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A Victory for Janitors in Houston, With Thanks to a Humble Martyr

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 9:22 PM EST

The Service Employees International Union yesterday won a tentative agreement for higher pay and health insurance for its new members in Houston, who have been locked in an acrimonious, monthlong strike at the city's largest cleaning companies. It's a major victory for the SEIU, which set out last year to organize part-time, often-undocumented Hispanic workers in a region of the country that hasn't typically embraced organized labor. Houston is likely to become a model for the union's efforts in other Southern cities: Beyond using the same quiet educational efforts, noisy protests and hardball negotiating, organizers are sure to be on the lookout for another Ercilia Sandoval.

Rosy-cheeked, clad in a wig and leopard print headband, and suffering from laryngitis that had reduced her voice to a whisper, Sandoval met with me in her small apartment last month, sitting down at a table beneath a print of the Last Supper. She told a story of leaving three of her children in San Miguel, El Salvador ten years ago to pursue an illusory American Dream. "I promised them that, at most, I would be gone a year," she whispered, "and then I would bring them here." To this day she hasn't seen them. Instead, she has struggled to make ends meet laboring for a tortilla factory, then an Episcopal church, and finally a major janitorial contractor working in downtown skyscrapers—one of five companies targeted by the SEIU. Preoccupied with sending money to her family, she might have never involved herself in the union's struggle if she hadn't decided she'd nothing to lose.

Last September Sandoval began feeling worn out on the job. She scrubbed bathroom fixtures through headaches and fevers, emptied trash cans with sore arms and a tight back. Lacking health insurance, she couldn't afford to see a doctor. Nearly a year passed before she forked over $200 for a consultation. A mammogram confirmed her worst fears: she suffered from an advanced stage of breast cancer. Yet hospitals in Houston wouldn't treat her because she was uninsured. She waited two months to be approved for state disability coverage. In June, Doctors finally began chemotherapy treatments but say she probably has only a few months to live.

Just as her cancer was spreading, she met an SEIU organizer at her Episcopal church who was looking for janitors. The organizer found in Sandoval someone looking to harness her outrage and despair. "Some of the workers were afraid," Sandoval says, "but often I said, 'Afraid of what? We are not going to lose a good job. We are not going to lose a good salary-- we don't have benefits, we don't have anything." As Sandoval's health deteriorated, her resolve strengthened. In September, she accepted a spot alongside the SEIU top brass at the negotiating table. Her job: to convince the cleaning companies to provide her and 5,300 fellow janitors with health insurance in the union's first contract.

On the day of the negotiations, Sandoval was the last person to talk. She feared she'd be just another person asking for something. She stepped into the bathroom to steel her nerves. Returning to the conference room, she asked the executives and lawyers if they were looking at her. "And I looked them all in their eyes," she said. "I assured myself that they were all looking at me. And I took off my wig."

Sandoval saw a group of men who were shocked. "Some were crying. Others sat with their mouths open. Other ones just couldn't even blink their eyes.

"And that," she said, "is what I wanted."

Sandoval's display was only the beginning of a struggle this fall that led to the strike, solidarity protests around the country, and ads featuring her bald visage. But it was clearly a defining moment for the movement and Sandoval's own sense of transcendence. "I'm not just fighting for me," she told me. "I'm fighting for everyone. Because why not rise up? Why not try?"

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BU College Republicans Create Scholarship For White Students...Sort Of

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 8:34 PM EST

The Boston University College Republicans have decided to put their money where their mouth is in order to combat the "worst form of bigotry confronting America today." To that end, the organization has created a scholarship for white students only, the Caucasian Achievement and Recognition Scholarship. In order, I suppose, to not look too "politically incorrect," recipients are required to be at least 25% white, recalling the days of 19th Century New Orleans.

The scholarship is intended to "raise awareness" to what its creators say is the bigotry of racial preference programs. The scholarship is worth only $250, which probably won't raise a lot of awareness. Once the recipient is chosen, BUCR will host an event to honor the winner, discuss the award, and conduct a forum on racial preference. To be followed, perhaps, by a reverse Quadroon ball?

Five-Time National Hobo King and Founding Member of National Hobo Foundation Dies at 89

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 6:05 PM EST

Sometimes, the little guys don't get enough credit.

'King of Hobos' Dies at Age 89
By Associated Press

 

November 21, 2006, 3:04 PM EST
NAPOLEON, Ohio -- Maurice Graham, who began hitching rides on trains as a teenager and was known as the "King of the Hobos," has died at the age of 89.
Graham, who recently suffered a stroke, died Saturday at the Northcrest Nursing Home, his family said.
Graham, nicknamed "Steam Train Maury," was a founding member of the National Hobo Foundation and helped establish the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa.
He was "a true hobo hero," said foundation president Linda Hughes.
"He was a classy and respected man," she said. "No one can live up to Steam Train. He's irreplaceable."
Graham in 1990 wrote "Tales of the Iron Road: My Life As King of the Hobos," telling his stories of hopping trains beginning at the age of 14 and living in hobo camps until 1980. He was named National Hobo King five times at the annual hobo convention in Britt, and was crowned Grand Patriarch of Hoboes in 2004.
Graham worked as a mason and founded a school where he taught the trade. He was a medical technician during World War II.
He is survived by his wife, Wanda, and two daughters.

For more: The Hobo Foundation.

Al Jazeera's First Week Gets Positive Reviews

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 4:11 PM EST

Before its launch, Americans were already opposed to the idea of the English Al Jazeera network. But after being on the air for a week, the station has been receiving praise from American viewers and news media for its wide scope, unique perspective and its cold shoulder approach to the salacious OJ Simpson book release story.

The station broadcasts around the clock and can be picked up via satellite television in the United States on a few platforms listed on the website. These include Globecast, Fision, JumpTV and VDC. Broadcasts can also be seen online in 15-minute increments (or via subscription).

According to a source in an article from today's International Herald Tribune, the station has been "flooded" with positive emails from viewers in the U.S. and China — places where people weren't supposed to be watching.

In the Hartford Courant, Roger Catlin acclaims Al Jazeera's "sleek presentation, with lush electronic fanfare." (But can anyone really top CNN Headline News' dramatic theme song?) More importantly, Catlin gives the station a thumbs up for its "solid, sober international reports from the Darfur region of Sudan in Africa to Baghdad, Iraq."

Not surprisingly, a scan of the network's website reveals a stronger emphasis on Middle East and Africa than American news networks. Since its launch on November 15, the network has been following the conflict in Uganda in detail. The network recently reported on the struggles of the Muslim Malay population in Thailand, a group that rarely makes it into headlines elsewhere.

An article in the New York Sun describes how Al Jazeera's reputation is a key to insider access on stories on Muslim issues within immigrant circles.

Is this what parts of England have become? Places where only a reporter from Al-Jazeera can explain what's going on in England to the English, because the Muslim inhabitants won't speak to anyone else? If so, western news organizations, not to mention governments, should be worried.

The station's bad rep might only be a boon amid stubborn American news network fans who still perceive the network is within arm's length of Al Qaeda. Yesterday, in a press release, Al Jazeera announced it was the first foreign news network to gain access to Naypidaw in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Today's report from the area by journalist Veronica Pedrosa can be read on the Al Jazeera English website.

The station network announced today the location of its fourth broadcast center -- the 60th floor of the tallest towers in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. According to managing director, Nigel Parsons, Singapore was passed over as a headquarter because of its "sterile" politics.

-- Caroline Dobuzinskis

The New Republic 'Fesses Up

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 3:39 PM EST

You've got to give them points for taking responsibility. In their latest issue, the editors of the august Washington journal declare:

The New Republic deeply regrets its early support for this war...This magazine has long advocated deploying U.S. power to halt the mass slaughter of innocents. Saddam Hussein distinguished himself at the mass slaughter of innocents: About this, there can be no dispute. Yet, in this case, we supported an invasion that has led to the same savage result.

They add, to their further credit:
America's role in creating this Mesopotamian hell does not diminish our moral obligations. It increases them. Even an arch-realist like Colin Powell understood that when we broke it, we owned it. And, before we throw up our hands and enjoy the catharsis of walking away, we must exhaust every attempt to minimize further nightmares.

Democrats Lose NM-01 in Nail-Biter: Maybe Hillary Can Pay for the Recount?

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 3:31 PM EST

Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid conceded the race for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District to incumbent Republican Heather Wilson today, even though the final margin of 875 votes is less than one-half of one percent of the total number of votes cast.

In many other states, such a small vote differential would automatically trigger a state-funded recount—but not in relatively poor New Mexico (the state's coffers are filled —or not filled—by taxes from the third-lowest per capita income in the nation). A recount is expected to cost between $250,000 and $300,000, but the Democrats don't have the money. Madrid notes that a single-vote swing in each precinct would reverse the outcome.

With such a small differential and State Democratic Party Chairman John Wertheim accusing state Republicans of "systematic vote suppression" (Democrats had to file suit against Republicans calling non-republican voters with misleading information) the 2006 race for NM's 1st looks to have gone the way of Florida's 13th District and other places in the nation where misleading and harassing phone calls paid for by the GOP—one of the "dirtier, yet mostly legal, tricks in a political operative's bag of last-minute campaign tools"—may have tipped the balance in some very tight Congressional races.

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New Poll: Vast Majority of Iraqis Want U.S. to Go Home

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 12:40 PM EST

A new survey by WorldPublicOpinion.org reveals the depth of Iraqi antipathy towards the contiued American presence in their country. Now a solid majority of all Iraqis, including once pro-U.S. Baghdad Shias, say they want us out of there in a year:

Eight out of ten Shias in Baghdad (80%) say they want foreign forces to leave within a year (72% of Shias in the rest of the country), according to a poll conducted by World Public Opinion in September. None of the Shias polled in Baghdad want U.S.-led troops to be reduced only "as the security situation improves," a sharp decline from January, when 57 percent of the Shias polled by WPO in the capital city preferred an open-ended U.S presence.

This brings Baghdad Shias in line with the rest of the country. Seven out of ten Iraqis overall—including both the Shia majority (74%) and the Sunni minority (91%)—say they want the United States to leave within a year.

One statistical difference worth noting: Baghdad Shias, unlike most other Iraqis, do not favor disarming sectarian militias even though 59% say a U.S. withdrawal will lead to more interethnic violence. That's not just a sign of how bad things are in the capital but also an ominous hint of the power struggle to come. But while the U.S. may be providing a temporary buffer, that doesn't mean it's seen as the good guy who simply needs to holster his gun and ride into the sunset. Nearly 60% of all Shias say they support attacks on American-led troops. And 100% of Baghdad Sunnis and 91% of Sunnis elsewhere say they approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces.

Palestinians Form Human Shield, Israelis Back Off

| Tue Nov. 21, 2006 1:59 AM EST

Hundreds of Palestinians, many of them women and children, formed a human shield around a Gaza building targetted by the Israeli military - a novel tactic that got the Jewish state to call off their planned air strike. The Israelis, as they often do, had given advance notice to the militants whose homes they were aiming to blast with missiles so that their families could be evacuated. Instead, they sent out a call for supportive protesters, at the prompting of a female Hamas activist who had also led a group of women to form human shields to help a group of trapped gunmen escape an Israeli siege earlier this month.

Now, no one can deny that Israeli military actions have killed lots of innocent Palestinian civilians, and that's a terrible thing. But this whole episode does point out a difference between them and their suicide-bombing opponents. Israel doesn't intentionally target civilians; Hamas and other Palestinian groups do. In fact, the same day that the Israelis called off their missilie attack lest it harm innocent people, Palestinian missiles fired into the town of Sderot injured three people. Is there a difference between extreme disregard for the possibility of civilian casualties as a side effect of a military strike and deliberately killing civilians? Discuss.

FBI Conspired To Frame Innocent Men In Murder Convictions 40 Years Ago

| Mon Nov. 20, 2006 9:04 PM EST

Thousands of recently released FBI documents from the U.S. Justice Department show that the FBI, in an attempt to cultivate mobsters Vincent "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi and Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, allowed them to frame four innocent men for murder forty years ago.

Flemmi and Barboza conspired to murder Edward "Teddy" Deegan, a fact well known to the FBI agents who bugged the mob office for several months. Yet these agents allowed Flemmi and Barboza to frame four men, two of whom are still alive, and who are seeking over $100 million in damages from the federal government. The survivors, Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone, are basing their case largely on documents discovered by a special task force of the U.S. Department of Justice during an investiation of law enforcement corruption in New England.

Salvati, Limone and two other men, Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco, are described as victims of an FBI run amok during the J. Edgar Hoover/Robert Kennedy Mafia crackdown. After the Deegan murder, Barboza agreed to confess to his participation in exchange for a reduced charge that would actually have netted him no prison time (he was in prison on another charge and was to be released). He refused, however, to name Flemmi as an accomplice in the conspiracy, and he is alleged to have talked the FBI into letting him name four innocent men as accomplices. In exchange, both Barbosa and Flemmi became FBI informants.

Three of the men were sentenced to death by electrocution, but their sentences were later commuted to life terms; the fourth man, Salvati, had already by given a life sentence. Tameleo and Greco died in prison.

The U.S. Justice Department has challenged the lawsuit, claiming immunity, but the judge disagreed, and his decision was upheld by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

What Color is Richard Pombo's Parachute?

| Mon Nov. 20, 2006 8:33 PM EST

I try to ignore press releases like this, but this post-election PR stunt caught my attention when it popped into my inbox:

After the mid-term elections, six senators and twenty-one representatives are now out of a job, with five House incumbents still waiting to hear. To help these civic-minded men and women in their search for a new career and a new life, Ten Speed Press is donating a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute?—the world's best-selling job-hunting, career-changing, and soul-searching manual—to every incumbent who lost a seat in the election. Books have been mailed out and will arrive on the desks of the outgoing legislators in time for Christmas.

Pretty clever—who knew that book was even still around? I like this bit of career advice for soon-to-be former California Rep. Richard Pombo, who has said he will become a lobbyist for property-rights (read: anti-environmental) groups as soon as the revolving door is opened for him: "Mr. Pombo may be an experienced agenda-pusher, but perhaps he may be better suited for a job as an actuary or a florist." I dunno. I think Pombo's parachute is any color but green.