Tag Archives: War on Workers

Supreme Court buries Friedrichs case, but war on workers rages on

BuzzFeed: “Split Supreme Court Means A Win For Public Sector Unions”

A 4-4 split Supreme Court on Tuesday left in place a lower court ruling that allows public unions to collect fees from non-members.

After arguments in January, it had appeared that a 5-4 court was going to strike down so-called “agency fees,” but the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February upended the case.

The decision marks a victory for unions that was completely unexpected when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Rebecca Friedrichs’ case this past June, and the strongest sign yet of the changed composition of the court without Scalia.

Multi-union Statement on Friedrichs decision

The Supreme Court issued an opinion this morning in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, rejecting an attempt to restrict the rights of teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses and other people who serve the public to band together in a union.

Nonetheless, dozens of cases like Friedrichs are working their way through the lower courts, with new lawsuits filed in Washington, Oregon and New York in February alone. The same handful of billionaires also is bankrolling efforts by state and local legislators to push laws making it harder for people to form unions.

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War on Workers Begins at Home

State legislators crushing “pro-worker” city governments

Bloomberg: “Arizona Has a Plan to Get Revenge on Its Pro-Worker Cities”

Arizona is one of several states where legislators have moved to stop local officials from trying to pass minimum wage increases or paid leave policies that have no chance in the statehouse. …

The current fracas is the latest round in a two-decade tug of war between Arizona’s cities and its legislature over labor rules. Legislators first banned cities from passing their own minimum wage increases in 1997. Voters overrode that law with a 2006 referendum authorizing cities to pass minimum wage and benefits laws of their own. Legislators passed another law in 2013 banning cities from regulating wages and employee benefits, which activists successfully challenged in court, citing the 2006 referendum.

A massive new assault on home-care workers

Politico Morning Shift: “Door-To-Door Union Busters”

The conservative Freedom Foundation, which reportedly has ties to the Koch brothers and other like-minded anti-union groups, is dispatching foot soldiers door-to-door to inform child-care and home-care workers that they don’t have to be members of their union and that, in some cases, they don’t have to pay union does, the Guardian’s Steve Greenhouse writes.

Read the Steven Greenhouse story:

The Guardian: “The door-to-door union killers: rightwing foundation takes labor fight to the streets”

The man was one of the many foot soldiers in a highly unusual offensive against public-sector unions in the US north-west. A conservative group, the Freedom Foundation, has dispatched activists to visit the homes of more than 10,000 childcare and home-care workers in Washington and Oregon to advise them that under a two-year-old supreme court decision, they can opt out of paying union dues. …

[Labor leaders] say the Freedom Foundation’s unorthodox tactics are part of a grand plan to weaken unions and their treasuries, [and] sap their political influence …

Labor leaders say never before have they seen a foundation undertake such an aggressive, multi-pronged campaign against unions; nor have they ever seen such canvassing to advise workers about quitting their unions. …

The foundation’s tactics go well beyond door-knocking. It has made public records requests to numerous counties to obtain the names and addresses of home-care and childcare aides. It does podcasts that rail against unions and sponsors a website, optouttoday.com, telling public-sector workers they can quit their unions.

Last December, the foundation sent activists dressed as Santa Claus to stand outside government buildings, where they told workers they could give themselves a holiday gift by exercising their right not to pay that portion of union dues that goes to political activity.

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Labor’s Not-So-Secret Weapons in Washington, DC

Morning Shift: “Griffin And Weil: Labor’s One-Two Punch”

The Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis profiles two of the Obama administration’s top labor enforcers: NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin and Labor Department Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil. Griffin and Weil both insist they aren’t coordinating enforcement activity, but they’re kindred spirits in trying to penetrate contractual relationships that let companies distance themselves legally from their least-paid workers. … This hasn’t won Griffin and Weil any corporate friends.]

Washington Post Wonkblog: “Meet the government guys standing up for franchise workers and contractors”

How labor agencies are targeting worker bargaining power in an increasingly outsourced world.

As the agency’s chief prosecutor, Griffin can only work with the complaints that cross his desk. It was either luck or fate, then, that a series of new cases would give him the opportunity to help fundamentally reshape the rules that govern companies that increasingly rely on subcontractors, temporary workers, franchise employees and the like. …

Trade associations say they saw such attacks coming, and that is why they resisted Griffin’s appointment from the get-go; they said he would tilt the agency in favor of labor. …

“If you’re a management person, you’re going to say Mr. Griffin’s term is one of the most dramatic activist terms of any general counsel in history,” said Michael Lotito, co-chair of the Workplace Policy Institute at the management-side law firm Littler Mendelson. …

Griffin is actually one of two Obama appointees who, in their separate legal domains, have taken on the project of ensuring that bargaining rights and wage protections are upheld by the companies that ultimately govern the terms and conditions of their employment. …

All too often, [Wage and Hour Administrator David] Weil says, they have misclassified employees as independent contractors to avoid paying benefits like minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance and workers compensation, or brought in temporary staffing agencies that can be swapped out as soon as they get too expensive. So with a beefed up inspection staff, the department has done extensive market research to target investigations in industries like construction and light manufacturing, where abuses are most common.

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The surprising good news about Friedrichs

A couple weeks ago (Issue 9.1.3), the 1021 NewsWire reported on the widespread labor movement pessimism surrounding Friedrichs v. CTA, the pending US Supreme Court case that could make this a right-to-work-for-less country.

Then along came In These Times. It’s nice to know someone in the media is actually reading the court briefs, thinking things through, and coming up with some of the most intelligent writing on the case anywhere. In the two articles below, the progressive publication forcefully argues that Friedrichs could actually backfire on the corporate right that spawned it and become the best thing that’s ever happened to unions — the case that could end the centuries-old restrictions on unions’ free speech rights.

How is that even possible?

The argument is basically this: American labor law has always fallen under Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce, which is why it’s become such a self-contradictory mess. By redefining all public sector union activity as “political speech,” Friedrichs would put labor law firmly under the First Amendment, where it should be anyway, and give us a powerful argument — indeed, Constitutional protection — for fighting employer restrictions on our activities.

First Amendment law developed in this country during the time period 1870-1920, when many of the precedents establishing so-called “political” speech (as opposed to “commercial” speech, e.g. advertising) arose from the legal fights of IWW activists and other workers demanding the right to organize and bargain collectively, the main rights unions have today.

Putting labor law back under the First Amendment instead of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause means that city councils and boards of supervisors would no longer have the right to interfere with our activities because the First Amendment prohibits governmental restrictions on free speech. That turns the Friedrichs argument — that unions violate non-members’ free speech rights — on its head.

It means laws that restrict allowable subjects of collective bargaining (like in Wisconsin and other states) would be unconstitutional because they’re a governmental restriction on union members’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech. It means unions would no longer be required to represent non-members because governments may not “compel” speech any more than they can restrict it. It means that no-strike clauses in contracts could become unenforceable — because a strike is a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment: the right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The post-Friedrichs challenge

“I humbly suggest that every union still certified demand to bargain the day after the decision,” writes Shaun Richman, author of the In These Times stories. “They could throw their old contracts on the table and sue every school board and state agency that refuses to discuss those items. I’d also suggest that they begin drawing up some new picket signs. … we had better be prepared to create the chaos that the Court is inviting.”

It remains to be seen who will take up that challenge. But it’s an intriguing thought nonetheless. And the anti-union corporations and politicians who rushed Friedrichs to the Supreme Court can take their comfort from Proverbs 16:18:

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

In These Times: “How ‘Friedrichs’ Could Actually Unleash Unions from Decades of Free Speech Restrictions”

In an interesting twist, the anti-union Friedrichs v. CTA case currently under consideration by the Supreme Court could actually lay the ground work for making public employee strikes in New York and elsewhere constitutionally protected free speech. …

Unsurprisingly, many states make strikes by public sector employees like the CUNY faculty and staff totally illegal, or else severely restrict them. Many states also make many union demands illegal, either by statute or by judicial decisions. The Friedrichs case, by inserting public employees’ 1st Amendment rights into collective bargaining could give unions a very useful tool for reversing many anti-union measures that are on the books. …

Public employees have actually enjoyed a degree of free speech protections at work for some time, making them the only workers in America who do. Remember, the 1st Amendment only prevents the government from restricting a citizen’s rights of free speech and assembly. Since public employees work for the government, their employer is constitutionally forbidden from restricting or coercing their political speech. …

If Justice Alito gets his way, then Scott Walker is suddenly massively violating the free speech rights of Wisconsin public employees. …

The hubris and general stupidity of Justice Alito — who tried and failed to get this ruling in last year’s Harris v. Quinn — and the vast right-wing conspiracy of union-busters who raced this case through the courts in less than a year perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. They just want to kill the unions, and they’re used to getting their way.

But, in their narrow-minded pursuit of denying unions in the public sector agency fee, they are mindlessly trying to just hand to us free speech rights that conservative jurists and politicians have studiously avoided granting to union efforts for over two centuries.

In These Times: “How Friedrichs v. Calif. Teachers Association Could Actually Be a Boon for Unions”

An adverse decision in Friedrichs would hand unions a first amendment argument to refuse to represent non-members. …

If the Supreme Court rules that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political … then that would open the door to unions claiming their own First Amendment right — to choose who they represent. In other words, if agency fee is compelled speech, then the duty of exclusive representation imposed on unions is also compelled speech. …

Friedrichs could be a useful tool for labor by finally connecting our work to our rights of free speech and free assembly.

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Don’t despair — organize!

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” — Mother Jones

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” — Mark Twain

For more than eight years, the 1021 NewsWire has been a positive and encouraging voice for members of SEIU 1021 and the labor movement in general. Its mission has always been to tell you what you need to know to be an active participant in this local.

But it’s also been frank and honest about the challenges we face, and occasionally even presented opposing viewpoints, not to advocate for them, but because it’s important to know what the other side thinks.

Admittedly, it’s been hard to find any glimmers of brightness in the recent news about Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case last week; few in the labor movement were optimistic before then, but almost no one is now. But labor still has lots of supporters, and we present their views when we find them (see below).

The outlook may appear bleak, but to paraphrase the misquotes of Mark Twain*, reports of the American labor movement’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Union life is about to get more challenging, but unions still exist in right-to-work-for-less states, and alternative, non-union labor movements (aka “alt-labor”) are cropping up everywhere, especially among low-wage workers. As we reported last week, Scott Walker’s union-hating regime has thinned the ranks of Wisconsin’s unions, but they continue to fight on, undeterred. Choosing not to fight is simply not an option.

Here’s our glimmer … of purple

When you hear encouraging talk about renewed calls for organizing to pump new life and energy into the labor movement, we would do well to remember that a focus on organizing was the main stated reason SEIU and four other international unions left the AFL-CIO in 2005.

SEIU’s direction — much criticized in 2005 — has proven to be prescient, and it was SEIU that led the way then and is leading it now through the Fight for $15, the fight for immigrant rights, for women’s rights, for voting rights, for retirement security, for climate justice, and much more.

Legislative and electoral battles are still important and we as a local and a union will continue to fight them, but there is no labor movement without people and no people in the labor movement without organizing. When the labor movement began in this country — or any other country, for that matter — there were no laws saying it was okay for workers to organize. But we did anyway.

Voting for our lives

On the contrary, the laws and the institutions that made them were all dead set against workers, just like they are today. Indeed, the early fights for free speech that established First Amendment jurisprudence in the late 1800s and early 1900s all came from workers demanding workers’ rights, women demanding women’s rights, and so on. Workers were routinely shot and killed on picket lines for demanding better pay and working conditions, for exercising their freedom of speech to say that.

Today the same First Amendment that protects “political speech” and our rights to demand better lives is being cynically — indeed, evilly — turned against us. You can thank the Supreme Court for that too: Last week marked the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, the case that decreed “money equals speech” and therefore whoever has the most money has the most freedom of speech. That’s worked out well (not!).

It was corporate big money, not a lack of free speech, that brought Friedrichs to the Supreme Court. It would be ironic (if it weren’t so pathetic and harmful) that those with the most money believe they shouldn’t have to pay for the benefits they receive while they’re happy to pour money into the candidates and issues that keep making them richer at the expense of those with little or nothing already. A few profit, millions pay for it, millions suffer for it.

Who doesn’t like a bargain, right? But the free riders who will no doubt weigh down this union and countless others after Friedrichs will be acting no less greedily and selfishly than the corporations who brought things this far. To them, we have only one word in response:


NY Times: “Case Could Widen Free-Speech Gap Between Unions and Corporations”

The Citizens United decision, which amplified the role of money in American politics, also promised something like a level playing field. Both corporations and unions, it said, could spend what they liked to support their favored candidates.

But last week’s arguments in a major challenge to public unions illuminated a gap in the Supreme Court’s treatment of capital and labor. The court has long allowed workers to refuse to finance unions’ political activities. But shareholders have no comparable right to refuse to pay for corporate political speech.

The Nation: “This Supreme Court Case Could Be Very Bad For Unions”

Back in the old days, unions could get crushed easily with police crackdowns and armed thugs. These days, business conducts its union busting the civilized way, in court and at the bank. The question before the Supreme Court earlier this week in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association wasn’t about free speech or workers’ rights on the job so much as it was about the right of unions to exist as financial and legal institutions. …

The case fundamentally has little to do with free expression, and lots to do with fair payment for a vital service. And paradoxically, a single teacher’s reluctance to pay her fair share to the organization that negotiates her job contract is silencing the voice of all public-sector workers, as the court considers a policy that would defund their unions. …

The pro-labor side would agree with the conservatives that constitutional rights are at issue — not because unions threaten freedom expression, but because labor power is fundamental to democratic values.

Capital & Main: “Moshe Marvit’s Six ‘Friedrichs’ Takeaways”

* Twain’s actual quote is above. The “greatly exaggerated” variants are misquotes.

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War on Workers, Part 1: US Supreme Court unsympathetic to unions in ‘Friedrichs’

On Monday this week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that will have vast implications for the labor movement no matter how it’s decided. The court is expected to issue its decision in June.

On one hand, Friedrichs could reaffirm the right of unions to collect fair share fees from those they are still required to represent; on the other hand, it could cripple organized labor financially. As Capital & Main, Salon, the New York Times, and many others have noted (see In Solidarity below), Friedrichs is nothing more than a naked assault by corporate interests intended to destroy the ability of “public-sector unions, the last major bastion of unionized workers in America” to fight back against corporate power.

To make their case, the corporate-funded plaintiffs rely on a reading of the First Amendment so twisted it ought to get a fantasy fiction award, not become the law of the land. And yet, a majority of justices seemed sympathetic to it.

Because of the importance of Friedrichs, In Solidarity is devoted this week to the case … and what some unions are already doing to fight back in a post-Friedrichs world.

Morning Shift: “Friedrichs Goes To Court”

Labor leaders are feeling alternately defiant and resigned as the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments today in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association … .

In an interview with former Obama adviser David Axelrod last week, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said a ruling against the unions was a certainty. The damage? “By next summer, we’re going to lose another 2 million because of a Supreme Court case for the public sector where public sector workers’ organizations will no longer be allowed to have union shops,” Henry said. “Everyone will be a voluntary member. And I think that means another chunk of the movement will be gone.”

SCOTUS: Official Page on Friedrichs v. CTA

SEIU: An SEIU member explains why he went to Washington to stand outside the Supreme Court building

Share this SEIU video that explains the attack happening on working families and how we are fighting back.

Here is one early report on how the arguments went:

NY Times: “Supreme Court Seems Poised to Deal Unions a Major Setback”

The Supreme Court seemed poised on Monday to deliver a severe blow to organized labor.

The justices appeared divided along familiar lines during an extended argument over whether government workers who choose not to join unions may nonetheless be required to help pay for collective bargaining. The court’s conservative majority appeared ready to say that such compelled financial support violates the First Amendment. …

The best hope for a victory for the unions had rested with Justice Antonin Scalia, who has written and said things sympathetic to their position. But he was consistently hostile on Monday.

“The problem is that everything that is bargained for with the government is within the political sphere,” he said.

Read: Part 2  |  Part 3  | The View from California

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War on Workers, Part 2: Who is really behind Friedrichs, and why

Morning Shift: “The end of fair share fees”

Hel-lo? … The business lobby and its ideological allies on the right have not pressed for right-to-work out of a passion for the First Amendment. They’ve sought to eliminate payments by nonmembers to labor unions — public sector unions in the case of Friedrichs — because they want to weaken unions. This is just about the worst-kept secret in America, but you wouldn’t have known that from hearing Roberts, Scalia, and DuMont Monday.

Capital & Main: “Could Friedrichs v. CTA Be Labor’s ‘Citizens United’?”

As usual, we turn to Capital & Main to explain the real issues and call out judicial activism by the same hypocritical right-wing corporate interests that decry “judicial activism” … when they believe someone else is doing it.

The case could go down as organized labor’s Citizens United — decimating membership, crippling the unions’ lobbying efficacy and effectively stifling the collective political voice of public-sector workers. …

In fact, Friedrichs has been literally tailored to [weaken teachers’ voice to advocate for students] and was fast-tracked through the California courts by the plaintiffs’ lawyers who asked judges to rule against them so that they could move the case up more quickly toward the Supreme Court.

“Clearly some justices believe that public-sector collective bargaining is bad,” University of California, Irvine law school professor Catherine Fisk told Capital & Main, “and so I think that Friedrichs was a case delivered by an activist litigation group to provide them the vehicle to hold that all public-sector collective bargaining has to be on a strictly right-to-work basis.”

PR Watch: “Right-Wing Network Puts Friedrichs v. California Teachers in Samuel Alito’s Lap”

The case that could cripple public-sector unions zoomed thought the courts specifically to climb into Alito’s lap and the lawyers for the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) are ready to dance. …

The strategy is “nefarious,” Frank Deale, a professor at the CUNY School of Law told American Prospect. “In fact, it’s collusive, in a way. You’re setting up this false scenario, this false conflict, in order to get a Supreme Court ruling. The Center for Individual Rights didn’t even make an argument [in the lower-court filings]. They asked for the court to rule for the defendant, and then they got rewarded for it.”

Salon: “SCOTUS v. the American worker: The upcoming Supreme Court case that could explode inequality”

There is a case heading to the Supreme Court this term that threatens to muzzle workers and further entrench staggering levels of economic inequality in our country, tipping the scales even further in the direction of corporate CEOs and wealthy special interests. …

And that is what’s at stake in this case: Corporate CEOs know that the ability to come together and speak in one voice is workers’ best tool to advocate for economic justice and workplace fairness. After launching successful efforts to push extreme anti-union policies through state legislatures, big money conservatives are using the courts to come after workers’ right to join together.

NY Times Editorial: “At the Supreme Court, a Big Threat to Unions”

In a 2014 ruling, Justice Alito dismissed the free-rider concern and claimed that those who support a union will willingly pay its dues, but this is contradicted by both common sense and experience.

States should continue to be free to fashion their own arrangements for handling labor relations. More than 20 have fair-share fee systems which encompass thousands of negotiated contracts representing millions of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public workers. All this could be upset by a ruling for the plaintiffs.

At the least, the court should be extremely wary, as it usually is, of upending long-settled precedent. The Abood ruling has stood, and been repeatedly reaffirmed, for nearly 40 years. It would be troubling if it was now reversed by a deeply divided vote.

Morning Shift: “Bonanza For Bradley?”

The conservative Bradley Foundation has spent millions over three decades to smash labor unions. Now an investment that could barely buy a house in Washington may bring it closer to that goal than ever before.

Bradley funds the Center for Individual Rights, the conservative D.C. nonprofit law firm that brought the Friedrichs case; it funds (or has funded) at least 11 organizations that submitted amicus briefs for the plaintiffs; and it’s funded a score of conservative organizations that support the lawsuit’s claim that fair-share fees are unconstitutional. When CIR first filed the case in a California federal court in 2013, the foundation posted the news on its website under the tab, “What We Do.”

Read: Part 1 | Part 3  | The View from California

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War on Workers, Part 3: How workers are already fighting back

In These Times: “A Guide to ‘Friedrichs,’ the SCOTUS Case That Could Decimate Public Sector Unions”

Some of the most intelligent writing about Friedrichs has appeared in the progressive In These Times. This resource guide includes links to its major stories on the case and why Friedrichs does not have to be labor’s death knell, but could be the bell tolling its re-invigoration.

Social Policy: “Is A Progressive Phoenix Rising? The New Labor Movement is Approaching”

A phoenix may be rising in the struggle to remake a strong labor movement in the United States. After decades of hand wringing over the illnesses afflicting labor unions and hundreds of suggested prescriptions from movement sympathizers and strategists, a fundamental transformation may finally be upon us.

Morning Shift: “Friedrichs Goes To Court”

Unions like AFT and AFSCME have already responded as though the court will rule against them. “Public sector unions haven’t been sitting passively by as the judicial juggernaut approaches,” the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis wrote in July. “Rather, they’ve embarked on an broad ‘internal organizing’ effort, reaching workers who may have been paying agency fees for years and never had any contact with a union representative.” Conservative groups point to this activity to argue that Friedrichs is not the death knell for unions that many assume.

The Guardian (UK): “Wisconsin’s public-sector unions plot fightback as supreme court case looms”
by Steven Greenhouse, former NY Times labor reporter

Wisconsin’s labor leaders cheered when their nemesis, Scott Walker, dropped out of the presidential campaign last September. … But while Walker’s political ambitions may have been thwarted, four years on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions remain humbled too.

With Walker’s hard-won 2011 law crippling their ability to bargain and diminishing their ranks, the state’s public-employee unions are struggling to figure out how to increase their strength, membership and collective voice. The plight of Wisconsin’s unions could point the way for public-employee unions nationwide if the supreme court, in a closely watched case to be heard on 11 January, prohibits any requirement that government workers pay any fees to the unions that represent them.

Morning Shift: “Wisconsin Case Study”

How are public employee unions doing in Wisconsin? Not great. Wisconsin’s AFSCME local … lost two-thirds of its members and funding after the enactment of Act 10, Steven Greenhouse reports in the Guardian. In many workplaces AFSCME isn’t bargaining at all because it’s too expensive and/or too onerous. …

AFSCME’s best-case scenario is that the union’s considerable setbacks in Wisconsin will prompt a renewal there of labor activism. “When we talk to potential union members, we explain, ‘Your working conditions aren’t going to get better unless we act as a unit, as a union,’” AFSCME’s Paul Spink told the Guardian. “We have to relearn the lessons of labor from the 1930s and 1940s — of collective action and collective message.” Wisconsin union members can take some heart from Walker’s high disapproval rating in the state: It was 60 percent in October.

Read: Part 1  | Part 2  | The View from California

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Through the Looking Glass: Why you should see “The Big Short”

The Big ShortSure, go see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It’s great, especially in 3D.

Then (or, But first) go see “The Big Short,” starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carell in an astonishing dramatic performance you’d hardly have guessed possible from his days on The Daily Show. It ranked 7th at the box office this weekend but 2nd on Rotten Tomatoes‘ list of the best viewer-rated movies (87% against Star Wars’ 94%) and scored 8.9 out of 10 from viewers on Metacritic.

“The Big Short” tells the story of the 2008 housing and financial market meltdown told as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” seen through the eyes of several Alices — independent investors who, to quote author Michael Lewis, “had always sort of assumed that there was some grown-up in charge of the financial system whom they had never met; now they saw there was not.”

“Adapted from Michael Lewis’ bestselling book ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,’ McKay’s film traces the roots of the global market collapse through the eyes of those who saw it coming and figured out ways to profit from it,” according to Variety’s reviewer.

None of them are heroes. “I never said I was the hero of this story,” Gosling’s character, a narrator of sorts, tells the movie audience as he fondles a check for $47 million he earned for his part in “shorting” (betting against) the housing market.

And yet they’re strangely sympathetic characters; from the outset they’re incredulous that no one on Wall Street sees the housing calamity coming, disgusted by the fraud and incompetence they encounter, and in the end many of them (especially Carell) are horrified by what they themselves have done. But the movie doesn’t make excuses for them.

By turns serious and funny, sometimes both at once (like a scene featuring Selena Gomez explaining ‘synthetic collateralized debt obligations’ at a Las Vegas blackjack table), the film offers a gentle but firm reminder we all need — as the country rounds the corner into presidential primary season — about who really led this country and the world into an economic collapse that cost 8 million Americans their jobs and 6 million their homes, and wiped out trillions of dollars in personal and retirement savings. In the end, Wall Street got bailed out and public employees got blamed.

In short, all Americans paid for it — except for those who were actually guilty. They made millions.

Variety: “Adam McKay’s financial-crisis comedy turns a dense economics lecture into a hyper-caffeinated postmodern farce.”

Of all the current century’s most cataclysmic world-historical events, the 2008 financial crisis is probably among the most poorly understood. Filmmakers looking to rectify this have already approached the story from a number of angles, … but the route taken by “The Big Short” is by far the most radical, turning a dense economics lecture into a hyper-caffeinated postmodern farce, a spinach smoothie skillfully disguised as junk food. …

In the pic’s most viciously surreal sequence, Baum (Carell) and company travel to Florida to see firsthand some of the mortgages that are threatening to go belly-up, finding cul-de-sacs full of abandoned houses, highly motivated McMansion sellers, and a pair of meatheaded mortgage consultants who chuckle over writing six-figure home loans for buyers with no income or down payment. Baum steps aside and consults with one of his agents. “Why are they confessing?” he asks, confused. “They’re not,” comes the reply. “They’re bragging.”

MSNBC: “Director Adam McKay talks with Chris Hayes about his movie on the global financial crisis, ‘The Big Short.'” (video)

Washington Post: “Steven Pearlstein reviews ‘The Big Short’ by Michael Lewis”

If you read only one book about the causes of the recent financial crisis, let it be Michael Lewis’s, “The Big Short.”

NY Times Book Review: “Investors Who Foresaw the Meltdown”

Mr. Lewis does a nimble job of using his subjects’ stories to explicate the greed, idiocies and hypocrisies of a system notably lacking in grown-up supervision, a system filled with firms that “disdained the need for government regulation in good times” but “insisted on being rescued by government in bad times.”

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Rags from Riches: Our Ill-Literate World

He Said, He Said

Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from you and me.”
Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”

NYT Letter to the Editor: “The Rich Are Different”

What They Actually Wrote

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

— from “The Rich Boy” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

“The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

— from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway (1936)

Quote/Counterquote: “The Rich Are Different”

What They’re Saying Now

The Economist: “The rich are different from you and me” (July 29, 2010)

They are more selfish.

Forbes: “The Rich Are Different: They Can Walk Away” (March 12, 2015)

Not that most of the population begrudge someone who can have a luxurious life. But there was once a sense that if you worked hard, even if you didn’t achieve wealth, you could have enough. …

Things are different today. As the profits from continued productivity accrue upwards, the sacrifices go not for your future, not for the next generation, not for the next guy who needs a hand up the ladder, but to the wealthiest who already have more than they can ever use. …

The experience of the elite, tech or otherwise, is so far removed from the rest of humanity that one might wonder if we were all the same species. Only a handful ascends to the House of God and then looks down on the masses, proclaiming what the little people, still working hard, should do: learn to write code, use their own cars to chauffeur the better off, vacate their beds so they can rent them to vacationers, or put in more hours of work and be thankful that you have it. The most fundamental and dangerous problem of the widening inequality gulf is that it shreds the social fabric and seeds fury.

The Nation: “Top CEOs Have $4.9 Billion Saved Up for Retirement. Nearly 1/3 of Workers Have Nothing.”

David Novak, the executive chairman of the company that owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has a lot to look forward to — $234 million, to be exact. That’s the size of his retirement package, which is the largest of any top executive’s. Novak, whose company has fought minimum-wage increases that would benefit its workers, can expect a $1.3 million check every month once he retires. …

The pay gap between workers and their bosses is well-known, but it turns out that the disparity in retirement assets is even greater. Nearly one-third of Americans nearing old age have no retirement savings at all, according to a report published Wednesday by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. The median balance in 401(k) accounts in 2013 was $18,433, which would generate a monthly check of just $104.

The average nest egg for a top executive, on the other hand, is $49.3 million. That’s enough to ensure a $277,686 retirement check every month. The top 100 executives have $4.9 billion in retirement savings combined — the equivalent of what 41 percent of American families have saved up for later life.

“The CEO-worker retirement divide turns our country’s already extreme income divide into an even wider economic chasm,” reads the report. “The lavish retirement packages for executives and growing retirement insecurity for the rest of us are inextricably linked. The rules now in place create powerful incentives to slash worker retirement benefits as a way of boosting corporate profits and stock prices.” …

Executives aren’t just benefiting from lavish retirement packages: Some are actively making it harder for their own employees to save. (emphasis added)

What the Presidential Candidates Are Saying

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

— President Abraham Lincoln (Republican, 1861)

NY Times: “Republicans Sound Off on the Minimum Wage”

Here’s what the candidates really said and why they’re all wrong.

The Nation: “A Billionaire, Some Millionaires, and a No-Show Senator Debate How Best to Block Wage Hikes”

Outside the Milwaukee Theatre, where the fourth Republican “debate” was being managed by Rupert Murdoch’s minions from the Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal, crowds of actual working people marched for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and union rights. …

Moderator Neil Cavuto: “As the leading presidential candidate on this stage and one whose tax plan exempts couples making up to $50,000 a year from paying any federal income taxes at all, are you sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, since a $15 wage works out to about $31,000 a year?”

Donald Trump: “I can’t be, Neil.”

“[Taxes] too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world,” griped Trump. “I hate to say it, but we have to leave [the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage] the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratosphere. We cannot do this if we are going to compete with the rest of the world. We just can’t do it.” …

“If I thought that raising the minimum wage was the best way to help people increase their pay, I would be all for it, but it isn’t,” claimed Rubio. “In the 21st century, it’s a disaster. If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than machines. That means all the automation that is replacing jobs and people right now will be accelerated.”

So, just to be clear, in the future as Marco Rubio sees it, wages must remain low in order to keep a check on automation. …

The real debate was not on the stage. It was outside on the streets of Milwaukee and cities like it nationwide. While the Republican candidates avoided that debate, the Democratic contenders embraced it. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton sent a Twitter message backing the strikers: “Fast-food, home care, child care workers: Your advocacy is changing our country for the better.” And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, along with a proposal to strengthen union rights, joined the picket line in Washington.

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