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8.24.07
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Transcript - 8.24.07

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

As the war in Iraq rages on, one of the consequences that's received little press attention, is the number of soldiers who desert. It's a life-changing decision: a deserter faces court-martial and prison. Reasons cited by deserters range from opposition to the war to health problems. Since the run up to the Iraq war there have been more than 20,000 deserters from the US military. Producers Mona Iskander, Brian Epstein, and senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa have our report.

AGUAYO: I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to do good things for my country. And I wanted it to open opportunities for me. I saw it as a way for myself to improve in my life.

HINOJOSA: Back in 2003 Agustin Aguayo decided to join the army. He had recently become an American citizen and he wanted to serve.

BURMEISTER: This country, the US, that I'm a citizen of—I thought has been wonderful to my family. This is—this is my opportunity to give back.

HINOJOSA: Twenty-three year old James Burmeister joined the army after talking to a recruiter about the benefits of a military career.

BURMEISTER: I've always wanted to do something that would—that would be a big help. And so it seemed like the perfect thing.

HINOJOSA: Both Agustin and James signed up for the army wanting to defend their country. But in time both came to believe they could no longer serve as soldiers. Each took a very different path.

When Agustin first signed up, he was going to college during the day and working at night to support his wife and twin girls. He saw the army as an opportunity for a more stable life.

AGUAYO: My wife, I spoke to her right after I—I made my commitment. She was very worried. She—she said, "Well, what—what if you don't like it?" And I thought that can't happen.

HINOJOSA: In 2004 Agustin went to Iraq for a year long tour of duty as a medic. But only weeks after he arrived, his thoughts about war began to change. And then there was that image he couldn't get out of his head... an Iraqi man killed when his car pulled too close to a convoy.

AGUAYO: We're, unfortunately, hurting people that was in the wrong place in the wrong time. This individual, obviously, had no intention of harming us. There was nothing in his vehicle that was found. Yet, someone doesn't have a father. So that's—that's—that's a memory that really stuck with me.

HINOJOSA: Incidents like that started to affect Agustin's perceptions of war. He felt that even as a medic, there was little he could do to help.

AGUAYO: I remember my platoon Sergeant once told me, "You know, you have to understand that sometimes the best medicine are bullets, firepower." So I thought, "No—how can that be? How can—how can we see things that way?"

HINOJOSA: Day after day the devastation gnawed at Agustin. In fact, Agustin had come to believe that war and violence of any kind were the wrong ways to resolve conflict. So while he was in Iraq he became one of 405 service members since 2002 to apply for Conscientious Objector status.

A Conscientious Objector, they're called CO's in the military, is someone, who for religious or moral reasons, refuses to bear arms. One hundred and seventy nine service members have been granted co status.

Agustin imagines what some people might think... how could he refuse to fight in a war he had willingly signed up for?

AGUAYO: I mean I can understand someone saying, "But you knew when you signed up, that war is about people dying." Living it is—is—I—I see things differently having lived though the experience.

HINOJOSA: Agustin had become convinced the war in Iraq was immoral. And the war was escalating. In his same unit, another soldier, James Burmeister, was in the thick of the fight. As a cavalry scout, he went on as many as three missions a day.

BURMEISTER: It was a really confusing place because, you know, we would be helping a certain family, a certain group of people and they would love us. And the next day, we did something wrong and they—you know, they—they would hate us.

HINOJOSA: During his many missions, James was caught in three road-side bombings... And amazingly, a fellow soldier caught one of the explosions on camera.

BURMEISTER: We were in a five humvee set. Rolling down a—down a main street in Baghdad in our sector.

I'm the gunner on top of this humvee...

Just a big bomb goes off. And it's so fast, you don't—you don't see the bomb. You're scared. You're checking your body parts to see if you're missing anything.

A few days after that, I had actually passed out in my room. Passed out, just hit the floor.

HINOJOSA: James says that was the first sign of his post traumatic stress disorder. He says doctors thought he also may have sustained a traumatic brain injury, so he was sent to Germany on medical leave.

Two months later, while still on medication, he was ordered back to Iraq.

BURMEISTER: They were desperate for people to get back there. They just needed people in Baghdad. They just need bodies to man the guns and the equipment.

HINOJOSA: James saw only two options: either go back to Iraq...or go AWOL, Absent Without Leave, a crime punishable by jail time and even court-martial.

BURMEISTER: I got back home—talked to my wife. You know, I said, "I think I'm gonna leave." It was like a 15 minute decision that I'm—I'm gonna leave—I'm gonna leave the Army.

HINOJOSA: On May 4th of this year James fled to Canada, a familiar haven for over 55,000 Americans during the Vietnam War. But times have changed and Canadian immigration laws are much stricter now. When James arrived in Ottawa he realized his only viable option to legally stay in Canada was to apply for refugee status.

We were with him and his family the day they put in their application.

BURMEISTER: Today I am here at the immigration office to file my refugee claim, and starting the whole process today and hope everything goes well.

HINOJOSA: Up until now James and his family had been living underground.

During this war about 300 U.S. soldiers are known to have fled to Canada and around 50 have applied for refugee status. None to this day have been granted but no one has been sent home either. They, along with James, wait to see if Canada will take them in permanently.

His fellow soldier, Agustin Aguayo, took a different route. He brought his case directly to the army to be recognized as a conscientious objector. He was quickly denied, so he served out his 12 month tour. Once he returned to his home base in Germany, the army called him back for a second tour.

AGUAYO: After much reflection I knew deep within me I could never go back.

HINOJOSA: So he refused to deploy, but unlike James, Agustin chose not to run. His wife videotaped him right before he turned himself in to the military police in Germany.

AGUAYO: I'm about to turn myself in to the MP's. It's 8:32, and I don't know what's gonna happen.

HINOJOSA: He also sends a message to his twin daughters, Raquel and Becky...

AGUAYO: You guys take care of each other take care of yourselves, be nice to your mommy, I'll be fine and we'll be together again.

HINOJOSA: Agustin thought he'd be put in prison but instead the army told him he'd be on the next flight back to Iraq. So he made the desperate decision to go AWOL. Agustin escaped by jumping out of a window, fleeing from Germany to Mexico, and finally arriving in California. There he decided to turn himself in yet again.

AGUAYO: Because I thought that eventually they would say, "Yes, he is a conscientious objector," that's why I—I was wi—I was willing to put myself through all this—through this mess.

HINOJOSA: This time the army did put Agustin in prison... for seven months. He was ultimately court marshaled and received a bad conduct discharge.

As for James, with assistance from the War Resistors' Support Campaign in Canada, he and his family are renting an apartment in Ottawa. While James waits for a hearing on his refugee claim, it's now been over thirty days since he went AWOL. He is officially a deserter. In fact, since the run up to the war, over 20,000 service members have been classified as deserters. For James, the prospect that he may have to return to the United States and face jail time looms large.

BERMEISTER: It's really hard to look into the future, you know, to the next five or ten years. It just depends on what happens now. You know, it's—if—if I'm gonna be able to stay in Canada or not, if I'm gonna have to turn myself in or not. It's—it's hard to tell.

HINOJOSA: Back in the United States, Agustin and his family moved to Palmdale, California after he got out of military prison. He's struggling to rebuild his life. Until he gets a job, the family depends on support from relatives. His military career, ending in disgrace, Agustin has now dedicated himself to fighting the army in civil court. He wants to be recognized as a conscientious objector to clear his name and his record. So far he's been unsuccessful. His last hope is the Supreme Court.

AGUAYO: I think some would say, "He's the worse guy alive. He should be shot." And others would say, "I'm proud of him." I think some would say, "You don't know him. So, don't judge him."

brancaccio: For more on the impact the war in Iraq is having on the military and the troops ... go to our website: PBS.org is the jumping off place for that.

Turning now to the home front. This summer we saw the first increase in the federal minimum wage in nine years. It's now $5.85 an hour - and will eventually rise to over seven dollars by the year 2009. But organized labor says - it's too little too late. Instead, they're calling for "a living wage" - a radical notion that's been getting a lot of attention lately. The concept is that - regardless of the job - the pay for a week's work should be enough to live on. Several cities, like San Francisco and Santa Fe, have already passed living wage laws.

In March, NOW looked at how the campaign is turning to college campuses. Maria and producer Karla Murthy prepared our report.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne Arbogast and his wife Kathy always look after one another... even at 6:30 in the morning—getting ready for work.

ARBOGAST: My favorite thing about the drive in is the sunrise. Nashville has one of the coolest skylines I think.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne and Kathy both work as custodians at Vanderbilt University. In other words, they're the school's permanent clean up crew.

ARBOGAST: But, it's just the work is so nasty at times. And, people never seem to notice the job we do until we're not doing it.

Come Friday night is party time y'all...

HINOJOSA: For Dewayne and Kathy, Vanderbilt is more than just a job. It's like a second home. Dewayne has worked as a janitor here for 14 years. Kathy for 12.

ARBOGAST: I admit it, this is my better half

KATHY: The best half.

ARBOGAST: Yes baby.

HINOJOSA: They make about $8.45 an hour...which means they each take home less then $300 a week.

ARBOGAST: We're just barely gettin' by on that. And that's because we're both workin'. Yeah. And—so it—it's tough

HINOJOSA: But Dewayne and Kathy say they are tired of just "getting by." In the fourteen years Dewayne's been at Vanderbilt, he's gotten only a three dollar raise. Now, they've decided to fight Vanderbilt for a wage they can live on.

ARBOGAST: If you don't have to holler about a mess, it means we're doing our jobs. if we're doin' our jobs we should be compensated for it. Especially when you've been there as long as we have.

HINOJOSA: It's become a pitched labor battle that's brought together the workers with students and local folks up against Nashville's largest private employer, Vanderbilt University.

Now wage fights aren't new on college campuses...but perhaps what makes the fight at Vanderbilt stand out are the extremes.

On one hand is the university—with a 3 billion dollar endowment and a chancellor who is paid 1.2 million dollars a year. On the other, are their lowest paid workers, the groundskeepers, custodians, dining service workers who say they can barely make ends meet. It's a stark contrast that's fueled the workers' fight for a living wage.

Michael Schoenfeld is a spokesman for Vanderbilt University.

SCHOENFELD: We have—a number of employees at the—at the lowest end of the—of the—pay scale. These are individuals who, again, perform very valuable, very important service functions on the campus. And the wages reflect the—the marketplace for the—certainly the Nashville marketplace for those kinds of positions.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne Arbogast says the $8.45 cents an hour he makes might be the market rate, but it doesn't mean it's a fair wage.

ARBOGAST:
It's this mentality of, "Well, I don't wanna have to pay any more than I really have to." And—and they tend to deal with the workforce as a commodity rather than actual people with families and lives.

FAIRES:
You know, we can sit around and talk for years about the need for a living wage, but there are people that can't afford to buy their groceries every month. So for the people who are working at Vanderbilt it's an urgent issue.

HINOJOSA:
Diane Faires and Tim Bowles are students at Vanderbilt. They belong to a group called "Living Income for Vanderbilt Employees." The group was formed in 2002—when students heard about a living wage battle at Harvard. They wondered if those same problems existed on their own campus.

BOWLES:
Everything else at Vanderbilt seems so perfect. The campus is almost ... it's almost a paradise within Nashville. But to know that here at Vanderbilt, at my own school, those problems were being perpetuated, I mean, yeah that was a huge shock.

HINOJOSA: The students realized they could play a unique role in helping the workers influence the university.

FAIRES: A lot of times the workers are worried about losing their jobs if they speak up, but for the students, we're really free to speak up for what we believe in without so many institutional constraints or fear of losing our job.

HINOJOSA:
The students began holding rallies and letter writing campaigns. But they also did their homework.

Back in 2005, using local government statistics, they calculated what a living wage would be in Nashville. For a family of four with 2 working adults—they came up with $10.18 an hour.

But Michael Schoenfeld says that calculating a living wage is not a perfect science.

SCHOENFELD: I have economists at Vanderbilt who—will argue passionately one side, I have distinguished economists at Vanderbilt who will passionately argue the other side. Now, if there was—if there was a strong consensus about—what a living wage was and what it should be, that would be one thing.

HINOJOSA: But what the university does offer, says Schoenfeld are some of the best benefits around.

All full time employees—from the chancellor to the custodians can choose from multiple health insurance plans. They can use the school gym. And Vanderbilt even offers to pay up to $23,000 per child for college tuition, for any school in the country.

Some workers say all those great benefits don't put food on the table or pay the rent.

The workers wanted more pay. But how? The union that represented them on campus was weak and hadn't been able to get better wages in past contract negotiations. As a result, workers were hesitant to join.

Dewayne Arbogast is one of the union stewards.

ARBOGAST: They'd say, "Well, the union hasn't done a thing up to now, so why should we be part of it?" And I had to explain to them that the union couldn't do much because the membership was so low. We didn't have the numbers.

HINOJOSA: The workers contract was coming up for negotiation in the fall of 2006. So the union began recruiting workers in earnest—to fill their ranks in time for the negotiations. They even lowered union dues so the low wage workers could afford to join.

Meanwhile, the students were working on a different strategy—an economic one. They asked the University for a detailed analysis of how implementing a living wage would affect the school's budget. Could it make economic sense?

BOWLES: This isn't a whim that we have, this isn't that we want a new coffee shop on campus or something like that.

HINOJOSA: They got no response. Frustrated, the students took matters into their own hands.

FAIRES: Excuse me, I am sorry to interrupt...

HINOJOSA: A group of students joined by community activists disrupted a trustees meeting attended by the chancellor, Gordon Gee. There was no sit in or a building take over... instead—the students demanded facts and research.

BOWLES:
We want a number and we want that in the form of a cost analysis. You decision makers have the power to enact such a cost analysis right now and that is all we are asking for today.

HINOJOSA:
The chancellor agreed to meet with them the next day. But, the students say they never got the answers they were looking for.

By now, the fight was also making headlines, putting the chancellor's salary and the school's 3 billion dollar endowment in the spotlight.

HINOJOSA: You've got $3 billion of an endowment at Vanderbilt—and therefore money should not be an issue when you're talking about these low wage workers.

SCHOENFELD:
Well let's have a—let's have a little bit of endowment 101. Virtually all of that money is designated by the donor. So while it is very compelling to think that the Chancellor has a safe in his office in which there's $3 billion. The reality, is the—that is not the—the—the piggy bank that—people like to think it is. Is it—does it present a difficult public perception issue? Of course.

HINOJOSA: The students thought so too. So they focused on getting the story out—not just on campus—but to the wider Nashville community. They reached out to the union, community leaders, faith leaders, even faculty and alumni—and they formed a coalition called the Vanderbilt Community Alliance.

CROWD: VCA today!!

HINOJOSA: Vanderbilt employs around 20,000 people in the area. With so many people tied to the school, the VCA decided essentially to embarrass the university. They ran ad campaigns profiling the workers. They also had workers, speak at churches like this one.

The pressure was mounting.

By January 2007, the negotiations between the school and the union had stalled.

That's when the actor Danny Glover came to town.

GLOVER: Hello, how you doin? Good, good, awww shucks.

HINOJOSA: Glover is also a labor activist. The union wanted him wanted to meet with the workers and use his celebrity status to bring some media attention to their fight.

Glover came to this homeless shelter—where one of Vanderbilt's full time workers, Mary Hampton, stayed for a few months with her 2 kids.

HAMPTON: It's not like I didn't have a job and became homeless. I have a job and been on this job for nearly two years. And it was not enough money to make it. I ended up here.

HINOJOSA: Glover spent the day meeting workers and listening to their stories.

When you walk away, what do you want to leave them with? Besides the fact that they met a movie star?

DANNY GLOVER: The fact that they're not alone in this. They're not alone in this fight. That I support you.

HINOJOSA: A week later—the union negotiators were huddled in a hotel conference room. A federal mediator had been brought in to force the 2 sides into an agreement. By this time, the union had been able to double their membership.

It took some marathon negotiating, but the union and Vanderbilt finally hammered out a new contract.

FARNER: I appreciate everybody coming out tonight...

HINOJOSA: In the end, it was a compromise. The workers would not immediately get the living wage calculated by the students. Instead, their wages will increase over 20 months. So, by next year, Dewayne Arbogast will see his wages go up to $10.00 hour.

The union presented the agreement to the members for a vote. And it passed, two to one.

Before the agreement with the union, would you say that Vanderbilt was under paying some of its lowest wage earners?

SCHOENFELD: I I don't—I think the—the—the phrase, "underpaying"—in a market economy is probably not particularly accurate or valid. I—I would say that—we are—we were keeping up with the market. And under this new agreement, we are now exceeding the market.

HINOJOSA: But for Dewayne Arbogast—this fight is about more than just money.

DEWAYNE: People started out been' very fearful. But then where—with Vanderbilt's attitude and a lot of their arrogance, people were stop been' so scared and they start bein' angry. We have our home here. And this right here—I know it doesn't look like much, but this is our slice of the American pie. And I'm fightin'—we're both fightin' to hold on to it. And the only we can do that is to make sure Vanderbilt continues to pay us adequately.

BRANCACCIO: Through the magical wonderfulness of the internet, you can watch us whenever you want. We have over 1000 video streams up and running so you can see any of our shows next time you're at the computer. Just look us up at pbs.org.

And next week on now, we travel to Montana to meet a man you might call a venture philanthropist to see how he throws his business skills into a campaign against a killer drug: methamphetamine.

SIEBEL: If you look at the issues associated with methamphetamine in the state of Montana, it was an enormously critical social problem. And affecting, you know, lots of people's lives and families and communities. The—the human costs were just staggering.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for now. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.



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