Techies are Turning White Collars Dark Blue

Amazon warehouse

Amazon warehouse

New Orleans    The first shots are being fired in a workplace battleground where workers have been living the myth that their status was protected and their bosses were their protectors. Modern technology, tech companies, and perhaps even the government are on the verge of completing the process of turning white collar workers into blue collar wage slaves and observers are taking note of the war, even as it may have already been lost.

Driving to work, I heard a radio disc jockey express so much horror about what he was hearing and reading about workplace practices for white collar workers at Amazon that he was claiming reservations about continuing to shop there. More Amazon workers were parsing the problem of workers breaking down in the intense competition in tears at their desk cubicles with the number weeping in the women’s bathrooms, which must define a distinction without a difference. Cartoonists at newspapers are having a field day on Amazon. Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of Amazon took his hand off the whip for a minute, after refusing to be interviewed, and wrote a note to his 180,000 workers and said he didn’t “recognize” the “Amazon where he works” with the cries of current and former white collar worker abuse. He suggested they email him personally if they felt under the gun, which is about as likely as hell freezing over.

Blue collar workers have endured more than a century of tight time management by the clock and by the task, usually with a supervisor hovering over them. Now it’s coming to white collar workers, and there won’t be happiness in corporate land.

Part of this is attributed to new technology devices and applications that allow white collars to be as tightly tracked as blue collars have long been. At the simplest level workers are having to punch in on their smartphones and computers, but at the most sophisticated level their computers and devices have an extra set of eyes nudging, clocking, and monitoring them constantly. In many situations, white collar workers are being converted into drones managed by joy stick jockeys miles away in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Bentonville, and beyond.

As more white-collar tasks have also been globalized and made redundant, and tech has become wildly competitive, bosses are naturally going to want to make sure that their mid-managers and white collar workers are as productive as their blue collar workers. General Electric is moving real time evaluations for white collar workers on smartphones. Apps and companies called Workday, Timesheets, BetterWorks, and Anytime Feedback have institutionalized Big Brother in the workplace. In fact the founder of Timesheets.com was quoted in the Times saying, “We tell people not to focus on the Big Brother aspect. This is all efficiency.” Wow, buddy, is there a pill for that to go with the app?

A majority of salaried workers are saying that they work over 50 hours per week. New DOL rules that have been proposed would make workers paid less than $50,000 per year eligible for overtime. Undoubtedly, in coming months micromanagement of white collars will accelerate in anticipation of the new regulations and clearer penalties. Bosses will say the government requires tighter time records now for such workers, and they will feel even more righteous about getting every minute of work they can get squeeze out of these white collars.

Millions are going to be singing the blue collar blues soon. Some may even start to understand why unions are important and wish those kind of things were knocking on their doors these days.

Did the Supremes Just Open Up Tactics and Speech?

The signs that created a fuss

the sign that created a fuss

New Orleans    Here’s one none of us saw coming. The Supreme Court in a unanimous decision in Reed vs. the Town of Gilbert in Arizona found that the city council had stepped over the line by barring a sign for a religious meeting, because it interfered with political signs put up by candidates for local election. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for six of the Justices and in dismissing the Gilbert ordinance shifted the way freedom of speech is viewed from merely “strict scrutiny” of content, generally seen as the government’s attempt to curtail speech with which it disagrees to include topics. Or as The New York Times’ reporter, Adam Liptak noted,

Any law that singles out a topic for regulation, he said, discriminates based on content and is therefore presumptively unconstitutional.

In the two months since the decision based on Reed, cases have been overturned involving panhandling, elections, robocalls. Liptak details these turnabouts well, saying:

“The majority opinion in Reed effectively abolishes any distinction between content regulation and subject-matter regulation,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. “Any law distinguishing one kind of speech from another by reference to its meaning now requires a compelling justification.” That same week, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., agreed that Reed had revised the meaning of content neutrality. “Reed has made clear,” the court said, that “the government’s justification or purpose in enacting the law is irrelevant” if it singles out topics for regulation. The court struck down a South Carolina law that barred robocalls on political and commercial topics but not on others.

Some lawyers are speculating that the Supremes knee jerked on the stupidity of the Gilbert council without fully thinking about the consequences of going with Thomas on his expansion of speech rights. As Liptak notes, regulations on consumer protection, financial securities, and communications are all “topics,” and would be “presumptively unconstitutional,” meaning they would have to be proven otherwise.

While the big whoops sort this out at 30,000 feet, organizers on the ground may have just seen the ceiling demolished for tactics that had been increasingly endangered and now should be reexamined.

For example more and more communities have tried to outlaw the classic community organizing tactic of suiting up, jumping on the school buses, and heading for the suburbs to publicly shame a campaign target to his neighbors and friends for his business practices or oppositional position. How have these ordinances and statutes handled the content and topic question? The window is now wide open, so it’s worth looking!

Panhandling is a litmus test for example. Usually, these “begging” ordinances have only prevailed when municipal jurisdictions are able to conceal restrictions behind arguments about public safety and traffic regulations. Some of that has fallen by the wayside in recent years through other decisions. In New Orleans and numerous other cities where courts had broken bad on “tagging,” which is solicitation for donations at traffic lights, it is now legal again, and the restrictions against it are unenforceable. Street solicitation that attempts to be regulated through costly registration and location restrictions to stop not only panhandlers but also “chuggers,” as they are fondly called in England, short for “charity muggers,” and those seeking support for campaigns, organizations, and other issues would all seem to be unconstitutional under the Reed decision.

And, how about the extensive regulation of signs and speech for workers and their unions around boycotts, strikes, healthcare facilities, and the like. Are these not “topics” and therefore subject to “strict scrutiny” and presumed to be unconstitutional? I’m no lawyer but it would seem to this organizer that the sky just opened again for a wider expression of organizational speech and tactics.

Until this sorts out, keep in mind the brilliant explanation and amazing metaphor offered by the Times’ Liptak:

Strict scrutiny requires the government to prove that the challenged law is “narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.” You can stare at those words as long as you like, but here is what you need to know: Strict scrutiny, like a Civil War stomach wound, is generally fatal.

If we still have the troops in the field and the boots on the grounds for effective protest, it’s time to get stepping and let our voices roar!

ConnectHome is Not Enough to Bridge the Digital Divide

connect-home-e1437087538673New Orleans     In Durant, Oklahoma in the heart of the Choctaw Nationa, President Obama essentially likened his new program, ConnectHome, to a “dreamweaver,” saying that America has “an interest in making sure [young people] can achieve [their] dreams.”   The pilot program is touted as providing internet access to 275000 households containing 200000 children in 27 cities and one Native American tribal area. The program developed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development chose the cities competitively and the list is wide ranging including a little bit for everyone in Albany, GA; Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Baton Rouge, LA; Boston, MA; Camden, NJ; Choctaw Nation, OK; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Durham, NC; Fresno, CA; Kansas City, MO; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles, CA; Macon, GA; Memphis, TN; Meriden, CT; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Rockford, IL; San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; Springfield, MA; Tampa, FL; and Washington, DC.

Looking at the details, though this is a very, very, very little bit for anyone. This is not a bridge across the digital divide so much as a small ball of twine pitched over a ravine pretending to be a rope bridge. While low-and-moderate income families are falling to the bottom, Wiley Coyote style, let’s look at the devilish details.

It’s not free. It’s some free. Supposedly, Google Fiber is going to offer some free Internet connections to some, but certainly not all, public housing residents in Atlanta, Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri, and Nashville. Those are the fortunate ones. For the rest of the supposed beneficiaries with little thanks to eight different internet providers they might qualify to pay $9.95 per month. The announcement from the White House and other reports are also vague on whether all of the rest really will be offered the $9.95 plan, so there may be more sadness to come in other housing projects.

This is the same bait-and-switch on closing the digital divide that we have seen earlier with Comcast that has under-performed and scammed on the program, even though it was expressly required by the FCC as a condition of its merger with NBC/Universal, and became one of many Achilles heels that blocked the Comcast monopoly acquisition of Times-Warner Cable. Had Comcast spent any money on anything other than public relations to make the program work, many times a quarter million households around the country, including in housing projects, would already have internet.

The New York Times in their puff piece about the ConnectHome program called out Cox Communications for special praise as one the eight providers. Unlike the Times we don’t have memory loss about this. Cox was also one of the companies that the FCC had previously touted as having volunteered, along with Times-Warner, to institute a $9.95 plan without an FCC order, just out of the goodness of their corporate heart, much like this pilot. In Baton Rouge and New Orleans efforts by ACORN, Local 100, and our allies, were completely unsuccessful in finding as much as heartbeat for their initiative. One spokesperson for the company in New Orleans claimed that they had tried putting out the word for a couple of weeks in the school district, though no one could remember what happened or exactly when or knew if anyone had gotten the word to sign-up, and they refused to commit to allowing us to spread the word, because no one locally was sure if the program continued. Welcome to nothing.

When ACORN negotiated with Rogers, one of the big three telecoms in Canada, the company almost immediately agreed to provide a $9.95 program for all public housing residents in Toronto, and has subsequently improved the program as we made further demands. Friends, these companies make money on these plans, this is no “favor” to the poor, but a business opportunity on the low end of the market. Although I should add, that it depends on whether a family can qualify, which has also been the Comcast problem for many as the company dredged up unpaid bills at the addresses from years ago as excuses not to approve applicants who made it through their rat maze.

Julian Castro, the new head of HUD, wants to make this a signature program in the little time he has to make a mark at the agency, but what he is talking about is making broadband connections part of the embedded infrastructure of newly built housing. Unfortunately there’s not much being built, and basically that just saves money for the internet providers.

Obama has been doing better at this stuff. This program is a back slide. This is just a head fake example of the common deceit of neoliberalism’s false promises of public-private partnerships where the government aids and abets and the public gets squat. And, in this case the digital divide just gets wider.

Productive Democracy

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 12.22.57 PMNew Orleans    Talking to my friend and comrade, the learned and brilliant professor from the embattled University of Wisconsin, Joel Rogers, I asked him if he was taking any incoming from the Governor Walker Wars being waged against anything not goose stepping to the Republican far right wing and its master donors. I knew the answer was inevitably, “yes,” and in good humor mixed with exasperation, Joel shared with me some of the more easily dismissed and trivial attacks, but in the same email he thoughtfully included his essay on “Productive Democracy” from The Nation’s 150th anniversary issue. Not surprisingly, that was much, much more interesting.

Joel is a big thinker and, often more troubling to the enemies of the people, a big doer as well. Reading “Productive Democracy,” I realized this was something I knew well, and had heard somewhat in previous iterations in work and presentations that Joel had made over the years, but had now been refined to a sharper point through constant renovation and continual reflection. The essay had all of the Rogers’ hallmarks: soaring rhetoric made more palatable by wry humor and depreciating switchbacks; a habitual fondness for fabricated abbreviations of course converting productive democracy to PD, while claiming to not care what it might be called; and a signature chart comparing neoliberalism, social democracy, and productive democracy to the strong benefit of PD. I ate all of this up like candy, if for no other reason than the fact that Joel and I share an old fashioned, naïve but overarching belief and commitment in democracy and embracing the necessary a priori of the peoples, or the public as Joel writes, participation in all affairs of public policy and governance. There you have it, I’ve now confessed that Rogers’ work gives me an intellectual hideaway when I’m accused of being a hopeless political romantic, so on to his argument.

Some of his case for PD is straightforward. He believes that there is a valid role for government producing citizen wealth. He is unabashedly clear that modern democracy must be urban-centered, noting that 12% of the USA population lives in the top 100 metropolitan areas and produces three-quarters of our annual GDP and houses two-thirds of our total population. He argues for early life investments as a social prophylactic for longer term and more expensive social problems. Fair trade, broadly understood, with shared benefits throughout the chain is also critical. These are hardly radical positions and solidly within the progressive tradition. Rogers though also stands tall for guaranteed annual income, which is a necessity if we are to build a more equitable society, yet still abhorrent to virtually all politicians and their sycophants.

Creatively, he argues for a clear rule on monetizing “the commons,” meaning essentially direct distribution to our people of income produced from access to public properties whether land or airwaves. He believes we have to deflate the role of the judiciary and, fearlessly, inflate the role of the legislature with the important condition that these elected representatives be chained to public participation and mandates. He opines that we should also pay for some of these PD programs with a progressive consumption tax that would be triggered at the level we might all agree was excessive and conspicuous. He believes that the USA should invest in “global public goods” in order to allow all boats to rise. There’s also a strong anti-bureaucracy, knocking on the door libertarian streak to some of his arguments. This is heady, radical, and exciting stuff.

Rogers understands the “base” is fundamental to any of this happening. I think I had mentioned earlier he is a doer, more than a dreamer. He closes this way:

Finally (and this goes to the question of “base”), nothing I’ve argued for here is remote from human­ity’s evident desire. All around the world—a world in which the United States has far less limiting power than in the recent past—billions of people are repelled by the effects of predatory capitalism and would grab at a plausible democratic alternative. For most people, the choice between further degradation and a plausible route to greater security and freedom is an easy one. I think productive democracy offers people that choice. Progressives should put it before them.

And there comes reality, the tormentor of the best laid plans of mice and men, and an improbable, but scalable, wall that confronts us. As progressives and as true democrats, we don’t suffer from a lack of innovative and exciting ideas and formulations, but from a dearth of mass-based institutions and formations able to suit up to carry our banners and win the battles of the day. That’s a crisis, like that of our democracy, and one that shouts and cries for action.

Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:

TO: MINIMUM WAGE WORKING GROUP

As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.

Confusing Minimum Wages with Living Wages

minimum-wageNew Orleans    The back and forth between raising minimum wages and winning living wages or at least more livable wages gets confusing at the confluence of policy and politics, tactics and strategy, and that’s not helping us either nationally or locally.

First a story. In 1978, in New Orleans, we began an organizing drive to build the Household Workers Organizing Committee. Our first campaign was designed to organize household workers or “maids,” as many called them then to force employers enjoying maximum power in this historically burdened profession over their domestic workers, to have to pay the federal minimum wage covering these workers for the first time. At streetcar and bus stops, early in the morning, headed to the wealthier neighborhoods by Lake Ponchartrain or uptown along St. Charles Avenue, I would fan out with our team of organizers to talk to workers about signing a petition demanding enforcement of the minimum wage. Many were making one-dollar or less per hour with bus fare and lunch counted against their wage. Mandatory payments of Social Security withholding by employers were rare as hen’s teeth. Here’s the punch line for today though. When we would tell the women that they were now going to be covered under the minimum wage of $1.65, they would almost always talk to us and themselves about being paid the “top wage,” which was how they saw the bump, and needless to say, few expected there was any real chance that they would be paid the new minimum, and they were probably right to some degree.

A minimum wage is just what it says. The very least that can be legally paid. It is not a maximum wage or even a “top” wage. In fact workers, their unions, and others that value people’s work and labor should want to pay fairly and pay more, but they categorically cannot pay less.  The Fight for $15 has been valuable in raising the issue of wages, especially for fast food workers, and in several labor markets like Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles it has helped set a standard of sorts. In many cities there is a tension though between the fight to establish and win higher minimum standards for all workers and the campaigners for $15 driven by the publicity and demands in other cities.

Either way, we have always argued for fairer wages in various cities and states on two grounds: one, that workers needed and deserved fair and increased pay, and, secondly, that an insignificant number of jobs, if any, would be lost by doing so. A study reported in The New York Times seems to indicate that holding onto to the $15 banner in many cities may perilously undermine our argument about job loss and could dangerously erode our political support for the righteousness of our cause. The economists essentially argued that a wage bump that was NO HIGHER than 50% above the median income could likely be absorbed, which is certainly the case in New York City and Seattle, but that we were on thin ice over unknown waters at 60% and higher. The list of those cities was long in the study and included Los Angeles which is on the $15 track now, but also Columbus, Charlotte, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, and Minneapolis. Over 70% of median by 2020 the cities would include Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

We have argued before that we needed a standard that might be triggered to the cost of housing in many of these cities on the more adverse side of $15 per hour. More recently we have started finding some success at $10 and $10.55 an hour for various categories of workers in Houston and New Orleans. We need to keep fighting for $15 so that the debate remains focused, but we need to actually win increases for workers, especially those that are stuck bargaining for wages over the $7.25 legal federal minimum, and in so doing recognize that a 50% wage bump to $10 an hour or over is a life changing victory for them, and, as the Country & Western song says, “something we can be proud of” if and when we win.