Wal-Mart and Unions

The Thinker by Rodin

When is a union good for Wal-Mart? Apparently only when they are in communist countries like China. And Wal-Mart is okay with it. Why shouldn’t they be? Because this “union” is no union. Instead it is run by the All-China Federation, which is directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Yeah, I know at one time communism was about liberating the masses from oppressive capitalists. But no longer. Chinese taxi drivers, for example, routinely work 15 hours days trying to make a living. They too are protected by the All-China Federation. In other words, workers in these “unions” have zero control and no influence over their union, their working conditions and their wages. In fact the unions exist solely to serve the purpose of the state. And if Chinese unionized workers are unwise enough to actually speak up and complain about their wages and working conditions, they will most likely be booted out of the union and their job too. Clearly these are not unions. So naturally “unions” in China and Wal-Mart are a natural fit. What could be more natural for Wal-Mart than cheap and plentiful workers forced to work long hours at starvation wages?

When is a union not good for Wal-Mart? Whenever a union acts like a real union, and demands a decent wage and some say in their working conditions. When this happens we see the real Wal-Mart in action. For example, in Jonquiere, Quebec the local Wal-Mart is going to close in May as a result of reputed “unreasonable demands” from the union leaders. What was unreasonable here was apparently the expectation that Wal-Mart would bargain in good faith. But this is but the latest example. Whenever a real union wins clout Wal-Mart refuses to deal. It will shut this store but not because it will lose money. Better to nip this union thing in the bud, is how Wal-Mart executives view it, before it spreads like a cancer. Wal-Mart workers need to feel that unionization is hopeless.

Wal-Mart will take the most extraordinary means to ensure unions cannot take hold in their company. For example, in 2000 the meatcutters at its Jacksonville, Texas store voted to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. Wal-Marts enlightened response: get out of the meatcutting business altogether. Today all its stores are stocked with prewrapped meat only. Those few union workers: laid off. And I’ll bet you that their meat is not coming from businesses affiliated with unions.

As I opined in 2003, Wal-Mart is an evil corporation. It’s as evil today as it has ever been. Their slick web site and media campaigns want you to think their employees are ever so happy and doing ever so well. But that’s the spin, but it’s not the reality. If their average employee is making $9.68 an hour they are still living in poverty or slinging two or three other jobs to get by. How do I know? Because factoring for inflation, $9.68 in 2004 was worth $3.79 an hour in 1979. And that’s about what I averaged on a good week working full time at Montgomery Ward selling shoes against a draw. And I was living in poverty. I could not afford a car. I lived in a group home. I could not afford health insurance. I had trouble affording food. I ate a lot of rice and boil in bags because they were cheap. The fact that this $9.68 an hour wage is almost twice the current minimum wage is irrelevant. It is still poverty wages. The minimum wage has simply not kept up with inflation.

Wouldn’t it be great if we moved the focus of our War Against Evil from places like Iraq and liberated Wal-Mart employees instead? Wouldn’t it be great if we forced scummy corporations like Wal-Mart to pay their employees a living wage? I’m ready to enlist in that War Against Evil.

The Battle of Ox Hill: Developers: 1, Preservationists: 0

The Thinker by Rodin

You would think that having lived in Northern Virginia twenty years I would have some idea of the Civil War battles fought in my area. Yes, I was aware of both Battles of Manassas. I have even visited the site with my daughter a few years back. It was a sobering experience to walk across the battlefield. It was not difficult to imagine the carnage and horror that were twice visited there because it has been well preserved. You can walk for miles along well-defined paths and read the many markers along the way. You can also refer to the brochures liberally handed out at the Visitor’s Center.

Fortunately there is not much in the way of development encroaching on this sacred ground. But don’t think developers haven’t tried. In the early 1990s Disney purchased some acreage along the battlefield to develop — what else — a theme park based on American history. Thankfully the community and preservationists managed to kill the proposal before a spade’s worth of dirt was turned over. And yet development encroaches along the battlefield’s edges. As real estate prices escalate and as our memories of the Civil War recede I wonder how much longer this battlefield can remain unspoiled.

I hadn’t realized that a significant civil war battle was fought right here in Fairfax County. It was called the Battle of Ox Hill (or sometimes the Battle of Chantilly). It occurred on September 1, 1862 during a hellacious thunderstorm. All this history happened about five miles from my house. This was not some minor skirmish. This battle occurred shortly after the Second Battle of Manassas. Union forces were busy staging a hasty retreat after having gotten beat badly by General Stonewall Jackson and the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas. There were believed to be 2100 casualties from the Battle of Ox Hill. Among the dead were two Union generals: Major General Philip Kearny and Major General Isaac Stevens. I’m no civil war buff but I’m pretty sure the Battle of Ox Hill was the closest Civil War battle to Washington, D.C. After the battle, General Robert E. Lee, trying to outflank the Union forces sent his army toward Leesburg. From there his army crossed the Potomac and eventually participated in the Battle of Antietam on September 16th, 1862. That battle of course became infamous as the bloodiest of the Civil War. It killed or wounded over 23,000 soldiers.

Those of us who live in Fairfax County might be wondering where the hell Ox Hill is anyhow. In Fairfax County we don’t have mountains. I didn’t even know there was an Ox Hill. It is an area that sits at one of the highest points in Fairfax County near the corner of Monument Drive and West Ox Road between Chantilly and Fairfax City. Aside from the vista it provided at the time it was also somewhat strategic. It was near the crossings of two major roads. Today we know them as Routes 50 and 29.

The battle comprised at least a mile of terrain in all directions. But what is left? I’m almost embarrassed to report there is only a tiny 4.5 acre “park” maintained by the Fairfax County Park Authority. I passed by it hundreds of times and had no idea it was even there. But my wife said she remembered seeing a sign about the battle. So yesterday I got on my bike and peddled down to the park to see it for myself.

The park is stuck between two major thoroughfares. Despite the small patch of woods that comprises the park the sound of traffic is deafening at times. There is one short path that goes through the park. It is gravel and it disappears as the hill slopes down. Through the trees of the park you can see nearby apartment complexes. Across Ox Road sits more apartments. Across Monument drive is a major retail complex holding a Safeway, a Tower Records and a cinema, among many other stores.

Inside the park is this small monument to the fallen Union generals Kearny and Stevens.

That’s it. There is not even a park bench in which to rest your tuckus while you contemplate the horrors of that day.

If you read the full story of the Battle of Ox Hill you realize that for days abandoned wounded soldiers of both sides quietly died in the woods. You learn that fellow Unitarian Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, treated wounded soldiers from the courthouse in nearby Fairfax. Buried in these sacred grounds, now covered with strip malls, condos and apartment complex are doubtless the remains of more civil war soldiers like this.

And yet it is like it never happened. The markers are innocuous enough not to be noticed by most people. We zip by in our cars rushing on our errands and are largely unaware we do so on hallowed grounds.

It is too late to reclaim this land. All that is left of the battle is this tiny snippet of land, not easily accessible by car, with its small monument hidden in the woods and a few placards along the side of the road.

Perhaps because Fairfax County realized it made a mistake, there are plans to improve the site with a parking lot and a visitor’s shelter using some money proffered by the original developers of the site. This is certainly better than nothing but it’s not much better. The whole area should have been left undeveloped.

It is nothing short of a scandal that we allowed developers to pave over our heritage. And I suspect the Battle of Ox Hill is but one of many lesser known civil war battles that have largely disappeared under the banner of progress.

My nemesis the cat

The Thinker by Rodin

I must be a very bad pet owner.

We have two rather geriatric cats. They recently turned seventeen years old. They were purchased in early 1987 as something of a house warming present for ourselves. We had purchased our town house six months earlier and weren’t planning children any time soon.

We had managed to find another home for a rather neurotic cat left over from my wife’s single days and were petless. Dixie, the previous cat, was a very large, extremely beautiful but very neurotic cat. She insisted on sleeping with us (because my wife let him), in the process usually taking up most of my side of the bed. I’ve noticed extremely beautiful people tend to be self centered and neurotic but was surprised that the same seemed to be true of gorgeous cats. This was a cat who was either asleep or licking itself. No one could see Dixie without being immediately drawn to him. This factor worked in our favor when we wanted to find him a new home: he was snapped up by the first person who came over to check him out.

But my wife was used to having furry things around the house and after a couple months she was desperate to have another cat. How could I tell? Perhaps it was because she was wandering around the house saying “Got to have a cat!” all the time. I got the message. This time though she wanted to start with a kitten. The only problem was there were no kittens available and she couldn’t wait. We eventually found some kittens at a Doctors Pet Center in Tysons Corner: three kittens from the same litter. It was pretty much take it or leave it.

Sprite, the good cat
I noticed Sprite right away: a lovely grey and white cat that even at 10 weeks old had a sweet and mellow disposition. Terri noticed Squeaky, the girl cat in the litter. I wasn’t wild about Squeaky but I naively thought two cats from the same litter could become playmates and they would be happier that way.

Clearly I didn’t have much experience with cats! Except for a parakeet, I came from a petless household. I have since learned to never project this feeling on a cat: cats don’t particularly want other cats around. In retrospect we all agreed it would have been better to have gone home with just Sprite. I think Squeaky too would have been much happier. But we were young and foolish so both of them came home.

Squeaky was originally named Pixel. Pixel and Sprite were both computer graphics terms, and I owned a Commodore 64 at the time, so it seemed appropriate. Squeaky’s true personality asserted itself immediately. She is a “never shut up” sort of cat, and she sounded exactly like a door pivoting on a rusty hinge. So Squeaky she became. She answered to it; she never responded to Pixel.

During those brief weeks when they actually seemed like kittens it was Squeaky who was aloof. She wanted nothing to do with us humans. So I kept picking up and playing with Sprite instead and Squeaky went into the corner and ignored us, except at dinner time, or when she wanted to bellow, which was most of the time. We’re not sure why she bellowed. She bellowed at the moon. She bellowed at a fleck of dust. She bellowed I believe because she missed the sound of her own bellowing. After we brought our baby Rosie home from the hospital Squeaky decided that getting up four times a night was simply not enough, and made sure to bellow outside our bedroom door the rest of the time. (We agreed not to let them sleep with us. We still throw them out at night.) Sprite however turned into a sweet, lovey-dovey cat who liked nothing more than to sit forever on your lap while you gently stroked him and he dug his claws into your legs. (I learned to wear heavy jeans most of the time.)

Squeaky, the act from Hell

After a year or two though Squeaky began to figure out that being aloof wasn’t quite what she wanted. She wasn’t the center of attention. So she inserted herself into our lives. We tried our hardest to be nice to her and to pet her and to give her positive attention. But she has always been a nervous Nellie. She was incapable of relaxing. If you put her on your lap she would immediately shift, and shift, and shift, and get up, and yell in your face, and shift … you get the idea. She had to be IN YOUR FACE. Eventually we couldn’t take it anymore so we threw her off our laps. No matter. She’d immediately jump up on our laps again. We’d throw her off. On and off. So it went on this endless round robin and eventually we were yelling at her and she was yelling at us and we entered into classic dysfunctional relationship. It seemed unlikely Squeaky would be amenable to therapy.

Squeaky cannot be satisfied. Ten minutes of lap sitting and she wants twenty. Twenty and she wants forty. Two hours and she won’t be satisfied by four. I have repeatedly tried to figure out if there was any end to the amount of attention she craved. All my experiments have demonstrated it is bottomless. And now it is all these years later and she is still the same way, except she is much older and is now thin as a rail and bulimic. Much of her life, when she isn’t yelling at us, involves eating food and immediately throwing up. I’d think she had some sort of terrible condition, but she’s been doing this for many years.

I make sporadic attempts to be nice to her hoping that maybe her brain will finally reprogram itself. I don’t want to have two to four incidents of daily cat gorp to clean up. I try to put her on my lap and I won’t let her move hoping she’d figure out she needs to sit still if she wants to be on my lap. Immediately she starts moving around and twitching. Sometimes it works for a little while, but thirty minutes later old patterns reassert themselves and she is howling and demanding attention again.

Squeaky has become our nemesis. I open the front door and she is there at the crack yelling at me. Invited or not she follows me around the house. I only feed her in the morning but no matter if I am in the kitchen she figures I must be getting ready to feed her and will follow me around yelling at me seemingly upset that I’m not dishing out kitty caviar. She is always underfoot. We’ve all tripped over her innumerable times. We don’t know how she has survived this long. We don’t know how we have managed to restrain ourselves from kitty homicide. We’ve offered her to all our friends and even strangers. No one will take this cat. She is psycho-kitty.

The stress is too much for Squeaky. She engages in nervous habits. She repeatedly licks her fur near her tail and manages to lick most of it off. She won’t take care of herself. She looks awful. I know I must be a bad pet owner but I can’t think of what else I am supposed to do about her. At this point I think just letting her live is a supreme gesture of humanity on my part, but maybe she’d actually prefer to be put down. I doubt most pet owners would last a year with this cat.

Sprite meanwhile remains the perfect cat. He never demands attention, he only gently inquires. He is content to sit on my lap for hours and gently be stroked. Squeaky observes us with great jealousy but never figures out it that if she were to emulate her brother’s behavior she would be treated the same way.

If ever there were a case for putting a cat on Prozac, Squeaky would be it. So far we haven’t gone that route but even her vet has suggested it as a possibility. Maybe it has come to that. This is a cat that deserves some peace. Apparently no one can give it to her, so keeping her medicated all the time may be a blessing to all of us.

It is now many years later that I realize both cats were misnamed. If I had to do it over again Sprite, the good lap kitty would be named Jeckyl. Squeaky of course would be Hyde.

Over the intervening years Terri has learned that she allergic to cats. We don’t have the heart to get rid of them so she takes lots of antihistamines to deal with it. Both cats are strictly indoor cats, but they must be reaching the end of their natural lifespans. I’ll miss Sprite dreadfully when he dies. I never bonded so well with an animal before. But try as I might I’ll never forget Squeaky. She is one of these unforgettable characters who should be written up in Readers’ Digest. I’ll probably just be relieved when she passes into kitty heaven. I might even sing “Ding, dong the wicked witch is dead!”

Crying in my bier for Microsoft … NOT!

The Thinker by Rodin

Microsoft is beginning to cry uncle.

Admittedly this is a strange thing to hear from the “innovators” at Microsoft. But it appears they are starting to realize that their software is, well, massively overpriced. It’s not very good either, but that’s not something they are going to admit, despite almost daily press articles about the latest security holes found in their products. Their web server, Internet Information Server, is so riddled with security holes that you have to be more than a bit nuts to install it today.

Anyhow according to this article in its SEC filing Microsoft is warning its earnings may be lower in the future because of the growth of the open source movement. For those of you who don’t know, open source is software that is free of license and cost, and is maintained and written by volunteers. Microsoft is having a real hissy fit about open source software. They are calling it unreliable, which is hardly ever the case. They are calling it anti-American because no one is making a profit from it. (Not quite true. Open source software is often a platform upon which companies add value by creating customized packages that work with it. Oracle is laughing all the way to the bank.) They are even pressing for laws and regulations that would forbid governments from using open source.

This would be laughable if they weren’t so serious and were not stuffing so much money into the pockets of congressmen. Nonetheless many federal agencies have figured out that open source software is not only free to use, and of much higher quality than what can be maintained commercially, but can actually be inspected and modified. Yes, users can actually fix their own problems! What a concept!

The Microsoft approach is, of course, to make you pay for the privilege of talking to one of their technical support folks and maybe, if you are lucky, getting a patch or a work around to allow you to get things done. Release their code so you can inspect it and fix it yourself? Not a chance.

But Microsoft is beginning to understand it may not have a choice. European countries are looking at using open source software exclusively. The article I referenced above says that Microsoft has come up with a “Government Security Program”. This will allow governments like the United Kingdom to actually look at Microsoft’s source code and maybe fix things themselves.

Clearly it takes a lot of clout to get Microsoft to do something like this, and governments are one of the few institutions large enough to tell Microsoft to piss off.

As a federal employee working on information technology issues I can tell you that using open source software is a no brainer. Not that all open source software is great, but much of it is excellent and of extremely high quality. Even if it is unlikely that I personally will go in and inspect the software if an error is found, it’s easy enough to hire people or a service that can do this if needed. But the main reason open source is a no-brainer is because you are no longer locked in to a vendor. No or low cost, higher quality software, and the ability to actually make permanent fixes sounds like a winning combination to me. Open source is creeping into my agency. We have some Linux machines. Some of our software is written in PHP, an open source scripting language. We also have a comments database written in Perl. Our Linux web servers, for some reason, don’t seem vulnerable to so many security flaws.

I’ve been playing with open source software for a few years now. It’s amazing what is readily available for free. On one domain I put up a free content management system. When it no longer suited my needs I replaced it with an even better free content management system. On a forum I run, I am using phpBB bulletin board software. It works great. And I’ve been able to do in and tweak it to do things I want it to do. This blog software is not quite open source, but it is free to use for personal use. And it’s easily inspected since it is written in Perl. And if Moveable Type no longer suits me there are plenty of quality open source alternatives I can choose instead.

I doubt Microsoft will go into bankruptcy court. But if they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile I sense that their desktop monopoly is likely to crack in the next couple years. The software is there to do away with Windows and its whole Microsoft Office suite. It’s free and programs such as Open Office work seamlessly with Microsoft Office. I would not be surprised at all if Microsoft realized Windows can’t be viable operating system much longer. Perhaps like Apple they will build a new Windows around a solid Unix interface. I know I would be happier. At least my computer is more likely not to crash and work predictably.

Karma seems to work on many levels, including the corporate level. Microsoft: beware. What comes around goes around.