Going Deep in the Tenderloin with Randy Shaw

DSCN1177San Francisco   When I lasted visited with Randy Shaw at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic about a year ago, the Tenderloin Museum was nearing opening day, and he offered a personal tour the next time I was in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer this trip.

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Randy is a now a long time fixture in the Tenderloin as a housing and tenant organizer and lawyer of several decades standing, as well as an author of several books on organizing and, more recently, on the Tenderloin itself. The Tenderloin, as the name of the neighborhood in downtown San Francisco implies, speaks colorfully to its own history as the favored location for the pursuit of sometimes open and sometimes illicit pleasure of different forms for generations whether that be dancing or gambling, wine, women, work, or song. It was also the longtime home near the heart of the San Francisco labor movement and of huge and important tenant struggles, some of which Shaw was in the middle of as well, which have arguably made the small, dense blocks of the Tenderloin perhaps the last working class, semi-affordable neighborhood in this high-flying executive city where average home prices now top $2 million.

DSCN1179The Tenderloin Museum does a good job in a well-organized, nicely crafted space in telling the diverse story of the community’s history and struggles, as well as importantly it’s people, whether immigrants or workers or writers and artists. Amazingly, as I walked through the museum with Shaw, I looked up and there was an illuminated map of the Tenderloin and its streets, dramatically underscoring the diverse history and stories of the space.

The quick tour of the museum turned out to be only a prelude to a fuller understanding of the way Shaw and the housing clinic have used their base and experience in the area to be developers steering the very future of how people will come to see the Tenderloin in coming years. The museum of course anchors the history, but walking these short blocks from Shaw’s office, we popped our heads into a construction site, where a restaurant, the Black Cat, is taking shape, which they support as cheerleaders and investors. Several blocks from the museum and the cat, at 236 Leavenworth we walked into an art gallery displaying work by Tenderloin artists or artists with a connection to the neighborhood that was surprise in and of itself.

DSCN1181Another couple of blocks away Shaw greeted the director of a space opening this week that they fondly called the Octopus because of the giant murals of fish and sea creatures dominated of course by the octopus itself. Dave Eggers, the noted author and another impresario in the literature, art, and cultural world, had found his match in Shaw as the primary promoter of the Tenderloin and its treasurers and was on the eve of opening a huge space to mentor young writers in one section, supported by retail in another. Last minute painting was still being done by the muralists, video crews were coming in, and the organizers saluted Shaw on his recent coup of getting the Mayor to the opening to launch the space.

Anywhere else in San Francisco all of this might have added up to the first shots coming from the guerrilla troops of the gentrifiers, but in these subtle statements behind numbered doors, it was clear that instead – at least for now – I was getting to watch value being added to the community that was understated, but appropriate and significant to what we can still hope is a bastion for the future of the city where people may still have a place.

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Overtime Rule is One Thing, Enforcement is Another

iStock_000015098858MediumSan Jose   It’s official now. Starting December 1st, a bit more than six months from now, salaried employees making less than about $47,000 per year or $913 a week will be eligible for overtime pay at time-and-one-half of their effective hourly rate. The last adjustment in 2004 was a bit over $23,000 or $455 per week. Importantly, embedded in the rule is a regular adjustment every three years, so in 2020 the Department of Labor estimates that overtime eligibility will be $51,000. Earlier estimates targeted the impact as potentially effecting more than 5 million workers. Restaurant and other trade associations have indicated continued opposition, but no matter the sound and fury, the impact of this new rule will be huge one way or another.

At the least the new rule mandates a much closer accounting of hours for workers that have been salaried in the range of an effective rate of between $12 per hour and $23 per hour, which will require an obvious adjustment for many employers. The reckoning will not just come in the area of the standard workweek. Any regular meetings, conventions, seminars, and other work-related events that had been automatic for salaried workers in that range will now potentially trigger overtime. And, if not, overtime adjustments in workers’ schedules or exclusion from such events. Travel time has always been a contentious issue for hourly workers, and we can expect a deluge of transitional controversies for such workers now.

Increases before 2004 were more minimal, allowing employers to potentially meet the overtime requirements by raising minimum salaries above the threshold, giving workers a nice raise and avoiding the problems. We can expect that a doubling of the rate will not be met by most employers with an across the board raise of ten or fifteen thousand a year, but some who are close might bump workers over.

Opponents insist that this will mean reduced hours for many salaried workers, and that sounds right, but that’s also fair. Reduced hours for salaried workers does not mean less income than they are receiving now, but at least it means less work for the same amount of money. Workers given fewer hours will either have more leisure or more opportunity to do other work rather than being tied to more hours at the same pay with their primary employer.

My bet though is that this transition will be hard and that the Department of Labor will be swamped with both questions from workers, newly eligible for overtime, and with complaints from many workers whose employers are hoping they can wink-and-nod rather than tightening hours or paying overtime. In city after city where minimum wage increases have been won, we have all found that often the key to whether or not workers actually benefit from the changes is whether or not there is real provision for enforcement. Enforcement means rules with teeth and personnel. There’s no indication that Congress has suddenly beefed up the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, and they are already lagging in enforcing the existing minimum wage and overtime rules.

For workers to get the benefits claimed by this new rule and actually see increases in real income, it will take a change in employer mindset and enforcement to make sure that employer hearts and minds are forced to change. That change will be harder to realize than the process of simply establishing a new rule. Until then the jury is out on whether or not real wages will increase for salaried workers at the level projected.

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Building Trades Unions Playing Role of Roaring Mouse

AFL-CIO_Headquarters,_Washington,_D.CDenver   Hey, give ‘em a break, the Democrats can’t stand to have the Republicans getting all of the attention for their splits, factions, and divisions, so it was only a matter of time before they got in the act. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s a family fight that starts with an argument about money and the company other parts of the family are keeping, and then ends up with demands about getting a job and working for a living. The difference is that the family is the fractious house of labor, which is pretty much always a house divided among itself, the bad company are billionaires and environmentalists, and the jobs are a spat over work now on such controversial projects as the Keystone pipeline coupled with a devil may care view of any future consequences.

All of this was so predictable. Once there was a big announcement that the two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had joined with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the three big, almost exclusively public worker unions, along with billionaire, environmental funder, West Coast political aspirant, and former hedge fund operator, Tom Steyer, to create a get-out-the-vote bankroll for certain battleground states in November, you could just smell trouble. The Service Employees had reportedly considered joining and then opted out, which was another sign of dark clouds building, since they had frequently been in alliance with Steyer on other projects and a comfortable part of the Democracy Alliance, a prominent political player among rich liberals. The ante to get in the game was one million dollars for each player, and Steyer was going to throw in five million to match it up to more than ten million.

Stopping for a second, what did any of the labor unions have to gain? The big union political players would have ponied up anyway, along with the AFL-CIO unions, big and small, to try and put $60 to $100 million into the election one way or another. SEIU certainly will spend a pile regardless. In recent years, Steyer has leveraged his money more and more around climate issues, so his interest in pledging to move more money with his own is clear, and his interest in publicity for a possible race in California is a matter of wide speculation. I suspect that’s part of why SEIU bowed out, but that’s just a guess.

Now we have a mess. The building trades unions not only have their own federation within the larger AFL-CIO federation through the Building Trades Council, that works as a world unto itself, but really should be in a federation of their own since most of the unions operate in a night to day different fashion compared to the industrial, service, and public unions. Nonetheless, the trades couldn’t seem to stop themselves from bringing their sense of permanent grievance to the table. They are only truly happy when they are the small tail wagging the dog. So, they joined behind the largest of their number, the Laborers, to pen a couple of protest letters to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, complaining about billionaires, hedge funders, job killers, and the enviros. Not that Trumka seems to have had much to do with this from what anyone can tell. The point was to get to pout in the press at the public unions and the company they keep.

What they seemed to have achieved was simply a widespread, public notice of the accelerating weakness of labor even in the political arena which, until recently, had been one of the last bright spots for unions. So, sure none of this GOTV PAC money deal makes any real sense, but that still doesn’t justify the trades’ tactics. With little ability to relieve themselves outside of the tent, they seem more than happy making a mess inside it.

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Is Squatting Back? No, It Never Stopped!

HomeSweetHome2New Orleans   There was a breathless article in the New York Times with a Las Vegas dateline purporting to have found something new under the sun, at least the desert sun, and the discovery was squatters. The sources attesting to the fact that the sky was falling and the horror of it all were, unsurprisingly, the police and neighbors.

The Vegas police began counting statistics several years ago of complaints being filed with the department alleging that there were squatters in the neighborhood. According to the report, “… there were more than 4,000 complaints last year, up 43 percent from 2014 and more than twice as many as in 2012.” Numerous neighbors were interviewed, particularly in high-end neighborhoods where squatters had taken over houses pushing the million dollar mark complete with swimming pools. Oh, my!

The one side of the story missing was of course any discussion from any of the actual so-called squatters. The police couched their side of the story in lurid tales of drug dens, counterfeiters, burglars, and the like. One story felt to be especially poignant was a confrontation with children of one family where a child produced a copy of a lease and the police wove a tale from the family of paying someone in cash monthly at a casino. The whine here was that it takes the police time to investigate whether the lease is valid and so forth and so on.

Where in the world are people imagining that families whose homes were foreclosed by the tens of thousands and even millions went? Is there a fairy tale somewhere that they all just got a U-Haul and moved happily ever after to affordable housing on the other side of town? Poppycock! The reporter also added in the story that squatting was also a common problem in places like Florida and Detroit. Who are we kidding? People have been squatting in houses in Detroit for decades for goodness sake.

They have also been squatting in the foreclosure “zone” of America in high numbers ever since the financial crisis and the housing meltdown. Five or six years ago in Phoenix, I stood with a couple in front of the house they thought they were renting and preparing to buy as they surveyed the block in a neighborhood of low-slung brick houses in the city. They pointed from house to house the ones that were vacant, the ones where families were living after the house had already been foreclosed, the ones where families were living waiting for foreclosure, the ones that new families were trying to occupy to buy, and the minority that tended to be older families that were stable. In their case they were later evicted after it turned out that the money they were paying to secure the house in lieu of a deposit was being collected by someone who was not in complete possession of the house. Where they squatters or just suckers desperate to believe a story perhaps too good to be true? Well, yes, in the eyes of the police maybe, but what were they really other than victims of a triple scam of sorts at the end of the line of multiple foreclosures.

What’s the beef here? Would these homes in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada and similar foreclosure zones be better off boarded, vacant, and deteriorating and duplicating too many abandoned areas in Detroit, Buffalo, Philly, and elsewhere? Or would they be better off with families trying to make them homes again? Are the cities of the South and Southwest going to learn a different lesson than the cities of the Midwest and Northeast? Vacant houses in sufficient number will be vandalized. There’s a guarantee that comes with those homes.

There’s nothing new about squatting and scams, but there would be something new with public policy that matched houses that need people with people that need houses. Learning that lesson would be big news everywhere!

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Haters Going to Hide: The Trump Story Revealed

BN-ND016_IMMIGR_P_20160316182315New Orleans   There’s hardly room in the newspapers and weekly magazines these days for other news between the pulling of hair and rending of clothes by all of the pundits and data dogs about how they miscalculated the odds on the Trump nomination and their fumbling around trying to figure out the “who” of the Trump voter.  Judging by an article in Harper’s as one prominent example, the temptation is going to be to stereotype his voting base as whacko haters. 

Big, big mistake.  You can’t have a demagogue without the demos, the people, boiling with anger, and the candidate ready to meet it and move it forward.

Pew Research has also weighed in with some frightening news:  haters are not just going to hate, they’re going to hide.  Pew found that internet polls compared to telephone polling was finding another 8% or more of Trump support that was not willing to come clean talking to a semi-real person on the blower.  These are the monkey wrench folks everywhere in America who see a chance to flup the stuff up and show all of them, whoever they are, that they want to be heard and not just heard, but heeded.

Even more dangerous to my lights is that they are fired up and aren’t going to take it anymore, while Clinton supporters are on autopilot, snoring through the rallies or playing with their smartphones, while Rome is burning. 

The biggest fantasy is that Trump is going to change.  Not only is that not going to happen, but there’s every indication that behind the scenes, he’s getting high-fives and “git ‘r dones” from Republican politicians right and righter from Speaker Paul Ryan on down.  Whatever the rationale or fairytales they are telling themselves to try and put clothes on the emperor, they are almost universally in kowtow mode. 

Here’s hoping that women save us, and that Hillary actually figures out sooner rather than later how to play that card.  Reading about Trump’s private and personal interactions with women behind the scenes is a muckraker’s view of the slaughterhouse and the meat market.  Objectification is too long and dainty a word to describe the permanent, leering appraisal that seems to be Trump’s default.  This is a dirty old man!  And, he has been that way forever it seems.

Trump defines transactional politics devoid of principles of any sort.  In that sense he is the perfect representative of the modern political moment, almost startlingly transparent about the equation compared to all of the rest of the political class who try to hide the transactional nature of politics behind one artifice or another of pretense or philosophy.  As donors and opponents line up behind him, you can see the hopes for the main chance later, grifting the short game for the long. 

Sadly, there’s probably no better case study than Megyn Kelly, currently the queen of Fox News.  After being insulted in the vilest way by Trump and eviscerated by a boycott, she now props him for bringing her more attention, and exchanged her pride for an exclusive interview she hopes will propel her into the Oprah and Barbara Walters atmosphere.  She could have upped her game, instead she just signed up for the market exchange.

Here’s one thing for certain:  help America conserve water!  Take your daily shower after you read the morning papers, or you’ll have to take another one to wash off this filth before you leave the house. 

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Is Their Hope for Obamacare?

77639392New Orleans     A federal court somewhere gave new hope to the haters that the subsidies the Affordable Care Act to lower income families might be blocked.  The Administration says they will win on appeal.  But, this is only one cloud of many in the building thunderstorm.

            Insurance companies and those that follow them are almost universally saying that there will be significant price hikes in 2017.  Others are dropping by the wayside, largely because of their own bad pricing and marketing decisions, but nothing keeps them from finger pointing as they leave.  In many ways this was predictable.  As the signature legacy of President Obama, they are smart enough to wait until his long goodbye transitions into whatever and both he and Congress are lame ducks caught in a quacking stalemate, and roll up heavy on Clinton or Trump with the fait accompli

            Clinton has flirted towards the left with a vague proposal to potentially allow people 50 or 55 years of age to “buy into” Medicare, which would expand the coverage to millions more, if they have the money.  What it would still not do is solve any of the problems that continue to weigh heavily on Obamacare.

            Drug prices have continued to rise for example.  In fact, drug profiteering still seems a winning business plan despite the problems with Valeant and profiteers. 

            Charity requirements for nonprofits are still largely more pretense than policy.  Modern Healthcare reported 7 of the 10 most profitable hospitals of the top one-hundred in the country, according to a researcher at John Hopkins, were tax exempt nonprofits.  The three most profitable for profits were all part of the HCA chain and all three were in states like Texas and Florida that have not extended coverage under Obamacare.  Nonprofits were very well represented in the top 100, including Herman Memorial which has been the target of campaigns by Local 100 United Labor Unions and community allies in Houston and Ochsner, headquartered in New Orleans, which has also been called out for its miserly charity record.

            Emergency room doctors are reporting that half or more of the patients they are seeing are coming in late and with insurance, but had delayed seeking care because of the astronomical level of their deductibles, equivalent to having no insurance at all.   Employers of lower waged workers continue to develop such minimal coverage programs with impunity.  The coming year will see an even higher level of penalties appropriated against lower income workers who are running from the cost, deductibles, and copays, but will be caught by the mandated penalties.

            The bottom line is that, like any major piece of new potentially groundbreaking, safety net legislation there are problems.  There are pieces that beg to be fixed.  Meanwhile the deadlock in Congress simply lets the sores fester and pain endure without stepping up and fixing what is broken.  Health care continues to be a political football, as politicians maintain the fiction that this is all part of the game, rather than coming to terms with the fact that for many low and moderate income families, it’s life and death.

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