone standards was famously shelved in 2011 to the disdain of environmentalists everywhere. But despite environmentalists’ cries, the decision to punt on the revision was politically expedient, as stricter ozone standards threaten to carry massive economic costs not just for industry, but for countless cities, counties, municipalities and states nationwide that would suddenly find themselves out of compliance. According to EPA itself, this new standard would cost the economy around $90 billion annually by 2020.

Not exactly a strong talking point for a candidate focused on touting his plan for economic recovery.

The regulatory hurdles taking shape, in other words, are significant. But as this second term commences, there may be some hope. Officials on both sides have expressed a seemingly sincere interest in reaching across aisles to find solutions that work for both sides. Efforts to avert the coming fiscal cliff will provide a first test for this burgeoning bipartisanship.

Where we go from there, though, remains to be seen.

Harry Alford is the President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce Inc(r). Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

Bipartisanship Needed More than Ever

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(NNPA) It seems like the more we watch our elected officials debate, argue and accuse, the more of the same keeps happening. For the sake of our future they need to come to terms with our dire economy and start managing our financial affairs. America is in great danger and no one seems to be very concerned. Iran will soon have nuclear weapons and China is building its military at a scary and phenomenal rate. Russia is as slick as ever and the whole Middle East is erupting. If we don’t remain strong, peace will soon go away.

President Obama has an excellent opportunity to build on his legacy. This term he needs to be a “healer” and cross the isle to negotiate the best path for America. Politics is supposed to be about compromising and negotiating. Both parties must begin an ebb and flow on the important issues that lay ahead of us. Let’s look at some of these make or break issues.

The last time we faced this upcoming financial disaster we called it “Taxmageddon.” We would not solve the matter or bring it to closure. Instead we kicked the can down the road and raised our debt limit. Now, we face it again and call it the “Fiscal Cliff.” The Fiscal Cliff becomes a reality on January 1. If Congress doesn’t come to terms with this matter soon, our economy will crash. Half of our military budget will be cancelled which would cause the loss of hundreds of thousand jobs and many business closures. Or, we can do like the last time which was to raise our debt limits and kick the can down the road again. A wise government would adjust our spending and revenues to begin chopping away at our $16 trillion debt.

The next financial trauma is the Dodd-Frank bill implementation. Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank steered this fiasco through Congress and then announced their retirements. President Obama signed it. It has done much harm in terms of capital access, business growth and job creation. By law, regulators must write 398 rules to fully implement the bill. So far they have issued 133 final rules (33 percent), proposed 133 more which are pending and another 133 are yet to be proposed. This bill is making banks too timid to lend money to businesses. Our major corporations are refusing to further invest in this nation and are considering growing their businesses abroad. It may end Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and force us to come up with a new way to provide mortgage financing to homeowners. We need to undo this law and start over using common sense.

International trade is another area that needs to pick up the pace of the new global market. The last administration closed on free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Columbia. Maybe the second Obama administration will be more robust. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is starting to get on the negotiating table. If completed, we will have free trade agreements (duty and tariff free transactions) with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The National Black Chamber of Commerce is all for this. After we complete it, let’s consider some of the larger African nations. Also, wouldn’t it make sense to include the European Union, our nation’s biggest trading partner? We are talking business development and sizeable job creation.

It would be very important to the Obama legacy if we were to arrive at energy independence. Yes, we know he is all for the “all of the above” strategy in meeting our energy needs through every means available. Again, we are talking about a serious number of new jobs and business development. We must build the Keystone Pipeline. We should expand the new technique of natural gas drilling – Fracturing or “fracking.” Off shore wells should now be allowed on all of our coastlines. We cannot become independent without these forms of energy gathering. The president is going to have to face this if he is to achieve his goal. He will have to do this with an absence of cap and trade legislation. That won’t happen and this position is non-negotiable.

If the new administration can work with Congress and complete the above, it would signal a new day for America. We are at risk and I pray that the turning point can happen sooner than later. It would be so nice to have some camaraderie and respect on Capitol Hill and a happy Wall Street. If we can just get it together within the next year, the economy would start turning around and may even start to boom in the second year of this administration. President Obama, Congress, it is all up to you. Let’s do it for the future of our great nation.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

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