Walmart’s Smartest Move Yet

American retailing giant Walmart, owners of ASDA in the UK, yesterday committed to paying their 500,000 workers at least $9 an hour by August, rising to $10 in 2016. This compares with a federal minimum wage of just $7.25, which President Obama has sought to raise to $10.10 (unfortunately blocked by Republican-controlled Congress). The move has been welcomed by America’s flourishing anti-low pay movement, despite it seeking a doubling of the federal minimum wage.

At the same time, Walmart going to give employees more ‘control’ over the hitherto erratic shift system that made life particularly difficult for employees with families to support and care for. To be sure, Walmart has taken significant steps away from its past as a bad employer.

I have conflicting views on this development. I certainly do not believe anybody should feel grateful to Walmart for finally living up to its most basic responsibilities as a highly profitable, multinational employer to pay more than the joke that is the federal minimum wage and give its workers a limited degree of security. When people are earning their income from you, you can’t leave them worrying if you’ll give them the hours they need to feed their children next week.

Retail lobbyists in the US have cited the move as proof that retailers do not need to be forced to pay higher wages. That is nonsense. There are tens of millions who languish on poverty pay still. A handful of chains, like Walmart and Ikea, raising their game barely dents that figure. Moreover, employers should not feel that they’re risking their competitive advantages by paying $9 or $10 an hour.

On the other hand, I would not dismiss the significance of the pay increase either. I doubt any commitment to guarantee pay above the minimum wage by the likes of Walmart would have been thought plausible ten or twenty years ago. Campaigning for a $15 minimum wage would have been thought nonsensical. It certainly would have been difficult to mobilise so many low-paid workers to that cause. The very fact that Walmart has made any concession to its employees at all represents a seismic social change.

Of course, Walmart might have calculated that this pay rise should be just enough to blunt the workers’ rights campaigns and alleviate pressure for future concessions. We don’t know. That calculation is wrong in any case: the same process is occurring in the American workforce as is beginning to occur in the UK’s: workers are beginning to organise and raise their aspirations in parts of the economy that never had trade unions. The supermarkets, the fast food restaurants, cleaning firms, industries where employees have rarely been a priority and are at last acting to improve their lot.

They won’t be waiting for Congress or the President to help them out, but they’ll get round to that in due course. (Who knows, they might even get the GOP on board… one day). Until employment regulations are improved, employees will have to fight for every dollar and every guaranteed hour.

Changing the law would be so much simpler.


James Boyd is Not The First

You may have read in yesterday’s post, the World Review (a weekly feature I prepare for the ShoutOutUK newspaper) about the case of James Boyd, the homeless man who was killed by police officers following a dispute over his “illegal camping” (i.e. sleeping rough) in the foothills outside of the city. After a three hour argument with a gang of Albuquerque Police officers, Boyd was collecting his belongings to leave. In other words, he had acquiesced after what must have been a blunt exchange of views. What appears- and I cannot stress enough that I am not certain- to have happened is that the police officers then detonated a flash bang- a device typically used to disperse crowds by disorientating them. When Boyd attempted to defend himself, he was tasered (more than sufficient force exercised if the police officers felt endangered) and then shot. Boyd died the next day.

What is known for certain is that Albuquerque Police are heavy-handed to an unconstitutional degree. Since 2010, the department has been “involved” in 37 shootings, of which just under two-thirds were fatal. Such a figure would be considered alarming in the UK: if the police are directly involved in the fatal shooting of one person, it becomes a huge national issue. Albuquerque police serve a city of just over half a million people. We’re not talking about a place like provincial Mexico, where the police can be at war, in effect. This is the US, where the freedom of the people from authoritarianism is supposedly paramount. The federal Department of Justice thinks so to, which is why it has been investigating the Albuquerque police for some time. The FBI is now investigating the Boyd case specifically.

Yet an investigation or two is not enough for the people of Albuquerque and much of the world. Anonymous, the hacktivist collective, has brought down the Albuquerque Police’s website, promising “retaliation” over Boyd’s death. Yesterday, students and members of the public held demonstrations around the city. It appears that authorities wisely refrained from attacking protestors, even when some of their more militant opponents threw stones at officers. Albuquerque Police know the world is watching them very closely, and with any luck they’ll realise that their approach must change.

The World Review #3: Nasty Landlords, Negligent Companies and Net Connections

737 exposed to contaminated water in West Virginia

Some 300,000 people are without a safe water supply and 737 are in hospital with suspected poisoning after Freedom Industries, a specialist chemicals manufacturer, leaked 19,000 litres of a toxic chemical into the Elk River. It appears that Freedom Industries were aware of the leakage for some time before authorities discovered it, but failed to act to either contain the leak or inform the state. It is as yet unclear why Freedom Industries allowed the highly toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol compound to continue to pollute the water supply. Pressure on the firm will be compounded by the shortage of bottled water that is sweeping West Virginia whilst tap water remains unsafe.

Kent landlord evicts 200 families… because they claim Housing Benefit

The British property tycoon Fergus Wilson risked public anger last week as it emerged that he had evicted 200 out of his 1,000 tenants on the sole grounds that they receive state subsidy for their rent. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Wilson said that tenants on Housing Benefit are more likely to fall into rent arrears, so he wanted to replace them with migrants from Eastern Europe, who he claimed are “a good category of tenant who don’t default on their rent.” He later added: “I feel sorry for battered wives who have come to us because we’re very much consigning them to go back to their husbands to be beaten up again.” Mr Wilson’s sympathy will no doubt be of great comfort to the families he has rendered homeless.

Venezuelan minister gets tough on corruption

Venezuela’s home affairs minister has given his personal mobile telephone number out in a television interview, with a plea for police officers to contact him to report allegations of corruption. This marks the latest of a series of eye-catching initiatives aimed at promoting professionalism and trust in Venezuela’s public services, which are particularly prone to exploitation by officials even when compared to the rest of South America, which has suffered from chronic corruption since colonisation in the 16th century. Venezuelan authorities are keen to tackle this culture, which has hindered the otherwise promising model of ‘Bolivarian socialism’ pioneered by the Chavez administration.

7 Opposition protesters shot in Thailand

An unidentified gunman has injured 7 people firing indiscriminately into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok. There were no casualties. It remains unclear if this was officially sanctioned by the government or the army, but it is thought to have contributed to the Opposition’s decision to attempt to “shut down” the Thai capital on Monday. However, opposition leaders are publicly seeking to calm their supporters, saying that they do not seek a “civil war”- though they are explicitly committed to the overthrow of the existing government, and are boycotting the election that is due in February. However, the government will be reassured by the army’s assurance that it would not attempt a military coup, after generals were slow to give such assurances previously.

al-Shabab bans the Internet in Somalia

Militants linked to al-Qaeda have instructed telecommunications companies in the parts of Somalia under their control to shut down all Internet services within 15 days. According to al-Shabab, failure to comply with their demands to sever web connections to the 1.2% of the population with Internet access would constitute “working with the enemy”, and those doing so would be punished as traitors (i.e. severely). The reasoning behind the move is not difficult to guess: al-Shabab wants to eliminate freedom of speech and the adoption of “Western” lifestyles, of which the Internet is now a large part.

Rhino hunting permit auctioned in Texas

A permit to hunt and murder one black rhino in a reserve in Namibia was auctioned in Dallas for an undisclosed sum last week, despite a large protest outside the auction and an 80,000 strong e-petition calling for the cancellation of the sale. The Dallas Safari Club, which organised the auction, insists that the sale of three such permits per year by the Namibian government actually aids conservation, by raising funds for conservation measures, and having hunters murder aged male rhinos, which do not breed and are liable to injure or kill their younger male counterparts. The argument has not convinced many outside of the hunting community, however.

FLASHBACK: How Many More Massacres Until Action is Taken?

Originally published on 15th December 2012.

The world was shaken by yesterday’s news that yet another school massacre has taken place in the United States- this time a 20 year old man who shot 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school (which does not match the Columbine tragedy in which it was teenagers shooting their classmates). The tragedy as attracted sympathy from people worldwide, and President Obama was clearly emotional when delivering a short statement to the press on the matter yesterday evening.

Whilst such mass, indiscriminate shootings are not exclusive to the United States, it is apparent that the US suffers from these on a regular basis compared with the rest of the world. Gun crime is astronomically high by international standards, and gun ownership is tolerated to a much greater extent in American society. In a country in which bullets can be picked up at the local supermarket- and a quick look on Walmart‘s website (have a look on, and search for guns) indicates that the same is true of guns themselves- the normalisation of fatal weaponry must have some affect on the psyche of some individuals within it. That is why I will join with what I think is the silent majority of Americans in wanting major reform of gun ownership laws.

Every time there is a massacre like the one that the world saw yesterday, many on the liberal wing of political opinion will call for restrictions on gun ownership. Unfortunately, they lack the influence or indeed the financial firepower of the creepy National Rifle Association and associated gun lobby, and so the matter is forgotten about within a few weeks. This is a pattern which cannot continue, for the human cost is too great. True, not everybody who owns firearms is a mass-murderer. But why give so many people the means to do so?

Why Shouldn’t Gun Controls Be Tightened?

  • The majority of gun owners have no intention of breaking the law, so they are entitled to their freedom

True. But those who own a gun clearly have the capability of hurting or killing somebody or some animal for some reason. If hundreds of dead children and thousands of murder victims every year is the cost of providing false peace of mind to people who don’t use the guns in the first place (and if they are, that presents an issue in itself) then it’s time we struck a balance between people’s freedom to own lethal weaponry and others’ freedom to not be slaughtered.

  • It isn’t fair to punish the majority for a small minority abusing their rights

That principle is generally a sound one. But it isn’t a punishment; it’s always been a bad idea to make devastating lethal weaponry freely available to the general public. If gun owners are genuinely responsible in their actions, then we are taking nothing away from them. They didn’t shoot people before and they would now lack the ability to.

  •  Gun controls would take away a crucial means of self-defence

Nonsense. Firstly, when the police have manpower freed up from having to deal with gun crime, they will provide a more effective response to crime and crime prevention in the first place. Secondly, self-defence should be non-lethal in almost all circumstances. And what is the greater threat to the public: a high number of firearms acting as a catalyst for violence, or an environment in which the weaponry available does not enable long-range injury?

  •  Our liberty would be threatened if the government controlled gun ownership

Frankly, the idea that a 21st century western superpower could be allowed to become a dictatorship, and that an armed  militia could restore democracy, is laughable. Besides, who’s liberty is threatened? That of the general public, or the gun-owning minority? The dangers of vigilantism are greater in the US than those of a dictatorship.

  •  Britain has tight firearms regulation, but criminals still get hold of guns                                                                                                       
  • This is true, but gun crime is very low by international standards. The general public can feel a lot safer in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be affected by gun crime.                    

New York Chooses A Dash of Liberalism

The US has had its first spate of elections since the Presidential vote in 2012. The governorships of New Jersey and Virginia were contested, as was the Mayoralty of New York City. There were no great surprises: the moderate Republican Chris Christie (who is to the GOP what Ken Clarke is to the Conservative Party) was comfortably re-elected in Democratic-leaning NJ, whist the Democrats secured victory in Virginia.

But, as the title suggests, this post is centred on New York, where Bill de Blasio (D) defeated Joe Lhota (R) with a majority of about 45%- that’s right: de Blasio has won an astounding 72% of the vote. What makes this even more surprising to an outsider is that de Blasio is about as leftwing as it is possible to be in American politics, described as an old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberal. Although genuine liberals are all too often out of fashion in the Democratic Party, it seems that de Blasio’s positions on issues such as the eye-watering inequality that exists in his city (and a police force that’s slightly too trigger happy with its anti-terror powers) have struck a chord with New Yorkers.

In my country, New York is seen as a city of glamour, towering apartment blocks, busy and often aggressive people, and a bustling metropolis where millionaire bankers and the downtrodden working class live and work in startling proximity. In many ways, NYC is simply a reflection of London twenty years or so into the future.

(By the way, the original York is infinitely better than both its namesake and London: it’s a leafy, people-shaped city in which there is a calmer approach to life.)

So when de Blasio talked of “two cities”, communities of rich and poor who share the same physical space but live entirely lives, he has identified an awful trend which is fracturing our societies as they have never been divided in the modern age. It’s the sort of ‘soft segregation’ that will make harmonious democracy impossible if we allow it to grow and reinforce itself unchecked.

Of course, there are severe limitations to the powers of the Mayor of New York, and the progressive tax rises de Blasio has pledged will need the approval of New York state in Albany. Even then, the “two cities” cannot be bridged by fairer taxes and homebuilding alone: no, the national and international corridors of power will have to be stormed to tackle inequality. But we have to start somewhere, and where better than the Mayor’s office?

America Finally Acts on Climate Change

It pains us environmentalists that the world’s second biggest polluter and most influential nation has barely conceded that climate change is a real phenomenon, and that those Americans who do clutch their copy of An Inconvenient Truth to their hearts as if it were the new Bible often do little in practice. (Though I do wonder how far Al Gore would have got in greening the US had the true result of the 2000 presidential election been respected). But fortunately for those of us who are still going to be around in forty years time, Obama is honouring his commitment made in his inauguration speech to tackle the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, the United States will make a legal commitment to cut its carbon emissions by 4% of 1990 levels over the next seven years. It will achieve this by imposing pollution limits on power stations, as these are often coal-fired and responsible for one quarter of the country’s pollution. Further to this, there will be a new mechanism to allow businesses to develop renewable energy projects on federal and state-owned land.

4% doesn’t sound like a significant reduction. But consider the fact that US emissions peaked in 2005, and so the reduction is 17% of that level. 4% in the US is also equivalent to 33% in the UK, considering differences in population and the use of resources. On the other hand, the EU on its own cannot make a tangible reduction in the pace of climate change, but if the US showed any inclination to match the modest actions that Europe is doing, we’d see real results within years. Who knows, we might actually avoid an apocalyptic disaster!

Imagine an America which makes use of the diverse and amazing forces of nature within in to produce solar, wind and geothermal energy. Imagine an America which uses resources with care: no more gas guzzlers, less emphasis on the acquisition of objects, and a healthy understanding of food. Imagine an America in which people share more and do so more often. We’re watching the first tentative steps being taken towards that future.

Although it may be difficult not to dismiss Obama’s new targets at pitifully limited, it is important to realise that this marks a sea change in this aspect of American thinking.

Congress Fails To Prevent Cuts

English: Newt Gingrich at a political conferen...

English: Newt Gingrich at a political conference in Orlando, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Fiscal Cliff of New Year’s Eve was fortunately postponed for two months, in what was supposed to be a move to give the Republicans and Democrats another opportunity to reach a sensible deficit reduction solution. Of course, we observers made a naive assumption that any deal involving the modern Republican Party would ever be reached without intolerable demands for regressive spending reductions. Yesterday, the “sequester”, a package of $85,000,000,000 worth of cuts came into effect as no deal was reached.

President Obama has previously warned that such an outcome would mean that GDP growth will fall by 0.5% and the loss of 750,000 jobs across both the private and public sectors. It is hugely unfortunate that we are only likely to see more automatic cuts coming into effect until 2014, with Republican majority in the House of Representatives forcing through austerity against the wishes of the President. I feel it is no exaggeration that the Republican party, which is unashamedly undermining the Government, will push the US economy into a second recession, which makes it essential that Obama does all in his power to underline whose fault that will be.

The Democrats are in an impossible position. With every budget, sequester, debt ceiling, and cliff, they lose more ground to the regressive opposition, and this is inevitable with the balance of power in Congress being what it is. We risk a repeat of the 1990s in which Newt Gingrich and his Republican conspirators became the de facto government, forcing Bill Clinton to face questions about whether his presidency was still relevant. The difference this time is that it is everybody in the US, not just  the poor, who are set to lose out. However, I have already railed at the absurd constitutional make up of the US government several times, so I need not labour the point.

If so many of the world’s major economies are to continue with the myopic austerity agenda, we face a “lost decade” of economic decline like the 1970s or 1930s. It is painful to see that our unpopular political leaders inflicting this mad policy on us in the name of “prudence”.

Obama’s Next Steps

Most of us in Britain breathed a collective sigh of relief when President Obama was returned to office for another four years. The United States, the world’s superpower, remains in safe hands until at least 2017. But we are all aware that the incumbent’s achievements had been disappointing compared to the massage of “Change We Can Believe In” that inspired so many in 2008. This is largely not the fault of the Democratic Party; indeed the Republicans are to blame for blocking radical and overdue legislative changes, and then (thankfully unsuccessfully) attempting to capitalise on the Democrats’ supposed inactivity. And then there is the inevitable buzz factor surrounding a popular candidate- which fades with alarming speed.

Of course, the American public would benefit from strong leadership if they gave it the power to behave as such. Electing a pro-reform President and then a conservative majority in the legislature seems like a ridiculous collective decision. Unfortunately, this will be the state of affairs until at least 2015, by which time the lame duck mentality will be rapidly setting in. However, it is only possible to work with what one has been given, and the US does have considerable power invested in the executive. There will be limits to what can be achieved, but by 2017 we can expect Obamacare, fairer taxation, some progress towards proper gun control (or bullet control, as advocated by Chris Rock), a car and banking system back from the brink, increased green regulations, and a well-established constructive foreign policy.

If I had been told before 2008 that this could be achieved in the US in under a decade, I would have responded with complete disbelief. Would you have forseen the widespread-ish legalisation of same-sex marriage, albeit so far only at state level, in the space of a few years? On that subject, Obama has also successfully overturned the absurd and cowardly compromise about gay people in the military: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

And yes, Obama is not as progressive as Jimmy Carter, though he may well be remembered as a higher achiever than Bill Clinton. He has led what has been one of the most scandal free governments ever seen in living memory. His presidency is ushering in a new era of American social liberalism. In many ways, the future is looking brighter for the United States than it did four years ago.

Mitt Romney Isn’t Going To Win Today

The mainstream media is keen to present today’s US presidential election as an alarmingly tight race that threatens to be a repeat of the extremely close results in 2000 (an election which Al Gore rightfully won, but that is another matter). Look at the evidence, though, and Obama is almost certain to win.

In the key swing states, the Republicans have failed to establish the momentum required to win, and will ultimately lose. Furthermore, it would seem to me, on the admittedly limited evidence available to me 3,000 miles away from the electorate, that a considerable number of voters are expressing disappointment with Obama but will reconsider Romney’s calibre when at the piling station. Look at the UK 1992 general election, in which polls predicted victory for Labour’s Neil Kinnock over Conservative incumbent John Major. A number of people secretly voted Conservative whilst voicing support for Labour. And we are living with the consequences today. But for once, this factor will work in the world’s favour.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the Democratic Party will spend the next three years trying to select its next presidential candidate. My suggestion is that Hilary Clinton prepares a second bid for the nomination, for she commands a great deal of credibility and a strong will that’ll be essential to tackling what will be a desperate Republican Party’s third candidate. I also suggest that Sarah Palin be the Republicans’ next candidate: she has the same ideology as the rest of them, but is simply more honest about it. Plus she is unelectable.

All that is in the future. As Chris Rock has kindly informed the public: Democrats vote today, and Republicans vote on Wednesday. Good luck, America. Don’t land yourselves with a 47% (nee 99%), women, gay and environment hating fool for President.