2011 - %3, July

The Hague's Last Yugoslavian Fugitive Gets Nabbed

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 11:45 PM EDT

Last week when I was talking to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, he said, "Guess how many fugitives ICTY has?" ICTY is what cool people call the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. "ICTY has 161 indicted criminals. Guess how many of them are fugitives." I didn't know. "One! It took a long time, but there is one remaining fugitive."

Well, not anymore.

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Farewell, Ohio

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 10:50 AM EDT

It's the end of Assignment: Ohio, the month I spent in my home state living with a family wrapped up in the drama of Governor Kasich's new middle-class-unfriendly budget and the fight for collective bargaining.

It was an eventful month. First, the husband of the family got laid off from his state job. Then he got un-laid off. In between, my sister taught me how to benefit from Cleveland's housing crash, a cat named Barack Obama taught me some valuable life lessons, and a visit to a career-counseling office taught me I am basically unemployable in a recession. I found one good Ohio job and one really, really awful job. The only growth industry I found in the state was war.

Shortly before I left Columbus, I met with Kathleen Clyde, Democratic state representative for Ohio's 68th district. She urged me not to leave. "You should move back to Ohio," she told me. "We need people to stay here, and to come here." Last year, Ohio's population grew just 1.6 percent. Nationally, population growth was 9.7 percent. Cleveland's population is the same as it was in 1900. In the last 10 years, Ohio lost 600,000 jobs in the private sector, mostly manufacturing.

At 32, Clyde is the youngest woman in the legislature. When she talks about young people, she uses the first-person plural. When she was talking about "us," young Ohioans, she sounded the most energized. We're getting really engaged. We're going to have to get engaged, if we want to make this the kind of place we want to live.

It's not for nothing the state adopted the tourism slogan "The Heart of It All": In the 2012 elections, Clyde pointed out, "Ohio's gonna be at the epicenter again. We gotta reelect Obama and [Democratic senator] Sherrod Brown. We will be important in the presidential election. This is a battleground state." At the moment, Democrats have lost a lot of battles within the state. Drilling in state parks. Giveaways to big businesses. Heavy restrictions on abortion access. Allowing guns in bars. "It really feels like Ohio's at an important crossroads," Clyde lamented, "and we're headed in the wrong direction."

One of my friends summarized my reporting from Ohio as all "unicorns and rainbows." I suspect he was being sarcastic. While the state of the state is dire, I'll end this with a video of my personal hope for Ohio's future: A Columbus-born gay-pride baby who's a fast learner and isn't afraid to try to eat a grown-up's face. Go get 'em, Jocelyn. (And Go Bucks!)

A Visit to the Warehouse of Soul-Crushing Sadness

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Gov. John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

Last week, when my ex-girlfriend asked me if I'd ever been in a warehouse before, I shot her the most withering scowl I could muster. "Don't talk to me like I'm fancy-pants," I said as I followed her into the site she manages. "You know I worked for a moving company for five years." But within five minutes, it was clear I had never been in a warehouse like this before.

This is a warehouse where people ship stuff for big online companies that you've definitely heard of. The company, which I won't name, provides staffing for a nationwide logistics contractor that handles getting those Internet purchases from their origin—usually Chinese factories—to your doorstep. I won't name my ex so she doesn't get in trouble. Let's call her Susie. 

She kicked off my visit with a tour around the warehouse floor. First stop: Workers standing at tables, taking items out of a bulk box and putting them into different boxes with shipping labels on them. And that's...pretty much it. For efficiency purposes, every step of every process has been broken down and separated out so that almost everyone does the exact same motion over and over. The people at the next stop are standing at tables and putting labels on boxes, over and over. Sweating.

"It's hot in here," I said. It was like 90 degrees outside. "Don't you guys have air conditioning?"

"We do, but it's controlled by the big guys in the suits." Susie said everybody wears hats and coats during the winter because it's freezing inside.

The workers are all temps. It's been six months since the company graduated someone from temp to employee status.

"That job sucks," she said when we passed by the loading docks. A semi was backed up to the open door. A guy was standing inside it catching taped-up, ready-to-ship boxes off the conveyor belt and stacking them in the truck bed. "There's no circulation in there," Susie said, shaking her head.

"How much do these people make?"

About $9 an hour. When I said that wasn't very much—when I worked at the moving-company warehouse starting in 1998, I made $10 an hour—she replied, "For them it is. They have no jobs." Also, it's 50 cents an hour more than the people on the previous shift make. In a state with 8.6 percent unemployment, fierce competition for limited job openings, and a minimum wage of $7.25, you could do a lot worse.

Technically, these workers are all temps. They're hired as temps by the warehouse company, which is contracted to handle temporary staffing by a logistics company. If they make it 90 days, they have the opportunity to become full-blown employees of the logistics company, which means benefits and an extra dollar an hour. It's been six months since the logistics company graduated someone here from temp to employee status. At one of the other locations Susie manages, no one has been hired as a real employee for two years. One of the workers in this warehouse has been a temp for a year and a half.

After we walked past workers stuffing inflated plastic air pockets in boxes and a guy continuously taping shut the bottom of just-made boxes, we went to Susie's office. "Hold on, I gotta fire somebody real quick," she said, picking up the phone. She called a guy who'd been working for her for two months. She was sorry, she told him, but she had to let him go because one of the supervisors had caught him talking on the floor. The man, who she guessed is in his late 40s or early 50s, protested that he had only asked a new guy where he was from. That's just not the culture, Susie told him. You know the rules. The logistics company sets them, and she has no choice but to enforce them.

Indeed, it does say in the new-temp handout that there is no talking allowed on the warehouse floor. Also, there are no cell phones allowed. Like a high school teacher, Susie had a pile of phones she'd confiscated in a plastic bowl on her desk. Two sick days are allotted per year, and they must be excused; after that, the temp is terminated, doctor's note or no. Every temp is allowed one 30-minute break per day, and it must be taken in the break room. Every temp is required to have an ID badge. The cost of this badge is deducted from the temp's first paycheck, and is more than an hour's worth of wages.

I hadn't even finished the orientation document when Susie picked up the phone and got instructions from another supervisor that I could tell were bad news for another guy. "You're not really about to fire somebody else, are you?" I asked.

"Yeah."

“Somebody did studies and spreadsheets and crunched those numbers and figured out that the cheapest way to get that job done is to treat people like that.”

"You just fired somebody less than 10 minutes ago."

"Yeah, but he's been taking too many breaks."

"Are you kidding? Is anybody going to ask him why he's taking breaks? Maybe he's sick."

"No, they said he's been doing it all week. He's a bigger dude, so they think he's doing it"—the breakroom and the bathroom are in the heavily air conditioned part of the warehouse where the guys in the suits have offices—"because it's too hot for him on the floor." Susie called him and fired him for "excessive" breaks, though she pointed out to me that she didn't actually have to give him a reason.

A few days later, I had breakfast with someone who coincidentally works with the CEOs of logistics companies. Telling him about the conditions and the sterility and the mind-numbing sadness of the warehouse made him almost too bummed to eat his oatmeal. "Somebody did studies and spreadsheets and crunched those numbers," he said, "and figured out that the cheapest way to get that job done is to treat people like that." Which is important, he explained, because "the profit margins on those contracts are razor thin." Of course. A lot of the Internet retailers' merchandise is nearly worthless—ice princess star-shaped ice cube trays, cheap sunglasses, anthropomorphic stuffed bacon toys—and is sold for nearly nothing, often with free or reduced-price shipping.

Susie told me it's pretty dispiriting to act as though her workers are as disposable as the products they're shipping. But that's just the way it is, she said. The logistics clients aren't interested in spending money on a better or more sustainable work culture. Nor do they need to. There are 100 people employed in the warehouse I visited, and Susie could fire every one of them today without costing her bosses a dime of lost profits. She has applications from hundreds of people ready to take the job.

Life After the Death of Collective Bargaining

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Gov. John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

It's always something in Ohio. Last week, it became legal to bring concealed weapons into bars. A labor protest shut down a busy street in downtown Columbus. And the hotly contested, penny-pinching budget was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich.

For the friends I've been staying with, the impending budget has been wreaking havoc on domestic tranquility. First, Anthony got laid off because the budget was slated to cut so much from his employer, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel. Then, the family got the news that the OCC cut wasn't going to be quite as bad as anticipated. So now, though many of his coworkers are still out of a job, Anthony's is safe. The concern has shifted mostly onto Erin, a public school teacher.

Here's what's troublesome for her in the budget: a requirement that schools receiving federal Race to the Top grants ditch their longstanding experience- and education-based pay system in favor of an alternative, like merit-based pay. Erin's school is a Race to the Top school. While she signed on to her job with the impression that her future salary level would be guaranteed by a predetermined schedule, this provision means cash-strapped school administrators could decide that, based on some as-yet-to-be-determined criteria, her salary should be $10,000 or $20,000 less than it currently is. Normally, Erin's union could likely prevent any arbitrary salary changes or advocate on her behalf. But the Ohio legislature recently passed Senate Bill 5, a Wisconsin-y anti-collective-bargaining law that will render her union effectively powerless.

That was the subject of last week's protest. Almost as soon as SB 5 passed, opponents started gathering signatures to get a repeal measure on the November ballot. Last Wednesday, huge crowds gathered in downtown Columbus to march to the secretary of state's office and deliver those signatures. Shirts and flags identified them as firefighters, transit workers, teachers, electricians, bikers, state troopers; residents of Columbus, Cleveland, Findlay, Toledo; members of the SEIU, UAW, AFL-CIO. There was a professional drumline. There was the mayor, whom Erin nearly ran down with her unwieldy stroller when she veered toward him to shake his hand.

The organizers needed about 230,000 to get the SB 5 repeal on the ballot. They got 1,298,301. "We can't guarantee anything," said a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, the campaign driving the effort, "but we're confident with the amount of signatures we've collected that we have a lot of support on our side."

Erin hopes they're right. She's nervous about it, though. So is Lindsey, another gal who lived in our dorm when we all went to Ohio State 10 years ago. Lindsey teaches middle-school English in rural Logan, about an hour outside Columbus. She stopped by for a visit the other day, bringing one of her kids, her two-month-old, to meet Erin's eleven-month-old. Most of the talk that wasn't about breast-feeding was about SB 5. Though Lindsey doesn't teach at a Race to the Top school, under the new legislation her district can opt out of its established pay schedule. And with union protections in jeopardy, she's not taking any chances.

"My husband wants to buy a new couch," she said. But—she cocked her head and winced hard—she doesn't want to take any money out of their savings until the repeal passes (or not) this fall. "We don't know what's gonna happen."

Front page image by ProgressOhio/Flickr