Getting the Lead Out of Schools


New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?


More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits


Volunteers May be the Only Good Thing to Hit New Orleans after Katrina

DSCN0432New Orleans    Opinions are divided on the New Orleans so-called recovery after Hurricane Katrina, and it is more than a glass half-full, half-empty situation. Talking to Vanessa Gueringer on Wade’s World, her articulate anger still rages, and listening to her describe how her community in the lower 9th ward has had to fight to win the fulfillment of every promise to the area, it is impossible not to agree. There are many in the city who are ready to evacuate if they hear the word “resilience” even one more time.

Presidents Obama and Bush have now visited along with the current and former HUD secretary and a host of others. I listened to the disappointment expressed by neighbors and colleagues that President Obama didn’t double down on his commitment to rebuild. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been everywhere enjoying his Mardi Gras moment. Former Mayor and current head of the Urban League Marc Morial was more sober, releasing his report on the state of black New Orleans, where the short summary is: bleak with little change or hope.

DSCN0424-1 DSCN0423-1 DSCN0422-1The one place where almost everyone can find agreement is in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of organizations who have come to the city over the last ten years as volunteers to help in any way they can. Appropriately,  even the City of New Orleans and Landrieu somehow understood this universal consensus and got behind the effort. People of good will from around the world made a difference to New Orleans in some way shaming our own government for its inaction, inequity, and racism. And, what better way to mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina than by organizing a humongous volunteer service day.

The volunteer goal for the anniversary was 10,000 people and for a change almost the same level of preparation and support is going into the affair as you find during Carnival season, which until this anniversary is the New Orleans benchmark for volunteer extravaganzas. Hosts of nonprofits were recruited to the effort. Individual projects by Tulane University and Xavier University were subsumed into the overall city campaign. ACORN International is hosting 100 volunteers at the ACORN Farm. A Community Voice has 100 volunteers canvassing the Upper 9th Ward, and Southern United Neighborhoods (SUN) has another 100 in the Lower 9th Ward. It’s all in!

There are even corporate sponsors. Just as Walmart trucks rolled into the area after Katrina and there were special vouchers for purchases in their stores, Walmart is a big sponsor of this volunteer assault on the city as well. Coordinators got water, peanut butter crackers, and of course blue volunteer t-shirts at pickup points at Walmart stores throughout the week. The blue in the t-shirts, not surprisingly, looks identically like the Walmart blue customers see in their stores, but, hey, what else would you expect, they say Walmart on the back along with sponsors.

DSCN0425-1 DSCN0428-1 DSCN0426-1The volunteers will only work three hours, and given the heat and humidity that surprises so many in late summer in the city, that probably has more to do with public health than public need. They will have lunch and entertainment later at the Superdome. You get it, right, we’re saying thank you, and whether corporate and tacky, or political and boosterism, we all really mean it.

DSCN0429-1 DSCN0430-1 DSCN0431-1For real, this is thanks to all the volunteers that made such a difference and came to help New Orleans. We’re hoping you feel welcome enough to keep on coming until the job is finished!


Kindle version of Battle for the Ninth for reduced price to mark the 10th Anniversary. 


Thinking about Cascadia on the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

DSCN0401 (1)New Orleans   As the final countdown begins on the 10th anniversary of the August 29, 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation it wrought, and the recovery still in progress, A Community Voice, formerly Louisiana ACORN, and an affiliate of ACORN International, held a “Katrina Heroes” event that was quite moving. Members, leaders, friends, and allies were often hardly able to restrain tears as they got up to speak, received recognition, or helped themselves to a plate of food. They have built a great community through their struggle.

Katrina was a 400-year flood event. The protection at considerable expense in the new levee system for New Orleans is a long way from that level. An op-ed in the New York Times laid out the price for a 500-year protection system. One-hundred billion or so, if done now, with about a quarter of it protecting New Orleans. It almost seems cheap at the price, but do we ever learn?

That question has been plaguing me especially since reading “The Really Big One” in The New Yorker about the impact of the disaster on the Pacific Northwest coast and its population when the Cascadia subduction zone erupts over a 700 mile expanse with impacts from roughly Vancouver down to northern California around Mendocino. The North American tectonic plate is inexorably moving to confront the 90000 square mile oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, which is building up heat and pressure to slip underneath. The earthquake that will follow will be between 8.0 and 8.6 on the Richter scale on the low end to 8.7 to 9.2 on the scale on the high end, and because the scale is logarithmic the magnitude is almost incomprehensible. As reporter Kathryn Schultz writes, “…the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west – losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.” Holy-moly!


FEMA estimates that “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast” on the west side of the volcanic range of the Cascade Mountain range. They estimate that 13,000 people will die, dwarfing Katrina and every other US-disaster. Another 27,000 will be hurt. One-million will be displaced and FEMA will have to provide food and water for another two-and-a-half million. Been there, done that, and we all know they are unable to handle anything near that. Seattle’s emergency office estimates that there will be 30,000 landslides in that city alone. If you didn’t drop down a hole to middle earth, the tsunami will be the most frightening catastrophe to hit next, and it will move within four minutes of the earthquake and the height could range between 50 and 100 feet. There are 70000 people estimated to live in the inundation zone and they will have between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on where they are, literally in the words of one Oregon official to “run for your life.”

There is a one in three chance that this earthquake will occur within the next 50 years. Those are bad odds. That is like, tomorrow! I can remember reading articles in the years before Katrina about what might happen to New Orleans in a worst case scenario. We did little to nothing to prepare for it. It was every man for themselves. I lived on higher ground. That was not enough for a community or all of the people lost forever or with their lives and families irreparably damaged.

What are we doing to prepare in the Northwest or nationally for a catastrophe that will absolutely happen and won’t be a matter of bad construction by the Corps of Engineers, but part of natural earth movements verified by meticulous science? Very, very little it seems, other than talk about it, and the not even that much talk really.

This is the fire and flood next time. It would seem to me that we would learn some of the lessons of Katrina not only by protecting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but preparing the Pacific Northwest to survive the Cascadia subduction when it erupts.

This can’t just be me saying this.





Stop the Guerrilla War Against Obamacare, Let My People Live!

Little Rock   Being a commuter these days between New Orleans and Little Rock, it is interesting to watch the convolutions that Arkansas and its legislature are going through to try and fashion a partnership with the federal government to run the health care exchange option under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aka Obamacare.  Time is ticking on the clock but they are at least making an effort to make it happen with fur flying.

All of which is a good deal better than the intransience that Governor Jindal represents by standing foolishly at the hospital clinic door keeping 400,000 eligible low income people from the participation that could save their lives.  There was even a squib in the Louisiana papers last week that the governor was at least looking at what they were trying in Arkansas with interest.  More spin, who knows?  Mike Stagg, an old comrade from ACORN partnerships, and a longtime Democratic Party activist in Louisiana from Lafayette, has organized Forward Louisiana adding some kneecappers and spitkickers to the board including the former head of the Louisiana Association of NonProfits and a representative of A Community Voice.  An ad in the newspaper and a picture of a demonstration qua press conference got them front page coverage in the Baton Rouge Advocate, so in Louisiana (finally!) this tragic political decision will have a cost and is now facing real opposition.  People will know who did what, when and to whom.

I should add “maybe.”  Robert Pear writing in the Times shared some startlingly sad stats about how few potential beneficiaries of Obamacare know or understand the score and how successfully Congressional Republicans are delaying outreach and implementation, and how quickly Congressional Democrats are rolling over, rather than fighting.  Ugh!

But in its latest poll, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of the uninsured said they did not have enough information to understand how the law would affect them. Public opinion remains deeply divided, with 40 percent of Americans having an unfavorable view of the law and 37 percent holding a favorable view.   The administration says 41 million people may be eligible for new insurance options. Of that number, 28 million live in states where the federal government will be running the exchanges, by itself or in partnership with state officials. One-fifth of those eligible have not graduated from high school.   Congress turned down a request from the administration for an additional $949 million to set up the exchanges and help people enroll. Republicans opposed the request, and Democrats did not push for it.

Talking to community organizations and unions, like Local 100, in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and other states, there is queue of folks that want to rollup their sleeves and make sure the word is out, but so far we are shouting to ourselves.  We need to increase the volume so that it reaches every ear!


Advocating Alternative Models for Community & Labor Organizing in Japan

Tokyo  Ken Yamazaki is the deputy senior research officer in the international affairs branch of the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, a Phd, just published author on community organizing, and a helluva guy in my book.  Having visited New Orleans recently with his delegation as they tried to better understand labor and community organizing, when I said there was a chance I could come by Japan en route to a commitment in Korea, he jumped to the task to cobble some pieces together to help pay the freight for this side trip to Tokyo and eastern Japan to the footprint of the earthquake and tsunami.  Within days he said, no problem, you’ll need to do a seminar.  I should have been suspicious when the topic seemed to be history of community organizing, proscriptions for rebuilding the labor movement, and, yes, and…what we had learned in New Orleans about rebuilding after disaster from Hurricane Katrina.

One thing led to another and the next thing I knew as it came closer to the date, the seminar was really more like a lecture, and the topic was a combination of all of these things and 130 or so people were already committed, having responded to the call.  The location was going to be in the auditorium of Liberty Tower at Meiji University it turned out, but that wasn’t really clear until Ken walked me into the tower an hour before the scheduled beginning.  As we had traveled around eastern Japan, I was starting to understand, since I had prepared one paper for him for the money and then at the last minute needed to ship off to Tokyo the appendix from Battle for the Ninth Ward, my last book, entitled “The Organizer’s Short Guide to Rebuilding after Disasters.”  I’m used to some high wire trapeze work without a net working across cultures and languages, but my comrade and colleague might have gotten me higher that I was ready for in order to dance for my supper in Tokyo.

members of the panel

When I finally got the list of panelists who were going to respond to my “lecture,” I knew I needed to hustle and step up to the mark.  Ken was moderating the panel that would give comments and ask questions on my remarks, but it included Yoji Tatsui, a key researcher for the Japanese Trade Union Congress (JTUC- RENGO) who was the Deputy Director of their Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, (closest to me in the picture of the panelists), Yoshitake Obata, a founder of the Edogawa Community Workers Union and activist with the Network of Community Unions of Japan, who had visited ACORN International and A Community Voice in late 2008 about living wage campaigns in New Orleans and written for Social Policy, Takanarita Takeshi with the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union whose work we had seen in the disaster zone and who had written about the work in a forthcoming article in Social Policy, and, very interestingly, Makoto Kawazoe, the Secretary-General, of Shutoken Seinen Union, the general union of Young Workers in Tokyo.

Ken Yamazaki introducing me

It all went well enough, and I hope I made in difference.  Puzzling out reactions through translations is difficult, and when I heard different translators had been called to duty on almost every page, one pauses to think how it might have come together for the readers, but at least they have their own puzzling they can do later.

They took seriously my notion of “majority unionism,” and it provoked comment.  The notions of “community unions” connected to the major labor federation I continue to find fascinating.  How much they are involved in organizing was hard to tell, but work on living wages counts for a lot in my book, so I’m looking forward to learning more.  The young workers union was also of interest.   We ran into a similar effort recently in El Alto in Bolivia.  Neither effort is very large yet, but both focused on informal or irregular workers, as they are called in Japan.  These are large gaps and established unions, judging from Brother Tatsui’s responses, see them positively.

Tatsui’s questions from the point of view of the institutional labor movement were excellent.  He was interested in whether current workers had more loyalty to the company or the community?  Japan is obviously legendary for the commitment workers have to their firms, but I shared with him what we had learned organizing Walmart workers in high turnover retail.  The commitment was to their sense of themselves as being “skilled” in retail and though they may have left Walmart, most of them were going through the cycle:  Target, Home Depot, and, often as not, back to Walmart and around again.  The “community” was the network of jobs and the workers who did them, and neither the company nor the geographical area.

This is an important dialogue, and Ken Yamazaki understood fully, even if it had taken me awhile to catch on, what he was doing and what he hoped from me.  He, like so many of us now in the United States, has come to believe that community-labor models offer hope for revitalizing labor, and he understands that there is a lot about community organizing methodology that speaks to a possible future for labor’s next stage.  The conversation has now been engaged.  Walking into the night, I could taste how much people wanted to be part of the discussion in Japan – I did, too!

Now, it needs to happen everywhere!  Then, we must move past talk to real action.

Makoto Kawazoe (the Young Workers leader) on the right and Takanarita Takeshi from the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union

Ken and some of the other panel members honoring the tradition of sharing a meal after