Just When You Think It Can’t Get Worse, It Just Gets More Bizarre

New Orleans   We’re living in bizarre times without easy explanations, making it hard not to start drawing straight lines in our mind about things that might normally have seemed simply examples of random events, but the examples abound.

The legislature is meeting currently in Arkansas for instance. News reports indicated that there was a difficulty in the conservative Republican legislature in passing an “open carry” law for college campuses in the state similar to what exists in Texas. They worked it out a compromise by passing the “open carry” for colleges but also adding that “open carry” would be extended to bars and other venues. Yikes!

They had a similar problem when some of them wanted to make the Bible the state book. A number of them thought that was a grand idea, but a couple of wet blankets among the thumping crowd thought it might demean the Bible and be sacrilegious. More seriously, I listened to a lot of discussion about a bill that kept failing and being pulled back up until it passed that essentially said that any time a school district closed a school for any reason a charter school operator would have first dibs on taking the school over. Since Little Rock schools were pretty arbitrarily taken over by the state, many of the opponents of the takeover see the state legislature’s action as just another backdoor move to force charter schools into the district to make the Waltons happy.

But, before anyone gets the big head, looking at state legislatures in many of the Republican controlled states is clear evidence that Arkansas is neither the first, nor the last, in this kind of weird world. Federal courts had to strike down a Louisiana legislative act that tried to bar nude dancing in strip clubs in that famously wide open state for young women between 18 and 20, because it not only abridged their free speech as determined in the past by the US Supreme Court, but there was also no way the judge could find any evidence that the bill was really about sex trafficking despite the legislatures cover story.

Seems a bit like Muslim Ban 1.0 and now Muslim Ban 2.0. It really isn’t enough to protect you from the US Constitution and the rights it offers against discrimination because of religion or national origin, to insert a sentence or two in the new ban that says, hey, this isn’t discrimination. Judges and lawyers may have been born at night, just not last night.

Meanwhile as Russian knocks on the door of the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1917 in a surprise Prime Minister Putin has put the kibosh on any kind of big celebration of what any would acknowledge as one of the seminal events of world history in the 20th century. According to spokespeople in Russia, the government is of two minds. On one hand Putin doesn’t want to remind anyone that revolution might be a good idea, because in his view that would be a very bad idea. And, on the other hand there are many others in the country who see the end of the Soviet era, according to a spokesperson, as being “like Brexit,” the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. You can’t make this stuff up!

Ok, all this is random, but so bizarrely connected that it’s enough to prevent anything like clear thinking on any given morning. That’s my excuse anyway. I wonder what theirs might be.


Getting Congress to Move: Get on the Blower and Hold that Line!

Illustration by Oliver Munday / Source: Gary Ombler / Getty (phone)

Little Rock   Ever wondered what your representatives in Congress really listen to other than lobbyists, local business people, and of course their donors? Well, Kathryn Schulz in an informative piece in The New Yorker waded into the Washington swamp and came back with some interesting answers to that question.

A lot of people might think its mail. In the Senate 6.4 million letters were delivered last year, so that’s something. A 2015 survey she cites says that senior staffers say personalized emails, personal letters, and hometown editorials rank highest. Nonetheless when it comes to disruptive action it’s the old school telephone that gets the job done. In Schulz’ words:

“For mass protests…calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”

What doesn’t work according to her interviews are Facebook posts, random tweets, online petitions, comments through app, or mass e-mails from advocacy and websites. She also found that you are more likely to be successful on a small, specific item from your district as opposed partisan and polarized matters. This resonates with me as well. I can remember easily getting an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill years ago to retain hazardous duty pay for our workers at the National Hansen’s Disease Center, but having to work like the dickens to get ACORN’s Homesteading Bill passed, even in watered down form.

But in this moment the telephone seems to have become the citizen’s weapon de jour. Calls are flooding into Congressional offices in record volumes. Schulz notes one Democratic Senator from Washington got 31000 calls in 3 weeks, while a Republican Senator from Colorado got 3000 in one night. Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania got 1000 pieces of mail over two weeks in January of 2016, but got 45,000 in the same period this year. As Schulz reports:

“Members of Congress claim that, Senate-wide, the call volume for the week of January 30, 2017, more than doubled the previous record; on average, during that week, the Senate got 1.5 million calls a day. Three of those days January 31st, February 1st, and February 2nd – were the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard.”

They don’t like being on the hot seat either. They are frightened by the “spontaneity” and the fact that it seemed “organic: people saw something in the news, it made them angry, and they called their member of Congress.” Yes, Americans are acting like the President, but the average America is grabbing her telephone and letting her Congressperson have a piece of her mind, rather than the President fumbling for his Twitter account on his phone.

Of course this is not organizational and neither is it sustainable, but it speaks to an important moment and a potential movement, if it could be marshalled, though that won’t be easily done since the response, interestingly, seems to be on issues across the board from health to education to appointments to general misbehavior.

There is something so American in the naiveté all of this, but it offers hope for change as well. As Schulz closes, she writes:

“The telephone might not be a superior medium for participatory democracy, but it is an excellent metaphor for it, and it reminds us of the rights we are promised as citizens. When we get disconnected, we can try to get through. When we get no answer, we can keep trying. When we have to, for as long as we need to, we can hold the line.”

How dear is that? It won’t really work, as most of us know, but, very importantly, it’s something to build on.


Where are the Citizen and Patient Protests to Protect Affordable Care?

New Orleans   In the activist moment with cries for resistance, I wonder why the healthcare issue is being left behind by many, as well as the current Obamacare beneficiaries, and why we are not all massing in protest at the threats and head fake proposals to replace care?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m aware of the moving stories at some of the Congressional town hall meetings where some of the sick and infirm along with others have asked their electeds the hard, life-or-death questions, involved in eliminating healthcare insurance. I know the risks to the Affordable Care Act and the fear it has stirred has increased support for the Act past 50% in the polls. I know the Koch Brothers are trying to rekindle their grasstips base to demand repeal or else. I know the Freedom Caucus, concerned Republicans, and others are pointing out the costs and naked emperor-has-no-clothes aspects of Speaker Paul Ryan’s so-called secret plan demonstrating their divisions. I know the President has discovered that health care is complex. I know various sides, pro and con, are on the airwaves with video and sound bites.

What I don’t know is why we aren’t seeing people in motion in serious numbers?

With more than 20 million people on Obamacare and many of them on the highly threatened expanded Medicaid coverage the ACA triggered, that would seem a big and bad base ready for action. If our neighbors and friends in this group are just scared and confused, how about the many millions in schoolhouse door states that stubbornly refused to expand care, take Texas for example? Or, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin? Don’t tell me there aren’t millions in that number caught in the gap between low income qualification and not enough income to afford insurance. And, how about all of the service workers in nursing homes, home care, food service and elsewhere with company provided play pretend policies with $5000 and more deductibles who want reform so that they can finally have coverage?

Don’t tell me there are not millions mad and desperate for care?

Where is the campaign that moves people state to state in this fight, like the effort that helped win the fight in the first place? Where are the community organizations that are listening to their members and making this the issue they are moving on right now?

Is the issue too complex as Trump claims? The tactics are numerous, so are the targets the problem? Sure the distance is huge between us and DC, both physically and philosophically, but how about state legislators and governors, those are closer, and every report seems to say, governors are on their knees begging the White House not to cut and run on Obamacare, dumping the problem to them without enough money to fix it. How about hospitals? If we start hitting them hard on charity care that they are supposed to be providing, but aren’t and their tax exemptions, maybe they would get in gear. A couple of thousands of them according to IRS reports are making more than a million a year, so they might move to the feet and voices of patients’ protests and demands?

The problem with resistance is that it’s reactive. We need offense, not just defense. We need it now before our weaknesses devour our strengths.


Bought Patient Advocacy Groups Shames Us All

New Orleans   There’s nothing perfect about nonprofits, especially these days when hospitals and many others operate like the greediest corporations almost as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Nonetheless, it was shocking, even if unsurprising in the dark cynicism of our modern times, to read about a recent study by medical researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine and reported in the New York Times exposing the deep and disturbing conflicts of interest between numerous, big time nonprofit advocacy groups for patients suffering from all kinds of maladies and their financial and governance relationships with drug and medical device companies.

The study looked at 104 of the largest nonprofit patient advocacy groups with significant budgets – over $7.5 million in annual revenues – and in the words of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the authors from the University of Pennsylvania, they found that “nine out of ten are taking money” from the industries connected to their advocacy. In addition to finding that more than 80% of these groups take the money, the study found that 40% of them had industry executives on their governing board, and in many cases industry contributions accounted for more than “half of their annual income.”

Adding insult to injury, the study also found that many of these so-called patient advocacy groups were opaque about their finances and the scale and size of the contributions from industry sources. They could have added that all of this is in disregard of IRS 990 requirements to list top donors and amounts, and therefore should have been more specific. The study was able to determine some amounts by trolling the groups’ websites, but, geez, doesn’t the effort by the groups to conceal this already say way more than we want to know. In these cases the drug and device companies are making investments, not donations, even though they are taking the tax write-offs for their purchases, and it seems demanding a board seat in return, just like any other significant purchase they might make in their daily business. Given the silence of many of these groups on the question of soaring drug prices and devices, like the Epi-Pen scandal, it seems tragically clear that at the least many so-called patient advocacy groups have been compromised, if not bought outright. These situations seems less like partnerships, and more like takeovers.

Working with the Mental Health Consumers Action Network (MCAN) in Alaska, it’s easy for me to see firsthand how even a membership organization can be tempted to stop being transformative and become transactional in order to have the resources to work and survive. The industry always claims to want “engagement and dialogue,” but with great care and rigid accountability that can too easily be translated into compromise, consent, and silence even in situations where patients’ voices desperately need to be heard.

There are hard lessons in this. Patients’ need to be able and empowered to speak for themselves and demand care without compromise, and they need organizations that give them voice. Advocates are invaluable and mean well, but this scandal is a good reminder that they need to facilitate the ability of patients and their families to speak, and speak loudly, for themselves, rather than building plush institutional castles for themselves, while patients still suffer and die.


Action Meets Reaction: Legislators Try to Curtail Protests

New Orleans   In high school chemistry one of the few things we all learned that made a permanent impression as an almost universal rule of life, is that for every action there is a reaction. The rising activism, resistance, and protest that has been a hallmark of grassroots action this year thus far is being met by equally strident grassroots reaction by conservatives. If the streets have become our hallowed ground, the legislative aisles have become theirs in many states. A report in the New York Times counts sixteen states that have filed bills designed to curtail and intimidate protests and various disruptive tactics with another two states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, pushing to bring the total to eighteen, according to Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislators.

Not surprisingly many of the bills are directed to the heart of our most disruptive, and therefore effective, tactics on our primary turf, the streets. Most of these bills are outrageous, any hopefully won’t pass, and most of the ones that do will hopefully be overturned by courts, but some will slip through, and the betting odds have to favor a lot more of these kinds of bills being introduced under the guise of public safety, but with the real purpose being to stop protests and herd them into tactical zones out of sound and sight or towards greater risks and penalties.

The bills are varied, but these highlights will give you some flavor:

· A Tennessee bill would make hitting protestors in the streets a no-fault, kill zone by eliminating any liability of someone accidentally hitting someone blocking a street.
· An Iowa bill reacting to anti-Trump protestors blocking Interstate 80 would make blocking high-speed roads a felony with a 5-year prison bid and $7500 in fines. Mississippi piled on with a me-too bill and fines of up to $10,000.
· In Washington State it would be so-called “economic terrorism” and a felony to break the law to obstruct economic activity.
· In Minnesota a bill would allow cities to sue demonstrators who break the law for the cost of policing the protests.
· In North Carolina a bill has been promised to outlaw “heckling.”
· In North Dakota following the Standing Rock pipeline protests, legislators have already passed measures to expand criminal trespass, ban masks and hoods, and recruit out of state cops to assist local police during protest events.

So, sure, some of these bills are blatantly ridiculous and unenforceable, and others are plain and simple violations of First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, but they do part of their villainous work by posing a threat to protestors, even if illegal and unconstitutional.

Worse in my book is the chorus of professors and legal experts who argue that protestors would be on rougher grounds if they lack permits. I’ve spent decades as an organizer abiding by the simple principle of never applying for a permit. Applying gives police and elected officials the ability to deny the protest, and shifts timing and control over to the authorities and away from the organization and the action. In almost 50 years I’ve only approved of two permit applications for actions, largely because they were more like parades.

Criminalizing protests and making simple worst-case misdemeanors for simple trespass into felonies with jail terms and fines ups the ante. The only protection will be larger and larger actions, but the efforts to curtail protest speak loudly to a darker political climate and an oppressive future in confrontations with power.


Please enjoy Ray Davies’ Rock N Roll Cowboys.

Sheryl Crow’s Halfway There.

Thanks to KABF.


After a Twenty Year Campaign, Aramark and Privatization Shown the Door in Houston

New Orleans  It was a “pinch me” moment when the news finally broke that after United Labor Unions Local 100’s 20-year fight to get rid of Aramark as the food service subcontractor in the giant Houston Independent School District, they were finally being shown the door. The district was close lipped about its decision to not renew the $6 million contract with Aramark, but news reports were clear that the constant complaints and criticisms from food service workers was a critical factor.

Undoubtedly, the soaring cost of this privatization fiasco in Houston was also part of the problem. As the report indicated, there were few sweet nothings being whispered in anyone’s ears about this divorce. Aramark making sure that it left the district with as bad a taste in their mouths as the children they had been feeding, threw a rock through their own glass window dredging up a story from the last century alleging mismanagement of the district of the cafeteria operation. Their parting shot, we took as a relief, because it indicates that they know they won’t be back so they saw no risk in fouling the trough where they have gorged for decades.

Our members are celebrating because they paid for this contract with overwork and underpay, as the food service workforce was decimated in order to line Aramark’s pockets. Where individual schools had previously enjoyed a modicum of oversight and quality control, Aramark lopped off hundreds of jobs in order to establish a central kitchen that would deliver tens of thousands of meals to the individual schools. It’s not hard to imagine the daily problems of such a mammoth enterprise!

Local 100 was recently successful in winning an agreement from the HISD to raise the wages for food service workers, and more recently has been campaigning to win an increase in hours for their work in order to improve service and food delivery for the children. Another factor may be the level of lead found in many of the water fountains and kitchen faucets after Local 100 forced the district to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Recent studies by researchers from Massachusetts and Sweden found that outsourcing workers through privatization imposed a wage penalty of up to 7% for janitors and up to 24% for security guards. The same has been true for food services workers, though perhaps worse, because they often have had to endure split shifts and part-time work hours, often lucky to make six hours a day during the school year. The much-loved and iconic “lunch ladies” by children and parents have been starving and impoverished by Aramark for much of their careers.

Despite the horrors of privatization for the last several decades in Houston, the ideology of privatization more than the economics will continue to be at the heart of every campaign as businesses continue to search for profit by pretending that they are always more efficient and better at delivering public services than government, when their only real skill is reducing wages, hours, and workers and in food service, cheaper, low-quality food. At least in Houston we can enjoy the victory for a minute, but there’s still no cure for the plague.


Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.