Pluralistic: 17 Mar 2021

Today's links

SNAPDRAGON (permalink)

While Kat Leyh is best known for her work on LUMBERJANES, her solo debut, SNAPDRAGON (Firstsecond, 2020) is an outstanding work that combines LUMBERJANES' madcap kitchen-sink approach with a narrative simplicity that makes it a joy to read.

Snapdragon is a young woman living with her single mom – an adoring, overstretched parent who's working multiple jobs while attending nursing college. Snap – named for her mother's favorite flower – is lonely and isolated, but that's about to change.

Everyone knows that there's a witch that lives on the outskirts of Snap's town, and Snap is pretty sure that Good Boy, her missing, beloved three-legged dog, has ended up in the witch's cottage, sure to be eaten.

Snap steels herself to rescue GB and bursts in on the witch, only to discover a quirky old lady in green Crocs with a black eye-patch, who's been taking excellent care of GB – and who introduces herself as Jack, and Jack is definitely not a witch.

Jack, rather, is an amateur bone builder who brings home roadkill, buries it until it is reduced to a skeleton, and then articulates the skeletons and sells them online. Snap finds the hobby incredibly exciting and pesters/sweet talks Jack into letting her help.

Snap's isolation is coming to an end. Not only is she discovering a new passion with Jack – she's also found a friend, Lulu, a young boy who comes out as trans and becomes a young girl.

But there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. Snap finds an old photo of Jack with her grandmother, both of them young and in love – and learns two secrets: one: Jack really IS a witch: and two, Jack and Snap's granny were once deeply in love.

There's so much stuff going on in Snapdragon – a technical story about anatomy and the preservation of animal remains, an historical story about intersectional prejudice, several kinds of ghost story and at least three coming-out stories…

It's a story about heroism and loyalty, friendship and family, secrets and the meaning of both a good life and a good death.

And yet, for all of these moving parts, it has the elegant simplicity of a YA tale, a plot that never lets up, and incredibly likeable characters.

I read it in one sitting, and then, having discovered that she has a new book out for 2021 – THIRSTY MERMAIDS – I asked my comic shop to order me a copy.

How unions de-risk work (permalink)

Yesterday, I published an essay about how monopolies beget monopolies: when deregulation kicked off a wave of pharma mergers, the new pharma oligopoly gained the power to raise prices on hospitals.

The hospitals weren't able to form a cartel to insist on better prices: the US antitrust law created by Ronald Reagan's court sorcerer Robert Bork is incredibly tolerant of monopolist price-rigging, but violently opposed to cartels that price-rig.

Rather than forming a cartel, the hospitals gobbled each other up to create monopolies. If the CEOs of six hospitals insist on better drug prices, it's illegal. If the presidents of six hospitals (all owned by the same monopolist) do the same thing, it's fine.

Big Hospital wasn't merely better positioned to demand better drug prices from Big Pharma, they were also able to charge more to the fragmented, decentralized health insurance industry.

Predictably, this kicked off a wave of mergers that produced Big Insurance, a monopolized world that gives most Americans between zero and two insurers who'll take their business.

Freed from the risk of losing customers and bulked up to meet hospital monopolies on even footings, insurance companies could both insist on lower payouts to hospitals and higher premiums from patients. And at last we had some sort of equilibrium.

Pharma companies could charge more for drugs, but not too much more. Hospitals could lower the standard of care, raise prices, and squeeze workers' wages and working conditions. Insurance companies could cut payments to hospitals, raise prices and hike co-pays.

Everyone got what they wanted, except for two groups that can't form monopolies that push back against this monopoly-dominated industry:

  • Patients, and

  • Workers

Historically, the "monopolist" safeguarding patients' interests was the state: democratically elected lawmakers who relied on voters for re-election. The massive increase in corporate campaign finance was attended by steady erosion of political loyalty to the public interest.

And so the public lost its champion, and prices went up and quality went down and redress was whittled away to performative apologies after crises of too great a magnitude to be ignored, accompanied by fines that were mere fractions of the profits from corruption.

Meanwhile, workers' champions were their unions: solidarity organizations that corrected the negotiating imbalance between employers and employees by presenting a united front.

That unity extended beyond the gates of a single employer. Picket-line crossing was a grave sin, so if your hotel's maids went out on strike, the Teamsters wouldn't deliver your groceries and the taxi cabs wouldn't pick up at your entrance.

And related trades were able to bargain together: in Hollywood, the writers and actors and tradespeople would start each contract season by visiting the weakest studio as a body and demand the best deal, then require parity from other studios in turn.

Since the Reagan years, union power has been drained off. For example, the way Hollywood unions negotiate has been flipped on its head. Now, the studios visit the weakest union as a body and demand the most labor concessions, then take those to the other unions in turn.

It's been generations since union power was a given, and we haven't just lost our power, we've lost our imaginations – the sense of what is possible, what we are owed, how the system could work. We've learned to take precarity and low wages as a given.

That's why Reina Sultan's "8 People Describe How Unions Changed Their Lives" for Vice is so important: not because it is heartwarming (though it is) but because it is ripe with possibility, the recovered wisdom of a fallen civilization.

These eight workers describe how joining a union turned precarity into certainty. How the hotels they worked for had to promise to hire them back after the pandemic lifted. How they were promised ten hours of uninterrupted sleep between shifts.

How their employers had to accommodate their disabilities. How they were guaranteed health insurance that covered their whole families. How they were protected from being arbitrarily fired, and guaranteed severance pay when they were laid off.

These guarantees have a common theme: they de-risk being a worker and make it riskier to be an employer. Much of our day-to-day life is a series of negotiations over who should bear the risk that things will turn out bad.

Think of all the corporate bailouts, how these are "socialism for shareholders, capitalism for workers." When the fed bails out banks and employers but not mortgage holders and workers, they move risk off the finance-sector's balance sheet and stick it on our balance sheet.

When you run a business, you assume risks. Maybe you have a slow Saturday and end up paying workers to hang around with nothing to do. If you can book a worker's Sat, but unilaterally send them home two hours into their shift because it's slow, you shift your risk onto them.

The worker has to be available for you, but you don't have to use that availability. Likewise disability accommodations: when you hire and train a worker, you face the risk that they will become disabled, permanently or temporarily, on or off the job.

When that happens, you might have to pay to change the physical environment so they can do their job, or give them disability pay. If you can just fire them, you shift the risk onto the worker, and off your own books.

Every benefit described by workers in Way's article is risk being shifted from workers back onto employers. The right not to be summarily fired means workers aren't at risk from vindictive, bad bosses. It also means employers may struggle to shed "low-performing" workers.

It's a good reminder of the "struggle" in "class struggle." These risks are, by their nature, zero-sum. To decrease the risk of being stuck with a bad employee, you have to increase the risk of an employee being targeted by a bad manager. There's no win-win here.

Sure, employers will say that they share the workers' interest in rooting out bad managers, but there is an inescapable contradiction between reserving the right to fire anyone, for any reason, and making sure workers aren't unjustly fired.

The same goes for every benefit articulated by union members. If you're an electrician who wants to be able to get home, sleep and go back to work without being interrupted for ten straight hours, you push risk onto your employer.

Meanwhile, if you don't have that right, your employer gets to shove risk onto you. For example, they could underinvest in upgrades and preventative maintenance, knowing that when things break down, they can summon you to get them working again, without paying any overtime.

The project of worker solidarity comes down to this foundational question: who should bear which risks? Would you rather have bad bosses firing people over personal vendettas, or co-workers who are hard to fire even though they're not great at their jobs?

We don't need to pretend that moving risk onto employers' side of the ledger always produces better outcomes. It doesn't. Workers can be jerks, too. But an individual bad boss has the power to do enormous harm to their entire workforce over a long term.

Think of all the people maimed, killed and sickened in Amazon's warehouses because of one individual's willingness and ability to shift risk off his balance sheet and onto theirs.

It's true that an especially toxic unionized worker could make life miserable for many, many other workers – but that's still a better outcome than an especially toxic CEO, not least because unions give workers the power to address bad workers even when management won't.

Is it possible for things to be overbalanced, for too much risk to be shifted off of worker's balance sheets and onto employers' side of the ledger? Sure, theoretically. But that is a situation so far removed from workplace reality today that it's practically a fairy-tale.

And if we're really worried about too much risk landing on employers, then we can go back to the peoples' source of power: democratic governance. Unions represent a power-bloc that can (but don't always) hold politicians to account.

It's hard to imagine any political path to checking corporate power that doesn't include organized groups of workers and organized groups of citizens, working for political change.

If health insurance, disability accommodations, retirement pay, parental leave and other sources of workplace risk are moved onto the public's balance sheet, they cease to be things that workers or employers need to argue about. They're just a given.

Think of it this way: bosses and workers don't fight over who will pay to pave the roads to the business. They don't fight over who will fight fires, or allocate RF frequency for the office wireless network. These risks are moved to the public ledger, where they belong.

This kind of political change is also hard to imagine, after 40 years of Reaganomics. But unionization makes it more achievable, because another word for "risk" is "profit." Shifting risk from workers onto bosses shifts money from bosses to workers.

Monopolized employers extract monopoly rents from their customers and gouge monopoly concessions from their workers. This isn't just extra money to send to shareholders – it's also extra money to spend in the political realm, blocking reforms that benefit everyone.

That's how we get wage stagnation and ghouls like Manchin and Sinema tanking the $15 minimum wage. The money extracted from workers was sent to these politicians so they would vote to make it possible to keep extracting money from workers.

Unionization – workplace justice – doesn't win the war for political justice. But it does cut the enemy's supply lines, deprive them of the ammo they're using to fight us.

(Image: still from Union Maids)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago MPAA rep gets slammed at SXSW

#10yrsago Canadian recording industry: P2P isnโ€™t bad for business,com_content/task,view/id,1168/Itemid,85/nsub,/

#5yrsago Study: people who believe in innate intelligence overestimate their own

#1yrago Patent trolls try to shut down covid testing

#1yrago Naomi Klein: this disaster has no room for disaster capitalism

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 500 words (116669 total).
  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 263 words (8355 total).

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." Yesterday's progress: 1080 words (30995 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla