Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
A new analysis underscores why fast-food workers are going on strike.
Jaeah LeeJul. 14, 2014 6:00 AM
Last year, according to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the CEOs of America's top 25 restaurant corporations, including McDonald's, Burger King, the Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, and Jack in the Box, took home an average of 721 times the money minimum-wage workers did, and 194 times the take-home pay of the typical American worker in a production or nonsupervisory job. Restaurants and food services employ nearly half of all American workers who earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (or less).
The report "confirms what we have long known," Cherri Delesline, a McDonald's crew member and mother of four in Charleston, South Carolina, told Mother Jones. Since November 2012, she and hundreds of other fast-food workers have gone on strike in 150 American cities and 80 foreign cities, demanding they be paid $15 per hour. "While CEOs make millions of dollars in profits, we still can't afford to pay our rent or buy clothes for our children," says Delesline, whose hourly pay is $7.35.
"It's a picture of uncontrolled greed," EPI vice president Ross Eisenbrey says. "How can it be that the CEOs are making more in half a day than many of their workers are making in an entire year—and yet they can't afford to raise the pay of those workers?" CEO pay has been out of control across all business sectors since at least the late-1980s, he adds. From 1978 to 2013, for instance, average CEO compensation, adjusted for inflation, soared nearly 1,000 percent, while the typical worker's pay increased by just over 10 percent.
Roughly 1 in 10 American workers are employed by restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association. The industry, the trade group predicts, will see $683 billion in sales this year—up 17 percent over 2010. But a greater share of those revenues has been flowing to top executives. As this interactive graph shows, CEO compensation at America's top restaurant chains has ballooned since 2008, while the annual take of their lowest-paid workers has largely flatlined. (This analysis assumes tipped workers reach the federal minimum wage through base pay and tips, although that isn't always the case, as we've reported previously.)
While the recent strikes have pressured a few chains to consider raising their wages, some executives argue that raising pay would hurt business, and franchise owners say their thin profit margins can't bear any increases. Just last week, Andy Puzder, CEO of the conglomerate that owns Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, told Yahoo Finance that raising the federal minimum would force companies like his to raise prices and ultimately reduce job opportunities for young and inexperienced workers. You can't solve the problem, he said, "by having the government artificially mandate a wage increase when there's no economic growth to support that."
Puzder—whose compensation totaled nearly $4.5 million in 2012, or 294 times what minimum-wage workers made that year—claimed that "if government gets out of the way, businesses will create jobs…Wages will go up and the country will go back to a state of prosperity instead of what we're in now."
Actually, the financial information company Sageworks reports that the restaurant industry fared pretty well during the recession, growing at about 5 percent annually since 2009. And the majority of fast-food workers aren't teenagers: More than 60 percent are 20 or older, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. As Huffington Post's Jillian Berman points out, more adults are working in fast food not because they can live off the wages, but simply because they have no better alternatives.
Meanwhile, a new study finds that 61 percent of small business owners favor a minimum wage hike to keep pace with cost of living, supporting previous findings on the topic. Some national retail companies, such as Ikea and Gap, have also chosen to raise their starting wage. Likewise wholesale merchandiser Costco, where entry-level employees get $11.50 an hour. "We know it's a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment, and loyalty," CEO Craig Jelinek said in a statement supporting of a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage—to just over $10.
Here's a list of the 25 CEOs EPI analyzed, and what they made last year.
You've seen its logos on the sidelines. Now get a peek inside the company trying to transform the world.
James West and Jaeah LeeJul. 11, 2014 6:00 AM
It takes about two hours by car from the Chinese capital Beijing to get to the smog-blanketed city of Baoding. I don't mean to be rude, but it's nothing much to speak of, typical of the Northeast's expanse of industrial wastelands, threaded together by super-highways.
So we were surprised to find that Baoding—where air pollution registers at hazardous levels for more than a quarter of the year—was also home to the sprawling campus of the world's top solar panel manufacturer, Yingli. We had landed, it seemed, in the very epicenter of China's clean tech revolution. After weeks of negotiations, my colleague Jaeah Lee and I were finally granted access to film this exclusive footage at Yingli's headquarters in the fall of 2013. What awaited inside blew our socks off: acres of high-tech solar wizardry attended to by an impressive fleet of skilled workers, and an understandably boastful management.
In the video above, we take you behind-the-scenes of Yingli, and put a face to the name you've been seeing in the background of World Cup games: In 2010, Yingli became the first renewable energy company, and the first Chinese company, to partner with the tournament.
New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos answers questions about censorship, street sweeping poets, and his new book on the world's most populous country
Jaeah Lee and James WestMay 24, 2014 2:08 AM
Evan Osnos in New York City, May 2014. James West
When Evan Osnos first arrived in Beijing as a college student in 1996, China was a different country. The economy was smaller than Italy's. The Internet was a nascent, little-known thing. Despite nearly 20 years of economic reforms and opening up to the West, Chinese people still rejected imports like Hollywood and McDonald's.
Two years later, Osnos returned for a summer to find that a feverish desire to consume—houses, Cokes, meat—had taken hold. A new magazine called the Guide to Purchasing Upscale Goods published stories with titles like "After the Divorce, Who Gets the House?" A new Communist Party slogan proclaimed "Borrow Money to Realize Your Dreams."
By the time Osnos relocated to China in 2005, first as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and later as one for the New Yorker, "China was building the square-foot equivalent of Rome every two weeks."
How does one tell the story of a place changing so rapidly that the outside observer can hardly keep up? In his book, released just last week, Osnos argues that the country's remarkable growth has unleashed an age of possibility for Chinese citizens, an unprecedented fervor for chasing dreams and soul-searching. For eight years, Osnos followed the lives of Chinese people tugged by these tides of change: A peasant's daughter turned online dating tycoon, a young political scientist and ardent defender of China's one-party system, a street sweeper moonlighting as a poet, a political dissident revered abroad but erased at home, corrupt officials that make Washington look like child's play.
Through these stories Osnos traces the cadence of everyday life that often gets lost amid modern China's played-out superlatives. Now living in Washington, DC, Osnos spoke to Mother Jones about his run-ins with the Great Firewall, overnight moguls, pollution, and why now's the golden age for foreign correspondents in China.
Mother Jones: What are the most notable ways China has changed since you first visited?
Evan Osnos: This is one of the things that's thrilling about China's metamorphosis, which is really what it is. It's how physical it is. When I lived in Beijing in 1996, it was a horizontal city. If you wanted to go out for a burger, if you wanted to really treat yourself, you went to this place called the Jianguo Hotel. The architect had proudly described it as a perfect replica of a Holiday Inn that he had seen in Palo Alto, California. It's exactly what you would imagine a Palo Alto Holiday Inn looks like.
Now, of course, 40 percent of the skyscrapers under construction worldwide are in China. It's rare, if you look back through history, there are these moments—we had one in the United States, there was one in the UK—where countries just physically transform themselves. That was quite striking.
MJ: In your book, you also talk about China's intangible transformations.
EO: In the end, it was the non physical transformation that became the subject of this book. It was this very private, and in some ways kind of intimate, change in the way people saw themselves as citizens, as members of the society. Traditionally you saw yourself as a member of a group: the family, then the village, then the factory, and then of course the country at large.
I think a generation ago, people in China would have always talked about the collective. Today, the Chinese call it the "Me" generation, because that's exactly what it is, people who are able and quite determined to think about their own lives in ways that are specific, idiosyncratic, and infused with personal choice. They imagine themselves to be the actor at the center of this drama. That's a transformation. It's meaningful in all kinds of ways—politically, economically, socially.
Sunday shoppers stroll Wangfujing Street, Beijing, April 1985. Neal Ulevich/AP
MJ: In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, you wrote about trying to publish a Chinese edition of this book. Local publishers wanted to significantly revise or censor politically sensitive sentences. Were you surprised at by this, given the book prominently features Tiananmen and the June 4th protests, and dissidents like Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, and Shi Tao?
EO: After I had written the book in English, the question I'd been thinking about for a long time is how to get this to a Chinese audience. Chinese readers are buying books in translation, particularly non-fiction about China, in large numbers. That's exciting and important—it actually feels like a fair trade: I've been there writing about their country, and I like the idea of being able to put my story back into their hands, partly for accountability's sake. If they say this doesn't ring true, then I've learned something.
The problem is that in order to publish a book in mainland China, you have to agree to be subject to censorship. That's the nature of the system. I don't challenge that system on its face. It's their system. But as an author I have a choice to make whether I'll participate or I won't. And when they came back and said 'Here are the cuts you have to make. You won't be able to talk about dissidents like Chen Guangcheng or Ai Weiwei, we don't want you to talk about Chinese history in a certain way.'
"It would be as odd as if somebody came to the United States and said, 'You know, I don't want to write about the Civil Rights Movement because it's sensitive, awkward, and uncomfortable."
I decided that that's not something that I can do. If I give a portrait to the Chinese public of themselves that's not actually how I see the world and how they look to me, that's not an honest accounting. It would be as odd as if somebody came to the United States and wrote a book about the last 100 years and said, 'You know, I don't want to write about the Civil Rights Movement because it's sensitive, awkward, and uncomfortable. So let's just not talk about that.' I felt like I couldn't do the equivalent in Chinese.
MJ: One of the themes you return to throughout the book is how decades of economic development has unleashed a sense of ambition among Chinese citizens, to seek fortune, information, and a sense of self. But as you point out, these forces have run up against limits under China’s authoritarian regime. When did these limits first become clear to you?
EO: When I first moved there, I was overwhelmed by the sense of aspiration. All of a sudden, people who had never really had the opportunity to define their own goals in life had embraced that. There was a woman named Gong Haiyan who I wrote about when she was just out of graduate school, and all of a sudden she was taking her company public on the stock exchange, and got very wealthy. That seemed like in its own way a symbol of this moment in China.
Then over and over I started running into people whose aspirations had led them into a confrontation with the state, Ai Weiwei being perhaps the most dramatic example. He was obviously using his art in a way that he thought was going to advance certain political objectives. He found out he couldn't do that, and in some sense my interactions with Ai Weiwei focused my attention on that confrontation, on that collision.
It wasn't just unfolding in the lives of people as unusual as Ai Weiwei, it was in fact unfolding in microscopic ways all over the country. For instance, if you're a small-time entrepreneur, and you're in a city in which you need a license to operate a business, and you discover that you can't get a license to operate that business unless you know somebody.
MJ: Give us an example of how the Chinese government's restrictions on access to information, like the Great Firewall of China, got in the way of your reporting.
EO: If you're trying to write about what the Chinese people are talking about, you can sometimes get a distorted picture if you go online and look at the conversation on social media. You'll discover that people are not really talking about Bo Xilai—the big corruption case of a couple of years ago—or you might find that people are not talking about the latest political rumors the way you would expect them to. The truth is, they are talking about them, but they're being censored and they're being removed in real time.
For some of us as foreigners, we can go to China and it is a wonderful place. It's a place I love and it's been a part of my life for 20 years and it will continue to be. But if you go to China and all you see is these new skyscrapers and this sense of progression and openness, you're not seeing the country as it truly is.
MJ: You've written a lot about China's crackdown on the web. Has the Internet actually expanded creative and individual freedom in China, or has it merely created the illusion of freedom?
EO: Great question. There's no question that the internet has created a greater sense of intellectual possibility. The greatest example is somebody I met towards the end of my time there, a guy I write about in the book, who's a street sweeper. When you meet him, you think 'I understand the contours of his life. He's not a person with an intellectual outlet.' He said to me, 'Everybody thinks that I don't have an education. And what they don't know, what they don't understand, is that I'm a poet. I'm the host of a forum online for modern Chinese poetry.' At first I thought the guy was unhinged. And then I went online and discovered that it was true. He really did have an entire universe that he had created and was a part of. There were people that he knew, and there were poetry competitions that he'd won.
This was really important in understanding what the Internet allows people to do. There are limitations, but I think there's a danger in imagining that the limitations means that there's not substance.
MJ: His poetry was quite good!
EO: He was ambitious in his poetry. He was not doing small bore stuff. He saw himself as a descendent of Mao, and Mao, after all, was a poet. He really believed that there was nobility and dignity in trying to put ideas to paper. It simply wasn't available to him before the internet. If we think the internet is transformative for us in the United States, imagine how transformative it is for people in China who are otherwise living in these fairly isolated areas.
The truth is, they are talking about them, but they're being censored and they're being removed in real time.
MJ: What did you find most challenging about writing about the complexities of life in modern China for an American audience?
EO: You have to figure out a way as a writer to capture idiosyncrasy, what is it that makes it distinctive without making it overly exotic. It's very easy when you're a writer talking about this very distant place to take the names of streets and translate them back into English, and make them sound almost other worldly. I used to live on Cotton Flower Alley, for instance, and I lived next to Pineapple Junction.
There is a way of over-exotifying a place, when in fact my goal is that by describing Chinese people as they are, and as they really live, that I will allow American readers to see them as they appear to me: they're much, much more like us than I think we ever imagined them to be.
MJ: What have you found to be the biggest shortcomings in the outside world's view of China?
EO: It's funny, actually, I'm sort of complimentary of the journalism on China these days. This is not just because the folks doing it are my friends. As much as we talk about the troubles that foreign journalists have in China today—and they're substantial—this is a golden age for foreign correspondents in China because technology allows us to travel the country faster and farther than we ever have before, and it allows you to be in touch with the rest of the world, so you can understand what the rest of the world understands about China, and what they don't.
And also I think the journalists who are there are self selecting. Nobody gets sent to China these days. You go because you've fought hard to get there: You've probably studied the language, you've studied the place. So there's people there who are determined to capture it.
Inevitably, our image of China just simply can't keep up with the changes inside the country. Everything is happening in China at exponential speed. Maybe you would have said, five years ago, that people in China were feeling good about their economic status. If you said that today, people on the ground in Beijing would say you're out of touch, because it's changed substantially. It's hard to keep up.
MJ: So just how bad was the air pollution?
EO: Over the last few years air quality has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness where conditions that people used to accept, they no longer accept. Part of that is that they feel the effects on their health, and part of that is about information: They now have access to numbers that were never available before. They're about to read what it is that they're inhaling. But really, more importantly—and I think this is critical—they know what their children are inhaling. That's had a metabolic effect on the politics of pollution.
The entire Chinese political enterprise is founded on a bargain: 'we will make your lives better, if you'll allow us to stay in power.' That has been the bargain for the last 30 years. In order to maintain power, the party basically has to ensure that people still believe that their lives are getting better.
I think a few years ago people defined "getting better" in a different way than they do today. It used to be that if your income was getting a little bit higher every year, you were reasonably satisfied. Today, people are thickening their conception of what it means to live a good life. And they're demanding more things, like clean air for instance, and safe water.
In China today, if you're not moving forward, then you are moving backwards.
MJ: In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, you recalled speaking at a conference a few years back where you warned that corruption was going to be a bigger issue. You said that back then a lot of people disagreed with you. But you turned out to be right. If you had to guess, what emerging issues do you expect will be important in the coming years?
EO: We should be humble about our ability to predict this place. The longer you're there, the less comfortable you are making predictions, because you realize just how hard it is to get it right.
But I do think that if I was making a list of the issues that are going to be the most important in China's future, the environment is really near the top. It's an issue that in the past was not a political factor, and all of a sudden it's become a political factor. I think that changes where the country can go, because all of a sudden they have to figure out how to reward people in different ways: They can't allow the economy to grow at the kind of unbridled speed that it had before.
Anybody who's spent a lot of time there has seen people who are just willing to do absolutely everything in order to will themselves from one place in life to another place in life. In China today, if you're not moving forward, then you are moving backwards. That's still the dominant ethos. That's not going to change.
Just a few years ago, the fight for marriage equality looked incredibly bleak. More than half of all states had banned same-sex marriage through ballot initiatives or legislation, with some states going so far as to inscribe same-sex marriage bans into their constitutions.
Supporters of marriage equality today are reversing the situation at an astonishing pace. A massive 2012 campaign by marriage equality activists to reverse the pattern of defeat they'd suffered at the ballot box, as well as the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act have proven to be major catalysts for change.
But progress has been uneven. Depending on the state, the right to same-sex marriage relies on voters approving a new constitutional amendment, legislators repealing a law, or judges striking down the ban (and the judge's decision surviving the appeals process). States with domestic partnerships or civil unions don't offer nearly the same protections for couples as states that recognize same-sex marriage. For instance, Wisconsin law allows domestic partnerships but makes it illegal for same-sex couples to travel out of state to marry. Couples who do so, and continue living in Wisconsin, risk a $10,000 fine and nine months in prison.
Below are two maps that will help you keep it all straight. The maps, which are continually updated, tell you everything you need to know about how marriage equality is spreading across the country.
First, here's a look at where same-sex marriage stands in each state:
Where Is Gay Marriage Legal in the US?
The current status of gay marriage across the US. Latest state to legalize highlighted below. Click any state for details.
Ban struck down, appeal pending
Banned, currently challenged in court
As the above map shows, more states ban same-sex marriage today than allow it. But that's only part of the story.
Although the end of DOMA didn't have an immediate effect on state laws, the 2013 Supreme Court ruling signaled that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Accordingly, federal judges in nearly a dozen states—the ones in light green on the map above—have overturned such bans. (In each case, the state has appealed.)
With that in mind, the fight for marriage equality looks very different—more like a movement that is succeeding at a faster clip every year:
The tipping point came in 2012, when voters in Washington, Maine, and Minnesota recognized the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Of the nearly two-dozen states that recognize some form of same-sex unions, more than half joined the pack in just the past two years.
One year after a fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, killed 15 people, pinpointing potentially hazardous sites remains tricky.
Jaeah LeeApr. 17, 2014 6:00 AM
Last April 17, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people, injured at least 200, and destroyed dozens of homes, schools, and a nursing home. In the wake of the disaster, we wondered: Can we locate the industrial sites in your community where similar incidents might occur?
The answer to that question, it turns out, is not so simple. Even basic information about sites where hazardous chemicals are kept and what kinds of accidents can be anticipated is tucked away in official documents. Much of that data is not easily accessible due to post-9/11 security measures, making it nearly impossible to get a clear sense of whether you live, work, or go to school near the next potential West, Texas.
Here's what we do know: Millions of Americans live near a site that could put them in harm's way if hazardous chemicals leak or catch fire. The Environmental Protection Agency monitors roughly 12,000 facilities that store one or more of 140 toxic or flammable chemicals that are potentially hazardous to nearby communities. In late 2012, a Congressional Research Service report found that more than 2,500 of these sites estimate that their worst-case scenarios could affect between 10,000 and 1 million people; more than 4,400 estimated that their worst-case scenarios could affect between 1,000 and 9,999 people.
The interactive map below, based on data from the EPA's Risk Management Program, shows at least 9,000 facilities where a "catastrophic chemical release" or what the EPA calls a "worst-case scenario" could harm nearby residents. Hover over any site to see its exact location, the chemicals it stores, and how many accidents it documented in its most recent 5-year reporting period.
According to chemical safety experts, this is the most comprehensive national-level chemical safety data out there. But there's a lot it doesn't tell us.
First, don't let the facilities with no accidents fool you. Before its explosion last year, West Fertilizer's EPA records showed that it had no mishaps. "A lot of facilities, even though they haven't had any accidents, it doesn't mean they aren't capable of [one], and that the damage can't be similar to what we've seen in West, Texas," explains Sofia Plagakis, a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Government's environmental right-to-know program. "It only takes one accident," says John Deans, a former toxics campaigner at Greenpeace.
And if you click on the West Fertilizer Co. plant in West, Texas, you won't see any record of ammonium nitrate, the prime suspect in last year's explosion. (The other suspect was anhydrous ammonia, which the EPA does monitor.) That's because the chemical is not monitored under the EPA's Risk Management Program. Almost every facility on the map above also stores a chemical whose name has been redacted. That information is only accessible if you visit one of 15 EPA Federal Reading Rooms scattered across the country. Basically, the data used to make this map can't be used to predict the next West, Texas-style accident; it couldn't even predict the first West, Texas, accident.
More data is out there, however. To find out more about where ammonium nitrate is stored, try the Department of Homeland Security, which monitors facilities that keep the chemical under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. Yet DHS never knew about West Fertilizer, even though the plant told state agencies in 2012 that it stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, about 1,350 times the amount that triggers the reporting requirement. While West Fertilizer didn't report to DHS, it did disclose its ammonium nitrate storage to Texas' emergency planning committee in a federally required report that's meant to help firefighters, hospitals, and other first responders prepare for an accident.
If you're confused, you're not alone. Disparate government data sets and patchy oversight have raised more questions about chemical risks than regulators or citizens can answer. In the wake of the West, Texas, tragedy, the Obama administration promised to address these knowledge gaps and issued an executive order, calling for agencies such as DHS and the EPA to improve their info sharing with state agencies and local responders.
Other organizations have tried to determine which chemical plants pose the greatest risks to nearby residents. In 2011, Greenpeace's Deans and his team set out to find some answers in the EPA data. But publicly accessible risk data doesn't say exactly how close facilities are located to communities, how many people live in those communities, or what kinds of damage an accident might cause. The West Fertilizer explosion destroyed or irreparably damaged three of the town's four schools. Had the accident happened during the day, Plagakis asks, "Did the school know how to get the students out of harm's way?"
Facilities are supposed to report this information to the EPA, but these Offsite Consequence Analyses are not included in the agency's response to public records requests for risk management data. You can access this information at an EPA Federal Reading Room. But you're allowed one visit per month and can only bring a pen and paper. Greenpeace dispatched about a dozen researchers to the reading rooms for this project, Deans says.
When it was done, Deans's team had identified 473 chemical facilities that could put 100,000 people or more at risk. "Of those," they found, "89 put one million or more people at risk up to 25 miles downwind from a plant." In all, Greenpeace concluded, one out of every three Americans was at some risk of being affected by a toxic chemical release from a nearby facility.
Chemical Sites That Put 100,000 or More People at Risk
Still, the West Fertilizer plant, which is in a town of 2,800 people, does not show up on this map. As mounting evidence pointed to ammonium nitrate as the likely culprit in the West Fertilizer explosion, a team of Reuters reporters started looking for other ammonium nitrate facilities across the country to see if they could pinpoint other potentially risky locations. It found hundreds of thousands of homes, hundreds of schools, and 20 hospitals within a mile of sites that store or use the chemical.
According to news reports, there are roughly 6,000 facilities that store ammonium nitrate at levels that should report to Homeland Security. DHS never returned calls to verify this number, and it does not publicize the ammonium nitrate facilities it tracks under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. Federal law mandates that any facility storing at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate disclose it to local emergency planning authorities. To track down these reports, you have to ask your state for it. Some states, like Illinois, make the information easily accessible online. Others, like Arizona, have denied public requests to see the the documents. Reuters requested these Tier II reports from environmental, public safety, and emergency response agencies in all 50 states: 29 states released the information, 10 states did not respond or did not have electronic data, and 11 refused altogether.
"The states that declined often wanted us to request information about a specific site," says Ryan McNeill, one of the Reuters reporters who worked on mapping the ammonium nitrate facilities. "They claim that's what the law intended. Our counter was that this is a silly position because it requires a citizen to know about the existence of a site with dangerous chemicals before they can request information. How is the public supposed to know whether a warehouse houses dangerous chemicals?"