Latest Report on Union Density Finds a Finger Hold on the Cliff

16-union-difference-chart-frontNew Orleans   The top-line numbers from the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership density in the United States for 2015 indicate little change, sort of a “no news is good news” kind of story. Private sector density continued to suck at 6.7% of all private employment, but that was a slight improvement over an even worse figure in 2014. Public sector density was over one-third of all public workers at 35.2%. Membership was slightly higher in absolute terms in the private sector with both over 7 million workers, and the total union membership was almost 15 million members, which isn’t what any of us would want, but is still something to work with. Half-empty or half-full, that’s where we stand.

A closer look at the numbers continues to be disheartening. The states beating the averages are still bi-coastal with some hunkering down in the Midwest with the south east and south central states all below the median numbers with many of them at the bottom of the barrel. Five states had total union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2015: South Carolina (2.1 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), Georgia (4.0 percent), and Texas (4.5 percent). Arkansas and Louisiana for example were both in the 6% range for total union membership density. Nationally the rate is over 11%. None of that is encouraging.

Union workers continue to make considerably more than non-union workers, but that does not seem to drive robust recruitment. The BLS figures have non-union workers making about 79% of union rates.

Adding to their list of challenges, part-time workers are still stepchildren in the labor movement. The union membership rate was 12.2 percent for full-time workers, more than twice the rate for part-time workers at 5.9 percent. Such workers are being gigged hard.

If you are looking for opportunity and challenges there are some sectors that are literally crying for unions. Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.2 percent) of course, finance (1.3 percent) which is also hardly a surprise either, food services and drinking places (1.5 percent) despite the extensive fight for $15 effort, and professional and technical services (1.7 percent) where Silicon Valley types, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs all get a free ride. Leisure and hospitality in general went down to 3.6% which really hurts since there are more than 12 million workers in that sector. Healthcare and social services, where there are 17 million employed, almost held its own at 8.3% which is close to 1 of every 12 private sector workers in are union members. Retail and wholesale trade where there are more than 18 million workers was even worse with barely over 5% in unions, so there’s a lot of opportunity there at least on paper.

Commentators pointed out the obvious on this year’s numbers, though that didn’t make it less painful to hear as they moaned that time – and money – were running out. Loss of union shop protections for public sector workers could drain the coffers of many unions and decimate organizing resources. As the Service Employees have demonstrated, campaigns like the McDonalds and Fight for $15 effort where they have spent millions for years without the realization of any membership gain, require huge capital being spent now hoping to find the interest later. Few unions are willing to do that, and the 2015 numbers indicate that even fewer every year may be able.

We still have a finger hold, but we’re hanging by a hair and dangling over a cliff. Don’t look down!

Stopping Automatic Deductions from Bleeding Your Accounts

000af39b-642New Orleans   Ok, you all know how this works. If you have a credit card or a bank account you are standing in line for this problem and under assault by all of your creditors to please, please allow them to directly access your financial accounts to pay for their services. With the advent of online commerce and banking there are many people, and yes, most of them are under 35 who don’t even have a checkbook and pay everything online. Cash is something they only find on the floor in public places. At the same time many online based services will only allow you access with your account information, and it often makes good common sense that that is the way it should be.

Me, I’m old school, and I’m a cash flow guy, not a balance the bank statement guy. Ok, there are whole years that have gone by when I haven’t opened the bank statement envelopes, and, yes, I make them keep sending them to me. My bank statement was last balanced in 1979 or so by a co-worker. Thanks, Sue! With a shoddy system like mine, I avoid ever agreeing to any automatic deductions for anything. Period. Unless, I have absolutely no choice.

But, then I started taking care of my now 92-year old mother’s finances a bit over a year ago and having to actually try to make heads and tails of her credit card and bank statements. Yikes! Nothing criminal. Nothing that would leave her on the street, but plenty of nickel and dime stuff. The old book publisher’s hustle that had to be stopped. Magazine subscriptions she never would read. Some Adobe business hit which was incredibly hard to stop and ended with me cancelling the credit card on their unhelpful hustle, but all of it predatory.

Gyms must be the about the worst. I hear my daughter’s friends talk about their gym “donations,” where they are trapped in many monthly payments even though they long since stopped going. One gym practiced what we call a “maintenance of membership” system in the labor movement. They required a 30-day notice before the end of your one-year commitment, and if you missed by a minute, bam, you were sucked in for another year. If you wanted to suspend your membership and take a leave, you had to do so “in the window” and pay them $75 to handle the transaction. Geez, no union rep ever managed to negotiate that!

Ron Lieber, the personal finance columnist for The New York Times reported what might be a money-saver for the inattentive and forgetful, meaning almost all of us! It’s a free service called Trim. Lieber says “it does not intend to sell any data. Instead, it wants to gather a customer base for a … personal finance assistant” that would specialize in nudging you in hopefully better financial directions and decisions. Trim agrees to look at your bank statement and credit card bills to find recurring charges, and you check a box if you want out, and, bam, they’re on it and get the charges stopped.

The five most frequently cancelled in Trim’s experience were: Experian, Planet Fitness, TransUnion, Gogo Air, and Audible. One gym and two credit services in that crowd. There’s some irony on the credit folks isn’t there? They tell you how your credit is doing and then join the nickel-and-dime predators in sucking up your cash. Trim also reports that Experian is playing whack-a-mole with them every couple of weeks in order to make cancelling their rip-and-run system harder on the service. Gogo Air is a wireless airplane deal and I’m clueless on Audible. The least canceled are Dropbox, Spotify, GitHub, Google, and Netflix. All of this reminds me of the AOL email service that continues to collect significant revenue from people who signed up online and still continue to have payments deducted years later for a service that has been free for many years now as well.

Me, I still recommend do-it-yourself. Allows you to get your rage on and hang up the phone feeling like you won one for the team, including perhaps your dear old mom. But that’s me in an odd moment where there’s no foul called for rudeness in righting a simple injustice. Rationally though, that’s mostly a waste of time and energy added to the money drain, so something like Trim could be a deal worth taking, especially if you don’t really read your statements as I’ve already confessed.

Come in Hot with What We’ve Got: Enforce the Laws

New Delhi. Hundreds of Indian activists protested in New Delhi on Monday against a challenge to the country's patent law by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. India produces affordable medicines that are vital to many people living in developing countries. Over half the medicines currently used for AIDS treatment in developing countries come from India and such medicines are used to treat over 80% of the 80,000 AIDS patients in MSF projects. If Novartis is successful in its challenge against the Indian government and its patent law, more medicines are likely to be patented in India, making it very difficult for generic producers to make affordable versions of them. This could affect millions of people around the world who depend on medicines produced in India.

Little Rock    Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts, and probably the most popular candidate who did not run for president – in fact can you just imagine the even greater amount of excitement and drama we would see on the Democratic side of the ledger if it were Warren versus Clinton, given how well Sanders has done? – argued in a recent report that the President could do more than issue executive orders and new agency rules, he could step up enforcement of existing laws. She’s right!

Given the dysfunctional Congressional stalemate, we need to put aside some of our pipe dreams about new laws, and see if we can squeeze the lemons we have into lemonade. Warren’s argument is that the President has too often appointed, or left in the chair, weak administrators who have not used the full power and authority they have as regulators to police financial misdealing, environmental outrages, and general corporate arrogance by handing out cheap tickets and hand slaps for flaunting one law after another. She wants the whip cracked and heads to roll. Hear, hear!

Of course it’s not quite as easy as that, which she also undoubtedly realizes without bothering to dwell on it. In many cases the ground troops required to inspect, enforce, and administer accountability have been severely cut back given reductions in inspectors, auditors, and the boots on the ground in America that do the grinding, boring grunt work of enforcing the law. Without being able to deliver the facts on the ground lawyers and courts are invariably going to cut deals with weaker cases and, as Warren argues implicitly, chicken out when trying to impound the big dogs because of their armies of lawyers, spin masters, and unlimited resources.

Maybe some would say, Senator Warren is just singing her same old song, but when she talks about some new targets like the sanctioned healthcare drug pushers, it’s worth remembering this is not just about Wall Street a thousand miles away from most Americans, it’s personal and as near as the neighborhood clinic. She comes in hot on Novartis saying,

“When Novartis, a major drug company that was already effectively on federal probation for misconduct, paid kickbacks to pharmacies to push certain drugs, it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermined patient health. Under the law, the government can boot companies that defraud Medicare and Medicaid out of those programs, but when Novartis got caught, it just paid a penalty — one so laughably small that its C.E.O. said afterward that it “remains to be seen” whether his company would actually consider changing its behavior.”

A judge pulls someone back in front of the bench if they agree to plead but are still maintaining their innocence, telling the accused, you can’t have it both ways, either say you’re sorry, shut up, and carry the weight or go to trial and take your chances with the verdict one way or another. If the government is going to enforce the law, how can they pretend the job was done if they accept a fine and hear the guilty thinking about whether or not they’ll change their behavior?

Warren is right. Big corporations are out of control. We’re living in a time of impunity. Government needs to do its job. We have to work with what we’ve got and hold them accountable. We start doing that and we might end up with something better as well.

Don’t Get “Spun” on Iowa Caucuses by the So-called Victors

IowaLittle Rock    Listening to KABF as I drove to my trailer in Little Rock the other night, super jock, Seth Baldy, had a co-host helping him out who just happened to be from Iowa. Seth asked him about the caucuses. Essentially he said he left Iowa “running” at 18 and had never been back, but he knew the general story. Then in a bit of a surprise to many listeners he went into a brief spiel about the layers of caucuses from precinct to county to state which probably left most listeners clueless, but is at the heart of the real story in Iowa on how delegates are selected and invariably part of the war in the spin room in the first stage of the caucuses as candidates push and shove to be declared the winner, whether or not that turns out to be the case months down the road or not.

This is one of those times where you almost would have had to have been there, but, yes, Virginia, there have been several candidates who were anointed as winners by the media the night of the precinct caucuses and the morning after who ended up not being the winners at all once the whole multi-level process was concluded and the real number of delegates were awarded. There have been cases where the anointed winner the night of turned out not to be the winner a week later, but the die was cast and less attention was paid even though the impact on New Hampshire and other elections immediately after was huge.

Remember the caucus rules are set by each party, and they can, and do, change from cycle to cycle, including the question of whether or not delegates being elected at the caucus level are bound in any way, shape or form to any candidate whatsoever, complicating the mess even more. In 2012 for example on the Republican side the media anointed ex-Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania as the hairline winner over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with Ron Paul, the former Texas Congressman in 3rd place. But, who really won the delegates? The answer might surprise, but it was Ron Paul who took 22 of Iowa’s 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention given the better organization of his team at the next levels and their dominance of the state convention.

There are over 1100 precincts in Iowa so getting the results in the best of times involves herding cats, yet the disproportionate weight given to the state’s position as the first contest puts immense pressure on the media to get the story even if they have to jump the shark. Communication teams for the candidates claiming facts and figures from throughout the state have their own primary “contest” seeing how many reporters they can spin with their story of how well their candidate did precinct by precinct. The early editions may NOT resemble the story the morning after!

With only three main candidates the story on the Democratic side is likely to be more accurate this time. There is a half hour for delegates to align with a candidate and any candidate failing to hit a 15% threshold sets off a scramble to pull them over to the side of the survivors for another half hour until there is a division of the house and delegates are assessed to go to the next level convention. On the Sanders-Clinton race if it’s close, as it is expected to be, then there would still be uncertainty on the shakeout for the real winner until the county conventions at the least, though by then in all likelihood the advantage or damage will already have been won in the green rooms by one side or another’s communications team, and the parade goes on.

With the Republicans’ list still so large the top-line candidates like Trump and Cruz have a huge advantage but the rules have changed for 2016 since the party is now mandating that delegates have to be bound to a choice for a candidate, and the candidate has to receive the correct proportional level of strength represented by delegates in each precinct. After 2012 when 8 precincts were lost, they claim to have cleaned up their act.

Charlie Szold, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said, “We have partnered with Microsoft and they have built us a special app that allows our precinct captains to report data quickly. They can do that right there on their smart phones or tablets or computers and they can do it very accurately because you can see the number you are typing in.” He added that at the central collection point there will be special algorithms to flag any data that doesn’t match up to expectations, so unusual numbers will generate contact with the precinct for confirmation or correction. Szold said, “The results will be made available almost in real time. The results will come to us. They will go through that internal check I was talking about and then they will be published on a public website with a map view of Iowa. You will be able to see results at the precinct level.

We’ll see soon, but until then and for the foreseeable future: don’t be spun! Make sure you have the real count before sorting out the future.

Organization versus Passion: Iowa to Clinton, Hampshire to Sanders

Street protests surrounding Madison Square Garden, site of the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Street protests surrounding Madison Square Garden, site of the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Little Rock   I favored both teams heading for the Super Bowl, but I don’t bet on sports. I’ve been all over Nevada, visited Reno and Vegas scores of times, but I’ve spent my money on cheap breakfasts while there, figuring my odds of winning were the same as they would be if I just threw money in the street. The biggest difference is that the cash I would be losing might go to someone who needs it, rather than lining the pockets of some mega-rich, and probably Republican, casino mogul. But, handicapping political races is almost a citizen’s obligation in the United States, so eventually we have to calculate the odds and pick some winners.

I’m calling Iowa for Hillary Clinton and, perhaps sentimentally, New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders.

Unquestionably, Hillary Clinton is in trouble. Despite the churning in the Republican list, I can’t even describe fully how worried I am about the general election. The negatives, the distrust, the sound of calculating, grinding machinery more than the sizzle of soaring hope and promise, are worrisome even against an unknown. I’m not hearing voters demanding experience and seasoning, and that’s what Hillary offers in spades. At least at this point.

Bernie Sanders has invigorated his underdog status with as much bite as bark. He has undoubtedly pushed Clinton more to the left and fully into President Obama’s arms. He has not shied from socialism and has legitimized progressives. He has held his own in the “money” race while eschewing super-PACs and embracing small donors. As opposed to Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and a host of wannabes on the other side, he would actually be a great President.

But, then there’s Iowa. Election after election on each four-year cycle, we’ve been there and done that with ACORN beginning in 1980. Passion might enliven the base but stone cold organization is what puts bottoms in the chairs and welds the discipline to the numbers to deliver delegates at the end of the night. The level of pure chaos in an Iowa caucus events is amazing. We’ve seen times where ACORN organizers were asked to do the count in frenzied rooms where there was no way to determine the real numbers and where no one asked where they were from or who they were! We’ve walked into caucuses where we delivered huge numbers and been horns-woggled at the end of the night with nothing, hours later. We’ve also walked in with almost nothing and come out with a handful of delegates. There are other issues proposed. Resolutions on all manner of things. Organization matters. A lot!

Even if Sanders and Clinton are neck and neck with great managers and huge campaigns, the campaign that is the best organized is going to win there. Clinton gets Iowa.

Sanders will do well though, and I think he will do well enough to go back to New Hampshire in his own Vermont backyard and win.

Likely a last hurrah before heading South, but it’s something, and we might be able to make something out of it in the future, if we can survive the year.

We Need to Take Advantage of Opportunities for Formal Protest

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A Group pic of some of our meeting attendees

New Orleans    Recently as our family of organizations met for our annual planning meeting and the groups from each sector reported back, the reporter from the union mentioned that one of their goals for the year was taking better advantage of postings at their contractual job sites where they had access to bulletin boards to communicate with the workers. Such a simple thing really, and so hard fought when first won, but something that requires regular attention to make it work, and therefore easily falls through the crack, especially in 21st century where the ease of social media and a quick “like,” short sentence, or a little more than a 100 character message can allow you to pretend that you have communicated with thousands.

A union bulletin board is a hassle for many. It can’t be simply “the boss sucks,” but has to communicate information to the workers, and in many contracts the boss gets a look at the message and have some say so. Nonetheless, you can guarantee that eyeballs will spend time on the bulletin board in the captive audience boredom of the workplace. The problem is the routine. Anything requiring weekly or monthly, or regular attention requires discipline and a “git er done” philosophy, and that’s amazingly hard to muster.

Thinking about how to better use our bulletin boards reminded me of more formal avenues for protest that also require discipline and perhaps routine, but also have the opportunity to achieve the power of protest. I’m thinking specifically of the public files legally required by some very important institutions where public comments have to be kept and maintained and could carry serious weight.

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) has required banks for almost the last 40 years to maintain a public file on their efforts to reduce discrimination and meet the housing needs of the community through their lending programs. Examiners from the Federal Reserve and the FDIC have been playing patty cake with the banks for so long that the test scores are a little like kindergarten with 98% of the banks easily getting passing scores. We could make this harder and force attention more easily to our issues by utilizing this opportunity by advocating more aggressively for better housing lending to our people from the banks. Why not force the conversations and implicitly question an area’s banking charters by filing comments on disparate housing cost burdens compared to income and geography, the availability of affordable housing and banking support including lending for rental and worker friendly developments, action by banks on foreclosures matched with racial and ethnic statistics, discussion of the problems of the unbanked or underbanked, hard talk on whether banks are offering lending alternatives to predatory products like payday lending and check cashing, and the hard question on how often and how substantively banks are meeting with community organizations. Like the old Lyndon Johnson story about the politician and his intimacy with his pig, “make them explain that to the public” and in this case to the community and the banking examiners.

The licensing renewal procedure for television and radio stations also maintain a public file and requirements on equal access and stewardship of their privileged access to the public airwaves administered by the Federal Communications Commission. Regularly filing objections to the hate speech over the airwaves from commentators and the bias frequently expressed could force review of the station license.

Yeah, it’s not as easy as hitting a button on Facebook, but like the union bulletin boards, you know that these messages will be read and require a response, so it’s not a conversation with yourself in the social network echo chamber. Once a week, once a month, or every once in a while, these are not messages in a bottle put out to sea but a form of “paper protest” that cannot be ignored and might even force real discussions and concrete response and change.

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Please enjoy Sunny Sweeney & Brennen Leigh’s But You Like Country Music.

Thanks to KABF.