Birmingham, England Before catching a plane for the UK, I went down with fifteen Local 100 United Labor Unions members and supporters with our t-shirts on to join the New Orleans piece of the national rally and demonstrations for raising wages to $15 per hour for fastfood and other workers in the US. We met in the parking lot of the new Whole Foods grocery store in New Orleans on Broad Street in Mid-City, no small irony there, since they are not the best on wage issues by a long shot, but they are at least smart enough to look the other way when 50 people are mustering in their parking lot.
Our crowd was pretty typical of what has become the “new normal” for these kinds of events around the country. A smattering of union activists from the local labor council, AFGE, and others who were in town to help with the endgame of the Landrieu election for Senate were there. There were some red-shirts saying Unite HERE for the local union. There were shirts identifying a local immigrant rights organization and one saying Legalize Arizona from the marches there several years ago, a t-shirt and action I was proud to participate in as well. There were some shirts calling for $15 per hour, who I assume were a combination of local and out-of-town SEIU folks but none of us knew any of them other than the national campaign organizer assigned to New Orleans who had convened the meetings that had brought all of us there. Perhaps there were two or three workers from McDonald’s and other fast food operations. One spoke briefly before we marched over to the McDonald’s on Canal Street next to the RTA Building named after A. Philip Randolph, the former legendary head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. There weren’t many civilians. This was a labor-for-labor rally.
It was a gorgeous December day in New Orleans with temperatures in the 70’s, so t-shirt weather all the way. There was some whispering before we began about the fact that contrary to earlier claims, four workers had been fired the previous year for their participation, three days after the annual rallies. Nonetheless, we were encouraged to parade individually through the store. It was all good-spirited with whoops and chants and whatnot. Many were surprised and confused to read the news reports later that some people had been arrested since this had somehow happened off to the side or after the main column had gone on about their business.
On the whole this is all good stuff. We need to have unions and union activists standing up for lower waged workers, especially given the tenuousness of their employment. Advocating for higher wages for workers is 100% the business of unions, and given the frozen minimum wage, fast food workers are good poster people for the campaign. A portrait of a leader of these actions from Kansas City profiled in the New York Times was inspiring. This is decidedly not about unionizing these workers, nor a strike in any way, but none of that should detract from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, and we all should do our part.
New Orleans Unstable and precarious employment and income is something that every union organizer in labor unions involved in the service sector recognizes as a daily fact of life for workers.
In Walmart, 1o years ago, just as it is today, we organized Walmart workers in Florida against the computer scheduling from Bentonville, Arkansas that would take them from 40 hours to 24 hours to 16 then back to 32 and anywhere they felt based on their algorithms.
In nursing home, home care, mental health centers, head start work, childcare centers, schools, and countless other service sector work, our members and other workers live with seasonal work, and sometimes no unemployment benefits, standard shifts are often 35 hours or 32 hours, and with the pressure of the Affordable Care Act mandate dipping below 30 on an average to escape payment.
Now new reports are coming down on us like a hard rain as others discover and document this increasing precariousness.
· A 2012 study by government and university economists found that “household income became noticeably more volatile between 1970 and the late 2000s” despite a period of “increase stability throughout the economy as a whole.”
· A 2013 Federal Reserve report according to the New York Times, “suggests the problem has not only persisted as the economy recovers, but may even have worsened. More than 30 percent of Americans reported spikes and dips in their income. Among that group 42 percent cited an irregular work schedule; and additional 27 percent blamed a span of joblessness or seasonal work.”
· U.S. Financial Diaries has released an in-depth report on low-and-moderate income families and finds that almost all of them “experienced a drop in monthly income of at least 25 percent in a single year.”
· There are now 7 million people working part time in the US who indicate that they would prefer full-time work but can’t find it, accounting for 4.5% of the workforce, almost double the figure before the recession.
Given this internal, hidden inequality it should not come as a surprise, as organizers also find routinely, that many lower income, lower waged families view financial stability as a higher priority than higher wages or advancement. The bird in the hand can be eaten, while the bird in the bush, no matter how close, can easily disappear leaving the family in bad straits.
Is there a plan? No way!
In fact, a Department of Labor study of the records of 300,000 minimum wage workers in New York State and California found that employers routinely short pay 3.5 to 7% of all such workers. Extended and supplemental unemployment benefits have been caught repeatedly in Congressional deadlocks as well. Families caught in these crises are then caught in cycle of dependence on our families, relatives, predatory loans, and whatever it takes to pay the bills.
Are we responding by organizing these workers aggressively? Not so much.
All of which indicates that this is a mess that stands to continue to worsen since there still appears to be no light at the end of the deep tunnel where so many US families are currently falling.
New Orleans Over the last couple of years as I’ve acted as station manager of KABF 88.3/FM, the “voice of the people” broadcasting at 100,000 watts from Little Rock, Arkansas and live streaming, I’m sometimes asked by various associates “if this is the best use of my time,” to which I reply heartily with various justifications, all of which I totally embrace and believe. These include the power of the medium, the opportunity, still untapped to use the internet internationally to broadcast, the value of providing a unique voice to often powerless and voiceless people, and so on and so forth.
But, there’s another part of the answer that is equally real. I view my three or four days up there at the station every four to six weeks almost as a fun-filled change of pace. For the most part, the problems are so different from the normal work of community and labor organizing, that it’s often just hilarious, and other times just satisfying because sometimes it’s little things that can be done that make a difference in simply making the “trains run on time,” by coming in from time to time.
The best story of my recent trip was a doozy. KABF and the Local 100 office in Little Rock occupy perhaps a bit more than half of the space on the second floor of the 1950’s era building on the far southern part of Main Street in the city. The property was – and is – owned by a nonprofit building corporation similar to many created by ACORN for this purpose and in fact is named after the first building we bought to house our offices many years ago on 15th Street. It’s a collective enterprise and as such when things go well for all of us, it’s good times, and when there are hard times, the apples don’t fall far from that tree either. The good news on my last trip had been that a tenant had finally been found for the space the union had occupied formerly on the second floor. There was some downside fallout of course. Two of the rooms we had cleaned and cleared of mountains of junk were now repopulated with the detritus that had been in the space now rented, so we were once again going to have to push those rocks back up the hill, but renting the space was all to the good.
Turned out there was some excitement in this tale though. When the new tenant began to move to occupy the space and opened the door to get on with the task, they were totally stymied and stopped cold until they could figure out what the heck was happening. In the middle of the now vacant space they found a tower of recording equipment, taping away as if they had unearthed an old Stasi spy operation in East Germany or an Edward Snowden operation right in Little Rock. Was the whole building and its work now under surveillance?
The search for an explanation was on! It ended quickly though when various parties asked John Cain, the longtime program manager of KABF, if he had any clue about what might be going on in the space. Turns out that indeed he did. One of the volunteers had approached him and asked if he could set up some recording equipment in the building to catch the sounds of ghosts (yes, ghosts!) operating in the space. They had been recording for days. John saw no harm in the project, and in his long experience with the thousands of different volunteers over the 30-year history of the station, didn’t even seem to find the request or the project that unusual.
We’ll have to await the final report from this name-unknown volunteer on what he did or didn’t hear when he tediously listens to the recordings. In the meantime, the space is now fearlessly occupied, and the ghost-busting volunteer is now more infamous for having parked his car and blocked the dumpster from being emptied, costing an extra fee for a return pickup, and perhaps inadvertently solving the long time parking disputes of the building once and for all, than for his efforts to catch Casper the friendly ghost in his hideaway on South Main with the rest of the special people and crazy antics that make every one of my visits such a hoot.
Little Rock We all know all about the Internal Revenue Service, right? The very mention of the IRS causes virtually all grown men and women to duck-and-cover. In fact, many Americans are somewhat confused and think that possibly the government has gone to war against the IRS somewhere in the Middle East, but that’s ISIS, not IRS.
We also have heard about the on-going controversy, regularly brought back up to boil and stirred heavily about the IRS nonprofit tax exemption department. Recently there was yet another spate of publicity in the concentrated hunt for witches over there when someone thought they might have figured out how to access some missing emails that conspiracy-minded citizens believe may have been caught in some Rosemary Woods type of Bermuda Triangle mystery gap deleting god knows what from the files of the former, now resigned, head of the tax exempt division. The Republicans believe that the IRS went hard on Tea Party tax exemption applications. The Democrats have established that the IRS also went hard on lib-left groups. Congressman Darryl “Step Away from the Car” Issa has tried repeatedly to get someone to care about his investigation, and it’s a basic beltway back-and-forth.
Well, it seems in the midst of all of this mayhem somehow the IRS started taking some steps to streamline the process of actually getting a tax exempt designation as a 501(c)3 for small startup nonprofits. You know groups that want to fix a playground or organize sweet summer socials, like I don’t know, maybe tea parties?
Here’s how it works. Rather than being an almost 30-page application which some lawyers, being on the time clock obviously, say can take 100 to 150 hours of time to complete, the application has shrunk down to only three pages, taking only about the same number of hours to finish some of the same lawyers guesstimate, unhappily. Rather than it being forever and a day to get a response, some groups report having used the new procedure and heard within a week from the IRS that they were approved, which is almost unbelievable.
But, the whole point was to get rid of the backlog, separate the wheat from the chaff, and focus, focus, focus on what the IRS’s real job is supposed to be. Maybe they are going to use the extra time and person power to go after businesses which are not paying taxes, trying to go to foreign countries to evade taxes, and every other kind of scheme imaginable. Just saying.
An outfit can take advantage of this new IRS procedure if they have less than $50000 of gross income and less than $250,000 in total assets. Since most organizations applying for a 501c3 status are brand spanking new outfits many, if not most, groups could easily meet these lowball numbers. Of course you have to be nonprofit, too. This is not an Airbnb “sharing economy hustle, OK?
These windows open and shut all of the time in Washington and with the IRS. If you’ve been caught on the wrong side of the street before, this might be just the alley to hurry down right now to secure an exemption, if that’s what you want and need for your organization, cause, or idea, and if your outfit is all about for education, welfare, and charitable purposes.
Little Rock We need to get rid of the three strikes program for people and institute it for banks, whose criminal conduct continues to rage unabated. Wells Fargo, the West Coast based banking center, is a serial abuser of mortgage borrowers using predatory practices. Cook County, home of Chicago, and 5 million good people, has sued the bank under the Fair Housing Act for racially discriminatory practices targeting African-American and Latino families from the point of origination past the point of payment and even foreclosure to make sure they always get theirs in a practice Cook County called equity stripping.
According to Bloomberg News,
“Equity stripping is an abusive form of ‘asset based lending’ that maximizes lender profits based on the value of the underlying asset and onerous loan terms, while in disregard for a borrower’s ability to repay,” according to the complaint. Aimed also at minority women, the bank’s fee structure and its practice of bundling mortgages to sell as securities allowed the lender to make money off loans even in the event of a foreclosure, the county said.
Who is surprised anymore?
Cook County is asking for $300 million in relief from Wells Fargo. The bank of course denies everything, but they can’t possibly have any credibility left with anyone. As always, they were obnoxious and combative in their response, having a spokesman say that it would be better if Cook County kept wasting its time trying to work with them rather than getting justice for their citizens.
Cook County is not the first metro area to push forward to protect its citizens these days with a Fair Housing claim. Earlier similar suits have been filed in Miami and Los Angeles against banks for similar practices. Miami’s suit was dismissed as untimely and is on appeal, but attempts to throw out the California claim have been unsuccessful.
Banks have been paying billions to settle mortgage abuse suits in record fines, yet little seems to have led them to stop such predatory practices. Suits have also been brought recently in other cities under the Community Reinvestment Act for direct discrimination in lending.
The New York Times and others continue to argue that the only proven path to citizen wealth is home ownership, and there is some merit to the claim, but with prices outstripping any possibility of ownership in many cities, and banks, like Wells Fargo, arguably targeting the very working people trying to create income security through home ownership, there seems to be a giant “L” for loser on the foreheads of low-and-moderate income families throughout the country. Recently Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her refusal to vote for approval of an undersecretary in the Treasury Department saying that the President and others needed to get the message that Wall Street should no longer be allowed to set the economic policy for the United States.
As long as banking and its allies play “throw the rock and hide the hand” in a persistent criminal conspiracy, working families can’t build wealth, and Warren and Cook County are right that we need more protection from these crooks.
Little Rock In the New York Times, A.O. Smith, one of their critics who writes frequently about movies, wondered at length in the paper where our artists were when we needed them now to weigh in on the issues of class, race, and galloping inequality in the United States. Where was a new John Steinbeck writing Of Mice and Men? Or an Arthur Miller and The Death of a Salesman? Or Mike Nichols and Silkwood or the more recent Debra Granik film, Winter’s Bone, on the silver screen? In a surprising rarity, he admitted being obsessed with the economic crises of our time and desperate for voices that spoke to the issue in convincing and moving ways.
All of which recalled the vivid images of the precariousness of work revealed so starkly in George Orwell’s often neglected classic, Down and Out in Paris and London, which I found myself re-reading recently. Orwell known best to many readers for his dystrophic 1984 or Animal Farm, wrote of his own experience working as a casual laborer in the back of the house in hotels in London and bistros in Paris. It is shocking to read because so much of it seems unchanged from what might be reported in numerous cities now, even though Orwell published his book in 1933 in the heart of the worldwide Great Depression.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America updated some pages from Orwell, but her experience still wasn’t the deep dive, emersion and desperation of Orwell, where reading of his time, I felt he might starve to death any minute when he had no clothes left to pawn.
Orwell describes hunger in a very personal way, “You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.” In another passage, he writes that “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything….” And again, “Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger….” Yet, on the full side of the Thanksgiving feasting tables, we read more Republican rants about bootstraps and the poor making their way without sufficient food or support?
Orwell writes with relief in Paris of finding a job as a dishwasher. The hours are punishing and wage theft is standard, all of which continue to be true for much of precarious employment in the same cities and throughout the world.
“…I set to work rather hurriedly. Except for about an hour, I was at work from seven in the morning till a quarter past nine at night; first at washing crockery, then at scrubbing the tables and floors of the employees’ dining-room, then at polishing glasses and knives, then at fetching meals, then at washing crockery again, then at fetching more meals and washing more crockery…The work did not seem difficult, and I felt that this job would suit me. It was not certain, however, that it would continue, for I had been engaged as an ‘extra’ for the day only at twenty-five francs. The sour-faced doorkeeper counted out the money, less fifty centimes, which he said was for insurance (a lie, I discovered afterwards).”
Besides the fact that Orwell was a gifted observer of his own condition and circumstance, as well as the economic and social conditions around him, it is unsettling to think that 80 years later we have still done so little to deal with inequality and precariousness.
Orwell shares a caveat in this regard though that is worth remembering, because it is less art that holds the answer that A. O. Smith is searching for than social movements. Orwell warns that,
“A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or hundred others to back him, he will show it.”