Little Rock Ok, a lot of you don’t drive at all. I’m starting to get that. Living in the USA, I often forget that until I’m out about the bigger world and regularly encounter people whose idea of a fast ride on the roads is a 2-wheel bicycle or who are trying to master driver’s license exams never having owned a car. Driving my monthly route from New Orleans to Houston, Houston to Dallas, Dallas to Little Rock, and Little Rock to New Orleans again, I can share some things about the road with you as I tack on my 1000 plus miles, including some tips on gas stations.
On various of my routes either from Houston to Dallas through Madisonville or when I run from Houston to Austin to Dallas past Round Rock, I would see all of these signs with a cartoon big toothed beaver advertising something called Buc-ee’s, which always looked like the Walmart of gas stations, simply Texas-sized, stretched over acres and acres. I was curious but never paid much attention until Congressman Joaquin Castro from San Antonio reportedly was launching a boycott of the outfit tweeting that he “Won’t gas up there anymore since they support a fear mongering immigrant basher.” Now, I was interested. It seemed the owners, one of whose nicknames of course was Beaver, as you might have guessed, had endorsed for Lieutenant-Governor and contributed to a hardcore hater rightwing radio commentator, and, yes that does seem almost a redundancy to say since hardcore hater and rightwing radio commentator these days always seem like a matched set.
I stopped by to gawk at Buc-ee’s as I drove through Madisonville. My previous connection to the city had been a couple of conversations in late 70’s and early 80’s with John Henry Faulk, the Texas populist and radio man, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in the dark days of the Cold War and headed up the lawsuit and his union’s efforts to finally break the blacklist. This place was something different. It’s known for its clean restrooms and there are scores of them for sure. The gas was another thing entirely. They were pricing unleaded regular at $3.15 per gallon when literally EVERYONE else on the highway was around $2.99. With gas prices that high, Congressman Castro doesn’t need a boycott, and sure enough there were more people in the store than at the pumps.
The cheapest signs for gas within miles on either side of Buc-ee’s were behind a sign saying QT, which stands for QuikTrip. Their price said is all: $2.75, lower than anything I had seen in three states, two of them, Louisiana and Texas, oil and gas giants of the USA. Later, killing time, I found myself scrolling my Facebook feeds, and my old friend and organizing partner, Helene O’Brien, had posted something from Uncut US about QuikTrip. Small world, I’m thinking, but the post talked of a bigger, better world saying,
QuikTrip, a convenience-store chain with 700 locations, pays cashiers $40,000/year–twice the average–and managers earn $70,000. Employees also receive excellent benefits including healthcare, vision, dental, 401(k) retirement plans, paid vacation, bonuses, and stock options. Treating their workforce well has paid off: employee turnover rates are 10% (compared to nearly 60% for the industry), and QuikTrip stores generate 50% more sales than competitors.
Sure, bathrooms are important, but they’re not everything, and QuikTrip’s were more than nice enough for me, and frankly when I go to a gas station, I’m mainly there for, yes, you guessed it, gas! We may not always have cheap gas, but while we have it, combining it with well paid workers like QuikTrip is doing needs to be the business model for America, not big teeth, rightwing politics, and premium prices.
Dallas The Republican voter suppression efforts around the United States are such a yo-yo between legislatures, courts, and more courts that god only knows how much the voters in many of these states will be confused as they go to the polls in November or, as likely, as they stay home, which is what voter suppression is all about.
In Texas, voter identification will be required because the courts argue they don’t have time to really straighten it all out before November. This is the one where a hunting license can allow you to vote, but not a student ID, isn’t it? Although that could also be half a dozen other states.
North Carolina, a battleground state for control of the US Senate, is a mishmash. Some parts of their voter ID law are taking effect in 2014, but the picture ID requirement has been delayed until 2016, so look forward to more shenanigans there. Meanwhile the Justice Department has sued over the whole shebang being racial discrimination, but that won’t come to court until after the election.
Kansas under Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a world class immigrant hater and vote denier, and Governor Sam Brownback, now in a mess in this election, pushed through a tough ID policy already. There was an interesting challenge by two older voters who didn’t have records available to allow them to vote, but when it was scheduled for trial after the 2014 election they got out of the suit. There is still an ongoing dispute over whether the Kansas voter-hater laws can change the standards for federal elections. It’s pretty clear that as long as Kobach and his crew are in charge of voting in Kansas the best way for a lower income voter with a name that sounds different and a bit of a tan to have their vote counted would be to vote absentee in some other state, because if they keep trying to vote in Kansas, they’re going to be sucking air.
And, then with great relief there is Arkansas. The Arkansas Supreme Court tossed the controversial voter ID law passed over a veto by the Governor. The ruling was straightforward. The Arkansas state constitution was clear that there were only four things required to vote and was specific enough to list them. “The Constitution says that a voter must be a United States citizen, a resident of the state, at least 18 years old and lawfully registered to vote in the election. “These four qualifications set forth in our state’s Constitution simply do not include any proof-of-identity requirement,” the ruling said.”
You can see why ACORN always adopted as its own the Arkansas state motto: the people shall rule. It may have been written in Latin to look fancy, but we always understood what it meant, and it seems the judges there are still clear about its meaning as well, even if the voter suppressors wanted to try and pretend otherwise.
This election is going to be a fight all the way to the ballot box, way before the actual ballots are finally counted.
Houston Here’s the very good news for women. Apple and Google, the mega-billion dollar worldwide tech conglomerates have announced that they are now going to pay up to $20,000 to allow their female employees to freeze and store a couple of their eggs so that they can postpone having children until it works better for them, and potentially for their lean-in hard employers, while keeping their eggs young and vital. We already know that both of these companies in many hiring classifications, like engineering, disproportionately hire only men, so this may help them hire more women. From a feminist perspective this employer driven opportunity allows women more choice, and that’s a great thing.
At least it’s a great thing for some women. Meanwhile other women working for other employers, like Hobby Lobby, are hardly allowed any assistance when it comes to contraception and choices. And, likewise lower income women are scuffling to have a choice about having health insurance at all on any kind for even the most basic things. Take for example Walmart’s recent dropping of 30000 part-time workers from their health insurance, once again disproportionately women. Let’s not even count all of the other women-based industries like nursing home, home health, fast food, and the service industry in general and the low pay, poor benefits and limited to non-existent choices found there.
In the world of the Affordable Care Act, the frozen eggs announcement says a little about women and a lot about class, as the 1% starts to define what some favored few will be able to access while the vast majority are lucky to have any coverage in general much less access to even the minimum standards around control of their own decisions about when and whether to have children. The Supreme Court’s stay of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that would have closed many of the clinics performing abortions in Texas, especially in the lower income and Hispanic areas of south Texas from San Antonio to the border with Mexico now presents us with the paradox where a Google or Apple woman in Texas might be able to freeze their eggs but might have to travel to New Mexico or more than 300 miles to have an abortion.
Once we combine the war on women with growing income inequality, the world we live in becomes increasingly divided around class in the United States. The country we’re building and the children, too early or very late, that will live in it will be looking at a brave new world in America that won’t be very pretty at the rate we’re going.
New Orleans There’s a new virus spreading. This time it’s not Ebola or something from the Middle East or Africa, but the pernicious attacks on democracy through voter suppression now leaping from the United States to United Kingdom.
Not surprisingly, it starts easily enough with some seemingly small tweaks in voter registration. In the United Kingdom the government pushed through an Individual Electoral Registration Scheme, as they called it. Simply put, the old registration system meant that one person from any household registered everyone in the household: one and done! The new system means that every qualified individual in a household has to individually register in order to be able to vote. The first test comes in six months or so in the May 7, 2015 national and parliamentary elections.
Compared to the United States voting has been relatively robust with 60% voting in the 2010 general election in the UK, although that still means that 6 million voters were left by the wayside. Younger and usually more alienated voters between 18 and 24 years old not surprisingly are well represented in the missing voters column since statistics indicate that less than half are registered and less than half of the registered actually turnout to vote.
Invariably any new registration system, as the United States proves resoundingly during every election cycle, puts a disproportionate burden on minorities, the elderly, the young, and lower income voters once something semi-automatic is replaced by a new system requiring some motivation and effort. In what is now called “choice architecture,” creating hurdles and creating choices without incentives or motivations produces predictably poor results.
There are now various catchy campaigns to try and reverse the tide. One is called “No Vote, No Voice,” sponsored by the Daily Mirror newspaper, Unite, the UK’s largest union, and others. Another striving to be hipper is called “Bite the Ballot,” but let’s not go there.
Additional roadblocks to registration include banning third-party registration, where ACORN and Project Vote excelled, which allowed an individual or organization to submit a validly completed registration form qualifying a voter for the election and easing the process. Of course if there was interest, this problem is likely solvable with wirelessly activated iPad type mobile computers or even smartphones that would allow individuals to register on-line which is legally permissible throughout the United Kingdom and tied to each person’s national insurance number so highly individualized.
ACORN organizers in the United Kingdom took a quick look at the elections returns in the past election and 72 seats were determined by 5% or less of the votes. Either restricting or increasing voter registration, particularly since first time registrants always vote in high numbers at their first opportunity, and increasing get-out-the-vote field programs could shift political alignments from the top to the bottom.
Surely, this was not a unique insight, which may explain the suppression efforts themselves.
New Orleans Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is getting some attention in the second largest city in the United States with a proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017. The City Council is expected to approve the plan, and when enacted 37% of Los Angeles workers or 567000 people would get pay raises according to a study done by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center. All of this is on the backs of a recent vote by the City Council to set a wage floor for hotel workers in properties with 125 rooms or more to $15.37 per hour which still has that industry screaming and grinding their teeth.
It’s about time! It has been a mystery for years why community and labor-backed organizations in Los Angeles have not pulled the trigger and taken advantage of the ability to directly petition to put an increase on the ballot setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s $9 per hour, which is what led to San Francisco’s city minimum of $10.74 per hour now in effect. Not a huge mystery, since it might have been cheaper and easier to get the job done with contributions to election races rather than pull the weight to organize the necessary signatures and then get the vote out to win the election, although it would have built deeper organization and power for community and labor organizations.
Whatever. Better late than never, and perhaps this will put more wind in the sails of other cities and political jurisdictions in California to get the job done. Some conservative and business commentators are trying to argue that generations old reputation of Los Angeles as an anti-union, low wage mecca despite labor’s turnaround over the last 30 years is still evident in the generally lower average production/factory wages and overall wages that significantly trail San Francisco and Seattle which are also implementing higher minimum wages. The Chamber claims jobs will relocate elsewhere in Southern California, but that’s easier said than done especially given the huge role of the port and transportation infrastructure in the Los Angeles corridor which depends on proximity not distance.
We’ll see. Mayor Garcetti is not unmindful of the problem and says that he is lobbying other neighboring cities to buck up and raise their wages as well. This may be a question of “sticks and stones” rather than words though. The Mayor might do better at protecting his flank if he joined with living wage advocates and organizations to raise the funds to put living wage, minimum wage increases on the ballot in neighboring municipalities and let the voters decide. Putting minimum wage increases in the hands of the people when the wage is fair and the campaign is aggressive has been a winning strategy for the last 15 years, and could put Los Angeles at the head of the parade, rather than allowing it to march through Southern California by itself.
New Orleans Within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 3 is nothing new after 45 years of enactment, but it remains a powerful weapon for creating employment in low income communities that is more often left in the holster than used effectively. Simply put, Section 3 requires HUD contractors to give what we used to call “first preference” to qualified residents when making new hiring decisions. This is not a set aside for businesses like most of the programs, but an individually driven hiring program. That is, if workers in the community know about it, if anyone in HUD or the local housing authorities are paying attention to it, and likely if there is an actual organization in the low income community kicking both of their buns to make sure Section 3 is not a dead letter but a real job creator.
I was reminded of the power and promise of Section 3 and the too often pathetic performance by an article in Shelterforce by Katy Reckdahl that spoke of “lifting the fog on Section 3.” Reading the article it was clear that it was less a “fog” than a problem of indifferent and nonexistent follow through and enforcement by those responsible or as she wrote, “…agency administrators spoke in a chorus on one point: No Section 3 jobs program will work without stringent monitoring.”
And, let’s be clear, the monitoring at every level sucks. Before 2006, HUD only got 4% of the required Section 3 reports from local and state governments and housing agencies. Now the figure is up to 25%, but that’s still a failing grade everywhere. Worst, most should get both F’s and Incompletes, because 80% of the reports according to HUD testimony to Congress indicated that they “failed to meet the minimum goals and did not include valid explanations for this failure….”
The loopholes Swiss cheese the program as well. Though required to hire low income workers for 30% of the new hires, there are no requirements that their work will equal 30% of the hours billed on the job, so some contractors “churn” the jobs by hiring a crowd of workers for short term, even one day stints, as laborers to make the numbers required at the lowest wages they can skate by with. Training also is defined as “to the greatest extent feasible,” providing another loophole, which some smarter agencies have abandoned to prevent contractors from shrugging off the requirement by saying no one could make muster.
All of which makes Section 3 tailor made for community organizations trying to deliver jobs to their members when there are large and small construction projects happening in housing projects. It’s a straight up fight where everything is on our side and it’s possible to negotiate not only jobs but the tools to make sure members get the jobs from record inspection to hiring observations to even union cooperation in helping populate apprenticeship programs that are often searching for applicants. The targets are dirty, the meetings are public, and there are jobs waiting to be won, if we’re willing to get back in the saddle and ride hard on these outfits.