First Source Hiring Agreements Are Coming Back

New Orleans  The Baltimore City Council joined other cities in passing an ordinance requiring that on city contracts of $300,000 or more 50% or more of the workers needed to be hired from the ranks of city residents.  Baltimore wanted to tackle statistical unemployment of almost 10% and unemployment in many of its lower income neighborhoods that is double and triple that number.  Hear!  Hear!

Baltimore is following the same path as Boston in 1985 and San Francisco in 2011.  Why haven’t cities everywhere taken these same steps?   Part of the problem likes in the specious argument trumpeted by of all people the Baltimore City Attorney that the law is unconstitutional because it violates the Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause holding that states cannot discriminate against the citizens of other states and only favor their own citizens.

First, some background here.  “First source” agreements have been common pieces of sound public policy for decades all of the country and in the first line of demands of community organizations back to the late 1960’s at least.  “First source” was exactly what you would think, meaning an employer receiving public monies would first seek workers from the community before going on to others.  This is not to say that no other workers from elsewhere could ever be hired, but it is to say that a preference would be given to people from the community and that everything being equal, they would be hired first.  Such agreements were unquestionably legal.

The Golden State Cab case in Los Angeles held that a City Council could not dictate the contracting or a specific company in a bid, but nothing has ever said that cities or states do not have the power to use their money in their own public policy interests.  If hiring preferences were illegal, how could any city justify residency requirements for public workers, police, and fire?  How could public universities throughout the country defend one level of tuition for state residents and another for out-of-state residents under the Privileges and Immunities Clause?  Simple:  there is no discrimination involved.  Residents from elsewhere can move into a city or state and after establishing the residency requirements be afforded the same benefits.

It goes without saying that as an organizer I’ve been practicing law without a license for more than 45 years now, but there is no way that the Baltimore City Council and city councils throughout the country could not successfully craft ordinances that fit the requirements of the constitution while also giving their own residents preference for public or publicly funded jobs.  The same demands for “first source” and residentially preferential hiring should be heard in city halls everywhere!

First Source Audio Blog


Are Security Cameras Everywhere?

New Orleans  Is it just in downtown Boston near Copley Square or are security and surveillance cameras everywhere in our cities.   During the recent bombing at the Marathon reports attributed the breakthroughs in the investigation to meticulous viewing of hundreds of hours of video footage around the area which allowed the police and FBI to finally get a clear photo shot of a couple of guys with backpacks and baseball caps which led to the eventual identification and capture of the suspects.  Was this only possible in Boston or is this an everywhere thing now?  More importantly, should our expectations be premised on the disappearance of any last semblance of privacy when it comes to public space? 

            In many cities there are now video cameras that can catch a shot of your vehicle and your license plate and identify you as you are speeding or running a light.  This system exists in New Orleans now, though it took years for the city to find a contractor that would install cameras that actually worked and took pictures, rather than just a contractor that collected the money and put stuff up in intersections on street lights that looked like cameras.  When you get a letter from the City with a picture of your truck, front and back, all that is really left is the pain of writing the check and finding a stamp, because the great argument that you might have had with the police about whether the light was yellow is over and gone.

            Since Boston, I’ve been looking more closely at the camera layouts on our street corners.  In addition to the traffic cameras on a number of intersections there is a smaller, dark camera mounted above the streets.  A friend trying to quixotically challenge some tickets was told there were cameras up there for other purposes that they were “not allowed” to discuss.  The impression was that those cameras were more in the Homeland Security jurisdiction than the local forces in blue shirts riding under bubble-tops.  

            Many of these cameras in Boston likely belonged to building owners and shopkeepers, and I doubt we have any idea how ubiquitous they are.  A friend walked me through his bakery in Little Rock a couple of years ago, and I was shocked when we got to the bakery office to see a bank of screens running video from all angles, part of which was to monitor each cash register, but it also included customers obviously and any action nearby.  If someone accused the bakery of keeping their credit card, they could actually prove it was handed back over. 

All of this was of course fully legit.  But, you have to begin to wonder, if you are out on the streets of the city, how many times your picture is being taken and what might become of all of this.  Of course there was abuse even in Boston.  Reportedly folks on and Reddit, both of which allow anonymous posting, were “crowdsourcing” video trying on their own to identify suspects.   The New York Post showed a picture of one such misidentified fellow, a young student with a backpack who was afraid to leave the house until a real suspect was identified.  All of this seems more like high-tech modern vigilantism, than public safety precaution.

 Boston was a wakeup call on a whole lot of levels, but the fact that we are all now on a continuous candid camera film loop, is worth a lot of thought and some serious debate in the future as well.

Audio blog of Cameras Everywhere


Study Finds Hospitals Are Paid More for Worse Care

Little Rock   Atul Gawande is best known to many of us as a doctor who writes important articles about healthcare in the New Yorker magazine.  To his patients he is known as a good surgeon in Boston, and to other surgeons, he is also known as someone who advocates and develops simple checklists for other surgeons to run through to avoid stupid errors that can also mean life or death, big bills or small.   The checklists include things like double checking medicine reactions, patient identifications, and even the place on the body where the knife will slice. 

            The results are now being reported widely on an internal assessment using his checklists and looking at results, errors and costs in a chain of a dozen hospitals in Texas run by Texas Health Resources.   The complication rate was a bit over 5% of the cases (1820 out of 34256), which might not be that bad, unless it was happening to you or someone you know, I guess.  The bloopers though led to patient charges paid by insurance companies being an average of almost $50,000 rather than $20,000 without the complications. 

            So hospitals that messed up made more money.   The incentive system that so many believe is the iron law in all matters is that financial incentives should reward good care, rather than bad care, not the other way around.   That’s not the way insurance currently works.  And, here’s more bad news, a lot of what we are doing under the Affordable Care Act is dependent on these same insurers.   In fact in Arkansas with a number of Republican holdout states watching closely, the legislature is about to pass a form of this managed care that relies even more heavily on private insurance companies to run the show.  The incentive for politicians is that this kind of plan keeps the campaign contributions coming, but as we can see, the incentive for the rest of us seems to be longer stays in hospitals, assuming we live through it.

            It’s good to know they are studying all of this pretty hard, but I think we would feel a bit better if they were doing something more about it!

Audio Blog on Hospital Care


Celebrating Barbara Bowen

Barbara smiling in Melbourne next to the head of the Australian Labor Federation

New Orleans     There is no way that anything I can write would do complete justice to the life and work of Barbara Bowen, my friend and comrade for over 40 years, but luckily I don’t really need to because her life and work was about justice and she lived it exactly that way from beginning to end.

My path first crossed Barbara’s in mid-October of 1969.  I used to hear her tell the story of being sent from Boston where she was working with Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization to Springfield, where I was working, to see if she could help out in some way during a large action demanding winter clothing for adults that was hitting its climax on the same day as the Vietnam Moratorium.  The short story is that we didn’t win and all hell broke loose, but Barbara used to tell the story of breaking clear of the riot and finding a telephone booth in the middle of the chaos to put a collect call into Boston for whatever reinforcements might be available to get me and others out of jail and do whatever it might take.

In 1970 when I moved to Boston as head organizer, I lived on Rutland Square in the South End one or two units above Barbara and my other old friend and comrade over all of these years, Mark Splain, who she married around the same time.  Over the many decades our paths would always be interwoven and crisscross continually.

After I left to move to Arkansas and found ACORN, she and Mark and others ended up in Chelsea founding Massachusetts Fair Share, a landmark organization in the 1970’s.  When she and Mark left Fair Share, they worked in various capacities with ACORN.  We all worked on jobs campaigns.  We founded the United Labor Unions together, with Mark and Barbara in Boston, me and Danny Cantor, Kirk Adams, and Cecile Richards in New Orleans, Keith Kelleher in Detroit and then Chicago, and Mike Gallagher a little bit of everywhere along with many others.  Barbara did stints with SEIU and the AFL-CIO.  Around 2000, I convinced her to join me at the Organizers’ Forum where she worked for a decade as its coordinator until she retired at the end of 2008, as she told me then, “…because she could.”

Barbara in Moscow assembling the troops before we head to the next stop in Red Square

The other day talking to Mark about a list of email addresses, I asked him if he wanted me to edit the list and make up a shorter one, and he replied that it didn’t matter, “Barbara doesn’t have an enemy in the world.”  That phrase stuck with me.  It was precisely correct.   People loved Barbara.  She was a sweetheart.  Leading delegations around the world with the Organizers’ Forum she was always willing to go the last inch of the last mile to make sure it worked, that people were taken care of, and that it all came together.

But, if that conjures up an image of a laid back, California girl who was in the first avant garde women’s class at Pitzer College outside of Los Angeles, and a “helping hand” VISTA volunteer, all of which she also was, you didn’t know Barbara Bowen or at least you didn’t know enough about Barbara Bowen.  The Barbara Bowen I knew and worked with all of these years was a stickler for details with a thousand questions, both large and small.  My first day on the job as her boss in Boston in 1970, she asked me to look at a flyer she had made for a meeting, something she had probably done a couple of hundred times at the point.  I remember telling her she should probably be showing me how to make the flyer, rather than the other way around!

But whether it was details on the menu in Kolkata or the rooming arrangements in Jakarta, she always included me and wanted input.  If she had a question you heard about it, and she forced the plans to be crystal clear so there was alignment of my big picture, “it’ll all work out world,” and her details, planning, and preparation.  It was easy to appreciate why on all the houses that Mark and Barbara built in Boston, Washington, and then finally in Stinson Beach how Mark might be architect and master builder, but Barbara would be permits, general contractor, bookkeeper, and finish painter and punch list person.  On the three international dialogues I have done since Barbara’s retirement in Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, I’ve always warned people in the first orientation that they were going to miss experiencing the trip that they would have had if Barbara had been with us….

My point is not that she was just a details person or a meticulous note taker, planner, and so forth, because that was not the core of the woman.  At the heart of the woman was character and courage.  Once she was convinced of the plan, had it clear, and committed to it, she was fearless and unstoppable.   Once she was in, she was all the way in.

In the late 1970’s and early1980’s, US Air had something called “Liberty Fares.”  For $700 for 14 days a passenger could fly anywhere throughout the US Air system from Boston or Providence to New Orleans or Phoenix or Memphis or whatever.  It often meant circling back to the Pittsburgh or the Philly hub.  Obviously USAir meant the ticket to work with one flyer, but as a fledgling union and community organization, we were “up in the air” and could keep various folks flying from place to place endlessly during that period just by passing them off to our fellow travelers in the hubs or wherever the connections aligned.  You can imagine the stories, but the best and boldest often featured Barbara.  In the post-9/11 world this is unimaginable, but Barbara would talk her way onto one flight after another with nothing but moxie despite the fact that the ticket seemed to be in a man’s name and often with little or no ID.  She had the ticket, and for her it was a ticket to ride, and if she had a problem with one flight, she would walk away and jump another one.

Anyone who underestimated Barbara or her toughness did so at their peril!   Like I said, you had to be careful with Barbara.  If you asked her to go through a wall on an action, once she was clear where the wall stood, how it worked, and that it was important, then that wall was going down, one way or another.  Barbara had your back, front, and sideways!  I hate to think about the number of times she went on unemployment to do the work, including once with the Organizers’ Forum.  I can’t even imagine the times she maxed out credit cards or whatever.   I loved that woman.  There was no quit or whine to her.  Ever!

It took me forever to realize that almost all of our international dialogues were too close to her daughter’s birthday and often had her doing crazy things to get home in time or in at least one case, missing the event entirely.  She was an elected member of the school board in her community for years, but it took me almost that long to hear her mention it and talk about it.  She was never going to put herself ahead of the program, even when it was just the two of us figuring it out.

I’m glad on the back end, especially now, that she and some of the women in Kolkata moved to a better hotel after our wild experience at the Great Eastern (now torn down!) and that she took an extra day to go to Agra when in Delhi and a couple more to see the Iguazu Falls at the border of Brazil and Argentina.   For all of the times I may have taken her for granted for 30 years as a friend and colleague, I was glad that in the 10 years with the Organizers’ Forum for the most part I could feel like, I did right by her.  People loved her and could appreciate her contribution at every level.  She saw the world in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, and Australia, and like all of us it made us better organizers and better people.  We all became clearer about the larger community where we live and work.  We had great experiences together.  She was fun, and she had some fun.

Thank goodness!

In Sydney I had noticed her walking uncharacteristically slowly up a stairway near the harbor.  I asked her about it then, and she just said she was being careful.    The next year when she called me to say she was having some health issues, she reminded me of that conversation and how even then is seemed there were starting to be coordination problems.

Luckily she and Mark got to do some traveling in Europe and Hawaii.  They visited with friends.  She got to her college reunion.   When I saw her last fall she was still fawning over Tera’s children and delighted over Manuel’s pending wedding.

She was a great organizer.  She was a wonderful woman.  She was friend, mother, wife, comrade, and sister.   She had a great life, just not enough of it.

My life is better for having known her and all she did with and for me in large and small ways over 40 years.  Like so many others, I will carry the flame forward for her into the future and spend the rest of my life time and work time paying back her loyalty, faith, and trust.

Over recent years Barbara and I learned together how to say and understand “hello,” “thank you,” “democracy,” “union,” “justice,” and “freedom” in many of the world’s languages.  Her life and legacy has meaning in all of those words and every time they are spoken in the struggle of people everywhere.  And, anywhere those words are spoken, sung, or shouted, the heart and soul of Barbara Bowen will still stand strong.

Barbara admiring the fresco in the cathedral in St. Petersburg



Living Wages from Boston to Canada

Ottawa City Hall

Boston Talking to organizers the last night about security workers being subcontracted, one casually mentioned what could and could not be done because of the Boston Living Wage ordinance.  At Boston University with Professor Lee Staples as we made the case and claims for the power of community organizing it was natural to once again reference the impact of the more than great living wage ordinance ACORN and labor allies had won in Boston what seems like yesterday, but probably more than 10 years ago now.

In living wage fights in the US the issue is often framed around what the impact on jobs and employers will be.  In talking about citizen wealth in these fights we often had to defend against whether or not living wages were an appropriate anti-poverty method, rather than being able to assume that everyone shared a value that work should be paid fairly to the laborer.

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