For a company that has built its multibillion dollar brand on animated features based on fairy tales, it's a little surprising that Disney isn't up on its fables. One that could have come in handy is that classic of unknown origin about the scorpion and the frog. You know it, right? It's a fun bit: A scorpion asks a frog if it can ride on its back to cross a river, and promises the frog it won't sting him.
Midway through the journey, sure enough, the bug delivers a venomous poke to the amphibian, ensuring both will drown. When the frog asks why, the scorpion replies that stinging is in its nature. Today, Disney-owned ABC is the frog flailing before millions after Roseanne Barr did the inevitable, delivering her sting by way of a racist tweet posted around 2:45 a.m. that has since been deleted. This time she described Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, as a combination of the Muslim Brotherhood and the "Planet of the Apes."
The resulting furor led ABC to cancel its revival of Barr's show "Roseanne," confirmed in a statement from the network's entertainment president Channing Dungey. "Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show."
Disney CEO Robert Iger co-signed on to Dungey's statement with a tweet of his own:
From Channing Dungey, President of ABC Entertainment: "Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show."There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) May 29, 2018
ICM Partners talent agency also announced that it has dropped her as a client. This stands to be a very costly decision for Disney and ABC. "Roseanne" returned to a viewership of 18 million in overnight ratings, an astronomical number in today's Peak TV climate and even more so for a network comedy.
Though its numbers came back down to Earth afterward, the show still pulled more than 10 million viewers per episode by the end of the season, making it ABC's most successful scripted series. Only two weeks ago ABC made "Roseanne" and its star the focus of its upfront presentation to advertisers, complete with Barr serenading the Madison Ave. reps with a rendition of "My Way."
ABC executives touted the revival's popularity as the foundation of the network's resurgence. Across the industry, the victorious return of "Roseanne" has been credited for reviving the fortunes of the classic multi-camera format even though Chuck Lorre proved its resiliency years ago.
This is a long way of saying that doing the right thing in canceling "Roseanne" also stands to be a very expensive thing to do. And I'm not just referring to the potential economic ramifications. ABC is now facing a scramble to reconfigure its strategy for the new season and, potentially, to repair its relationship with other producers and a slice of its audience.
All because its star couldn't keep her social media habits under control. Or as author Ijeoma Oluo succinctly put it:
Literally all that Roseanne had to do was NOT call a black woman a monkey and she... just.... couldn't ??
White supremacy is a hell of a drug.
A oft-cited bromide of late is that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. People have observed this whenever a person at the center of a racially-charged incident is outed for their behavior and then mourns losing their job as a result. But in general this is something that happens to people who aren't famous, are easily replaceable and don't stand to make their bosses millions of dollars.
The titular star of "Roseanne" cannot be replaced; although a few critics have pointed out that the stealth focus of the story is the rest of the family -- Darlene, Becky, DJ and Dan -- very few would sign up to watch that spinoff. Knowing this, and the entertainment industry being what it is, Disney could have easily condemned Barr, taken her at her word that she was leaving Twitter and reassured people that it wasn't going to happen again. (Prior to the season she told critics that her children had taken away her password. Obviously she found her way around that.)
Other networks may have counted on the notion that the 10 million-plus people who were still watching "Roseanne" by the end of the first season speak more loudly than the outcry against Barr's tweet on social media. Then again, there's also evidence that advertisers would have desired to distance themselves from the new season given Tuesday's developments.
Lest anyone be tempted to applaud Disney for taking the costly route to the moral high road, do not forget that the network was aware of Barr's behavior from the start and decided to give her a national broadcast platform anyway.
She used that platform in part to take a shot at shows fronted by casts of color on her own network, "Black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat." This, during a season in which the creator of one of those shows, Kenya Barris of "Black-ish," was asked to pull an episode featuring a storyline concerning the rights of NFL players to kneel in protest during the performance of the national anthem at football games.
If that were the only misstep "Roseanne" made this season -- if the show hadn't bungled attempts to discuss cultural bias or all-but negated the identity of the lone black series regular character, Mary Conner (Jayden Rey) -- ABC might have been able to salvage this PR nightmare and move forward.
But Barr has a history of blurting out bigoted statements, walking them back with apologies and moving forward with her career nevertheless. She's done it to the LGBTQ community, she's referred to Israel as a Nazi-state and even prior to the tweet that led to her show's cancellation, she tossed out a few anti-semitic tweets concerning George Soros and Chelsea Clinton.
All of this should have given pause to series executive producer Sara Gilbert, an out-and-proud lesbian and co-host of "The Talk" on CBS who may have heard something about Barr referring to LGBTQ Americans as narcissistic on her radio show in 2007. Gilbert condemned Barr's tweet on Tuesday, saying "I am disappointed in her actions to say the least," but she is also the driving force that helped put Barr back on ABC in the first place.
Roseanne’s recent comments about Valerie Jarrett, and so much more, are abhorrent and do not reflect the beliefs of our cast and crew or anyone associated with our show. I am disappointed in her actions to say the least.— sara gilbert (@THEsaragilbert) May 29, 2018
It should have given pause to Dungey, the first African-American woman to serve as a broadcast network's president, to see another black woman compared to an ape. Or maybe it would have if Barr hadn't already done that five years ago, in 2013, when she referred to then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice, as "a man with big swinging ape balls."
In most of these cases, Barr has apologized. Do it once, it's a mistake, maybe. Do it again, and again, and it's a pretty clear indication of how a person like Barr thinks and more to the point, what she really thinks about the woman who hired her. This was in Barr's nature. She made no secret of it; people have been aware of her bigotry for some time.
Certainly Barr and the co-showrunners of "Roseanne" Bruce Helford and Whitney Cummings, who recently parted ways with the series, were aware of it. They went as far as to write elements of Barr's politics into the series, making it nearly impossible to distinguish between the real life woman and the character she plays.
And though Wanda Sykes announced in a tweet on Tuesday that she would no longer serve as a consulting producer on the show, I also wonder how long she actually put up with it. Last fall she made a few publicity appearances to promote "Roseanne" as it was going into production but for the most part, she's said more about leaving the show on her Twitter feed, and about "Black-ish," than she's talked about the show itself while it was on.
Now that ABC can no longer profess faith or weakly feign ignorance, now that it now longer has its surefire ratings magnet for the 2018-2019 season, Dungey and the network's other development executives have a bit of triage on their hands. This is ABC's first fall since 2005 without Shonda Rhimes under its umbrella; she's left for Netflix, the streamer that also green lighted a development deal with Barack and Michelle Obama.
Murmurings that Barris may be attempting to get out of his deal with ABC and head to Netflix have been circulating since the story about yanking that "Black-ish" episode first broke. Taking a broader view, ABC also faces a fall season with many critically popular half-hours but few that come close to matching the ratings of "Roseanne." "The Middle," ABC's other comedy about a working class family, is done. "Modern Family" is a hit in syndication but averaged about half of the audience Barr's comedy ended up with by the time its finale aired.
What may smart even more is seeing "Last Man Standing," Tim Allen's comedy that ABC cancelled at the end of the 2017 season despite its popularity, pop up on Fox this coming fall. Then again, with Disney angling to buy Fox, it all comes back under the same roof anyway. In the immediate, ABC dealt with the mess it had on its hands in the only way that it could. But now it has a gaping hole to contend with and a bruise on its diversity record, perhaps, among some creatives. With its single season reboot of "Roseanne," it also has an unfinished mess on its hands.
Helford even hinted that some of the first season's shortcomings, most of which centered on "Roseanne" soft-selling Trumpism or botching conversations on race, would be handled by writing-in deeper consideration and more delicacy in season two. That won't happen now, leaving a single season of half-measures and veiled political statements as the ending tagged on to a once-great show's legacy. It's a miserable way for a series go out out, death by poisonous sting. And it could have easily been avoided if ABC hadn't ignored years worth of warnings about the dangers of giving Barr another ride.
California has over $700 billion parked in private banks earning minimal interest, private equity funds that contributed to the affordable housing crisis, or shadow banks of the sort that caused the banking collapse of 2008. These funds, or some of them, could be transferred to an infrastructure bank that generated credit for the state.Support from readers keeps Truthout 100 percent independent. If you like what you're reading, make a donation!
California has over $700 billion parked in private banks earning minimal interest, private equity funds that contributed to the affordable housing crisis, or shadow banks of the sort that caused the banking collapse of 2008. These funds, or some of them, could be transferred to an infrastructure bank that generated credit for the state – while the funds remained safely on deposit in the bank.
California needs over $700 billion in infrastructure during the next decade. Where will this money come from? The $1.5 trillion infrastructure initiative unveiled by President Trump in February 2018 includes only $200 billion in federal funding, and less than that after factoring in the billions in tax cuts in infrastructure-related projects. The rest is to come from cities, states, private investors and public-private partnerships (PPPs) one. And since city and state coffers are depleted, that chiefly means private investors and PPPs, which have a shady history at best.
A 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that "in practice [PPPs] have been dogged by contract design problems, waste, and unrealistic expectations." In their 2015 report "Why Public-Private Partnerships Don't Work," Public Services International stated that "experience over the last 15 years shows that PPPs are an expensive and inefficient way of financing infrastructure and divert government spending away from other public services. They conceal public borrowing, while providing long-term state guarantees for profits to private companies." They also divert public money away from the neediest infrastructure projects, which may not deliver sizable returns, in favor of those big-ticket items that will deliver hefty profits to investors. A March 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute titled "No Free Bridge" also highlighted the substantial costs and risks involved in public-private partnerships and other "innovative" financing of infrastructure.
Meanwhile, California is far from broke. It has over well over $700 billion in funds of various sorts tucked around the state, including $500 billion in CalPERS and CalSTRS, the state's massive public pension funds. These pools of money are restricted in how they can be spent and are either sitting in banks drawing a modest interest or invested with Wall Street asset managers and private equity funds that are not obligated to invest the money in California and are not safe. For fiscal year 2009, CalPERS and CalSTRS reported almost $100 billion in losses from investments gone awry.
In 2017, CalSTRS allocated $6.1 billion to private equity funds, real estate managers, and co-investments, including $400 million to a real estate fund managed by Blackstone Group, the world's largest private equity firm, and $200 million to BlackRock, the world's largest "shadow bank." CalPERS is now in talks with BlackRock over management of its $26 billion private equity fund, with discretion to invest that money as it sees fit.
"Private equity" is a rebranding of the term "leveraged buyout," the purchase of companies with loans which then must be paid back by the company, typically at the expense of jobs and pensions. Private equity investments may include real estate, energy, and investment in public infrastructure projects as part of a privatization initiative. Blackstone is notorious for buying up distressed properties after the housing market collapsed. It is now the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the US. Its rental practices have drawn fire from tenant advocates in San Francisco and elsewhere, who have called it a Wall Street absentee slumlord that charges excessive rents, contributing to the affordable housing crisis; and pension funds largely contributed the money for Blackstone's purchases.
BlackRock, an offshoot of Blackstone, now has $6 trillion in assets under management, making it larger than the world's largest bank (which is in China). Die Zeit journalist Heike Buchter, who has written a book in German on it, calls BlackRock the "most powerful institution in the financial system" and "the most powerful company in the world" – the "secret power." Yet despite its size and global power, BlackRock, along with Blackstone and other shadow banking institutions, managed to escape regulation under the Dodd-Frank Act. Blackstone CEO Larry Fink, who has cozy relationships with government officials according to journalist David Dayen, pushed hard to successfully resist the designation of asset managers as systemically important financial institutions, which would have subjected them to additional regulation such as larger capital requirements.
The proposed move to hand CalPERS' private equity fund to BlackRock is highly controversial, since it would cost the state substantial sums in fees (management fees took 14% of private equity profits in 2016), and BlackRock gives no guarantees. In 2009, it defaulted on a New York real estate project that left CalPERS $500 million in the hole. There are also potential conflicts of interest, since BlackRock or its managers have controlling interests in companies that could be steered into deals with the state. In 2015, the company was fined $12 million by the SEC for that sort of conflict; and in 2015, it was fined $3.5 million for providing flawed data to German regulators. BlackRock also puts clients' money into equities, investing it in companies like oil company Exxon and food and beverage company Nestle, companies which have been criticized for not serving California's interests and exploiting state resources.
California public entities also have $2.8 billion in CalTRUST, a fund managed by BlackRock. The CalTRUST government fund is a money market fund, of the sort that triggered the 2008 market collapse when the Reserve Primary Fund "broke the buck" on September 15, 2008. The CalTRUST website states:
You could lose money by investing in the Fund. Although the Fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1.00 per share, it cannot guarantee it will do so. An investment in the Fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency. The Fund's sponsor has no legal obligation to provide financial support to the Fund, and you should not expect that the sponsor will provide financial support to the Fund at any time.
CalTRUST is billed as providing local agencies with "a safe, convenient means of maintaining liquidity," but billionaire investor Carl Icahn says this liquidity is a myth. In a July 2015 debate with Larry Fink on FOX Business Network, Icahn called BlackRock "an extremely dangerous company" because of the prevalence of its exchange-traded fund (ETF) products, which Icahn deemed illiquid. "They sell liquidity," he said. "There is no liquidity. . . . And that's what's going to blow this up." His concern was the amount of money BlackRock had invested in high-yield ETFs, which he called overpriced. When the Federal Reserve hikes interest rates, investors are likely to rush to sell these ETFs; but there will be no market for them, he said. The result could be a run like that triggering the 2008 market collapse.The Infrastructure Bank Option
There is another alternative. California's pools of idle funds cannot be spent on infrastructure, but they could be deposited or invested in a publicly-owned bank, where they could form the deposit base for infrastructure loans. California is now the fifth largest economy in the world, trailing only Germany, Japan, China and the United States. Germany, China and other Asian countries are addressing their infrastructure challenges through public infrastructure banks that leverage pools of funds into loans for needed construction.
Besides the China Infrastructure Bank, China has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), whose members include many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia. Both banks are helping to fund China's trillion dollar "One Belt One Road" infrastructure initiative.
Germany has an infrastructure bank called KfW which is larger than the World Bank, with assets of $600 billion in 2016. Along with the public Sparkassen banks, KfW has funded Germany's green energy revolution. Renewables generated 41% of the country's electricity in 2017, up from 6% in 2000, earning the country the title "the world's first major green energy economy." Public banks provided over 72% of the financing for this transition.
As for California, it already has an infrastructure bank – the California Infrastructure and Development Bank (IBank), established in 1994. But the IBank is a "bank" in name only. It cannot take deposits or leverage capital into loans. It is also seriously underfunded, since the California Department of Finance returned over half of its allotted funds to the General Fund to repair the state's budget after the dot.com market collapse. However, the IBank has 20 years' experience in making prudent infrastructure loans at below municipal bond rates, and its clients are limited to municipal governments and other public entities, making them safe bets underwritten by their local tax bases. The IBank could be expanded to address California's infrastructure needs, drawing deposits and capital from its many pools of idle funds across the state.A Better Use for Pension Money
In an illuminating 2017 paper for UC Berkeley's Haas Institute titled "Funding Public Pensions," policy consultant Tom Sgouros showed that the push to put pension fund money into risky high-yield investments comes from a misguided application of the accounting rules. The error results from treating governments like private companies that can be liquidated out of existence. He argues that public pension funds can be safely operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, just as they were for 50 years before the 1980s. That accounting change would take the pressure off the pension boards and free up hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. Some portion of that money could then be deposited in publicly-owned banks, which in turn could generate the low-cost credit needed to fund the infrastructure and services that taxpayers expect from their governments.
Note that these deposits would not be spent. Pension funds, rainy day funds and other pools of government money can provide the liquidity for loans while remaining on deposit in the bank, available for withdrawal on demand by the government depositor. Even mainstream economists now acknowledge that banks do not lend their deposits but actually create deposits when they make loans. The bank borrows as needed to cover withdrawals, but not all funds are withdrawn at once; and a government bank can borrow its own deposits much more cheaply than local governments can borrow on the bond market. Through their own public banks, government entities can thus effectively borrow at bankers' rates plus operating costs, cutting out middlemen. And unlike borrowing through bonds, which merely recirculate existing funds, borrowing from banks creates new money, which will stimulate economic growth and come back to the state in the form of new taxes and pension premiums. A working paper published by the San Francisco Federal Reserve in 2012 found that one dollar invested in infrastructure generates at least two dollars in GSP (state GDP), and roughly four times more than average during economic downturns.
The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME, which could have far-reaching consequences for the future of public-sector unions in the United States. The case has sparked a wide-ranging debate within the labor movement about how to deal with the "free-rider problem" of union members who benefit from collective bargaining agreements but opt-out of paying dues. We asked three labor experts to discuss what's at stake in the case and how they each think unions should respond.
Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.
Chris Brooks: The way I see it, right-to-work presents two interlocking problems for unions. The first is that unions are legally required to represent all workers in a bargaining unit that the union has been certified to represent, and in open shops the Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) requires unions to expend resources on non-members who are covered by that contract. This is commonly known as the free rider problem and it gets a lot of attention, for good reason.
The second problem is that open shops also undermine solidarity by pitting workers who pay their fair share to support the union against those who do not. This is the divide-and-conquer problem.
So the free rider problem is institutional: the union has to expend all these resources fighting on behalf of workers who are not members and do not pay dues. And the divide-and-conquer problem is interpersonal: when workers do not all support the union this results in union and non-union members developing adversarial attitudes toward each other which undermines the ability for collective action.
If you believe that the source of a union's strength is its ability to unite workers in common fights to better their conditions on the job and in the community, then the divide-and-conquer problem is a real impediment to union power. Yet, the free rider problem gets far more attention from union leaders and activists than the divide-and-conquer problem. This is especially true in the discussion around whether unions should ditch exclusive representation and pursue a members-only form of unionism.
In my opinion, most arguments in support of kicking out free riders actually reinforces the employers' logic -- turning union membership into a personal choice and unions themselves into competing vehicles for individualized services rather than vehicles for broad class struggle. So by focusing on the free rider problem to the exclusion of the divide-and-conquer problem, unions run the danger of turning inward and representing a smaller and smaller number of workers rather than seeking to constantly expand their base in larger fights on behalf of all workers in an industry.
Shaun Richman: I had an article published in The Washington Post and I admit it was too cute by half partly because I was trying to amplify what I think was actually the strongest argument that AFSCME is making in the case itself, which is that the agency fee has historically been traded for the no strike clause and if you strike that there is the potential for quite a bit of chaos. So I wanted to put a little bit of fear to whoever might potentially have the ear of Chief Justice Roberts, as crazy as that may sound. But I also wanted to plant the seed of thinking for a few union rebels out there. If the Janus decision comes down as many of us fear then the proper response is to create chaos.
If the entire public sector goes right to work, unions will never look the same. So, then, the project of the left should be "what do we want them to look like?" and "what will drive the bosses craziest?" I've written about this before and Chris has responded at In These Times. There are three things that I am suggesting will happen -- two of which, and I think Chris agrees, are sort of inevitable and not particularly desirable. The third part is not inevitable and depends a lot on what we do as activists.
If we lose the agency fee, some unions will seek to go members-only in order to avoid the free rider problem, and that's a lousy motivation. I'm not encouraging that, but I think it's also inevitable. Once you have unions representing these workers over here but not those workers over there, it's also inevitable that you wind up with competitor unions vying for the unrepresented. And the first competitor unions are going to be conservative. These already exist. They're all over the South and they compete against the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) in many districts and they offer bare bones benefits and they promote themselves on "we're not going to support candidates who are in favor of abortions and we'll represent you if you have tenure issues." That's also bad but also inevitable.
The third step, which is not inevitable but we need to consider in this moment, is at what point do new opposition groups break away from the existing formal union? When do we just break the exclusive model and compete for members and workplace leadership? Can we get to a point where on the shop floor level you've got organizations vying for workers' dues money and loyalty based on who can take on the boss in a better fight or who can win a better deal on the basis of we're going to be less confrontational (which, I think, there are a lot of workers whom that appeals to as much as I don't like that idea)? But the chaos of the employer not being able to make one deal with one union that settles everything for three or five years -- that's just the sort of chaos that the boss class deserves for having pursued this whole Friedrichs and now Janus strategy.
Kate Bronfenbrenner: I have a different perspective that has to do with having looked at this issue over a longer period of time and also having witnessed the UK labor movement wrestle with exclusive representation when their labor law changed. First, I believe there is a third thing that right to work does that is missing from your analysis. Right to work gives employers another point to intimidate, coerce, and threaten employees about being part of the union, all of which employers find much more difficult to do in a union or an agency shop.
My research suggests that employers will act the same way now they do in the process of workers becoming members as they do during an organizing drive. The historical trade-off for unions was that the price of exclusive representation was Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) and unions saw DFR as a burden.
Those of us who were progressives saw that Duty of Fair Representation was the best thing that ever happened to unions because DFR said that unions had to represent women, people of color, the LGBT community, and you couldn't discriminate against part time versus full time. Historically it was used to force the old guard had to give up domination of unions and to fight for for union democracy because the simplest basis of DFR is the concept of good faith. If used effectively it would be the thing that could break the hold of the mob, or the old guard, or just white men. So you have to remember when you give up exclusive representation you could lose DFR. I can tell you that women and people of color are not going to want to give it up. And I think the fact that the two of you didn't think of that is probably because you have not been using that in your roles, but it is central to those who are fighting if you are dealing with members who are fighting discrimination in your union, the whole DFR exclusive representation is absolutely critical.
Kate, am I wrong that the actual court case establishing the DFR in exclusive representation comes out of the Railway Act, where a local was refusing to represent Black workers?
Bronfenbrenner: Historically, but it kept being reinforced over and over again in cases involving most collective bargaining laws. It's been reinforced over and over again that the trade-off for exclusive representation that the DFR is tied with exclusive representation.
Richman: Yeah, it was the entire thrust of the NAACP workplace strategy before the 1960's -- that the labor law could be a civil rights act as long as we could win DFR. Herbert Hill wrote a great book about it (Black Labor and the American Legal System). I would also recommend Sophia Z. Lee's The Workplace Constitution, which explores that history and makes a compelling argument for returning to a strategy of trying to establish constitutional rights in the workplace through the labor act.
Bronfenbrenner: Right. So union workers had protection for LGBTQ workers under DFR long before any other workers did because you could not discriminate on the basis of any class under duty of fair representation. Now whether workers knew that, whether their unions would represent them, is another matter but if you were a union worker or a worker who knew about it, this was where you fought it. So that was very important.
And the third thing that I wanted to say that related to this was that there is a long history in the public sector of independent unions, of company unions, acting as if exclusive representation didn't exist, where there would only be one member and employers would recognize the "union" establishing a contract bar so no other union could come in.
In the 1980s and 1990s, public sector unions assumed that they were winning decertification elections rather than the independent unions and discovered that they weren't. Soon enough they realized that the problem was that they weren't doing a good enough job of representing their members. Workers were not voting for the company unions, which were little more than law firms or insurance companies. They were voting against the poor representation.
The prevalence of these independents is a long running problem that existed before and after exclusive representation, and it exists when there are agency fees and when there are not. Poor enforcement by the NLRB and the difficulty of tracking down these front groups that are not really unions is a much bigger issue that comes out of a divided public sector, and exclusive representation has nothing to do with it.
I think right-wing groups are trying to capitalize on the history of company unions and fragmentation in the public sector. The State Policy Network (SPN) has a nationally coordinated strategy that builds on right-to-work laws to further bust unions. One of the tactics their member organizations, which exist in all fifty states, are pursuing is so-called "workers' choice" legislation. This legislation allows unions to maintain a limited form of exclusivity, but with no duty of fair representation. Unions must still win a certification election to be the sole organization bargaining with the employer, but workers can opt out of the union and seek their own private contract with the boss outside of the collective bargaining agreement.
Requiring a certification election for collective bargaining also saves employers from having a situation where multiple unions can simultaneously pursue separate bargaining agreements for the same group of workers, a legal can of worms that corporations don't want to open. SPN affiliates tout this legislation as a solution to the free rider problem for unions, since they have no duty to represent non-members, but it also incentivizes employers to bribe and cajole individual workers away from the union.
Employers could offer bonuses to workers if they drop union membership and call it "merit pay." I don't think that corporate advocacy groups like the SPN would be promoting this legislation unless they believed it would further weaken unions and fragment the labor movement.
The SPN is also actively organizing these massive opt-out campaigns, where they encourage workers to "give themselves a raise" by dropping union membership. They even have a nationally coordinated week of action called National Employee Freedom Week that eighty organizations participate in. In fact, the SPN think tanks work hand-in-glove with a host of independent education associations -- which are basically company unions, purporting to represent teachers while advancing the privatization agenda. In Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, these independent education associations claim to be larger than the AFT and NEA affiliates.
So in those places where unions are really strong, there is a high likelihood that we will see an increase in company unions that are working closely with State Policy Network affiliates to further divide workers on the job.
Richman: Chris, what you're describing are things that are mostly going to happen anyway, if we lose Janus. That SPN opt-out campaign is going to happen. The legislation you describe is not inevitable. I agree we dig a hole for ourselves if the only reason we want to "kick out the scabs" is so we don't have to represent them in grievances. Because that lays the groundwork for making a union-busting bill seem like a reasonable compromise.
If we lose Janus, unions will never look the same. It's at moments like this when we have to critically evaluate everything. What do we like about unions and our current workers' rights regime? What don't we like and what opportunities has this created for us to at least challenge that?
For me, the opportunity is to think about having multiple competitive unions on the shop floor. I don't think of this as a model that will lead to multiple contracts. It might lead to no contracts. Everything that I've written on this subject so far has been with the assumption that ULP protections against discrimination remain in place so that the boss can't give one group of workers a better deal because they picked one union over another (or no union at all). If a boss makes a deal with any group of workers or imposes new terms because a union got bargained to impasse, everybody gets the same thing.
Under a competitive multiple union model, I think no strike clauses become basically unenforceable. And these no strike clauses have become really deadly for unions in ways we don't want to acknowledge. Currently, the workers who should be the most emboldened at work, because they're protected by a union, have a contract that radically restricts their ability to protest. It's not just strikes. It curtails the ability to do slow down actions, and malicious compliance, and it forces the union rep to have to rush down to the job and tell their members, you have to stop doing this. And they end up feeling bitter toward the union leadership as much -- if not more -- than the boss for the conditions that were agitating them still being in place. And then their "my union did nothing for me" stories carry over to non-union shops. Every organizer has heard them.
We need to bring back the strike weapon. And that's far easier said than done. But it's really hard to do when you're severely restricted in your ability for empowered workers to set an example for unorganized workers in taking action and winning.
And, Kate, I have considered the DFR. I can't imagine a world of multiple competitive unions in a workplace where there wouldn't be at least one union that says we're going to be the anti-racist union, we're going to be the feminist union, and we're the union for you. Without DFR, you're right, there's no legal guarantees. But someone steps into the vacuum and my hope is that at least creates the potential for militancy when militancy is called for in the workplace. With all the other messiness.
There's going to be plenty of yellow unions and the boss is going to bring back employee representation programs and company unions and all of that. But that mess is exactly what they deserve. They've forgotten that exclusive representation is the model that they wanted -- we didn't, necessarily -- in the 1940s and 1950s.
Bronfenbrenner: I wouldn't be ready to throw out DFR. I think that there is too little democracy, and too much discrimination in the labor movement. At this time, we already have right to work in most of the public sector and most of the public sector doesn't allow strikes, but workers still strike. We see that workers are willing to strike even if they are not allowed to strike, as evidenced by all these teachers, and we have to remember the strike statistics in this country only report strikes that are over 1,000 workers and most workplaces are under 1,000. We have a lot more strikes than are reported.
The labor movement is not going to strike more just because you get rid of no strike clauses. Teamsters had the ability to strike as the last step of their grievance procedure for decades and they never went on strike. I think what is more important is the question of what is going to change the culture and politics of the labor movement. I don't think changing the right to strike is going to do it.
What is going to make unions actually fight back even on something like fighting on Janus? They're not even getting in the streets on Janus, so what makes you think they're actually going to strike on issues in the workplace? We need to think about why workers and unions are so hesitant to strike. I do not believe that chaos necessarily is going to happen. I think employers are much more prepared for this. I think what will happen is that the unions that have been effective and have been working with their members and educating their members and involving their members will be fighting back and the ones that have been sitting back and not doing anything will continue to sit back and not do anything and some will die.
The problem with getting rid of exclusive representation is that some unions are going to think "aha this is what I'm going to do, this is an easy way out," the same way people used to think "oh it's easier to organize in health care, oh it's easier to organize in the public sector, so rather than organize in my industry, which is hard, I'm going to go try health care or the public sector." But they found that "why can't I win organizing teachers the same way that AFT does" or "why can't I win organizing in health care the same way SEIU is doing" and they discovered that it's not quite as easy as it looks.
Yeah, I think Kate's point is really important: in a right-to-work setting, the employer anti-union campaign never ends. The boss is constantly trying to convince and cajole workers into dropping union membership. And employer anti-union campaigns are really effective, which is why unions don't win them very often.
If the Supreme Court rules against unions in Janus, anti-union campaigns are only going to gain strength. So, my fear, Shaun, is that you are being overly romantic. I just don't think left-wing unions are going to suddenly emerge and step into the void left by business-as-usual unionism. If that was the case, then why hasn't that already happened with the 90 percent of workers that don't have any union at all?
Richman: The structure is a trap, and exclusive representation is part of that. I don't think we have a crisis of leadership. I want to turn to the private sector because most of the potential hope in abandoning exclusive representation is in the private sector. Look at the UAW and their struggles at Volkswagen and at Nissan, which Chris is intimately familiar with. I think all three of us could find fault in their organizing strategy and tactics. Kate, I think you have more grounds than anyone in the country to be frustrated because you've scientifically proven what it takes to win and most unions have ignored that research for decades! But a third of the workers at Nissan want to have a union. To do so, they have to win an exclusive representation election where the entire power structure of the community comes down on their heads arguing keep the UAW out of the South.
If they had eked out an election win and managed to win a contract a year down the line, at the end of the day they get the obligation of having to represent everyone and probably the one-third of the workers who wanted the union all along are the only ones that join. That's insane. Charles Morris threw out this theory a decade ago, in The Blue Eagle at Work, about how the NLRA was not intended to have these winner-take-all exclusive representation elections. The point of the NLRA was merely to say to employers anywhere there's a group of workers that say hey we're a union you must bargain with them in good faith. He argues that pathway is still open to unions. To the best of my knowledge a few unions politely asked the NLRB for their opinion on that a couple of times rather than all of us demanding that should be a valid pathway for union representation.
If you can win that exclusive representation election, you should win it, and you should also be saddled with the burdens of DFR. But why can't, and why shouldn't, the UAW file a petition at every auto factory in the country right now and say we have members here and you need to bargain with us over their working conditions? And why shouldn't other unions jump into the fray and claim to represent their portion of the workers and drive those non-union companies nuts with a bunch of unions placing demands on them, and organizing to take action?
I think the work that Organization United for Respect (OUR) is doing at Wal-Mart is a good example of that. They by no means have a majority of the workers at Wal-Mart. They are in a few strategic locations. They are a nuisance to the company. They just won a right that workers are allowed to wear union buttons on the shop floor. Wal-Mart has given workers raises in response to their agitation. I'm not suggesting that that model is perfect or what we should all be doing, but I am saying that this should be an avenue open to us. And it only becomes open to us if we're willing to experiment more with abandoning exclusive representation where it doesn't work for us.
I would argue that in 90% of private sector workplaces where winning these elections is not possible it's not working for us currently.
Bronfenbrenner: The comprehensive campaign-organizing model should be part of every organizing effort. Workers are protected under the NLRA when they engage in concerted activity and, as I say in all my organizing research, the union should be acting like a union from the beginning of the campaign. Unions should also be organizing around workplace problems and going to the employer and engaging in actions during the organizing campaign. I've been saying for 30 years that you don't wait to start acting like a union until you win. But there is serious pushback against that element of my model from many organizers.
Unions are very hesitant to start taking on the employer before they win the majority. But there are unions that do that. It's not just OUR. It's Warehouse Workers United, SEIU 32BJ, RWDSU, Communications Workers, the Teamsters. All have run campaigns where they begin taking on the employer before the union has been recognized or certified. The unions that have been doing comprehensive campaigns are doing it in bargaining and it's being done in organizing by the unions who are winning in organizing. So they're not waiting until they win.
Richman: Thirty or forty years into people getting really serious about organizing as a science and as a craft, the fact that most unions still haven't embraced an organizing model…
Bronfenbrenner: People have been serious about organizing as a craft from the beginning. It's just that no one wrote very good books about what they did. The IWW and the UAW organizers, and the textile organizers, they were organizing using the same strategies that are being done now. No one wrote good books about what they did.
Richman: Sure, that's fair. But the fact that unions are not following an organizing model that's informed by your research and other unions' best practices suggests it's not a matter of culture but the legal framework that we find ourselves trapped in. Most of the pressure on a union leader is to bring back good contracts for the members you currently represent and keep winning re-election. So that puts more resources into grievance handling and bargaining and it leads to the cost cutting in organizing campaigns.
Bronfenbrenner: I disagree. For the last three decades servicing and education budgets have been cut while huge amounts of the labor movement's financial and staff resources have been shifted into labor law reform. And I can tell you because I'm part of the debate they don't want to have about what they they need to do to change to organize. But most either think they are doing everything they can, or it is too hard to do anything different. It is the law that is the problem.
Either way the shared understanding is that unions should put resources into politics and in getting labor law reform because trying to do comprehensive organizing campaigns we're asking them to do is "too difficult." But they're not putting resources into grievance handling anymore. They are putting it into politics and labor law reform.
Richman: The approach to labor law reform has been too much about trying to preserve the system. The opportunity of the moment is to think beyond the boundaries of the workplace. Enterprise level bargaining has been killing us since the 1970s. As long as union membership is tied to whether or not some group of workers voted to form a union sometime in the past within the four walls of your workplace, that just incentivizes the offshoring and contracting out that's really what has decimated the labor movement.
Humpty Dumpty is sitting on the wall and if Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts kick him off I am not particularly interested in being one of the king's horses and men trying to put him together again. At that point the system is fundamentally broken and we need new demands about what kind of system we want and new strategies about how we exploit the brokenness of the system to make them regret what they have done.
Exclusive representation -- combined with agency fee and DFR -- worked for a long time. But if you knock one piece out, it all falls apart. We shouldn't be pining for bygone days. We need to be thinking forward about what opportunities this creates. I hope that some people get inspired to try something as crazy as the IWW saying fuck it, we're going to organize in different workplaces and agitate for work slowdowns and try to gain a few members in a few places we don't care about expenditures of resources and dues. We're going to create some chaos.
I share Kate's concerns, I believe that many unions have devolved into highly legalistic organizations. So the solutions they are pursuing to our current problems are highly technical and legal in nature, which means that lobbying and electing Democrats often becomes their top priority. Laws are important, but unions should spend far more time and resources on organizing comprehensive campaigns that build support among large majorities of workers, winning them over to a plan for collective action that can change conditions on the job and in the community.
Instead of this kind of organizing, what we've seen over the past few decades is the increasing confinement of class struggle to smaller and smaller segments of workers. Few unions these days aim to represent all workers in an industry. How many unions are engaged in pattern bargaining and setting contract standards across an industry or openly organizing toward a master agreement? To your point, Shaun, unions have become limited to firm-level representation. Or even just a bargaining unit within a firm, since many do not even try to organize everyone who works for the same employer.
Members-only unionism just continues this trend as unions move to represent an even smaller fraction of workers, not as a stepping stone to building a majority, but as a strategy to get out of providing services to workers who don't pay dues. Ultimately, I believe this is a capitulation to the employers' right-to-work framework and a retreat from the kind of broad-based organizing that the labor left has been historically committed to.
Bronfenbrenner: We can no longer talk about the workplace solely through a U.S. framework. Ownership structures are so large, diffuse, and complex that what we should be doing is organizing and bargaining and building relationships between workers across the entire corporation world-wide, company-wide, and industry-wide. That requires getting workers to understand that they need to build power to take on whomever the decision-makers in the company are. It is not the boss that they see once a year at the annual holiday party. It is whoever has the money and really makes the decisions in the ultimate parent company. And that requires building alliances locally, nationally, and internationally, and building a much broader labor movement.
It also means understanding that the person who doesn't pay union dues in their shop is not the problem. The problem for workers is that now what they have is the chamber of commerce fighting against their right to bargain and the state at all levels is interfering with economic and union rights. Their boss is now some investor somewhere who has decided to buy and sell their company and their jobs who does not care what they make or whether they stay open or not.
You have to figure out what they care about because that is what gives unions leverage. That's why workers in America have to get to know workers in Mexico and workers in Europe, those kinds of relationships, that is what the labor movement needs to spend their energy on. That's what I'm going to spend my energy on. The U.S. labor movement cannot afford to be picking petty fights between workers who are paying dues and workers who aren't paying dues because they need each other.
Richman: The structure is a trap partly by forcing unions to focus on individual bargaining units, individual workplaces and somehow winning them one-by-one. What we should be doing is not retreating from our bargaining units, but claiming to represent the willing workers in every company in every industry. I'm trying to inspire anyone who is out there reading this to think about an opportunity to spread out wider -- in a much more bare bones, scrappier way -- but one that puts the union idea in many more workplaces. To get the word out now, rather than we'll get to you after we somehow win Nissan or Volkswagen. Because that's not working.
Bronfenbrenner: But you're not going to get labor law changed unless you have power. It takes political power to get labor law changed. You can't get political power until you organize a lot. You're asking for a labor law change. The point is that focusing on labor law is backwards. We only get labor law reform after we do a great deal of organizing. First you have to organize and build power.
During the whole Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) fight everyone stopped organizing and spent all their energy on EFCA. That's the danger of labor law reform.
Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a young Indigenous woman from Guatemala, was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent on May 23 while crossing from Mexico into Rio Bravo, Texas.
Marta Martinez, who lives just a mile from the border and regularly witnesses migrants being chased down by Border Patrol, heard a gunshot that morning and witnessed the deadly aftermath. In a recording that immediately went viral, Martinez can be heard shouting: "Why do you mistreat them? Why did you shoot the girl? You killed her! He killed the girl. She's there! She's dead!"
The US Customs and Border Protection agency released a statement the same day that attempted to justify the agent's actions. It claimed he "came under attack" and described the migrants as "assailants" armed with "blunt objects."
But by Friday, the agency released a different statement with no mention of "blunt objects" or "assailants." Martinez stated she didn't see any weapons and didn't hear the agent make any commands to "stop" or "don't run," further contradicting the official story.
It seems clear that Claudia was murdered -- shot in the head while attempting, along with three others, to make the dangerous trip across the border.
Claudia was hoping to cross the border safely to reconnect with her boyfriend -- and according to one of her cousins, "because of a great need that her family has" economically.
She planned to earn money to send back to Guatemala while continuing her education in the US Her father, Gilberto Gómez, said Claudia "left with the desire to better her life." She was robbed of that opportunity by the Border Patrol.
More than 7,000 migrants have been killed by the Border Patrol or died attempting to cross the border since 1998, not counting hundreds if not thousands more who have "disappeared" on the dangerous journey.
Migrants from Guatemala leave for the US for many reasons, but according to the Center for Immigration Studies, over 90 percent are motivated by economic reasons. Some 60 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and the country has some of the lowest life expectancies and highest infant mortality rates in Central America. Remittances from Guatemalans working in the US make up about 10 percent of Guatemala's GDP.
Claudia's murder comes a week after Donald Trump referred to immigrants as "animals" for at least the fifth time on national television. This language reflects the very real way that immigrants are dehumanized -- starting at the very top of the US government.
Trump's remarks are dangerous, and migrants and their families know why. "It's not fair that they treat them like animals just because they come from countries less developed," Gómez's aunt said during a press conference in Guatemala.
Meanwhile, Martinez said she heard a Border Patrol agent telling two migrants apprehended on the scene of Gómez's murder: "See what happens? This is what happens with you people."
As is the case with state and local police, Border Patrol agents are rarely held accountable for their actions.
In 2016, despite the fact that the Department of Homeland Security itself referred to corrupt border agents as "a national security threat" and found that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had a "broken disciplinary process," Border Patrol regularly get by with physical and sexual abuse, as well as murder.
The US government has paid some $60 million in settlements where border agents were involved with wrongful detentions, assault and deaths. The American Civil Liberties Union just released documents revealing widespread physical and sexual abuse of migrant kids and teens by Border Patrol.
Earlier this year, agents were caught destroying jugs of water left in the Arizona desert near border-crossing areas by a humanitarian group, No More Deaths. Instead of reprimanding the agents, the volunteers for No More Deaths were charged with federal misdemeanors.
Trump's response to this culture of violence is...a promise to increase their presence by adding 5,000 additional agents.
There are more than 40,000 Border Patrol in the CBP, making it the largest law enforcement agency in the country and one of the largest in the world, with a budget of $14 billion.
But Trump and the Republicans don't bear all the responsibility. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have contributed to the mass militarization of the border, particularly between Mexico and the US
In his book No One is Illegal, Justin Akers Chacón writes about the massive bipartisan effort to militarize the border.
During the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, funding for the Border Patrol increased by 130 percent. The administration of Democrat Bill Clinton created Operation Gatekeeper, which not only increased funding for enforcement, but further militarized the border, through "deploying underground sensors, infrared night scopes and encrypted radios; building miles of new fences; and installing massive amounts of new lightning."
In 2002, George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, and his administration was also responsible for large budget increases for Border Patrol.
Despite his campaign promises and rhetoric, Barack Obama's administration is guilty of strengthening the deportation machine, including by expanding programs promoting police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in apprehending, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants.
Obama oversaw a significant increase in the number of immigrant detention centers, the deportation of some 2 million people and a massive budget increase for the CBP. In other words, the foundation for Trump's efforts to ramp up the militarization of the border was built during the Obama era.
Karina Alvarez of the Laredo Immigrant Alliance knows that the militarized border isn't about security or safety.
The Trump administration's deployment of National Guard troops to the border is an unwelcome form of "protection," Alvarez told NPR. "Our community really is in fear, we really think there should be accountability over Border Patrol agents."
On May 26, Alvarez and the Laredo Immigrant Alliance held a Vigil Honoring Lives Lost in the Border and expressed their outrage at the murder of Claudia González, as well as extending condolences to her family.
The group invited people from Rio Bravo and El Cenizo to "come together as we honor the lives lost at the border." Alvarez explained on Facebook that rhetoric portraying immigrants as "murderers, rapists and animals" is "how ICE and BP perceives us" and "their actions are becoming normalized."
She said what is most important right now is for people to act, fight back and reject all calls for more immigration enforcement, especially "the mass hiring of untrained Border Patrol agents who will cause more damage."
The fight in Texas against the murderous Border Patrol and ICE demands solidarity. Movimiento Cosecha posted on Facebook that we must "#SayHerName": Claudia Patricia Gómez González.
Like Sandra Bland, an African American woman who died in police custody after being detained during a traffic stop in Texas, her death must be remembered as activists organize and continue to fight for justice.
Claudia Patricia Gómez González's life mattered, and what activists do now matters. We must demand that Border Patrol agents be held accountable and not simply be given administrative leave. And we must understand that until the border is demilitarized and people are able to cross borders freely, migrants will continue to die.
The Trump administration is calling on Congress to close so-called loopholes created by protections for vulnerable migrant children and allow entire families to be held in immigration jails and detention camps while adults await to see a judge. Trump is also attempting to shift the blame for the migrant "crisis" on Democrats ahead of the midterms.
An immigrant mother gives medicine to her sick child after a night's rest on an outdoor basketball court during a pause on their journey towards the U.S.-Mexico border on April 22, 2018, in Hermosillo, Mexico. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)Support your favorite writers by making sure we can keep publishing them! Make a donation to Truthout to ensure independent journalism survives.
Facing heavy criticism for a new "zero-tolerance" policy that is separating migrant children from their parents on the southern US border, the Trump administration is asking Congress to undo protections for migrant children and allow for more families to be held in immigration jails -- all while blaming Democrats for the migrant "crisis" ahead of the midterm elections.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, senior administration officials said Democrats' refusal to close "loopholes" in immigration law and spend more money on border security and immigrant detention has created incentives for growing numbers of migrants fleeing Latin American countries to enter the United States illegally.
"Senate Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail against every solitary effort to close these loopholes and get adequate detention space, ICE officers, you name it," said Steven Miller, a far-right activist who now serves as a senior policy adviser to President Trump.
Miller's comments come as controversy swirls around the Trump administration's new "zero-tolerance" policy for prosecuting undocumented immigrants.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that all adults attempting to enter the country illegally would be arrested and prosecuted, even as human rights groups argue that many migrants caught in the criminal dragnet are fleeing violence and repression and should be considered asylum seekers.
Currently, children are not allowed to be held in adult immigration jails as their parents wait for a judge to rule on their case, so hundreds of children have been forcibly separated from their parents by federal officers in recent months, according to reports.
Last week, the United Nations' refugee agency reported a "significant" increase in the number of people fleeing violence and persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and seeking refuge in other countries, including the United States. The UN says many migrants are vulnerable women and children, but the White House says migrants and smugglers use children to exploit protections in immigration law and gain access to the country.
The Trump administration has responded by ramping up arrests and deportations at the border as the Republican Party prepares to rally hardline anti-immigration voters to the midterm polls. Administration officials are now calling on Congress to undo protections for migrant children and expand the government's ability to hold families in immigration detention centers that advocates say are no different from jails.
The debate over Trump's immigration crackdown flared up over the past week after reports suggested that federal authorities "lost track" of nearly 1,500 children who arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult and were left with relatives or other sponsors. As officials explained to reporters, those children did not disappear. Instead, their sponsors did not respond to follow-up phone calls from Health and Human Services representatives -- a sign that Trump's crackdown is driving a wedge between immigrant families and the government.
"While children are being dragged from the arms of their parents and held in detention camps under inhumane conditions, deportation agents are hunting down the rest of our immigrant community to drag even more people to the same camps," said Cristina Jiménez, executive director of the immigrant rights group United We Dream, in a statement.
Amid the media backlash, Trump fired off an inaccurate tweet blaming Democrats for "bad laws" that have led immigration authorities to break up families at the border. (No such law exists; Trump's own policies are causing families to be separated, according to fact checkers at The Associated Press.)
"The Trump Administration stated that family separation is required by law which is blatantly false," said Michelle Brané, director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women's Refugee Commission, in a statement. "Moreover, separating families is both inhumane and bad public policy. Not only does it exacerbate a mounting human rights crisis, it also puts an enormous strain on our already overburdened system."
Miller clarified the White House's position on Tuesday, claiming that the migrant "crisis" on the southern US border should be blamed on so-called "catch-and-release" loopholes in immigration law created by protections for migrants and their children, along with Democratic lawmakers who refuse to support the president's agenda.
The White House is particularly concerned with a 1997 consent decree that prevents law enforcement from detaining migrant children arriving with family members for longer than 20 days before handing them over to the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. In the past, authorities would sometimes choose not to detain undocumented immigrants arriving with children in order to keep families together.
Now that every adult accused of crossing the border illegally is being detained and prosecuted, all such families are being separated. Miller said Congress should solve this problem by terminating the agreement preventing children from being detained for longer than 20 days so families can be held in immigration jails together. He also asked lawmakers to allocate funding to expand detention facilities because many are already full of immigrants.
Family detention facilities -- particularly those run by private prison companies -- came under fire during the Obama administration for poor conditions and neglect. If the Trump administration has its way, more families would be held in such facilities as their cases wind through a system already experiencing serious backlogs, before eventually being sent back to countries ravaged by violence.
"Let's be clear, we are talking about parents doing what any parent would do and that's protecting their children," Brané said.
In a region where hurricanes are historically rare, at least 13 people have died after a powerful cyclone made landfall in southern Oman, drenching one city with more than two years' worth of rain in 24 hours. Experts warn that human-caused climate disruption will increase the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in coming years.
A picture taken on May 26, 2018, shows a car stuck in a flooded street in the southern city of Salalah as the country prepares for landfall of Cyclone Mekunu. (Photo: Mohammed Mahjoub / AFP / Getty Images)
On May 26, Cyclone Mekunu, the most powerful storm ever to strike Salalah, Oman, made landfall, killing at least 13 people.
Cyclones are uncommon in the Arabian Sea and off the Eastern African Coast, but that is changing, thanks to human-caused climate disruption. Their frequency and strength is increasing dramatically with each passing decade as the atmosphere continues to warm due to human fossil fuel emissions.
Cyclone Mekunu deluged Salalah, Oman's third-largest city, with more than two years' worth of rainfall in 24 hours. Salalah normally gets five inches of rain per year.
The storm, which packed gusts of up to 124 miles per hour (mph), tore apart buildings, downed street lights and turned normally bone-dry creek beds into raging rivers. Scenes of the devastation are apocalyptic.
Unfortunately, science shows us that this region must prepare for more of this to come, as climate disruption continues to shift planetary weather patterns in increasingly dramatic ways.The Science
Over the last two decades, the intensity of storms across the Arabian Sea has increased notably. As the already very warm waters of that area are warmed further (this year they are 2 degrees Celsius above normal), the amount of evaporation increases, which lends larger downpours and increasing strength to the cyclones.
While no single weather event can ever solely be attributed to human-caused climate disruption, science shows that higher ocean heat provides more energy for storms. Given that oceans have absorbed nearly all of the heat humans have generated in the atmosphere, the impact is obvious.
And this has been made clear in just the last few years. In 2015, Hurricane Patricia in the North Atlantic set a record (at that time) for the strongest winds at sea at 215 mph. The very next year, Winston became the strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
Hurricanes and cyclones function as a sort of relief valve of energy as they remove heat from tropical oceans in the form of moisture being drawn into the atmosphere where it is radiated back out into space. This keeps the oceans cooler, and no other phenomenon plays this role as hurricanes do.
Experts with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe human-caused climate disruption will cause stronger storms.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long since shown that there has been an increase in hurricane activity across the North Atlantic since the 1970s. While other areas of the globe may not necessarily see more hurricanes and cyclones, the strength of storms everywhere is highly likely to increase.
For example, storms with precipitation levels like Hurricane Harvey that deluged the Houston area in 2017 with record-breaking rainfall are expected to increase in strength, and also in frequency. That type of storm has already evolved to be expected once every 16 years instead of once every century.
IPCC research also already shows that there has been an increase in hurricane activity over the last four decades.
Hence, while overall around the globe the number of storms is not dramatically increasing, the strength of storms clearly is, given the fact that the oceans have absorbed nearly all of the increase in the planet's energy between 1971 and 2010.
Higher winds, higher storm surges, and dramatically increased downpours with hurricanes and cyclones around the world are now becoming the new normal, and these trends will all increase with time as human-caused climate disruption continues unchecked.