New Orleans Sometimes you just have to scratch your head and admit that you are out of your pay grade. That’s where I’m heading in trying to figure out why the giant Comcast believes its best political and commercial strategy for achieving monopoly concentration in the cable and internet world is to be the biggest bully on the block. Yet, darned if that’s not the way David Cohen, Comcast’s executive vice-president, is calling the plays.
Not that I’m surprised, since that’s the way Cohen and Comcast chose to deal, or I guess I should more accurately say, not deal, with Local 100 United Labor Unions, Action United, and ACORN International in our demands and entreaties that they actually make their public relations internet program, Internet Essentials, really work. Shame on us for believing that because the $10 per month program was a requirement in the FCC order approving their last big merger with Universal that they would actually do something real to bridge the internet divide for lower income families rather than have their government relations people just wine and dine local politicians in their cities.
In the most recent bully boy schoolyard play, Cohen and Comcast dropped a 1000 pages on the FCC mainly whining that some of their business buddies and potential, oh my god can it be true, competitors, have opposed their monopoly play to acquire Times-Warner for selfish reasons about protecting their own businesses. I guess Comcast believes that they have some kind of monopoly on self-interest as well, or maybe it’s just the modern hubris of “what’s good for GM is good for the country” and their arrogance that they believe what is good for Comcast is therefore good for the American people.
Comcast’s main claim is that its buddies were involved in extortion. I do have to take this seriously, since Comcast has certainly proven that it probably knows more about everyday extortion than virtually any company working on the planet now. Netflix’s spokesperson replied tit for tat to that claim though by saying, “It is not extortion to demand that Comcast provide its own customers the broadband speeds they’ve paid for so that they can enjoy Netflix. It is extortion when Comcast fails to provide its own customers the broadband speed they’ve paid for unless Netflix also pays a ransom.” Boom! Now we’re talking trash that’s music to our ears!
So I have to wonder, will trying to bully the FCC and point fingers at everyone else work, because if so, we need to modify our strategy in trying to push the FCC to do better in providing internet access for our people? One finger wagging reported in the New York Times, from a media analyst said, “Regulators are a sophisticated audience. They can assess the merits of the various arguments without having to be coached on what incentives might be behind why someone did or didn’t say what they did.”
Of course I’m not that sophisticated, but I do know some simple things. If Comcast can’t even pretend to play nice before they are allowed to become a monopoly, how can any of us or the FCC believe that letting them become an even bigger monopoly will be good for any of us? We all were schooled on the basics that in dealing with a bully, you need to slap them back hard. The Comcast purchase of Times-Warner must be stopped. It’s the only way to get a bully to listen.
New Orleans The Federal Reserve report on the continued decrease in lending to African-American and Hispanic families is unambiguous. In 2013, 4.8% of total home loans were to African-Americans, 7.3% were to Hispanics. In 2012, the numbers were only marginally better at 5.1% and 7.2% respectively. As recently as 2006, before the real estate meltdown the numbers were almost 50% higher when combined, exceeding 20% of the total loans.
The other thing that is clear in the total failure of the Obama Administration to provide any real relief to so many homeowners is that citizen wealth for these same families has plummeted, putting more families underwater, owing more than the value of the loans in black and brown communities. While home values have declined about 10% in white communities, values have dropped by 20% in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and 26% in Hispanic-majority communities. It is virtually impossible not to conclude that banks are neither loaning, nor are they providing relief in such communities. If that’s not redlining, then let’s come up with a new name for it, because whether you say tomATo and I say toMAto, it’s all the same thing.
Reading the Wall Street Journal on this issue the only other thing that is crystal clear is that everyone responsible wants to point the finger somewhere else, usually at the government, rather than their own behavior, and muddy the water as much as possible, rather than moving to fix the problem with more rational policies and programs. The banks want to claim that they are raising credit scores higher than required because they don’t want to pay billions of penalties for their criminal behavior in robbing and fleecing both rich and poor. Does that sound like taking responsibility for your crimes and endeavoring to do better? Hardly!
And, how can blaming the lack of lending or relief to minority neighborhoods on these homeowners when every indication is that the roots of the securitization scandals were deeply set in speculation and largely white, middle-income and suburban communities? Count on the head of the Mortgage Bankers’ Association to voice the racism inherent in these new, whitewashed policies. David Stevens, their CEO, says the hammering of minority communities is “just simple math…tightening the credit has an unusually high impact on minority borrowers.” Stevens and the MBA are the lobbyists for bankers and banking in Washington, DC, so this is scary. They seem not to have gotten the memo that underlies the Federal Reserve report required by the Community Reinvestment Act and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which is the fact that they are supposed to be proving that they are doing better and doing everything possible to increase lending in minority areas, not just show up, and sign the attendance list.
Home ownership for lack of any better plan in place is still the largest source of wealth for lower income and minority communities so this level of inaction, blame shifting, and rationalizing puts the heavy fist of bankers on the scale to further increase the shift of inequality between the rich and poor, towards the rich. The underlying racism insures that lower income, minority communities by damn stay that way.
It’s not simple math. It’s simple racism, and that’s what the Federal Reserve is supposed to be stopping, not enabling, and it’s what these reports are supposed to be exposing for action, not simply noting in passing.
New Orleans The UAW, confounding the old schoolers and the pundits, continues to plow new, but familiar, ground in seeking to bargain a “members’ only” agreement at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant employing 1500 workers and expanding rapidly. Gary Casteel, the UAW’s Secretary-Treasurer announced that the newly chartered UAW Local 42 at the plant had reached 750 members, a 50% benchmark, and has asked management to bargain an agreement for those workers. The company has not responded currently to this latest development, but after a quick two-month recruitment campaign and its earlier public remarks, there is little doubt that it will negotiate something with the UAW, which would be a breakthrough.
It would not be a breakthrough in terms of being innovative, unique, or even novel except in the “we are the world” perverse perspective of USA labor relations. Such members only, even multiple union, relationships with companies is common around the world in many countries like India, the United Kingdom, Nicaragua, and countless other countries where unions and labor laws provide thresholds and regulations for winning representation rights as distinguished from exclusive bargaining rights, which is currently the norm under modern interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act. In the early days of the Act “member’s only” representation and multiple union bargaining was the norm. It still is in many public sector agreements in the United States and has been for decades. Exclusivity’s main advantage is that it pushes away the competition from other organizations and makes life somewhat more straightforward, though not necessarily better, for employers since there is only one union they have to deal with. Workers may or may not be in better shape, and we could debate that for days.
What we cannot debate is that the current UAW strategy of taking the half of loaf they can win now for their members is much, much better than walking away without a slice, which most old school unions would do. They stand closer to the prize, which is winning rights to represent the whole workforce in coming years, and cracking the anti-union foreign automaker transplants in the south. Patience and persistence will win them more and more.
The CWA victory after decades to represent 15000 reservation agents at American Airlines in an alliance with the Teamsters in a slam dunk election victory where they polled more than 80% recently is an excellent example of the victories that can be won by continued, committed organizing. On the other hand reading about SEIU’s strategy to organize fast food workers where the big companies are going to suddenly sit down and meet with the union and bargain, sounds like magical realism. The SEIU has won with patience and persistence before, but seem to still be trying to sort out whether or not they are willing to pay the dues and do the time. Walmart is a case study in not succumbing to magic, but also cries out for a deep, long term strategy.
The UAW might be forging the new path for the future, as it did in the past, and doing so in more ways than one.
Managua The proposed “grand canal,” as the project is called in Nicaragua is the 72nd proposal in the last 500 years to build a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean through Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and the San Juan River. This time it’s a no-bid 100-year concession signed between President Daniel Ortega and a 41-year old Chinese businessman, Wang Jing, for a $40 billion operation that the most optimistic claims believe would be finished by 2019 and according to the government double the economy and create 400,000 jobs. Unions have embraced the project as a jobs creator. Environmentalists are horrified. Mostly locals are keeping quiet about the project.
The engineering obstacles are huge and perhaps daunting. The lake would have to be dredged twice its current depth to 90 feet and the canal would take up almost half its acreage, which is the source of drinking water for Managua. There are concerns that feeder rivers to the lake might have to be dammed to maintain the water level necessary for these huge ocean containers. There are fears about invasive species being allowed between the oceans. An environmental impact statement has been contracted through a professor from George Mason University in Virginia, but there’s no date for completion. One skeptic the Organizers’ Forum delegation met with raised another concern often overlooked that the 100-year concession to Jing would give his operation control and imminent domain rights at prices unilaterally set for half of the land area in the entire country.
Perhaps many are simply adopting a “wait and see” position since Jing’s Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Company was supposed to come up with firm financing by the first of this year, but has thus far said nothing. Jing claims the Chinese government is not behind the project or willing to finance, but it’s unclear to Nicaraguans where else this kind of money could come from.
Before our Friday afternoon meetings some of us caught a couple of cabs to University of Central America, a Jesuit founded university in Managua. We were following the trail to a collection there of “relics” of Augusto Sandino and early Sandinista history housed somewhere on campus. In the serendipity of hidden pleasures found in the risk-and-rewards of international travel, we never found the relics, but we were treated to a tour of the biology collection of flora, fauna, geology, and shells of Nicaragua as well as a semi-diorama of various birds from the area. Finally before our helpful staffers conceded we would not be able to see the relics we were walked over to the large art space where the director gave us a shoulder shrugging tour of the work done by an art collective on the canal. Her diffidence underscored her oft repeated point that this was not a UCA endorsed position but “art, you know,” so you take it or leave it.
What it was in fact was the most sustained protest about the canal plans that we saw anywhere in Nicaragua. One installation after another made it abundantly clear that the artists were stating clearly that the canal project was essentially a Chinese takeover of Nicaraguan sovereignty, and also a potential environmental, and purposeless, disaster. One of the most powerful pieces showed a small lizard crawling out of the canal to a wasteland symbolizing the ruins of Lake Nicaragua. Another piece was a long running video of a loudspeaker truck driving through miles and miles, village after village throughout the country following the potential route of the canal and announcing the news that all of the listeners would need to be relocated. Piece after piece echoed the politically profound cries of culture, searing the protest powerfully, but deeply, in all of us as we walked from one display to another, amazed at this hidden, almost invisible gem, we had stumbled on in Managua.
New Orleans My father, much missed, used to ask me whenever I returned from a country “new” to both of us not to tell him so much about what I had done, but what I had seen that would surprise or interest him. In many ways, Nicaragua surprised all of us from the Organizers’ Forum. We knew we were going to Central America and one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and we had read the Lonely Planet notions of the country well enough to know that Managua was not going to be something that classified as a tourist destination, but none of that was really adequate preparation.
In fact all of us found ourselves surprised and impressed with the urban infrastructure of Managua. The buildings may have not been the tall towers of other Latin American capitols in the rebuilding from a revolution, boycott, and earthquake disasters, but it was solid. The airport was amazingly efficient. I have never been through customs and baggage pickup more quickly anywhere in the world, including the USA. The airport was modern without being ostentatious, and clean as a whistle, so I had better add this on the front end of these notes, that I cannot remember a cleaner country from the city to the countryside than Nicaragua. The bustle of Leon, when we visited there, and some trash on the side streets almost came as a relief, that these were people of our same species!
There aren’t that many main thoroughfares in Managua but they were smoothly paved with frequent roundabouts that kept traffic moving briskly even when we were navigating rush hours. Visiting the barrio of Tipitapa, a lower income, working areas, where we might have expected more rutted and dirt roads, the streets were paved and many were curbed. Without saying so, many of us were thinking, “if this is a slum, this is better than many of our neighborhoods!” There were issues, but it was decent. Our ACORN Honduras organizers marveled continually, as we all did, at the security of the centro and the barrios. There was one guard at the hotel, but this was not a country where security was everywhere, armed and ready. Government worked here at that very fundamental, and critical, level.
We were there during a multi-day Independence Day celebration. Revolutionary Square though was relatively empty on the Sunday we went by, especially compared to the amusement and food area along the lake. Government was ubiquitous, but not as suffocating as we found in Vietnam for example. Though the President Daniel Ortega’s government is currently often labeled a kleptocracy, the party, the FSLN, is more prominently at the forefront than a cult of personality for the president. They wisely embrace Augusto Sandino and his struggle predating the Sandinistas as their iconic image.
The food was standard fare, dominated by rice, beans, and plantains, though the pitahaya fruit, which is also called dragon fruit in Nicaragua, and grows from a cactus was a revelation, producing a rich purple drink that was simply delicious. Excuse me, while I go get an importing license for ACORN International!
Throughout the neighborhoods pedicabs were everywhere, rivaling Indian bicycle rickshaws, but with a totally different design, less a frontloading basket design, than an efficient box with seating, which was very interesting and practical. And, of course taxis were numerous as well as the kind of repurposed school bus designs called collectivos in Argentina.
Grenada and Leon were not the colonial cities we expected after Antigua, Guatemala or San Miguel del Allende, Mexico, but on the plus side, none of these were the ex-patriot, tourist centers creating English-speaking islands in those countries. In fact interestingly, the only major signs of mass foreign tourism we saw were the surf boarders coming and going from the airport.
My grandfather’s name was Erdman, which means “man of the soil” in German, and that had been our family heritage forever in Germany and even in the United States until my father, so what would have interested my father the most would have been our visits to the farms or fincas outside of Matagalpa. The lemon and orange trees would have reminded him of California, along with the chickens and roosters running in yard, which I remember well from my grandfather’s place in Orange County on our infrequent visits as well. The rich, wet soil and the rows of well-tended coffee plants interspersed between fences of hibiscus or tall and straight cactus and the huge pride of the cooperative farmers, optimistic even in the grip of the roya epidemic, would have had my dad wondering if it were time to see about buying a hectare for himself, just as I have often debated every time I’ve walked under the shade of tall trees and held the green coffee plants in my hands, while adjusting my feet to the steep incline.
Organizers Forum crew with Jose Angel Bermudez, head of FNT, a labor federation.
Managua In our final day of meetings we got a sense of the growing power of organized labor in Nicaragua and the continued, and perhaps increasing, isolation of the population along the Atlantic Coast, as we met Jose Angel Bermudez, the general secretary of the FNT, the Federation Nacional Trabajadores and Jennipher Ellis, a young organizer for an interesting coalition of groups based around Bluefields in the far east of the country.
Bermudez is the kind of labor leader that it is almost impossible not to respect. He founded the union of informal workers and then later was a key founder of the FNT, the AFL-CIO of Nicaragua, and has presided over its growth to over 200,000 members and a 15% density and what he claimed is the largest federation in Central America. He isn’t finished and wants to see 500,000 members in the federation. The constitution of Nicaragua gives him a good shot at these goals since now the right to organize and the right to strike are both enshrined there and the union is given what he calls “a seat at the table” at almost all levels of commerce and government. He enjoyed telling us that the IMF in a report said that the business climate was bad in Nicaragua because labor unions were too strong. When he saw their report, he had it copied and circulated throughout their member unions.
A union can be formed and engage in bargaining with a company once it has 20 members, so this is a multi-union rather than exclusive representation system. Every union in a workplace is around the table during bargaining with the company, and the government is there in a tripartite system, he says as a mediator. Strikes have dropped from almost 500 during the 16 years when the Sandinistas were out of power to only 3 in the last 7 years under Ortega. Unions are allowed to observe ministerial meetings of the government and are consulted on business development. As expected, the FNT is a huge supporter of the proposed grand canal joining the oceans because of the massive employment promised by both the construction and the attendant development. At the same time consistent with his experience as an organizer, he sees the largest growth in the FNT’s future ability to organize agricultural workers and other workers where they are still weaker. Unions affiliated with the FNT hold 80% of the union membership in Nicaragua.
In the way that FNT is at the table everywhere, Jennipher Ellis after a 24 hour bus ride from her Bluff community around Bluefields, a 40,000 population municipality on the Atlantic Coast, told us her very multi-cultural, diverse, and environmentally rich area is isolated and ignored. When asked about the impact of many of the hiring quotas and new laws, her response was largely that they hadn’t “reached” Bluefields. Jobs were scare. Many of the 50 members of her 5-year old organization were young, educated professionals, virtually all of whom were unemployed. Bluefields is a port city and has been since it was a favored haven of pirates centuries ago. Its beauty attracts cruise ships and tourism from around the world and its port is a magnet for oil tankers and exploration rigs and the workers looking for shore leave and the issues associated with any port of call. Just to be heard would be a revolution of sorts on the Atlantic Coast, and the notion of a seat at the table seemed laughable to her.
Organizer Forum Crew with Jennipher Ellis, a young organizer for an interesting coalition of groups based around Bluefields in the far east of the country.
The canal plans were unsettling to them, partly because they were skeptical of the benefits and fearful of the impacts both in terms of the environment and land acquisition. She was confident even with the southern exit of the canal considerably below Bluefields that the beauty of their area would sustain it as it had in the past, but she was doubtful the benefits would expand throughout the autonomous Atlantic.
When I asked what might happen if they demanded jobs and tried to protect the land? Sister Ellis responded that they would finally see “what autonomy really means” for their department. ACORN promised to follow up with her and support development of their organization to their 500 members’ goal through an affiliation and assistance on their campaigns as well.
In the final meeting of this year’s Organizing Forum international dialogue we were all intrigued whether there was a way to help see the promises of the government on paper brought in reality to all of the population. Bluefields seemed like a good test of that question.