Waffle House, Roadie, and, Hey, Organizer, Are You Going My Way?

Roadie_App_screenshotsNew Orleans         I’m not an Uber-fan.  Cabdrivers have a rough road to travel and city regulations protect their safety and the passengers, so what Uber calls “disruption,” looks a lot like another corporate scam on workers and their communities.  On the other hand, I’m no fool.  And, when it looked impossible to catch a cab from Gatineau, Quebec to the Ottawa airport, I asked the Ottawa ACORN head organizer, Jill O’Reilly, and sure enough she could navigate the Uber-app, and minutes later I was sailing to the airport at half the price with no hassle with a driver from Delhi, talking about organizing there and Uber here.

On the other hand, neither am I stupid.  A huge amount of the cost of a union or any organization, usually about two-thirds, goes to keep organizers on staff, on the phone, and on the road.  There are bills in the Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana legislatures to repeal all payroll deductions.  Wisconsin and other states have instituted right-to-work laws in what used to be solid union country.  I recently finished reading an excellent book by political scientist, Mancur Olson, called The Logic of Collective Action.  Published in 1965, it’s a little dated, but he makes some important points, and one of the scariest is that he doesn’t believe that large scale labor unions can survive without compulsory dues collection systems.  So, if I’m still trying to figure out biodiesel, contemplating large scale dumpster diving, recycling schemes, and opening up a second Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, why wouldn’t I look real seriously at an Uber-style app used by a company called Roadie that has begun operations in the Southern states and recently announced a partnership with the 1750-store Waffle House chain which operates in half the country?

According to the Wall Street Journal, where I originally stumbled on the story, along with a bunch of other techie blogs and “oh, gee” stories in mainstream sources, here is the way Roadie wants to work.  They want to recruit itinerants, though they claim they are looking for students, which makes sense for their image I’m sure.  A bit like the old drive-away car deals, which I knew well back-in-the-day, you would hit the app and say you are going from say Atlanta to Jacksonville or maybe New Orleans to Shreveport and passing points on the way.  If they have a business that is trying to deliver a package and not pay UPS, FedEx or others the premium, they undercut the price.  The driver gets 80% of the money, minus one dollar for insurance or something, the company, like Uber, gets the rest, and everyone is happy, supposedly.

I can remember in the late 1970’s financing a trip to all of the ACORN western offices one summer with a driveway Mercedes that someone in New Orleans needed to return to their parents in the hills of Oakland.  They paid for the gas of course, and I hit all the offices in Texas, Arkansas, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona before pulling into a Bay Area driveway.

Here are some sample prices the Journal pulled from Roadie:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 5.06.40 PM


Some deliveries are door-to-door, but part of the buzz on this deal is the fact that Roadie has partnered with the ubiquitous Southern roadside feature, Waffle House, as a pickup and drop off point.  Heck, the House is even giving drivers a free waffle and a drink when they finish the job, which sounds like a heckuva deal.

So, hey, if organizers need to be on the road, why not throw something in the trunk with them and cover the cost of the trip?  We’re going to have to be creative to keep the wheels of progress – and people – moving!


Please enjoy, Indigo Girls’ Happy in the Sorrow Key

Dumpster Diving and Internal Income

dumpster-diving-e1423706610249-620x289New Orleans   When I’m in India the hawkers, street sellers, and even the recyclers always, and I mean always, ask me what it is like for people who are in their profession in the United States.  When I answer the hawkers for example, and say that compared to India, we have almost none, they look at me incredulously, smile, and shake their heads, clearly not really knowing if I’m giving them the truth or pulling their legs.

The more than 100,000 recyclers in Mumbai or Delhi or other large cities who collect and then sell to brokers based on their specialties of copper or paper or whatever would be similarly confused.   They assume that the richer the turf, the higher the yield, and just maybe the recyclers are right, and we should look at this differently even as a social enterprise.

I read a piece in the February issue of Wired about a fellow named Matt Malone in Austin, Texas who for the last nine years has wildly supplemented his day job by dumpster diving, largely in big retail establishments.  In two nights of digging through trash with the reporter, he found stuff he could sell for $5000.  In India this would have supported a dozen recyclers in our Dharavi Project in Mumbai for a year!  In the US it might support a lot of organizing, if done on a systematic basis.

Malone had a day job and got into dumpster diving the same way that hundreds or maybe thousands of organizers have before him.  He was assigned by his techie outfit the task of coming up with a plan to test a client’s security.  He made the natural assumption when starting with nothing that he might learn a lot about them from their garbage. Organizers, especially union organizers, have dumpster dived for decades for old payroll printouts which give a sense of the size of the staffing, wages, job classifications, and other information.   Malone’s investment is minimal.  He has a flashlight with a magnetic clamp so he can affix it to the side of a dumpster.  Other than that, a pair gloves and clothes that can handle rough wear, he’s pretty much set.

Here’s the kicker though.  He thinks if he worked at dumpster diving 240 days per year he could make $600,000 annually.  That’s the kind of figure that gets your attention.  My recycling members in India would be ashamed to have me as an organizer, if I didn’t look into this dirty gold mine more closely.

Is dumpster diving illegal?  A 1988 Supreme Court ruling in California v. Greenwood held that “when a person throws something out in a public space, they have no reasonable expectation of privacy.” Greenlight to go!   The only yellow warning light has to do with trespass. If the dumpster is on private property or marked “no trespassing,” then you could have a problem.  According to Wired, Malone operates with what he calls the “move along rule:  if a store employee, security guard, or police tells you to ‘move along,” you should….”  In other words, like in all of organizing, as I’ve always said, “there’s no substitute for good judgement.”

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be work.  I’m also not saying that there aren’t costs involved, just as I know from watching our Indian recyclers work.  It meant a lot when we got a pickup in Mumbai.  You need an area to sort.  You have to make the sale and do so at a fair price.

It’s hard to find money for building peoples’ organizations.  As the saying goes, “money doesn’t grow on trees.”  But, seriously, there may be a gold in the garbage that we are well qualified to mine!


Chambers Brothers – Time Has Come Today (live)

Payday Lending Regs, Good; Not Going Far Enough, Bad!

CFPBClarkKentNew Orleans      I was sitting next to an organizer from British Columbia while reading the reports on the new set of regulations being proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on payday lending.  We have fought payday lenders in Canada for over a decade and we’re batting over .500, but a long way from a perfect score with our biggest victory having been to get enough federal support to devolve the regulations to the provinces, where we have won significant protections in some areas and nothing in others.  In the patchwork quilt of little to a lot of regulations on payday lenders in the United States, we have been pushing for the CFPB to hit a home run, not a scratch single.  We got a hit, but it seems way more “bureau” than it feels like “financial protection.”

Almost by definition payday lending is a product that seems to invite predatory corporate behavior, because these are loans that low and moderate income families are taking because they are so desperate for cash for whatever the reason, and studies show most frequently the reason is simply that there is “more month than money,” that they are willing to allow the company to take a big bite of their check with interest before it gets in their hands where they urgently need it.  Interest rates go through the roof and studies ACORN Canada has done and analysis that the CFPB has done indicate that payday lending is the crack of contemporary finance.  Once you have one, you keep going back month after month, usually 10 times over a 12 month period, to get more loans to pay the old loans, and on and on and on.

There are real steps forward in the CFPB proposal.   The movement to make “affordability” the litmus test for a loan and cap the levels of repayment amounts is one breakthrough, and my Canadian colleague gave that oohs and aahs.  The other step forward is the recognition that we need federal regulation, because not only does the patchwork quilt victimize families, but the access to these products through the internet makes a mockery of many of the better state regulations.  That’s also a step ahead of Canada.

The CFPB offers options though, which I find weird for federal regulations, particularly ones that have evolved over an extensive time period and after a survey of millions of loans.  What, they couldn’t decide what protection really was?  Are you kidding, they want the predatory lenders themselves to decide how they are going to fleece the consumer? For a young government agency, this seems like a bureaucratic stranglehold more than a breakthrough. Furthermore the other option limits lenders on the number of loans per year with some restrictions, but given the lack of love the Republican Congress already has for the CFPB, you just know that they will never have the enforcement capability to monitor this well.

This isn’t over yet.  The rules aren’t final.  There will be more comments and a lot more lobbying, but it’s still disappointing.

Often, when I visit my mother late in the afternoon, she and anyone around would be watching the television show, Jeopardy.  Once when I was dropping stuff by, they had a week of former great champions competing against each other.  To my surprise there was Richard Cordray, the CFPB’s director, as one of the contestants.  He didn’t do all that well. I worry that he may have forgotten one of the cardinal rules of that game. When the bell rings that it’s “double jeopardy,” the contestants have an opportunity to double-down, especially if they are behind, and bet everything that they will get the answer right and win.  Cordray needs to go for broke here and win, not just try to have a little prize to take home when the game is over.

Renewable Energy Cooperatives

6222_logo1Gatineau         George Brown is the Ottawa ACORN pro bono lawyer, which is how I came to meet him and find myself in an interesting chat on a wide range of subjects in the lobby of the Best Western hotel in Gatineau across the river from the national capital in Ottawa in the shadow of Parliament Hill.  George is of course much more than a general in ACORN’s volunteer army.  He is also a former city councilor in Ottawa and the nominee of the New Democratic Party in the federal election in south Ottawa against a longtime incumbent.  He has been a key architect in putting together teams of law students to represent our members in the housing tribunal mediating disputes between landlords and tenants. Having said all of that it turned out that he has been a veteran of numerous microfinance, social enterprise, and cooperative endeavors both as an attorney and as a sparkplug.  He caught my attention, given my recent dip into the energy and power wars between coal and renewable energy sources, by telling me about the Ottawa Renewable Energy Cooperative or OREC, where he had helped do the legal work on a number of their projects.

OREC hasn’t been around but a couple of years and its cluster of projects are therefore still modest in scale but its basic organizing and business model is fascinating and speaks to great success to come.  First, it’s a cooperative, meaning that individual members own the operation and democratically are empowered to govern the business through their elected board and employed staff.  Each share costs $100 and the only qualifications are pretty much an Ottawa address and being over 16 years old.  Secondly, you also have the opportunity to invest in their projects as they come on the drawing board and ripen for financing.  The minimum investment is essentially $2500 with a lifetime limit of $100,000 to keep everyone on an even keel, because this is a good deal.  Thanks to a piece of provincial legislation in Ontario the local electric utility, or hydro as they call it in Ottawa, has to purchase 20 years’ worth of the electricity generated through such renewable projects at a set rate per kilowatt hour that pretty much guarantees the investor a 5% dividend yield for the first five years and then larger participation shares through the 20-year term of the investment.  Since the numbers are based on firm contracts the yield is certain, though by law they can’t formally “guarantee” the rate in case hell freezes over, which is becoming more unlikely every day with climate change.  No surprise that the cooperative was able to raise $3.5 million in its offerings so far.  Sweet!  The only surprise is that they only have about 150 members so far on their 500 member goal.  I’m shocked they don’t have lines in front of their door!

And, what do they do with that money?  They lease for a 20-year term land or roof space for their solar panels.  Many of their leases are with nonprofit or cooperative housing developments in Ottawa who are mission driven as well and love the fact that they are helping produce their own electricity.  Here’s what they say:

OREC currently has 7 solar rooftop projects, including five 10 kilowatt (kW) solar power projects on the rooftops of non-profit or co-op housing buildings across Ottawa, a 75 kW project on the roof of Samuel Genest School, and 50% of a 250kW solar rooftop project on a storage facility in the Dunrobin area. We lease roof space from the respective property owners for the solar systems and our investors benefit from the revenue received from the sale of power.

George is right.  OREC’s model – and of course the law that allows it! – are dynamite opportunities.  These are the kinds of ideas that we need to spread, and try for ourselves as well!


Dick Gaughan “Handful of Earth”

Vancouver Rent Bank

rent bankGatineau, Canada       There may have been snow on the ground and freezing temperatures, but the ACORN Canada staff’s spring planning and training meeting was in full bloom in Gatineau, Quebec, the sister city across the river from Ottawa, Ontario.  Several of the ACORN British Columbia organizers in their reports to start the sessions mentioned in Surrey and Burnaby, working class suburbs of the unaffordable, “executive” city of Vancouver, they were demanding a “rent bank.”

I asked Marcos Gomez, ace BC organizer sitting next to me, what is a rent bank.  He whispered that there was one in Vancouver, and they wanted it in other cities.

Interesting, so here’s what I found.

The Vancouver Rent Bank is essentially an emergency relief fund operated in a partnership between the City of Vancouver and various foundations and cooperatives in the area, like Van City, the giant credit union who handles some of the administrative functions.  There is an application process of course and a repayment plan, but the basic program is designed as a preventive measure to prevent evictions and therefore homelessness.

The Rent Bank handles only three situations:  security deposits to help people afford to get apartments, utility bills to keep people in apartments, and rent payments to prevent evictions.  If approved an individual can get a check made out to landlord or hydro for up to $1300 and if it’s a family $1800.  The standards are reasonable high for eligibility, like $28,000 for a family of one and over $50,000 for a family of four.   The money is given as no-interest loan with a two-year repayment plan, like a micro-loan of sorts.  Looking at the application process, it reads like it might be easier to get a home loan.  The list was daunting and an applicant needed to be able to produce the paperwork to back it up.  It included:

  • Currently a resident or will be a resident of the City of Vancouver
  • Are low-income (see chart below)
  • Are nineteen years of age or older
  • Have a bank account or are on income assistance
  • Have (will have) a concrete, consistent source of income
  • Have two pieces of ID
  • Can provide proof of tenancy
  • Not be in the process of bankruptcy
  • Have no un-discharged bankruptcies
  • Have a sincere reason for any delinquency in payments
  • Are not able to access any other form of government financial assistance
  • Have/ will have long term, safe housing
  • Have rental costs that do not exceed an ongoing ability to pay  rent
  • Be experiencing temporary financial crisis
  • Owe no more than two months rental arrears

Once I read “sincere reason,” my heart fell a bit.  This was obviously a very small Band-Aid over a huge gaping wound.  And, in fact the reports that were touted on the first year of the program indicated that they only gave out $124000 with administrative costs that were higher than the loan totals.  228 families were assisted that included 39 children. All good, but obviously not sustainable and hardly real relief.

The press reports mentioned that there was a program like the Vancouver Rent Bank in New York City.  Following that trail led to Homebase, a program begun in 2004 which has assisted 65000 over a decade, including 12,000 in 2014 in preventing homelessness.  The program is part of the city welfare and housing budget, so it seems a permanent commitment.

It’s easy to understand why ACORN members would want such programs in their cities.  With the cutbacks in welfare that have eliminated emergency relief programs, it’s better to have something than nothing. For the donors, for a cheap price they get some place they can all refer people, even while knowing few will benefit.

This is what changing “welfare as we know it” leads to sadly.


Slaid Cleaves “Welding Burns”

Getting a Low Power FM Radio License in New Orleans

on-air-sign-ccOttawa     Over the years with an army of volunteers from supporters to DJs to radio engineers with gentle spirits, hard heads, and generous souls, working with AM/FM, the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement, we’ve put big radio stations on the air first in Tampa (WMNF), then revived and put one back on the air in Dallas (KNON, formerly KCHU), and finally in Little Rock with the 100,000 watt KABF at 88.3 FM broadcasting throughout a huge doughnut hole of almost all of Arkansas.  These stations have been big operations with big ambitions and loud voices, so why are we so excited when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sent us an email announcing that AM/FM has won a license for a Low Power FM station at 90.3 on the dial in New Orleans at a baby 100 watts?

Well, on one hand it was a relief to have a resting point after a long journey.  When the FCC opened up the application process for frequencies several decades ago, AM/FM, working with ACORN and local communities, helped file almost one-hundred applications around the country to broaden access to the airwaves for low-and-moderate income families.  At the end of that process we emerged with a handful of situations with competing approvals where the FCC essentially said, “good luck if you can work it out.”  This meant time sharing agreements, which at best are kiss-your-cousin kind of situations that never really work well, are economically unsustainable, and wildly confuse the listeners, since invariably these are sharing arrangements with religious broadcasters.  It was also a case where whoever had the deepest pockets would win, and that was never our team, so the end result has been a drought of almost thirty years since we had the opportunity to put another “voice of the people” station on the air.

This time the FCC moved quickly and affirmatively to allow the awards to be made on the low power frequencies, and though they are small, they have one signal advantage, which is that they create the opportunity of being truly “community” radio stations.  A 100-watt signal is bigger than you might imagine, especially in a pancake flat area like New Orleans where we are celebrating being a new licensee.  Our engineering indicates that we will be able to broadcast throughout the entire city limits with a strong signal, and likely the metro area, heard by perhaps one-million people or more.  With a 100,000 watt station your community is Little Rock or Dallas but it is also hundreds of neighborhoods, small towns, and other cities as different as Fort Worth and Pine Bluff.  It’s a good message, but a diverse one that speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of “block” programming on noncommercial radio where there’s something for everyone, but you need to find the time slot where you can be happy.  With low power we can have tremendous diversity, access, and many voices, but they can all have a New Orleans accent, vibe and sensibility speaking the language of small and larger communities within the city.

And, then there is just the fact that having a studio and broadcast ability right at hand provides a huge resource.  We have been dying to try some experiments in broadcasting through live streaming on the internet in the midnight hours with the languages and content of where ACORN International organizes in Hindi, Spanish, French, and whatever.  Trying to triangulate the overnight signal from foreign lands to Little Rock to wheel it around is hard.  Walking down the hall is easier.  Add all this to the fact that the studio will be in the mezzanine of our building in New Orleans on St. Claude and Elysian Fields at the intersection of Marigny, the Bywater, St. Roch, Treme, and the French Quarter, and that April 1stwe open the second location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude, so that we can fuel this operation 24/7, 365 days a year into a community and global hotspot of fair trade, great music, and intense commentary, and it all just seems not only important, but just plain fun and exciting to be part of it.

The license is only the key that opens this door, so there’s time and hard work, as we well know, in taking it from here to cars, phones, and homes, but the first step is a giant one!