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.

Cities Housing Workers for the Rich in Resort Zones

Worker Housing in Vail

Worker Housing in Vail

New Orleans  In the popular ski resort and playground towns of the mountain west like Vail and Breckenridge, Colorado or Jackson, Wyoming, home of former vice-president Dick Cheney and many of the mega-rich, housing prices are as steep as the mountains themselves, sometimes soaring to $5 million a pop. Average home price sales increased by almost a quarter in the last year in Jackson to $1.2 million a house.

Who cares, because that’s the problem for the rich, and they can afford it, but what about the serfs on these snow mounds where the classic contradictions of American inequality are rampant. There are more service sector jobs on offer than there are workers who can grab them and many of them are forced to pay more than the minimum wage, but workers can’t afford to live in these towns that draw immigrant and itinerant labor like magnets. The stories of workers’ commutes throughout the mountain west and their desperate living conditions are now commonplace in feature stories in High Country News, published in Colorado and even The New York Times.

Nothing new about all that, but what is it about a town with a permanent population of hardly 5000 people like Vail that has this peanut sized city becoming the owner of 3200 units of affordable worker housing with plans to spend $30 million more to add to it? Other cities have converted motels into worker dormitories, build condos, and hired city employees to make sure that affordable city rental units are not being re-purposed as vacation rentals on the scam.

Two questions come to mind?

First, why are the ski resort businesses not being forced to provide more decent and affordable housing for their workers?

Secondly, and more importantly, if these small, rich towns can saddle up and build and maintain affordable worker housing, why can’t more cities around the country accept the same responsibility?

For more than thirty years the federal government has been disinvesting in the housing markets in urban American and slimming down their public housing inventory. Other than some few exceptions, like New York City, that prove the rule, most cities do not take the initiative to support or build affordable housing for workers that would also temper some of the housing shortages that have made housing costs and rent payments equal more than half of many worker’s living costs. This is true in many of the executive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, but it is also true in places like New Orleans as well that endure a disconnect between wages and rents.

In post-Katrina New Orleans there were numerous proposals for worker housing, but none of them got built and none of them were sponsored by the city or any level of government. There are now even private developer proposals for co-housing developments in the iconic Lower Ninth Ward.

We need cities and states to step up and shoulder a bigger share of the responsibility to provide affordable housing for lower waged workers and their families before we wake up and find all of urban America is Vail without the mountains, pricing out workers, while becoming playgrounds for the rich without a care or concern for the workers that make it all possible.

Medical Error is Literally Killing Us

MPP0435770New Orleans     When you go into a hospital or under a doctor’s care, you are literally putting your life in someone else’s hands.  When you’re sick and walk into a hospital, most of us would like to feel better crossing the door, finally we are someplace where someone will know what to do and take care of us.

            It’s a comforting thought, but talking to James Lieber about his recent book, Killer Care:  How Medical Error Became America’s Third Largest Cause of Death, and What Can Be Done About It, on Wade’s World strips away any allusion you might enjoy on that score.  The book subtitle has to almost be the longest ever, but it makes the main point quickly.  After cancer and heart disease, medical error is our largest killer in the United States.        

            We’ve all heard about the mix-ups in hospitals where they operate on the wrong arm or amputate the wrong leg.  Maybe you can’t escape human error, but how about reading the charts and using a marks-a-lot or something.  Lieber says they have made huge progress on this score, but then he remarked that “only” 30 patients a week continued to be wrong footed in this way.   As he talked, I quickly did the math, that’s more than 1500 deaths a year.  Damn!

            By now we’ve all heard the less than cheery warning to be careful going into a hospital because you can get sicker in there than on the outside.  Largely they are talking about the various forms of staph infections that are part of a constant guerrilla war against patients in hospitals.  All of which according to Lieber should be classified as medical error and all of which can be fairly easily corrected, though it takes accountability and care.  Lieber argues that if the federal government’s Center for Disease Control recommendations were strictly followed, this could be shelved permanently, but, sadly, these are just guidelines rather than required or “standard” practice.  Meanwhile he puts this number at 100,000 deaths per year.

            When not writing Killer Care or pieces for Social Policy which excerpts a section in the current issue, Lieber is a civil rights lawyer based in Pittsburgh.  I asked him why there’s not more litigation on medical error.  I would have thought there would be lines miles long in front of courthouses around the country.  Part of the problem is the difficulty of proving malpractice if such doctors and hospitals followed “standard” practice, which may be why good solid guidelines are not regulations.  Lieber did remind everyone that they have the right when they go into a hospital to demand to see the history of the room which would allow them to find out if there has been a backlog of infection there so that they can move elsewhere.  That’s worth remembering!

            Some states have stepped up, and Lieber claimed some of the best protections are in Pennsylvania.  That’s a long way for most of us to travel, but in the meantime, it might be worth reading Killer Care and pushing back on doctors and hospitals to “do no harm.”

Where is The Line Between Good Advice and Crass Marketing?

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Advise and photo from The Guardian

New Orleans    Recently, I read that the well-known progressive newspaper based in the United Kingdom, The Guardian, has established a special section on its website called “protest.” Wow, I thought, now we’re talking! And, truth to tell, I’ve started making it a point to regularly check it out every couple of days. I’m not saying this new feature is going to end up on everyone’s weekly “to do” list, but what can I say…it’s on mine.

If I remember correctly I had gotten the heads-up from some columnist who saw this Guardian feature as a “sign of the times” kind of thing indicating that protests were becoming constant and ubiquitous. Oh, how I wish! A regular reading indicates the opposite. Sometimes it’s pretty thin gruel as The Guardian tries to keep hope alive in this section to tell the truth.

And, sometimes it’s just plain troubling.

I read a piece by Tess Riley identified as a Guardian journalist and a former student campaigner entitled Three Steps to Building a Successful Student Campaign. Not surprisingly the section on communication given her career choice was stronger than some of the other “steps.” For the most part it was all pretty standard, cookbook style recommendations: wear comfortable shoes to a march, use “strong visuals” in protests, and the like. Community organizing made her list, but was obviously a bit outside her experience and just sort of taken off the shelf as she wrote:

This grassroots approach seeks to find out what people want or need by listening to their stories. By finding common themes, organisers can mobilise neighbours through shared concerns to bring about change.

Obviously this is not my cup of tea since it continues to propagandize a spin on the work that is somehow separate from building an organization, seeing people simply as a base to be mobilized, and trying to dilute the power of issues and anger in some milquetoast whitewash called “their stories.” But, that’s just me.

More disturbing was finding by the end of Riley’s piece the real point seemed less about The Guardian giving students a shot at making change, but more about The Guardian doing self-promotion of something they were calling Guardian Students, which seems like a scam to sell students on the need to read The Guardian. Fair enough, they have to pay their bills too, but equating social change and sales felt sketchy to me. It made me question whether or not the “protest” section was really about the news and getting the word out about important actions people are taking than just pandering to eyeballs like mine to drive traffic to their website and the ads running along the side of articles. Was I a supporter or a sucker?

I should have known. I had read a book several months ago that warned me, and any others that might care, about the role of the Gates Foundation is playing in slanting the spin on development through their sponsorship of the Global Development section of The Guardian.

We need the news and regular and reliable news on things like protest, poverty, and development is hard to find, but where is the line drawn between good advice and crass marketing, their drive to survive at any cost, and our interest in fair and objective information. Where is the section that will explain to us whether we are players or being played?

Joint Employer Status Sure is Confusing – and Important!

254-time-clock-484107197-738x415tsNew Orleans    In the world of workers what should be the simplest question to answer is becoming one of the most confusing, and important. The question is: who do I work for? The answer, too often these days, is god only knows? To make matters even more complicated both the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division are trying to come up with more coherent way of solving the mystery of who is really the responsible employer fitted to modern working conditions. And, that’s the good news, though the differing definitions are still going to leave many workers lost in a quandary.

The McDonalds’s cases brought before the NLRB by the Service Employees in their Fight for $15 organizing campaign to try and hold the parent company responsible for unfair labor practices by the franchisees is going to sort this out, one way or another, in some ways for unions in coming years. Additionally, the NLRB has allowed unions to file more easily – at least in theory – for bargaining units including directly employed and subcontracted workers as joint employers. Not sure how well that is going yet? I know Local 100 United Labor Unions raised the issue in bargaining with nursing homes to see if we could automatically accrete any housekeeping or dietary units that might be subcontracted in the future, and we didn’t get as far as we could spit with the issue, but it was an interesting conversation and a warning to the employer that we now thought we had a tool to jam up the works, if they went that direction, which many homes had gone in the past.

The DOL is going several different ways in trying to straighten out a path to the future, but none of this reads easily. One digest I read summarized it this way:

“Horizontal joint employment,” the guidance says, occurs when an employee works for two or more employers that are separate only in a technical sense. “Vertical joint employment” occurs when one employer uses an intermediary, like a staffing agency, to employ workers with whom it maintains what amounts to an employer relationship.

I hope that’s clear!

With the NLRB the issue revolves around who controls the workplace. The DOL seems to be looking at how high the walls are between workers in the same workplace. If it’s a captive entity with only a thin layer of Sheetrock between one and the other, they are joint. In some cases it also seems the test is likely to move towards who has the deepest pockets as well. Since we are talking about wages and hours, I would bet who really controls the time-clock on the job also could have a heavier burden on any pay violation in this area.

In these days and times, we pretty much have to wait until the lawyers and courts get through with finding the holes and trying to plug them up. The good news for workers is bound to be that they will be better for the struggle to clarify the mess, but it’s hard not to get a sinking feeling for unions and for many workers we are a long way from fixing this problem of “button, button, whose got the button” when it comes to grabbing an employer and holding the boss accountable for fair wages for a day’s labor.