Opting out of Workman’s Compensation

thNew Orleans     Given all of the effort of the techies to promote the so-called “gig” economy and create a permanent class of part-time, on-call workers with few to no benefits, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some of the big boys have already found loopholes allowing them escape clauses for compensating their workers, even in the terrible and tragic situations where workers are hurt in the course of serving exactly those same employers. Not too long ago reporters for ProPublica ran a piece in Salon.com on the way Costco, McDonalds, Walmart, numerous health care companies, and others had figured out loopholes in Texas and passed laws in Oklahoma to write and administer their own self-serving workman’s compensation programs. There was nothing pretty to be found in reading the piece.

This is all complicated, but the simple backstory is that the Texas constitution had pretty much always allowed employers to opt out of workman’s comp, but until some Dallas-based lawyers started pulling and pitching the path out, most had stayed in thinking it protected them as well as their workers. One of the lawyers got so good at this chicanery that he left and formed a company, PartnerSource, to do nothing but scheme and cheat on workers’ injuries. Needless to say there was a ready market, and the shyster has a map pins all over his wall on where he wants to move the opt-out campaign.

What kind of things do they get away with and who does the damage, you might ask? Well, let’s looks at some of the cases with ProPublica:


· For nearly 40 years, every state has covered occupational diseases and repetitive stress injuries, recognizing medical research that some conditions develop over time. But in Texas, a number of companies, including McDonald’s and the United Regional Health Care System, don’t cover cumulative trauma such as carpal tunnel. U.S. Foods, the country’s second largest food distributor, also doesn’t cover any sickness or disease “regardless of how contracted,” potentially allowing it to dodge work-related conditions such as heat stroke, chemical exposures or even cancer.
· several companies, including Home Depot, Pilot Travel Centers and McDonald’s, exclude injuries caused by safety violations or the failure to obtain assistance with a particular task.
· Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest chain of assisted living facilities, doesn’t cover most bacterial infections. Why Taco Bell can accompany injured workers to doctors’ appointments and Sears can deny benefits if workers don’t report injuries by the end of their shifts. Costco will pay only $15,000 to workers who lose a finger while its rival Walmart pays $25,000.


You get the picture?

Add to these horrors the fact that disputes are often forced into arbitration and denied access to courts, the companies are pushing the costs over to Medicaid and Social Security disability and away from their own responsibilities, and all of this is virtually unregulated, and the full dimensions of another assault in state legislatures is clearly on the way. Bills are already pending in South Carolina and Tennessee, and a coalition led by executives at Loews, Walmart, Nordstrom’s and other companies has been formed to promote passage in other areas.

Open the window even a crack and the horrors come roaring in!

Pleading for Player Power

Pic-University_of_Missouri_PlayersNew Orleans    In the United States, from place to place, Thanksgiving comes with its own set of traditions enhanced by families and friends.

One of my first Thanksgivings away from home while on my brief on and off collegiate tour, the details are now lost in the fog of memory, but somehow I ended up, likely with a friend, invited by a generous soul to her Italian family’s late afternoon dinner in the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens, where multiple courses were served, accompanied by wine, all of which seemed revolutionary to me at the time and for which I am still thankful.  Another year, in Springfield, Massachusetts, my brother came over from New Jersey, while we were living there, and Barbara Rivera, one of our spectacular welfare rights leaders invited us all over to her house for a Puerto Rican flavored Thanksgiving dinner, still remembered by both me and her family.

For years when we were young and had grandparents in the delta of Mississippi, Thanksgiving meant a drive up from New Orleans for family and a feast.  There was always divinity fudge, one of the great inventions in candy-land, and jam cake, which has become a family tradition from grandmother to mother to now daughter.  And, in Mississippi before, during, and after a huge, piling heap of food was offered and consumed I now know not only there, but in much of the rest of the South there was football, one game after another.  Now with its increasing popularity there’s basketball, too.  In the South, there’s also the mandatory nap option that has to be squeezed in during half-times or blowouts.   Sometimes it’s even funny to read in the paper as pro-ballers talk about what it might be like to have a Thanksgiving at home.  The crocodile tears are flowing everywhere now, I know they are.

The business of sports though has become simply sports as business, and that’s not something to be thankful about.  Living in the heartland of the big college football power conference, the South Eastern Conference, where football often seems to pass the line between sports and religion, it may be the biggest business of all.  In Louisiana, the coach has lost three games in a row and despite perhaps the winningest record of almost any coach anywhere, a national championship on his record, and several SEC titles, yet some of the heavy breather alums are talking about paying gazillions to buy out his contract that’s good until 2019.

Meanwhile, one of the newer SEC teams at the University of Missouri may not be leading the league in the win-loss column but has shown how semi-professional college players can stand up for themselves and others.  The NCAA fought the Northwestern players hammer and tong, but despite their billion dollar bottom-line mentality, collective action by the players works, no matter what the lawyers might want and wish.  Now some pundits are calling for coaches and basketball players to get into the act to push back at the NCAA and its unaccountable and arbitrary way of dealing with current and prospective players, including recruits from all over the world.  The price of the first coach standing behind his players may have been the heave-ho in Missouri since even though the President and other bigwigs fell by the wayside, the athletic director was still standing, and may not have been a solidarity-forever guy, no matter what the coach claims.

If sports, professional and amateur, is going to be part of our contemporary culture in coming years, and run as a body killing, youth stealing, child labor sweatshop, then the workers,  paid, unpaid, and exploited need to exercise their market power and bring them to their knees.  For my part I think Thanksgiving and New Years’ Day would be the perfect tactical times for football and basketball players to stand up and stand together to force some change.

I would definitely interrupt a nap for that kind of action!

What Goes Around, Comes Around, Even for Presidents like Wilson

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

New Orleans     A saying with common currency in recent years has been, “haters gonna hate.”  An old one that seems almost timeless from the later part of the last century is, “what goes around, comes around.”  As a matter of long standing record, I’m rooting for campus protestors these days on the issues of race and sexual abuse, and campuses around the country continue to heat up, reminiscent of the good old days of some of our youth around both issues.  

            Coincidentally, I happened to be on a Skype call yesterday with a New York based publisher, who mentioned at the end of our call that he had graduated from Princeton and how proud he was of the protest and sit-in on his old campus around the issues of Woodrow Wilson’s blatant racism.  Though many know Wilson as the World War I president along with his failed leadership to create the League of Nations, which later laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United Nations, fewer are familiar with his hardcore racism, including expressed sympathies for the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. 

            Some hearing this unwelcome and tawdry news about a former US President from Virginia might say, “Well, he was a man of his times.”  Hmmm….yes, perhaps, if his times were the mid-1800’s rather than 100-years ago.  Furthermore, the protestors have it right.  They’re not just picking on him long distance from Princeton, New Jersey to Washington, DC, since he was also later the President of Princeton University and is honored widely on campus with buildings bearing his name and an Institute and scholarships as well. 

            What goes around, comes around when the arc of justice bends our way though, and this may be the moment.  In a moving op-ed in the Times, Gordon Davis, a lawyer, wrote of his grandfather, John Abraham Davis, who had passed the civil service exam, along with many other African-Americans in late 19th century when the federal service outlawed discrimination.  He had started on the bottom but had worked his way up to being a mid-level supervisor of many including whites at the Government Printing Office, making decent, middle class wages appropriate to his 30 years of seniority.  Within months of Woodrow Wilson becoming President his administration rolled all of that progress backward as the President and his appointees, including in the Post Office where there had been a deliberate campaign promise to re-segregate especially in the south.  Davis wrote that his grandfather lost the family farm after being demoted to menial jobs at hugely reduced pay, and died a broken man rather than the respected member of the community he had been.

            Princeton should feel the heat, and they must make the change.    The publisher immediately understood that.  My brother with a PhD from Princeton would have been clear about this as well.

            Presidents should worry about their legacy and the judgment of history.  Bill Clinton still has much to do to outrun the pain inflicted by his program to “end welfare as we know it” and kowtow to Wall Street by eliminating Glass-Steagall and helping usher in the Great Recession.  George W. Bush no doubt reads daily of the disasters in Iraq still and the ripple effects throughout the Middle East including in Syria.  Lyndon Johnson knew that despite many legislative accomplishments that there was no way to get Vietnam off of his shoes.  No amount of spinning can ever make Richard Nixon look good, and so it goes on and on.    Barack Obama is wildly trying to sprint faster to make change in the last two years of his term after disappointing so many in his early years.

            The rich and powerful should never sleep soundly without being very, very careful about the certainty that for many, what goes around will indeed come around. 

Lightning Strikes and a Democrat is Elected Governor in the South

JBE_001New Orleans   Even when State Representative John Bel Edwards from small town Amite, Louisiana, known for little of nothing other than being near where Abita beer is made and on the way to Mississippi, led in the open primary against three Republicans, when asked about his real chances of winning, I was doubtful. He wasn’t the first Democrat to lead a primary race after all. The trick in recent years has been hanging on.

Edwards though ended up with a smashing, almost historic runoff victory, unseating the conservative Republican two-term sitting U.S. Senator David Vitter and administering a butt whipping with nearly a 150000 vote margin and winning by 56% to 44%. In ruby red Louisiana, in recent years a Republican stronghold, Edwards becomes the first Democrat in eight years to win a statewide election. In the Republican solid South with the recent defeat of Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Edwards will also soon become the only Democrat sitting in the governor’s chair in the South.

The pundits are careful to underline that Edwards’ victory does not mark a sea change, but something more akin to a rogue wave. True or false?

Well, it’s true enough that Edwards is a blue dog Democrat rather than a yellow dog one. He’s pro-gun and anti-abortion though wisely not foaming at the mouth on either issue. Significantly, he also benefited from long family and political ties to the critical local law enforcement groups and even won the association of sheriff’s endorsement. He also has a military background including West Point in his resume which meant his only experience with camouflage pants wasn’t while touring the set for Duck Dynasty like either Vitter or Louisiana’s occasional governor and until recently full-time presidential aspirant, Bobby Jindal. Nonetheless, he was enthusiastically endorsed by labor, and wildly loved by the teachers’ unions for his opposition to charters, privatization, and vouchers, which have been constant Jindal themes. He was also clear in a state with more uninsured than any other that he would expand Medicaid thereby embracing the Obamacare punching bag. He also had hardcore business opposition for his pledge to create a state minimum wage where now Louisiana has none.

The Kentucky strategy of tying Edwards to Obama to defeat him was a total loser though, even though it had worked for Vitter in the past. So, learn from that, pundit posse!

One clear lesson, always true and worth remembering, has to do with arrogance. Vitter’s history in the Louisiana legislature and in Congress has been to always fly solo while pointing his fingers at colleagues and trying to shame them for this and that. It turns out that what goes around, comes around, and Vitter was completely alone at the end. His Republican opponents either took a walk or endorsed Edwards calling Vitter “vicious” and a “liar. Voices in his support were few and far between. It turns out that if are a mean, self-servicing, son-of-a-bee, eventually it will bite you, and if you add hypocrisy to that, whoa, Nellie, you’re going down.

Another lesson has to do with competence in actually governing, rather than purity in ideological posturing, both administered by the Bobby Jindal ego-trip. When it’s Republicans in charge from top to bottom and the state is in a total fiscal and economic mess, and the majority of the citizens are hurting, eventually that bill will come due at the polls. Jindal for eight straight years had a budget that by constitution had to be balanced returned for fixing or fudging by the legislature, while kowtowing to out of state ideologues. The first rule of all politics is that you have to tend to your own base first, and the corollary should now be that if you worship at the altar of Republican orthodoxy and forget that rule then change is going to come.

It’s worth remembering that decades ago politicians and political scientists from V.O. Key onward once believed that the solid South meant everyone was a Democrat. Some thought, wrongly, that would last forever. I can remember my father saying he never had a choice in Louisiana about whether to register as anything but a Democrat or he would have only been able to vote once every four years for President, and he was right. The pendulum can and will swing, and the more the Republicans go harder and harder right, leaving more and more people out of the sight and out of mind, the more likely their dominance will be as temporary as it has been painful for people.

Models, Replicability, and Getting to Scale


Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, MS speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, September 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenge to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

New Orleans    Talking on KABF’s Wade’s World to Kentaro Toyama, tech wizard, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and for now a Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, was fascinating. As we went back and forth about his stimulating, bubble-bursting book, we talked a bit about the problems of scale, much needed, but hugely difficult to achieve in social change, as well as technology, and maybe joined together, twice as hard for all I know. This is something that Toyama is still spending a good chunk of time thinking about and researching now as well, and he was he was spot on in calling me out as well for having spent decades on the practical problems of achieving scale in community and labor organizing.

Toyama might call it something different, but the problem and potential starts very simply, though many might both disagree and ignore this, by looking backwards. To get to scale something has to be replicable. To be replicable it has to work. To work in many places there has to be a model. If it isn’t replicable, it may be an innovation, it may be a revelation, it may be the best thing since slice bread in whatever field of endeavor, but whatever “it” may be, no matter how wonderful, it’s not a model.

Not to get off on a tangent, but it is amazing how many people stumble right at the gate and blur the distinctions by referring to one-off experiences as a model even though they have not been duplicated and perhaps are unable to be duplicated. A sure sign is in the “secret sauce.” If it’s a secret, it’s not a sauce easily cooked by others, so it may be amazing, award winning, and game changing, but it is not a model, and it will live – and die – right where it was born in all likelihood no matter the ingredients.

Organizing is an amazingly creative and courageous affair for many. I’m now reading a book about the civil rights organizing in Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta being done by SNCC and Mississippi Summer workers in the early and mid-1960’s, which is always inspiring. Having spent time there over the years, where my grandparents lived and my mother and her brothers were born and raised, all of the little, similarly sized towns would seem about the same to someone just driving through, and most would just step on the gas and be done with it. Ruleville though was a hot bed of organizing, while Drew, only a few miles down the road, was a wasteland. The organizers were the same, their approach, their canvassing, their issues, and their campaign was all about the same, but there was never what might be called a model, because with replicability in an organizing model, there also has to be a high level of predictable success within acceptable ranges. Ruleville turned out to have a different economic base allowing more membership protection. Ruleville also had Fannie Lou Hamer, an exceptional, unique leader to keep the fight welded together and sustain the momentum. Leadership is central in all effective organizing models, but for a model to work it has to depend on standard off-the-shelf, garden variety leadership – and organizers – within the range of normal human capabilities, rather than unique one of a kind leaders like Hamer or organizers like Bob Moses.

There have to be resources, there has to be sustainability, and there even has to be a reasonable expectation of success in widely different situations and environments before there is a model. Too many simply think if something worked well one place, it’s just add-water-and-stir, put in more, and wham-bam, there will be more, but even before we cross the bridge in creating social change to scale and the myriad challenges and obstacles that lie on that road, if there’s not a real model as the foundation, none of us will be able to get there from here.

Mobile Phone Remittances Increasing in Africa with Questions Unresolved

mobile-money1New Orleans   The constant risk in reading the business press, and, yes, I’m talking about Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, is picking a path between the facts, the news, and blatant sales and promotion. That’s especially dangerous because at ACORN we eat up almost any article that pretends to talk about lowering the costs of money transfer remittances for migrant workers and immigrants as if it were an ice cream sundae. Needless to say, I scooped up an article with the headline, “Turning African Phones Into Wallets,” particularly because days ago in a Canada to France to the USA skype conference we had been all over this topic!

First the news. The World Bank, years away from the G-8 commitment to lower all costs of remittances to 5%, is now saying that they believe the cost globally is 8% and in Africa 12%. The facts continue to be that they are hedging their bets on the figures by not including all of the charges, but I’ll get to that. They do offer that remittances to sub-Saharan Africa rose by 2.2% to $32.9 billion in 2014 compared to 2013, doubling the average growth rate globally and projected to hit even higher between 2015 and 2017.

Interestingly, a lot of the transfers are now cross-border transactions between migrant workers in other African countries led by Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya. Seeing that development elsewhere ACORN has been trying to change our strategy in Honduras and Ecuador. In Africa many of the transfers are being enabled by mobile phones, led by MFS Africa a 6 year old South Africa based company. Importantly, a smartphone is not required. 500 million users of cooperating communications companies allow access through a mobile payment account on the cell enabling transfers to the mobile phones of other enrolled customers who can essentially text something like a money order to the receiver’s phone and confirm completion with a PIN number. Pretty straightforward. MFS Africa makes its money, according to the Journal on a 30 cents per transaction charge with the average transfer being $80, which also resonates with ACORN International’s research.

There’s still a devil in Paradise though, which is where the story takes a bad turn into sales and promotion for the businesses and against the workers who are moving money home. There’s no discussion of the charges applied for currency exchange and pickup. The Journal obliquely mentions that MFS Africa gets a taste of the exchange from some communications companies, but it’s silent on how much rip-and-run is there. Same problem with the World Bank figuring.

In a conversation with an interesting startup called Wave.com that thus far was only transferring money from Kenya and trying to open soon in Ethiopia to channels in the USA and Canada, their representative told me they take no front end charge but make all of their money on the exchange rate, though assuring me they took less than the 5% cap ACORN has been fighting for globally. There are huge, deep-pocketed companies trying to get a slice of migrants’ hard earned wages going home, including MasterCard and other joint ventures, so having no money for marketing makes such small efforts like Wave imperiled, but it also signals that without strong rules and regulations the exchange and after-transfer charges will likely continue to be predatory.

For a change it would be nice if the G-8, the World Bank, and countries around the world, desperate to maximize the money for development and personal investment in communities represented by remittance receivers, actually got ahead of the dark-side of this market, rather than just sitting in the stands and waiting for businesses to flash an applause sign. ACORN Canada is hopeful that it can convert a platform commitment from the Liberals to remittance reforms and caps into reality, given their recent election success, which would break new ground.

In the meantime the best we can hope is that we’re at two steps forward and only one step back, but it’s hard to be certain.