Little RockSeveral pages of the New York Times, starting at the front, were given to the “Oh, my!” story of billionaire investor William Ackerman and his Pershing Square outfits financing of contributions to various civil rights and nonprofits and an army of lobbyists to drive down the stock price of Herbalife, the direct sales nutritional supplements company, to justify a billion dollar bet he made that the price would tank.Pushing politicians and advocates like chess pieces in order to jack up or down stock prices is hardly a shocking surprise, since this has been standard operating procedure for decades, or, I suspect, as long as there have been stock markets and politicians anyway.
Ackerman is claiming that he is trying to protect lower income and minority consumers who, also not surprisingly, seem to be the target for a lot of the Herbalife hustle.Many studies have questioned the value and even the potential harm of some of these supplements, and Herbalife may well be a pyramid scheme as Ackerman argues, too.I don’t have a horse in this race though, so at one level my view is a “pox on both their houses.”
But, if Ackerman wants to spend some of his billions as some kind of white knight to expose companies that are fleecing lower income families and minorities, then, “Welcome aboard, buddy!” because we need all the help we can get, and there’s a lot of evidence that there are many organizations that will be more than happy to take your money to raise all kinds of hell (see Social Policy “Leadership Development is Not a Deliverable.”).
Here’s a short list to just get “Billion Dollar Bill” started as our new best friend:
·How about the Comcast – Times Warner monopoly merger which will widen the digital divide and jack up prices for internet and cable service?
·Don’t forget the banks that finance all of these predatory payday lending and check cashing outfits, Bill, they deserve not just an investigation but a slap down.Oh, sorry, I guess the mortgage mess already has their stock prices so low, they might not be worth your while, huh?
·Well, then how about all of the tax preparation companies then, H&R Block and its wannabes?Did they really, really truly end all of their Refund Anticipation Loans as they’ve promised and been ordered by the IRS to cease?We both know the answer, Bill, but how about putting some of your lobbyists on that job and stirring it up so we can finally put a stake in the heart of these companies?
·Have the SEC and Congress really done their job in looking at the problems Walmart has in India, China, and Mexico on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?We both know that answer, Bill, but think of the headlines you would get by putting the heat on there?
·And, the scores of companies involved in wage theft, particularly among these big time food companies?And, we both know the next scams will involve the eventual requirements that they provide health insurance.Come on, Bill, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.
·And, don’t forget soft drink companies, liquor and beer sellers, cigarette merchants, shyster construction and real estate companies, and others who make their living preying on the poor.These are all ripe targets!
You can see how easy it is for us to make the case for exposure and investigations of any number of companies that make their big bucks from low-to-moderate income families.The problem we have with Ackerman and other potential Robin Hoods, is that almost always we get less robin, and more hood.
Toney Orr, Local 100, speaking in support of private option at the Arkansas Capital.
Little RockThe so-called unique “private option” in Arkansas where a federal Affordable Care Act waiver allows federal money to purchase insurance from private companies for low-income families continues to be a year-by-year battleground.Importantly this program along with Medicaid expansion, both navigated by Democratic Governor Mike Beebe through a Republican legislature, has already allowed 100,000 people to gain insurance.Earlier this week on a 5th vote by the Arkansas House another year’s extension was approved by a supermajority vote of 76-24, finally fulfilling a commitment from the Republican speaker that they would keep voting until the measure passed since not doing so would open up a $90 million budget hole.
There were prices paid for the extra votes, and most of them were blatant agreements to discourage any effort by the state and its Insurance Commission to increase enrollment in the program, joining Texas and other state in aggressive attacks against navigators and other assistors.An amendment to the bill, enabling its final passage, expressly forbade any further expenditures by the Insurance Commission through advertising or outreach to increase participation in Obamacare.This is not conjecture.Here is the description from the conservative National Journal:
One of the main amendments, written by Republican state Rep. Nate Bell, prohibits any state funds from going toward promotion or outreach of the ACA in the state. This includes enrollment in the private option, as well as the overall exchange. Bell—an unabashed critic of the private option and the health care law—has said he ultimately wants the program to fail, and that this amendment is intended to stymie enrollment.“I believe it’s important as a conservative that we recognize the situation we’re in,” he said on the House floor during an earlier vote last month. “When we can defeat bad policy, we should do so. When we can’t defeat bad policy, it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to influence it and make it as closely aligned with our philosophy and policy as we can.”
By July 1st 600 consumer assistors around the state of Arkansas will be laid off due to the amendment.Calls from the Insurance Commission staff to navigators have already begun, begging for help, but Congress in initially funding the HHS navigator program only funded the work for one year, ending August 15th, so the notion that six to ten health care organizers can pick up the slack for six hundred is absurd, not even considering the fact that navigators obviously work under the direction of the Center for Medicaid Services of HHS and not a state agency.
What a mess, and worst, similar to every other state, huge numbers remain to be enrolled, and no matter the Obamacare-hate, it’s the number of new health care participants who are in fact saving the program.The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette caught this clearly in interviews with some of the vote switchers who saved the bill:
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, announced he would vote for the bill after previously opposing it. “There are people who will be hurt if I don’t vote for this,” Hammer said. “And I don’t want to see those innocent people hurt because of that.”Hammer — who joined Reps. Les “Skip” Carnine and Mary Lou Slinkard in switching to yes votes — said he had not “betrayed” opponents of the bill and would not shy from voting against it next year if the program is not successful. “I haven’t stepped away from it,” he said. “I plan on coming back in January. And it better be successful. Otherwise it will be voted down.”
This is a battleground where we can’t win unless we are on the field, but both the stakes and the measures of victory are crystal clear.We don’t win and keep affordable healthcare and coverage for hundreds of thousands of lower income families in Arkansas unless there is a robust and aggressive enrollment program, beating the bushes and bringing people under coverage.The opposition understands this, but the days are now being numbered on how long navigators and others can be kept on the streets.
Talk about being asked to fight with our hands tied behind our backs!
Little RockThere 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.
DallasWith 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.
HoustonThe 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 OrleansIncreasingly 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.