Saturday, February 20, 2016

Whose Delivering the Bo$ton Globe These Days?

I would like to thank WRH for delivering this to my attention:

"‘Nobody Asked a Worker!’

Janine Jackson interviewed Aviva Chomsky about the Boston Globe‘s delivery debacle and immigrant labor for the February 12, 2016, CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: The Boston Globe’s decision to contract out its subscriber delivery service to a new company that said they could do it cheaper was the kind of business call made every day. And media usually treat such events as just that: business news, for the business page. But those decisions have human impacts, too, sometimes huge ones. It’s just that the lives they change, generally speaking, aren’t the ones that make the paper.

Something different happened at the Globe, though, at least for a little while. Our next guest tells the story in an article for TomDispatch called “All The News That’s Fit to Print.” Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She’s author of the book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, and also They Take Our Jobs! and 20 Other Myths About Immigration. She joins us now by phone from Massachusetts. Welcome to CounterSpin, Aviva Chomsky.

Aviva Chomsky: Thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.

JJ: The story you tell in the article is emblematic of a number of things, so let’s just start in. The Boston Globe changes their delivery contractor, and what happens?

AC: In a way, not to be too historical, but I think we have to start before they changed delivery carriers, with how newspapers are delivered at all in today’s United States. Because I think a lot of people still have in mind that newspapers are delivered by 12-year-olds on their bicycles, and that’s not how it is at all anymore. Newspaper delivery has become big business, and it’s done through an elaborate system of subcontracting. And the people who deliver the newspapers are adults, they do it by car, and their routes are far longer and more complex than what the kids in the neighborhoods used to do.

So newspaper delivery is a job that’s done through subcontracting. It’s a 365-day-a-year job, it has to be done in the middle of the night from about 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., no matter what the weather, what the conditions. And it’s a job that’s extremely poorly paid; that is, you have to have your own car, your own insurance, you have to drive hundreds of miles a week.
But you’re not considered an employee, you’re considered an independent contractor. And therefore the employer, which is the subcontractor who is contracted by the newspaper, doesn’t have any of the responsibilities that an employer has. They don’t have to pay you minimum wage, they don’t have to give you unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, Social Security. They get out of all their responsibilities as an employer.

JJ: Right.

AC: And, not surprisingly, this is an area of the economy where a lot of the people who work there are immigrants, and a significant number are also undocumented. Because it’s designed to be sort of a hidden, underground piece of the economy. So that’s how it’s been.

But then the Boston Globe decided they wanted to make it even cheaper for themselves, and they contracted out to a new delivery company that promised to give them a lower rate. And basically the only way to get a lower rate is to pay your workers even less.

JJ: What we would call “cutting labor costs” in the mainstream media, which means—

AC: Yes, exactly.

JJ: —paying workers less who are already relatively very low-paid or underpaid.

AC: And there is something just a little bit ironic about this whole situation, that this is the newspaper, this is the people who are supposed to be doing the investigation and bringing the news, and that they’re relying on this very hidden system of distribution.

JJ: It’s actually kind of core to the story. I wanted to point out earlier for those folks who think, “Well, but nobody gets a print paper anyway,” that 56 percent of Americans still read the newspaper in the hard copy. So let’s move away from the idea that everybody’s just reading it online. And then, yes, this is a business that you think is about transparency and about uncovering, and yet a core part of the industry itself is largely unseen.

Well, the story that you write is actually about the broaching of that division. Because what happens is that when the contract changes, workers are laid off, the new workers are not just getting paid less but facing worse conditions. And there’s actually a disruption in delivery; is that right?

AC: A huge disruption in delivery, so that tens of thousands of the Boston Globe‘s couple of hundred thousand subscribers are not getting the Globe, day after day after day, week after week. It was a full month of delivery disruption. And this is really the first time that the newspaper itself, and the newspaper reporters, acknowledged that they had no idea how the paper ever got to its subscribers.

JJ: Well, that’s what’s fascinating. The Globe now, for whatever reasons, they have the idea to have the reporters and other staff deliver the Sunday paper. And this is an event; the New York Times and NPR do kind of fish-out-of-water stories about reporters delivering the paper. My mother-in-law, Kathleen Naureckas, who worked in journalism for many years, has a saying, partly humorous, that news is what happens to or near an editor.

AC: Uh-huh.

JJ: Here we have a story, it’s under the nose of reporters, but, as you found, for the most part, at least initially, the way they approached this story, once they were kind of confronted with it and needed to report on it, the way they reported on it was more of a reflection on them than on their ostensible subjects.

AC: Yeah. And here it’s not just the Boston Globe reporters, but this story was picked up nationally. So it was in the New York Times, the fact that Boston Globe reporters spent one night doing what immigrant workers do 365 days a year, that suddenly made national news. So NPR, as you said, the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review; it was popping up everywhere, this amazing fact that newspaper reporters spent a night delivering the paper. And I’m surprised that no one was sort of embarrassed to acknowledge just how big this divide is, and how unlikely and shocking it was that something like this could happen, that newspaper reporters could actually see how the paper gets delivered.

JJ: And what its implication is, of course, for the way that lack of experience impacts their reporting. I mean, part of what you found was reporters saying, ‘wow, this is very eye-opening, you know—

AC: Uh-huh.

JJ: —the conditions that they’re working in.’ That’s dispiriting in its own way. But what you also found was, despite the confrontation with the reality and the difficulty of the job, there still was a kind of lack of interest, really, in digging into what that life was like.

AC: Well, there were a couple of Globe reporters who really did try to get under the surface, and I have to especially give a shout-out to Marcela Garcia, who’s one of the few Globe reporters who actually speaks Spanish, which helped a lot, who actually interviewed some of the workers there.

But most of the Boston Globe’s reporting and the national-level reporting ignored the workers completely. That is, it told the story about how the Boston Globe workers went out, but the emphasis was that the whole problem was software, that is, that the new company had inadequate software. So it tried to go from one extreme, of the reality of the grittiness and the exploitation involved in this actual physical labor, and turn it into something technological and computerized, further invisibilizing the workers who actually do the work. So article after article said the problem was the software, the problem was the software.

JJ: Yeah, it’s a technological fix to the difficulties. It wasn’t even as if — I mean, it’s an interesting thing that happened. First of all, I want to underscore: You cite one article that says, you know, “Whatever they’re paying these people, it’s not enough. Now that I’ve done this job, I see that it’s very hard.” And that idea of, well, “whatever they’re paying them”—the fact that a reporter writing on this crisis labor situation would not have looked into it enough to see, what are they paying them, you know? What are the actual facts at hand here, what is the pay rate that these workers are objecting to?

AC: And some of the reporting went even further, that is, they asked the Boston Globe and they asked ACI, the new carrier, and PCF, the old carrier, what they were paying, and none of those official sources were willing to tell them. But nobody asked a worker! Like, it’s so easy to find out what they’re paying, but they just went to the official sources, and then they wrote that none of the official sources would tell them.

JJ: So that’s a big piece of this story, is that disconnect between the reporters—some of whom, of course, are writing about labor, some of whom are writing about immigration and immigrant communities—not having this basic knowledge. But then, what you wind up with about how, after some good reporting, the Globe itself seemed to come away with a kind of tech fix: What we needed was more sensible paper routes.

This gets to a bigger point that you make about how we manage to disassociate—or maybe don’t just manage, but work hard to disassociate—our shiny clean virtual lives from the material-world conditions and relationships that make them possible. And I take it that you see that attitude as reflected in, not just media coverage, but also in policy, that we rely on these immigrant workers but we don’t acknowledge them.

AC: And that’s something that’s almost built into our DNA as a country. And, you know, I teach history, so I’m always really shocked to see the extent to which students still, in 2016, are coming into the classroom with these sort of sanitized, racially whitened versions of American history, where inequality, exploitation, people of color, extermination of Native Americans, taking of lands are just whitewashed out.

JJ: Well, let me just pull you into that. Election season, of course, is high tide for empty rhetoric, and one of the lines that we will hear and have heard is “America is a nation of immigrants.”

AC: Uh-huh.

JJ: I’ve heard you speak about this before. When you hear that, “Oh, we’re a nation of immigrants,” what should we be bearing in mind when we hear that evoked?

AC: Oh, well, thank you for asking me that question, because it’s a phrase that we are hearing every single day now, and it just makes my skin crawl. Because when we use that kind of language, “We’re a nation of immigrants,” we’re adopting what I would call a white supremacist version of US history. That is, there’s a hidden word in that, which is, “We are a nation of white immigrants.”

And the reason I say that word is hidden there is that for most of US history, to be an immigrant, you had to be white. That is, only white people were allowed to be immigrants, that is, people who could become citizens. People of color who either were forcibly transported to the territory or who already lived in the territory were not considered immigrants; they were not eligible to citizenship. So when we talk about Ellis Island and welcoming immigrants, we’re talking about white immigrants. Because only white people were allowed to immigrate during so much of US history.

JJ: A lack of historicity is a chronic problem with media. It’s a way that coverage can work against understanding, even without being false at the level of the sentence. And continuing that historical theme, I wonder if you can talk about the historical creation of illegality. Because this is something that we hear all the time, that people don’t oppose immigrants or immigration per se, it’s the illegality of it. And I think there’s a sense that that is a platonic understanding, when in fact it’s a historical creation.

AC: And it goes back to what I was just talking about. That is, if only white people could be considered immigrants, people of color were welcomed into the country, but not as immigrants. That is, people from Africa were forced to come to the country, but not as immigrants; they weren’t considered immigrants.

And until, really, the 1960s, Mexicans were welcomed into the country, also not as immigrants but as workers, and as specifically deportable workers. Because they could not be citizens, not being white, they were never considered immigrants. And there were a series of different legal regimes, from the early 20th century through 1965, that over and over again reiterated the fact that Mexicans were absolutely necessary as a labor force, but they had to be deported when their labor was not needed, and that they would not be considered immigrants or potential citizens.

And it’s really in the civil rights climate of the 1960s that the deportability of Mexicans solely because of their racial/national categorization as Mexicans started to become problematic. And the legal system for deporting people just for being Mexican started to be dismantled.

So that in 1965, when there’s an immigration quota put on Mexico for the first time, that’s acknowledging Mexicans as immigrants for the first time, but turning most of the Mexicans, who are still being brought here as workers, into illegal workers. It’s a new way of enforcing deportability on Mexicans after it becomes un-politically correct to say, “Well, of course they’re deportable, because they’re Mexican.” Now it becomes, “They’re deportable because they’re illegal.”

JJ: And that seems so crucial and so often papered over, this idea of status, in this case immigration status, as being caste. Because it allows people to say we’re not discriminating.

AC: Uh-huh.

JJ: Because it’s not about race, it’s just about criminality. And I understand that you see a connection between that status as caste, and the legal disabilities that come along with it—that has other analogues in American society right now that are relevant.

AC: Absolutely. And a lot of my thinking on this was really shaped by reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and looking at how new legal regimes enforce the same kinds of status under new language on African-Americans.

JJ: Right. So you have African-Americans disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system who, once you have a criminal record, you can’t vote, you can’t serve on a jury; there are other things, benefits of citizenship, that don’t accrue to you. But it becomes difficult, or more difficult, somehow or ostensibly, to trace it to race, because it’s not about race, it’s about criminal status.

AC: Although they’re the very same rights that African-Americans were deprived of on the basis of race until the 1960s.

JJ: Right. Well, again it brings us back to the way that we talk about these things, and what and who is missing from that conversation. So to just kind of bring it back around to the Boston Globe story, what we had there was a moment to include immigrant workers in the conversation about their own lives. Would you say it was a missed opportunity? I mean, what do you ultimately take away from that story that you wrote about?

AC: Well, in terms of the news coverage, I would say there were a couple of Boston Globe reporters who tried really valiantly to highlight the labor issue, to make that be the focus of the discussion.

JJ: Uh-huh.

AC: But I would say the newspaper as a whole, the management of the newspaper and the national level of coverage, just absolutely refused to acknowledge that.

JJ: And with that, I mean, a lot of what you’re talking about is making invisible — you know, we’re not talking about issues, we’re talking about human beings. And a lot relies on not seeing the lives and the experiences of these people whose labor in fact impacts virtually every aspect of our lives. So it actually is kind of an effort to make us not see them, in a way.

AC: And I would really say that this is just one tiny example of how our immigration system, our foreign policy, our global economic system, allows privileged people in the First World to enjoy the benefits of exploited Third World labor without ever having to see it. And that the privilege of getting to enjoy the material fruits of it is compounded by the privilege of not having to know it’s happening.

JJ: And I can’t help but add that helping us know things are happening that maybe we don’t want to know about really should be part of journalists’ core work, I would hope.

AC: Uh-huh.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Aviva Chomsky. Her most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. Aviva Chomsky, thank you so much for speaking with us this week on CounterSpin.

AC: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.


Obviously, I don't agree with all the implications in the article or the positions taken as such, particularly playing to the division that perpetuates the entire $y$tem itself; however, it confirms what I've been saying, and we all know the Globe's position on this matter.

I wonder if the reporters are still delivering the paper because I haven't seen a story in weeks if not longer.