Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 6, 2014

Mon Jan. 6, 2014 9:48 AM EST

UH-60 Blackhawks from A Co., 3-142nd Assault Helicopter Company, 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade, air drop soldiers from A Co., 1-67th Infantry (Heavy), 2-4th Infantry Division during a training exercise on Dec. 28th, 2013, outside of Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

The 42nd CAB, New York Army National Guard, is currently deployed overseas to operate rotary winged aircraft in suport of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Harley Jelis/Released)

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H&M Plans to Pay Garment Workers Fair Wages. Here's Why That's Probably BS.

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 5:55 AM EST

I recently wrote about the Indian sumangali scheme, wherein girls from poor, rural families are recruited to work in clothing factories, on the promise that they will earn enough money for a dowry. Instead, many toil in exploitive conditions, earning far less than recruiters told them they would. Many of these factories sell to American companies. H&M has been accused by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations of using sumangali labor in the past, but the company is trying to rid its factories of the scheme by 2014. Shortly before Black Friday, H&M announced that it also plans to start paying 850,000 workers at 750 factories—out of its some 1,800 total factories around the world—a fair wage by 2018.

Fair-trade experts say that the announcement is a step in the right direction, but some point out that the plan has major holes. Most notably, the factories that will be covered under the fair-wage program produce just 60 percent of H&M's products, and the company did not say whether it would eventually extend the plan to its other factories, as well. Here are a few other red flags:

H&M won't say how much it will pay workers in each country. Anna Eriksson, a spokesperson for H&M, told me that that the company does not believe US buyers should dictate a minimum wage to its factories; instead, it expects factory employees and factory owners to work together to come up with a fair wage. Wages will depend on the country and the factory, and must meet the Fair Wage Method, which was developed by Daniel Vaughan-Whitehead, who oversees wage policy at the United Nations' International Labour Organization. This standard is based on a number of factors—such as promoting "acceptable living standards" and being "comparable to wages in similar enterprises in the same sector." H&M also plans to support unions that empower workers to negotiate for wages, and encourage governments to identify a living wage level.

But Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, criticizes the company's plan to rely on governments and factories to set wages. Nova told the Washington Post, "Just saying 'we're for a living wage, in 5 years we're going to pay an undefined amount in a subset or our factories,' that's not credible." Jefferson Cowie, the chair of the Department of Labor Relations, Law, & History at Cornell University, echoed those concerns. "It is hard to see governments taking a strong role in boosting wages in the short run," he told me. Fair wages can also be hard to enforce. I saw this firsthand while reporting my sumangali story: In India, the government does have a minimum wage for textile workers—but many of the female workers I spoke with were not being paid that wage, and didn't have access to a union.

H&M claims that increasing wages somehow won't raise prices consumers pay for its clothing. Eriksson says that the company will keep its clothing prices steady for Western consumers by using in-house designers, buying clothing in large volumes, and finding other efficiencies. But Elizabeth Cline, the author of the 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, says that she doesn't believe that H&M can pay garment workers a living wage without raising retail prices. "How can that be true?" she says. "It makes me think that the company is just riding on unsustainable expansion [and] will just continue to sell more and more low-quality clothes to make up for this increased cost." However, Joel Paul, a law professor and expert in trade policy at the University of California-Hastings, speculates that the claim could, in fact, be true: Because foreign garment factory labor accounts for a tiny percentage of a shirt's total cost, he says, increasing workers' hourly wages from 15 cents to a $1.50—an estimated living wage in Bangladesh—wouldn't substantially undercut profits.

The wage increase won't affect any of H&M's spinning mills. H&M's fair-wage promise does not extend to all of its subcontractors, which include the factories that spin the cotton into thread (also known as spinning mills). In India, most sumangali schemes take place in spinning mills. That the plan doesn't include subcontractors could be a big problem: If some factories in the supply chain are not required to pay a fair wage, garment factories can simply outsource more of their labor to those cheaper operations. When I asked H&M how the company plans to address the challenge of factories outsourcing labor to subcontractors with potentially exploitive conditions, spokesman Håcan Andersson said, "We are not able to assist you further in this matter." 

Despite the plan's significant problems, Cornell's Cowie says he believes that H&M deserves some credit for taking baby steps toward fixing a notoriously exploitive industry. "Do they have the perfect solution?" he says. "Absolutely not. If they wanted to pay the highest wages, they wouldn't be shopping for labor in Cambodia and Bangladesh in the first place. But making an open commitment to workers matters—as long as it does not end up being just a cover for their old practices."

WATCH: George Zimmerman's Girlfriend Reveals Disturbing New Details in Police Video

| Fri Jan. 3, 2014 10:27 AM EST

Last November, after a heated domestic dispute and a frantic call to 911, George Zimmerman's girlfriend told police that he had threatened her with a shotgun. The allegations were eerily similar to those lodged by Zimmerman's ex-wife following his acquittal on charges of murdering unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, and they seemed to signal a pattern of uncontrolled violence.

Zimmerman's girlfriend, 27-year-old Samantha Scheibe, later recanted the accusations, saying in a sworn statement that she was "intimidated" during police questioning and believed investigators had "misinterpreted" her words. But a recently released video of Scheibe's police interview casts doubt on her disavowal. It also adds credibility and violent new detail to Scheibe's original account.

The officer who questioned Scheibe, Stephen LaGuardia of the Seminole County Sheriff's office, did not come across as intimidating. And Scheibe's description of events was detailed and vivid—not the kind of thing most people concoct on the fly. Having broken off the relationship, Scheibe said she told Zimmerman to leave her house. He began packing his belongings, including his AR-15 assault rifle. As he removed the clip and shoved it in his rifle bag, a bullet fell on the floor. Zimmerman then grabbed and cocked his shotgun, apparently so that there was a shell in the chamber, and stuffed it in the rifle bag, too.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 3, 2014

Fri Jan. 3, 2014 9:59 AM EST

An MV-22 Osprey flies over Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 25, 2013. Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, his wife Bonnie, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett and Sgt. Dakota Meyer traveled around Regional Command (Southwest) to visit troops for the holiday season. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline/Released)

Report: Hype Over Canceled Plans Under Obamacare Was Overblown

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 2:36 PM EST

It's been more than 24 hours since insurance kicked in for early adopters of the Obamacare exchanges and somehow, magically, the health care system has yet to collapse. That might come as a surprise if you've listened too closely to the warnings from Republicans over the past several months. Conservative legislators devoted the end of 2013 to bemoaning the raft of cancellation notices sent to people enrolled in shoddy insurance plans, juxtaposing those letters to President Barack Obama's claim that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it," a line that earned Politifact's Lie of the Year dishonor. Republicans claimed that millions would now go without insurance once Obamacare went into effect.

The truth turns out to be a tad more complicated. On New Year's Eve, the Democratic minority on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report examining exactly how many people will lack health insurance under the new regime. The report uses an Associated Press estimate that 4.7 million people received cancellation notices as their baseline. But out of that group, according to the Democrats, only a small sliver of Americans—just 10,000 people—who lost their 2013 coverage won't have access to affordable insurance.

"Previous false claims have included the assertion that the law requires death panels, that the law represents a government take over of health care, and that law has caused millions to lose their jobs," the report says. "The assertion that the law will cause five million individuals who currently have coverage in the individual market to go without coverage in 2014 is similarly baseless."

Ohio Republican Gov. Expands Medicaid, Gets a Primary Challenge

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 12:20 PM EST

Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio).

Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the federal government is covering the vast majority of the cost of expanding Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance program for poor people, pregnant women, and infants. But conservatives in 24 states have blocked the program's expansion—and taken aim at anyone who breaks with the party line. Their newest target: Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, who went around the state legislature last year to cover 275,000 more Ohioans. On Thursday, Ted Stevenot, the former president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, a tea party group, announced he would take on Kasich in the May gubernatorial primary, provided he can collect 1,000 signatures by the end of the month. Per the Huffington Post:

Stevenot sent out a release late Wednesday night saying he would hold a press conference Jan. 7 in Columbus to make a "major announcement" concerning his candidacy. The announcement also noted that Brenda Mack of Canfield, Ohio, will be his running mate as lieutenant governor. She is the former president of the Ohio Black Republicans Association and the current president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation Ohio Chapter.

As my colleague Andy Kroll noted in May, conservative unrest over Kasich has been brewing for a while, with tea partiers even going so far as to threaten to form their own party to oppose him. But President Barack Obama won Ohio twice, and Kasich's signature anti-union legislation was soundly defeated at the polls. That puts the governor in a bind as he heads into what was already expected to be a tough re-election fight next fall.

Still, Stevenot isn't exactly Grover Norquist. The tea party leader has no political experience and only a very short history of political activism. At last count, had just 17 followers on Twitter. The big news here might not be that Kasich finally got a primary challenge—it's that the primary challenger is (at first glance, at least) so underwhelming.

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Koch-Backed Group Opens 2014 With $2.5 Million Obamacare Ad Assault

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 10:35 AM EST
Screenshot of Americans for Prosperity's new ad attacking Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Americans for Prosperity, the national conservative group backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has kicked off 2014 right where it left off in 2013. On Thursday, AFP unveiled a TV ad campaign hammering three Democratic senators for their support of the Affordable Care Act.

AFP has spent more than $2.5 million on a three-week run of ads starting this week that criticize Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Two of those three senators—Hagan and Landrieu—are among the most vulnerable Democratic senators running for reelection this November, according to polling. (Polls consistently show Shaheen with strong support back home.)

Here's one of the AFP ads, this one attacking Hagan:

While the Hagan ad quotes North Carolina resident (and vocal Obamacare critic) Sheila Salter as saying Hagan "just doesn't get it," the other two spots slam Landrieu and Shaheen for specifically claiming that Americans could keep their existing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. This was a popular talking point of President Obama's that, well, turned out not to be true. PolitiFact named the statement its 2013 Lie of the Year.

AFP's latest Obamacare ad blitz offers a taste of a midterm election year in which President Obama's health-care law will be a hot topic of debate and a political bludgeon wielded by the law's opponents. AFP is one of the leading anti-Obamacare groups, spending more than $16 million on ads criticizing the law since August, according to AFP spokesman Levi Russell.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 2, 2014

Thu Jan. 2, 2014 10:07 AM EST

U.S. Army Pfc. Cody Teel, left, watches as Spc. Mohammed Abbas throws an expended 105mm howitzer shell during live-fire training on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Dec. 18, 2013. Teel and Abbas are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher)

Court Beefs Up Protections for Workers Injured By Chemicals

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 9:47 AM EST

Last week, a federal court issued a ruling strengthening protections for Americans injured by chemicals on the job.

Both state and federal statues dictate how companies are required to label harmful chemicals in the workplace. Federal law usually trumps state law, but victims injured due to inadequate chemical labeling are still allowed to sue their employer for damages under state law. Earlier this year, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) sued the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is the federal workplace safety regulatory agency, arguing that OSHA regulations only allow workers to sue under federal law, not state law. (Tort reform refers to proposed changes to the civil justice system that would cut down on personal injury lawsuits.) Last week, the powerful DC Circuit Court unanimously rejected ATRA's argument, which consumer advocates say is a win for workers.

"The court’s opinion is great news for those who want to hold chemical manufacturers liable for injuries to employees," Leah Nicholls, an attorney with the public interest law firm Public Justice, said in a blog post Tuesday.

While the ruling does not mean that other courts will agree that workers are allowed to sue under state law, the DC Circuit decision "will help persuade other courts that the existence of federal regulations does not prevent people from suing under state laws," Nicholls adds.

ATRA is a coalition of industry groups founded in 1986 whose members range from the chemical industry to the tobacco industry to the drug industry. The organization advocates for limits on corporate liability for damage caused by member industries' products and services. Since the group's inception, corporations including Dow Chemical, Exxon, Phillip Morris, and Aetna have helped fund it.

In the case before the DC Circuit, ATRA said that when OSHA issued its regulation governing how federal chemical injury law preempts state chemical injury law, it changed the definition of "preemption," which only Congress is allowed to do.

The US Supreme Court has issued several rulings in recent years scaling back Americans' ability to sue corporations for damages. The high court is also the most business-friendly since World War II. In that context especially, Nicholls says, "[T]his is a heartening decision."

The Outrage Continues: An Alabama Man Who Raped a Teen Still Won't Do Prison Time Under His New Sentence

| Fri Dec. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EST

The Alabama man who was allowed to walk free after being convicted of rape has had his probation extended by two years, but he still won't have to serve prison time under a new, supposedly stiffer sentence handed down this week.

In September, a jury in Limestone County, Alabama found 25-year-old Austin Smith Clem guilty of raping his teenaged neighbor, Courtney Andrews, three times—twice when she was 14, and once when was she was 18. County Judge James Woodroof theoretically sentenced Clem to 40 years in prison. But Woodroof structured the sentence so that Clem would only serve three years probation, plus two years in the Limestone County corrections program for nonviolent criminals, which would allow Clem to work and live in the community. Only if Clem violated his probation would he be required to serve the prison time.

Clem's lenient sentence touched off a national outcry, and Andrews eventually appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry's MSNBC show to call for tougher punishment. In early December, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals found that the sentence was illegal and ordered Woodroof to mete out a stiffer penalty. But Clem's new sentence, which Woodroof handed down Monday, only extends Clem's probation from three to five years. And if Clem violates the terms of his probation, he will only have to serve 35 years in prison—less than he would have under his initial sentence.