The Painful Tragedy of the Digital Divide

computers_0Little Rock    For more almost 25 years, Local 100 United Labor Unions has represented school support workers mostly in Texas and Louisiana from Head Start to high school from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers and janitors. Most of our work is concentrated in the cities now, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Little Rock, because the members’ dues can afford the infrastructure there, but every month we still get regular dues checks from our members at the outposts of local.

About this time of year when winter lingers and spring is pushing forward in this part of the country, I used to join Orell Fitzsimmons, 100’s Texas State Director, for what we called our “fence mending” tour. I would meet him in Houston and then we would drive to Corpus Christi, meet with Willie Fleming there, and then stay in some cheap motel along South Padre Island before we went through our school districts along the Rio Grande Valley before heading back north toward San Antonio and back around to Houston. Sometimes we would stop and take a picture of Texas state highway 100 on the way to Donna to visit our members in the school district there before doubling back to McAllen, Pharr, McAllen, and Brownsville. Everything in south Texas is a long ride.

The FCC is voting soon on a Band-Aid, but essential program to expand “lifeline” funds collected from the big telecoms to offer increased access to broadband internet to lower income families. If we were really serious about attacking inequality we would do a whole lot more, including forcing these public utilities to make all internet affordable to all families in their homes as a basic necessity, but at least we’re doing a little something-something.

Forty percent of the families in South Texas where we used to fence mend do not have access at home to the internet. Looking at a picture in the New York Times of children standing outside a schoolhouse in McAllen, one of our old Texas school districts, so that they could download homework assignments from a school’s wireless hotspot, is just about enough to bring tears to my eyes from the rage boiling my brain. Reading about a young girl in the Donna Independent School District, that we know like the back of our hands, who rides a bus 3-hours a day so that she can use the Wi-Fi on the bus to keep her grades up is tragic. Reading about another 17-year old girl who finishes her after-school job in Pharr and then has to go to a friend’s house to use the internet in order to get assignments in before the midnight deadline that are required to be submitted on-line just about sends me to the street to scream.

Why are we not doing better for these children? Why are these school districts not paying a janitor a couple of extra dollars to keep the cafeteria open for these young scholars to do their homework until 9PM or even later? Why are teachers so brutally insensitive to the children they see eye-to-eye across their desks? What kind of casual cruelty is becoming part of the DNA of our society? And, that’s downstream, when so much of the problem is upstream in corporate suites and politicians offices.

The Rio Grande Valley is not an exception either. More than 30% lack internet access in New Orleans, Detroit, and other broke-ass cities, that are also not surprisingly majority-minority cities. 25% of library users now in cities according to surveys find their patrons coming to use the computers and internet, yet how many are open the hours that students need?

Half-steps are probably better than standing still, but we need a full-on march to deal with the digital divide and the inequality it advances so clearly for so many struggling so hard.

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Grinding out a Hollow Victory under the NLRB for Garbage Workers

8965564-largeLittle Rock   For more than twenty years, Local 100 has represented “hoppers” in New Orleans as well as other cities in south Louisiana and Texas. Hoppers, gunslingers, or whatever they might be called are the laborers at the rear end of garbage trucks, handling the business end of the enterprise, making sure the content of the filled cans gets into the “hopper” which is the large cylinder that rotates and compacts the garbage on the route. Even as the process has become more mechanical with lifting arms and special cans, many an 80-gallon piece of plastic is still heaved into the hopper to keep the routes speeding along from house to house. This is hard, sweaty, and often dangerous work.

These workers for decades have been subcontracted by municipally privatized sanitation contractors like Waste Management or Browning-Ferris or smaller companies to temporary employment agencies. Some unions and organizers along with the general public wrongly assume these workers are company employees when and if they notice them at all and believe that if they are temporary or casual, they are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, but of course they are. When we won these elections in the 1990s, we bargained the workers up from minimum wage and archaic employment practices like “Chinese overtime,” still common in the industry for such workers. It was front page news in the Wall Street Journal at the time.

After Katrina hit New Orleans 10 years ago, garbage service was provided by FEMA for a while, meaning that all the workers and contractors disappeared. When they came back under the now disgraced and jailed Mayor Ray Nagin, there were new companies and new contractors. We were able to establish that one new contractor, Milton Berry, was a successor, and we attempted to bargain a contract with them. There was a problem though and a big one. Berry had unilaterally rolled back wages, so we filed charges to recover the losses while trying to bring this outfit up to the 21st century and modern worker protections. Easier said than done, because all Berry really had going for himself was a knack for cutting corners and some lawyers who didn’t care about anything but getting their hourly rate. We got 10j injunctions. We endured appeals to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Anything to wind down the clock. Berry lost the contract for the hoppers, but the lawyers kept on.

The final order has now come out more than seven (7) years after we filed the initial charges. The NLRB ordered Berry and his wife, as owners of M & B Services to post fifteen (15) notices of their illegal activity, but no hoppers will ever see these notices because Berry no longer has a place of business in New Orleans. He has been ordered to pay $223,781.00 in back pay and $42,292 in interest through September 22nd, a figure that will keep rising until payment, from the total bill of $266,000 now. The checks supposedly have to be received by the NLRB in their offices by no later than the middle of October. No question, if you read the order, after all of these years Local 100 and the workers have a victory in hand.

Rosa Hines, Local 100’s New Orleans office director, who has handled this case throughout this period should frame the order and put it near her desk somewhere in the office. That way we and the workers will have something to remember from this struggle, because after all of this time it is unclear that any of them will ever see a dime.

The NLRB order reads this way in finding culpability:

M&B Services, Inc; Berry Service, Inc. (Berry I); Berry Services, Inc. (Berry II); Berry Transportation, LLC; Milton Berry, an Individual Charged with Personal Liability; Carolyn Berry, an Individual Charged with Personal Liability.

Milton Berry’s business address is now in a New Orleans suburb. Carolyn Berry, his wife, has a business address in Magnolia, Mississippi. Their businesses are small potatoes, but having been led down a bad road by their lawyers’ exploitation of the deadening legalistic bureaucracy of the NLRB and the playground it allows scofflaws, they are now personally on the hook for $260,000.

The next lawyer they hire will probably be a bankruptcy specialist, not a labor law exploiter. The Berry’s will have a sad tale to tell at family dinners about the evil of unions. Meanwhile the union and the workers seven years later will have something they can look at in a frame with the slim chance of ever seeing a dime of back pay and the ongoing struggle of still trying to work on wages still lower than they enjoyed a decade ago.

Maybe there is hope in the new joint employer decision of the NLRB that allow justice to be won from the primary contractor, but that’s a fight next time. For now there’s no celebration over a hard won victory this time.

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