Landing from the Moon into America

Clint Eastwood & the empty chair

New Orleans   After four days with no power, which of course means no internet, erratic to infrequent newspaper delivery, and it turns out no working radio in the house and only weather and disaster news on the truck radio, it is somewhat wild to be thrust from the light of the full moon into modern day America.

The first head scratcher was about the chair.

Everywhere I looked there were pictures of an empty chair and captions about cats having a beer with President Obama or people standing next to an empty chair asking what they should say to the President.   I was clueless here.  What were they talking about?

Eventually even the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a right-Republican house organ in recent years (except on the issue of hurricane recovery money!), ran a wire piece in their slim, Houma press “high school” size edition about Clint Eastwood have “jumped the shark,” as they say in Hollywood.  Hilarious!  How could the Romney people have not known that Clint was an actor first and foremost, which means hambone, which means, “Katie bar the door!”  What a hoot!

We also were treated to a picture of Romney in Lafitte, Louisiana with Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s governor and ….Young, the Jefferson Parish President.  Big grins all around, which would not have seemed like the gravitas to meet a disaster, but I assume the point was to seem like not-George-Bush-after-Katrina.  Getting a newspaper for the first time and seeing the picture it all seemed so random and WTF?  We had missed the entire convention, proving no doubt that there is always some silver lining in the darkest rain clouds, but then we have the dude parachute down on us and be beamed out before we even knew there was an alien invasion.  God knows?

This morning at 3AM, the New York Times hit the front door, so we were more firmly grounded in reality that we understood.  The lead editorial made it clear there was still no plan on home mortgage modifications and foreclosure relief and those banks were still not being held accountable.  There was no alien invasion after all it seems.  We had simply been caught in a time machine over the last four days and woke up in 2008!



Immigration Reform Bus Rolling South

Immigration Bus

New Orleans   The last several years of efforts for immigration reform in the United States have had been twists and turns, sometimes seeming to move forward, and other times were falling behind.  Enforcement and deportations are up, Congress is stalled, states have become battlegrounds, some relief has come from the White House for DREAM-students and some constructive discretion has come into the system, nonetheless it is safe to say that there is no happiness on this issue anywhere in the land.

Where there has been any progress, there has been pressure finally from the immigrant community itself, and nowhere has that been more true than in the courage of the students risking deportation to march from Florida first and then to rally throughout the country, and now they have something to show for it.  Seeing the bus preparing to leave Phoenix and move on a zigzag route through the West and then through the South, including New Orleans, over coming weeks to end up in Charlotte coinciding with the national Democratic Party’s Convention, there is another act of courage, inspiration, and hope.

I called friends at the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), which has been a force helping support, resource, and organize this new “freedom” bus to wish them well, salute the effort, and offer assistance along the road wherever we might have members and friends, especially New Orleans, which has been a publicized stop on the way.  The devil is in the details as always and the old saying of “my kingdom for a horse” came to mind listening to NDLON’s Chris Newman tell me about the efforts to fix the bus’s oil pan so the brave riders could leave Phoenix and move forward.  Great editorials in the New York Times don’t put gas in the tank or fix oil pans, as it now seems.

The whole movement jumps past the aisles of Congress and dogmatic, narrow disputes of politicians trying to win marginal gains when the clarity of basic human rights is presented so clearly that they cannot be ignored.  Once the bus is moving from community to community with good men and women risking everything, including arrest and deportation out of the United States where they have lived and worked for years, raised families, made contributions, it will be harder for many to not put real faces on this debate and continue to deny basic rights within this community.

I’m so proud they are coming to New Orleans where the freedom rides and riders in the civil rights era were central to the struggle.  This is a community with a history that should embrace a new generation.  I’ve invited them to hold a community meeting at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse to allow people to meet them, hear their story, and show their support.  Who knows if that will happen, but I know wherever they are, I will be, and so should we all be.  These are times when we stand to be counted.

Freedom Riders


Defending the Constitution for Workers and Not Elites

New Orleans    Hidden in the New York Times the day after the July 4th holiday was a fascinating op-ed piece entitled Workingman’s Constitution, by William E. Forbath, a professor of law and history at the University of Texas in Austin.  Forbath was writing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, so that gave him his hook, but his real theme was that “liberals” were dropping the ball in not fully understanding and appreciating that the design and updates of the Constitution were meant to guarantee what we might call “distributive justice,” and the opportunity – and right – for average American citizens rather than just elites to live happily and well in economic terms.

It seems to me that Forbath makes a number of strong points here that are worth note and discussion.  One that underlies all of this arguments is that in the hue and cry by conservatives to “follow the Constitution,” too many of us are ceding the Constitution to the rightwing without hesitating long enough to make a fight for its strengths for our positions as well, which undermines our own programs and policies.

Liberals have too often been complacent and purely defensive. The Constitution, they often declare, does not speak to the rights and wrongs of economic life; it leaves that to politics. Laissez-faire doctrines were buried by the New Deal.  Until last week, this response may have been understandable. But it was always misleading as history, and wrong in principle, as well. And it was bad politics, providing no clear counter-narrative to support the powers of government now under attack from the right.

Pulling examples from James Madison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Forbath makes a persuasive case that the enduring constitution is interlaced with a “distributive tradition” and that “you can’t have a republican government, and certainly not a constitutional democracy amid gross material inequality…because gross inequality …destroys the material independence and security that democratic citizens require to participate on a roughly equal footing in political and social life.”

This is profound and powerful stuff, and there may not be enough students matriculating from UT Law School ready to take pen an voice to join this army, so the rest of us need to take careful note if we are able to wrest the Constitution out of the grimy, greedy hands of the Koch Brothers and their Justices on the Court and their tribunes in politics.

The Constitution on this account promises real equality of opportunity; it calls on all three branches of government to ensure that all Americans enjoy a decent education and livelihood and a measure of security against the hazards of illness, old age and unemployment — all so they have a chance to do something that has value in their own eyes and a chance to engage in the affairs of their communities and the larger society. Government has not only the authority but also the duty to underwrite these promises.


Union Conundrum: Short Term Needs versus Long Term Success

The St. Louis CIO's campaign for unemployment benefits in the 1940s

New Orleans  Eduardo Porter’s “Economic Scene” column in the New York Times is fast becoming a favorite read for me.  He actually seems to care about people, including working and low income people.  Probably not long for this world at the paper, but worth showing some love.

In today’s column he looked at the deterioration of labor unions and strained mightily to find some optimism in the fact that unions have been in the doldrums before (about a 100 years ago) and managed to comeback by reinventing themselves to match the changes in corporate and industrial organization so that they could grow and set labor standards.  Astutely he recognizes that the change in corporate organization today with informalization, subcontracting, globalization, and service sector domination could force unions to “give up organizing work site by work site.”  That’s probably not true.  Some unions will always and only stick to such a model, just as some unions never changed (and in some cases died) because of their failure to adapt seventy years ago.  It is true though, as I have frequently argued in the case of Walmart and so many of the major nonunion employers of tens of thousands of workers that have arisen in the last thirty years, that one has to organize company-wide because site-by-site work will never catch up to the size of the enterprise.

Porter cites the alliance between organized labor and a workers’ association that produced legislative breakthroughs for domestic workers in New York State  as a potential new model.  He could have said the same thing about our accomplishments in winning living wage measures and protections for home care and childcare workers.  The domestic workers accomplishment is huge, but it is not a solution for unions because the membership and growth has not yet followed the political achievement in the way that home care and childcare membership added more than a half-million members to organized unions.

Whatever organizing model, unions are still first and foremost membership organizations, so any new strategy that allows growth and success has to increase membership and the dues have to be adequate to sustain the organization and allow it to grow.  So far this has been the conundrum for moving more aggressively to a new “majority unionism” model.  These are long term, patient investment strategies, and unions as membership organizations are political as well as economic institutions and short term success is still more valued even though the very survival of unions is now at risk and the resources necessary for a turnaround are diminishing.

On the pilot we are now putting together in Toronto and that many are experimenting with in other settings in the United States, there can only be success if there is direct membership recruitment and dues payment to support the workers’ associations that will lead a new workers’ movement.  The existing institutional union structure increasingly seems so stuck in the cage of its history and current practice that it may not be able to change.  If that is proven to be the case as seems more and more likely, Porter is right in general though perhaps not in specific, and though he does not say this, I will, it points to the fact that it may be new organizations that have to lead the revival and restructuring of the existing labor movement again, just as it was the CIO and the new unions of the UAW and others that broke the patterns last time.


Modern American Debtors’ Prisons

New Orleans    Lord please help the poor, because in America these days it has become a crime to be poor!

Local jails are becoming debtors prisons thanks to the fact that local courts, where justice is rumored rather than meted out it seems, in many areas have outsourced fines and fees leaving people with a “go to jail” card and no “get out of jail” possibility.  Add this to the discussions we have had previously about judges who sent juveniles to prison to pay for the jail system and potentially pad their pockets and the similar pyramiding fee that has left some former students with mountains of debts because of the larded on fees and penalties for missed payments.

Today’s Times included a story by Ethan Bronner featuring two people in Alabama that had gotten traffic tickets and started sliding down the slippery slope of missed appearances and inability to pay (and tell me which of us has not been there!) and ended up doing jail time (in one case over 2 years worth during a decade of joblessness!) while still carrying the debt (up to $10,000 now!).  This defines debtors’ prisons that most Americans have thought we left in England a couple of hundred years ago when we came to this country.

Various lawyers and law professors are quoted reminding people that the Supreme Court has determined that this shouldn’t be the case by ruling that there have to be alternatives for the poor in lieu of inability to pay various fines and fees.  Problem is that these for profit blood suckers don’t feel any obligation to tell folks this and, clang, that’s the sound of the door shutting on the jail cell.  As despicable is the fact that some judges are using the fines and fees to pay for their own retirement benefits.  In fact there’s a dispute right now in the Orleans Parish courts about an additional retirement plan for the judges that no one seemed to know about and all involved seem convinced may be unethical.  It seems that this is common in a number of states according to a study cited particularly in the South by the Times.

I was talking to a judge last week in Ontario (yes, that’s in Canada) who was surprised to have courted some controversy because he had taken the radical step of using the fees his court has collected as something other than a slush fund for local feel good causes and instead was using the $200,000 plus as a mini-cy pres operation that funded nonprofits directly related to changing the conditions that led to the problems, provided rehab, and were involved in the criminal and juvenile justice system.  Have you got this?  It’s controversial and perhaps radical to use such fees to fund improvements in the system, but increasingly standard operating procedure for courts to use such funds for their own perks and pad the pockets of slick operators, while the poor carry the weight of the debt and do hard time for what might have started as a single speeding ticket.

This neo-liberal, pay-as-you-go-down system of criminalizing and impoverishing the poor has to be stopped.  By any means necessary!


Times-Picayune Goes Digital While Changes Prove Alienation from Community

Times-Picayune Staff Meeting about Cuts

New Orleans    My hometown paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, suddenly announced after being scooped by the New York Times, their radical plans to cease being a paper.  They were less frank about their total desertion of New Orleans as their hometown, though their intentions are explicit.

Inarguably times have changed for daily newspapers and the economic climate is challenging and their business model has to adapt to a new reality.  I will grant them that their predicament is real, even while disagreeing that these are correct prescriptions.

This is a decision made solely about money.  The baloney their announcement trumpets about the “digital age” is simply balderdash, especially when it comes to New Orleans.   The Carr story for example cites a 2010 Kaiser Foundation report that 36% of city residents do not have internet access at home.   I actually believe the reality is worse than that, but what do I know, I refuse to capitalize the word “internet” and think it is very dear that the Times is so out of touch that they do, but that’s another story.  A close second is the Times-Picayune claim about their website.   It’s an abomination, and virtually impenetrable.  In a Catholic city like New Orleans, being forced to read the news daily on the existing site could only be comparable to a special kind of purgatory or one of the circles of Dante’s Hell.  They claim they are going to improve the site before their fall transition, so pray that they do though be mindful that they seem to also like it now, so this could be another slap down for the power of prayer as well.

Oh, and other thing about the money.  They claim that in cutting out four of the daily papers per week and going with three print additions that are popular with advertisers, they will be OK.  For those of us who subscribe at home, hey, they are going to reduce the monthly subscription cost by $2.00 or roughly 10%, while giving us less than half of what we were paying for.  Ignoring their explicit confession that the paper business only exists for advertisers rather than the community, what kind of math is that?  If I get the New York Times and Wall Street Journal at home along with the Times-Picayune, exactly why would I consider this a good deal?  Once abandoned, why would I have to finance the desertion?   Did I mention that there will also be staff cutbacks, though they have not revealed yet how deep?  Part of the new digital model is about cheaper pay for young, unemployed journalism majors and aggregation of items from other sites and news services, so goodbye longtime employees and hello more youngsters and interns!

This is not about me though or the protestors the paper is reporting are massing in fancy living rooms in the Garden District among the 1%, because neither of us is typical of the New Orleans community, which the paper should have learned to serve, especially after Katrina.   Newspaper audit reports regularly tout that New Orleans has the highest percentage of newspaper readers of any daily paper in the country.  Why doesn’t that mean something in the search for the new business model?  After Katrina I can remember the advantages of waking up early and still sometimes standing in line to pick up the Times-Picayune in Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town neighborhood when it was essentially nothing more than a broadsheet on stapled Xerox paper, solely because it was the only way to get real local news from New Orleans.  That’s the point of a “hometown newspaper.”  When I’m out of the country for weeks at a time, I still read each paper from the stack on my return.  Living in a community, local news is critical.  The new Times-Picayune decision to abandon the community and their public service responsibility, to at least provide local news in the haphazard and uneven way they have done so, still has value.

If we accept that a new business model is required, and that seems inarguable, what are some of the elements?

A commitment to the community would have meant providing a cheaper, more accessible local-news only paper for home delivery and news box access for New Orleans residents, just as they did after Katrina, even if they did bulk up on certain days as they have announced.  I would guarantee on the days after Saints games such a rag would fly off the shelves throughout the city!

A new business model would have to finally accept that New Orleans is a poor, broke ass city with a 60% minority population, and this is the core reality that the Times-Picayune is now finally conceding, is exactly what makes it so sadly traditional and out of focus in the community.  The pictures of the newsroom staff in today’s paper getting the word, just like the picture of the staff in 2005 after Katrina printed in today’s Times, is virtually lilywhite.  This is not the city and hasn’t been the city for a long time, but the paper has refused to ever move from its St. Charles Avenue and Central Business District chokeholds to put its arms around the real New Orleans and its people, who could ostensibly be its readers.  For years the paper has ceased being a place to go for jobs and more recently as the paper has become largely a police gazetteer featuring crime, convictions, and court proceedings, why would lower income and working families pay 75 cents for the same thing they can get for free from television or radio or from looking out their front doors?  I even think the paper knows this implicitly.  They ran a recent multi-part story (finally!) on how bad the entire criminal justice system smells in New Orleans and Louisiana which even included kind words about Texas, which is heresy Uptown and in the CBD, but one series does not change the editorial page positions or the front page daily headlines.

A new business model would require news organizations to push people like me and organizations like mine out of the way and lead the campaign to eliminate the digital divide.  They can’t throw computers on front stoops like they do their free advertisers on Thursdays, but they can join us in getting Cox, Comcast, and other cable providers to provide low-cost and accessible internet to lower income families as they have promised the FCC.  In fact they could have coupled their announcement not only with advocacy but also with a whole program of community internet and computer access and a commitment to help finance it (kiosks, coffeehouses, community centers, neighborhood businesses, etc), because it is in their self-interest in verifying their advertising base and rates.  Creating this kind of business model requires a commitment to the real community where we live, not the community they really try to serve.  Take Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and our daily early morning paper readers for example.  I will be calling the the Baton Rouge Advocate to see if they will add their papers to the store and may have to put a dummy computer monitor up somewhere in the main room set to the news outlets as a customer and community service.  If I understand that I have to do that, why don’t they?

The real problem of the Times-Picayune is not the digital age.  The digital age simply annoys them because some of the younger, hipper new residents are more comfortable there, but they are not the community of the city either.   The real problem of the Times-Picayune and many other papers around the country, is that they have steadfastly refused to accept their community, design an accessible, valuable, and affordable product and then deliver it.   I spend a lot of my time in mega-slums and huge cities teeming with the poor around the world whether Mumbai, Delhi, Nairobi, and Mexico City, and see people grabbing the daily newspapers, multiple papers, papers given out for free on subways and buses, and people reading and arguing about local news.  They all have websites, but they all also have embedded themselves in the community that really lives there, not the community they wish they had.

Having so recently been a co-winner of the most coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for Public Service, they should be forced to return the prize for abandoning the community, rejecting the commitment to public service, refusing to learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, and refusing to adapt to the city and our population.  The Times-Picayune and Newhouse family papers’ announcement is not about the digital age or a new business model, but another example of a plant closing and the continued race-to-the-bottom for workers, wages, products and production that we see everywhere around the world in the search for the cheap and the desertion of service, commitment, community, and values.