More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits


Leaders Assess Progress and Map Out Plans


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



The Legacy of Fighting Blockbusting is Residential Diversity

photoshop-not-for-sale-dissolve-blend-stamp-000New Orleans   Studies of the largest 100 school districts in the United States indicate that there is such extensive re-segregation that schools are more segregated now than they were almost 50 years ago. Research on communities indicates that racial segregation in housing is part of the vicious cycle driving continued segregation in city after city. Sadly, the contemporary realities make fights like the campaign against racial blockbusting waged in Little Rock’s Oak Forest neighborhood 45 years ago by ACORN and its leaders like Walter Nunn, who I interviewed on Wade’s World, still very relevant.

Walter told the story of ACORN organizer, and now prominent Little Rock labor lawyer, Melva Harmon, contacting him at his home after hearing from other neighbors around the Oak Forest community that they were being solicited by unscrupulous real estate agents to quickly sell their houses because “blacks were buying into the neighborhood.” The strategy behind such panic-pedaling was to convince owners to sell cheap so that they could then flip the house at a higher price by marketing to black families hoping to buy homes in a stable, quiet neighborhood of single-family residences. In the case of Oak Forest the neighborhood was the last stable residential area abutting the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and University Avenue. The whites in flight would go farther west to the sprawling suburbs that other powerful real estate interests at the time were developing into suburban subdivisions farther and farther from the core of the city.

Walter Nunn and his neighbors organized the Oak Forest Property Owners Association with ACORN and with an extensive doorknocking program to families throughout the neighborhood essentially said, “hell no, we won’t go!” Signs went up everything, house to house, that said in big letters: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE, ACORN. It was amazing to drive through the neighborhood and see the signs everywhere. It was impossible for the press to ignore. A group in Los Angeles arranged for some public service advertisements for us to run on the radio stations in Little Rock that were also big news. Carroll O’Connell, then in his Archie Bunker heyday was one of the voices on the spot. Jack Nicholson famous from Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Shining, and now an arm’s length of films was another distinctive voice warning people against blockbusters, saying it was illegal, and asking people to call ACORN, as was Ryan O’Neal.

The group proposed an ordinance to the Little Rock City Council to toughen the rules against blockbusters. Walter remembered only Jack Young and Les Hollingsworth on the City Board of Directors, both endorsed by ACORN, had supported them. Nonetheless, his highlight memory was getting up to speak and then dramatically brandishing the dozen or so business cards from real estate agents they had collected from neighbors who had personally heard the racist pitch to sell, move, and run.

Where the balance shifts to tipping points in neighborhood after neighborhood, it can seem impossible to restore healthy diverse communities. I asked Walter if he had been back to Oak Forest in recent years, and we were both proud to hear his report that Oak Forest still would qualify on such a list.

These were great fights. Maybe we need to reverse the field and have more of them that are about diversity, rather than gentrification.


Visiting with the Old Hands: Sue Hanna Marquess and Melva Harmon

Quick reunion with veterans of ACORN's early years when they were VISTA volunteers working as ACORN organizers, Melva Harmon and Sue Hanna Marquess, in Little Rock at Community Bakery.

Quick reunion with veterans of ACORN’s early years when they were VISTA volunteers working as ACORN organizers, Melva Harmon and Sue Hanna Marquess, in Little Rock at Community Bakery.

New Orleans     For a couple hours it was a stroll down memory lane, first with lawyers from legal services in Arkansas where I had poached some of my first support from the idealistic and committed VISTA and Reginald Heber Smith lawyers there, and then with two of the VISTA women I had repurposed to work for welfare rights and ACORN in 1970, Sue Hanna and Melva Harmon. Appropriately, we met at Joe Fox and Lia Lent’s Community Bakery in Little Rock, since both of them had been ACORN veterans from several years later in the 1970s.

Sue and Melva were kicks!  I was about 15 minutes late, having dealt with a family problem before running in late, but Sue sharply quipped that it didn’t matter, it “wasn’t a staff meeting” after all, needling me about my perpetual pestering about starting every staff meeting punctually at 8 PM on Wednesdays back in the day.  We reminisced about the old crew.  Where was Carolyn Carr, who had worked with me for nigh on 37 years at ACORN?  Best we knew she had retired to San Diego where one of her kids had kids.  They were in pursuit, no one having heard from her in recent years.  How about Donna Parciak?  There we had all struck out, even failing to find her over the years with the help of Google. Last we knew she had returned to Connecticut where she was from.  Mary Jo Kitchen who had come a little later was still in touch with Sue and had gone back to Johnstown, New York, but her brother, Billy, who knows…it had been a long time.  Kaye Jaeger was an RN in Syracuse now.  Fred Dorsey, who had been one of the first men to stick for a while, best we knew had passed away though I had met his daughter in New Orleans after Katrina.  How about Steve Kest, who had worked one summer when they were there and came back later for several decades?  Yes, he had been lost, but now found, but his brother, Jon, too soon gone.  It went like this so long that we had to start reminding ourselves to stop talking about people dying too soon!  Names, people, laughter, and old stories spewed out of us like lava from the volcano of our memories.

And, Melva?  Well, Melva had gone to law school after her ACORN time and was still practicing though not at quite the same feverish pace.  She had been counsel to the Teamsters local in Arkansas for almost 30 years, and a labor lawyer for longer than that.  She still handled arbitrations, some EEOC work in north Louisiana, and this and that with the labor movement, or as she said of unions, “I’ve been with them this long time, so I’m sticking with them to the end.”  Turned out she had been married again and spent more than 25 years with a labor lawyer in Little Rock who I had also talked to from time to time for advice on this, that, and the other, but he had also passed away.  She was from Terrell, Texas, and might someday move closer to Dallas, but for no good reason probably.  One of her sisters had taught Jamie Foxx in school there.

And, Sue?  Sue was still a rolling stone.  She had been a couple of years older than us in our very early 20’s then and before VISTA and ACORN, a dental hygienist.  Now she bounced between New York, where she hailed from Rochester, and Florida where a lot of her family lived now, and even Little Rock where coincidentally she now had a cousin. She quipped that when she showed up at their door, “family can’t say no.” She had spent 13-years in a collective in Hartford that had been an amazing experience she had loved.  She had done several years with the Catholic Workers somewhere else.  She had been to Cuba with MADRE. She had been asked in recent years if she still believed in ACORN and had answered sharply, “Why wouldn’t I?”

These were the women warriors of their generation, full of idealism as they straddled the changing times between their mothers’ worlds and the brave new worlds of women and work that feminism had brought in.  My small insight had been understanding in 1970 and afterwards that change had come and more was coming, and all of these women were huge untapped resources, filled with anger and dreams, and ready to work to see something different happen.


War on the Workers by Anne Feeney


Ghostbusters in Radio World

Ghostbusters-PS_612x380New Orleans       Over the last couple of years as I’ve acted as station manager of KABF 88.3/FM, the “voice of the people” broadcasting at 100,000 watts from Little Rock, Arkansas and live streaming, I’m sometimes asked by various associates “if this is the best use of my time,” to which I reply heartily with various justifications, all of which I totally embrace and believe. These include the power of the medium, the opportunity, still untapped to use the internet internationally to broadcast, the value of providing a unique voice to often powerless and voiceless people, and so on and so forth.

But, there’s another part of the answer that is equally real. I view my three or four days up there at the station every four to six weeks almost as a fun-filled change of pace. For the most part, the problems are so different from the normal work of community and labor organizing, that it’s often just hilarious, and other times just satisfying because sometimes it’s little things that can be done that make a difference in simply making the “trains run on time,” by coming in from time to time.

The best story of my recent trip was a doozy. KABF and the Local 100 office in Little Rock occupy perhaps a bit more than half of the space on the second floor of the 1950’s era building on the far southern part of Main Street in the city. The property was – and is – owned by a nonprofit building corporation similar to many created by ACORN for this purpose and in fact is named after the first building we bought to house our offices many years ago on 15th Street. It’s a collective enterprise and as such when things go well for all of us, it’s good times, and when there are hard times, the apples don’t fall far from that tree either. The good news on my last trip had been that a tenant had finally been found for the space the union had occupied formerly on the second floor. There was some downside fallout of course. Two of the rooms we had cleaned and cleared of mountains of junk were now repopulated with the detritus that had been in the space now rented, so we were once again going to have to push those rocks back up the hill, but renting the space was all to the good.

Turned out there was some excitement in this tale though. When the new tenant began to move to occupy the space and opened the door to get on with the task, they were totally stymied and stopped cold until they could figure out what the heck was happening. In the middle of the now vacant space they found a tower of recording equipment, taping away as if they had unearthed an old Stasi spy operation in East Germany or an Edward Snowden operation right in Little Rock. Was the whole building and its work now under surveillance?

The search for an explanation was on! It ended quickly though when various parties asked John Cain, the longtime program manager of KABF, if he had any clue about what might be going on in the space. Turns out that indeed he did. One of the volunteers had approached him and asked if he could set up some recording equipment in the building to catch the sounds of ghosts (yes, ghosts!) operating in the space. They had been recording for days. John saw no harm in the project, and in his long experience with the thousands of different volunteers over the 30-year history of the station, didn’t even seem to find the request or the project that unusual.

We’ll have to await the final report from this name-unknown volunteer on what he did or didn’t hear when he tediously listens to the recordings. In the meantime,  the space is now fearlessly occupied, and the ghost-busting volunteer is now more infamous for having parked his car and blocked the dumpster from being emptied, costing an extra fee for a return pickup, and perhaps inadvertently solving the long time parking disputes of the building once and for all, than for his efforts to catch Casper the friendly ghost in his hideaway on South Main with the rest of the special people and crazy antics that make every one of my visits such a hoot.


Sprawling Roads to Nowhere


LONG GONE: Ninth Street in its heyday.

Little Rock    These days planners and speculators would be hard pressed to imagine that they could figure out a way to easily intersect cities with ribbons of concrete dividing rich, poor, black and white, which is not to say there aren’t some still trying, but the public purposes are so obscure and the self-interest so palpable, that it’s simply a degree of difficulty that would stagger even the superrich.  Their imaginations have to build castles in other skies, though the dominance of money as the political currency will predictably lead to other white elephants roaming on their fields of dreams that the rest of us will also inevitably end up having to clean up later.

All of this came to mind recently as I read a fascinating master’s thesis prepared at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that focused on the history of ACORN and our allies efforts to prevent the final construction of the Wilbur Mills expressway in Little Rock over 30 years ago.  The paper focused on the extensive delays in constructing these few miles that would run from downtown to the western suburbs leading to final completion not occurring until 1985.  Originally promoted by business and so-called civic leaders more than 50 years ago, the road was to be the East/West Expressway.  Needing more money, the local Congressman Wilbur Mills, who was also the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was able to pork chop the expressway that became his namesake into the interstate system as a short leg connection between a city bypass I-430 and I-30 running on to Dallas. 

The “what” rather than the “why” was the subject of the paper.  Driving the Wilbur Mills the other day, from front to back, it took me 8 minutes in the early afternoon with a steady traffic flow.  At rush hour in the rain, driving at the posted speed of 60 mph (though few others were of course), the same trip took me 9 minutes.  One of the studies that ACORN won established that the time savings on this expressway would only be 3 or 4 minutes, so frankly, we are talking about a highway dividing the city of Little Rock in half over the fact that a commuter might drive 8 or 9 minutes rather than 11 or 12 minutes. 

A rare story in 2011 in the weekly, Arkansas Times, noted after almost 30 years that, damn, ACORN was right:  the expressway would cause inestimable damage and divide the city permanently on racial and income lines.   The curtain call and the ability to say, “we told you so,” was hardly worth it.  So, why this Wilbur Mills folly?

Civic nothing, this was all about the financial and political dominance of the real estate industry in Little Rock and the way to create huge paydays for speculators and developers buying land 20 miles form the city’s downtown core.  Thirty years ago, the radio station we built, KABF, began broadcasting from the first tower built on Chenal Mountain in rural Pulaski County, more than 20 miles away from our studios near downtown.   Now if you stand in front of our transmitter and look down the valley at the bottom of the mountain there is a community of McMansions and they are strung like diamond baubles on a necklace all the way back to I-430 and the Mills, miles away. 

Some got rich, while the rest of the city is still in rehab on the other side of a moving, high speed, wall of concrete apartheid that is a monument to sprawl and depopulation.  Let’s hope someone somewhere is still working on the part of the paper that covers, “lessons learned.”