Greetings from Texas! I've been staying on my family's ranch in the heart of the Lone Star State for about two weeks now, and I already have about a month's worth of chigger bites—the little terrorists love the mulch on the vegetable garden, which I've been frantically laying with drip lines. As the river runs dry and wildfires rage, I'm starting to doubt Gov. Rick Perry's Prayer for Rain will seed the clouds. As for his prayers about the Republican presidential primary, who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
I've dropped in from San Francisco for two months to write about Perry and other outsized characters from the state where I grew up. And the ranch—located in the Hill Country at the confluence of the Blanco River and Blasingame Creek—is the perfect staging ground, equidistant from Austin and San Antonio as well as Dallas and Houston. Downsides include the half-hour drive to find organic greens or crusty bread, and internet that's slower than the armadillo living under the rusty ranch truck. But sometimes distance gives you perspective. For instance, I've been thinking a lot recently about the decaying log cabin out past the chicken coop and the beehives. It embodies a tale that's alternately presented either as a cold-blooded crime or one of the region's most famous showdowns. How you think about it might depend on your politics.
In the 1854, the family of Woodson Blasingame, a low-income subsistence farmer, built the cabin on land purchased from James Callahan, a land speculator and captain with the original Texas Rangers. Blasingame is thought by some to have sympathized with the area's progressive German community, while Callahan, the namesake of Callahan County, was a swashbuckling good 'ol boy best known for nearly causing another war with Mexico. "It took a lot to make him angry," says Tom McDonald, Callahan's great-great-great grandson, who is writing a book about him, "but when you did, you'd better get out of his way."
In late 1855, Callahan and a posse of nearly 100 Rangers pursued a band of Lipian Apache Indians out of the Hill Country and across the Rio Grande into Mexico. The Indians joined forces with local Mexicans and ambushed him, killing four of his men. The Rangers fought their way out and occupied the nearby Mexican town of Piedras Negras, where they looted food (and gold, according to one account) before burning it down and fleeing back across the border. The raid was widely praised in the local press, where it fed into support for the "Know Nothings," a nativist antecedent to the tea party. However, one progressive German-American paper in the area opposed it as illegal.
These stories are part of our package on how corporations are shoving more work onto each employee, helping to goose profits by 22 percent. Read the essay and look at 12 charts that will make your blood boil. Do you have your own workplace speedup story to tell? Share it in the comments.
Sylvia: Warehouse loader, California
It's a big old warehouse out in the desert, a distribution center for [a major pharmacy chain]. It's way bigger than a Walmart, but with no air conditioning. Our temperature gets up to 115 degrees. Sometimes it feels so hot in there that you just can't breathe. You have a lot of people go home sick from the heat. To stay cool people put towels around their necks. They go back and forth getting ice to chew on.
In my part of the warehouse, we load products like cigarettes, shampoos, or lotions into totes that get sent down the rollers to where the trucks are. We're given orders by scanning our badges and totes into a computer system, which tells us what to pull and how quickly it has to be done. Back when I started in 1999, the rate wasn't so bad, but for about a year, they've been gradually ratcheting it up. Say the old rate was 100 orders a day. Now they're up to 160, sometimes even higher.
A tractor spreads compost from Recology on a vineyard.
Last month, at a vast composting yard owned by a Northern California waste and recycling company, Recology, I watched a load of lawn and food scraps from San Francisco residents get fed into a sorting machine. A spinning cylinder resembling a supersized cheese grater sifted out tidbits like lime wedges and grass clippings and spit the chunkier items onto a platform, where a worker in a neon vest plucked out plastic bags and an aerosol can of glass cleaner—just a few of the hundreds of pieces of contraband that he'd cull that day. I asked if he ever let anything slip by. "Sometimes," he said with a sheepish smile. I later ran my hand through a ripened compost pile and felt little pieces of glass and plastic mixed in with the fertile humus.
As thousands of cities have begun composting yard waste and hundreds more begin collecting food scraps on a large scale, new questions are emerging about what kinds of things make their way into compost and whether any of them pose a threat to humans and the environment. Federal laws do not require compost to be screened for contaminants, of which plastic and glass are only the most visible. Random tests of compost used in organic agriculture have occasionally turned up elevated levels of lead and traces of pesticides. Last month, the US Composting Council, the industry's trade group, warned its members to watch out for grass clippings laced with Imprelis, a new weed killer from DuPont that does not easily break down in compost piles.
In recent years, the term "nanny state" has become a favorite putdown on the Right. Conservatives routinely trot it out to defend their freedom to eat trans fats, inhale tobacco, or blaze incandescent light bulbs. Even the administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger fell prey to the label in more waysthanone. But can the meme last? Dissing big government is one thing, but why bring nannies into it? Somebody's bound to get spanked. And that's pretty much what happened on the floor of the Texas House yesterday when a Democratic state Representative discovered that one of her bills was being opposed by a flyer depicting a baby nursing a bare breast beneath the words: "Don't expand the nanny state."
"I don't appreciate this attack on women," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston as she held a copy of the flier, which was made by members of the conservative Texas Civil Justice League, a tort reform group. "And I'm going to have to tell you something: I don't perpetrate violence against somebody, but if they were here I would probably bloody their nose."
A bipartisan collection of female lawmakers backed Thompson up at the podium. Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle questioned a misogynist climate created by "the way some of the men have treated some of the women--with pornography on the floor of this House."
The flyer's offensiveness seems to come less from the intimate photo it shows than the way it frames it: Portraying the breast as belonging to a nanny flatters neither mothers nor nannies (wet nursing stopped being popular decades ago). Add the negative political message, and the flyer comes off as a mockery of the bond between mother and child.
Female legislators were clearly exasperated. Houston Democrat Carol Alvarado alluded to the House's recent passage of a bill that requires women to view a sonogram of their unborn fetus before getting an abortion. "We have had almost 50-plus bills or amendments this session that I think have demeaned women," she said, "but this one takes us to an all-time low."
In an apology email, the president of the Texas Civil Justice League said the flyer was only a "draft" that had been given to somebody outside the group and then reproduced. But as of Thursday evening, that explanation seemed to have done little to quell a brewing gender war in the Texas legislature. The most forceful part of Thompson's speech, which received a standing ovation, starts around 4:45:
"Something bad is going to happen," Gary Quarles, a worker inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, told at least three people on Easter weekend last year. Large parts of the mine had filled with water, impeding the flow of air that would normally remove dangerous accumulations of methane. And there wasn't enough crew and functioning equipment to tamp down clouds of explosive coal dust. As workers returned to the mine on April 5th, some of them commented that it was stuffy and miserably hot inside. At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, a massive explosion ripped through the shaft and killed 29 men—the worst mining accident in 40 years.
The recollections of Quarles and other surviving miners feature prominently in a damning report on the UBB disaster released today. Put together by an independent team of investigators appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, it reads less like a government tome at times than a nonfiction novella. Quarles, who is described as a big man and "a good guy" preoccupied by a divorce and the welfare of his two children, is the narrative's Cassandra. "When I get up in the mornings, I don't want to put my shoes on," he tells a friend. "I'm just scared to death to go to work."
The investigation firmly pins blame for the accident on Massey. "The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris," it concludes. "A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking."
The report's blunt tone reflects the clearer picture that has emerged since investigators began probing the causes of the accident more than a year ago. But it also underscores Massey's faded political clout. In January, Massey was acquired by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources in a deal that made Alpha the nation's second-largest coal company while retiring Massey's tarnished name.