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.


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.


Has the Time for Paid Sick Leave Finally Come?

Activists hold signs during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu in  Jan 2013.

Activists hold signs during a rally at New York’s City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu in Jan 2013.

New Orleans      Don’t let some good news get by you in the headlines about bombing the bejesus out of Syria and the rising inequality gap, let’s celebrate the fact that California took a giant step in advancing the prospects for mandatory paid leave for workers as Governor Brown signed a bill granting accrual of three sick days per year for 6.5 million workers, joining Connecticut as the only state with guaranteed sick days. We only have about 40 million workers to go, but this is a giant leap forward in a campaign that has been slow to get traction, but after eight years or so is showing more and more results.

The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Standards estimates that 4 of 10 workers have no sick plan coverage. When we began to push for sick leave as an expansion of the living wage fights eight years ago, we knew we were in for a slough, but now following the living wage pattern, some cities have also taken the lead with sick pay guaranteed for workers in New York City, Portland, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. for example

The California plan is both interesting and disturbing. Interesting because it doesn’t separate part and full-time workers on its accrual system. An hour of paid sick time is accrued for every thirty hours of work up to a cap of three days, which means that after 720 hours of work, which is less than one-third of fulltime hours of 2080, a worker has earned the full three days for that year. What was shocking is that a last minute amendment was passed exempting home health workers from coverage, prompting SEIU and other unions to withdraw their support for the sick leave bill. How can it be that home health workers at the front lines of care for the elderly and infirm can’t earn a paid sick day? We have to take the “kick me” sign off of the backs of these beleaguered workers, because to put it plainly, employers don’t value their sacrifice or service.

A Local 100 organizer was telling me this week about a grievance she handled in Lafayette, Louisiana for a direct care health worker in a nonprofit developmentally disabled facility where we represent hundreds under contract. The worker with seven years of seniority had never taken any of the sick days the contract guaranteed, but in this instance she reported for a mandatory training session and could feel herself losing the battle to the flu or some bug while there. In one of her trips to the restroom she called her supervisor on her cell, and said she was going to have to take a sick day. For her trouble, she found herself suspended rather than granted one of the sick days she had earned. When the supervisors realized that she was calling from the training session, they confronted her and told her that if she could be at the session, she could complete the day, and she was suspended for lying about her condition.

In the grievance hearing with the executive director, when it got to that point, our union representative asked what was the supposed lie our member was accused of? The supervisor said they had talked to the nurse running the training session and she did not remember our worker having to leave the session repeatedly. At that point our organizer said, “Are you really telling me that with a guaranteed sick leave policy that requires no doctor’s note to get a sick day and for a worker that has never taken a sick day in seven years, that what we are really grieving is how many times she went to the bathroom?” The Executive Director shook his head and apologetically said, “Yes, that seems to be what we’re saying.”

Sure, we’ll win this grievance and the worker’s suspension will be erased, and she’ll get an apology, which she pretty much got from the big boss at the hearing, but my point is that both good bosses and bad bosses in our current work culture just automatically assume that missing work for sickness is almost always lying and malingering, thereby risking the health of their workers and their own clients for that matter.

And that’s where public policy needs to step up to the statement that, “there ought to be a law,” with a response that is in the affirmative, because employers on their own don’t get it.


Leaders and Stewards Demand Expanded Vision for Unions with a Long List of Details

the entire delegation

the entire delegation

Dallas    One of the most amazing things about being an organizer, whether of community or labor-based organizations, remains the excitement of learning deeply what people really want – and expect – of their own organizations.   For 33 years, Local 100 of the United Labor Unions has held an annual leadership conference.  Many times it is largely training.  Sometimes the speakers are what people remember.  Other times campaigns have been planned or organizing drives hammered out or crises, both internal and external, confronted and addressed.  This year’s meeting in Dallas combined almost all of those items for over 60 Local 100 leaders and stewards including extensive training on enrollment within Affordable Care Act in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas along with stewards training on the worksites, plans for a minimum wage increase campaign, a great, inspiring speech by Dallas Congresswoman and longtime ally, Edie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and detailed training for the coming launch of Local 100’s Citizen Wealth Centers.

Kenneth, Toney, and Dine' leading session on ACA and broadening

Kenneth, Toney, and Dine’ leading session on ACA and broadening

The highlight though was a session planned in some sidebar conversations between Toney Orr, Local 100’s Arkansas State Director, and Dine’ Butler, Local 100’s New Orleans organizer, when they were representing the union in the recent annual meetings of ACORN International and its partners in Bristol, England.  The framework of the session was the role the Local leadership needed to play in doing outreach, building on the Obamacare enrollment effort, around fighting to increase the minimum of wage.  Toney and Dine’ broke the leaders into a half-dozen groups to discuss a mass door knocking program in their communities to determine what issues they wanted to see the Local address as well as what services and representation they wanted included in our new Citizen Wealth Centers.

IMG_1416 IMG_1417 IMG_1418 IMG_1441

Many of the results were predictable, some surprising, and all of them invaluable as the leaders envisioned a broader role for the union and an expanded view for themselves and their organization in addressing workers’ issues deeply and comprehensively.  Here comes the list:

·         Credit counseling and developing an emergency small loan fund

·         Addressing the issue of ex-felons in the community and the criminal injustice system

·         Representing members on resolving problems with medical bills

·         Childcare and recreation

·         Helping the community win home and street repairs

·         Safety issues for the elderly

·         Nuisance abatement and police protection in the community

·         Bulk trash pickup

·         Workman’s compensation claims

·         Police harassment

·         Voter registration and voter education

·         Traffic ticket camera fraud

·         Medicaid expansion

·         Social Security issues

·         Veterans benefits

·         How to acquire student loans and handle student debts

·         Applying for college or training

·         Bus passes and transportation costs

·         Advocacy hotline

·         Unemployment appeals

·         Document reviews for members

·         Rising gas and electric bills

·         Property tax and zoning issues

You’re wondering why no one mentioned wages aren’t you?  Everyone is supposed to know that the only thing unions and their members care about is money and “what’s in it for me?”  Well, you heard the list, and this list just includes the things I could keep up with while writing as fast as each group reported.

Certainly there were lots of worker issues and concerns around healthcare, which we all expected, but there were as many issues raised about how the union could improve the communities where their members and other workers lived.  The union leaders were demanding to fill the vacuum in their communities as well as their workplaces.  Furthermore in looking at the array of representation they wanted from the Citizen Wealth Centers, they were looking at their role as stewards not simply in keeping their members on the job and improving their working conditions but using their hard won advocacy and organizing skills and dealing to deal with the whole array of issues faced by our members and community as they intersected with government and with financial issues.

For the organizers the job now becomes how much is possible, but the leaders of Local 100 were clear about expressing their mandate and their vision for their union and its inspiring range and depth might be just the kind of prescription needed to take the labor movement off the death watch, if we can convert what we heard into actions and programs.

Houston delegation

Houston delegation


Arkansas delegation

Arkansas delegation






FCC Notes Broadband Failures While Still Snubbing Digital Divide

New Orleans    FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski released the annual report on  broadband internet access this week in Washington, DC, bemoaning the fact that the United States is still not among the leaders in broadband speed and that 19,000,000 do not have access.  The FCC thinks this is mainly a rural problem, and god knows, having just been in Montana where even Sprint and T-Mobile can’t muster a signal in Missoula, they have a long way to go.  The FCC is claiming they have taken various steps to extend this, and I’m sure they have, but….

The FCC’s concept of “access” we are learning is a very, very limited thing.  Access for the FCC simply means that you can manage to get to the internet a bit faster if you have the big bucks to pay the bills to do so.

Nowhere was that made more clear than in reading fragments of Comcast’s latest lameness and corporate back slapping about their shell game offering of internet access to low income families.  They claim about 90,000 signed up in the last year which is better than previous results even though simply shameful when one looks at their limp efforts at any outreach and their “access by brochures” strategy of informing and enrolling people in the program.

All of this was painfully obvious in visiting Little Rock, where Comcast is the cable operator.  Talking to head start parents, some remembered seeing a brochure from Comcast, but found it indecipherable and certainly not encouraging.  Officials from principals down to teachers mentioned nothing about the “program,” if one would actually call it that.

Admittedly, Comcast still at least is doing something, no matter how pathetic, since other than Chairman Genachowski’s press conference announcements of a year ago, there is still no sign of any action by Times-Warner or Cox Cable, both of whom he claimed we launching programs this spring.  Repeated efforts by Local 100 United Labor Unions and our community partners to obtain information from these companies about any efforts to implement these programs in New Orleans, Dallas, and other cities where they operate has been fruitless to date.

The FCC likes to shout about what it is doing through the airwaves, but its follow through for low income families is a signal lost in space and just empty sounds of promises and pretense lacking any proof.



Is this Only PR for Comcast or About Internet for the Poor?

New Orleans      The FCC made a big, big deal a few weeks ago about the fact that Cox Cable and Time-Warner Cable had both voluntarily agreed to provide low cost internet access to low income families.  The basics were $9.95 per month and a $150 refurbished computer.  The agreement they were trumpeting was based on a “model” program developed by Comcast was part of a quid pro quo for the FCC’s go ahead on the Comcast’s acquisition of NBC/Universal.

I’m delighted:  what a win!  A real bridge being built for crossing the digital divide with affordable internet access for the poor!   Let’s get all of our members, head start clients, free lunch eligible folks in our schools, and people in the community signed up and ready to go, first on Comcast, then on Cox, Times-Warner, and get the rest on board, too!

It turned out we had Local 100 members in Comcast service areas throughout Houston and Harris County, Little Rock, and Shreveport.  Even better we also represented workers in the Head Start programs in all three of those locations and throughout the schools in Houston.   Funny thing though, no one seemed to have heard of the program hardly.  It was virtually impossible to go through the maze of the system and get an application.  When our people asked for applications some were asked to pay for credit checks, which were not part of the program.  One of our members was asked to pay a deposit to be able to qualify.  If you didn’t call the right number, Comcast tried to “up sell” over the $9.95.  It would take two to four weeks to get an application, if one arrived at all.  If you were a tenant you had to prove that you were not someone who rented the apartment years ago and to do so, you had to go downtown to only one place, despite more than a dozen Comcast offices in the city in the case of Houston.  This was not a bridge over the digital divide; this was a false front on a new and higher wall blocking access to the poor.  Oh, and it turned out this really wasn’t about the poor or the unemployed or seniors or any of these groups, but only for families with school age or Head Start children who qualified for free school lunches.  Sigh.

Comcast is big in Philly.  An internet search on the program showed a lot of smiling faces and well known folks touting the importance of this Comcast initiative.  Calling friends and organizers in Philadelphia though produced the same head scratching response.  On first blush they had not heard of the program either.  Action United, a membership organization of low and moderate income families, had trouble finding any members or staff that knew much about this Comcast special on the internet.  They did a phone survey of 500 people and their worst fears were confirmed.  Few knew.  Even fewer had gotten on.   We found the same story in Little Rock.  One of our organizers knew about the program, because some of his children were solicited in their school, but not all of his children.

We reached out for Comcast.  No response in most places.  We reached out for the FCC, and most of the response was to forward the correspondence to Washington, D.C. and more recently to ask if they could forward our concerns to Comcast itself.

Action United, representing our entire coalition of organizations, including A Community Voice in Louisiana and Arkansas Community Organizations in Little Rock, met with the company.

  • How many were enrolled?   No answer.  Not sure they knew.
  • What are the goals for enrollment?  None and we don’t know yet was the answer.
  • What is the real outreach?  They printed more than a million flyers and mailers touting the program.  Where did they go?  How were they supervised?  What were the results?  Anything more active?  Pretty much a lot of shrugging and excuses and whatevers.
  • How about the problems around the country?  Hmmm.  No answers here either, though they seemed to say, it was all right to “up sell,” if someone called the “regular” Comcast numbers rather than the “special” “Internet Essentials” number.  Was this a “bait and switch?”

It was a dog-and-pony show rather than a really serious meeting about delivering internet access to lower income families.  They did promise to get back to us later in January, so perhaps they will begin to really commit to delivering access.

In Little Rock this week members of United Labor Unions Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations raised the issue with Comcast, but, weirdly, the head of Comcast tried to deny he had even received the certified letter.  Hardly matters, the problem remain the same.  He agreed to meet with us in Little Rock.  We’ll see if he follows through.

The FCC also called Houston, Philly, and Little Rock asking if they could forward our letters to them about problems with Comcast’s internet access program.  I’m not sure if this is a form of the FCC washing their hands of the problem or a signal to Comcast to live up to its promises, rather than its public relations?

Seems clear that thus far this program is mainly window dressing and feel-good-PR, so we seem to have little choice but to help families who are trying to get access to this program to file FCC complaints that so far it is nothing but deceptive advertising.  We have the Xeroxes burning in all of the cities that are part of this collaboration now so as we find more families denied or unable to apply or eligible and caught in the Comcast maze and bureaucracy, they can fill out an FCC complaint and move this up the chain.

Depending on the response, we will begin talking to local city officials about the questionable conduct of Comcast on this vital program.

Overnight we reached other potential partners in Knoxville, Tennessee and Springfield, Massachusetts where Comcast is also the cable company and internet provider.  Looks like we should start making a longer list of where Comcast operates to see if it is really following through anywhere.

We need to start talking to Cox and Time-Warner in other cities to make sure they understand what we have learned in the last several months.

Comcast has one heckuva advertising department, but when it comes to internet access to the poor, they may have run a game on the FCC, because this is NOT a model program.