Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Susan Moir's Fight For Labor Equality and Education

At age 19, Susan Moir, ScD, was a single mother in need of a job. That is, until she got one in a bakery that was organized by the Teamsters union. That initial encounter with a union proved to be the start of a decades-long relationship that has brought her from working in a bakery to driving a Boston school bus to her current position as director of UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center, a position she has held since 2004. Previous to working at UMass Boston, Dr. Moir spent twelve years as the founding Director of the Construction Occupational Health Program (COHP) at UMass Lowell.

“I am the rare American worker who has almost always had a union job,” says Dr. Moir. Indeed, union membership has never reached huge proportions in this country--peaking at 28% of the workforce in 1954--but involvement in unions is becoming more and more uncommon in this age of globalization, outsourcing, and economic instability. Union membership is now at 12%. “I think it is very scary,” says Dr. Moir of today’s labor realities. “Hours are longer. Productivity is up dramatically which translates to hard work all day with little recovery time. Wages and benefits are dropping. Work is very insecure because the global workforce has put great pressure on the American standard of living.” This sort of pressure is what Dr. Moir spends her days challenging.

Since coming to UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center, Dr. Moir has successfully strengthened the undergraduate Labor Resource program and has lobbied--successfully--to institute a Labor Studies minor at UMass Boston. It will be open for enrollment next Fall. Currently, UMass Boston is the only university in New England where students can receive a bachelor’s degree in Labor Studies. With the advent of Dr. Moir’s newly designed Labor Studies minor, these issues will be brought to the forefront in a new way. Dr. Moir believes the future of the labor movement lies with young people, and the minor is a step in that direction.

“What we talk about in our Labor Studies courses is the need for a new type of labor movement— one that sees the need to think globally, to organize across industries and across borders and to be in solidarity with everyone who is getting the short end of it--youth, immigrants, poor women, workers in sweatshops around the world.” Instituting the Labor Studies minor is not only an attempt on the part of Dr. Moir and others in the Labor Resource Center to educate students about labor-related issues, it is part of a larger effort to involve young people in an area where they are underrepresented.

“The average age of union members today is over 45 and fewer than 1/4 of union members are under 35. My people are going to die off and the workers movement in the US will die with us if we don’t bring in more young people” says Dr. Moir. “The problem is not that young people do not want to be in unions because studies have shown that the vast majority of workers— if they feel they will not lose their job— would prefer to have union protections at work. The problem is the changing nature of work in the US.”

The sectors where young people typically work, like retail, food service, IT and tech jobs are generally not unionized. Dr. Moir attributes this to a lack of vision in the labor movement, but says “the country’s very weak labor laws” bear more of the responsibility, adding that they “make it very hard to win a union even when the majority of workers want it.”

Typically, the students in the Labor Studies major are not of traditional college age because they have often spent significant time working in unions or organizing before they decide to return to school. These students are unique in that they have experience with the issues they are studying and come in with an informed perspective. The traditional undergraduate likely doesn’t have the same perspective.

“Sometime ago, I was on the phone with someone like myself, a lifetime in the labor movement and almost finished,” says Dr. Moir. “We were whining about the need to get more young people involved in the labor movement. That was the day I opened my eyes and saw the 10,000 or more young people around me every day I go to work. Duh! We never had a minor before and our program was virtually unavailable to traditionally aged undergraduates. The Labor Studies minor will close that gap. I hope that we can provide a place where young students can learn about the history of labor, our accomplishments and mistakes.” Dr. Moir piloted a class with undergraduate honors students last Fall entitled “Are Unions Necessary? Labor and economic transformation in the US since 1945” in preparation for teaching students within the Labor Studies minor who may not have direct experience with unions. When asked what she hopes to accomplish by targeting young students she replies, “that some will be inspired to come along and take it over from the grey heads.”

Making a Bad Idea Great: Replacing Major League Baseball’s League Division Series with a Round Robin Tournament.

Major League Baseball’s playoff format change is a matter of when and not if. Bud Selig is not done creating his legacy and the owners are not done squeezing every dime out of their product. Remember, this is the same league that claimed their statistical data was intellectual property in an attempt to get their hands in the Fantasy Sports cookie jar. Bud Selig and his collection of Major League Yes Men need to decide on how many dates they can afford to take to the dance. Expanding the playoffs by one wildcard team would mean a five team playoff. Only two viable solutions exist in this scenario. Do Buddy and the Execs give the top seeded team a bye or do the two wildcard teams play in a 1-3 game playoff, as the other three teams watch on their clubhouse televisions? Though I am sure Buddy Boy would much rather they watch on MLB.TV.COM to the tune of $7.95 a game.

Another idea would be to add two more wild card teams for a total of six playoff teams per league, with the top two seeds receiving a bye, similar to the NFL’s format. In most cases, unless you belong to a player’s union, mirroring the NFL is a good idea. Baseball’s playoff system is not one of those cases. Ask the ’06 Tigers about the benefits of a week off. Baseball players play 162 games in six months. That factors into about 15 days off from April 1 to September 30. Athletes are like three year old children, they thrive on routine and predictability. A one week bye would lead to unpolished Spring Training like baseball.

Bud and the family stone must also consider the quality of their product if the playoffs are expanded. If the five team format was used during the ’10 season, the Red Sox and Padres would have been the fifth seeds in their respective leagues. Both teams overachieved when considering their talent (Padres) and injuries (Red Sox). Bud would never balk at adding the Boston and Southern California televisions markets. If the six team format was used in ’10 Chicago and Saint Louis would have been the last teams in. Both worthy sports markets, but would those teams improve the on field product? There would have been millions of more viewers to watch Albert Pujols peddle Wheaties and see Manny being Manny. But did we really need to see Chicago and Saint Louis in the playoffs last year? In ’09 the Rangers and the Marlins would have been sixth seeds with 87 wins apiece. Did anyone turn their television to TBS at 8:00pm Eastern Standard Time and say to themselves, ‘I wish there was a more mediocre 87 win team playing tonight’? Few people are doing cartwheels over the idea of adding an additional wildcard team, let alone two. No one wants to see an NBA-like scenario where the first month of a two month format is spent eliminating the victory challenged.

Even the Amish would not accuse Major League Baseball of being overly innovative or spending too much time thinking outside the box. If Baseball would consider doing something innovative, they could turn a bad idea into the most exciting playoff format in professional sports. Major League Baseball needs follow the lead of American Legion and AUU Baseball and use a round robin format in the first round. In this format each of the five teams would play each other team three times, with the higher seed playing at home. Each team would have one day off between series two and three, similar to the schedule that is played during the regular season. The two teams with the best records would advance to their league’s LCS, with the LCS’s being played using the present format.

The first problem some may see is the length of the first round. In 2010 the last LDS ended nine days after the last regular season game. The first game of the NLCS was played on October 16, thirteen days after the leagues last regular season game. With the Round Robin system, players could be given a day off after the last regular season game and finish the first round fourteen days later. A round Robin tournament also eliminates the possibilities of a three game sweep, which leads to lost stadium and television revenue. The only other format that would allow the LCS’s to begin on the same day would be a wild card play-in. The NCAA Basketball tournament added a play-in game a couple years back. Can anyone name the two teams that played in the play-in game last year without reaching for their laptop or smart phone? Another, much less popular solution would be a bye for the highest seeded team. Baseball is not football; A week off does more harm than good.

Logistics could also pose a problem. Major league Baseball would have to wait until the last day of the season to schedule the additional games. Baseball can easily take a page from the NFL’s playbook, pun intended. When the Metro Dome’s roof collapsed in December, the game that was supposed to be played in Minnesota on Sunday afternoon was played in Detroit on Monday night. If a team can figure out how to transport fifty-two football players with all their equipment and find hotel rooms to house them in with only twenty-four hours notice, a baseball team can easily figure out how to transport 25 guys and some gloves and bats with forty-eight hours notice. Baseball is also a geek magnet. There are plenty of statisticians and mathematicians who have the ability and desire to figure out a schedule where five teams each play one another three times in thirteen days.

Major League Baseball is not the BCS. No one can debate the amount of revenue a team could bring in. The top seed would host an additional twelve games. 45,000 seats at $200 to $1,500 a ticket over the course of twelve games is enough to make any owner salivate over their team’s success. The owners of the Marlins and Royals may even spend enough money to field major league caliber teams. There is also a matter of television revenue. The LDS’s, provided each series goes five games (THAT HAS NEVER AND WILL NEVER HAPPEN) allows TBS and FOX to reap the rewards of televising a total of twenty games. A tournament would mean sixty televised games. Those sixty games are televised no matter what, unlike an LDS which might only last, and usually does, three games. The revenue from a first round tournement would dramatically outweigh what Major League Baseball makes from the four LDS series.

Money, ratings and starting the LCS’s in time for the World Series to be played in October are all great things, but what about us, the fans. Despite the owners and players best efforts, Baseball still exists for us. The most important thing to consider is the product on the field. What would be more exciting then watching a Major League round robin tournament? Unless their team is playing, even the most hardcore Baseball fan has trouble maintaining interest through the LDS’s. With a round robin tournament fans will take interest in all the games. There will be situations where another team losing is just as important as your team winning. With higher playoff seeds hosting each three game series, seeding becomes important. Remember, the top seed plays all twelve games at home and the last seed plays all twelve games on the road. The last week also becomes more interesting as playoff bound teams begin to line up their pitching staffs for the playoffs. Do they fight for the highest playoff seed or do they set-up their Ace to pitch the first game of the tournament?

The round robin tournament is not likely to ever happen; it is just too different and too new. Baseball fans tend to be purists and hate change. Somewhere Bob Costas is in a dimly lit bar drinking a tall boy of milk and complaining how the elimination of Indian Rubber ruined a once great game. Baseball, for the first time in thirty years, could thumb its nose at the NFL and say, ‘Na na na na boo boo, we can revamp our product better than you.’ Baseball will go the safe and stupid route. Under the best scenarios, the LCS’s and World Series will start at least a week later then they already do and we will see the first snow delay in World Series history. Don’t worry, Bud, your legacy will remain intact. You will forever be credited as the man who brought a 1960s playoff format to baseball in 1995 and had the foresight to make it even worse a decade-and-a- half later. The new and unimproved playoff system is still a couple years away, but until then, we can dream of a first round that would actually work for everybody from the fans to the owners and be the most interesting and unique playoff format in North American professional sports.

An American Girl in Italy (Circa 2008-2011)

by Donna Perezella

“Relax, we’ll be fine,” I reassure the bespectacled guy sitting next to me, who I’ll call 41K. “There’s nothing to worry about. The pilot would not take off if he didn’t think it was safe.”

“How can you be so sure?” 41K questions me, his hand clenching our shared armrest.

“It’s easy,” I tell him, just as airport personnel begin to follow our Alitalia plane down the runway, de-icing it en route, “he’s Italian.”
“What’s that have to do with flying a plane during a blizzard? Every other flight has been cancelled,” he barks at me, fear now in his eyes, his free hand twisting his long, gray ponytail.

“Listen, the Italians are such cautious people. You’ll understand once you get there,” I explain to 41K, who along with me and hundreds of other travelers, is bound for Rome on this day after Christmas. “If they feel a breeze in the summer, they’ll wear scarves to protect themselves against a sore throat. When it comes to my safety, these are the people I want flying my plane.”

And yes, I really meant it, for I had finally come to understand the Italian way of thinking. They are like open books, exposing their thoughts, souls, and opinions, to anyone wanting to take a closer look. Wearing a scarf in the summer is not unusual, even when the outside thermometer reads a balmy 24°C, that’s 75.2° F for us anti-metric Americans.

Their obsession with the throat, however, is a distant second to their preoccupation with the digestive system. I often wondered why, when in an Italian bar, I would be the recipient of looks of horror when ordering an afternoon cappuccino.
“It’s so American,” my ex-pat friends living in Italy would lecture me. “Nothing else says you’re an American like ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon, except wearing white sneakers.”

As it turns out, the baristas’ looks of shock had nothing to do with any country of birth, but rather for what they viewed as a blatant disregard for the health of my digestive system. Italians believe with conviction that milk products consumed after 10 a.m. have a negative effect on the digestive system. So, every day across Italy, after 10 a.m., Italians raise their diminutive cups of pitch-black espresso and toast to the health of their digestive systems. Salute!

But when does being the gatekeeper of one’s body border on paranoia? While in Italy just last month, I sent my husband to the Coop, a local small-chain food market, to purchase chicory.

When he returned, I apologized for not mentioning that he needed to ask for chicory by its Italian name, chicoria.

“No problem, I had my dictionary with me and showed the worker what I wanted and she found the chicory. But then she got nervous when I started putting loose oranges in my basket, she even put them in a produce bag for me,” he explains, a bit confused.

“YOU PUT ORANGES DIRECTLY IN YOUR BASKET? NOOOOOOOOOOO,” I cry out, not knowing if I will ever be able to step foot in the Coop again.

You see, there are five commandments for purchasing fruits and vegetables at the Coop or any other Italian market that one must always obey:

• First, thou shalt put on a pair of disposable plastic gloves before the handling of any produce, including those with non-edible skin, like bananas or oranges.
• Second, thou shalt place the produce that thou hast selected with gloved-hands, into a plastic bag.
• Third, thou shalt make a mental note of the item number for the selected produce.
• Fourth, thou shalt place the bag of produce on the scale if thou can find it, and enter the number that thou hopefully can still remember.
• Fifth, thou shalt place the sticker that the scale has spat out on the produce bag, making sure thou hast properly sealed it.

Once all of these rules have been followed, you are now free to proceed to the register.

Head there at your own risk, for more rules await you. Need a bag for your groceries? That will be nine centesimi (about 12 cents). But, it’s not about the money; it’s about the environment, so I am told.

If it’s about the environment, then how can the Italians’ preoccupation with lo scontrino (the receipt) be explained? In an effort to combat the problematic “cash is king” mentality, where businesses prefer cash of the unreported kind, the government is hoping that by requiring businesses to issue lo scontrino to every customer who pays in cash, this problem will be alleviated. With the threat of una multa (a fine) of 30 euro to those businesses in violation, it’s enough to scare anyone, except my Italian landlady, of course!

The Coop cashier, who will charge you nine centesimi for a flimsy bag, will not hesitate to leave her register, and chase you down the street, if you dare forget your receipt.

So it’s no surprise that by the end of my first week in Italy, my collection of receipts begins to resemble a mismatched deck of playing cards. I have receipts for every euro I have spent, from my apartment rental (not for the full amount, remember – baby steps) to a group of ten small receipts, each in the amount of 80 centesimi.

And it’s no coincidence that these ten small receipts, although from ten different bars, are all for the identical amount. For in Italy, the price of a single shot of espresso is regulated by the government, keeping the price set at 80 centesimi, or about $1. It would be like discovering in Boston that the prices for a small coffee at Starbucks, Peets, and Dunkin Donuts are all the same.

But this isn’t Boston, this is Italy, and when in Italy, one must do as the Italians do. So, if you feel a breeze on a hot summer night– grab a scarf, make sure you handle produce only with gloves, and never, ever, ever order a cappuccino after 10 in the morning.

Monday, February 21, 2011

PTSD, Taking its Toll

In 2009, there were 380 cases of suicide among U.S. military service members—a number greater than the number killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Many believe that there is a direct correlation between the soaring number of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the sharp increase in suicides. And as military suicide percentages have finally passed civilian averages, the steady increase in cases is starting to set off alarm bells among military leaders. They are beginning to recognize that it is an issue they have to address actively, and in a whole new way. With the possible number of PTSD cases from the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan estimated to include up to 30% of all service members, the potential risk for even greater tragedy grows.

There are many reasons forwarded as potential causes for the increased suicide rate among service members. The War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan are the longest on record, and the lengthened rotations and decreased dwell time—time at home between rotations—have been seen as major detrimental factors to the mental stability of service members in general. When added to the daily stresses of living and fighting in war zones, the risk of mental issues only increases.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking last year at the 2nd Annual Suicide Prevention Conference, said that the problem of suicides in the military was growing serious, was affecting all the branches of the military, and that increased deployment must be part of that equation. "I know at this point in time, there does not appear to be any scientific correlation between the number of deployments and those who are at risk, but I'm just hard-pressed to believe that's not the case," Admiral Mullen said.

PTSD is believed to stem from events in which the individual faces such overwhelming trauma that his or her mind is incapable of thinking or dealing with feelings normally. Those thoughts and feelings the individual had during those traumatic events later resurface, often causing the individual debilitating distress. PTSD, in previous conflicts referred to as “Shell Shock” of “Battle Fatigue,” is now known to affect people of all ages and backgrounds who have suffered severe trauma from a host of different causes: physical or sexual abuse, shootings, and floods or other natural disasters are some examples. It is thought that half of all Americans suffer some form of severe trauma during their lifetime. Although many are able to cope with the traumatic event, some 10% are not, and go on to develop PTSD. For women, the most common event that causes PTSD are rape and sexual abuse, while for men, combat is the most prevalent.

It is believed that there are a lot of stressors that service members may be subject to--well before a traumatic event--that set the stage for a more profoundly negative coping response. Dr. Craig Bryan, a psychologist who studies suicidal behavior and prevention, and advises the Air Force and Department of Defense on PTSD, feels that service members are often mentally weakened well before a major event happens. When interviewing troops, he said, their biggest complaint “wasn't the combat, seeing the dead bodies, shooting people, being shot, being injured. Yes, those were definitely important but what most service members talked about the most was the day-to-day benign stressors. It was the not being able to sleep in a comfortable bed, not having access to warm, cooked food, not being able to communicate with loved ones easily. Those day-to-day stressors slowly degrade their mental resources and their resiliency so that when big things happen -- the explosions occur, when the gun battles happen -- they don't have as much energy in their battery to get through that and that's where we started to see more of the problems."

Service members in Iraq and Afghanistan have often been subjected to many significant stresses: killing insurgents, or seeing comrades killed or wounded; the constant fear of being killed or injured—even if an IED (improvised explosive device) is not encountered on a patrol, the fear of one going off is constant; the sometimes dehumanizing policing orders that soldiers are ordered to carry out; and unintended civilian killings.

Clinicians look for three types of symptoms when diagnosing PTSD: unavoidable, distressing, vivid memories, dreams or re-living of the traumatic event; feelings of withdrawal or disconnect from others, loss of interest in life and loss of interest in activities; and increased agitation, anxiety, or panic attacks.

Although there is a growing knowledge base of PTSD, its causes and symptoms, its diagnosis can be quite difficult, in part due to the military culture itself. Service members often avoid shows of perceived weakness in general, and they tend to distrust medical personnel, viewing them as outsiders. They worry that being diagnosed with a mental illness would make them unfit for duty, or that it would negatively impact their military career, or planned careers after their military commitments are finished.

Further complicating PTSD diagnosis is the fact that many sufferers often have other disorders like depression or substance abuse that have some of the same symptoms of PTSD. In addition, symptoms of PTSD often surface much later, long after the traumatic events have passed and physical wounds have healed.

Until recently, veterans applying to Veterans’ Affairs (VA) for disability benefits and treatment for PTSD had to prove that a specific traumatic incident—a particular explosion, or combat event they were involved in, etc.—was the reason behind their disability. This would severely delay veterans’ gaining their disability status and access to treatment—sometimes up to years later.

It was only in July of 2010 that the VA changed its ruling about PTSD cases, no longer requiring such an onus of proof on the part of the veteran.

By the time service members and veterans do seek help, they are usually very distressed and are well into advanced stages of mental illness. They are already suffering intensely, are agitated, cognitively constricted, and have a general feeling of hopelessness. Interventions include psychoanalysis and medication. Often used in conjunction, both have been found to be successful to different degrees, with some difficulty in getting the right medication for the specific individual.

The different anti-depressents most often used in treating PTSD are Bupropion, Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. The antipsychotics most often used are Risperdal, Zyprexa, and Seroquel. They normally take 6-8 weeks to reach a therapeutic level, so for those already in acute distress, relief can still be a long way off. Also, the first drug prescribed might not work for the specific individual, and another drug has to be tried--and another 6-8 weeks must pass before therapeutic levels can be reached. Adding to this fact that the doses may be too high or too low, and a patient could be faced with many months with little or no relief and/or living through a rollercoaster of mental states. There have been a number of cases of suicide by individuals already being treated in the VA system.

Tragically, 75% of those that commit suicide have never sought help of any kind.

Douglas Murphy