Grinding out a Hollow Victory under the NLRB for Garbage Workers

8965564-largeLittle Rock   For more than twenty years, Local 100 has represented “hoppers” in New Orleans as well as other cities in south Louisiana and Texas. Hoppers, gunslingers, or whatever they might be called are the laborers at the rear end of garbage trucks, handling the business end of the enterprise, making sure the content of the filled cans gets into the “hopper” which is the large cylinder that rotates and compacts the garbage on the route. Even as the process has become more mechanical with lifting arms and special cans, many an 80-gallon piece of plastic is still heaved into the hopper to keep the routes speeding along from house to house. This is hard, sweaty, and often dangerous work.

These workers for decades have been subcontracted by municipally privatized sanitation contractors like Waste Management or Browning-Ferris or smaller companies to temporary employment agencies. Some unions and organizers along with the general public wrongly assume these workers are company employees when and if they notice them at all and believe that if they are temporary or casual, they are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, but of course they are. When we won these elections in the 1990s, we bargained the workers up from minimum wage and archaic employment practices like “Chinese overtime,” still common in the industry for such workers. It was front page news in the Wall Street Journal at the time.

After Katrina hit New Orleans 10 years ago, garbage service was provided by FEMA for a while, meaning that all the workers and contractors disappeared. When they came back under the now disgraced and jailed Mayor Ray Nagin, there were new companies and new contractors. We were able to establish that one new contractor, Milton Berry, was a successor, and we attempted to bargain a contract with them. There was a problem though and a big one. Berry had unilaterally rolled back wages, so we filed charges to recover the losses while trying to bring this outfit up to the 21st century and modern worker protections. Easier said than done, because all Berry really had going for himself was a knack for cutting corners and some lawyers who didn’t care about anything but getting their hourly rate. We got 10j injunctions. We endured appeals to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Anything to wind down the clock. Berry lost the contract for the hoppers, but the lawyers kept on.

The final order has now come out more than seven (7) years after we filed the initial charges. The NLRB ordered Berry and his wife, as owners of M & B Services to post fifteen (15) notices of their illegal activity, but no hoppers will ever see these notices because Berry no longer has a place of business in New Orleans. He has been ordered to pay $223,781.00 in back pay and $42,292 in interest through September 22nd, a figure that will keep rising until payment, from the total bill of $266,000 now. The checks supposedly have to be received by the NLRB in their offices by no later than the middle of October. No question, if you read the order, after all of these years Local 100 and the workers have a victory in hand.

Rosa Hines, Local 100’s New Orleans office director, who has handled this case throughout this period should frame the order and put it near her desk somewhere in the office. That way we and the workers will have something to remember from this struggle, because after all of this time it is unclear that any of them will ever see a dime.

The NLRB order reads this way in finding culpability:

M&B Services, Inc; Berry Service, Inc. (Berry I); Berry Services, Inc. (Berry II); Berry Transportation, LLC; Milton Berry, an Individual Charged with Personal Liability; Carolyn Berry, an Individual Charged with Personal Liability.

Milton Berry’s business address is now in a New Orleans suburb. Carolyn Berry, his wife, has a business address in Magnolia, Mississippi. Their businesses are small potatoes, but having been led down a bad road by their lawyers’ exploitation of the deadening legalistic bureaucracy of the NLRB and the playground it allows scofflaws, they are now personally on the hook for $260,000.

The next lawyer they hire will probably be a bankruptcy specialist, not a labor law exploiter. The Berry’s will have a sad tale to tell at family dinners about the evil of unions. Meanwhile the union and the workers seven years later will have something they can look at in a frame with the slim chance of ever seeing a dime of back pay and the ongoing struggle of still trying to work on wages still lower than they enjoyed a decade ago.

Maybe there is hope in the new joint employer decision of the NLRB that allow justice to be won from the primary contractor, but that’s a fight next time. For now there’s no celebration over a hard won victory this time.

Weatherization Not Worth It? Say It’s Not So!

weatherizationLittle Rock    For forty years, home weatherization has been one of those gold standard programs supposedly benefiting lower income families by tightening up their houses to the elements and thereby allowing them to save money on heating and electric bills. We have endorsed these programs, advocated them, and even participated in them over the years, but many long battles with energy companies in the early 1970s with ACORN always made me just a bit skeptical that if our people were really saving all of this money supposedly, why were the ever avaricious utility companies so adamantly endorsing and sometimes even funding such programs. Mainly, I would button my lip given how jaded organizing has undoubtedly made me.

Now the Energy Department has released a study touting the benefits and laying out the claims that weatherization is worth every penny and more that has been invested and even has long term health benefits. The study proving these claims in 4500 pages was done by the Energy Department’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Eduardo Porter one of the New York Times’ columnists looked at the independent evaluation of the report by professors at the University of Chicago and the University of California and he stumbled – or was led — into a controversy. Seems the profs had claimed perhaps the Energy Department’s emperor was not that well clothed, and the Oak Ridge report was an attempt to tell the profs in a mountain of paper to stuff it. Uh-oh, that made the profs actually get on the stick, hire a grad student grunt to go through the 4500 pages with a fine-toothed comb, and comeback with an even more detailed rebuttal of whether or not weatherization is a good investment or not, saves money for the poor or not, or even could be harming health rather than improving it. The bottom line from the profs is that they can’t tell whether weatherization is a great program or a big fat expensive hot mess.

The meat of the arguments fall on curious assumptions. The Oak Ridge team claimed weatherization saved 1.4 times its cost. The profs found that the “costs” did not include administration and training. They did not calculate for wear and tear and assumed energy efficiency would be constant for 20 years, and, brothers and sisters, take it from me, nothing, absolutely nothing, works as well day in, day out for 20 years as it did brand new. There were also weird assumptions on interest rates and the cost of money, but that’s too in-the-weeds for you and me. More troubling the non-energy benefits in health, safety, and productivity were also suspect. These benefits were not measured, nor were there control groups, but instead figures were essentially plugged in to make the case. For example better sleep was rated at $3142 per household, but not measured. There was also no control group to compare costs and then we come to health claims. Porter writes that

“The study concluded there were big health gains from reduced thermal stress, but …found no meaningful changes in the temperature of weatherized homes. The field study also found no significant changes in carbon monoxide. And it detected an increase in radon and formaldehyde levels. Yet the overall cost-benefit assessment reported benefits from decreased carbon monoxide poisoning and omitted the potential impact of higher concentrations of radon and formaldehyde.”

The horse Porter is riding is that you want to get outsiders to look at your programs, not your own employees. Fair enough.

But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against weatherization. I started out as a supportive skeptic. Now, I’m a full-on head scratching skeptic. To weatherize or not, that is the question for many families, but when it comes to government funding and the fight for the climate, every dollar counts, so which dollars and where should they go to include lower income families in the fight and the benefits?

Special Multinational Court in Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

1439533698362New Orleans     President Obama sees the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as a legacy marker. News reports refer to the announcement of an agreement with the Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Canada, Peru, Mexico and many others as a “capstone” agreement for the president. The White House says that there are labor and environmental protections that are unprecedented for a trade agreement. Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries had to agree to protect labor rights in a major announcement. Many big national environmental organizations are touting the agreement as a breakthrough including the World Wildlife Federation. Australia supposedly pushed hard enough that big Pharma can’t run roughshod over generics and cheaper access to drugs in developing countries.

Sounds good, huh, but what do we have here?

The Organizers’ Forum delegation met with a researcher and campaigner in Warsaw recently named Roland Zarzycki working with the Institute for Global Responsibility. In the course of the dialogue we touched on the troubling elements in the likely TTP agreement. One that was especially worrisome had to do with the special court provisions that would allow transnational companies to sue countries over restrictions on trade in their products, but would not allow countries to sue the multinationals nor provide access to any other parties to adjudicate their concerns. Such special provisions for multinational companies paint a picture of a world of particular privilege and provision for globalization that is worrisome.

Is this some imagined problem for the paranoid? Hardly. The proof seems to be in the last minute jostling that indicated that there would be special provisions in the TPP to prevent tobacco companies from being able to sue countries that are trying to put in place health protections for the many diseases advanced by tobacco. Under some agreements Big Tobacco has already tried to take countries like India and others to such international courts. So, this door was reportedly locked for tobacco in the TPP, and that’s good, but what about other ugly, unhealthy multinational products and practices that will continue to be able to access these special courts in order to try to circumvent country by country provisions and protections?

We really don’t know of course. The negotiations are conducted in secret and the agreements reached will not be public until such time that President Obama starts the 90-day clock for Congressional review and an up or down vote to approve or disprove the trade treaty as negotiated. It’s hard to dispute the need for some quiet and confidentiality in negotiations, but the lack of information about vital pieces of the agreement privileges insiders and multinationals as well, compared to all of us biscuit-cookers out there trying to figure out what’s up.

Maybe this is as good as they are spinning, but until we know the whole story, it’s worth a lot of worry, and in the wake of countless agreements like this in the past, it’s hard to be optimistic that this is going to be as good for all of us as it is for big companies and special interests who clearly already have the inside track.

North Carolina is Showing the Way in Fighting for Rural Hospitals

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

New Orleans   For all of the continuing polarization in Congress over Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the “last stand in the hospital door” strategy of one Republican governor after another, there are realities in the heartland of the Republican base that some of the politicians are continuing to miss from their sky high perches as they survey the battleground. A fight in North Carolina by a Republican mayor, Adam O’Neal, in small town Bellhaven in the eastern part of the state, to save his town’s rural hospital should be sending a message about the political price the resistors will pay with their base voters, even if they are missing the life-and-death message that adequate and accessible health care represents. As the Mayor has made clear, health care is an issue that defines bipartisanship because both Republicans and Democrats get sick.

The private healthcare corporation Vident closed the local hospital, Pungo that served Bellhaven. Since the viability of so many hospitals was based on expanding health care coverage not restricting it, Pungo is just one of many early warning signs of what could become a widespread calamity. As noted in the Daily Kos, the Rural Health Association counts 283 rural hospitals as on their own kind of deathwatch to survive.

To save the hospital, Mayor O’Neal pulled pages from the history of the civil rights struggle and joined hands with contemporary activists. They hit the streets and marched to the state capitol in Raleigh to ask for a modification of the certification to allow the hospital to reopen. They also marched to Washington totaling hundreds of miles. They were joined by Rev. William Barber and his Moral Majority who have been central in recent struggles in North Carolina and beyond. They were also joined by former civil rights activists, like the legendary Bob Zellner from early SNCC and Freedom Rides fame. I can remember reaching out for Zellner in 1976 when we opened ACORN’s office in New Orleans and asking for help then. He was “retired” he said and working for an industrial plant, Godcheaux’s sugar refinery, while living in New Orleans and trying to find some calm after his years of activism. I doubt if he had really retired then, but there’s no doubt that he is back in action now. It was good to read that Zellner had joined this fight in North Carolina and walked with Mayor O’Neal every step of the 238-mile trek to Washington.

Does this kind of bipartisanship work even in the rock-ribbed rural communities of the South that have become the bastion of the Republican voting strength? Can these dusted off tactics still make a difference?

It seems so as Mayor O’Neal tweeted at the end of September:

Great news!!! NC Legislature changes Cert. Of Need law to allow our hospital to reopen. Votes..House 102-8 and Senate 44-0. #savepungo

Seems like part of the message from North Carolina is that we may need to build a movement on health care access for all to finally get the job done here.

Dream Pilots and Scarf Turbans

Dream-InterpretationNew Orleans   There are two other fascinating things that I learned in France that particularly stand out in a life of education and adventure.

At dinner one evening the aunt of one of the ReAct crew started telling me about her work over the years as a “storyteller.” That led to her sharing a reverie about how much she enjoyed flying in her dreams. Now we all know that dreaming in black-and-white is meager life experience compared to dreaming in Technicolor, but flying in your dreams, I had no idea. She told me she flies often while dreaming and over the years has even developed a signature way of taking off with giant running steps until she is in the air. How cool is that?

She told me she was doing a series of shows with her company in the mountain communities around the Alps for four or five nights in a row. She was constructing stories out of the pieces of dreams that the audience would share with her. As a whim she decided to ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they flew in their dreams. The first night there was one dream pilot, the second there were two or three, and then four in the third night. Her company thought she should stop asking and she promised she would but on the last night, everyone raised their hands that they were flying in their dreams.

I couldn’t help myself. The next day I found myself asking organizers in the office whether they flew in their dreams or not. Some did. Some did not. More women were dream pilots than men, but some men also were determined dream flyers. I was amazed, and, frankly, I felt left out. I couldn’t remember ever hearing people talk about flying in their dreams, and not being a dream pilot myself, I never thought to ask, but it turns out that there is secret society of dream pilots all around us. Now that I know so many are flying, I have a simpler question: where do they go?

That life lesson seems more universal than French, but during the weekend training in the mountains way above Grenoble, only a couple of hundred meters I was told from where Jean Paul Killy, the famous French skier won his gold medal in the Winter Olympics held there, the crew would move in the mid-afternoon, as the sun warmed, to the porch of the local utility company’s chalet, accessible to its workers for holidays and arranged by one of the Alliance members. After a half-hour or so I noticed that the majority of the staff had wrapped sweaters, scarfs, and t-shirts over the top of their heads, turban-style, though the sun was still hitting them full in the face. The session was about structure or some such, but after they had exhausted all of their questions, I said that I had one that I would like to ask though it wasn’t exactly about organizing: why were they piling all of this stuff on the top of their heads while they were getting burned to a crisp by the sun at this altitude? Being a red head who can get a sun burn crossing the street and a consumer of the constant skin cancer warnings that come with my breed, I just didn’t get it. Adrien Roux, one of the coordinators, simply answered in English – “insulation.” The rest of the crew nodded in agreement. Sunburn, who cared, for the French it was all about not being a hot head.

France, what a country! For the rest of us hotheads, we’ll just have to dream the best way we can, and leave the flying for the fortunate few.

Notes for My Father from France

last dinner in Grenoble

last dinner in Grenoble

Paris     I brought coffee and chicory from New Orleans so that I was never stranded too far from home even while in Poland and France. In France there was curiosity about my concoction, but a certainty about chicory because though we source ours in Nebraska in order to wave the local banner, chicory is grown widely here, and drunk straight by some, including one of the Grenoble organizers. Like the way the Civil War blockade gave New Orleans natives – and interlopers like me – a taste for it that couldn’t spit out of their mouths, I gathered the inability to get access to any coffee beans in the 20th century conflagrations had led some grandchildren to still brew a cup of chicory having acquired the taste at their grandparents table.

There are little signs that are distinct in France like the five-foot tall pencil on the street signals that a school is nearby in Grenoble. The kiss of greeting on each cheek for everyone being met is a nice, dear touch, though even when I thought I was mastering the task I was told not to forget to make the sound of lips pursing in an air-kiss as the cheeks were touched lightly.

Food is an obsession and bread finds its way to every meal and table. Cheese is almost as constant along with the claims for various regional varieties. It is amazing that people are not gargantuan and obese. My best guess is that practice of continual cultural communal eating meal after meal has decreased the dependence on unhealthy fast food diets fueled by sugar-saturated drinks. Add walking and cycling to work here and there and even though gyms also don’t proliferate in France as they do in the States, people seem pretty trim in the main.

On most organizing staffs lunch is as widely forgotten as remembered, but in France lunch breaks are almost ritualistic, even among the organizers. Often people brought in snacks or croissants and broke to enjoy them as well. The women organizers always in the ReAct office seemed to share a giant chocolate bar on a daily basis that they would walk over and break off a small piece to enjoy off and on throughout the day. At one day’s break that some of the organizers shared with me, the discussion noted with some concern that other organizers down the hall had only shared one lunch during the week with their comrades. I didn’t want to add that the reason was likely that the others were on a community organizing regime modeled after ACORN in Canada and working different hours. Early in the week after I moved from one meeting to another, an organizer asked me if I wasn’t ready for a “statutory break,” referring to the French labor code requirements. I think I made it a joke the rest of my time in France, but I suspect everyone took it very seriously.

Certainly, the rigidity of the French workweek at 35 hours was well respected. The negotiations allowed under the code to move the hours with premiums paid to 39 was reportedly specific and intense. During the weekend training session in the mountains for leaders and organizers, I had to ask what happened to some of the more junior staff when they didn’t stay for Sunday and in some cases took off on Monday. Saturday worked means a weekday off. All of this takes soft paws to a whole new place.

But, what a great culture. There was little doubt when some there was a chance for organizers to watch some film clips on the work, that pizza would be coming, too. It would have also been a giant faux pas if my last evening meal before returning to the USA before dawn would not have brought as many organizers and staff as available out to a community meal somewhere. We ended up in a neighborhood bar not far from where one of the staff lived, and he managed to convinced the bar owner to go into the kitchen and within thirty minutes produce a great meal with a number of local Grenoble and regional dishes “to show the American.”

What a great community and what great fun! Hard not to respect such a culture and what it builds in social capital, and notice that in our capital driven work ethic we are so chained to the wheel, we don’t even give our schedules a second thought. One of the coordinators, Adrien Roux, having spent a month with me in New Orleans reportedly had come back to France and made the comment that for all he had learned about organizing in his visit, he still found it a mystery whether or not organizers ever ate in the US.