Los Angeles Leading on Living Wages Needs to Protect Flanks

IMG_0022New Orleans     Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is getting some attention in the second largest city in the United States with a proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017. The City Council is expected to approve the plan, and when enacted 37% of Los Angeles workers or 567000 people would get pay raises according to a study done by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center. All of this is on the backs of a recent vote by the City Council to set a wage floor for hotel workers in properties with 125 rooms or more to $15.37 per hour which still has that industry screaming and grinding their teeth.

It’s about time! It has been a mystery for years why community and labor-backed organizations in Los Angeles have not pulled the trigger and taken advantage of the ability to directly petition to put an increase on the ballot setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s $9 per hour, which is what led to San Francisco’s city minimum of $10.74 per hour now in effect. Not a huge mystery, since it might have been cheaper and easier to get the job done with contributions to election races rather than pull the weight to organize the necessary signatures and then get the vote out to win the election, although it would have built deeper organization and power for community and labor organizations.

Whatever. Better late than never, and perhaps this will put more wind in the sails of other cities and political jurisdictions in California to get the job done. Some conservative and business commentators are trying to argue that generations old reputation of Los Angeles as an anti-union, low wage mecca despite labor’s turnaround over the last 30 years is still evident in the generally lower average production/factory wages and overall wages that significantly trail San Francisco and Seattle which are also implementing higher minimum wages. The Chamber claims jobs will relocate elsewhere in Southern California, but that’s easier said than done especially given the huge role of the port and transportation infrastructure in the Los Angeles corridor which depends on proximity not distance.

We’ll see. Mayor Garcetti is not unmindful of the problem and says that he is lobbying other neighboring cities to buck up and raise their wages as well. This may be a question of “sticks and stones” rather than words though. The Mayor might do better at protecting his flank if he joined with living wage advocates and organizations to raise the funds to put living wage, minimum wage increases on the ballot in neighboring municipalities and let the voters decide. Putting minimum wage increases in the hands of the people when the wage is fair and the campaign is aggressive has been a winning strategy for the last 15 years, and could put Los Angeles at the head of the parade, rather than allowing it to march through Southern California by itself.

HUD Section 3: An Organizing Opportunity for Winning Jobs in Our Neighborhoods


Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 4.11.42 PMNew Orleans     Within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 3 is nothing new after 45 years of enactment, but it remains a powerful weapon for creating employment in low income communities that is more often left in the holster than used effectively.  Simply put, Section 3 requires HUD contractors to give what we used to call “first preference” to qualified residents when making new hiring decisions.  This is not a set aside for businesses like most of the programs, but an individually driven hiring program.  That is, if workers in the community know about it, if anyone in HUD or the local housing authorities are paying attention to it, and likely if there is an actual organization in the low income community kicking both of their buns to make sure Section 3 is not a dead letter but a real job creator.

            I was reminded of the power and promise of Section 3 and the too often pathetic performance by an article in Shelterforce by Katy Reckdahl that spoke of “lifting the fog on Section 3.”  Reading the article it was clear that it was less a “fog” than a problem of indifferent and nonexistent follow through and enforcement by those responsible or as she wrote, “…agency administrators spoke in a chorus on one point:  No Section 3 jobs program will work without stringent monitoring.”


            And, let’s be clear, the monitoring at every level sucks.  Before 2006, HUD only got 4% of the required Section 3 reports from local and state governments and housing agencies.  Now the figure is up to 25%, but that’s still a failing grade everywhere.  Worst, most should get both F’s and Incompletes, because 80% of the reports according to HUD testimony to Congress indicated that they “failed to meet the minimum goals and did not include valid explanations for this failure….”

            The loopholes Swiss cheese the program as well.  Though required to hire low income workers for 30% of the new hires, there are no requirements that their work will equal 30% of the hours billed on the job, so some contractors “churn” the jobs by hiring a crowd of workers for short term, even one day stints, as laborers to make the numbers required at the lowest wages they can skate by with.  Training also is defined as “to the greatest extent feasible,” providing another loophole, which some smarter agencies have abandoned to prevent contractors from shrugging off the requirement by saying no one could make muster.

            All of which makes Section 3 tailor made for community organizations trying to deliver jobs to their members when there are large and small construction projects happening in housing projects.  It’s a straight up fight where everything is on our side and it’s possible to negotiate not only jobs but the tools to make sure members get the jobs from record inspection to hiring observations to even union cooperation in helping populate apprenticeship programs that are often searching for applicants.  The targets are dirty, the meetings are public, and there are jobs waiting to be won, if we’re willing to get back in the saddle and ride hard on these outfits.


Walmart Dropping Part-timers Maybe a Win for 30,000 Workers

3115642.largeNew Orleans    I stand second to no one as a critic of Walmart’s employee and labor relations policies, but it’s hard for me to join the boo-bird chorus about the company’s latest Scrooge-like action in dropping part-time workers averaging less than 30 hours per week.  The company just may have done most of them a favor given the Affordable Care Act rules.

            I’ve been on this soapbox before, so let me try to climb up again without falling.  Under the rules, if there is an employer provided plan, a worker can still go to the state or federal based marketplace to buy insurance, but they are barred from receiving subsidies to pay for the insurance or cost sharing to help defray the cost of co-pays and deductibles.  Given the real wages of Walmart workers, as opposed to the average wage the company claims it pays workers, many of these part-time workers, especially if they are relying on Walmart as their sole employer, would be getting health insurance at little or no cost through the marketplace.  The odds would also be very, very good that whatever they would be paying would be less than the cost of the Walmart plan on offer were they still allowed in.  Furthermore, I would bet real money, the plan would more likely have lower deductibles as well.  Walmart may not have meant to do so, but it may have done these part-time workers a big, big favor.

            I say they “may not have meant to do so,” because in their comments on their actions they have the big crying towel on about having spent a half-billion more on health coverage costs last year because of the Affordable Care Act, but this statement is disingenuous as well, and is linked back to the same rule.  The coverage mandate meant that Walmart workers almost had to use the company’s health insurance policy, no matter how lousy, in 2014, simply because the Affordable Care Act required company policies to be the first choice for workers if there was a qualified plan in place.  Many workers for the USA’s largest private sector employer, probably just sucked it up and signed up for the company’s policies not wanting to shop at the marketplace or feeling that it was inaccessible given the well documented problems with the website at the opening bell and earlier in the year.  Walmart was therefore forced to have to pay its portion of their company policy, which most of their workers had avoided in the past, therefore leading to it having to actually spend some more money on worker healthcare, rather than just pretending that the workers were covered, while hundreds of thousands turned up their noses and took a chance on their own health.

            The more you read about the 30,000 workers Walmart dropped, amounting to 5% of its 600,000 worker part-time workforce and a little less than half of its 1.3 million workers, it is even hard to tell if these figures are accurate.  Press reports are clear that in 2011 they had already dropped from any coverage all workers averaging less than 24 hours of work weekly, so this new action would have impacted the slice of the part-time workforce averaging more than 24 hours and less than 30 hours.  Are these numbers credible?  Who knows really?  I’m only leaning their way because I can’t believe they would make themselves look worse than they already are.

            The head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Union called Walmart’s move “shameful.”  Really, it’s just other day at the office in Bentonville, and possibly this excision of 30,000 workers may have been a lot less shameful than what they are doing to hundreds of thousands of workers with their substandard, but technically, qualified company plan every day.


Blacklisting by Banks

bank-of-america-steve-rhodesNew Orleans      The Federal Consumer Protection Bureau is looking into the issue of “blacklisting” by banks when some consumers try to open checking accounts.  If you are lucky, you may ask, what are they talking about, aren’t banks in the business of providing customer service through individual checking accounts?  Oh, child, you are so “old school,” 1980’s, and yesteryear.

Many big banks argue that they lose money on personal checking accounts.  At best it’s a loss leader of sorts.  They want them because they need the deposit base in some cases, but in most instances checking accounts have become little more than the way banks access your money to charge excessive fees for every little thing.    It starts with the monthly service charges that suck out your minimum balances and then there are the overdraft charges that can range up to and over $35, and that’s not counting the fact that many banks are all too willing to let scammers hit your account for predatory and multiplying charges, sell your info for credit card solicitations, many of them from their own subsidiaries, and often nearly rob you blind.

An FDIC survey reveals 65% of banks deny checking account applicants who have prior mismanagement in their consumer reports.  “A consumer who bounced a check once is not a deadbeat, a consumer who bounced a check once may not even have made a conscious mistake,” said Ed Mierzwinski of the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups.  Mierzwinski said potentially millions of Americans are “blacklisted from banks” and consumer advocates worry financial institutions could be shutting out some people whose records were dinged by accident.  “There could have been an automatic payment that the consumer had canceled but the company by mistake continued to try to take out of their account, and that is happening more and more often today,” Mierzwinski said.  Federal law says you can request a free banking history report each year, and dispute any incorrect information. Chex Systems said if consumers find errors it is “committed to resolving all such disputes as quickly as possible.” Early Warning declined comment.

            This is a good thing for the FCPB to investigate.  Who reads the fine print, but when you open an account you give the bank the right to reject you as a customer unilaterally without cause or explanation.  With the huge databases out there, banks who are pre-screening new accounts might take a bounced check or overdue payments from your teenage years and block you from an account for years.  And, despite the fact that the devil lives in these details, as predatory as banks have become, not having an account at all exposes a consumer to even more difficulties in bill payment, establishing credit, and even receiving their paychecks electronically in many companies.

            Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  Some protection and minimal, enforceable, easily accessible rights would be welcomed because the news everyday proves repeatedly that we need help and protection in dealing with banks.


Cross Cultural Translation English to American and Back Again

IMG_2177New Orleans     Talking to my friends and hosts in the United Kingdom over the last ten days one of the things that was the most fun was the cross cultural English-to-English translation we had to do.  This is the kind of thing my dad would have found fascinating on my return from any trip overseas.

            Here’s my favorite thanks to Paulette Singer, who works as an organizer in the Barnet Borough of London.  While walking me through the West Hendon estates which is in the middle of a massive fight with developers, she gave me the derivation of the expression “daylight robbery.”  Of course from decades of experience working on the streets of the USA, I was sure as most of my compatriots would be, that a “daylight robbery” is simply the fact that you are being robbed during the day as opposed to the night, but that’s not the story.  It turns out that when a tenant was consistently late paying their rent in council or public housing that the council, acting as landlord, would board up the windows.  Tenants therefore called it “daylight robbery.”  Isn’t that great!

            The week I was in London was unseasonably hot and the news kept calling it an “Indian summer.”  My friends always assumed that an Indian summer referred to the British colonial experience in the Indian subcontinent.  Had more of them travelled to India, they probably would have suspected there was a problem since arguably from the northern climes, it’s almost always summer and sweltering in India.   I disabused them of that notion, pointing out that “Indian Summer” referred to the Native Americans.  Of course they all immediately consulted Ms. Google to see if I was pulling their legs, and without so much as a “thank you,” confirmed the insight.

            It was like that.  Another time someone talked about a “bricky” and that turned out to be a bricklayer and then chippy for carpenter, sparky for electrician, and so forth in sort of a weird infantilizing of these proud tradespeople of the working class, which surprised me.  I wasn’t sure what they might have called a plumber, but I knew better than to ask.

            I’ve mentioned before how easy it is to be confused.  When offered warm versus cold beer in Kenya, I had jumped to the conclusion that had to do with electrical power outages, rather than realizing it washed down from the UK.  In India urinal was pronounced ur-I-nal which I thought was an Indian adaptation until being informed on my first trip to Scotland that ur-I-nal was the accepted, common pronunciation.   Every once in a while the language translations are surprisingly simple.   I knew better than to ask for a bathroom, but even when trying the Canadian “water closet,” a funny look would point the way to the toilet for a thankful change, calling a spade a spade.

            English may have become lingua franca in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean that coming from the United States we don’t need constant translation.  It’s kicks!





Visiting with Hackney Unites in London

10714586_852203918165947_903337653103074272_oLondon      Hackney is one of those classic neighborhood names that invariably calls to mind London, so it was a treat to get to walk around the neighborhood a little bit, sit in the CLR James Library, which turned out to be a story in itself, and then to meet with fifty members and activists that make up Hackney Unites, an effective and somewhat unique community organization in the city.

            It started out simply enough.  Visiting with Jane Holgate and John Page on an earlier trip and hearing about their work with Hackney Unites, I asked if I might be able to meet with some people organizing in London.  They couldn’t have been more accommodating.  We put it on the calendar, and several weeks go by and Bob Fisher, a careful and astute observer of the community organizing scene on the academic side forwards me an email he had received from a colleague announcing that the “legendary” Wade Rathke is going to be giving a “master class” to those interested at a meeting of Hackney Unites, room is limited, and they had best get their names in the pot asap.  Whoa, Nellie!  What had we gotten ourselves into here on the last event for this 10-day jornada de morte of a trip!


            Of course it turned out that it was a great event and undoubtedly I got the best part of the trade because of the unique way the meeting was organized and the questions and conversations that followed from it.  Meeting in the Trinity Centre complex abutting a social housing complex, the tables were organized sort of likes the stripes on a chevron allowing people to see both each other and the speaker at the front of the room.  Each table had a piece of paper saying Hackney or Non-Hackney, since Jane, John, and the other leaders wanted to segregate people in helping build Hackney Unites in the conversations.   The tables were jumbled up, so it wasn’t a matter of Hackney Unites on one side and other folks coming to hear, wander, and wonder on the other.  I was wondering how this would work.


            After some remarks about Hackney Unites campaigns and internal affairs, as well as my remarks and a shout out to Lee Baker and Jonny Butcher from ACORN London who were there helping as well, they then had the groups discuss and come to some consensus on a single question for me in sort of a freewheeling “stump the stars” format, which was actually fun for all of us, and fascinating for me because rather than the usual random Q&A, invariably dominated by a small handful, this was different.  There were actually written guides at every table for how to make the process work, which might be anathema to most community organizers as too academic but in this very mixed crowd seemed to work reasonably well and be appreciated.   The format allowed everyone to be part of “participating” in the question and I would bet money it substantially raised the quality of the questions.  The answers of course would be a different matter, but you would have had to have been there.

            John had told me that that they had tried this format before, so I’m not sure if it’s part of their usual meeting routine or another pilot project, but on my continued quest to see how we can improve and refresh our work, you can bet I’ll not only be taking my better understanding of this community’s concerns about tactics, coordination, and gentrification with me on one hand and on the other a different notion of how to organize these kinds of interactive meetings.