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Retiring One Halloween Election Boogie Man: ACORN!

cover-boogeymanNew Orleans   With the election here, the voter registration period is pretty much over in most states, except for those favored few who have same day registration, so it’s safe to finally talk about it a bit more and make some notes about some of the things that make 2014′s midterms different from elections over the last half-dozen years.

One difference that has been huge is that the Republican Party’s voter suppression effort has been so successful in some many states that even the fire breathers at Fox News and what’s left of the Tea People and other far right zealots seem to have finally slacked off on their efforts to make ACORN the boogieman for this election.  Google Alerts on ACORN have finally calmed down to a low murmur, rather than the high pitched roar of recent years. Of course James O’Keefe, the video-scammer is still trying to get a free lunch from ACORN and announced that he had set up an election PAC this season, but it was quickly buried in a universal yawn that escaped from the now perpetual sneer which now seems to be the universal response from the American public to his perpetual shenanigans.

This season the big ACORN news from the Google team was the splash made by Ottawa ACORN on their candidates’ forum!  By the way did any of you even realize the Toronto mayor’s election happened and the Ford family finally lost?

Of course it’s not completely over.  Some old reliable sources still take their best shot, but it is more often now on local races.  The New York Post wanted to make sure their readers knew that the “re-branded ACORN” New York Communities for Change was active in setting up a campaign committee in conjunction with New York State unions to impact the election of friendly legislators to implement their programs.  An ACORN-fixated blogger took a stab at trying to link another rebranded ACORN affiliate in Missouri to the Ferguson controversies, but never got traction there either.

Part of this trend is something less than good news.  The progressive forces are now seen more aggressively in local and state campaigns and less on the national arena perhaps where ACORN was a factor, particularly with its massive voter registration efforts. Races like the campaign in Richmond, California where city councils and mayors are trying to forge new public policies and take on corporations, like Chevron, are increasingly important.  Interviewing Tom Butt, a 19-year city councilman and now candidate for Mayor on Wade’s World  on KABF, recently, it was easy to feel the excitement.  Seeing the role of the Working Families Party aligning itself with Mayor de Blasio and a number of progressives and labor unions to remake the state legislature is vital and exciting.  There are a number of state minimum wage campaigns which could play important roles in turnout though no one seems to be watching this as closely as they might.

There’s still a huge gap with the absence of ACORN in the United States, but seeing the action on some of these political struggles and the inability of the right to continue to scare organizers and others by simply calling up the ACORN boogieman this Halloween, gives all of us more hope for the future

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Please enjoy the Song of the Month from Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, Si Kahn’s Mount Polley

Si Kahn’s Mount PolleyOn August 4, 2014, the containment dam at Mount Polley Mine, British Columbia breached sending 2.64 billion gallons of wastewater and 1.36 billion gallons of solid tailings with a smorgasbord of toxins into local waterways. The facility that failed was designed by the same firm that is working on Pebble’ Mine’s tailings dam. The Mount Polley environmental catastrophe serves as a direct warning to us.

Spying through the Mail, How Last Century

full-mailboxNew Orleans      The US Postal Service admitted that it had complied already this year with 50,000 different requests from local law enforcement authorities and national security folks for permission to open the mail of US citizens in search of nefarious schemes and hanky-panky.  Perhaps unrelated, and perhaps not, within days the US Postal Service also said, “Yeah, you right,” mail delivery is getting slower.  Fewer workers and routes no doubt, and the added burden of rerouting the mail for those 50,000 as well.

There are a bunch of head scratching problems to contemplate here.

Can Clyde Cop, the local po-po, just give a call or, more appropriately I suppose, write a letter to the local postmaster and ask them to pop the seals on some mail or deliver it over?  Surely not?  But, reading more closely, it seems that is pretty darned close to what happens at the Post Office, though perhaps higher up.  There seem to be no real standards or stumbling blocks, just “open, sesame!”  We don’t even have to wonder whether or not your local cellphone company or internet provider revealed your stuff here, fought in a secret court, or rolled over.  With the post office it was all easy-peasy, what you want is what you get.

But, that intrigues me as well.  What in the world would they be getting?  This must be the most snoozing surveillance ever, despite its complete breach of citizen rights and privacy.  Does anyone really send confidential material through the mail anymore?  At home, its bills, magazines, political notices, and the usual credit card and real estate solicitations.  At the office it might be some books, but still mainly bills spiced up with the occasional tax notices or correspondence from attorneys about our union contracts or whatever.  Are there still people out there with a rich body of written mail correspondence?  Are there people who have secretaries?  From everything I read, this is so old school, they actually don’t even bother teaching it in school at all these days.  Must be one of those, “no stones unturned” strategies, because it’s hard to believe that there’s much “there there.”

Now the internet is another thing entirely, but we seem to come up short on the law enforcement side there with our misplaced priorities.  While NSA and the like are harvesting all of our messages, it turns out that big problems like the fact that 40 to 60000 websites are selling drugs online without prescriptions are pretty much beyond the pale.  Authorities have identified 4700 scam and illegal sites this year alone according to the Wall Street Journal, but even after reporting them, 4000 are still merrily going about their illicit business.

And, if they are spending so much time trying to get into our email, why can’t they also do something about the flood of spam that seems to be increasing exponentially on a daily basis.  You would think it would be in their interest to help us get rid of some of that garbage, so that they could get to the good stuff in our email, like messages from our children or reports from our organizers.

It won’t be long before some billionaire will bring back the Pony Express or its 21st century equivalent so we can get around all of that.  Oh, yeah, right, they already have haven’t they, and they are called United Parcel Service and Federal Express.   When will they announce the number of inquiries they receive from so-called law enforcement and security agencies for our stuff from them?

Something to think about as we wait for the next shoe to drop.

The Digital Divide is a Class Divide

google-fiber-620x426New Orleans     The Pew Research Center says that only 43% of households nationally with annual incomes of less than $25,000 have access to the internet compared to 70% nationally with broadband. Only 55% of African-Americans have broadband internet. Why? Well, not surprisingly, surveys conducted by independent sources, including pollsters hired by the Wall Street Journal to look at the results of Google’s super-fast Fiber service in Kansas City find that cost is increasingly the mountain creating the great divide in this area between rich and poor.

The Journal looked closely at the impact of Google Fiber’s entry into Kansas City in 2012, including its claim that its effort in KC was not just about fast service but also about bridging the digital divide. Their surveys found that in six low-income neighborhoods only 10% of residents were subscribing to Google Fiber with another 5% buying into a Google service for a slower speed that was free for seven years but required a $300 installation fee paid out at $25 per month. Some residents when interviewed found all of the Google pitch confusing to say the least.

ACORN in Canada and with our partners in the US in Pennsylvania and elsewhere and with Local 100 in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas has advocated to Comcast, Cox, Time Warner and others that low cost $10 per month plans would work if there were serious and aggressive outreach. To date, Comcast particularly has viewed real outreach into lower income neighborhoods as superfluous to their real interest in creating little more than a public relations and marketing campaign. Google to its credit seems to have taken some half-steps to try and get the job done, and reportedly went door-to-door with its employees in some of Kansas City neighborhoods and, according to the Journal “teamed up with community groups to spread the word,” as well as supporting some “nonprofit groups that offer classes on using the Internet and sell cheap refurbished computer.”

The Journal’s work was specific to Kansas City, so we don’t know what the penetration of Comcast’s service is in Little Rock or Houston on our lower income neighborhoods, except through our own doorknocking and the aggregate numbers which we have forced Comcast to report. As miserable as the 10% Google figure is, it overwhelms the miniscule participation in Comcast’s FCC-ordered $10 per month plan, which certainly bests $25 a month, and Comcast claims, though seldom delivered, a cheaply available, refurbished computer.

The surveys found that 21% of the folks that declined service in lower income, largely minority neighborhoods in Kansas City cited cost as the key factor. Others cited access to cheaper access through smartphones, which though less useful in handling applications still, is also where use is soaring in Africa and India.

By all accounts, Comcast was still going to make money at $10 per month, and Google was definitely not going to lose money even with its so-called “free” service on the slower, lower end in Kansas City. Nonetheless, it is unavoidable, and the FCC needs to take careful note of this, to conclude that if we want to lower the digital divide we are going to have to recognize that it is a class divide over affordability, and until we regulate some of the gross profit margins out of internet access and treat it as the vital public utility it is, this situation will only get worse and be more harmful to lower and moderate income families as costs continue to rise.

Organized Labor Speaking Without One Voice

UnionButton_180_182New Orleans        It is one thing when we all know the king has no clothes on, but it’s a whole different problem when Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and its op-ed pages broadcasts it far and wide. While we watch the Koch Brothers drive an ideological machinery pushing businesses to hew the line politically hard right with the Republican Party panting happily with them, we have our noses pushed into the mess of division when labor’s “jobs first” bread-and-butter unionism trumps public and longer term interests of our own members. A recent piece by Steven Malanga, who is also a senior editor at City Journal, detailed a listing of locations and political races where the building trades went one way and public employee unions went the other. 

He wasn’t completely correct, because despite his argument about an “emerging political divide,” unfortunately this is divide of long standing. Vexingly, he could have cited many more examples in many other locations where this division has long been standard operating procedure.

He mentions New Jersey where the Building and Construction Trades Council has endorsed a bunch of Republican Congressional candidates, but he could have easily cited many other examples, like the one several years ago when almost every union in Jersey banded together to stop Walmart superstore expansion in the state, but the trades signed an agreement with Walmart to construct the stores union on project labor agreements and trumpeted the company’s expansion until a compromise was reached. Ironically, New Jersey is one of the only states where labor actually admits that the building trades’ interest is diametrically opposed to most other unions and maintains a separate Industrial Unions Council to offset the construction trades and lessen the political confusion.

Of course, where the Journal glosses over labor’s reality is that in the shrinking ranks of labor, the building trades, long the smallest membership sector of organized labor, are as often now simply the mouse that is roaring. Public, service, and private sector unions overwhelmingly have the numbers in the organization we have left, but that only counts when votes are counted. Meanwhile small local unions, unashamed, will do things like stand behind Wisconsin’s union busting Governor Scott Walker with a couple of their members and a state flag, ignoring the tens of thousands of members he is pushing out of other unions and his crippling of labor’s power in the state.

No small part of the problem lies in the toothless federated structure of the AFL-CIO and its imitators. Despite oaths and promises long enshrined in labor’s ritual pledges to stand together and unite, especially around political endorsements, there are really no effective penalties for unions breaking away and pulling such stunts. In New Orleans, the tragedy of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, now serving the public in a jail cell, was abetted by the Firefighters, Operating Engineers, and its ilk, breaking away from the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO endorsement of police chief Pennington, in a similar subversion. In every community there are too many examples, too often led by one building trade or another breaking away from the vast majority for the thin-lipped kiss from a politician promising a few jobs or benefits.

It’s understandable at one level since the hiring hall structure puts constant pressure on the elected business manager’s producing new jobs for the members sitting on the bench, but recognizing the reality of the problem and having a better way to speak with one voice, despite the internal disagreements and conflicting self-interests, has to be a higher leadership and membership priority if labor is going to project even the semblance of unity in these days of continued decline.

The Journal cites a recent campaign where the New York building trades council wanted to endorse Governor Andrew Cuomo in the primary but public-union opposition kept the state AFL-CIO from making any endorsement because of the governor’s position on capping property taxes. The Journal may not like it, but having the majority rule is a good thing, and it allowed each union to act in its own self-interest without pretending to speak for the whole of labor. It’s not the best alternative, but it’s better than putting our divisions on the evening news and undercutting our own internal governance structures for the sake of some politician’s interest, rather than our own. The happy ending to that story is that the building and trades council respected the majority rather than going all New Jersey and jumping off their own way. We need more of that and less of the other, if our own survival and the welfare of all of our members is going to be our highest priority.

There Goes the Neighborhood

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Mural at the office

New Orleans        I don’t know why I continue to be surprised at the changes in my own neighborhood, Bywater in New Orleans.  I’ve seen the joggers, dog walkers, and strollers in the streets.  I’ve noticed the porkpie hipster hats and the bicycles rolling by at all hours of the day and night.  I’ve read the statistics, before and after Katrina, when my neighborhood went from 70/% nonwhite to 70% white, and of course I’ve read and paid our property tax bill and the rising numbers that are testimonies to the fact that we didn’t flood and once were a lower rent, working class area.  Nonetheless, I was still surprised when the multi-venue art exhibit called Prospect 3 opened in New Orleans this year.

            I read in the paper that on opening night there was going to be food, music, and free shows all over the St. Claude Arts District, and for a change I was in town.  I asked my companera, “Where exactly is that district?”  “Maybe we should go?”   She told me it ran from our office building down more than a mile and a half to past our blocks that had the same numbers as our house and our street running parallel and two blocks over.  “Really,” I said, naively, “maybe people will notice the work on our political mural on the wall next to our building?”

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            Without going anywhere other than walking two blocks away to the same St. Claude that I drive by several times a day, it turned out there were four Prospect 3 “events,” right there under our noses, two or three of which were in art galleries or display areas that had not really registered to me as even being art galleries, as opposed to repainted houses on the street.  Largely young people were everywhere.  Food trucks were parked on a nearby corner and they were selling Cajun boudin and something called a German sandwich out of grills right on the street.  There were people dancing and singing at a pocket park on the same corner a nonprofit had recently developed which was normally unoccupied except for a couple of regular wine drinking old timers.  Everyone seemed to be strutting on the avenue after their own fashion.  Not having a beer or glass of wine in our hands made us stand out.

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            And, no fooling it might also be a great thing for the avenue.  A local hustler had set up a table in front of a neighborhood convenience store with two delivery pizzas, so that he could hawk by the slice.  Walking up the block between these venues were two schools, one former elementary and one former high school, now part of the multi-billion dollar refurbishment of such facilities, which can’t be a bad thing given how dilapidated both facilities had been, as we know from using each of them as our own 9th Ward voting polls, even if they were destined to be charter-ized.

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            Waking up in the pre-dawn and walking my Australian shepherd, Lucha, I noticed a big, new SUV down my block was missing its back tire with the rim resting virtually on the street.  Later my longtime New York Times paper man, and I took a closer look and all four tires were gone from this Georgia wedding guest at the neighbor’s bed-and-breakfast.

            Who knows where all of this gentrifying is going for us in Bywater, but it still seems like they can try and take Bywater out of New Orleans and relocate it to Portland or Brooklyn, but they really can’t take New Orleans out of  Bywater.  At least not yet, thank goodness!

            Laissez les bon temps roulez!  Let the good times roll!

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The Limits and Pitfalls of Google’s Search Engine

Protest-outside-Google-HQ_07.11New Orleans      It’s true that none of us seem to be able to live without Google.  There are other search engines, and for one reason or another many of us dip our toe in and still find later, despite our misgivings, that we are still using Google mail even knowing they keep everything forever and share with the NSA. We depend on Google’s calendar, we keep buying phones with Android, and generally we’re chained to their engine.  For all of the publicity about Google being a kinder and gentler conglomerate with its motto of “don’t be evil,” when you think about it, that’s really a very low bar.  There really aren’t many people or corporations who go out in the world determined to “just be evil.”

My worry is that we all depend on Google, and Google is not doing enough “to be good.” We are seduced into believing by them and our own self-delusion and perhaps laziness that our simple searches are bringing us real knowledge and truth, rather than a mish-mash of illusion. We depend on Google and the internet, we just can’t trust them to deliver for us.

I stumbled onto a case where a locksmith, Mark Baldino, in northern Virginia had sued Google for racketeering.  I reached him and interviewed him on “Wade’s World” on KABF.  His beef, shared by many businesses, is that Google doesn’t screen out the scammers from their listings, which encourages companies to create false listings so that when you scroll you might pick a fly-by-night operation claiming to be near you that is actually just a number connected to a call center dispatch on the hustle.  The other side of the Google scam is that for a legitimate business, like Baldino’s, he has to pay Google for key words and listings to “move up” on the list of searches ahead of the scammer.  They have lost $8 million in business over the last 7 years by their count, while also having to spend thousands in on-line advertisements with Google and others to try to recapture the traffic.  Google has essentially tried to make Baldino police the scammers, rather than deciding not to do “evil” itself, so if he sends them a spreadsheet with scammers, they’ll vet the sheet and block the bad boys.  Is that lame or what?  No wonder Baldino sued.

Someone the other day in conversation asked if people ever Google searched themselves.  I used to do so once a year during my Christmas vacation as a hoot just to have a sort of crazy out-of-body experience, though now I largely don’t bother because the searches and alerts are so spotty.  A free service called Newsle relies on Google and others and does a lot of it for me, equally poorly. With all of its money Google and its imitators don’t pay to get past the increasing number of pay walls.  For example this week I was quoted in a New York Times front page political story by Michael Barbaro on Iowa  from a 2008 Chief Organizer Blog, but no Google alerts found my name, ACORN, or anything else, while they and Newsle did find some random rightwing blog arguing that ACORN and I were effectively subverting the Affordable Care Act in the USA for our own nefarious and revolutionary purposes.  Same for the long 30th anniversary story on KABF…nada!  I can only believe that’s because the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is also behind the paywall.

All of which means the whack rises to the top and ends up as pig fodder disguised as facts for those so inclined, and in the ways of the internet might be a source for a Wikipedia entry later down the line.  Yet, Google, Wikipedia, and others are now our “go to” for so much of our information, research, and, heaven forbid, knowledge.

It may or may not be racketeering, as Baldino Locksmiths’ claim, the courts will figure that out soon enough, but whatever it is, it’s bad business and a dangerous perversion of the public interest whether for commercial purposes or the general search for truth for all of us as regular people out in the wide world of work and life.