Categories

Continuing Confusion on Companies and Affordable Care: Walmart Example

walmartNew Orleans            Reading continuing reports on the number of people seeking coverage directly in the marketplace or through their employers under the Affordable Care Act makes it clear in many fundamental ways, people still don’t get some of the dimensions of the healthcare contradictions.  Nothing made the case for this argument more conclusively than a column in “The Upshot” in the Times about more Walmart workers signing up for the company’s plan.

In an earnings call, Walmart announced that there had been a significant increase in the number of its workers who signed up for health insurance. Given that it is the nation’s largest private sector employer with over a million workers, we would hope that’s a good thing. They were warning stockholders because the increased participation would tally about a half-billion in additional costs.

What does that really mean?

Well, if they are paying a bargain price of $2500 per year, a tad over $200 per month for employee-only coverage, then perhaps 200,000 workers signed up for the company’s coverage due to the individual mandate. Of the 1.3 million workers Walmart says that it employs in the US that would mean an additional 15% of the company’s workforce enrolled, and let’s keep calling that good news.

What is left unsaid is what the percentage of participation might have been before the mandate began coming into play requiring coverage. My experience organizing Walmart workers would have held that participation earlier could not have even been 15%, so perhaps with this self-reported “surge” of enrollment in the company plan, the total participation is now 30% of the workforce or 400,000 of the 1.3 million workers. Hey, let’s be liberals, which we are not, and say that a quarter of the workforce previously had been on the plan and the numbers are now up to 40% or a bit more than 520,000 workers. We’re searching for real progress here, remember?

Any way you slice it, almost 800,000 are NOT covered by the company’s plan. Some, as we know, make so little money that they would be covered under state and federal programs that were income qualified, saving the company money and transferring the costs to the government. In this discussion we’re OK with that if it means that the workers have healthcare. No way to know how many workers that might be though. Another 200,000? Maybe even 400,000? Either way, a lot of workers will still have nada.

Meanwhile, here’s the hurting thing. Walmart is clear that the increased enrollment did NOT “come because of a more generous company policy.” Gulp, the old policy pretty much sucked, and the old boss here is the new boss still, meaning workers have a relatively low, qualifying monthly premium under 8.5% of their gross income, and relatively high deductible and general coverage plan.

These other 400 or 500,000 workers are likely “stuck like Chuck,” trying to figure out a way to get other coverage or pay the fine for not having any, and since Walmart offers this no-frills health plan, they are also barred from getting any subsidies from the federal or state marketplaces and any cost sharing.

Only in a country where something is better than nothing, is any of this report really within a mile of being good news.

Uber and Corporate Political Campaigns

taxi-unions-protest-against-ride-sharing-services-like-lyft-uber_2_0New Orleans      Uber, as many of us can’t avoid knowing anymore, is the ride service accessed now in 170 cities around the world on smartphones, and according to Wall Street valued at billions. Taxi drivers in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere have protested the fact that the service is unregulated and of course taking away business, and in the drivers’ cases, regular employment. Both the legacy outfits and upstarts are based on the exploitation of so-called “independent” contractors, which has long been a fiction, now becoming ever more a fantasy. This is part of the so-called “sharing” or “peer” marketplace, and I’m going to have to admit, I’m getting more and more uncomfortable about it, and the recent news from Uber is making me even more fidgety.

Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was quoted as saying, “Uber has been in a political campaign but hasn’t been running one. That is changing now.” And, what was changing now is the fact that he was hiring David Plouffe as senior vice-president in charge of policy, branding, overall strategy, and communications. Plouffe becomes the latest Obama campaign veteran to cash in on his time in politics most notably as campaign manager for Obama’s historic and successful race in 2008 and sometimes special adviser after that.

At this point in the age of Koch Industries and so many others financing corporate political campaigns to the tune of gazillions, I wonder why it’s even news. Furthermore, there is nothing about any of the politics of the libertarian tilted, techy Silicon Valley crowd that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. The fact that they are mostly white men who are young and naïve and all about the money doesn’t make me convinced that they are necessarily that much different than white men who are old and experienced and all about the money. I think we have earned the right to be skeptical.

What kind of political campaign is this anyway? Consumers become the constituents, I assume. And the election? I’m not sure, but I guess the first polling would be moving the consumer voters against their city council members to vote to let Uber and others like it, do anything they want.

The leverage on consumers is the claim of savings and the promise of buying something a little more exclusive and a lot more lux that the average day in, day out, yellow cab handling any and every one might be able to provide. A management lawyer I encounter frequently in bargaining union contracts in Louisiana told me a story about how his firm used Uber to get into San Francisco for a case they were handling last year. His crew loved Uber. On the other hand talking to a woman driver for a Missoula local company called Airport Shuttle who had been driving the van for the company for years as she met us at 450 AM to spirit us out of the West, we discussed the seasonality of her work there, and how easily it would be to marginalize the business with random on-call drivers. She wasn’t’ an Uber-ite.

I’ve been a part of organizing drives for taxi drivers in Dallas and New Orleans over the years, and our informal workers unions still represent auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi. There’s a reason that cities regulate common carriers on public roads to ensure safety, standards, and even rate charges and accurate readings on the meters. Certainly taxi companies in cities and at airports have always been political contributors, so I don’t begrudge the Uber’s of the world for putting their money into the game as well, but are we sure that an unregulated industry is the best for citizens who are also consumers. I’m not.

As Plouffe’s 2008 plan has taught all of us, hope is not a plan. I think they both should have a hard sell on his campaign.

Closing the Fishing Camp

IMG_1696Missoula     In the day to day ebb and flow of work, issues, campaigns, and people, the events of the country and world seem urgent and immediate, and of course they are, even though invisible to most. Preparing to move from our Airstream fishing camp in the Saffire Mountains along Rock Creek is always a helpful reminder how invisible these same concerns are to many, maybe even most, people around the country.

I’ve spent most of my life organizing in the cities, where people are enmeshed in the struggles of daily life just to survive. Bad jobs, bad housing, pathetic education, and sorry healthcare all mean something to people in a collective sense because in some ways we’re all chockablock right in it together.

Breaking camp in the post-dawn quiet over the last eleven days we have often felt we were the only ones in the world. It’s an exhilarating feeling even if you still dream about work at night. It’s easier to believe in the myth of the rugged individual in Montana when you’re all by your lonesome, because you really don’t have a heckuva a lot of choice but to glue the world together by yourself sometimes.

I say myth, because neighbors matter here as well. The Forest Service shows up to fight the fires. The county or service grades the road. Fisheries sets the limit here at three brown trout per day and rainbows and all others back in the creek, so we can enjoy, thanks to my comrade and friend Secky Fascione and the government, one of the best blue ribbon streams in the country. Wildlife authorities set the bans and the season so that we have seen bald eagles, a moose, bighorn sheep, and scores of deer as part of our normal day just as we could see a bus go by on a city street in New Orleans.

The challenge of the silence here is remembering that the noise is also crucial. Where almost everyone seems so white and such a premium is put on community and sharing in the West as the twin values of individualism and self-reliance, how do we communicate the need for diversity and the issues that have to be addressed everywhere to meet the needs of everyone? In the silence listening to the stream we wonder if anyone is even trying to make the sell anymore.

In our last quiet day I was reading two books. I finished The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham and am a couple of hundred pages into The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein. The Joyce book is excellent and should remind us all of the fight for free expression everywhere, as well as the priorities of artists and art to find their way in our culture, because much of it is about the struggle for Ulysses to be published in the USA and United Kingdom. The evolution of a definition of obscenity based on community standards and a more holistic sense of the whole work, rather than a narrow bias that led to book burning even 80 years ago just for the mention of a couple of words found in almost current rap song, should remind us how different our communities are and the need to share unifying principles for our collective good. Unfortunately, reading about Nixon and Reagan is a series of case studies in how it is in the interest of some to divide and separate us.

Closing down the trailer, finishing the last mopping, turning off the propane, disconnecting the batteries and solar, breaking down the rods and winding the reels, we keep thinking that everyone should have this experience.

Last year we had a crowd come by and celebrate my 45 years of organizing.   To mark the turnoff to the camp, we had tied an ACORN flag at the bridge.  As they say in the west, we ride for the brand.

All I can say is, we’re doing our part.

IMG_1701

 

Exploiting the Precariat through the So-Called Sharing or Peer Marketplace

collaborative-consumptionMissoula     Running around doing errands and catching up on Skype calls and emails in Missoula on our last trip in town before heading back home, doesn’t give me much time to keep up with the news, but hitting the Times business page quickly, I saw an article about the so-called “sharing economy” which seemed to be calling my name and singing my song. The good news was the fact that the notion of the “precariat,” which we have discussed frequently in recent months rated a subhead. The bad news was that after reading the piece in depth there was no way to avoid the fact that modern technology and the recession, that has driven millions out of gainful, fulltime employment, and consumers with rising needs and declining resources, have combined to create the perfect storm, drowning workers.

It has long been a factor of organizing and community life that we were working with a constituency that often are balancing full and part-time or numerous part-time jobs in order to string together a living. Now it seems that employers in this newly exploitative workplace environment can totally control the access, hours, and wages of work without having to even maintain the semblance of being held up McDonald and Walmart-like as bad employers, because they can refuse to be employers at all, hiding behind algorithms and consumer demand for cheap work. Reading about workers, even those embracing this new economy, wanting part-time employment even with the minimal legal benefits that come with such work, like Social Security and unemployment payments, tax withholding, and, heck, even a regular schedule, and instead having to settle on being on-call for TaskRabbit, Favor, Uber, and god knows what else where they might make as little as $15 per hour as independent contractors was not only depressing, but knocking on the door of a high crime. I just don’t have a dictionary that would bend the words “sharing” and “peer” into the pretzels that would mask such blatant exploitation and predatory behavior.

The number employed in this way is estimated to be huge, and that likely understates the facts:

There are no definitive statistics on how many people work in the gig economy. But according to a report from MBO Partners, a company that provides consulting services to independent contractors, about 17.7 million Americans last year worked more than half time as independent contributors, among them project workers

Professor Guy Standing from London who literally wrote the book on the “precariate” calls this new phenomena and its aspects that create a sort of technocratic slave market a situation of “pitting workers against one another in a kind of labor elimination match.” Sarah Horowitz, the head of the Freelancers Union, a workers’ advocacy group based in New York City, offers that, “Having a diverse portfolio is the best protection. People are doing this in the midst of wage stagnation and income inequality, and they have to do these things to survive.”

Several years ago I remember a friend referring to himself as a “portfolio” worker, meaning that making it for him mean having a couple of jobs. Now this phenomena has evolved not to “gigs,” but piecemeal and piece rate work for random clients and shadow companies that seems to only really exist as Wall Street fundraisers and investor darlings running hot shop computer operations.

What a predatory sewer no matter how much makeup is applied on the way to these so-called jobs. These workers need real organization, but they also need real jobs and a real life rather than this predatory swamp they are gamely trying to navigate.

***

Please enjoy Johnny Winter’s Can’t Hold Out (Talk to me Baby), featuring Ben Harper, from Kabf.org.

An Architect for Disasters and the Poor

DSC00157Missoula    The problem of affordable housing and post-disaster housing are coupled together by cost and for those who care, by speed.

Cost, because no one in government anymore wants to put the real price tag on what it would take to finally put all Americans into decent and affordable housing, much less the hundreds of millions of others globally. Regardless of the best intentions, it now takes big money, as Mayor Bill de Blasio is discovering as he looks to the public housing authority for a New York City fix and find it’s running a $77 million deficit. In the terrible choices made with too few alternatives, too little is done with a shrug and half-hearted commitments.

The same thing happens in the wake of disasters when tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands are suddenly left without housing. The policy planners’ hope is always that the problem is temporary. After Katrina in 2005, people were still in FEMA trailers years later and it is still easy to see families living in half-built homes even now nine years later. After many disasters in the developing world refugees might be living in such temporary housing for more than ten years. Visiting Japan in the wake of the earthquake and the nuclear plant problems in 2012, there were whole settlements of people living without the knowledge of whether they would ever be allowed to return. Either way, temporary, means cheap, and a disaster defines an emergency, and that means fast.

This is a problem I’ve come back to often and tried to puzzle through in a small way in my Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster. Living off the grid on Rock Creek in a post-Katrina Airstream, seemed a fitting place to read about the architect and recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Shigeru Ban, and what he offers as viable alternatives in this space. Ironically the house he built as part of the architectural display that is the essence of Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” housing development in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, has never seemed to be much of a solution. The New Yorker piece by Dana Goodyear gave me a lot more to chew on and appreciate in understanding his work and the potential his contribution could make though, as I was better able to translate some of his other experiments into the required formulas of cost and efficiency.

Ban is focused on construction with commonplace and renewable building materials: paper tubes, shipping containers, and wood, lots of wood. For example fifty dollar, post-disaster tents to be provided by the United Nations where the infrastructure holding them together is in Goodyear’s description, a “simple skeleton of recycled-paper tubes, fitted together with plastic joints and braced with ropes describing the pattern of an unfinished star.” When you read that you can’t help but say to yourself, “Hey, I could build that!”

A picture in The New Yorker of a classroom built after the Japanese earthquake was worth more than a thousand words. The pitched roof was constructed of large, cut paper tubes with what looked like one 2×4 joined along the length and the paper beams connected to identical paper columns that held up the prefab walls, all guyed together with buckled cables to buttress the load bearing weight, and some thin plywood sheeting on the roof with circles cut to allow light. It was attractive and functional. It didn’t look cheap, but you knew it was cheap because you could see the materials.

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, for a group of Vietnamese immigrants living in squalid tents he built:

…a cluster of cabins with walls made from upright paper tubes set on a foundation of donated Kirin beer crates filled with sand…smooth paper columns supporting crisp white canvass roofs…They are inexpensive, easy to assemble, and made from widely available energy-efficient components.

Nine years after Kartrina, I have steadily kept up the payments on two acres of ground, mud, and swamp on a bayou across Lake Ponchartrain. The fishing camp and everything around it other than 35 stubby piers is long gone, and annually my family debates how to get the camp back in action for its beauty, peace, and proximity, hardly a half-hour from where we all live in Bywater. I always vote against a structure since it seems to be simply providing more toothpicks for the next hurricane to spit out around the wetlands of the abutting Bayou Branch National Wildlife Refuge. We look at hunters’ tents and yurts, and wonder if we would have the time to disassemble them before the next storm, and there’s always a next storm, my friends, just know that.

I don’t know that there’s a solution on the bayou or for the pressing needs for affordable and post-disaster housing, but Architect Ban is going in some interesting directions, and he’s now given me some ideas for what might be a compromise that works, and that we could all afford. His work deserves serious attention and widespread examination.

Fire, Trees, Rocks, Hot Shots and Spike Camps

IMG_1657Missoula      Relatively speaking, Montana is not on the same fire alert as many western states suffering from extensive drought, but nothing is relative in August once temperature moves towards 100 degrees and rain becomes scarcer. Anything can set off a blaze, especially lightning sparking out from a thunderstorm.

Several days ago, we watched closely as helicopters intermittently flew over with 160 gallon buckets of water, pulled from Rock Creek. Our Airstream is on “in-fill” property with U.S. Forest Service land all around from the rocks to the road. The first day a ranger said it was only three or four acres. The location was along Alders Creek around the ridge that we abut by several miles, and part of the steep, craggy unsettled rock speckled with stands of pine. The beetles have been a scourge in the northern plains, browning and killing many older, weaker trees and becoming one of the devil in the details of climate change in this part of the country.

The following day there were signs posted as we came back from an I-90 supply run, letting us know we were in a fire safety area. Several green trucks were out in a field. More helicopters seemed to be working, though they stopped in the late afternoon. We had been smelling smoke off and on, but it seemed to have abated, so we hoped the job was done.

Driving on Rock Creek road as we puttered along the next day, we pulled over as three, identical white trucks, labeled “Twin Peaks” with windowed rear cabs passed by followed by three white passenger vans, all with Utah plates. That evening while working to unload lumber from a truck with our neighbors, a Forest Service ranger came by to do some “public information.” They had brought the “hot shots” in to fight the fire and set up a “spike” camp at the end of our bridge fording Rock Creek. She gave us maps, common sense instructions (no open fires or catalytic converters), and generally everyone thought the fire would be contained as it backed up a steep ravine and confronted the natural firebreaks that were the results of an earlier fire, and should shut off further fuel for the fire.

When I said that we thought they had gotten it the day before in the mid-afternoon, it turned out everything had stopped when one of their firefighters had been hurt. She wouldn’t give the details other than to say that became their “number one priority,” and that he would be all right. On the topo map she left us, the MedVac location was clearly marked, and piecing together what little she said, we were clear that it was the rocks that got him, not the flames. The green trucks a couple of miles up the road were the result of a quick drilled well that was filling a semi-portable tank, so that rather than the helicopters decreasing the Rock Creek flow, they could refill by dropping their buckets into what was essentially a big makeshift bathtub.

After watching open trucks bring back loads of 4, 6, and 5 men, dirty, and smudged at 8PM at night to the spike camp, the next day we thought we would hike up the ridge on the old fire trail and see if we could measure the progress. A couple of thousand feet up, we stopped where we could see the smoke billowing above some flames. While Chaco looked down the trail, I thought I would go up a little higher and see if I could get an even better view. A long fallen pine ended up blocking my way, and as I came back down the loose rocks, one turned on me. Trying to catch my balance, I tried to run down the rest of the way, but not calculating the steepness, my momentum was propelling me down faster that I figured and instantly I was crossing the 20 feet of trail and not slowing down. I thought I could grab a sapling at the edge and stop myself, but hadn’t counted on the quick drop off over the edge, so ended up tumbling down and trying simultaneously to break my fall in the rocks. I finally stopped another twenty feet down, when I rolled full force into the trunk of a pine, hitting it squarely with my back, and knocking my breath out. Chaco seeing me fall, essentially over the cliff, had immediately jumped down, bracing himself with both feet, worried that I might have broken every bone on my fool self and been seriously hurt.

Everything seemed to be in reasonable working order. I could see where my camera had fallen. My hat was in another direction, and blind luck located my glasses, once I could finally get up and crawl back up. I was lucky. Some scrapes and scratches of course and likely a bruise, larger than any hipster’s tattoo, will still be on my back when I hit home, but, strangely, it was reminiscent of my high school days, catching a pass and then being leveled in exactly the same way by a 230 pound linebacker as I had just been handled by that sturdy pine.

Writing this, the rain has finally come, hard and steady, for the last couple of hours, so we’ll hope that douses the Alders Creek fire, but the main thing we discussed as I creakily go from bunk to couch in the Silver Bullet, is how much we admire and appreciate the rangers and firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service, the job they do, the sacrifices they make, and the fact that no amount of Republicans, Koch Brothers, or Tea People could light a candle to the least of them.

IMG_1662