Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!
This is the cry heard around the world
Make it reverberate in San Francisco on December 15th!
December 15, 2022, 5:00 P.M.
Federal Building, San Francisco
Meet for the protest at 7th and Mission
Civic Center BART, exit 7th St.
Mumia Is innocent!
But this innocent, framed-up man has been held for over four decades in prison. Mumia is an internationally known political prisoner. As a former Black Panther and MOVE supporter, Mumia was framed for a crime he did not commit because he criticized the racist criminal justice system as a radio journalist. The evidence that should free him has now come to light, after being kept in the dark by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.
Now, he will hear a judgement on his case for freedom in the Philadelphia PA Court of Common Pleas on the 16th of December.
Initiated by The Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In order to bring Mutulu home to his family in California safely and comfortably, we must raise funds to cover several urgent costs. These costs include Mutulu’s ground transportation from the prison to the airport, medical air transport from Kentucky to Los Angeles to be reunited with his family, adding a wheelchair accessible ramp and other modifications to his home, healthcare to address existing and emerging urgent medical needs, and other costs associated with him returning home.
To make tax-deductible contributions to his release fund, please donate through:
Community Aid and Development Corporation
*The donation button is on the upper-right side of the page.
THANK YOU SO MUCH for your help in bringing Mutulu home!
And please circulate this good news and request to your friends and networks.
in solidarity,Linda Evans
Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal Update
The struggle continues!
At 12:45pm October 26, 2022, a proposed order denying Mumia Abu-Jamal’s constitutional claims of jury bias and suppressed evidence was issued by Common Pleas court Judge Lucretia Clemons.
Abu-Jamal’s defense petition included newly discovered evidence that had been buried in the prosecutor’s own files. This evidence documented key witnesses receiving promises of money for their testimony and evidence of favorable treatment in pending criminal cases. The petition also documented the abhorrent and unconstitutional practice of striking Black jurors during Mumia’s original trial.
Racism remains the ELEPHANT in the room.
“I am going to help them fry the n---word”--Original trial court Judge Albert Sabo said this in front of court clerk Terri Maurer Carter and fellow Common Pleas Court judge Richard Kline during the first week of Mumia’s 1982 trial.
Philadelphia ADA Jack McMahon made the policy clear in a 1986 training tape stating that getting “a competent, fair and impartial jury. Well, that's ridiculous,'…“You don't want smart people. But if you're sitting down and you're going to take Blacks, you want older Blacks." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag2I-L3mqsQ
If you put thick blinders on that block out all reality and rely on procedural minutia for cover, honestly, it is still impossible to avoid the scorchingly blatant racism of trial judge Albert Sabo, Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGill, Mayor and former police chief Frank Rizzo, District Attorney during Mumia’s trial Ed Rendell, and Ron Castille DA on appeal.
Yesterday, Judge Lucretia Clemons in her oral statements from the bench continued a common practice of adopting wholesale the Philadelphia District Attorney’s positions. These positions only seek to preserve convictions at all costs. These arguments prevent the defense from putting on the record evidence of discrimination. PCRA procedural rules such as time bar, due diligence, waiver, previously litigated, all avoid a judicial review of the merits.
The racism is so transparent and indefensible so the DA is using court created law to dismiss cases before hearing new suppressed evidence. This is a blatantly dishonest practice routinely used by the prosecution and the courts when everyone knows, and I mean everyone knows, that racism was a hallmark of the original trial.
Striking Blacks from the Jury
Judge Clemons stated that she was dismissing the claim of striking Black jurors on procedural grounds, without addressing the merits of the claim. She suggested that former counsel for the defense had not sought prosecutor McGill’s previously buried notes (notes that highlight his impermissible race based tracking and discrimination). Clemons adopts the prosecution position that the defense had the opportunity to receive these notes by merely asking the prosecution or cross examining ADA McGill in prior court proceedings. This is a key and deliberate misreading of the record. At no time were these crucial notes and the motivations that guided ADA McGill ever available to the defense. McGill struck Black jurors at a 71% rate, significantly higher than the strike rate for white jurors. His reasons for seating some white jurors and not seating nonwhite jurors were not on the record, they were in his notes.
One only has to look at the McMann training tapes that were made by the Philadelphia DA’s office which instructed district attorney’s how to strike black jurors. These were made after Mumia’s trial but they document the practice which was the norm in the office. This is the context for this ruling which misstates the record and ignores the reality in these Philadelphia courtrooms. Judge Lucretia Clemons and her law clerks complained on the record about how long it took them to find Pennsylvania cites to bolster their opinion. Why is Judge Clemons working so hard to avoid the elephant in the room?
Suborning Perjury: Paying Witnesses
Additionally, at issue is the note from supposed “eye witness” Robert Chobert that asked ADA McGill after the trial “where is the money that is owe to me?” This note was scrubbed from any filings and buried by the prosecution for 40 years. This dramatic “Brady evidence” previously unavailable to the defense, was dismissed by the Judge in her written opinion as not “being material.” Meaning it would not have affected the jury’s verdict. Underlying this is the wholesale adoption of the credibility determinations of the original trial court judge Albert “I am going to help them fry the n---word” Sabo. It allows his racist tainted rulings to stand.
She also dismissed records from ADA McGill that extensively track and monitor another key witness Cynthia White, who’s pending criminal cases were ALL were dropped by the prosecution following her testimony.
How can the court ignore the context. Note this information which follows had been previously prevented from being added to the record by Albert Sabo and other judges on appeal:
Photos from the Philadelphia Bulletin that prove Robert “I was on probation, did not have a license to drive a cab, and threw a Molotov cocktail into a school for pay” Chobert was not parked at the scene of the shooting. Chobert could not have witnessed the shooting. He was NOT parked directly behind the officer’s car as he claimed to be. The answer is: because the PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) allows the dismissal of this critical evidence through by time bar.
Finally, Judge Lucretia Clemons admonished the defense to limit their briefs challenging her proposed ruling to cite Pennsylvania law. It is commonly understood here, rather than being the birthplace of liberty, Pennsylvania is the place where the US Supreme Courts constitutional standards for criminal defendants are the very last place to be honored.
This case proves that racism reigns unabated in the American justice system, Mumia Abu-Jamal is the canary in the coal mine.
Judge Clemons’ 31pg proposed opinion will be available today, 10-27-22. The Defense has 20 days to reply, and prosecution given 10 additional days to respond before the court’s order dismissing Mumia’s request for a new trial becomes final and appealable.
Mumia Abu-Jamal has spent 42 years in prison for the death of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner on Dec. 9th 1981. He has maintained his innocence and has sought his freedom by appealing to the very courts that now seek to preserve his unjust and unconstitutional conviction. At age 67 he has spent 42 years in prison.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a broadcast journalist and internationally recognized author. Mr. Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence at SCI Mahanoy in Pennsylvania. He is the author of 13 books, holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature and is currently working on the requirements to complete a PhD in the History of Consciousness Department at University of California Santa Cruz.
Noelle Hanrahan, Esq. email@example.com 415-793-7958 www. Prisonradio.org
Every act matters. Stand up. Join us as we launch Love Not Phear.
Cuando luchamos ganamos, When We Fight, We Win
Prison Radio Co-Director
Urgent support needed for cancer-stricken, imprisoned writer/artist, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s Legal Fund!
Fundraiser for an attorney to represent Rashid’s struggle for medical care
Sign the petition:
If extradited to the United States, Julian Assange, father of two young British children, would face a sentence of 175 years in prison merely for receiving and publishing truthful information that revealed US war crimes.
UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that "it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America".
Amnesty International states, “Were Julian Assange to be extradited or subjected to any other transfer to the USA, Britain would be in breach of its obligations under international law.”
Human Rights Watch says, “The only thing standing between an Assange prosecution and a major threat to global media freedom is Britain. It is urgent that it defend the principles at risk.”
The NUJ has stated that the “US charges against Assange pose a huge threat, one that could criminalise the critical work of investigative journalists & their ability to protect their sources”.
Julian will not survive extradition to the United States.
The UK is required under its international obligations to stop the extradition. Article 4 of the US-UK extradition treaty says: "Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense."
The decision to either Free Assange or send him to his death is now squarely in the political domain. The UK must not send Julian to the country that conspired to murder him in London.
The United Kingdom can stop the extradition at any time. It must comply with Article 4 of the US-UK Extradition Treaty and Free Julian Assange.
Recently I’ve started working with the Coalition to Free Ruchell Magee. On March 17, Ruchell turned 83. He’s been imprisoned for 59 years, and now walks with a walker. He is no threat to society if released. Ruchell was in the Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970, the morning Jonathan Jackson took it over in an effort to free his older brother, the internationally known revolutionary prison writer, George Jackson. Ruchell joined Jonathan and was the only survivor of the shooting that ensued. He has been locked up ever since and denied parole 13 times. On March 19, the Coalition to Free Ruchell Magee held a webinar for Ruchell for his 83rd birthday, which was a terrific event full of information and plans for building the campaign to Free Ruchell. (For information about his case, please visit: www.freeruchellmagee.org.)
Below are two ways to stream this historic webinar, plus
• a petition you can sign
• a portal to send a letter to Governor Newsom
• a Donate button to support his campaign
• a link to our campaign website.
Please take a moment and help.
Note: We will soon have t-shirts to sell to raise money for legal expenses.
Here is the YouTube link to view the March 19 Webinar:
Here is the Facebook link:
Sign the petition to Free Ruchell:
Write to Governor Newsom’s office:
No one ever hurt their eyes by looking on the bright side
Tell Congress to Help #FreeDanielHale
Laws are created to be followed
by the poor.
Laws are made by the rich
to bring some order to exploitation.
The poor are the only law abiders in history.
When the poor make laws
the rich will be no more.
—Roque Dalton Presente!
(May 14, 1935 – Assassinated May 10, 1975)
 Roque Dalton was a Salvadoran poet, essayist, journalist, political activist, and intellectual. He is considered one of Latin America's most compelling poets.
“In His Defense” The People vs. Kevin Cooper
A film by Kenneth A. Carlson
Teaser is now streaming at:
Posted by: Death Penalty Focus Blog, January 10, 2022
“In his Defense,” a documentary on the Kevin Cooper case, is in the works right now, and California filmmaker Kenneth Carlson has released a teaser for it on CarlsonFilms.com
Just over seven months ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered an independent investigation of Cooper’s death penalty case. At the time, he explained that, “In cases where the government seeks to impose the ultimate punishment of death, I need to be satisfied that all relevant evidence is carefully and fairly examined.”
That investigation is ongoing, with no word from any of the parties involved on its progress.
Cooper has been on death row since 1985 for the murder of four people in San Bernardino County in June 1983. Prosecutors said Cooper, who had escaped from a minimum-security prison and had been hiding out near the scene of the murder, killed Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes, a friend who was spending the night at the Ryen’s. The lone survivor of the attack, eight-year-old Josh Ryen, was severely injured but survived.
For over 36 years, Cooper has insisted he is innocent, and there are serious questions about evidence that was missing, tampered with, destroyed, possibly planted, or hidden from the defense. There were multiple murder weapons, raising questions about how one man could use all of them, killing four people and seriously wounding one, in the amount of time the coroner estimated the murders took place.
The teaser alone gives a good overview of the case, and helps explain why so many believe Cooper was wrongfully convicted.
Sign our petition urging President Biden to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier.
Address: 116 W. Osborne Ave. Tampa, Florida 33603
How long will he still be with us? How long will the genocide continue?
By Michael Moore—VIA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
American Indian Movement leader, Leonard Peltier, at 77 years of age, came down with Covid-19 this weekend. Upon hearing this, I broke down and cried. An innocent man, locked up behind bars for 44 years, Peltier is now America’s longest-held political prisoner. He suffers in prison tonight even though James Reynolds, one of the key federal prosecutors who sent Peltier off to life in prison in 1977, has written to President Biden and confessed to his role in the lies, deceit, racism and fake evidence that together resulted in locking up our country’s most well-known Native American civil rights leader. Just as South Africa imprisoned for more than 27 years its leading voice for freedom, Nelson Mandela, so too have we done the same to a leading voice and freedom fighter for the indigenous people of America. That’s not just me saying this. That’s Amnesty International saying it. They placed him on their political prisoner list years ago and continue to demand his release.
And it’s not just Amnesty leading the way. It’s the Pope who has demanded Leonard Peltier’s release. It’s the Dalai Lama, Jesse Jackson, and the President Pro-Tempore of the US Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy. Before their deaths, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and Bishop Desmond Tutu pleaded with the United States to free Leonard Peltier. A worldwide movement of millions have seen their demands fall on deaf ears.
And now the calls for Peltier to be granted clemency in DC have grown on Capitol Hill. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), the head of the Senate committee who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has also demanded Peltier be given his freedom. Numerous House Democrats have also written to Biden.
The time has come for our President to act; the same President who appointed the first-ever Native American cabinet member last year and who halted the building of the Keystone pipeline across Native lands. Surely Mr. Biden is capable of an urgent act of compassion for Leonard Peltier — especially considering that the prosecutor who put him away in 1977 now says Peltier is innocent, and that his US Attorney’s office corrupted the evidence to make sure Peltier didn’t get a fair trial. Why is this victim of our judicial system still in prison? And now he is sick with Covid.
For months Peltier has begged to get a Covid booster shot. Prison officials refused. The fact that he now has COVID-19 is a form of torture. A shame hangs over all of us. Should he now die, are we all not complicit in taking his life?
President Biden, let Leonard Peltier go. This is a gross injustice. You can end it. Reach deep into your Catholic faith, read what the Pope has begged you to do, and then do the right thing.
For those of you reading this, will you join me right now in appealing to President Biden to free Leonard Peltier? His health is in deep decline, he is the voice of his people — a people we owe so much to for massacring and imprisoning them for hundreds of years.
The way we do mass incarceration in the US is abominable. And Leonard Peltier is not the only political prisoner we have locked up. We have millions of Black and brown and poor people tonight in prison or on parole and probation — in large part because they are Black and brown and poor. THAT is a political act on our part. Corporate criminals and Trump run free. The damage they have done to so many Americans and people around the world must be dealt with.
This larger issue is one we MUST take on. For today, please join me in contacting the following to show them how many millions of us demand that Leonard Peltier has suffered enough and should be free:
President Joe Biden
E-mail: At this link
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland
Attorney General Merrick Garland
E-mail: At this link
I’ll end with the final verse from the epic poem “American Names” by Stephen Vincent Benet:
I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
PS. Also — watch the brilliant 1992 documentary by Michael Apted and Robert Redford about the framing of Leonard Peltier— “Incident at Oglala”
By Margaret Atwood*
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
*Witten by the woman who wrote a novel about Christian fascists taking over the U.S. and enslaving women. Prescient!
Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. Department of Labor
For release 10:00 a.m. (ET) Thursday, January 20, 2022
(202) 691-6378 • email@example.com • www.bls.gov/cps
(202) 691-5902 • PressOffice@bls.gov
In 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions continued to decline (-241,000) to 14.0 million, and the percent who were members of unions—the union membership rate—was 10.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The rate is down from 10.8 percent in 2020—when the rate increased due to a disproportionately large decline in the total number of nonunion workers compared with the decline in the number of union members. The 2021 unionization rate is the same as the 2019 rate of 10.3 percent. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.
These data on union membership are collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 eligible households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation’s civilian noninstitutional population age 16 and over. For further information, see the Technical Note in this news release.
Highlights from the 2021 data:
• The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers (6.1 percent). (See table 3.)
• The highest unionization rates were among workers in education, training, and library occupations (34.6 percent) and protective service occupations (33.3 percent). (See table 3.)
• Men continued to have a higher union membership rate (10.6 percent) than women (9.9 percent). The gap between union membership rates for men and women has narrowed considerably since 1983 (the earliest year for which comparable data are available), when rates for men and women were 24.7 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively. (See table 1.)
• Black workers remained more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers. (See table 1.)
• Nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 83 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($975 versus $1,169). (The comparisons of earnings in this news release are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that can be important in explaining earnings differences.) (See table 2.)
• Among states, Hawaii and New York continued to have the highest union membership rates (22.4 percent and 22.2 percent, respectively), while South Carolina and North Carolina continued to have the lowest (1.7 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively). (See table 5.)
Industry and Occupation of Union Members
In 2021, 7.0 million employees in the public sector belonged to unions, the same as in the private sector. (See table 3.)
Union membership decreased by 191,000 over the year in the public sector. The public-sector union membership rate declined by 0.9 percentage point in 2021 to 33.9 percent, following an increase of 1.2 percentage points in 2020. In 2021, the union membership rate continued to be highest in local government (40.2 percent), which employs many workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as police officers, firefighters, and teachers.
The number of union workers employed in the private sector changed little over the year. However, the number of private-sector nonunion workers increased in 2021. The private-sector unionization rate declined by 0.2 percentage point in 2021 to 6.1 percent, slightly lower than its 2019 rate of 6.2 percent. Industries with high unionization rates included utilities (19.7 percent), motion pictures and sound recording industries (17.3 percent), and transportation and warehousing (14.7 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in finance (1.2 percent), professional and technical services (1.2 percent), food services and drinking places (1.2 percent), and insurance (1.5 percent).
Among occupational groups, the highest unionization rates in 2021 were in education, training, and library occupations (34.6 percent) and protective service occupations (33.3 percent). Unionization rates were lowest in food preparation and serving related occupations (3.1 percent); sales and related occupations (3.3 percent); computer and mathematical occupations (3.7 percent); personal care and service occupations (3.9 percent); and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (4.0 percent).
Selected Characteristics of Union Members
In 2021, the number of men who were union members, at 7.5 million, changed little, while the number of women who were union members declined by 182,000 to 6.5 million. The unionization rate for men decreased by 0.4 percentage point over the year to 10.6 percent. In 2021, women’s union membership rate declined by 0.6 percentage point to 9.9 percent. The 2021 decreases in union membership rates for men and women reflect increases in the total number of nonunion workers. The rate for men is below the 2019 rate (10.8 percent), while the rate for women is above the 2019 rate (9.7 percent). (See table 1.)
Among major race and ethnicity groups, Black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate in 2021 (11.5 percent) than White workers (10.3 percent), Asian workers (7.7 percent), and Hispanic workers (9.0 percent). The union membership rate declined by 0.4 percentage point for White workers, by 0.8 percentage point for Black workers, by 1.2 percentage points for Asian workers, and by 0.8 percentage point for Hispanic workers. The 2021 rates for Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics are little or no different from 2019, while the rate for Asians is lower.
By age, workers ages 45 to 54 had the highest union membership rate in 2021, at 13.1 percent. Younger workers—those ages 16 to 24—had the lowest union membership rate, at 4.2 percent.
In 2021, the union membership rate for full-time workers (11.1 percent) continued to be considerably higher than that for part-time workers (6.1 percent).
In 2021, 15.8 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union, 137,000 less than in 2020. The percentage of workers represented by a union was 11.6 percent, down by 0.5 percentage point from 2020 but the same as in 2019. Workers represented by a union include both union members (14.0 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.8 million). (See table 1.)
Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,169 in 2021, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $975. In addition to coverage by a collective bargaining agreement, these earnings differences reflect a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, age, firm size, or geographic region. (See tables 2 and 4.)
Union Membership by State
In 2021, 30 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average, 10.3 percent, while 20 states had rates above it. All states in both the East South Central and West South Central divisions had union membership rates below the national average, while all states in both the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions had rates above it. (See table 5 and chart 1.)
Ten states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2021. South Carolina had the lowest rate (1.7 percent), followed by North Carolina (2.6 percent) and Utah (3.5 percent). Two states had union membership rates over 20.0 percent in 2021: Hawaii (22.4 percent) and New York (22.2 percent).
In 2021, about 30 percent of the 14.0 million union members lived in just two states (California at 2.5 million and New York at 1.7 million). However, these states accounted for about 17 percent of wage and salary employment nationally.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Impact on 2021 Union Members Data
Union membership data for 2021 continue to reflect the impact on the labor market of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Comparisons with union membership measures for 2020, including metrics such as the union membership rate and median usual weekly earnings, should be interpreted with caution. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 led to an increase in the unionization rate due to a disproportionately large decline in the number of nonunion workers compared with the decline in the number of union members. The decrease in the rate in 2021 reflects a large gain in the number of nonunion workers and a decrease in the number of union workers. More information on labor market developments in recent months is available at:
Resources for Resisting Federal Repression
Since June of 2020, activists have been subjected to an increasingly aggressive crackdown on protests by federal law enforcement. The federal response to the movement for Black Lives has included federal criminal charges for activists, door knocks by federal law enforcement agents, and increased use of federal troops to violently police protests.
The NLG National Office is releasing this resource page for activists who are resisting federal repression. It includes a link to our emergency hotline numbers, as well as our library of Know-Your-Rights materials, our recent federal repression webinar, and a list of some of our recommended resources for activists. We will continue to update this page.
If you are contacted by federal law enforcement you should exercise all of your rights. It is always advisable to speak to an attorney before responding to federal authorities.
State and Local Hotlines
If you have been contacted by the FBI or other federal law enforcement, in one of the following areas, you may be able to get help or information from one of these local NLG hotlines for:
If you are located in an area with no hotline, you can call the following number:
Know Your Rights Materials
The NLG maintains a library of basic Know-Your-Rights guides.
WEBINAR: Federal Repression of Activists & Their Lawyers: Legal & Ethical Strategies to Defend Our Movements: presented by NLG-NYC and NLG National Office
We also recommend the following resources:
Movement for Black Lives Legal Resources
By Nicole Eustace, Nov. 30, 2022
Dr. Eustace is a professor of history at New York University. Her book “Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America” received a Pulitzer Prize in history this year and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2021.
A moose-antler comb believed to have been created by a Susquehannock or Seneca artist in the late 17th or early 18th century may be emblematic of a Haudenosaunee commitment to achieving diplomatic accord with settler colonists. Credit...Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection API
Three hundred years ago, leaders of three British colonies and representatives of the Indigenous nations known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy gathered in Albany, N.Y., to sign what is the oldest continuously recognized treaty in colonial American and United States law. They sought to resolve a crisis that colonists believed could convulse the continent like no other: the brutal murder of a Seneca hunter named Sawantaeny by a pair of white fur traders, the brothers John and Edmund Cartlidge.
Colonists feared that violence would spark a war with the confederacy and threaten the British Empire in North America. But the gathered Haudenosaunees had set their minds on peace, not war. The treaty the two sides negotiated and signed that September contained a Haudenosaunee vision of reparative justice that set aside every anxious expectation of the colonists. Yet its contents came to be buried by the passage of time as surely as Sawantaeny’s body was covered with earth.
When we learn as students about the founding documents of the United States, we seldom hear about the Great Treaty of 1722, even though it is the oldest treaty still recognized by the U.S. State Department. The ideals espoused by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other colonial revolutionaries are central to the story of the nation’s founding. But what’s been largely forgotten are the extensive statements on justice that Indigenous people advanced in carefully composed speeches made at treaty conferences. These records of diplomatic meetings are as much a part of our national heritage as the familiar writings of Revolutionary-era leaders.
What’s distinctive about the Treaty of 1722 is the alternative approach it offered to creating a fair society, one in which people who commit crimes can later be reintegrated into the community — and one in which a crisis of violence can be resolved without inflicting further harm. The treaty provided a working model of restorative justice, demonstrating how communities of the victims and the perpetrators of a crime can come together to repair social relationships through economic, emotional and spiritual offerings. The story has applications today, demonstrating that criminal justice reforms that may sound radical now, as they are pursued by a wide range of community activists, researchers, educators, legislative reformers and progressive jurists, actually have a long American tradition.
On a freezing February afternoon in 1722, John Cartlidge and his younger brother Edmund rode their horses up the Susquehanna River Valley in what today is Pennsylvania but was then Native ground to the cabin where Sawantaeny lived with his Shawnee wife, Weenepeeweytah. The Cartlidge brothers had hoped to bargain for a large assortment of deerskins and fur pelts that Sawantaeny had accumulated. But after a long night of drinking and haggling without success beside a winter campfire, the brothers came to blows with Sawantaeny.
They beat him to death, then galloped off into the woods. John Cartlidge was the justice of the peace in nearby Chester County, and he, for one, knew just what sort of harsh punishment they could expect from British colonial justice, with its emphasis on guilt, punishment and retribution: jailing in Philadelphia’s prison house attic, a trial in the neighboring brick courthouse and then a trip to the gallows. They were later captured and jailed in Philadelphia to await their fate.
But the Native people of the Susquehanna River Valley — a multicultural, multilingual group of many different Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking nations — told the British that their preferred remedy was reparations, not retribution. Their position on the fate of the Cartlidge brothers set off a debate with the colonists about the true nature of justice that stretched on for more than six months as each side argued over which culture’s legal customs would be followed.
At a meeting in Philadelphia to try to resolve the crisis, Native diplomats explained to William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania, that the Haudenosaunees expected Native practices to prevail in resolving the murder. One of those diplomats, Satcheechoe, a member of the Cayuga nation, presented the Haudenosaunees’ view. He demanded that the governor travel to Albany to join British and Haudenosaunee leaders there in working out a treaty between the two and to pay his respects in person to the Native representatives. Only a formal visit could satisfy Haudenosaunee protocols, which required the expression of formal condolences, participation in spiritual rituals of community renewal and the payment of trade goods as reparations.
Then Satcheechoe added a final explicit instruction to the governor: The Haudenosaunees, he said, “desire John Cartlidge may not die for this. They would not have him killed.” Governor Keith argued that “the laws of our great king” did not allow for setting a killer free, insisting that “such a man by our laws must die.” But Satcheechoe made the Native position clear: “One life is enough to be lost. There should not two die.”
In September of 1722, Governor Keith traveled to Albany to meet with the Haudenosaunees and delegations from the colonies of Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. Because all of the assembled were at peace with one another, Native leaders argued that it made no sense to pursue vengeance. Rather, a representative of the gathered members of what were then five confederated nations of Haudenosaunees explained, “we do in the name of all the Five Nations forgive the offense and desire you will likewise forgive it.” The Haudenosaunee representative asked that the Cartlidges “be released from prison and set at liberty.” Governor Keith responded that he would fulfill their request “in order to confirm the friendship that is so happily renewed and established by this treaty.”
As a further diplomatic courtesy, the Haudenosaunees offered to confirm the colonists’ Pennsylvania land claims. This offer explains why colonists safeguarded the treaty and passed it down through the centuries from the British Empire to Revolutionary America and the U.S. State Department today.
British leaders never wanted to reveal to their colonists how closely they had been forced to adhere to Native principles of justice, nor to acknowledge Native arguments against incarceration and capital punishment. Instead, as he sent a copy of the treaty off to the British Board of Trade to be archived, Governor William Burnet of New York pretended that English law had determined the outcome and that Governor Keith had decided against prosecuting the Cartlidges only because of a lack of admissible evidence, not because he admitted the validity of the Native position.
The month of November has been celebrated as Native American Heritage Month, certainly an appropriate time to recall the Great Treaty of 1722 and its lessons, still fresh after 300 years. As movements for criminal justice reform seek new momentum, it is time to resurrect Native principles of justice and reconsider this treaty in a new light.
The request for Congress to impose contract terms that several unions had rejected rankled rank-and-file members who had rallied behind the president.
By Noam Scheiber, Nov. 30, 2022
Rail workers at a train yard in Atlanta. Credit...Dustin Chambers for The New York Times
As the legislative representative for his local union, Gabe Christenson, a longtime freight railroad conductor, worked hard to help elect Joe Biden president in 2020. “I have shirts of me campaigning — blue-collar Biden shirts,” he said. “I knocked on doors for him for weeks and weeks.”
But since Monday, when President Biden urged Congress to impose a labor agreement that his union had voted down, Mr. Christenson has been besieged by texts from furious co-workers whom he had encouraged to support the president. “I’m trying to calm them down,” he said.
Mr. Biden said he was taking action to avoid a nationwide strike that would threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and that the industry estimates would cost the economy more than $2 billion per day.
But for many of the more than 100,000 freight rail workers whose unions have been negotiating a new labor contract since 2020, Mr. Biden’s involvement amounts to putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the industry.
They say the rail carriers have enormous market power to set wages and working conditions, power that is enhanced by a federal law that greatly restricts their right to strike compared with most private-sector workers. They complain that after waiting patiently through multiple procedural steps, including a presidential emergency board, they had a narrow window to improve their contract through a labor stoppage and that Mr. Biden has effectively closed that window.
“They should let the guys work it out for themselves,” said Rhonda Ewing, a signal maintainer in Chicago. “We know it’s holiday time, which is why it’s the perfect time to raise our voices. If Biden gets involved, he takes away our leverage.”
The agreement Mr. Biden asked Congress to impose would raise pay nearly 25 percent between 2020, when the last contract expired, and 2024, and allow employees to miss work for routine medical appointments three times per year without risking disciplinary action. It would also grant them one additional day of paid personal leave.
It would not provide paid sick leave, however, a provision that many workers argue is the bare minimum they can accept given their grueling work schedules, which often leave them on the road or on call for long stretches of time. Rail carriers say workers can attend to illnesses or medical appointments using paid vacation.
Four of the 12 unions that would be covered by the agreement voted it down, and several others approved it only narrowly.
Tony Cardwell, the president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division — International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which voted down the agreement Mr. Biden has asked Congress to impose, said that simply asking Congress to include paid sick days in the agreement would have gone a long way toward satisfying his members.
“If he would have said, ‘I want this one thing,’ it would have changed the whole narrative,” Mr. Cardwell said in an interview on Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members on Tuesday night that she would hold a vote on a separate bill that included seven paid sick days, but it was unclear whether it could pass both houses of Congress.
The sense of betrayal is especially acute because Mr. Biden has long portrayed himself as friendly to organized labor, and many union leaders regard him as the most labor-friendly president of their lifetimes thanks to his appointments and his support for regulations and legislation that they favor.
Daniel Kindlon, an electrician who works at a rail yard near Albany, N.Y., and is the head of his local union, said that while he is not a huge supporter of the president, he was impressed when Mr. Biden spoke at the electrician union’s convention in Chicago this spring.
“It was the best 45 minutes I’ve heard him talk,” Mr. Kindlon said. Yet he said he struggled to understand why Mr. Biden couldn’t have pushed Congress to go further.
“You would think he would just try to get them to throw in a couple days of sick time; that’s really all the guys were asking for,” he said.
Several union members and local officials said they had urged co-workers who had previously supported Donald Trump to back Mr. Biden, arguing that they he would be friendlier to labor. They said that these co-workers had reached out to complain about what they saw as Mr. Biden’s about-face since Monday, though it was unclear how many of these union members had voted for the current president.
“Many Trump voters calling me out for endorsing Biden,” said Matthew A. Weaver, a carpenter with rail maintenance employees union, said by text Tuesday night. Mr. Weaver previously worked as an official for his union in Ohio.
Many union members have long suspected that Congress would intervene to prevent them from striking. Mr. Kindlon said several members of his local union abstained from voting on the tentative contract this fall because they didn’t believe their vote mattered. Many took the view that “this is going to get jammed down our throat anyways; why do I care?” he said.
Many who placed their hopes in Mr. Biden assumed that they would not be allowed to strike for very long, but reasoned that even a brief strike lasting several hours, or the mere threat of one, would have been sufficient to extract more concessions from the rail carriers.
“I mean, that would have looked way better,” said Mr. Christenson, the longtime conductor. “Even if he had ulterior motives, let us have our day. He could show he was with us.”
Mr. Cardwell, of the maintenance workers union, said that “the fact that he did it so early” was surprising, given that there was still roughly a week or more to potentially extract concessions before a strike would have occurred.
Robert Chiarito contributed reporting.
By Jennifer Bendery, Dec 1, 2022
Indigenous actors Sierra Teller Ornelas and Jana Schmieding attend the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards in March. They led the letter to Biden urging clemency for Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier. AMY SUSSMAN VIA GETTY IMAGES
More than 200 Indigenous artists and Hollywood celebrities pleaded with President Joe Biden on Thursday to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, the ailing 78-year-old Native American rights activist whom the U.S. government put in prison 47 years ago after a trial rife with misconduct, lies and racism.
“We write to you today in support of Leonard Peltier’s petition for executive clemency and urge you to expeditiously commute the remainder of his sentence,” reads the letter to the president led by six Indigenous actors, writers and fashion professionals. “Nothing is more emblematic of the mistreatment of American Indians and the uneven hand of the criminal justice system than the handling of his case by the federal government.”
The letter, first obtained by HuffPost, warns that Peltier “is elderly and in failing health, and we fear he will not ever make it back to his homelands” at Turtle Mountain in North Dakota.
“Leonard is not only a symbol of Indigenous pride, he is also our relative. And his homecoming is imperative to our collective healing,” they added.
The letter was spearheaded by Indigenous artists Dallas Goldtooth, Bird Runningwater, Jana Schmieding, Sierra Teller Ornelas, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Bethany Yellowtail. Some of the non-Indigenous allies who signed the letter include actors and artists Mark Ruffalo, Ani DiFranco, Ed Helms, America Ferrera, Jackson Browne, Michael Moore, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, Tanya Tucker and Steven Van Zandt.
Many consider Peltier to be America’s longest-serving political prisoner. He’s been in prison since 1975, when the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office convicted him of murdering two FBI agents during a shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
But the U.S. government never had evidence that Peltier committed a crime, and the level of misconduct that went on in his trial is baffling: Prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. A juror admitted she was biased against Peltier’s race on the second day of the trial but was allowed to stay on anyway. His co-defendants were acquitted on self-defense grounds, but Peltier was singled out for different treatment.
It didn’t get any fairer once he was in prison. His decadeslong parole process has been so problematic that United Nations legal experts recently reviewed his case and, over the summer, called on Biden to release him immediately. The working group concluded in a damning 17-page legal opinion: “Mr. Peltier continues to be detained because he is Native American.”
The more time that’s gone by, the more details have emerged underscoring how problematic Peltier’s conviction and imprisonment have been. In an extraordinary letter to Biden last year, James Reynolds, the U.S. attorney who oversaw Peltier’s prosecution on appeal, wrote, “I write today from a position rare for a former prosecutor: to beseech you to commute the sentence of a man who I helped put behind bars.”
And the late U.S. Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over Peltier’s 1986 appeal, later called for commuting his sentence, saying his trial was unjust and that “a healing process must begin.”
Advocates for Peltier’s freedom over the years have included Native American elected officials, celebrities like Steven Van Zandt, international human rights leaders like Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela, and Amnesty International, a group that typically fights human rights abuses against people outside of the United States.
“President Biden should free Leonard Peltier! 47 years of injustice - @POTUS the world calls on you to #FreeLeonardPeltier,” Amnesty International tweeted Thursday.
The letter from Indigenous artists comes a day after seven U.S. senators appealed to the president to show mercy and grant clemency to Peltier.
“Mr. Peltier’s continued imprisonment defies the promises of justice, and the power to exercise mercy in this case lies solely within your discretion,” reads the letter from Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Tina Smith (Minn.).
The plea from Indigenous artists also follows Biden addressing tribal leaders at his much-heralded White House Tribal Nations Summit. During the event, the president ticked off all that he’s done for Indian Country, but noticeably said nothing about Peltier’s ongoing imprisonment.
A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Indigenous artists’ letter or on whether Biden is considering clemency for Peltier.
The move appeared to be a concession to the protest movement that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was being held by the morality police for supposedly violating Islamic dress rules.
By Vivian Yee, Dec. 4, 2022
Enforcing the Islamic dress code near Tehran, in 2007. Credit...Behrouz Mehri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Iran is abolishing the morality police, according to an announcement by the attorney general carried on state media, following months of protests set off by the death of a young woman who was being held by the force for supposedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress laws.
The decision, reported by state news outlets late Saturday night, appeared to be a major victory for feminists who have sought for years to dismantle the force and for the protest movement ignited by the death of the young woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, in September. The unrest has amounted to one of the biggest challenges in decades to Iran’s system of authoritarian clerical rule and the decision to scrap the morality police was the government’s first major concession to the protesters.
The morality police “was abolished by the same authorities who installed it,” the statement by Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri said, according to state media reports. But he went on to suggest that the judiciary would still enforce restrictions on “social behavior.” He also indicated that the authorities were reviewing the head scarf regulations.
But it was not immediately clear what impact these changes would have on enforcement of the dress code or whether the authorities were planning to relax the hijab law, which remained in place.
The primary role of the morality police was to enforce the laws related to Iran’s conservative Islamic dress code, imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and recently invigorated by the country’s new ultraconservative president. The dress code for women became an ideological pillar of the ruling clerical establishment, central to its identity.
The restrictions require women to cover their bodies in long, loose clothing and their hair with a head scarf or hijab. Despite mass protests, long black robes and chadors, a black head-covering that reaches down the chest, became the norm for women.
When Ms. Amini died in custody after being arrested by the morality police on a Tehran street, the nationwide protests that followed focused initially on the Islamic dress laws.
The protests, now in their third month, have been led by women and young people demanding an end to clerical rule and greater social freedom, tapping into years of pent-up anger. Protesters chanted “woman, life, freedom,” tore off their hijabs, burned them in street bonfires and cut their hair in symbolic acts of defiance.
University students chanted “Killings after killings, to hell with morality police!”
But the protests soon grew to encompass the entire range of discontents with Iran’s ruling establishment, making it unclear whether protesters would be satisfied with this concession.
Demonstrators fed up with political repression, censorship, corruption and economic mismanagement have called for an end to the Islamic Republic. They have taken aim directly at the most powerful man in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom they want removed from power.
In recent years, Iranian women had grown bolder within the constraints of the dress law, embracing colorful robes, barely covering their hair in loose wraps and, in some cases, even letting their head scarves drop onto their shoulders, baring their hair. Though the morality police still roamed the streets, enforcement appeared spotty.
Women’s rights activists led the way in carving out greater flexibility around the hijab, defying the law with protests in which they exposed their hair in videos posted to social media or in the street. But after the election of a new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, last year, the government cracked down.
In the months before the protests began in mid-September, videos of the morality police dragging women into vans bound for re-education centers — in one case, while the woman’s mother begged them to stop — had stirred fresh outrage among Iranians.
In September, the United States imposed sanctions on the morality police.
Security forces have responded to the protest movement with a crackdown that has left hundreds dead, and the government has threatened harsh punishment for dissent — including executions.
Rights groups say that at least 300 people have been killed since the protests began, including 50 minors, and the United Nations has said that some 14,000 people have been arrested. The government says at least 30 members of the security forces have been killed.
The tensions seeped into the World Cup, where Iranian players tried to find a middle ground between protesters urging them to use their platform and a government intolerant of dissent.
The team tested limits in Qatar, declining to sing the national anthem before its opening game, only to adjust, days later, and appear to grudgingly go through the motions before another match.
The U.S. Soccer Federation raised the stakes by posting on social media a group standings table with an altered version of the Iranian flag, stripped of the country’s official emblem and without lines of Islamic script. A spokesman for the federation said the change was a show of support for Iranian women, but the posts were then deleted.
Iran’s federation responded angrily, calling on FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, to expel the United States from the competition. Iran failed to qualify for the knockout stage of the tournament.
Emma Bubola contributed reporting from London.
By Elisabeth Schimpfössl and Felix Sandalov, Dec. 4, 2022
Ms. Schimpfössl is the author of “Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie.” Mr. Sandalov is the editor in chief of Individuum Publishing.
The cover of “Summer in a Pioneer Tie,” a young adult novel that has been a sensation in Russia.
In the summer of 1986, Yury, a shy 16-year-old, arrives at a Young Pioneer camp in Crimea, dreading the many dull weeks ahead of him. There’s only one thing that cheers him up: his group leader Volodya, a 19-year-old undergraduate. Slowly, the two boys fall in love. Against a backdrop of danger — if their clandestine relationship is found out, they could face a five-year prison sentence — they tentatively discover their sexuality. After the summer, their lives drift apart. They don’t see each other for 20 years until Yury, spurred on by the discovery of a hidden cache of love letters, goes on a search to find Volodya.
That’s the plot of “Summer in a Pioneer Tie,” the debut young adult novel by Elena Malisova and Katerina Silvanova. Initially published on a fan-fiction site, the novel was discovered by Popcorn Books, an imprint focusing on queer fiction. (Popcorn is one of two imprints at an independent publisher; one of us, Mr. Sandalov, runs the other, which is editorially separate.) Since its release in late 2021, the book has been a sensation: It sold over 200,000 copies in the first six months and generated exceptional hype. On TikTok, where teenage fans have organized flash mobs and designed all manner of merchandise, novel-related posts have attracted more than 250 million views.
The book is more than a breakout hit. It is also the catalyst for the latest legislative assault on L.G.B.T.Q. rights in Russia. Last week, the country’s parliament endorsed a draconian law banning “L.G.B.T. propaganda” among all adults — criminalizing the promotion of homosexuality in public and online, or in books, films and advertising. Behind it, as one author of the bill made clear, was a desire to bridle “Summer in a Pioneer Tie” and books like it. Remarkably, in the midst of a disastrous war, Russia’s legislators are focusing their ire on a lyrical coming-of-age novel.
The novel itself is straightforward. Simply, even plainly, written, the book sensitively charts the process of falling in love for the first time. The relationship between Yury and Vladimir, blossoming in difficult circumstances, is tenderly described. It is, at heart, a classic story of young love triumphing, however briefly, against the odds.
The innocent depiction of first love between young men, however, threatens the Kremlin’s yearslong efforts to vilify everything gay. The result has been panic. Zakhar Prilepin, a militant nationalist writer, suggested that the publishing house’s Moscow office should be burned down. Nikita Mikhalkov, a major film director and actor, lambasted the book as a conspiracy directed by a degenerate West. Vitaly Milonov, a member of parliament, thought it best to hand over Popcorn’s staff to the Ukrainian Army where, he said, they would be at home among fellow degenerates.
Aleksandr Khinshtein, a parliamentary deputy and hard-line member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, took matters into his own hands. Believing portrayals of L.G.B.T.Q. people to be “a weapon of hybrid warfare” and that “Russia’s civilization is a bulwark of traditional values,” Mr. Khinshtein composed a bill to cover all age groups and a wide variety of supposed offenses, such as the depiction of “nontraditional sexual relationships,” undermining “traditional family values” and even the inducement of pedophilic urges.
His efforts met with great enthusiasm: The bill was passed unanimously, without a single abstention, and is likely to become law in a few days. For the generation now ruling Russia, which grew up in the Soviet Union, it’s personal: Many remember their summer Pioneer camps with warm nostalgia and see the book as an attempt to drag their past through the mud.
This crackdown comes in an atmosphere of increased repression, as the Kremlin clamps down on dissent. In July, the “foreign-agent” bill — first passed in 2012 and, since early 2021, systematically used to muzzle independent media and journalists — was amended to include anybody “under foreign influence.” Book publishers have already got a taste of what to expect. In late October, the Kremlin added two names from the publishing world to their list: Alexey Dokuchaev and Andrey Baev, the founders of Popcorn Books. (To continue functioning, Popcorn had to part with them to avoid being declared a foreign agent by association.)
Taken together, the bills amount to a wholesale crackdown on the few L.G.B.T.Q. and free speech rights left in the country. Organizations deemed to be in breach of the new rules must cease operations for 90 days, which would force most bookstores and movie theaters out of business, while individual editors — or even whole publishing houses — can be labeled foreign agents. The effect is chilling and, critics say, obliterates one of the last forms of queer visibility in Russia.
What’s more, the bills’ sweeping nature and opaque formulations make it unclear precisely what publishers are meant to censor. When publishers asked whether the “anti-gay propaganda” bill’s stipulations would not eliminate about 50 percent of all fiction and nonfiction currently in circulation, they were assured that nobody would ever touch Russian classics. Even the biographies of the openly gay Tchaikovsky were safe, apparently. Such assurances don’t count for much, and pre-emptive and zealous self-policing is already taking hold. One of Russia’s largest book publishers is redacting potentially risky sentences in new releases and bookshops have started to remove “Summer in a Pioneer Tie” from their shelves.
But even if literary production is forced underground, the Kremlin will have a hard time stamping it out. After all, this is the land of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, where censorship has invested literature with authority. The authors of “Summer in a Pioneer Tie,” for their part, are quietly confident. Even if the authorities ban books, Ms. Silvanova said, “the demand isn’t going anywhere.” The bill, Ms. Malisova agreed, might lead to “even greater interest.” Readers will find loopholes and keep reading what they want to read. Who knows, perhaps the TikTok frenzies of today might turn out to be the beginning of a 21st-century Samizdat.
As for Yury and Volodya, their story continues. A sequel is out, and a third book is in the works. Somehow, surely, they will find their way to the light.
Congress stepped in to prevent supply chain havoc, but rail workers’ biggest grievance remains unaddressed.
By Ian Prasad Philbrick, Dec. 4, 2022
Freight trains in Atlanta. Credit...Dustin Chambers for The New York Times
Congress and President Biden imposed a labor agreement between major railroad companies and their workers last week, averting the possibility of a strike that would have disrupted the economy in the middle of the holiday shopping season. The agreement gives rail workers a pay raise and other benefits but not paid medical leave. I spoke to my colleague Peter S. Goodman, who covers supply chains, about what’s behind the workers’ discontent.
Ian: The deal that Congress enforced is one that the Biden administration helped negotiate earlier this year, which several unions rejected. Why were they against it?
Peter: The lack of paid sick leave caused the workers I spoke with to vote it down, that and draconian scheduling policies. Rail workers are constantly missing wedding anniversaries, funerals, birthday parties. It’s baked into the job. But in addition to that, there’s pressure to be at the job site even when they’ve got emergencies or sick children.
Here’s an example. I talked to a guy named Anthony Gunter, who’s based in eastern Tennessee and worked on maintenance crews repairing tracks for Norfolk Southern Railway. His dad had worked there for 40 years, and Gunter remembers trying to sneak into his duffel bag as a kid to join him on the road. Gunter regularly worked four 10-hour shifts in a row, swinging giant hammers, pounding stakes into railroad ties. His son had been born with a heart defect, and last year he stayed home for his son’s surgery. His supervisor pressured him to come back, saying: “You’re putting me in a tough spot. You have to be here.” Gunter was furious, so he quit.
Wow. That sounds like a difficult choice. What about workers who ended up supporting the deal?
There was unhappiness even among workers whose unions voted to ratify it. But their calculus was: Let’s be pragmatic. There’s no way in hell they’re going to let us strike, Congress is going to intervene and this is the best we’re going to get.
The deal did benefit workers on the issue of reimbursements for lodging on the road. Many rail workers spend long periods away from their families, with schedules subject to change. Maintenance gang workers like Gunter, who sometimes drove 12 hours from his home, have traditionally been given reimbursement rates so low that they eat terribly and stay two or three to a room in crappy motels. One worker told me he buys cheap clothes to sleep in and throws them away because he’s scared of bringing bedbugs home to his family. So higher reimbursement rates are a victory.
Have working conditions always been this bad for rail workers?
From the beginning, in the 19th century, the railroads were run by financiers who operated them as financial assets, often to the detriment of service. Union Pacific, one of the companies that built the Transcontinental Railroad, made a priority of securing land from the federal government instead of creating efficient routes. Another company pressed Chinese laborers into service to build the tracks to drive down wages. So railroads have always employed fairly ruthless techniques to keep a lid on costs while rewarding investors.
And you can argue that what they’ve done in recent years is about gratifying Wall Street. They laid off nearly a third of their work force before the pandemic, worsening freight service while increasing profits, and handed out handsome stock dividends. It’s good for shareholders. It’s good for investors. But shippers have complained, and it’s miserable for workers because there are fewer people to do the same amount of work.
It seems unusual for the president and Congress to have this much say over labor disputes.
Yeah, the Railway Labor Act, which gives them this power, is an outlier. It goes all the way back to tumultuous strikes in 1877 that shut down rail service and prompted the president to send in troops. Because there are now alternatives to shipping by rail, like trucking, many labor experts argue that it’s an outdated system that gives the railroads leverage over their work force. Rail workers can try to strike, but their only real play is to threaten to sabotage the American supply chain, to disrupt economic life for everyone.
As you noted, we now have trucks to move cargo. So how essential are trains today?
A hell of a lot of stuff still travels by rail — 40 percent of freight in the U.S. And it’s a central piece of the global supply chain. What we’ve learned through the great supply chain disruption during the pandemic is that if any part of that system slows down, we get backups everywhere else.
A strike would have produced a real economic shock. There would have been shortages of chlorine used in wastewater treatment plants and chemicals used to make paints and fertilizers. It would have meant higher prices for crops and other goods at a time when people are already paying more for groceries because of inflation. It would have disrupted jobs that depend on rail to move stuff, whether it’s retail workers or contractors working on houses.
It’s clear that the Biden administration recognized the political pitfalls of telling rail workers that the work they do is more important than the terms of their compensation. Biden was clearly spooked by the prospect of another supply chain crisis on his watch. And he opted not to force the railroads to swallow paid sick leave as the cost of averting a strike.