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Arkansas at the Bottom of the Barrel for Tenants

tenantsNew Orleans        Reading the press release from the Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, there was no doubt that a significant victory for tenants had finally been won.  Arkansas had long been the only state that still criminalized evictions for tenants.In other words you could be evicted by the landlord filing criminal charges on you for not paying your rent and using the police and public apparatus to evict you. I had three lawyers, Stacy Fletcher and Dustin Duke from their Little Rock office and Jason Auer from Jonesboro on “Wade’s World” on KABF/FM 88.3  to talk about, and, as it turned out, tell us the “rest of the story.

Trying to remember the first name of Hobson Mahon who ran the Pulaski County Legal Aid in 1970, and agreed at the request of Jay Lipner, a VISTA lawyer at the time and Steve Herman, a Reginald Heber Smith fellow, to let me squat in the office for a month or so when I was first founding ACORN in Arkansas, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the local legal services.The article I found on Mahon covered the fact that in 1973 legal aid was fighting against this same criminal eviction statute.  So, yes, this victory was sweet and hard won over many decades, but as it turned out it was a victory only in one circuit court’s jurisdiction for Pulaski and Perry County.With no appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, they would have to continue to look for cases to challenge elsewhere throughout the state.In truth very few tenants go to jail for nonpayment, but it is a big stick wielded by the landlords and depending on how they strike with it one of the lawyers explained how a tenant could end up with a class misdemeanor serious enough drag on credit ratings and impact job applications.

So what does a tenant do when the landlord won’t make needed repairs?  Stacy Fletcher explained that there was an eye in the needle a tenant might be able to crawl through to withhold rent by paying for the repair themselves but it was only good for one month, and the repair were often greater than that sum, and of course there were risks.  The risks being the fact that the tenant could end up with a criminal eviction if they didn’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” correctly in
fix the problem.

Landlords can get away with all of tenant abuse in Arkansas because it is the only state in the United States that does NOT have an “implied warrant of habitability,” meaning that there is no assumption that the landlord is providing housing as a spoken or unspoken part of lease where it is decent enough for people to live.  Yes, you understand this perfectly. A landlord can get away with collecting rent for a place with no heat, no utilities, no running water, and even no toilet.  Unbelievable in the 21st  Century in the United Sates.   Arkansas essentially is OK running slums on the order of Korogochu in Nairobi or Dharavi in
Mumbai!Arkansas could still legally rent the managers of Biblical times.  And, there’s no shame about it either.  Stacy related one sad tale of a landlord in Pulaski with over 100 properties complaining that now he was going to have to get a lawyer or something to evict tenants rather than have the taxpayers do it for him.

A bill seems to have been submitted in the state legislature to finally allow Arkansas not to be the last state without a warrant of habitability.  Republicans or Democrats or whatever, surely they can agree it’s past time to allow tenants to have some basic human rights even if they don’t have anything like tenant’s rights in the state.  If not, we need to talk about all tenants declaring a rent jubilee until we can put an end to both the criminal evictions and legalized slum housing forever.

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Please enjoy Answer by They Might be Giants,  Thanks to KABF.

Nonprofit Hospitals Are Going to Have to Prove They are Not Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

medical-bills1-660x330Little Rock     For many top executives and CEO’s it easy to imagine that running a big urban nonprofit hospital has been a sweet gig.  Looking at some of the 990’s that all nonprofits submit to the IRS annually, salaries in the millions are not unusual at some of these big hospitals and many make millions all down the corporate flow chart. They are big whoops in their local communities with thousands of jobs and money to spend and, hey, for all that the regular folks out there know — they’re doing fine, while doing good. Luckily for their patients and the whole community, their world is going to have to change.

Modern Healthcare, the industry’s bellwether magazine, reported recently on the shivers running through many nonprofit hospital CEO’s spines as they absorbed the new world in which the courts and the Federal Trade Commission are no longer willing to take their word for it when they say that mergers and consolidations in their markets will just mean better patient care, when it is clear that they will also create healthcare monopolies able to charge escalating prices on a captive market. A federal appeals court has ordered St. Luke’s Hospital in Bosie, Idaho to unwind their purchase of a major area medical practice, the Nampa, Idaho-based Saltzer Medical Group.  The court essentially said that they could hear St. Luke’s saying it would be better for the community and patient care, but in fact St. Luke’s would have to prove that it wasn’t really much more than an attempt to build a health care monopoly with no price controls.  The FTC had earlier delivered a similar blow to an Ohio hospital, and the head of the FTC has been speaking loudly and clearly in recent months about the agency’s skepticism towards healthcare mergers now.And, then of course you have the fact that nonprofit hospitals are going to have to toe the line because of the new rules from Treasury and the IRS being implemented under the Affordable Care Act. As we assemble our “volunteer army” to look at the 990s for nonprofit hospitals in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, we’re already seeing enough to turn our stomachs.  A billion dollar children’s hospital that claims to spend only $6 million in charity care and some of that is suspect, along with huge fundraising efforts that seem mainly about politics, public relations, and marketing and in fact lose money at year’s end. So-called “community benefit” items included under charity care by other nonprofits that are also in many cases simply marketing efforts dropped into the category.  Many are simply self-serving like one outfit that put the cost of training its doctors as a community benefit under charity care.  I get the feeling when Local 100 finishes pulling all of these pieces together it’s going to make our hair burn and our hearts’ hurt.St. Luke’s in Idaho is a bit far out of our range, but looking at their particular cut on the twisted reality of all of these matters gives me a feeling that they also are going to have many lessons to learn. In their Q&A section they are careful to point out that they are nonprofit and exempted from some taxes, and in their view that requires them to invest in expansion and new services. How about charity? No mention of that. In fact in their self-presentation they have a unique way of describing for their whole hospital system how they see charity. Here’s how they explain their munificence when it comes to handling Medicaid:

The amount of money St. Luke’s receives from Medicaid is an indication that St. Luke’s provides care to a large number of Medicaid patients. In fact, St. Luke’s provides more care to patients covered by Medicaid than any other health care provider in the state.  Medicaid pays hospitals well below the cost of providing care to Medicaid patients.  The costs that count for Medicaid purposes do not include all of the hospitals costs, so the reimbursement is even less on a percentage basis than it would appear.  Because Medicaid pays below cost, a higher volume of Medicaid funding results in lower net revenue for the hospital.  In other words, on balance, St. Luke’s pays to see Medicaid patients because we spend more on the care of the patient than we receive in payment for the care we provide.

What a unique argument!  St. Luke’s “pays” to see the poor, because they believe that Medicaid reimbursement rates are low compared to their view
of their market pricing.

In a similar bit of double-speak, St. Luke’s communicates in totally imperial and oblique terms their collection policy for the poor Idahoan
that cannot pay the sticker price.

If a patient has difficulty paying their medical expenses, St. Luke’s Patient Financial Services works with them to determine what options are available for assistance, including a possible payment plan.  If it is determined that a patient can pay all, or a portion, of their medical bills but chooses not to do so, St. Luke’s refers those accounts to a collection agency to help collect payment from patients. St. Luke’s may charge interest on outstanding accounts depending on the circumstances.

“Chooses” not to do so?”Interesting.  Probably the same way they “choose” to be poor or unemployed or even for that matter, sick and in the hospital in the first place.  It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that St. Luke’s is taking a page out of the now notorious Heartland Hospital’s playbook in St. Joseph, Missouri.We’re doing the work, but we can already tell even as we get started that we are not going to like what we find, but neither are some of these nonprofit hospitals, because change is coming. There are way too many wolves in sheep’s clothing seeing nonprofit status not as a mission but as a tax dodge.
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Please enjoy Modern Times by Dropkick Murphys

Duplicate Dues Enrollment Should be Standard Operating Procedure

open-shop

UAW Billboard 1930s Detroit

Little Rock   Reading about the second battle of Wisconsin between labor and Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues, who four years ago stripped public workers’ unions in that state of the ability to collect agency fees or “fair share” payments in lieu of dues for representation, it seems they are making short work of getting rid of the same “union shop” provisions for private sector workers, adding Wisconsin to the list of “right to work” states.Unions are protesting loudly there, but seem resigned to the inevitability of defeat.   No doubt tipping Wisconsin will embolden other politicians waiting in line to
kick unions on their way down.

Labor is starting to piece together of chain of similar setbacks.  Last year home health care workers in Illinois, long members of our old sister local there, lost union shop provisions after an adverse US Supreme Court ruling.There has not been the immediate ripple effect that might have occasioned that reversal, but it is a sleeper bomb embedded in the memories of our opponents waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Over the last year visiting with union leaders and organizers in the United Kingdom, I sometimes found myself musing privately on the strategic and tactical thinking of labor in that country when they lost the union shop under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then never made regaining that system a key item when the Labor Party held the chair for long years under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.Victor Bussie, the former president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO for seemingly forever was the longest serving such officer at the state level in the labor movement and the only one dating back to the merger of the CIO and the AFL in the last 1950s.  In annual convention after convention when Bussie would stand for election, he would say he was committed to staying in office until he
was able to win back the union shop that was lost in 1976 when Louisiana became the last state to fall into that column.

It now seems to me that that maybe our brothers and sisters got it right in the UK.  Having weathered the storm, lost members, and survived, why jump back on that horse to see it race back and forth with each change of government when you are in a fight for the long haul.  Maybe even Brother Bussie also could have spent his time better?  Some union organizers in the UK even prefer the new system, including alternate non-employer based dues collection procedures in organizing a workforce no longer chained to the bench for life.

We may have simply lost the messaging battle on this campaign irrevocably.  As our membership percentage declines and unions are seen as a luxury benefit rather than a necessity for many on the job, then membership becomes more understandable as a voluntary choice than a mandatory obligation and the explanation for using management to help collect a union’s dues becomes a bridge too far for the public and even
for many workers.

Where we can get it, we should use it, but now that corporate and political forces are preparing as we see in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere to take the fight past right-to-work to eliminate the ability to use payroll deductions completely, we need to embrace the position of people like the GMB’s organizing director who argued to me that they preferred direct dues payments from individual’s bank accounts to payroll deductions.

In our union we are going to stop enrolling members unless they are signing two places on the card, one for payroll deduction and one for direct bank drafts.It is a herculean task and investment to re-sign everyone from one system to another, but it is a much simpler matter to enroll members in a different way from the beginning.  Once joining, it is a trivial matter for a new recruit to sign twice, because they have made the key decision once that they want to be in the union.

The tide is going out and it may never come back to shore.  Unions need to be careful not to be stranded on the beach all alone like Robinson Crusoe on their own private and deserted island.

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Woody Guthrie “Union Burying Ground”

Coordinated Attack on Public Workers and Unions in Texas and Oklahoma

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHouston           The headlines on the attack on workers and their unions has recently been written in the Midwest.  An attempt to follow-up in Wisconsin on the stripping of union protections for public workers now finds the legislature there pile driving a so-called right-to-work bill that would strip unions of vital resources for representation requirements and services.  Having spent hours in the Houston Local 100 office poring over a bill introduced in this session of the Texas legislature that could, if passed, and if passed in the current form, attack public workers at all levels state, counties, cities, and schools by eliminating any authority for payroll dues deductions for workers to their unions, it is important to realize that some of the highly publicized fights are just the tip of the iceberg as these concerted union attacks continue below the water line to eviscerate unions in areas of the country where workers are most beleaguered.

The New York Times reported a story recently about the coordinated efforts of many Republican controlled state legislatures to use a “preemption” strategy at the behest of industry and particularly the Koch Brothers’ funded ALEC conservative bill-writing factory to take away governing discretion at the local level that Republican business donors were finding obnoxious.  The headline cases were the Denton, Texas city council outlawing fracking there down to whether or not the Fort Worth Mayor and Council could regulate the environmental damage from plastic bags.  The story cited the longstanding preemption efforts in many states to eliminate the ability of cities to set their own minimum wage standards that began in the 1990’s with the Local 100 and ACORN’s ballot measure in Houston to raise the minimum wage as well as in New Orleans and Denver.  Of course New Mexico, where cities have continued to retain that right, is a heavily targeted area for business now.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised in this dark and polarized climate to find bills with identical numbers introduced in both Texas and Oklahoma that would eliminate all abilities for worker requests for payroll dues deductions to be honored by public employers.  The Oklahoma bill is only different from Texas in the fact that it is plainer spoken and just waves the mighty wand of the state to make all deductions disappear.  In Texas, the language meanders around trickier pathways because there is more to unravel since some cities, particularly Houston, have opened the door to more direct negotiations with the HOPE coalition of city unions connected to SEIU and AFSCME, and they wanted to tiptoe a bit more around police and fire unions that bankrolled some of their buddies.  Nonetheless, talking to our Austin-based attorney, Doug Young, every time we thought we might have found some wiggle room, he pointedly assured us it was legally locked down tighter than a bank vault.

Of course if something as draconian as these bills passes and becomes law, there are recourses in court based on the first amendment and our freedoms of association and the equal protection measures that frown on discrimination of our organizations, but that means years in court and uncertain results.  One outcome will be certain, if such overreaching legislation is approved, there will be even weaker unions in states that are already notorious for the weakness of unions.

I am reminded of two things.  One is the way that business and industry used a Lake Charles oil refinery strike to raise the temperature enough to win right-to-work legislation in Louisiana in 1976, and now the fact that the same effort is underway in the oil patch states while oil refinery workers are on a very well run and smart strike around safety conditions throughout Texas, Louisiana, and other states.  The other thing that hits hard is my own advocacy of wider worker organization using direct dues collection outside of employer permissions to build strong and sustainable organizations like our 35,000 member union of hawkers in Bengaluru and Chennai in India.

Nonetheless it is one thing to have alternative organizing and dues collection methodology.  It is quite another to be forced in that direction with no alternatives, and that seems to potentially be our future in the current anti-union assaults in the southwest, and likely throughout the southern states.

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Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” Live at the WGA Writers Strike (some explicit content)

Will the IRS Finally Stop Independent Subcontractor Scams?

86544983-550x220Houston           One of the largest and best known ways that workers are ripped off is known euphemistically as “classification,” meaning whether a worker is classified as an employee or an independent subcontractor.  The Department of Labor has largely failed to police this area effectively which has led to an accelerating rate of casual or contingent employment in recent decades under the rubric of the self-employed or independent subcontractors or freelancers or whatever you may want to call them.  Some are now arguing there may be hope for some of these workers because there is a  new sheriff in town because of the heightened scrutiny forced under the mandatory coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and, big drum-roll, it’s the IRS to the rescue of workers.  Who would have ever thought it?  Is this hope or hype though?

The reason and wherefore is straightforward.  Employers with more than fifty (50) workers have to provide health care.  Not surprisingly a lot of employers would just as soon noodle around that magic number and many have talked plainly about how they might be able to reclassify enough of their workers as part time or subcontractors to put their direct workforce to below the fifty worker requirement.

It goes without saying that employers have a lot of incentives to cheat their workers, not just on health insurance.  As contractors, a worker is responsible for their own social security, Medicare payments, and regular taxes.   As direct employees, a worker matches only half of such payroll based taxes and their bosses pay the other half.

The IRS told the New York Times though that they were going to handle this classification concern through their “employment tax examination program” and a form, the SS-8.  Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a new sheriff at all.  That sounds like a rent-a-cop driving around the neighborhood that never gets out of their cars in an urban fake policing security scheme.  It reminds me of when the IRS had the responsibility of making sure that household domestic workers were actually paid the federal minimum wage beginning in 1978 and had social security paid for their labor.   Our Household Workers Organizing Committee in New Orleans successfully sued the IRS for enforcement of the minimum wage at least for the few brave souls paying social security taxes, but even that was a fight to win in the settlement.  And, decades later it’s still honored more in the breach as millions of informal workers are paid less than the minimum with no benefits.

This problem urgently needs to be solved, but so far the IRS as the solution sounds more like hope than it does a plan.

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 Ella’s Song by Sweet Honey in the Rock  (Live)

Banking at the Post Office

ATM at Japan Post

Japan Post Bank  ATM at Japan Post

New Orleans      I’ve been on the post office bandwagon for some time as a solution for reducing the impact of predatory lending, check cashing, and money transfers or remittances.  It seems in the effort to protect jobs, the American Postal Workers Union may be planning to take just this kind of proposal to the bargaining table, which could be a breakthrough if they can get any traction from their bosses.

The heart of their proposal according to a story by David Moberg of In These Times is that post offices are almost everywhere and banks have steadily been deserting a lot of geography in recent decades creating banking “deserts” in many of our communities.  According to the research and advocacy organization, United for a Fair Economy, “more than one-quarter of Americans with little or no conventional banking services encompasses 53.6% of black households and 46.8% of Latino households, but only 19.5% of non-Latino white households.”  Meanwhile 60% of the post office locations are in areas with at best only one or two banks.  Even with massive cutbacks among postal workers, there are still a half-million of them who could handle a lot more than just stamps at the counter.

How radical is this?  Not very.  For 55 years until 1966, the US Postal Service sold savings bonds that might have had low interest yields but were financially secure and accessible.  Many other countries have had postal banks including the United Kingdom and of course Japan which for a long time was the largest savings bank in the world.

In Canada,  ACORN has worked closely with the postal unions who have been among our strongest allies in trying to cap the cost of remittances and have joined with us in trying to take over money transfers from the government’s subcontract with MoneyGram.  Moberg writes that in the US the APWU has started forging a community-based coalition with National People’s Action, Public Citizen, USAction, and Interfaith Worker Justice.  Perhaps we will hear more from all of them soon to advance this proposal.

Let’s hope so.  We need a solution here, and pushing the post office into banking for our people could be the stone that kills two birds, offering basic services for working families at affordable prices and saving jobs at the same time.  As I’m sure the APWU will say at the table, this is a perfect example of “win-win” bargaining, if we can make it happen.

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Please enjoy Joan Baez singing “Bread and Roses.”