Environmental Racism, Yes, Environmental Diversity, Still No, 25 Years Later

Montgomery       Almost 25 years ago in 1990 in an effort led by Richard Moore, co-director of the Southwest Organizing Project based in Albuquerque, a letter on their stationery signed by a number of community leaders was addressed to the head of the National Wildlife Federation and the big ten environmental organizations and demanded that they diversify not simply to reflect the population, but to understand the ravages of environmental racism that weighed most heavily on communities of color and lesser income. There were a lot of articles about the problem. There were a lot of committees organized and a huge number of promises to do better.

Moving forward now that there is even a greater awareness of the life-or-death importance of environmental issues, and a much deeper understanding of environmental racism, what’s the story now? Well, it’s not pretty, and it seems not to have changed much in 25 years according to a just released report covered by the Los Angeles Times:


The report found that while people of color make up about 38% of the U.S. population, they represent 12% to 15.5% of the staffs of environmentally focused foundations, nonprofits and government agencies. None of the largest environmental organizations have a person of color as president, vice president or assistant/associate director, according to the study, which was conducted by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor and commissioned by Green 2.0, a working group focused on addressing diversity challenges in the environmental movement. “The numbers don’t lie,” Taylor said. “Even more troubling, although most of the survey respondents expressed an interest in bridging this diversity gap, they admit their organizations are unlikely to take the necessary steps to do so.” Environmental organizations surveyed attributed the lack of staff diversity to a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants.


Geez, “a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants” sounds a lot like the responses we have heard now since the 1950’s every time there is a demand for diversity and change in representational hiring practices. Sadly, I don’t want to even think about how much of the 12 to 15% diversity reflects the fact that so many of these outfits are DC-based in a city more than 75% African-American able to fill the office staffs and lower positions easily.

And, is environmental racism still a huge issue? Damn straight! A story lays it out well:


It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress: When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles. Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities: [T]hat’s still a subject for further investigation; [U-Minnesota Professor Julian] Marshall notes that one theory is that more non-whites tend to live in pollution-rich downtown areas and near freeways.


Looking for more proof? Then check out a devastating analysis of “the disproportionate effects of pollution on minorities living in Los Angeles” by Professor Edward Martin and Serena Do in the current issue of Social Policy.  The evidence is everywhere!

Big environmental organizations may be having trouble finding open slots or people that can fill them, but the facts are ubiquitous in our cities. Maybe they are finding it harder to talk to black and brown people compared to dolphins, polar bears, and trees, but they need to do so, and do it yesterday, because time has run out.

Could Chat-Apps Increase Maximum Eligible Participation for Low-and-Moderate Income Families?

Eliza-dialogue-5New Orleans          What in the world is “chatvertising,” and why would any of us care? Good point! And, my thoughts exactly, which is why I had overlooked the original piece in the Journal about the growing effectiveness, and even popularity, of chat-bots or in real English, computers that are trained to talk back to you and carry on effective conversations with people.

I had read earlier a piece in the Times or somewhere that advocated using robots to fill the gap in elder caregiving and companionship given the emerging crises of way too many baby boomers hitting decrepitude with way too few workers and dollars to provide all of the care they will need. Supposedly having elderly, even senile folks, talk to computers is working in Japan, and the seniors are happy with the conversations and the attention.

The buzz was about a chat-app called Kik, which claims that four of ten teenagers are active users in the US, and a huge chat service called Line from Japan that has 400 million registered users. The Waterloo, Ontario-based Kik wants to sell their stuff by programming the robots in such a way that kids would be talking to “brands” rather than people, taking the person-hood of corporations to a whole new level. You know, asking Coke a question about Coke, I guess. Where are we going?

The back-story is that an MIT prof, Joseph Weizenbaum, invented ELIZA, a computer program that could “engage in open-ended conversation with a real human being. Over time these chat bots have gotten better and better at interacting with humans, mostly because programmers have loaded them up with knowledge about the real world. They can also learn from their conversations, becoming ever more skilled at fooling us into thinking that they, too, are intelligent.” Kinda creepy, huh, but maybe this tool has the capacity for good, rather than just being able to sell stuff?

Local 100 and ACORN International are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to effectively organize what we’re calling Citizen Wealth Centers that would be multi-purpose centers in our offices in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas that could help people enroll for Obamacare, access all entitlement benefits, repair credit, do taxes, apply for social security, adjust medical bills, and help find jobs and houses. Basically we are training people who for minimal fees could fix you up by being experts at navigating the increasingly complex modern bureaucracy and its plethora of rules and regulations. Preparing to launch has involved weekly training across a number of disciplines and eligibility programs to try and get everyone up to snuff.

I won’t take second place to anyone in arguing about the value of people-to-people communication, but I’m also realistic enough to know that our ability to scale up the Citizen Wealth Centers will be hard even in the middle south and with our allies elsewhere, yet in the meantime there will be many millions who need just his kind of advice, advocacy, and action. The government and corporations have been adept at getting phone machines to hear requests and bungle about trying to connect us to the right answers. Banks particularly suck at this for example. But, why not make the same effort to train some of these robots to handle the easy referrals, especially for so many on the other side of the computer divide, but who do have smartphones, so that they could “chat” their way to benefits and through the early application processes, bumping over to people when the mess multiplied, but at least getting the quick fixes out of the way?

There may be a real future for these chat-apps not just in selling, but in services, too.

The Co-Employer Fight at McDonald’s Searches for an Employer and a Strategy

protest at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Park

protest at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Park

New Orleans       More than a thousand fast food workers rallied at a convention center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago in a boisterous, morale boosting event sponsored by the Service Employees International Union in the on-going campaign for a living wage. More interesting is the ongoing effort by the union to define the employer for many of these workers, determine whether there is a co-employer status between the parent companies and franchisees, and puzzle out a real organizing strategy across thousands and thousands of different locations.

Having been there and done this before, let’s start with the obvious. It is incredibly difficult to win a co-employer case before the NLRB! Some years ago Local 100   had Waste Management, the garbage company, by the short hairs as a joint employer employing the “hoppers” or manual laborers working the business end of the truck loading the garbage into the hopper and recruited and paid by their subcontractor on a cost-plus agreement. We endured a lengthy and expensive hearing and had the company cold, but we were missing a “smoking gun,” which we later found incidentally, that would have established the co-employer status in correspondence on company letterhead, so we narrowly lost, took the election and won, rather than going through another five or six years of court appeals.

SEIU had success with this legal strategy several decades ago at the dawn of the Justice for Janitors campaign when they won a ruling in a Pittsburgh building service campaign that the building owner was a co-employer with the cleaning subcontractor, allowing the union to pressure the owner to settle a contract on more favorable terms, since they had the power in the contracting relationship. That NLRB decision was a shot heard across the property service industry, and higher and stronger walls were immediately built in markets throughout the country between ownership and their janitorial subcontractors, making it virtually impossible to win similar decisions, though still allowing the union to target ownership and large contractors more successfully in winning campaigns to organize janitors in other cities. I should quickly add that this does not make that campaign a model for fast food, no matter how many superficial similarities, since cleaning and labor costs are a minimal part of a building’s expense, but are the most significant part of a restaurant’s expense.

McDonald’s runs about 19% of its locations, somewhere over 6000 stores as corporate locations, while almost 30000 are franchised. More than 850,000 workers of the 1.7 million worldwide are employed in the USA by the company. Other fastfood operations are similarly organized. Yum, the operator for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut is about 25% corporate, while Burger King is only about 8% corporate. Pushing operations over to franchisees has been the increasing trend for all of these companies in recent years. When the United Labor Unions organized fastfood workers in Detroit in the early 1980s under the NLRB with organizers, Danny Cantor, Keith Kelleher, and Mark Splain, driving the program, we were constantly tripping over the problem of which stores were corporate and which franchise, as we filed representation petitions with all of these companies. It was a nightmare!

SEIU and its allies have appealed to the NLRB Division of Advice and the General Counsel for a determination on whether or not the McDonald’s Corporation is a co-employer with its thousands of franchisees and arguing that they are. Reporters seem to believe that a decision is imminent. They must have very good inside sources, because there is no time limit on how long the Division of Advice can chew on a case, and it can as easily take years as months, and the lawyers that do the looking for the General Counsel are not political appointees.

Nonetheless, Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter for the New York Times speculates that “if the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the SEIU to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.” I doubt it. If they wanted to move that way, they already could have done so since in major markets franchisees already own dozens and in some cases scores of locations in places like Houston, as does the corporation. Organizing under the NLRB would mean an additional fight on unit determination, as we often found to our peril, since such ownership patterns could lead to “an appropriate unit” being defined as every store in a geographical area owned by an individual franchisee or by the parent corporation. Furthermore, if the NLRB did advise that there was a potential joint employer status, an army of corporate and franchise lawyers would be revising the contracts and operating agreements at all hours of the day and night to build higher, stronger walls between the parties to prevent such a definition at the point an actual representation petition might be filed. And, then once it were filed, start the clock ticketing on the six or seven years to get the issue to the US Supreme Court.

This is a great SEIU tactic to give a hard poke to the company’s eye and try to pry open another front in its campaign, but as an organizing strategy winning or losing the co-employer case is not a game changer for actually unionizing the workers, , nor does it provide enough leverage to cause the companies to change their willingness to be neutral towards unionization. 

Is History Important in Organizing and Social Change?

362New Orleans        An axiom of organizing in whatever form or fashion it occurs has always been that what matters is what you do tomorrow, not yesterday.  This is particularly true for membership organizations where any accomplishment exponentially increases the expectation that the organization needs to produce even more today and tomorrow to meet the rising demands of its members.   Given the constant sense of immediacy and even urgency in the work, it should be no surprise that history seems a fragile, ephemeral luxury for many, sometimes masking a paint job and a new sign out front as if it were a reinvention.  Nonetheless to the degree the work is important, practitioners are obligated to feel the weight in order to extend current practice and potential farther and deeper than its been.

In Scotland recently, I was surprised to hear a talented, whip smart, and experienced ACORN organizer ask, “Who was Saul Alinsky?”  I was taken back for a minute.  I recalled a similar experience some years ago when an even more experienced union organizer for Local 880 in a joint training and planning meeting with Local 100, asked “Who was Cesear Chavez?,” which was even more surprising given that there was an emerging movement in many parts of the country to create a holiday in his name.  For every Martin Luther King or Gandhi, there are hundreds of George Wiley’s, Arthur C. Townley’s, and Wyndham Mortimer’s who are unknown to all.  All that is on us, and we do the best job we can.  In our training programs people read Chavez on dues, Warren Haggstrom on leadership styles, Nicholas von Hoffman on power, and any number of other critical, foundational pieces that guide and influence the work.

Does it matter?  Frankly, I’m not sure that it does in the day to day of the work.  But for me and others who believe that organizing is part of a continuous historical tradition of struggle for social change, justice, and empowerment, it’s fundamental not only for how history shapes the very meaning and practice of the work, but also just because it’s important to carry the flame forward.

Of course there has been a continuous stream of books recounting or revising the Chavez work, but the last major treatment of Wiley was 1981.  Thanks to rightwing usurpation, Alinsky has had a slight revival, although the last serious work on him was in 1992.  I was surprised to see that a poetic treatment of Alinsky (Be Thou a Man) and a play (The Love Song of Saul Alinksy) had been produced in recent years and of course Von Hoffman himself produced a recent memoir to try to ride the wave of hateration.  Mike Miller, a longtime community organizer based in San Francisco, and Aaron Schurtz, a UW-Milwaukee professor, are editing a “readings” volume coming out this fall called, People Power:  The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky that Social Policy (www.socialpolicy.orgis excerpting in our fall issue, which seeks to address this question by assembling various pieces following a number of community organizing strains over the last 40 years.

Decades ago ACORN working with Seth Borgos and Madeline Adamson produced a series of displays on organizing history with support from the National Endowment of the Humanities, but who knows where that might be now or if it even exists anymore.  In Little Rock, ACORN International, Local 100 United Labor Unions, and KABF are working to start a small, amateur “ACORN Museum” in our building there to do our part.

Reading UALR political scientist and historian, John A. Kirk’s, history of the work of SNCC in Arkansas, I asked him how many people he thought had read the book or cared anymore.  His answer was quick and firm.  In essence he replied, it didn’t matter.  The important thing was making sure there was a clear and accurate record of the history.

There will be people who will look, and they will need to find the answers, and for them history and tradition will have value and instruct and the rewards will multiply in future sweat and struggle.  In the meantime the rest of us who care about the work, about change, and about people, have to keep the flame flickering, so that others can find it through the dark of the future.

French Fudging May Point to Coming Business Loopholes in US on Employer Mandates

WO-AJ727_FRJOBS_G_20120510184252New Orleans     The headline in the Times spoke of “the 49ers of France,” conjuring up images of the 49ers of California Gold Rush fame, drawing me in completely. These 49ers though were small business owners who moved heaven and earth to not allow their businesses to reach 50 employees which would in the Times’ words, “unleash nearly three dozen French labor regulations.” As ominous as the language makes them sound these regulations are undoubtedly something that those wild and crazy French are doing in order to provide workers with protections on the job.  Oh, no! Furthermore they trumpet the tactic and advertise the legal sleight of hand with enthusiasm:

So in a tactic used by hundreds of other employers in a country with some of the European Union’s most extensive labor requirements, he has sought to conquer by dividing.  Rather than expand his company, he set up a second, and then a third, all capping the work force at fewer than 49 employees.  Like-minded business owners are the reason France holds the curious distinction of having more than twice as many companies with exactly 49 employees, as it does those with 50 or more.

Gearing up for the second enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, small businesses with 50 or more employees will finally face the mandate where they will be required to offer coverage for all of their workers.   It makes me wonder whether or not in the United States of America, “Land of the Loophole,” we are about to see small businesses saying, “Oui, oui!” Yes, yes!  We’re with the French all of the way, anything to keep from providing our workers healthcare. And, if there were any chance that anyone was missing the point in this ideological narrative of the plight of these virtuous small business David’s against the evil of the brutish Goliath’s of labor, the Times’ Liz Alderman spells it out even more clearly:

Economists say France’s 50-plus labor rules, which require employers to enact stringent and costly job protections – including a workers’ council with labor union delegates, a health and safety committee, and annual collective bargaining – are one reason that France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy, runs an unemployment rate more than twice Germany’s.

So despite the fact that the Times’ business page seems to want to compete now with the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed, rightwing diatribes, my real point is simply that if this is another loophole swinging wide open to deny workers coverage under Obamacare, then we need to close it.


PSA from ACORN Canada

Wholesale Bank Retreat from Lending to Lower Income and Minority Borrowers

cra1New Orleans      The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) passed in 1978, more than 35 years ago, was straightforward. Banks could no longer redline, meaning they could not use the deposits from lower income and minority neighborhoods to finance mansions for the rich in the sprawling suburbs. More plainly stated, they could not discriminate in their lending. As importantly, under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), they couldn’t hide their lending records, but had to make them transparent enough for regulators and the rest of us to know that they were doing right. Fair enough, and this worked not perfectly, but pretty well, for almost 30 years until the Great Recession by meeting the huge demands in our communities for homeownership.

Without being willing to come right out and say so, banks have gone to war against the CRA and lending to low-and-moderate income and minority communities without formally revealing that they have agreed to a declaration. They don’t want to say they don’t want to loan anymore to lower income working families and minorities, but they just don’t want to do so.

The war is being led by the biggest of the banks, especially JP Morgan and Bank of America. JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, indicated that the bank has reduced its exposure in the market for FHA insured loans that are targeted to first-time homeowners with “little wealth, especially minorities, because it allows borrowers to make down payments of just 3.5%.” A year ago Morgan accounted for 12.7% of these loans, but most recently it revealed that its share is down to 2.3%, which is to say, knocking on the door to doing nothing. Bank of America has also retreated, claiming it will focus primarily on servicing his existing customers with accounts at the bank.

And, what is their rationale for the retreat? Well, this is interesting, because it goes to the issue of transparency and accountability for lending, which was at the heart of HMDA as well.  First and foremost is the fact that they don’t want to hold the loans on their books. For right now this is why 80% of their loans are pushed into programs with various federal guarantees. A new accounting rule proposed for 2018 could make this even dicier, because they will be required to write off a portion of the loan at the same time they are making the loan, which you just know will scare the heck of them. Here’s the rub. Dimon is whining because his bank and a pack of the others are now paying fines, $614 million for Chase, because they defrauded FHA by claiming that some loans they packaged met the FHA requirements that didn’t, and even after an internal audit discovered this, they tried to continue the cover-up and not inform the FHA that they had swindled them until an internal whistleblower spilled the beans.

So, let’s all understand, Morgan got caught cheating the government, so now the big whine from CEO Dimon is that they lost money on the scam, because they are having to pay a penalty for doing wrong. They essentially want some kind of do-over rule that allows them to cheat, say I’m sorry without a fine, and keep doing whatever they feel like doing.

And, one thing Morgan, Bank of America, and others don’t feel like doing anymore is lending to first timers, working families, and minorities it seems. Unfortunately the way the CRA has had its teeth pulled over the years makes this possible, along with the fact that the Federal Reserve is the police watching over the banks and their CRA obligations, and they have tended to play patty cake on these lending obligations for years.

We need to look at the coming CRA numbers more and more rigorously, because whether we know it or not, we’re in a fight to keep money in our communities, and we’ve got a huge body count already and no sign of any cavalry coming to save us.