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Mon, 20 Feb 2012

Further Thoughts on Pomona College Dining Hall Workers

— SjG @ 11:52 am

The “Work Authorization Issue” has been rolling on in the media over the last few weeks, with stories appearing in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and San Jose Mercury News among other papers. In addition to the letter sent out by Pomona College President David Oxtoby (to which I previously posted my thoughts), there have been postings to Facebook by Jennifer Wilcox, the college’s Young Alumni Trustee, and, Friday, a new letter from Dodie Bump, the President of the Pomona College Alumni Association.

These communications have all struggled to represent the issues of work authorization and the dining hall workers’ unionization effort as entirely separate issues. This last letter from Bump, for example, argues that the timing of the work authorization issue and the unionization effort “was truly a tragic coincidence,” and that “as an anti-union tactic, this would have been pretty stupid.” I don’t think anyone is arguing that a union-busting move like this would be especially clever — Machiavellian, perhaps, or pragmatic, depending upon your views. In any case, let’s give the College the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and discuss the question: what would lead the College to get into a situation where such a “tragic coincidence” could occur?

We need to start by being honest. The College has been unequivocally against the unionization effort1. President Oxtoby has publicly criticized the idea in a letter to the school. The College has had to settle a complaint with the NLRB over practices (admittedly, while denying wrongdoing) related to the dining hall employees and union efforts. And when the “tragic coincidence” occurred, who did the College opt to bring to handle the investigation? Why, in a tragic coincidence, they selected a law firm that is known for union-busting — one that even brags about it on their web site.

My speculation, based purely upon experiences in other institutions, is that some individual did, in fact, trigger the authorization issue as an anti-union tactic — although, perhaps, without the authorization or approval of the administration. The College’s reaction has had all the hallmarks of an institution “circling the wagons” and doing damage control for ill-advised actions by one member. Yes, the action achieved the desired effect and disrupted the unionization effort, but it also has had (and will continue to have) consequences far beyond the original intent.

Dodie’s letter calls for the community to move on, stop finger-pointing, and begin the healing. I agree, there is an excellent opportunity here. Pomona could demonstrate its commitment to its people, and show that it has been dealing in good faith: with the College’s legal and financial resources, Pomona could promote healing by helping the fired workers obtain whatever authorizations the law requires. Sponsor them for green cards, say, or H2B visas at the very least. No question it would be expensive and time consuming, but such action would go great lengths to disprove the accusations of the College’s detractors. It would show that Pomona is dedicated to doing the right thing.

As a small business owner, I fully understand the importance of controlling costs. But I also know that costs are just one part of the equation, and that a business’ good name and positive reputation are vital to its survival. Pomona is known for being one of the top five liberal arts institutions in the United States. What sets it apart from the many other colleges and universities? Time and again, people cite the small, personal nature of Pomona. The College doesn’t just have outstanding faculty, but has outstanding faculty who truly care about the students. The Administration fosters faculty and provides freedom and opportunities unmatched by other institutions. College is not merely a place for academic growth, but for all forms of personal growth, and Pomona is known to offer an ideal environment for development. This is why students turn down larger institutions like Stanford, Berkeley, or Ivy League Colleges to attend Pomona.

By not extending the nurturing environment to the entire college community, however, Pomona risks losing the bright shine from its reputation. Creating a caste system, where one group is cultivated and another group is repressed is antithetical to the principles upon which Pomona was founded. It may make sense from the perspective of running a for-profit business, but that is not what Pomona represents. Having unionized dining-hall workers would increase Pomona’s cost of doing business. However, this increase in cost is nothing compared to the damage that would be done if people started perceiving the College as just another uncaring corporate institution.

1 Despite this opposition to the workers unionizing, these communications from Pomona have all included the somewhat mysterious statement that the College can’t initiate a unionization vote. It’s an odd statement to make. No one has accused Pomona of failing to initiate a vote. The accusation is that the College is hindering the effort of the workers to get to the point where they can initiate a vote themselves.

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Fri, 10 Feb 2012

Midichlorovox

— SjG @ 7:11 pm

At last, a cure may be available for this terrible disease. Expect to see this ad in print magazines everywhere.


Click for Larger Image.

Printable size available. Inquire within.


Fri, 20 Jan 2012

A Modest Proposal

— SjG @ 9:45 am

Property owners in the United States1 pay property tax. While it makes the Randists froth at the mouth, the reason for this is quite pragmatic: people pay for the infrastructure, defense, and other public services in their communities that support their property. The theory is that a homeowner, for example, has a vested interest in the neighborhood roads being maintained, in having an active fire department, and so on. Similarly, businesses rely on decent roads, an educated workforce, and similar services to do business. We all depend on law enforcement and our defense forces to keep us safe from criminals and the odd invasion.

With the exception of the aforementioned Randists and related lunatics, everyone agrees that the concept of property tax is reasonable. We may all argue about what falls within the realm of appropriate services or infrastructure, and we all feel that our own particular property tax burden is too great, but we agree that there are necessities that we need to help pay for.

Recent events (e.g., the SOPA/PIPA debacle) have brought intellectual property into the spotlight. Corporations owning music, film, and book copyrights are justly upset about the degree of “piracy” taking place on the Internet. While the numbers they present as their financial losses have been widely debunked, there are, in fact, actual losses. So they spend a lot of money lobbying and contributing to political campaigns, and we get fiascos like SOPA/PIPA.

Similarly, we have a patent system that’s wildly out of control. People can and do patent ideas that are …er… patently obvious, or tiny increments over widespread practice. Those patents are then used to suppress whole classes of technologies and programs. Technology companies like Apple, Unisys, and SCO are notoriously litigious, and have often succeeded in using the legal system to suppress competition via patents. Patent trolls or patent clearing houses leverage ridiculous patents to essentially blackmail programmers for ideas that can be found in textbooks. We see small players put out of business on a regular basis, often because they can’t afford to defend against spurious patent claims.

It got me thinking. As a homeowner, I pay annual taxes, commensurate with the value of my house. This money, in effect, pays to protect the value of my property.

The “Content Industry” (RIAA/MPAA) and technology companies claim a great deal of value for their intellectual property, but rely on public money to defend that value. Sure, they pay lawyers, but they use my public courts and (attempt to) pass ever more restrictive laws to protect their assets. A huge amount of government time and public money is wasted on these cases, and we find congress ignoring important issues to focus on extending copyright ad infinitum. The public cost due to lost innovation is staggering2. It’s time for the intellectual property owners to share the burden of that cost. It’s time for a tax on intellectual property.

Intellectual property is hard to appraise for value — thus the owner should be allowed to declare what that value is. The catch is that they will be taxed on that declared value. Like most other property taxes, the value will be appraised on a yearly basis, with limits on the maximum amount of change from one year to the next. If owners decide their property is worth a great deal, then they can pay a great deal to help defend it. If they decide it’s worth nothing, then they cannot claim huge damages when it is not protected and the property is infringed upon.

Intellectual Property Tax. It’s only fair.

1 Most countries have some form of property tax, even if it’s not exactly the same thing as in the US.
2 Patents are, by their nature, designed to foster innovation by giving owners a temporary monopoly. We agree to tweak an otherwise free market to encourage people and companies to invest time into research and development. This system only works if, in fact, the kinds of things that are granted this protection are actual innovations rather than mundane and obvious incremental improvements. As they exist today patents are largely abused, and actually end up preventing new ideas from reaching the market while increasing the cost of products that do.


Tue, 17 Jan 2012

Open Letter to Pomona College President Oxtoby

— SjG @ 10:08 pm

Dear President Oxtoby,

Over the past year, I have been concerned to read unflattering reports in the media about Pomona College’s actions against the ongoing unionization efforts of the dining hall staff. Thus, when I began reading your letter of January 3rd, I was excited to see that you were going to risk discussing a political topic, and speak directly to the issue.

By the time I finished the first paragraph, however, my excitement turned to extreme disappointment. Reading the more detailed discussion on the college web site only deepened my dismay.

When I was a student at Pomona, intellectual honesty was held up as an essential value. To portray the current situation as one of immigration policy is disingenuous at best, and smacks of downright dishonesty. The accusations leveled against the college are extremely unsettling, and need to be addressed. Confronting employees’ work authorization and immigration policy is certainly part of that discussion, but you need to tackle the complete situation. The college’s position on employee unionization efforts needs to be clearly stated.

Beyond the need for unambiguous discussion, the College needs to operate in an above-board and honorable way. If the College chooses to oppose unionization, it absolutely must do so in a principled and ethical fashion.

I’m embarrassed that my alma mater is under investigation by the NLRB for unfair labor practices. I’m appalled that Pomona imposed a gag order on its students and employees. I’m ashamed that Pomona has become the kind of place where workers are made to feel that they need a union to protect themselves, and that it has become the kind of place that engages in union-busting.

Pomona College is better than this.

I would urge you think about what message the College’s recent actions send to the world. Do we really “bear our added riches in trust for all,” or does that sentiment not extend to the people who actually work at the college?

Sincerely,
Samuel Goldstein

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Sign of the Times

— SjG @ 2:58 pm

I think it’s a sad, sad sign of the times that most Linux distros not only omit figlet from their standard installations, but often don’t even offer it in their package managers.

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 / _` | |/ _` / __| |  / _` | '_ \ / _` | \ \ /\ / / _ \ / _ \ |
| (_| | | (_| \__ \_| | (_| | | | | (_| |  \ V  V / (_) |  __/_|
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