Leaders Assess Progress and Map Out Plans

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reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

Baton Rouge   Thirty Local 100 United Labor Union leaders gathered together for the 36th annual leadership conference for the union, this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leaders were there from Little Rock and Warren, Arkansas, Dallas and Houston, Lafayette and New Orleans, and points near and far in the three-state areas. We met in Local 100’s big 5000 plus foot union hall in Baton Rouge, so that the members could see first had what had been done to improve the space, and what still needed to be done. It was a hot, mid-90’s June day, but the 10-foot ceilings and thick cinderblock walls made the large meeting room pleasant with five fans running. That is not to say the leadership won’t take a harder look at the thousands needed to repair the air conditioner, but it was a lot better than people had any reason to expect. They were surprised, and I felt lucky, or as I reminded many of them, “tell me you can’t remember visiting your grandmother in the country and hearing the ceiling and attic fans humming?”

A lot of time in the morning was spent reviewing our progress on living wage campaigns or more accurately moving the minimum wages up. In Houston, we had success in both our Head Start unit as well as moving the ages up past $10 per hour for our cafeteria workers. The lesson we had learned, according to Houston office director, Orell Fitzsimmons, was to not try to grab all 30,000 workers in the district at once, but to concentrate on one segment after another. Having raised the hourly wage in the cafeteria, the union is now hunkering down to try to extend the hours from seven to eight to move people up more solidly. In Arkansas, the union with our allies are trying to push a statewide petition of workers and supporters to set the floor above $10 per hour. Winning an election could be difficult, but having our members who are state workers living in poverty is even harder. In Dallas and New Orleans there have been efforts that have met with some success at establishing levels past $10 per hour for subcontracted workers, but in those cities, especially New Orleans, the issue is enforcement. One cleaning contract we organized recently is now six-months overdue on paying the new city standard of $10.55 per hour. I can remember years ago a hotel union in San Jose-Monterrey saying they didn’t want to support our living wage fight because then why would workers need a union? It turns out part of the answer is: they would still need a union to actually get it!

On other fronts, the union is preparing campaigns to advocate to get lead tested and removed from schools and workplaces to protect our workers, children and clients. We are also going after nonprofit hospitals to hold them accountable for providing charity care, especially in Texas where there is no expanded Medicaid and elsewhere in our private sector contracts where the deductibles are pricing our members out of the company-sponsored plans and into the penalties for not having Obamacare.

Will we come up with the money to fix the air conditioner? I don’t know, but we’ll win some big campaigns because of leadership meetings just like this!

reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

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Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.

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Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner and Why Care Counts

Kirkcaldy_High_Street_Adam_Smith_PlaqueQuito    The title of the book had a nice hook, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner by the Swedish journalist Katrine Marcal, but the subtitle was equally engaging: The Story of Women and Economics, so I grabbed it. And, so should you!

The answer to the book’s leading question is Martha Douglas, the name of Adam Smith’s mother, who along with one of his cousins took care of the famous Scottish economist, promoter of the “invisible hand” and industrial capitalism, all of his life. That’s not a spoiler alert. Marcal’s point is that Smith and many economists who followed him created economics as a new priesthood, built a lot like the old priesthoods, around an idealized “economic man” presuming, pretending, and perhaps believing that economic self-interest ruled the world and most of its functioning. In so doing she argues, I found importantly and convincingly, that this ideal type is actually not only devastating for women in general but has contributed to warping our view of how the world works and should work.

Most simply this critical, routinely vital but unpaid work continues to fall inordinately on women, regardless of significant progress made over recent decades, and the default social, cultural and political assumptions that women would handle the “caring” tasks and men would handle the rational or business side, so to speak. None of this part of the equation is calculated in our GNP, and it should be. Because caring is too often uncompensated, even caring professions are lower waged unfairly, because they are still feminized. Looking up the Times review after I had read the book, they were not as big a fan of the book as I was, but they did justice to part of the core argument citing these statistics:

Because that care work often happens without any dollars and cents changing hands, it does not show up in G.D.P. reports or economic outlooks — and does not figure as prominently in our own minds as it arguably should. Canada’s statistical office took a stab at figuring out the value of uncompensated care, and came up with roughly one-third of the country’s annual G.D.P. Here in the United States, that would mean something like $6 trillion a year.

Although Marcal did not use this figure in her book, a recent report unpacks the differential in men’s and women’s wages and lays the weight squarely on the economic penalties for caring. It turns out that married mothers are paid 76 cents on the dollar compared to men. Unmarried, childless women make 96% of what men make. Marcal would argue that is because women fitting into the conception of economic man can escape with relatively less adverse impacts where their bodies are ignored, but where their bodies dominate, there are penalties.

Past the shouting arguments about economists or the calculations, the real plea that emerges from Marcal’s book is not about counting or her general rage, but an argument for what our economy and society would look like if we reordered our priorities more equally, including around gender. Marcal writes, “It’s one thing to organize the economy so that the quality of life will continue to rise. It’s another thing to subordinate all of society’s values to profit and competition.” That’s what we do now and it’s worth arguing about. She also in the same vein quotes economist Julie Nelson wondering what our society and economy would look like, “if we had…defined economics as the ‘science which studies how humans satisfy the requirements and enjoy the delights of life using the free gifts of nature.”

That’s worth serious thought.

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Establishing Internet as a Utility – This is Big!

internet-logos-1024x643Quito   In the midst of so much tragedy at the massacre of almost 50 LGBT men and women at a nightclub in Orlando and the horror and insensitivity of the Trump and Republican response, it was still possible to find a bright spot in the news: a federal court has backed policies establishing the internet as a utility.

It was not just any court either, it was the highly influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of the most prestigious in the country. By a 2-1 vote on the panel, the judges in an 184-page decision came down solidly with the people rather than the industry by holding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rightly can regulate the internet and assure net neutrality, because in fact the internet is not a luxury good, subject to special pricing and plundering by cable companies, but a utility, necessary for all the people.

This doesn’t close the door. There will likely be an appeal of course to the Supreme Court, but it opens many doors that might include more expansive rulings by the FCC that the internet is not only a utility, as a vital communication and consumer tool, but a public good that should be regulated accordingly and done so aggressively.

At one level this is something we all knew. Applying for jobs, getting through school, applying for many public benefits for the poor, keeping up with friends, and even the news of the nation, is increasingly impossible without the internet. The federal government’s investment in recent years to extend access to the internet to more rural areas and to public schools and libraries was evidence of this, even while being a subsidy for private carriers.

Interestingly, there are signs that the recognition of the public utility nature of the internet may be trickling down. On the one hand the FCC is talking about loosening the restraints that private internet providers have managed to lobby through many state legislatures to block municipalities from establishing their own systems to insure that all their citizens have affordable, high speed access. On the other, I got a press release the other day that the Ouachita rural electric cooperative in southern Arkansas of all places had partnered with an outfit so that it could extend internet services to 9000 families lacking access in the footprint of the cooperative. That would be a nice idea to catch on fire with other cooperatives that are sitting on money and unclear what to do with it other than pay their directors.

So, sure, we all hate utility companies and there have been thousands of campaigns to try and get them to be more accountable, provide better service, and affordable or lifeline rates, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned to hate even more than the local telephone, gas, or electric company, it’s the profiteering cable companies. With this decision we can hope their time in the sun and at the trough is finally coming to an end, so that all the people can access and afford the internet, because it’s a utility operating as a public good and necessity as well.

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Jobs, Guaranteed Annual Income, and Robots

2015-06-25-1435268405-3625858-8506058779_426b197e66_bNew Orleans   The big whoops are scratching their heads on a weaker than expected jobs report recently. Has the economy begun to sputter after recent acceleration or have we reached something close to full employment? Remember full employment doesn’t mean everyone has a job, but means that we’re at something close to the bottom of the barrel in terms of workers available for hire. Such a situation is not necessarily a happy place still for workers, but something that satisfies business because there are still some available workers and economists are out of clues about how to go lower.

Keep in mind that these are any old jobs that pay a wage which is not to be confused with good jobs or even living wage jobs much less what was once called family-supporting jobs. Economists have also recently expressed concern that Americans are becoming less mobile and willing to relocate to search for work. Not much of a surprise really. The Midwest is still hemorrhaging people, but a lot of states, particularly in the West are staying put, because they are not sure there’s anything better out there or a place they can afford to live where there are rumors of more jobs. If you’re stuck working for McDonalds, why move across the country to do so? Oh, and housing prices are going up, partially because of a shortage of what? Yes, labor!

So, how are people going to make it? How about a threshold level of guaranteed annual income? Organizing as part of the welfare rights movement in the late 60’s, this was our key national demand. $5500 or fight! For a family of four anyway. We didn’t come close to winning that number, though President Nixon proposed a floor for all welfare recipients that was categorically a guaranteed annual income program though it was called the Family Assistance Plan or as we shouted Fight the FAP! Anyway, here’s how it would have worked:

For a family of four without any other income, the FAP would provide $1,600 (2013: $10,121). But a family that did have income from employment would get a declining amount of FAP dollars until family income reached $3,920 (2013: $24,798). A family of four that had been earning $12,652 in 2013 dollars would have had its income increased through the FAP to $18,725. Ultimately, the vast majority of benefits would have gone to the “working poor,” a significant departure from then-existing programs that denied welfare benefits to those who were employed.

Meanwhile under the first President Clinton, welfare recipients and the notion of minimum support for families disappeared so that recipients got zapped, not Fapped, and in some cases have been reduced by some states to a maximum eligibility of only one-year and hardly $200 per month. We’ve changed in Clinton’s words “welfare as we know it” from just mean-spirited to just plain vindictive.

The Swiss just hammered a GAI proposal in a referendum by a 77 to 23% margin. A Scandinavian country is involved in a promising pilot, so all is not lost, but these programs are universal, rather than based on need or work-status. Ironically, some of the impetus behind the current interest in GAI has to do with technological displacement now that economists and others are willing to concede that technology does not guarantee added jobs, but actually shrinks job availability. Estimates by some naysayer economists say, hey, no problem, this will take a couple of decades and tech transitions to robots and the like will only eliminate 9% of US-jobs.

Hmmm. Right now there are roughly 150 million jobs so if this were today, that means losing 13.5 million jobs. Kaboom! That’s a lot of jobs to replace, and in 20 years if we have 180 million jobs, then that’s 16.2 million jobs down the drain. It’s not clear to me how conservatives are going to twist their minds and mouths to blame all of these workers for their lost jobs and lower pay at the hands of economic change?

Something is going to break. If Nixon knew it, we have to wonder why it’s not obvious to everyone already. Today might not be the time for winning the guaranteed annual income, but the numbers and the politics seem to say that the day is coming.

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The Obstacles to Closing the Digital Divide are Ideological and Naive

Students from a nearby elementary school start to filter into the 81st Avenue Branch Library after school lets out in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, May 5, 2016. The Oakland Public Library has eliminated fines on all children's materials and will soon urge city officials to ban fines for all patrons.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

New Orleans   You may be hearing this on the radio, but the chances are also good that you are reading – and maybe even hearing — this on your computer because you have broadband internet access. Yet, as most of us realize, at least 10% of the American people or more than 35 million folks, do not have broadband access, and you need to add another almost 8 million lower-income people who only have access through mobile phones, which is something, but still leaves a Grand Canyon gap to be closed when it comes to bridging the divide, and it’s ridiculous to claim otherwise. In 45 states, 20% of the public assistance programs for low income families require fixed broadband access in order to successfully apply.

Faithful readers and listeners know that this is a huge issue for me and for ACORN everywhere, but I’m beating on this drum again because of an interview in the New York Times with perhaps the best of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) members, Mignon Clyburn. Clyburn knows how to get things done and has the connections to make things happen in broad terms in Washington, since she is also the daughter of the 3rd ranking Congressman James Clyburn from South Carolina where she was also a former member of the Public Service Commission there. Clyburn’s remarks there were both the best and worst of what we might hope for if we want to create “internet for all.”

At one level, Commissioner Clyburn is a staunch advocate of bringing full broadband to lower income families, and has been aggressive in trying to make it happen, but where she reaches her limits are ideological in that she can’t break out of a neoliberalist commitment to hopes and prayers that benevolent corporations will somehow miraculously solve the problem. Or, perhaps worse, she washes her hands of a government role, arguing that “the community will demand the service.”

Despite her advocacy in general she is still counting on jawboning companies involved in mergers by applying a little stick if they want their big carrot. Most recently in Charter’s merger with Times Warner cable the FCC required the company to create a reduced price service for lower income families and to extend its coverage to another two million homes. These $10 per month programs might be something we could believe in, except that one company after another starting with Comcast where their merger with Universal required such a program, and followed by other companies supposedly “volunteering” to implement such programs, have failed to deliver or meet their goals and the FCC does virtually nothing to enforce its orders or monitor the volunteer efforts, making them pretty much little more than worthless press releases and icing with no cake underneath.

On Google Fiber and its community expansions where they require a certain portion of a community to enroll – and pay – in order to get high speed service, Commission Clyburn leaves it to the community to demand it, even while understanding that the community isn’t demanding it, because they can’t afford it. She’s talking a walk through a side door here. Perhaps she’s hoping that the community will demand that the city or someone else subsidize it, because the FCC record with telecoms they regulate delivering on these demands is abysmal.

When asked why she has such “trust in carriers to do the right thing,” she naively replies that, “I don’t think there is any business that wants to be perceived as not being a good partner with society.” Wow! The list starts with Comcast but almost all of the telecoms would be poster models for not giving a flying hoot about being a “good partner with society” or even their paying customers, much less lower income families.

When asked why it took a call from her to get a high school in Mississippi better broadband service, which as the reporter points out, “shows people don’t have the power to get better broadband on their own,” her reply is stone cold depressing. She says, “Is it a perfect system? Heck no…but it will get done…and that is the beauty of having local, state, and federal regulators. Yes, it may take some years to get broadband rolled out to all cities, but it’s going to get done.”

For Commissioner Clyburn, perhaps the best the FCC has to offer, somehow it is still all good if relief and justice is in the great “by and by.” Meanwhile the damage to millions of lower income families is incalculable. How does she sleep with that under her pillow?

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