Little Rock There was an interesting piece in the paper about what one commentator jokingly referred to as a “hot bank on bank” story based on First American Bank of Chicago going public and shaming Bank of America and Mastercard for not shutting down and issuing warnings about taxicab machines that were perpetrating debit card thefts. They had caught the problem one day when a couple of dozen of their customers were hit, and had issued almost 500 new cards to try to prevent the problems, but went public after 18 days when they couldn’t get any action or response from Bank of America and Mastercard who were handling the transactions. These days it feels like all of us either have “been there, done that,” or are preparing for the worse to come someday soon because the card folks just aren’t doing right on protecting security.
The card companies say, no problem, they have a “zero liability” policy, meaning that customer doesn’t absorb the burn, but the article correctly points out that this is little comfort for many, and that’s what I want to underline here. Increasingly companies are moving to direct deposit or where lower income workers are “unbanked,” issuing debit cards that are loaded with their pay. In negotiating one of these programs recently for a 400-worker unit represented by Local 100, the company had gone as far as they reasonably could to assure us that this would work better for our unit, and in fact we had a petition going around the worksites complaining about payroll snafus, so we were a ready audience.
But, look at the problems even in the best of circumstances and with the best of intentions. There was an offer for the workers to choose either Chase or Bank of America for their cards, but once we looked Bank of America in fact had shut down all of their ATMs in Baton Rouge and these workers were concentrated in that city as well as Lafayette and New Orleans, so clearly that was not going to work for 150 workers there, and if they mistakenly chose the wrong bank, there would be a charge on every other ATM they were using to access their money. The cards were designed so that there were no charges if you took all of your pay in cash in one lump, but we all know that many ATMs, especially in our neighborhoods, limit the amount of withdrawals so that’s another problem. You could use the debit cards to buy some things without charges, but there were hidden shoals sure to crash some of our members’ boats.
We’ll work it out as best we can, but there’s only so much the union and company can do, when the credit card outfits and their banks refuse to take security seriously. When there is a problem these will be workers with no money and a deluge of bills and problems. Recently we found a charge of almost $1000 on a corporate American Express card at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse. The company says no problem, we’ll figure it out, but that was a couple of weeks ago, and this is the Chicago bank’s complaint. They waited 18 days. We’ve been waiting at least that, but lower waged workers are in no position to hang out with no money for 24 hours much less 24 days.
I also can’t get the story out of my mind of the McDonald’s workers in New York City who were paid on debit cards as well, but the franchise operator was less careful than our company and the cards were loaded down with charges driving the workers’ wages below the minimum as they tried to access their money. The settlement is on its way, but they’ve been waiting and without in the meantime.
A business model that screws the customers because the companies don’t want to use cards with embedded chips or take other security measures seems destined to fail, but in the meantime the rough edge is dragging, particularly on lower waged workers and smaller businesses not in position to wait for the by and by.
Dallas With the results of the recent primary elections in Texas, perhaps it is time to look at the progress of Battleground Texas and the notion of “turning Texas blue,” as the Democrats call it.
The hope in a nutshell is essentially that “demographics are destiny.” Robert Draper in the Texas Monthly summed it up quickly:
The 2010 census found that the state’s population had increased by 4.3 million over the previous decade and that more than 3.3 million of the new inhabitants were minorities. Of these, an astounding 2.8 million were Hispanic, historically a reliable constituency for Democrats. These numbers conveyed a new reality: the Texas political landscape was getting friendlier for Democrats and tougher for Republicans.
The challenge though is daunting, no matter who is moving into the state and how rosy it may color some politicians glasses. There are 13.5 million registered voters in Texas. The estimates of party strength is 45% Republican to 21% Democratic. If those figures are correct, that means that the party preferences within the 13.5 million fall to 6,075,000 elephants and only 2,835,000 donkeys, more than a 3 million voter gap, and another 5 million quasi-independents among the registered voters who are out there, which doesn’t exactly indicate that they are up for grabs. The actual strength of the primary voter participation this week underlines the problem when 1.2 million voted in the Republican primary and only about a half-million voted in the Democratic primary. And, this is despite the fact that Democratic election strength is increasing in the major urban centers, especially Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio and that almost 60% of the state’s general election votes are in 13, mostly urban counties, of the state’s 254 counties. Nothing happens overnight certainly, but this is hardly an auspicious beginning.
A party is built from the ground up, not the top down though, and despite the mixed results tallied by the Tea Party insurgency in the state, I wonder if it is not helping the Republicans stay politically healthy by providing the competitive contests and candidates, no matter how wacko, that deeply engage Texas voters. Most of the lions of the Republican Party in Texas emerged scratched by the Tea Party candidates but not unscathed, and the Tea people had enough success to remain lively, but the favor they are doing the Republicans is getting their base to the polls and forcing a better definition – and profile – for the Republicans on the issues. Democrats may tear their hair at the Republican excesses, but might should be more concerned by the solid showing of Jeb Bush son and general Bush family scion, George P. Bush, 37-years old with an American-Hispanic heritage, won solidly as the Republican nominee for Texas Land Commissioner. Think that’s not serious? The Democrats haven’t won any statewide race in 20 years since 1994, and young Bush jumped right over from Florida and picked their pockets.
To turn Texas blue is not going to just be a matter of registering voters. Party building is grassroots and involves candidates, competition, and winning and governing at the local level. Bill White was an excellent Mayor of Houston but lost when he ran for governor by over 600000 votes, ending his career. To turn Texas, I think we need a Working Families Party or New Party of Texas or some formation along those lines that can act as a progressive, deeply organized and grassroots effort to bring the party alive at the base with local candidates and sharp, effective and progressive campaigns on issues that push voters our way. Such a caucus would clarify issues, push the Democrats, and start to turn the terms of the debate about Texas and the future.
Sitting with a friend in Houston the other night we were in a solidly democratic state senate district in the Houston Heights. The incumbent had a decent record and more than enough money so 6000 voted to push him forward. A couple of years ago there were twice that many votes in the primary. The winner might have been the same, but a real contest might, like the Tea Party has given Texas on the issues, put life back into the regulars and pushed independents in Harris County into the party. To ever win statewide again Democrats need to win here by 20-30%, not 10% to offer the kind of margins that fuel victories.
To turn Texas blue is not a matter of injecting national issues and nationally favored candidacies on the Texas hardscrabble but a matter of building an indigenous, aggressive local party, candidate, and initiatives that organize hard, take on fights without apology, and win. A new party formation might be able to do that, but it’s hard to see it happening many other ways.
Houston The United States Postal Service is looking for a way to become more self-sufficient in an era where email has increasingly replaced stamped letters and bills more than love letters flood mailboxes. In a recent report, they have suggested that providing financial services to the “underserved” might be the ticket, and I for one am not sure they are wrong to look in that direction.
There’s a demand for short term loans and the marketplace is now filled with predators, so I’m an “any port in the storm” guy and the rain, shine, sleet or snow crew would work for me. There are in fact many national post office systems that handle financial products. In Japan, postal savings are huge. In Canada, ACORN has worked closely with the postal workers’ union to try and lower the costs of sending remittances from migrant workers and immigrants back to their home countries, and have only been thwarted by the long term contract signed between the Harper Administration and MoneyGram, one of the biggest players with Western Union in this field.
The Post Office has the staff and god knows they have the location, location, location that everyone talks about because they are everywhere. Payday lenders seem to be popping up like weeds as well, but that’s only in lower income and minority areas where traditional banking services are squeezed and, let’s tell the truth, loans of almost any kind, short or long, have dried up especially since the Great Recession.
A professor of management at the New School, Lisa Servon, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal skeptical of the ability of the post office to either compete or do better in this area. One of her points was very New York City, arguing that post offices would not be open 24 hours like a check cashing place where she pulled some shifts. Frankly, I’m not sure that payday lending operations should be allowed to be open 24 hours. The kind of loan negotiated at 3 AM in the morning is so desperate that the interest rate is the least of the borrower’s concerns. She also pointed out that the Post Office was talking about charging more for money orders than some of these outfits, but, hey, that was their proposal, not what they might do in a competitive environment.
The Postal Service’s main play seems to be the Postal Card, a reloadable prepaid card and the Postal Loan, an alternative payday loan product. The fees they are talking about are much, much less than what you find with the predators, so hurray for that. Professor Servon wonders how they are going to “develop risk scorecards” and handle collections. Admittedly, all of the details aren’t worked out, but the one thing certain about Post Offices and postal workers are that they are imbedded in a community, and everything we know about successful loan collection for lower income populations indicates that the deeper the community involvement and commitment, the better the rate of repayment.
So, there are rough edges dragging. I get that, but the Post Office is talking about a direction that we need to travel, and that regular financial institutions have abandoned except for their slice of the profits in factoring to the predators. The Post Office is working on a route that we need to travel.
New Orleans Increasingly I get the feeling that there is real momentum building against the standard operating procedure of company’s ripping off their workers on wages.
The courts are not necessarily the workers’ friends on these issues though. For example a recent ruling against steelworkers was surprising to me. The court denied pay for the time spent by the workers in getting free of the hazardous conditions clothing they were required to wear in the mill.
Another test is coming up before the Supreme Court in the coming session dealing with the fact that Amazon and its subcontractors in their numerous warehouses have been requiring workers to go through time consuming extra security screening after they have clocked out to make sure they aren’t stealing stuff from the warehouse. This is a situation where the company seems super cheap since they both want to prevent “shrinkage” but also aren’t willing to hire enough screeners to process the workers out quickly. The price tag for this wage theft would be huge since it involves a class action of 600,000 workers.
Sadly though, as the steelworkers’ case shows, the legal process may not be our best avenue for justice compared to blunt pressure and the court of public opinion.
Talking recently on Wade’s World on KABF with Anne Janks, the national poultry organizer for the Chicago-based group Interfaith Worker Justice, directed by longtime activist Kim Bobo, it was still shocking to hear how widespread wage theft is in the poultry industry. Janks indicated it was nothing fancy, just plain holding workers while the production line was down and not paying them, sometimes for hours per day, even with big companies like the giant chicken plucker, Tyson’s. The fact that much of the workforce are newer immigrants, and according to Janks, not just Latinos but also eastern Europeans, Somalians, and others.
It was hard to tell if the Amazon case originated in the organizing efforts of warehouse workers initiated by Change to Win in Riverside and the Imperial Valley of California, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that to be the case. Certainly, beating wage theft for home health care workers has been a consistent organizing handle in unionizing such workers who were simply never reimbursed for time and money spent on travel between clients. Wage theft is often mentioned in the fast food protests and certainly anywhere immigrant workers are organizing.
The prevalence of these cases makes it clear that we have a moment right now, when some of the inequities have become political issues, to push forward against major companies on the issues of wage theft. At the same time home care workers should remind us all that informal workers without big, fixed workplaces are the most vulnerable where they can be robbed easily in groups of ones and twos. When big outfits think nothing of robbing with impunity in workplaces holding hundreds and thousands, all of us can imagine the ease with which pockets are picked in smaller and more isolated workplaces.
New Orleans The weekend found temperatures pushing the 80s Fahrenheit and beautiful clear, spring like weather. We walked on the new, though long delayed, Crescent Park along the Mississippi River short blocks from our house. The wind was blowing along the River, and the dog was happy for the walk.
Weather went bad suddenly, though we probably have no right to complain. Friends from Montana told of traveling here in a blizzard and a winter with two feet of snow every day. A call from Boston this week told of freezing weather. Snow was expected in London the day after I flew off. Bulletins from Little Rock talked about everything closed and 24-hour street clearing crews. Pictures in the paper were a winter wonderland.
But a Mardi Gras with pouring rain on the morning parades and 36 degrees Fahrenheit with a high hardly expected over 40 degrees is almost unknown!
Chaco opened and I helped man the counter at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse which we usually do for the regulars and folks off to catch the early parades. Costumes were few and far between this Mardi Gras, replaced by sweatshirts and rain jackets as the rain began to pour down mid-morning. Spirits were good but soggy.
A father and son combo on bikes loaded up with some large macchiatos and directions for how to ride to Treme to look for the Indians going street to street. I hope they had success before the deluge. This is the real city, not the tourist Treme of HBO fame.
Driving home from the coffeehouse cars and people were packed under the Claiborne overpass, which had broken the heart of the African-American business district and severed the neighborhood. Occasionally, people talk about pushing the overpass down to street level again, but it’s not going to happen, and neighbors and the denizens of the 7th Ward make the best of it with a walking and hawking street fair that was oblivious to the rain all the way down to the Circle Food Store, just reopened 8 years after Katrina finally.
It may be Mardi Gras misery to the tourists, but for New Orleanians it’s a great day off from hard work and daily labor. We’re a resilient people. We know how to make do.
Happy Mardi Gras!
New Orleans I don’t read much fiction anymore, not necessarily because there isn’t some good stuff, but simply because in the preciousness of time there are so many things I’m trying to learn in the constant wrestling to make sense of facts and weld them into plans, policy, and just plain sense that I have little time left. Luckily, I have a friend on the West Coast who annually looks across the table as I’m having breakfast at her house and asks if I’ve read any good books recently, and she’s only asking me about fiction. As a firm believer in sweat equity, I make sure that I’ve given a fair shot to some titles that speak to me for some reason or another, so I can try to make a recommendation from my peculiar taste.
Recently, I used some of my endless hours on airplanes to start paying my dues in readiness for this perennial question. Of the current crop I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, a finalist for the National Book Circle Award and a winner of extensive prizes in the UK and a Times Notable Book. I also read Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, a finalist for the National Book Award. I caught up with Lost City Radio, a 2007 book by Daniel Alarcon as well as The Informers a 2008 first novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a National Book Circle winner in 2009, roughly a book running between the violence of missing women in Juarez on the border of the United States and life in Mexico City, had given me a greater interest in the depth and contributions of writers working on Latin American themes, and I’ve now read quite a number of Bolano’s novels, which I find unendingly powerful.
Now all of these books are very different. Americanah is the story of a Nigerian woman’s search for self and place in both the highs and lows of the American immigrant experience and the conflicting claims and ambitions of life, love, and home in a complex city like Lagos and country like Nigeria. The subtext of the book though as importantly is a frank look at the contradictions and importance of race in both the United States and elsewhere. Flamethrowers purports to be about a classic American girl from Reno trying to find herself as well in Nevada, New York City, and Italy, and being both lost and found in all three places in the time of the Red Brigades. Both are interesting books with interesting issues, though I’ll recommend Americanah to my friend as the easier and more valuable climb.
But, Lost City Radio by Alarcon, the Peruvian-American writer born in Lima and living in the Bay Area, was the best of my recent crop. The book follows a young man from the country snared in a minor mess with the government who becomes a messenger for a guerrilla formation modeled on Sendero, the Shining Path, from that period, and a woman whose melodious voice finds her moderating a radio show where families, friends, and others look for the lost and disappeared. We are no longer in the era of “magical realism” in dealing with these issues, but excellent, beautiful and powerful writing evoking the layers of life and identity in trying to live, love, and stand for something in oppressive times. I couldn’t help wondering if KABF should have a similar show.
My recommendations aside, I started to believe I was seeing patterns, despite my narrow reading focus. Does current literature almost require a global focus in order to speak to the curious nature of America today? Are we best educated about ourselves through the prism of the exotic? Is the narrowness of our politics and the provincialism of our experience being taunted by the devastating and cataclysm experiences of others overshadowing the mundaneness of so much of contemporary culture and concern?
In fact, do I need to make sure I’m sprinkling more fiction into my reading? And do you need to do the same as well?