Headline News

It is not a revelation that quality journalism is on the decline. Online “news” feeds are full of gossip, speculation, fake news and inaccurate crap. We are misinformed by the 24/7 mainstream and social media. So, staying informed can be a challenge.

In this article I share news stories that recently caught my attention. These may seem insignificant, but they illustrate larger issues.

I begin with a story from National Public Radio. Even this reputable news source can be misleading with incomplete reporting. The story was about Venezuela, their dire economic situation and how the oil industry is in shambles. The story implied that politics, corruption and mismanagement were to blame. Not one word was said about the crippling effect of two decades of U.S. imposed economic sanctions on the country. These sanctions severely impacted Venezuela’s oil-based economy by reducing exports and preventing the import of repair parts.

This illustrates the importance of having alternative sources of information in order to understand what is really happening.

Wisconsin Watch is one alternative source I read. Officially known as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, they are a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization working to increase the quality and quantity of investigative reporting in Wisconsin.

In November, they reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s two major farm conservation programs are “vastly underfunded.” From 2018 to 2022, two thirds of farmers seeking assistance were denied due to lack of funding. During that time $6.2 billion was allocated for the Environmental Quality and Incentives Program but that only covered 31% of the 600,000 applications.

These programs provide financial incentives for farmers to do what is best for soil and water conservation which they could not afford to do on their own. For example, planting winter cover crops is a best practice essential to preventing soil erosion. But most farmers cannot afford the seed or diesel fuel to plant a crop they cannot sell. Most conservation applications in Iowa and Wisconsin are for assistance with cover crops.

In the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration authorized $13 billion for farm conservation programs, but this may be cut or reduced in the current budget battles. This is another case of shortsighted spending priorities. When our irreplaceable farmland blows away, we will find we can’t eat money wasted on tax cuts or weapons for foreign wars.

A recent Common Dreams headline read, “McDonald’s Fined 0.0002% of 2022 Profits for Child Labor Violations.” This amounted to “less than $1,000 per child” for a huge multinational corporation. Violations of child labor laws are ubiquitous, especially in the fast-food industry. It is one more way companies make money on the backs of workers.

Common Dreams is an online, “reader-supported independent news outlet” that accepts no advertising. Their news and opinion are well worth reading.

I subscribe to the Labor World. It is a good source for economic and labor news. Established in 1896, it has been publishing for 127 years. It is owned by unions in the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body. Labor World has stories you won’t find in other papers.

A recent Labor World article explained the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) ruling on joint employers. Joint employment occurs when more than one business entity has shared control over the duties and working conditions of employees. Subcontractors, franchised businesses, or staffing agencies can be joint employers. This becomes important when there are violations of labor law (like McDonald’s above), employee grievances or efforts to organize a union. Who is the responsible employer? Is it the corporate giant or the local franchise holder or subcontractor? Businesses have used this uncertainty to frustrate workers’ efforts for fair treatment.

Recently the NLRB revised the rules to make both employers equally responsible. This is consistent with established “common law” guidelines (and common sense). This will make it harder for large businesses to avoid their legal responsibilities to employees. Needless to say, Republicans are opposed to these sensible rule changes.

Another labor law story has to do with The Biden administration’s proposal to change the rules on overtime compensation. This was widely reported on in the media. But important aspects of the story were left out.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, most hourly wage workers are entitled to overtime pay for hours worked over 40 hours a week. Most salaried employees are “exempt” and not entitled to overtime. There is an exception for exempt employees earning below a stated salary (currently $35,558 per year). This loophole allows employers to give a worker a fancy title, define their work as “managerial” or “professional” and work them unlimited hours for the same low salary.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, only 15% of full time, salaried employees are eligible for overtime under this standard. The Biden administration wants to increase the cutoff salary to $55,068 (still very low) and tie it to inflation. This change would provide 3.6 million workers and an extra $1.3 billion.

The news media has reported these basic facts but left out what it really means. In reality many “exempt” employees who work more than 40 hours a week do so for free. This used to be called “slavery.” This may be fine for high salary managers, doctors and lawyers. But it is unjust for the burger barn “assistant manager” earning $36,000 and working 80 hours a week.

In environmental news an interesting, but unreported story says the Enbridge Line 5 crude oil pipeline is not needed. It could be shut down with minimal impact on energy supplies or prices. Minnesota 350 cites a recent study by PLG Consulting, an energy and logistics consulting firm. Their report says it would only take 12 to 18 months for other energy suppliers to meet the demand created by shutting down Line 5.

There has been years of controversy, protests and lawsuits over this 69-year-old pipeline that endangers Lakes Michigan and Huron. Michigan officials just approved a controversial, $500 million plan to build a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac to house the pipeline currently laying on the bottom of the lake. This shows how, in our economy, profits for some can override both the common good and “free market” efficiency.

To be truly informed, you have to go beyond the headlines. But you know this because you are reading Middle Wisconsin News!