Leaders Assess Progress and Map Out Plans

DSCN1360

reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

Baton Rouge   Thirty Local 100 United Labor Union leaders gathered together for the 36th annual leadership conference for the union, this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leaders were there from Little Rock and Warren, Arkansas, Dallas and Houston, Lafayette and New Orleans, and points near and far in the three-state areas. We met in Local 100’s big 5000 plus foot union hall in Baton Rouge, so that the members could see first had what had been done to improve the space, and what still needed to be done. It was a hot, mid-90’s June day, but the 10-foot ceilings and thick cinderblock walls made the large meeting room pleasant with five fans running. That is not to say the leadership won’t take a harder look at the thousands needed to repair the air conditioner, but it was a lot better than people had any reason to expect. They were surprised, and I felt lucky, or as I reminded many of them, “tell me you can’t remember visiting your grandmother in the country and hearing the ceiling and attic fans humming?”

A lot of time in the morning was spent reviewing our progress on living wage campaigns or more accurately moving the minimum wages up. In Houston, we had success in both our Head Start unit as well as moving the ages up past $10 per hour for our cafeteria workers. The lesson we had learned, according to Houston office director, Orell Fitzsimmons, was to not try to grab all 30,000 workers in the district at once, but to concentrate on one segment after another. Having raised the hourly wage in the cafeteria, the union is now hunkering down to try to extend the hours from seven to eight to move people up more solidly. In Arkansas, the union with our allies are trying to push a statewide petition of workers and supporters to set the floor above $10 per hour. Winning an election could be difficult, but having our members who are state workers living in poverty is even harder. In Dallas and New Orleans there have been efforts that have met with some success at establishing levels past $10 per hour for subcontracted workers, but in those cities, especially New Orleans, the issue is enforcement. One cleaning contract we organized recently is now six-months overdue on paying the new city standard of $10.55 per hour. I can remember years ago a hotel union in San Jose-Monterrey saying they didn’t want to support our living wage fight because then why would workers need a union? It turns out part of the answer is: they would still need a union to actually get it!

On other fronts, the union is preparing campaigns to advocate to get lead tested and removed from schools and workplaces to protect our workers, children and clients. We are also going after nonprofit hospitals to hold them accountable for providing charity care, especially in Texas where there is no expanded Medicaid and elsewhere in our private sector contracts where the deductibles are pricing our members out of the company-sponsored plans and into the penalties for not having Obamacare.

Will we come up with the money to fix the air conditioner? I don’t know, but we’ll win some big campaigns because of leadership meetings just like this!

reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

DSCN1361

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Pine Bluff’s Maxine Nelson and Susie Thomas, Great ACORN Leaders

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Pine Bluff   Often I get gas on my way from Little Rock to New Orleans at an exit off ramping on the same highway that the Watson Chapel School District administrative office calls home. I realized this coincidence when I had the excuse to visit there. A documentary film crew wanted to talk about how the first organizing committee meeting of an ACORN group in Pine Bluff was disrupted by representatives of the Klu Klux Klan. I wanted to talk about the great ACORN leader, Maxine Nelson, so here’s how they were connected.

The group meeting that was disrupted in 1971 was being organized by an early ACORN organizer from the area, Herman Davenport, in a mixed area, of low and moderate income homes in the Watson Chapel area. The first drive was troubled by these episodes, but eventually ACORN took hold and developed deep roots in the area. Maxine Nelson merged as one of the leaders of the Pine Bluff chapters. She was an African-American RN at the Pine Bluff hospital and ready to make change. She was also fearless when it came to politics. She ran and won a seat in 1989 on the Watson Chapel School Board, and held the seat until her untimely death in November 2013, serving several terms as President of the School Board as well. Maxine was also the chair of the ACORN Political Action Committee (APAC) and the elected secretary of the ACORN Association Board nationally for many consecutive terms. For that matter, she was also on the KABF board as well and even while leaving that board was prodding me in 2011 and 2012 to do something to help stabilize the station.

I thought it was a great ACORN story from the KKK to Maxine Nelson and her leadership of ACORN, but there was more. Rechecking the date of her service before driving down to Pine Bluff, I stumbled on an article in the Pine Bluff Commercial Appeal reporting on a meeting of the Watson Chapel board in late 2014, and they were talking about naming the administrative building after Maxine. Walking in there to alert the clerical staff that I was outside with a film crew, they quickly – and enthusiastically – walked me into the board room to see a picture of Maxine with a plaque over the board dais.

I also visited Susie Thomas, who joined ACORN in Pine Bluff at the very beginning, 45 years ago, and stayed as a member and leader throughout those years. Sister Thomas attended every ACORN convention, and when visiting her, I asked about her favorites. She liked lobbying in Washington, DC she said, and remembered telling off one of Arkansas’ US Senators about cutting back food stamps. She remembered a squatting action in Chicago at the 20th anniversary convention in 1990, when they all ran for it. I gave her a Los Angeles convention t-shirt, and that got her talking about the LA convention. She pushed me on getting ACORN rolling again in the US. We remembered Maxine and their years together. She remembered that I had last seen her when she came to a book signing with Maxine in 2009 at Little Rock’s Community Bakery, and that I had called her on her birthday two years ago. Did I mention that she is now 102 years old!

I called Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, as I pulled away from Susie’s house. He mentioned that they were getting some letters and a petition together to help show community support for naming the administration building after Maxine. It will be fun to get the word out and easy to find support for that in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and for that matter around the country.

It seems the right thing to do.

***

Please enjoy Paul Simon’s The Riverbank.  Thanks to KABF.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Utility Rate Increase Fights Are Back!

concept of expensive energy billNew Orleans    Once upon a time back in the last century, just as there are now campaigns for things like living wages and ending predatory lending, there were fights to hold giant utility companies accountable all over the country more than forty years ago. Then there was something called inflation, which young people in the 21st century may have forgotten, though thanks to the Federal Reserve’s coming decision on interest rates, we are about to learn anew, where prices and costs rise everywhere, not just on drugs, housing, and higher education. During those times, investor owned utilities (yes, IOU’s) were also known as public utilities because they were allowed monopolies and were therefore regulated by public service or public utility companies from state to state.

Utilities, in even older days, were about as unpopular as, well, banks, and whole political careers were made fighting against their rate and construction plans in favor of the little folks who were sometime called consumers. Many of these commissioners were elected in the western and southern United States and whole careers were made of fighting against utilities and the like. Huey Long, the Louisiana populist was a good example of this breed.

In the early 1970’s, utility rate increase fights were being waged all over the country and not just in places like California and Seattle. ACORN was in the thick of the battles in Arkansas, South Dakota and many other states. The principal objective was winning something we – and others – called “lifeline” rates. Lifeline rates would freeze the price for lower income and elderly users at an affordable level for the first 400 kilowatt hours of usage thereby protecting them against outrageous rate increases. We tried to win at the PSC in Arkansas and would manage to decrease the outrageous requests of what was then called Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L), one of the units of Middle South Utilities, now all known as Entergy. We even decisively won an election in Little Rock establishing lifeline rates only to have the victory overturned in court with Web Hubbell and Hillary Clinton sitting at the utility’s table, but that’s both another story and at the heart of this story, because it has to do with the financing.

To pay for lifeline rates at the bottom for the small users, it was necessary to modify the huge giveaways to the big users receiving bulk discounts for heavy usage. Alcoa and Reynolds Aluminum, huge operations at the time in Arkansas, used 10% of all of the electricity produced by AP&L to run their operations. Making the larger users pay a fairer share protected the smaller users who were essentially subsidizing the big guys. This whole inequity thing we’re fighting now, is not exactly brand spanking news.

Fast forward and there is Ernie Dumas who was on the editorial board of the Arkansas Gazette back then writing a column now in the Arkansas Times that was essentially déjà vu all over again. Entergy, taking advantage of the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature, managed to pass something that overturned the way utilities are regulated in the state and now are whining that they want the PSC to hand over more than a 10% increase. Defying all logic – and history – they are also arguing that allowing them to give even bigger discounts to electricity guzzling industries will bring in jobs. The argument rests on hopes that permanent amnesia has set in and no one will realize that this is their same strategy dressed in a new, more expensive coat, and it has never created jobs but always strapped consumers with high bills. He wonders if “the ratepayers’ voice will be there,” and that’s a call that must be answered. Yet again, and again, and again.

This is the proverbial canary in the mine-shaft. Utility companies are shrewd and they live like vultures in the hallways of state legislatures. Arkansas won’t be the only state where they have seduced them silently to prey on consumers. Let’s hope the battle cry can be heard and answered everywhere once again.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Difference Between History and Hate on Civil War Symbols

515J7ZrZkWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Little Rock     President Obama, delivering the eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, slain in his own church in Charleston, South Carolina along with eight members of an evening prayer group, drew the line importantly between history and hate, saying:

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Mr. Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”

The tragedy continues to roil politics in many southern states and cities on the question of what to do with Civil War symbols and continuing celebrations. The Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu for example has now called for the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in that city’s central business district. Many others in the South are taking similar stands.

In Arkansas on Wade’s World on KABF  talked to W. Stuart Towns, a retired professor of speech and rhetoric in Florida and Missouri, who has written extensively about Civil War memorabilia in the South and in that state. We wanted to closely examine the distinction between recognizing and learning from history as opposed to celebrating and elevating symbols of hate and division.

The conversation in Arkansas on these issues after Charleston has been muted and restrained, which Towns and I found somewhat surprising. From his research for his recent book, Arkansas Civil War Heritage: A Legacy of Honor, Towns pointed out that in many ways Arkansas was generally subdued about its Civil War history though there were seven hundred Civil War engagements ranking the state fourth in the number of armed conflicts among southern states during the war. He noted that there are fifty different memorials around the state to the Civil War currently. Many of them are more along the lines of historical markers noting for example where General Grant built a canal around Lake Village in the southern part of the state as part of the blockade of Vicksburg or the commemorative explanations in the northwestern part of the state to the battle of Pea Ridge. Seemingly we can agree that simply recognizing history is not the flashpoint for hate.

On the other hand there is no getting around the prominence of the central star in the Arkansas state flag that was explicitly added for the Confederacy and still flies everywhere. Towns also pointed out there were two memorials in various locations at the State Capitol in Little Rock, one to Confederate veterans and the other, somewhat bizarrely, to Confederate women left behind during the war, almost a caricature of the worst of Southern mythology. Undoubtedly, these were the results of determined lobbying, but nonetheless, undeniably inappropriate in their placement. Towns retired to Forrest City, named after General Nathan Bedford Forrest, probably best known from his record as a Confederate General and as a founder and leader of the Klu Klux Klan after the war. We discussed what to make of that problem. Towns claimed the name came from Forrest’s role in building a railroad in the area that was central in moving the crops out of largely agricultural eastern Arkansas. Nonetheless the shoe of history no doubt pinches since the city’s demographics establish that 61% of the city is African-American and only 35% are white.

President Obama in his eulogy noted,

“For too long,” Mr. Obama said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions….”

We can only hope so, while praying that the answers will come soon and will be the right ones.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

John Beam, Veteran of ACORN’s Heroic Era

entergys-white-bluff-coal-plant-in-redfield

Entergy White Bluff Plant

New Orleans     More than 15 years ago during the HOTROC organizing campaign for hotel workers in New Orleans, I worked with an organizer named David Keiffer. Dave had been around a number of organizations before partnering with me and flying an AFL-CIO banner at the time with stints going back to the AM/FM canvass program in Tampa when we built the WMNF radio station there, then years with ACTWU organizing textile workers in the South, and a breakthrough campaign organizing asbestos workers with the Laborers in New York City. Dave had a mythical turn of phrase that cushioned his constant tinkering with his spreadsheets, and would refer to organizers and organizing drives as belonging to the historic, heroic era of this or that.

The phrase comes to mind as I think about the passing of John Beam, another veteran of ACORN’s first dozen years of organizing in Arkansas and beyond, clearly in Dave’s sense and every sense I can image, a key organizer in the heroic, founding days of the organization in the United States. John’s passing follows other veterans of that era now in recent years including Dewey Armstrong earlier in this year and Jon Kest almost two years ago now. These were great organizers in their day and we won’t see their like again or benefit from the kinds of contributions they made very soon in the future.

For many years John and I would joke about the coincidence that we had a multi-year streak of always sharing my birthday in August together. He was from Dallas and had driven up to be interviewed on a Saturday in the early 1970’s on my birthday. He hadn’t been long out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois outside of Chicago. Later he’d actually took that trip we children of the West always talk about and in fact traveled one way and another deep into Latin America. He was always ready to go. Another one of my birthdays in 1974, we spent driving to the Missouri Bootheel, that small piece of delta land that juts along the Mississippi River into Arkansas and is more south than anything else. We had tried our first baby steps at expanding ACORN by answering the call from a group there called MDEM, the Missouri Delta Ecumenical Ministry and recruited an organizer from Chicago who John trained on a quick drive in Mabelvale in Pulaski County outside of Little Rock. He had done all right, but clearly it wasn’t working out in the Bootheel for any of us, so we had drawn the short straw of going up, closing down this brief trail balloon called the American Community Organizations for Reform Now, and sending him on his way as well. That was just the way John and I celebrated the passing of another year!

John spent years working for ACORN. He opened up one of our earliest expansion offices in the 20/80 push in Memphis, Tennessee. Heck, maybe that was on my birthday, too, but I may be making that up! He worked later as one of the early ACORN Regional Directors, based in New Orleans after 1978. He was part of the mix and mayhem of the New Orleans jobs action that led to arrests and mess as we pushed Mayor Dutch Morial for summer job for youth.

But, if I tried to remember perhaps John’s most epic piece of organizing for ACORN during those heroic days, it was in the delta of the Arkansas River organizing the Protect Our Land Association (POLA) and SHAP, ACORN, standing for Save Health and Property. Arkansas Power & Light, then part of Mid-South Utilities, and now Entergy, submitted a proposal to the Public Service Commission to build what they called “the world’s largest coal-fired power plant” at White Bluff on west side of the Arkansas River midway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. We were already fighting AP&L and other utilities on inflation-driven rate hikes for our members, right and left, and initially jumped into this fight because we were convinced that it would raise our members’ electric rates yet again. We operated the campaign on every level, researching the stock ownership and opening a front of the campaign at Harvard and with other Ivies that were big holders. Steve Kest, our research director, was reading reports of damage to cows under the lines in Europe and studies about sulfur emission damage to crops in Sweden. We were outsmarting and out hustling the company at every turn. The company for its part was intent on constructing a “slurry” line eventually and until then running 100-car trains that would move coal from the Powder River basin and the giant Fort Union coal deposit in eastern Wyoming. North Dakota, and Montana, where we also engaged allied groups of farmers and ranchers in the fight.

ACORN was never an advocacy group though, it was always a membership-based, membership-driven organization, so no matter how many bells and whistles we might develop for the campaign, the organizing would rise or fall on whether or not we could get farmers and rural residents downwind of the proposed White Bluff plant to organize with ACORN and lead the fight. That was just the kind of job and challenge for John Beam, and he delivered big time, driving miles and walking the long distances up country roads to farmhouse doors and talking to families about what White Bluff would bring down on them, how it would affect their crops, and the impact on the health of their livestock and families. I will never forget the shock on the face of the local AP&L office director in their small office in Stuttgart in the middle of the eastern Arkansas rice growing region when John and I along with others followed about 25 farmers into his office demanding more information on the plans and no movement until we were satisfied.

They wanted to fly some of the farmers to see the Paradise plant in Kentucky, and not only did we blast them on the plant’s environmental record, but packed the small planes with our farmers and just tore them up. The campaign brought us our first front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette. We won huge reductions in size and increased protections from the plant, and were able to counter AP&L at every turn.

John left ACORN in 1982 some years later. He married Polly Chase, another former organizer, and later a nurse, who was from Rhode Island. They ended up in New York City. Our paths didn’t cross as much over the last few decades. I ran into him a couple of times in ACORN’s Brooklyn office. He wrote some proposals for New York ACORN. He even ended up directing a joint project based at Fordham University on education for some years with us.

Nonetheless in my mind, jumping out of our old cars onto the shoulder of eastern Arkansas highways to talk to a couple of more farmers or walking into the cafes where they were having coffee early in the morning and talking about White Bluff and finally beating that company like a drum thanks to John’s great work in the fields and farmhouses, will always feel like his finest hour with ACORN.

And, he will be missed.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The USA Political Scene as Spun by the National Chamber of Commerce Political Director

IMG_2228Lake Village         Rob Engstrom is the political director of the National Chamber of Commerce and a big time DC player. When he talks about dropping $20 million in only 15 election races, and his only gripe was that they were having to put that much in early in the primaries rather than waiting for the general elections, there’s no bluff or braggadocio to it. The biggest danger in listening to him speak and answer questions at the Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock is that you had to be careful as you got up to leave. He was so smooth, slick, and finely polished that I was afraid of an X-men kind of effect that might have made it dangerous to walk on the floors, in case they had become transformed by some magic while he talked.

If you had just helicoptered down along the Arkansas River to hear his talk, you might not have realized why Engstrom was in town. He lathered up every politician of standing, past or present, in Arkansas, along with his constant and casual bolstering of the local city and state chamber functionaries. Former Senator David Pryor, his wife, and current Senator Mark Pryor his son, were well respected, beloved, and had made great and lasting contributions to the state. He was repeatedly nostalgic for former President Bill Clinton and his ability to work with a divided Congress to govern. He said the same for current Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe while noting that Beebe had the highest popularity polling now at the end of his term compared to any governor in the country. Until the last minutes off his remarks when he went over the edge a bit in duplicitously answering a student’s question about climate change and was too extravagant in his defense of the gazillions of dollars the Koch Brothers, upstanding and generous members of the Chamber and employers of 90,000, that you might have realized he was only in town for an earlier press conference making clear the wild, enthusiastic endorsement of the Chamber for hard right, rabid Republican Congressman Tom Cotton in the pivotal Arkansas Senatorial election over incumbent Senator Mark Pryor. Or, that his political career had started with Clinton nemesis Newt Gingrich or his role in the Florida recount that scuttled Gore. Finally the stiletto fell clamoring to the floor after having been so skillfully and surgically inserted in the body politic of all of the politicians he had named.

He was good. He knew it all, chapter and verse, state by state, race by race. He was wildly impressive. The primary direction of most of his spin was trying to fabricate a picture of the Chamber as the voice of business somehow occupying middle ground as politics polarized. They were fighting the “caveman caucus.” The primary fights were about getting people who could govern. They were for immigration reform, the Import/Export bank, and Common Core, so “see, we’re not so bad” was the message. Yet his recitation of the “facts” as he called them made it clear they were a partner in the polarization. Election cycle after election cycle from his report they had moved farther and farther away supporting any Democrats ever, so that at this point it was less than a handful. And, his recitation of issues that put them in the middle faded away when he listed their policy priorities after the election: “fixing” the Affordable Care Act, Energy Policy, i.e. build the XL Pipeline for the Kochs, Financial Security, read gutting Dodd-Frank even more, and Labor Policy, which means hitting unions even harder. As an afterthought he wanted us not to forget about fair trade and gutting entitlements. So much for any common ground, he and the Chamber are the drum majors and policy pros for the Republican elephant parade.

His predictions pulled out of piles of faint praise for his opponents was an increase of 6 to 10 seats in the House for the Republicans, and maybe a record plus 12, and 51 or 52 seats in the Senate to take control. Engstrom is smart though, and threw a bone out to the crowd about making no permanent enemies reminding us all that in 2016, the pendulum swings again especially in the Senate with 24 Republicans up for re-election and only 10 Democrats all of whom are in blue states won by Obama in 2008 and 2012, leading him to believe that whoever might be the next President will once again face a divided Congress.

That’s some small comfort to take home. Driving back to the office and the studio it was hard for me to hold onto that thought because I imagined all of the wannabe and elected Congressman, Senators, and Governors having to meet with Rob Engstrom as supplicants begging for his and the Chamber’s money and support and promising away their pride and their people at the altar of these policies. Most of them would be putty in the hands of a pro like Engstrom in the K Street offices and boardrooms that determine their future. This guy was scary good with steel in the syrup of his voice, ready to shake your hand today and push you in front of the bus tomorrow. Most of our elected officials would be no match for the likes of Engstrom.

There is no way to sleep soundly. The nightmares keep coming!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail