A Desktop Museum is an Interesting Notion

ACORN PLATFORMLittle Rock   ACORN created the Fifteen Street Corporation to buy a building at 523 West 15th in the mid-1970’s, which housed all of the various operations of our family of organizations including not only Arkansas ACORN but also KABF/FM, Local 100, and at various times our training institute, housing corporation, and random tenants.  The building’s biggest claim to fame may have been a front page picture in the Washington Post shortly after Bill Clinton’s election to his first term as President where he was bear hugging, Zach Polett, longtime head organizer in Arkansas and ACORN’s national political director.  The building was the backdrop for the shot, if you looked closely.  Almost 25 years later a larger, more rambling building was bought in 1998 at 2101 South Main Street that had been the law offices of the labor and civil rights firm run by Jim Youngdahl, long a friend, ally, and frequent probono lawyer for several of our operations.

Having been a commuter moving through the vast spaces of the building over the last couple of years checking in with Local 100 and managing KABF and stumbling over our vast stores of dated material and ACORN memorabilia, the Fifteenth Street Corporation has always been yawningly supportive of a notion that we should make a room an ACORN Museum and somehow show what we have to members and others interested in ACORN’s fertile and vibrant history. The designated room is workable enough between the station’s studio and the Local 100 office on the second floor with its biggest obstacle only being that it’s on the second floor.  There have been two larger impediments.  One is that the room had to be cleared out from its long history as a storage, dumping pile for whatever.  Unfortunately as I peck away at this task on every trip to Little Rock it sometimes seems the Sisyphean task, since for every box I throw out or designate to the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Social Change Collection, in my absence some other set of left-behinds will try to reclaim the room as storage.  The other problem is the contemporary challenges of all museums, no matter how small our ambitions, which is how to imagine getting bodies through the door, second floor or no.

On Wade’s World, I interviewed a self-described historian, Paul Perdue, specializing in Pine Bluff, the smallish city some 45 miles below Little Rock on the Arkansas River.  I had met Paul when he send me a random Facebook message asking if I knew of any photographs of ACORN’s first office on 5th in Pine Bluff in the 1970’s.   Although we struck out on that search, I asked Paul what he was up to and he described something he called the Pine Bluff Desktop Museum.  As he told me and KABF’s listeners the Desktop Museum is largely a collection of 34 or so photo albums of different situations and time period that he maintains at this point on Facebook.  This may sound peculiar but this is actually part of an interesting phenomena of largely unheralded crowdsourcing of history that is more common that you might imagine.  I overhear relatives, friends, and others frequently talking about the time they spend on Facebook sites memorializing old scenes and sites in Little Rock, New Orleans, and other places, so I wasn’t surprised that Perdue had hit the 5000 Facebook limit and was being inundated with photos from Pine Bluff people which he would scan and return or store in his climate controlled attic if warranted.

As do-it-yourself as this all sounds, I’ve read about great museums efforts to put large parts on their collections on the internet to increase access and viewing.  I’ve been to the pocket museums in the Amsterdam airport that feature regular exhibitions from some of their great museums. Why not take this little room on Main Street and blow it up larger by collecting, identifying, and displaying photographs and artifacts on the web of ACORN’s long and continuing history?

Paul Perdue’s notion of a “desktop museum” might be just the trick.


Photos from Paul Perdue’s Desktop Museum




Holding Hospitals Accountable in Washington State

Washington Can Protests Budget Cuts at the State Capital

Washington Can Protests Budget Cuts at the State Capital

Little Rock        Like most people, I’m pretty sure the quality of my life is directly improved in proportion to my ability to avoid this strangely named thing called “webinars.” Surely, that’s a weapon that is used in some old Star Wars movie, not an organizing tool?

I’m not going to change my mind about webinars, I don’t think, but this one organized by the Alliance for a Just Society was playing our song about how to force hospital accountability, and all of our team wanted to learn every chorus. Listening to the presentations by Will Pittz of various hospital campaigns waged in recent years by Washington Citizen Action Network was a joyous sound. It was almost embarrassing how many questions our folks were asking, but we were hungry for this.

Washington CAN detailed campaigns that they have fought in Tacoma, Seattle, and Spokane with both nonprofit and for profit hospitals, including some in the huge Catholic and Deaconess networks that are among the largest in the country. One early insight Pittz shared that was worth the price of admission was that they had found for profits more responsive to meeting about improving charity policies than nonprofits, and not only did that resonate with our own initial experience where letters to nonprofits in Little Rock, Dallas, and Houston asking for a meeting to discuss these issues has thus far been met in silence, but was convincing that we needed to target them equally even though the Affordable Care Act handle on nonprofits is so much stronger. The nonprofits, rules and tax exemption be damned, are hunkering down hoping that they can continue to do business as usual and the patients and communities be damned.

Amazingly Washington CAN in fact had won a financial assistance policy at one for profit that set us back on our heels: 300% of poverty guideline eligibility for full charity care and at 500% of poverty 75% charity care. We had been assuming that we might be lucky to win a clear standard in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas at 200% of poverty for charity care from nonprofits, and the notion that anyone, anywhere could win this 300 to 500% standard is a game changer, and with a for profit unheard of.  At one point in the webinar, and OK, I’ve used it in a sentence, so I guess I’m now saddled with this preposterous word for life, Pittz asked the listeners if anyone had won or heard of a higher standard because it would be helpful to him to know. I don’t know Pittz, but he delivered the line sincerely without seeming to brag, but, believe me, there was nothing but silence in response to his call. This will be the gold standard for holding hospitals accountable in this campaign, trust me on that!

None of the Washington campaigns seemed easy. Their efforts were significantly resourced and determined, involving hitting 2000 doors in the area of one hospital, putting up 500 yard signs, and essentially throwing the kitchen sink at them. Not quite the sink, the PowerPoint, and, yes, I’ll admit I studied one of those bad boys carefully, too, it featured a cute tactic of holding a “debtor’s carnival” under a canopy on the grounds of Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

Washington CAN’s experience has led them to distill some standard demands not only on poverty guidelines, but also on brass tack items like the length and detail of the applications, which many of the nonprofits are using to discourage and disqualify desperate people, winning a straight forward 2-pager in some cases. They also have fought for – and seem to have won in some cases – the ability for patients to back file for charity care and by doing so extricate themselves from court and debt collection procedures, which is also huge. They did a group filing for charity care, which was right up our alley as well.

We’re going to drink this Kool-Aid and share it with as many thirsty organizers as possible!


Los Angeles Living Wage Move Might be a Game Changer for Some

 Members of Unite Here Local 11 in the Los Angeles City Council chambers on Tuesday before the Council voted to increase the city’s minimum wage from $9. Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Members of Unite Here Local 11 in the Los Angeles City Council chambers on Tuesday before the Council voted to increase the city’s minimum wage from $9. Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Little Rock       Lower wage workers might not be reading the paper, but it won’t take long before the word gets to everyone that Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city, just took a giant leap forward by almost unanimously passing an ordinance to raise wages from $9 per hour where they stand now to $15 by 2020.  They join Seattle, San Francisco, and Emeryville, California in the Bay Area in moving the needle forward.   For some, and maybe for many, this could be a game changer.

Besides raising wages, the LA move knocks down some other barriers as well.  The wage is indexed to inflation so even after 2020, it will “keep giving” and stay up with the economic times.  There might just be a knife, or at least a pinprick, as well in the heart of the tip-regime for servers, which would be huge in changing the culture of the workplace for restaurants, coffeehouses, and similar locations.  California is one of a minority of states, eight to be exact, that do not allow a sub-minimum or tip-credit wage, so literally all boats will rise to $15, rather than just some.  The restaurants are already whining that they want to be able to add a “service charge” to help pay for the increase, and if they are successful, that will be an even deeper plunge into the heart of the servile versus service tipping culture, because the customers will get the message even more clearly that they are being asked to directly pay the wages of the restaurants’ workforce.  Only the rich and Hollywood big spenders are going to willingly agree to essentially pay twice.  This is almost as exciting as living wages!

Will it cost jobs?  Will it raise prices?  My answer would be “maybe, but….”

Most studies have established that the job loss numbers will be minimal to marginal.  In places dominated by the service industry, they can’t move, so they have to stay where the customers are.  In other lower wage jobs, like small manufacturing, warehousing, and the like, most of them have already moved out of Los Angeles into the Imperial Valley or Nevada where land costs are cheaper.  Others need to be close to the port corridor so for them it’s location, location, location as well.  The more interesting question for Los Angeles and other cities that take the plunge will be the impact on “wage compression,” as it’s called:  will wages between $9 and $15 also push up towards the $6 number in coming years in order to hold onto valuable staff that are now being paid $10, $12, or $14 and told to like it and they’re lucky not to be at $9?  This will be an important and interesting fight for labor in Los Angeles, so well worth watching.

That’s jobs, so how about pricing?  The nice thing about an area-wide increase like this one is that everyone is in the same stew, so there is no competitive disadvantage to raising prices to reflect real costs as opposed to the problem that places like our own Fair Grinds Coffeehouse face.  The fact that we are fairtrade only and therefore pay a premium for our coffee that is many multiples higher than all of our competition does not mean that we can charge the true price for a cup of coffee.  In Los Angeles, prices will rise to some level, but luckily they are rising in reaction to wages, rather than this being Buenos Aires where prices are rising and wages are stagnant.  We could all live with this and in fact the New York’s, Sydney’s, London’s, and elsewhere that prices seem sky high while people continue to stream in prove something as well.

The Lakers and Dodgers might not be all that anymore, but the Los Angeles City Council is a team worth watching and rooting for!


The Expendables – Minimum Wage


News from the Separate Planet of Texas

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 12.08.49 PMDallas       Moving around Texas from place to place between Beaumont, Houston, and Dallas and beyond is a reminder that, like India, Texas is a separate planet in the global universe as well, and on this trip, I’ve compiled more and more evidence of this strange set of phenomena.

Take for example the big humbug in Washington about the renewal of the Export-Import Bank which now turns out to be all over the airwaves in Texas as well.  Delta Airlines and some number of Republican Congressman are foaming at the mouth wanting to put an end to this bank because they argue it is giving advantages that are helping their competition.  In Delta’s case, they don’t like the intrusion of some of the new Middle Eastern carriers and the fact that the Export-Import Bank is helping these airlines with loans to buy from US-aircraft manufacturers.   Are you still following me?  Well, all over the radio in East Texas were ads about the thousands of Texas jobs that were going to be lost without renewal of the Bank.  The kicker was that the ads were being paid for by the United States Chamber of Commerce of all people, and if the Chamber isn’t the best friend of the Republican Party, no one is, but there you have it.  Is this a falling out among thieves?

On the other hand one of the more unique messages I heard between Houston and Dallas was an ad for $10 per month “firearm protection” insurance.  You might wonder, rightly, what that might be.  Well, the lady said that in Texas we know we have to protect our families so we have firearms and cherish the right to use them.  The “firearm protection” insurance is what you would need if you actually used them and the person you killed or wounded sued you for your error in aim or judgment.  This insurance would somehow protect you, your family, and your business according to the report when you exercised your “right to bear arms,” and hurt the wrong person.  Land of the bizarre or what?  Meanwhile the next item in the news involved a motorcycle gang that was cancelling the 18th edition of its rally in a local county, because they were involved in the bloodshed of contending motorcycle gangs in Waco recently.  The sheriff said that the head of the gang had called him and both were regrettably shelving the rally because there’s “bad blood” everywhere now.  I guess the gangs need some of this firearm protection insurance?

We helped on the original HOPE organizing drives to unionize city workers in Houston in a joint project between SEIU and AFSCME almost a decade ago.   Recently they traded out their partnership in HOPE for a group of workers in Colorado.  Long running SEIU advertisements in the Dallas area for organizers to mount of drive among city workers there are no longer on the listings.   It seems SEIU may have had enough of public employees in Texas.   I wonder if gaining close at hand experience with the strange planet of Texas hasn’t sent them running?

Texas is always an experience, but admittedly, it’s not for everyone!


The Yellow Rose of Texas

For Banks the Party Never Stopped

indexHouston        Seven years after the wheels started coming off the bank’s mad money train, it seems clear that settlements for mortgage abuse, which is euphemism for fraud, Dodd-Frank legislation, and what should have been the awesome weight of having collapsed the US and world economy and upended the lives of millions, have essentially been water off a duck’s back for the banking industry and Wall Street.

Let’s just tick off a few recent cases in point.

  • The City of Los Angeles, yes, not the Justice Department, SEC, or Federal Reserve, sued Wells Fargo for pressuring employees in its retail bank with sales quotas to fraudulently enroll people in new customer accounts without their approval.  Plain and simple, shake and bake, no permission needed.
  • Two big banks rather than settling for some hand slaps and big fines, Nomura, a Japanese bank, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, both presumably figuring their home country customers probably didn’t give much of a flip about whether or not they had packaged bad mortgages in the USA, went to trial claiming the dog-ate-their-homework, the economy did it, not them.  The judge found against these miscreants and essentially said their behavior was disgusting.
  • And of course there is the whole cabal of banks that engaged in price fixing and chicanery to fudge the LIBOR rate for interbank and corporate lending including HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Citi, and a rogues’ gallery of the biggest banks in the world.  Their fines are in the billions, and reportedly they are going to finally have to actually plead guilty as institutions.

Many have argued that part of the problem was the legal double standard that found law enforcement playing paddy cake with the criminal enterprise that banking has become rather than prosecuting them aggressively from the top down.  If anything was administered more than simple detention, it was from the bottom-up.  The bigger the guy at the top of the bank, the bigger and more obscene the paycheck continued to be.

More proof that bad behavior and thuggery is the norm in banking is emerging in a new study as well.   According to the Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times,

“...about a third of the people who said they made more than $500,000 annually contend that they ‘have witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.’  Just as bad:  ‘Nearly one in five respondents feel financial service professionals must sometimes engage in unethical or illegal activity to be successful in the current financial environment.’”

Such statements take your breath away.  Not only has it not gotten better, it may have gotten worse!   And, the President wonders why Senator Elizabeth Warren is willing to go to the wall on a trade bill that had hardly interested her until she noticed the language leading her to believe that it would allow even more transnational banking criminality?

There oughta be a law, but there probably are plenty of them, just no one seems to care, and the party goes on, and we all pay for it.


The Beermats – A Workers Song

Make No Mistake, India’s Modi is Not a Progressive on Any Score


Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project

New Orleans    In one of those rare and marvelous coincidences, I had foregone my annual trip to Mumbai, because Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project was amazingly going to be in New Orleans when I returned, giving us days to catchup on events there and elsewhere in India.

Invariably at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Dialogue and elsewhere, the subject would come around to Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office and the prospects for the country in the years to come.  Shetty could not have been more pessimistic or clearer in his continued warning of the dangers to come under Modi as his increasingly rightwing, conservative BJP party continues to consolidate power.

As a lawyer or advocate who practices still before the Bombay Labor Court, Shetty said that in meetings he had attended to discuss the Modi proposed labor law clawbacks of union and worker rights, even HMS, now the country’s largest union, and the union traditionally allied with the BJP as their patron, has been strident in arguing its case in opposition
to the changes.  Shetty was convinced that not all of the package will be approved, but also believed that Modi and the government will be relentless in trying to erode these rights.The primary example is the state of Rajasthan, where many of these so-called reforms have already been implemented in modified ways where the state could act in areas not preempted by the central government.  There, in order to allow layoffs in enterprises with 100 workers or more, Rajasthan had extended the severance payments from 30 to 45 days in exchange for eliminating the state approval of the layoff.   The Modi proposal is to eviscerate protections for workers from redundancy below 300 in a workplace.

The message being sent by the attack on NGOs from the Modi government is essentially, shut up or starve.The clear objective of the government is to silence opposition to development and business wherever possible.  The exceptional inclusion of action against the Ford Foundation is a signal in Shetty’s view to one and all that the government will only approve grants that are pristinely free of anything remotely like advocacy.  Toe the government line or else!

Shetty predicts that underlying some of the government initiatives will be special emphasis on curtailing NGOs and other efforts by religious organizations of all stripes other than Hindu. The Modi record from Gujarat is frightening, and Shetty believes more is coming.

Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal accuses Modi of not moving quickly enough to force the coal industry to be more productive and efficient, citing numerous business interests throughout India, contrary to the hopes of environmentalists around the world who had thought they were seeing something different in the early signs from Modi.  Others are
clamoring for a change in tax rules, a cutback in subsidies to the poor, and other radical changes.

Modi probably thinks that opening a front against NGOs and labor will be enough red meat to quiet his business backers demanding more radical changes, but for the Indian people none of this seems like good news to come.