Exploiting Contract Workers

New Orleans Reading an surprisingly good article in the New York Times about the union fight in Indonesia against the great mega-retailer Carrefour to win rights for contract workers that they thought they had gained in a strike earlier this year, I was struck by how blind we all are to similar worker exploitation right in front of our eyes every day.  We are not blinded so much by ignorance as by ubiquitous corporate deceit and sleight of hand.  The worker smiling across the counter, hauling our garbage can, delivering our prescription, telling us about the traffic on the way from the airport, and in many other situations is not really working for the company whose name is on their uniform, but often an exploited contract worker in disguise.
Recently talking to Ken Paff, the long time organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) about any new organizing being done by the Teamsters, he was incredulous when I told him that Waste Management and many other companies really only employed the drivers on those privatized municipal sanitation trucks, because the laborers on the back end of the trucks were almost always contracted, casual and temporary workers.  I knew because Local 100 has represented them with all of the garbage companies in New Orleans, Dallas, and elsewhere for years.  It’s part of the business model, pure and simple.  Offload the workman’s compensation liability on someone else because running in traffic behind a multi-ton truck is very dangerous work and besides who knows (cares?) what they might be paid for the work and the risk.  Just like the Indonesian worker was quoted  by Sara Schonhardt in the Times, “New employees who are young and ready to enter the work force will take whatever pay they can get…” and this sets the stage for exploitation obviously.
Taking a cab into the city from the Metro Airport in Detroit I saw an envelope between the cabbie’s seats that was marked UAW.  I asked him if he was represented by the autoworkers union.  He was on the organizing committee of a difficult drive to organize the company with the UAW’s help, but they kept being rebuffed as “contract” workers.  To same “in name only” beggars the question of the weaknesses of labor laws for this burgeoning sector of the domestic and global workforce.

Of course it goes without saying that this is part of why ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign continues to insist that Carrefour, Walmart, Metro, Tesco, and other giant multi-brand retailers must agree to labor standards, job protections, and community benefits before entering India.  The notion of using contract workers in retail to escape national labor laws providing protections and benefits is well established.    For example in Mexico where Walmart is well established as Mexico’s largest private sector employer (just as they are in the USA and Canada), when you are watching the cashier ring up your bill and someone else bag your groceries, just like in Indonesia, you are talking to a contract worker with a smiley face on their shirt just like the rest of the Walmart “associates.”

Not all associates are created or treated equally it seems.  This is a critical issue that could easily be solved either by worker action or by closing the loopholes in the labor laws.  It would be wonderful if both workers and lawmakers could combine to fix this problem in many countries, though that seems like a Christmas kind of wish and too much to hope.

Predatory Student Loan Travesty

student-debtNew Orleans Ok, one hand is clapping.  There was some progress on student loans under the Obama Administration.  The huge billion dollar scam that was subsidizing banks was kyboshed and federal loans were taken away from the private sector.  Furthermore, President Obama won some limits on payments and implemented some forgiveness programs, especially for public service.  Clap!  Clap! Clap!

But, let’s not pretend there’s a solution by any means, as costs continue to rise and debt for many continues to compound.  I was reminded of all of this as I watched an excellent trailer for a coming documentary called “Default:  The Student Loan Documentary.”  The highlight (lowlight?) was watching one young person after another state obvious:  they took out loans with the dewy eyes of youth buying the American myth that riches were on the other end of the education door, and are now drowning in debt and compound interest charges while navigating well paid jobs, professional jobs ($35000/year) that provide living wages but can’t pay loan shark interest and loans.

It has ceased to be a surprise to me that inevitably if we both to look at any powerless constituency like the young, the old, the poor, or immigrants, it is a certainty that we will find financial predation sucking the citizen wealth out of any groups that can be easily exploited by their acute need or their ignorance.  One of the functions of government is to protect and defend citizens against such practices, but in our current ideology too many blind eyes are turned and banks and others prey without restrain or regard.

Rob Lieber in the New York Times talked about two new student loans being offered by U. S. Bank and Wells Fargo, and his column was almost as sad to read as watching “Default” had been.   Like sub-prime housing loans and refund anticipation loans, I cannot deny that there isn’t a need and market for private student loans.  Part of the reason is that the excellent (3.4% interest) federal loans just don’t carry enough of the weight involved in paying for modern higher education.  All of which opens the door for these absurdly dangerous and risky loans to teenagers desperate to go to college.  Fixed interest rates are a good thing but U. S. Bank offers one for 15 years at 7.8% or with an upfront fee, 8.46%, which right now is knocking on the door of usury, frankly.  Wells Fargo fixed rate product moves from 7.29% to almost double that at 14.21 percent if you are a working stiff trying to go to community college or trade school, which enrages me!  Add to both of these products the likely certainty that a teenager will have to have a co-signer, usually from their family, and it is easy to see how the whole family could go down on the false promises made at the altar of better incomes through higher education.

This is only a fix in the way that the term is used with hard drugs rather than higher education.  Lieber is right to point out that too few students and their families follow the implicit instructions of the federal program and most advisers to first use up the $31,000 that will come at a cheaper vig from the feds and if you need more, realizing that you may be over your head, and need to look at a different school with more affordable debt.

The snowball currently has more chance in hell than we have of getting Congress to expand the federal program to a higher, more realistic level.  Everywhere we read of layoffs and cutbacks at even the relatively more affordable public institutions across the country who are being driven to layoffs and price hikes.

The student loan situation is a travesty.  What kind of a society refuses to protect its young?

Whistleblowers and Wiki-leaks: Hater Talk, Half-Step Walk

New Orleans Reading the long story in The New Yorker recently, it was clear that Thomas A. Drake was no dream employee at National Security Agency (NSA), but it was even more obvious that trying to convict him of the Espionage Act was ridiculous, so seeing him plead out on a misdemeanor deal is probably largely an example of his inability to muster the resources to weather a trial and embarrass the Obama Administration.  I’ll be darned if I’ll read all the gee-whiz stories about Sarah Palin’s emails, which I have to bet are 24000 pages of the paper pushing done by governors in small states which make them do crazy things like run like the dickens for vice-president.   All of this makes me wonder what’s happening with Julian Assange and Wikileaks, who were last year’s scourge of society and humankind?

Thankfully, Assange has finally gotten the message that if he wants to save the value of Wikileaks and keep his own keister out of the calaboose, he needs to finally put a sock in it and try to hide some of his more obnoxious and paranoid personality quirks (which is not to say some of his paranoia is not warranted!).  Smartly, Wikileaks and Assange have now expanded their partnerships with even more media outlets around the world, which has meant that now a long time after the original dumps of information we are still reading citations almost daily somewhere in the world to Wikileaks.  It is categorically true that their movement of this information to the press and the people has been an invaluable resource all over the world, and one that continues to keep on giving.

The New York Times seems prissy and hypocritical in still wanting to use soon departing executive editor Bill Keller’s ham-handed and mean-spirited ad hominem slaps at Assange to give cover and comfort to all manner of forces confused over the difference between the messenger and the message.  Almost daily I read somewhere in the Times a reference to information they have gotten from Wikileaks, so who cares if they want to eat dinner with Assange and how often he showered?  Are they on the high school football team, still looking for a way to make fun of the class nerd or what?

Even more hypocritical is the continued savage curtailment of whistleblowing,  news leaks, and public spirited public employees with the bullyboy bluster of the Justice Department and its irresponsible prosecutions of anyone committed to transparency and truth.  There are hardly any other areas other than immigration and foreclosure modification policies where what the Administration says is so different than what it does.

I don’t see any apology coming soon to Wikileaks from our government or others much less news outlets with diminished capacity who are relying on Wikileaks like lifeblood, but is it too much to expect that some of them might at least finally say, “thanks!”

Bullseye on Public Sector Workers and Unions

afscmeNew Orleans For all the talk about the U.S. Congress and what it might do at the hands of the new majority, there’s still a couple of circuit breakers handling too much power surge when business has to go to the Senate or even face a Presidential veto.  In the states rouge legislators could be much more frightening, especially as they move against public employees and therefore their unions in this last bastion of relative labor strength.

Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times wrote a scary piece this week detailing some of the draconian steps that legislatures and new governors are proposing to stick it to public employees and their unions, including in some situations outright withdrawal of recognition for the unions.   There are few folks out there that have not seen this coming particularly given the last year of struggle in heavily unionized California around state and local employees and the drumbeating by New York’s new democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and President Obama on wage freezes.

Part of the problem is the wide misperception that public employees are living high on the hog with better salaries and benefits, so now it’s time for them to share in the pain.  There is little evidence that this is in fact the truth.  The only traditional advantage that public employees have had historically is that their jobs were simply more stable and secure than in the private sector, and workers traded the security of a job certain for the ups and downs of the private sector business cycle.  Unions in the public sector, rather than being greedy, simply enjoyed the same security as their members since they were not facing constant employee turnover and therefore costs were less to service and generated a stable dues base.   The real crises could be the loss of that stability.

There may be some states and isolated cities where certain jobs between private and public sector are equivalent when one measures both pay and benefits, but this has been an exhaustively studied situation, and the notion that there is a significant public sector advantage is largely a politicians’ mirage.  A good example often in the news is the mismatch of pay for public sector nurses compared to those in the private sector where devotion to the job is about all that holds the workers.  Lower wage workers in the service sector have increasingly been contracted out in past economic crises and are tit for tat with the private sector if not below.

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Qualifying Parties via Internet

digital-signingNew Orleans In a piece about the feinting being done by billionaire NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Matt Bai in the New York Times correctly pointed out that not only money but “ballot access” was a huge impediment to alternative political parties and candidacies.  A throwaway comment though got me thinking when he mentioned that qualifying such efforts would be easier in the internet age because “…signature-gathering…is far easier to organize now, through online communities….”  Bai is simply talking theoretically about organizing efficiencies here, but what hit me like a brick was whether or not it was legal now – or would soon be legal – to actually qualify such petitions through direct internet signature gathering, which would be a revolutionary breakthrough.

I don’t fully know the answer about what might be possible now, though my friends at Google pretty quickly revved up their search engines and allowed me to piece together enough in a sideways fashion to determine that internet petition gathering is already legal in California in seems and at least Utah for a certainty.  I don’t normally associate Utah with progressive breakthroughs, so I would not be surprised to hear that other states (I would almost bet on Washington and Oregon for examples) have also joined the 21st century and allowed internet signature gathering to legally qualify candidates and parties.

I have sent a couple of emails out to colleagues who are mega-domes in this area since surely they would already know where this can be legally done, and when I hear, I will definitely share the news.  Whether just these two or another dozen, more interestingly it seems inevitable that within a couple of years or at most a decade, one could qualify alternative parties successfully on a state by state basis via the internet at a fraction off the cost thereby making alternative parties accessible in a way that has not been allowable since the 1890’s when the two-party stranglehold became embedded in law in one state legislature after another.

Visionary thinkers in political strategy and tactics, particularly among progressives, would do well to start tilling these vineyards.  This could be big and a total game changer!  This is a political forward pass in a landscape dominated by three yards, a cloud of dust, and a rock pile of money:  parties, programs, and candidates get ready to step up.

Paul Revere and Darrell Issa: Two if By See!

Paul-Revere-723638 New Orleans This is a gentle reminder to my friends among the Tea-people.  History is a funny thing, comrades, in case you missed this part of high school, it’s based on facts, rather than opinions and in fact you need to base your opinions on facts.

I am reminded of this in looking at the daily screeds among the right wing, professional blogging class.  This is no chattering class, but more of a shouting mass that has to somehow push some kind of garbage out by the curb of the internet highway, sometimes several times per day.  A popular theme over the last week involving yours truly has been to comment on my warning to all that would listen that Congressman Darrell Issa’s elevation to the head of the House Investigations’ Committee would be bad news for anyone who still believes in freedom of association and freedom of speech.

Although it looks like I might qualify as a soothsayer by the right’s lights, since Issa immediately ran his mouth off about wanting to investigate ACORN as high on his list in order to “keep anything like” such an organization ever being organized again, which seemed more to me like a preemptive strike against all things progressive rather than a real “investigation” of any sort.  I wasn’t alone for long either since an editorial in the Times laid out the same concern and a handicapper in last Sunday’s op-ed page on the Times placed an ACORN investigation, particularly of the ACORN Housing Corporation and its programs over the years, to “show” in 3rd place on the most likely list.

All of which brings me back to the lesson in history or legend of the great Paul Revere’s ride warning “that the British were coming” after the real Tea Party in Boston Harbor.  As every school child knows, as Revere rode at night through Concord and Lexington spreading the warning, the watchwords were “One if by land, and two if by sea,” giving the lantern signals for preparation to citizens throughout the land.

Revere’s ride was a warning, not a retreat in fear.  Look it up.

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