Was the Weird Labor Dustup over Airbnb Housekeepers a Trojan Horse?

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

New Orleans   Over recent weeks there has been a spit fight involving the controversial in-home rental app, Airbnb, and various labor unions, including the frequently controversial Service Employees International Union and its even more controversial former president, Andy Stern, and the now much less widely known hotel workers union, Unite HERE, and a bunch of housing groups. At issue was a potential deal, now scuttled, that would have had Airbnb recommending union cleaners to its hosts and guaranteeing that they would be paid at least $15 per hour and “green” certified. What in the world was this all about, other than perhaps the easier work of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

What’s the beef? SEIU has been the driving force in the “fight for $15” campaign and they have long “owned” the jurisdiction on many types of cleaners. This could not have been a big deal for them. Maybe they would have gained a couple of members or more likely a couple of more hours for work for already existing members, and that only in jurisdictions like New York and California where they have fought and won high union density for such workers. Largely though this would have been little more than a press flurry for a couple of days that then would disappear from consciousness. For Airbnb operators this would have been a fix looking for a problem, since most are either cleaning their own places or already have cleaners, many, if not most of whom are already making more than $15 per hour since they are on-demand workers with more individual bargaining power.

What SEIU seems not to have fully realized is that the fight around Airbnb in tight housing markets like San Francisco, New York, and others where there are active housing groups is intense and polarized, and there is no demilitarized, neutral zone. But, SEIU certainly was well aware that these same areas are also areas where Unite HERE has significant organization among hotel workers, so they have common cause in seeing Airbnb or any service that takes guests out of a union hotel as the anti-Christ. Going back to the jurisdictional wars within labor what was a close labor partnership between the unions went way, way south, when SEIU offered a safe haven for parts of UNITE and its former leader, Bruce Raynor, in an internecine struggle with John Wilhelm. To put another finger in Unite HERE’s eyes, the architect of that shotgun merger was Andy Stern, who reportedly was also representing Airbnb in these preliminary negotiations about this deal.

Neither Airbnb nor SEIU had much to gain other than a couple of props and press releases from this deal, so it is no surprise that current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, saw this as a distraction, and quickly went to current Unite HERE president’s Dee Taylor’s Las Vegas stronghold to, in all likelihood, get her hand slapped, apologize, and hope the whole mess would die like other things in Vegas. This was all much ado about nothing.

Unfortunately, this let’s-make-a-deal love affair between some unions and Silicon Valley tech operations is worrisome still. Airbnb doesn’t really have a labor problem in any classic sense, but something like Uber, the ride sharing app really does. In a recent court settlement on Uber, in exchange for pretending their drivers were not employees, Uber agreed to some vague language about being willing to meet with – or help create a forum – for associations of their drivers to discuss issues. Actual unions of Uber drivers have been in formation in Seattle and other West Coast cities. Was it a lawyer or a union advisor that thought these meetings and company “unions” were a good idea as anything but a union-avoidance strategy? Certainly, the campaign master and deal maker for Uber is someone with rich Democratic politics experience from the Obama campaigns and relationships with a lot of current – and former – union leaders. I would worry that Airbnb might have been a Trojan horse for an Uber type problem, since too many are painfully fuzzy about the hard core anti-labor, job destroying, disruption philosophy that is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

The next shoes that fall could hurt a lot more than this one.


Fifteen Dollars for Fast Food Workers – More to Come?


Fast-food workers and supporters gathered on Wednesday in Manhattan to watch a live video of the wage board’s decision. The governor hailed it as an example of New York’s progressiveness. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

New Orleans   Fast food workers in New York State got some great news after a three year campaign. The wage review board set up by Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced, as expected, that it will recommend a $15 wage for many fast food workers in New York State. The increase, once approved will stair step the wage up to $15 over the next six years statewide by 2021 and in New York City will accelerate faster and reach the $15 per hour number in three years by 2018. This is unquestionably a huge victory for service workers and their unions and their community-based partners, like New York Communities for Change, formerly New York ACORN, and the Working Families Party. Hip-hip-hooray!

The wage increases will impact fast food workers working in the big chains with 100-stores or more, so clearly the MacDonald’s, Taco Bell’s, Popeye’s, Burger King, and the like. Outfits like MacDonald’s have already agreed to go to $9 now and $10 next year, so they seem resigned to reality. Reports indicate that there are 180,000 fast food workers in New York State. It is unclear how many are employed in the 100-plus-store chains, but presumably this number would approach or exceed 100,000 workers.

The $15 per hour minimum wage has now won favor and is on an implementation timeline in Seattle, Los Angeles City and County, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.  The New York plan is the only one that singles out fast food workers rather than all workers in a jurisdiction. Mayor DeBlasio and others in New York City continue to argue for the $15 wage to be spread to all workers, not just fast food workers, and this should put some wind behind their sails. SEIU’s giant New York-based building services local, 32B-J, has announced a strike for airport related workers in their campaign for a $15 per hour wage for contractors there, so the fast food move will be a shot in their arms as well.

God and the government should both know they need it. A report from the nonprofit Tax Foundation found that in cities like Washington, D.C. spending $1 will buy only about 84 cents worth of goods compared to the rest of the country where in places like Mississippi and Arkansas spending $1 will get you about $1.15 worth of goods.

That’s little comfort though. Bill Lipton, the director of the New York Working Families’ Party, was quoted calling the wage recommendation a huge victory for the “99%.” Given the polarized politics of the country and the huge division between rich and poor, it’s worrisome what will happen in the rest of the country, where the fights are still concentrated on winning a ladder to $10 or $11 per hour? We may start having to talk about tales of more than two cities, with the rich and poor divided, and the poor and poorer also divided. Little progress seems forthcoming in Congress on enacting President Obama’s now dusty proposal for a $10.10 minimum wage for example.

This is a clear victory, but there will have to be many, many more of them before New York’s Governor Cuomo’s words that “other states will follow” can come true. A victory in New York for 100,000 workers helps the 99% in New York, but that hardly moves a decimal point in the rest of the country, and the 98.9% are still desperate for a raise. Celebrate for the day, but there’s a lot of work still to be done tomorrow!


Foote Homes: Better to Rehab than to Destroy – The Paradox of HUD Programs

Foote Homes

Memphis   After a 30-year HUD led program to obliterate public housing in the USA, there probably isn’t any more quixotic campaign than to try and save the “last public housing project in Memphis,” as Robert Lipscomb, head of the Memphis Public Housing Authority calls the 497 unit Foote Homes, but there I was huddled in a conference room of the University of Memphis with more than 20 community activists and organizers, church people, property owners around Vance Avenue, and students and professors at Rhodes and the University of Memphis, and it was a fascinating and exciting session.

meeting about Foote Homes

If we had good sense, we would all just walk away since the odds of winning are so long, but there were two reasons it was impossible to do so:

  • Residents of Foote Homes actually wanted to stay there and have the homes rebuilt rather than being spread out in the diaspora of Memphis in Section 8 housing.  One survey after another from outside groups had found significant majorities who wanted to stay at Foote and improve the housing rather than being force marched elsewhere in town.   Not surprisingly, the structural surveys of the homes had found they were sound and well-built, and in fact would invariably be better and more affordable housing than what would replace Foote Homes.  Whenever people are this clear, especially about public housing, attention must be paid!
  • Another clue turned out to have been that Foote Homes is in fact not only unique, but historical.  Each set of buildings is centered by expansive parks and grounds with recreation and relaxation facilities located there.  Having looked at hundreds of housing projects over 40 years, I was immediately struck as I drove by on the way to the meeting at how physically attractive the landscape and building sitings were.  Not surprisingly it turned out that the design had been done in the heyday of the so-called “City Beautiful” movement.  As historic, was the fact that the actually design was done by two African-American architects who worker for the Olmstead firm famous for Central and Prospect Parks in NYC and many others around the country.

The more we talked, the more I started to believe there were real prospects for a campaign to protect the housing project, or at least a large part of it, and to deliver solid community benefits agreement for Foote Homes as well.   The public “narrative” changes when the public realizes that residents want to stay in their homes because these are better homes and that it has incalculable meaning for history and culture of the community not far from the highly touted Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Talking, it turned out that there were people and organizations that were excited about helping the residents file an application for historic and landmark designation.  What an accomplishment that would be!  And, so richly deserved.

Oh, and HUD cannot finance the demolition of any project with historic designation.  This campaign might just be a winner!

playground at Foote Homes


NYC Bureaucrats Administer Citizen Wealth Setback

health600New Orleans New York City announced that it was ending its experimental program called Opportunity NYC Family Rewards that had offered cash incentives for achieving modified behavior from poor families. From the article it seems that the failure of the City of New York to modify its behavior was the real story here, rather than the impact on the citizen wealth of the poor families. Mayor Bloomberg seems to have concluded that he failed to find a “silver bullet” or “simple solution,” but maybe he’s not looking at the real story here at all.

In a $40 million dollar program over three years designed to give parents cash money for little things like going to the dentist ($100) and big things like holding down a full-time job ($1800 per year!) and passing the high school competency test ($600!), somehow the people in charge managed to spent more than $10 million on operating costs including their salaries and almost $10 million on research and evaluation, and only managed to get $14 million of the $40 million out to poor families. The “opportunity” seems mainly to have been for the full employment program for the project bureaucrats and researchers and not for poor families at all!

They claimed that 2400 families participated in the program. On the back-of-the-envelope math on $40 million expenditure that would have averaged about $16,667 per family over the period. But in reality barely one-third of the dollars went to the families with an average of $5833 per family. NYC reported that those who “participated earned, on average, more than $6000 a year in the first two years” according to the article in the New York Times, but who knows how the math worked there?

Continue reading


Election Lessons on the Hudson

*Jun 07 - 00:05*New Orleans It’s a small sample, but the Virginia bellwether and the deeply blue state New Jersey went hard Republican and in Jersey tossed a Democratic governor looking for a second shot.  Across the river, New York City voters surprised the chattering political classes by almost moving Mayor Bloomberg to his next career as a philanthropist and out of his current posting as a semi-politician.  A couple of thoughts crossed my mind.

  • Voter slaps at Corzine and Bloomberg have a populist anti-Wall Street and decidedly, “money-can’t-buy-my-vote” cast to them for two rich guys willing to spend whatever it takes, particularly the record setting $90M outlay by Mayor Bloomberg in his very close race.
  • Unions need to listen to their members more and to political pros and consultants less.  It’s embarrassing to know that two huge NYC political players, SEIU and UFT/AFT, took a walk on this election.  Their members didn’t.  Controller Thompson, the challenger, romped with African-Americans and voters making less than $100,000 both of which are heavily represented by those two unions.  Had they not been twiddling thumbs on the sidelines, this race would have been even closer and might have sent a message against big money politics that could reverberate around the country.