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Has the Time for Paid Sick Leave Finally Come?

Activists hold signs during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu in  Jan 2013.

Activists hold signs during a rally at New York’s City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu in Jan 2013.

New Orleans      Don’t let some good news get by you in the headlines about bombing the bejesus out of Syria and the rising inequality gap, let’s celebrate the fact that California took a giant step in advancing the prospects for mandatory paid leave for workers as Governor Brown signed a bill granting accrual of three sick days per year for 6.5 million workers, joining Connecticut as the only state with guaranteed sick days. We only have about 40 million workers to go, but this is a giant leap forward in a campaign that has been slow to get traction, but after eight years or so is showing more and more results.

The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Standards estimates that 4 of 10 workers have no sick plan coverage. When we began to push for sick leave as an expansion of the living wage fights eight years ago, we knew we were in for a slough, but now following the living wage pattern, some cities have also taken the lead with sick pay guaranteed for workers in New York City, Portland, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. for example

The California plan is both interesting and disturbing. Interesting because it doesn’t separate part and full-time workers on its accrual system. An hour of paid sick time is accrued for every thirty hours of work up to a cap of three days, which means that after 720 hours of work, which is less than one-third of fulltime hours of 2080, a worker has earned the full three days for that year. What was shocking is that a last minute amendment was passed exempting home health workers from coverage, prompting SEIU and other unions to withdraw their support for the sick leave bill. How can it be that home health workers at the front lines of care for the elderly and infirm can’t earn a paid sick day? We have to take the “kick me” sign off of the backs of these beleaguered workers, because to put it plainly, employers don’t value their sacrifice or service.

A Local 100 organizer was telling me this week about a grievance she handled in Lafayette, Louisiana for a direct care health worker in a nonprofit developmentally disabled facility where we represent hundreds under contract. The worker with seven years of seniority had never taken any of the sick days the contract guaranteed, but in this instance she reported for a mandatory training session and could feel herself losing the battle to the flu or some bug while there. In one of her trips to the restroom she called her supervisor on her cell, and said she was going to have to take a sick day. For her trouble, she found herself suspended rather than granted one of the sick days she had earned. When the supervisors realized that she was calling from the training session, they confronted her and told her that if she could be at the session, she could complete the day, and she was suspended for lying about her condition.

In the grievance hearing with the executive director, when it got to that point, our union representative asked what was the supposed lie our member was accused of? The supervisor said they had talked to the nurse running the training session and she did not remember our worker having to leave the session repeatedly. At that point our organizer said, “Are you really telling me that with a guaranteed sick leave policy that requires no doctor’s note to get a sick day and for a worker that has never taken a sick day in seven years, that what we are really grieving is how many times she went to the bathroom?” The Executive Director shook his head and apologetically said, “Yes, that seems to be what we’re saying.”

Sure, we’ll win this grievance and the worker’s suspension will be erased, and she’ll get an apology, which she pretty much got from the big boss at the hearing, but my point is that both good bosses and bad bosses in our current work culture just automatically assume that missing work for sickness is almost always lying and malingering, thereby risking the health of their workers and their own clients for that matter.

And that’s where public policy needs to step up to the statement that, “there ought to be a law,” with a response that is in the affirmative, because employers on their own don’t get it.

The Long, Stubborn Fight with Universities over Coal, Oil, and Gas Divestment

May 2014 A group of prominent Harvard alumni were led out of a reunion ceremony by police on Friday when they unveiled a large banner calling on President Drew Faust to consider reinvesting the school’s stakes in fossil fuel companies that they say contribute to climate change and other environmental impacts. Photo Credit:  Divest Harvard

May 2014 A group of prominent Harvard alumni were led out of a reunion ceremony by police on Friday when they unveiled a large banner calling on President Drew Faust to consider reinvesting the school’s stakes in fossil fuel companies that they say contribute to climate change and other environmental impacts. Photo Credit: Divest Harvard

New Orleans           One of the many fronts for activists campaigning about the urgency of climate change has been to win divestment of coal, oil, and gas stocks from the investment and endowment portfolios of universities and colleges. Thus far the results have been mixed. A chart in the Wall Street Journal had the big whoops Harvard and Yale as solid “no” along with other ivies like Brown and Cornell, while partial victories have been won at Stanford, Pitzer, and San Francisco State in the West and the University of Dayton with the University of California system teetering towards a decision.

For me it seems like déjà vu all over again. More than forty years ago Middle South Utilities, now called Entergy, the electric utility provider for Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, proposed to build what they called the “world’s largest coal-burning power plant” at White Bluff along the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come down in 100-car train loads from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming until they could build a slurry pipeline from the Fort Union coal deposit in the Great Plains underneath parts of eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and northeastern Wyoming that would use precious western water to flush the coal down to Arkansas and other buyers. Does any of this sound familiar today in a world of tar sands oil pipelines from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico?

ACORN members, organized in the cities of Little Rock and Pine Bluff, knew that we couldn’t afford the plant given the soaring rates at that time when we were fighting for caps on cost through what we called “lifeline” rates for the first 400 kilowatts of power as a basic necessity at a fixed cost. We also knew we couldn’t win and beat the plant from our base in the cities, so we organized groups of farmers downwind from the proposed plant in the Protect Our Land Association affiliated with ACORN by sharing studies of the impact of sulfur particulate damage to crops that had been conducted in other countries. Laughably, the company tried to convince the farmers that they would be getting “free” fertilizer. They even flew some of the farmers and me to see the giant coal fired plant in Paradise, Kentucky, where we were able to humiliate them from song to study.

Nonetheless, we were still not winning, until our crack researcher, Steve Kest, showed me that their largest shareholders were pretty much in order, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and it was on! I managed to convince Bill Kitchen, the brother of one of our staff, Mary Jo Kitchen, and an off-and-on organizer and carpenter, to leave Johnstown, New York, and decamp to Harvard to start an organizing and petitioning drive on campus calling for the university to divest its Middle South Utilities stock. Nick Lemman, then of the Harvard Crimson, and later a respected author, New Yorker writer, and Columbia University professor, was from New Orleans and gave us quite the boost in story after story. Our fight at Harvard became the first time that ACORN made the front page in what was then the Arkansas Gazette. We had the heat on!

The results? Well, we got the plant scaled down and some early generation scrubbers to make a dent in the pollution. Harvard and a number of the others created “study” committees, wrote some letters to the company, and basically tried to shine us off until the heat died down.

It seems that 40 years later, they are still studying and rationalizing that they know best, and damned the consequences. Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust rejected divestment saying “Significantly constraining investment options risks significantly constraining investment returns.” In other words, to heck with the planet and the future, show me the money! Estimates are that 5% of the total higher education portfolios or $22 billion are in energy and natural-resource stocks, so with this kind of non-leadership, campaigners face a hard road to winning. Stanford University met reform halfway by divesting in 100 coal companies as the worst of the lot, so the Ivy League hardline, money grubbers might be able to learn something from the West.

All we ever learned in the ACORN campaigns was to fight harder and never quit, and that looks like the lot of climate change campaigners for many years to come as well.

Why Doesn’t the NFL Know the Rule: Boys Don’t Hit Girls!

bknation_week-6.jpgNew Orleans        I hate to write about contemporary sports, because for readers and listeners around the world it seems so stereotypically, how can I say this, American. We’re seen as sports obsessed, because, well, many of us are sports obsessed. And, if there’s one sport that has taken pride of place above all others, it is football, and even in the land of the South Eastern Conference, the SEC of Louisiana State, Arkansas, Alabama, and others who are the big dogs of collegiate football, it’s the NFL, the National Football League, that rules all others, including our beloved New Orleans Saints.

We’re in a critical time for professional sports as they become richer and richer and dominate more and more of our attention span and popular culture. They are having to catch up with the rest of the country and the culture, and get a grip on the dark side of sports, athletes, and locker room culture, including racism, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny. The National Basketball Association, the NBA, had to confront a front page crisis around one of its owners getting caught spewing directly racist comments, leading to a quick sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. Another owner from the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks is suddenly confessing to a similar crime but doing so in such a disingenuous way that it looks like he’s looking to make a buck, rather than make amends.

And, then there is the NFL. The rich as Croesus NFL, which is somehow a nonprofit, tax exempt organization under the US tax code, run largely by billionaires who own each one of the city franchises is confronting a scandal splitting its fan base, which is now increasingly women, by the ham handed and primitive way it has dealt with domestic violence. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, after months of dillydallying around, recently admitted he didn’t “get it right” when he gave star Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice, a two game suspension for being filmed going in an elevator and then coming out dragging his fiancée, now wife, unconscious after he had cold cocked her. Goodell unilaterally changed the policy in the future to a first offense 6 game suspension and a second offense year suspension without a guarantee of return.

Now more video has come out from inside the elevator allowing millions to see Rice deliver the knockout punch, and his team the Ravens within hours cancelled his contract and then the NFL suspended him indefinitely. And, you know what, some anti-domestic abuse groups applauded this, but no one is buying it as anything but more after the fact NFL cover up, rather than leadership on the issue.

Was the punch any harder just because there was a video of it? Did the NFL, the Commissioner, the owners, or the Ravens, somehow think Rice was dragging his fiancée out of the elevator unconscious because she had slipped? This seems nothing more than public relations hypocrisy.

Look, let’s be clear. I fail to believe that there are very many men in America who were not raised by their mothers – and their fathers – with the simple dictum: boys don’t ever hit girls! That’s the way I was raised, and it was the message in every locker room when I played. It was what I repeated to my son from birth. It’s the mantra of our lives as men in living with mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, partners, and lovers. And, we repeat it over and over, because anger and rage are seething beneath the surface for men everywhere, and many slip and make mistakes, which is why there must be clear and immediate consequences that reinforce the mantra and the universal, cultural consensus within the violent American society that there are absolute limits, where the stronger simply can never be allowed to prey on the weaker, and men and boys can simply never be allowed to hit women and girls. And, never has to mean never.

As Rap Brown famously observed, “violence is as American as apple pie.” Football is a violent sport. It hurts players. I loved football, and I loved playing it, and being clipped in the 5th game of my senior year in high school landed me a 4-F exemption after four draft board physicals back in the day without any regrets for a single game I played.

The NFL is the epitome of this violent sport, but if the NFL can’t absolutely and completely control and contain the violence of its players on and off the field, then it’s time to shut it down, and if they don’t know that boys simply can never hit girls, then they obviously have not only lost control completely, but they have also lost any moral compass that will allow them to be counted on to do the right thing.

The NFL has to learn that this is not play. These are the rules of the real world.

Scottish Independence Vote Too Close to Call

scottish_flag_and_union_jackNew Orleans       The latest poll on the coming vote on Scottish independence says that “yes” voters have narrowed the distance to only 2 points behind the “no” keep-the-union voters after trailing by 10 to 15 points for almost a year. Westminster has announced that they will unilaterally offer a substantial increase in financial autonomy to try to staunch the “yes” tide for independence. ACORN Scotland has taken no position, but members, leaders, and staff have been in deep discussions for months on these issues. This is going to be an election to watch very closely.

In a recent Fair Grinds Coffeehouse dialogue, we hosted Dave Beck and Rod Purcell, both of Glasgow University in Scotland as they discussed community organizing and community development around the world. Inevitably one of the topics of interest was their sense of the looming vote, and since Beck was a native Scot and Purcell an English native, we got a very polite explication of the issues.

Purcell was doubtful of passage, largely because there were so many unknowns. The long list he detailed included everything from the question of banking and currency to access to the BBC radio and TV programs and a score of other critical matters of defense, transportation, social support, and infrastructure. Beck was also doubtful of passage, but took a longer view that essentially believed that were voters to say, “yes,” there were almost two years allowed for reconciliation and negotiation on all of these matters, and he believed accommodations would be made. Given the strength of the independence party in Scottish parliament, he also believed that more autonomy, if not independence, was inevitable.

Listening to the arguments, reminded me of hundreds of union elections where the heart of every company campaign is not that things don’t suck, but the effort to create a climate of uncertainty and fear to convince the workers to vote “for the devil they know, rather than the devil they don’t.” At the same time claiming that “we hear you now, and we’ll do better” is also the familiar company promise piled on top of the uncertainty. By campaigning on the unresolved questions by United Kingdom supporters from Prime Minister David Cameron on down, and offering independence-lite, the pro-union voters seem to have totally embraced this kind of strategy.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman weighed in against independence, claiming that Scotland was less likely to be a “new” Canada than “Spain without the sunshine.” All of the major UK parties are strong “no” advocates. The labor movement in the UK is also solidly against. Companies are sending all “no” messages. The Queen is reportedly worried about what will happen to the Church. The lineup of forces for a “no” vote are huge, but I have to wonder if that won’t rile many Scots into voting “yes” as a protest against fear and bullying.

I would hate to bet on the outcome, but one thing is clear: Scotland will be more independent and autonomous when this vote is over, win, lose, or draw. The other thing is clear is that this issue will not go away, and when any campaign is that persistent, victory over time is almost inevitable.

Celebrating 30 Years On-the-Air with KABF 88.3 FM

IMG_1782-1Little Rock       There’s nothing easy about keeping a 100,000 watt community radio station on-the-air and true to its mission any day of the week but to have it happen for 30 years in Little Rock since August 29, 1984, well, as the song says, “that’s something to be proud of!”  And, proud and happy we were at Oxford American’s restaurant and our down-the-street neighbor, the South on Main Restaurant, celebrating and singing along with a couple of dozen Neil Young covers.  As I often tell people, acting as station manager of KABF the last 18 months is actually fun, especially since we’re making progress, and it was great to see people, old and new, come out and kick it with us on a warm Saturday night.

            I pulled some oldies on a last minute pitch and there was Lia Lent, a veteran of AM/FM, and Joe Fox of another South Main neighbor, the Community Bakery, who built some of our early radio stations, including KABF, almost by hand.  Scott Holladay was there, a veteran ACORN organizer in his day, but also the first station manager of KABF when we first pushed the buttons down on Crystal Mountain and went on the air.  Last night one of the DJs asked me what the first song played on KABF was?  I asked Scott, he said bet it was rock, but, “Ask John.”  I found John Cain, program director at KABF from day one and the glue holding much of the history of the station in his own head, and asked him?  He bet it was country and western, which I didn’t see coming.  We’re just going to say it was Hendrix and the song was “Are You Experienced?”  And, it’s been an experience.

            The board was out in full force headed by Toney Orr along with Paul Kelly, Zach Polett, and Norman Williamson.  The DJs were everywhere from picking and singing on stage once the music began to working the merch table, signing the posters with most of their pictures on them, to just smiling and tapping their feet.  Bryan Frazer, our assistant manager, was MCing, and Carly Garner, our development coordinator, was working the crowd.  Landers-Fiat had stepped up, thanks to Bryan’s good work, to sponsor the event in a big way, and their representatives were front and center from the first bell until god knows when, since they outlasted me.

            We had listeners showing up with their vintage t-shirts from pledge drives gone by.  A listener for the last dozen years from Russellville, 60 miles away, came up to me and said that we had helped him get through a lot of years on his way to work.  One listener after another came up to just shake hands and say thanks.  People were standing in line to get in still at 9pm because we were at crowd capacity, and South on Main, said we may have set the record for attendance last night.

            Organizations give people voice.  We always knew that and prove it in the streets daily as our members struggle to build power.  There are a lot of tools, powerful, powerful tools that can help amplify the voices of our people, and radio is one of the biggest.  I’m always amazed more people don’t make the climb, but if they did, as KABF has for 30 years, they could hear the cries for freedom and the songs of Job from many of our mountain tops.

            We could all hear as we celebrated 30 now and many more to come.

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Internet Monopolies Walls are Going to Tumble

Telus better pack it up or get right!

Telus better pack it up or get right!

Dallas     At the ACORN Canada staff training and then the management meeting in Montreal, we spent a LOT of time assessing and strategizing about our next steps on our Digital Access to Opportunities campaign which, plainly stated, continues to be our effort to build bridges for lower income families across the digital divide.

In Canada the companies are even more closely held monopoly concerns with the big three Telus, Canada Bell, and Rogers than are found even in the United States, although Comcast with its proposed merger of Times-Warner clearly has its heart set on going the same way.  Despite some steps to accommodate us with a $10 per month plan in public housing in Tornoto, Rogers has not moved past that opening round and what they delivered has been less than promised.  Telus in a meeting in Vancouver had told us they were moving our way, but then have not gotten back to us, and Bell continues to be unabashedly arrogant and impervious to our concerns, having adopted what can only be seen as a Comcast head-in-the-stand, make-me-do-it, schoolyard bully approach to the problem, hoping it will disappear into the Ethernet or something.

Not clear what tea leaves their lobbyists are telling them to read, but they’ve got trouble on the horizon.  The regulators in Canada are preparing for a hearing this winter on declaring the internet a public utility, and the same thing has been promised in the US by the FCC.

ACORN is committed to participating in the Ottawa hearings, but we’re convinced the court of public opinion is where we will be able to be heard more clearly.   They may have invested in some infrastructure but surveys of our members and others reveal that people hate their cable and internet company the way they once hated the local tax man.  Furthermore their brands are ubiquitous and their tentacles stretch everywhere from their ownership to sports teams in Tornoto to the bicycle sharing program in Montreal.  That’s a big, wide butt ready for the kicking!  We’re convinced that to get them finally to take seriously the desperation of lower income families to have access to opportunities, we’re going to have to go big, go broad, and be as ubiquitous as they are.  Enough said for now.

Meanwhile the often clueless former industry lobbyist heading the FCC must have startled the big boys of the industry in the financial papers the other day by pretty graphically drawing a picture of all of the internet companies as being emperors with no clothes on.  He simply stated the obvious without stating the obvious.  He said there is little or no competition in most markets so that internet service costs too much and changing from one operator to another is prohibitively expensive.  All of which is another way of saying that the companies are anti-competitive and operating like Canadians, or what we used to call monopolies.  Chairmen Wheeler claimed 80% of Americans have access to high speed internet at 25 megbits per second, though he didn’t say at what price, but if he’s going to acknowledge as his statement indicated that the “F.C.C. planned to promote more choices and protect competition, because a lack of adequate consumer choice inhibits innovation, investment and economic benefits,” it’s hard to believe that they can’t get the message.  For a change it was even an indirect shot across Comcast’s bow, since their claim that they are not a monopoly through their purchase of Times-Warner is that they don’t often compete in the same markets.  Someone seems to have given Wheeler the memo that they are in different markets, because they don’t compete, and you can’t claim you are regulating them to assure competition when they are silently colluding to kept customers captive and control separate geographies.

Ok, yeah, maybe I’m dreaming about the FCC being something other than chattel for the companies, but maybe when they see what we have in store for the companies in Canada some of the chill will blow down from the north to cool some of the imperial monopoly dreams that are widening the digital divide.  Here’s hoping!