Money and Society: Free university-level online course being offered

Beyond Money - Tue, 01/20/2015 - 17:17

A free online course (MOOC) in Money and Society is being offered by Professor Jem Bendell, PhD (IFLAS) and Matthew Slater, under the aegis of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability of Cumbria University. The four lessons of the course, intended to” explode myths about the history, nature, present and future of money,” will commence 16 February 2015 and conclude 18 March 2015. For details and registration go to http://iflas.blogspot.com/2014/12/money-and-society-mooc.html.

 


Categories: News

How to Hack City Money: Let 16 Year Olds Vote on Budgets, Get Banks to Invest Locally

Photo by Shutterstock.

1. Participatory budgeting where any resident age 16 and up can vote

in: Vallejo, Calif.

Just over one year after emerging from bankruptcy, the city of Vallejo, Calif., put its budgeting process into the hands of its residents. From October 2012 to early 2013, Vallejo citizens gathered in senior centers, elementary schools, and other public spaces to decide how to spend more than $3 million of their city’s tax dollars. The process, called participatory budgeting, began in Brazil in 1989 and has since spread to more than 1,500 cities worldwide. In the United States, the process first rooted in neighborhood districts in Chicago and New York City. Vallejo is the first place in the country to implement the process citywide.

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It works like this: Residents brainstorm ideas at budget assemblies held throughout the city, and a handful of residents volunteer to turn those ideas into full proposals. Then, the public provides feedback and votes. Solar-powered parking lot lights, public murals, and bike lanes were some of the ideas brainstormed earlier this year during Vallejo’s second round of participatory budgeting. Any resident age 16 and up, regardless of citizenship status, has a vote. The second year of voting concluded in October, and a proposal to provide skills training and services to homeless veterans, seniors, and children received the most votes. Over the next year, city staff will implement this and seven other projects picked by the people of Vallejo.

2. Banking ordinances that reward local investment

in: Cleveland, Ohio

Photo by Shutterstock.

Banks aren’t always in the practice of investing in their communities. Across the country, city governments are demanding change. Cities deposit big money in banks—billions nationwide—so they have some leverage for their demands. Cleveland, San Jose, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities have passed responsible banking ordinances that require banks to track and report the ways they’re investing in their local communities. The banks with the best track records win big city deposits.

Cleveland’s 1991 responsible banking ordinance was the first of its kind. To qualify for a Cleveland city contract, banks must open more branches in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, employ more women and minorities in executive positions, and provide more financial services for local businesses than other banks. Cleveland’s ordinance ensures that city wealth is invested in the institutions that invest in community welfare. Since 1991, 12 cities across the country have adopted similar ordinances.

Shannan Stoll wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Shannan is a freelance writer living in Washington state.

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Categories: News

Vladimir Putin and the New World Order

Beyond Money - Wed, 01/14/2015 - 09:10

Despite the ongoing attempts of the Western media and politicians to vilify him, Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing himself to be a true statesman deserving of international attention and respect. Former Reagan administration official and Wall Street Journal editor Paul Craig Roberts, in a recent post, goes so far as to declare Vladimir Putin Is The Leader Of the Moral World.

Roberts begins his post by commenting as follows:

Dear Friends,

Vladimir Putin’s remarks at the 11th meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club are worth more than a link in my latest column. These are the remarks of a humanitarian political leader, the like of which the world has not seen in my lifetime. Compare Putin to the corrupt war criminal in the White House or to his puppets in office in Germany, UK, France, Japan, Canada, Australia, and you will see the difference between a criminal clique and a leader striving for a humane and livable world in which the interests of all peoples are respected.

In a sane Western society, Putin’s statements would have been reproduced in full and discussions organized with remarks from experts such as Stephen F. Cohen. Choruses of approval would have been heard on television and read in the print media. But, of course, nothing like this is possible in a country whose rulers claim that it is the “exceptional” and “indispensable” country with an extra-legal right to hegemony over the world. As far as Washington and its prostitute media, named “presstitutes” by the trends specialist Gerald Celente, are concerned, no country counts except Washington. “You are with us or against us,” which means “you are our vassals or our enemies.” This means that Washington has declared Russia, China, India, Brazil and other parts of South America, Iran, and South Africa to be enemies.

This is a big chunk of the world for a bankrupt country, hated by its vassal populations and many of its own subjects, that has not won a war since it defeated tiny Japan in 1945 by using nuclear weapons, the only use of such terrible weapons in world history. ….

Read the rest of Roberts’ post and the full text of Putin’s speech at http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2014/10/25/vladimir-putin-leader-moral-world-paul-craig-roberts/

This RT report gives some highlights of the speech:

And this video purports to provide a summary of the main points that Putin made in that speech:

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Categories: News

This Rust-Belt Town’s Survival Strategy Is All About Giving Workers Control

This article originally appeared at Dissent.

Photo by Shutterstock.

The first thing you notice about Reading, Pennsylvania, the small city that lies an hour and a half north of Philadelphia, is its many parks and muscular civic buildings. Mount Penn anchors the east of the city with a steeply landscaped park and a historic district of graceful homes. The Blue Mountains rise in the distance.

Localists are trying to rebuild social relations in communities hurt by disinvestment, not just create jobs and growth.

“This is all WPA [the federal building program during the Great Depression] and the socialists,” says Bill Vitale, an architect who serves as chair of the Mayor’s Sustainability Committee, waving his hand at the park’s greenery. Reading was one of those rare cities, like Milwaukee, whose working-class voters regularly elected socialists to represent them both in the statehouse and in the mayor’s offices from 1910 to the mid-1940s. In Reading, the socialists were the good-government party, and their administrations extended and modernized the sewer system, built playgrounds, and turned private-sector jobs into better-paying municipal ones.

Before I arrived, civic leaders warned me that because of its good bones, I wouldn’t be able to tell at first glance that Reading was under Act 47, the Pennsylvania law governing municipal bankruptcy, or that it is one of the poorest cities of its size in the nation. Just over 39 percent of its 88,000 residents lived in poverty in 2013. Many of them are the working poor: Reading’s unemployment rate in the summer of 2014 was about 6 percent.

Bill’s Khaki makes its clothing in Reading and electronics and appliance factories still operate there; manufacturing employs a quarter of the city’s workforce. But the city is rapidly deindustrializing, and that decline can be blamed, along with the attraction of more suburban parts of Berks County, for hollowing out the comfortable working class. A once thriving middle class now hovers at 20 percent of the population.

“All the takers left the city,” says Dean Showers, president of Steelworkers Local 6996. “They took all they could take and are gone. Now if you’re not working to give, you’re not going to be successful.”

Showers and Vitale are among the civic leaders working with Mayor Vaughn Spencer to improve people’s lives, create living-wage jobs, and green the economy using a more democratic and localized style of economic development. They serve on the Mayor’s Sustainability Committee to mobilize those civic initiatives to rebuild Reading that supplement the official actions taken by the city administration. Their work started even before the mayor was elected in November 2011, when civic leaders met to plan how the city could avoid the draconian actions—such as selling off public assets like the city’s water authority and appointing private consultants to run the city—often taken by cities under Act 47. After Mayor Spencer took office in January 2012, their interest expanded to nurturing worker co-ops along with other “solidarity economy” approaches that are designed to create more democratic control of businesses, finance, and utilities. If these civic leaders succeed, one might be able to call Reading one of the new “solidarity cities” on the horizon.

Despite the impoverished state of their city, these activists believe they have enough local resources to realize their vision. At any rate, they feel they have no other choice since little help is coming from the state and federal government.

“Part of it is understanding that in a globalized economy we have to re-localize as much as possible to keep money circulating here,” says Eron Lloyd, the 34-year-old special assistant for policy and sustainability who returned to Reading, his hometown, to join the effort. “The first step is understanding that the status quo does not work. We’ve done everything you can do from a conventional [economic development] standpoint. We had all these fancy financial instruments right before everything collapsed in the stock market and we lost our shirts.”

Today, three of the mayors who have championed co-ops as a way to build jobs in poor communities are African American.

Like most cities, Reading lures employers with tax incentives. It is tempting to give subsidies to bring even a hundred jobs into town, but that overlooks small businesses that have been the nation’s top job generators over the past fifteen years. As Lloyd says, “Once those incentives are over, they [the big employers] can leave,” adding, “We’ve been trying to learn from failures in urban policy.” Lloyd served on the Act 47 committee before the mayor was elected. So did Lenin Agudo, who now leads the city’s community development office for Mayor Spencer. A board member of the Berks County Latino Chamber of Commerce, he had been director of Kutztown State’s Latino Business Resource Center (LBRC) based in Reading, a majority Latino community. Now he promotes small-business development—a key part of the city’s “localist” agenda—from inside city hall, with a new federally funded program offering grants of up to $30,000 to lower- and moderate-income business owners.

This localist agenda is part of Mayor Spencer’s ambitious program to create a fairer and more sustainable local economy whose businesses stay put and where money spends more time circulating locally among networked enterprises. His administration is promoting worker cooperatives, energy efficiency, public banking, a local “food shed” and urban agriculture, remunicipalization of jobs (like the Socialists before them), and creating new jobs by reclaiming the city’s waste. No other current city administration in the United States, to my knowledge, is embracing such a broad range of “solidarity economy” strategies (although Spencer himself doesn’t use that specific term) to promote the well-being of its residents. And few other city administrations also face such steep challenges.

What’s the solidarity economy?

In this hemisphere, the “solidarity economy” idea first took root in Latin America and Quebec in the 1990s. It was popularized in North America by activists during the U.S. Social Forum in 2007. American activists were inspired by participatory budgeting in Brazil, a process where citizens get to vote on how to spend public money; by workers occupying abandoned factories in Argentina in the wake of its 2001 financial crisis and making them worker-owned; and by other examples of cooperative and democratic challenges to neoliberal approaches to the economy that had dominated the continent for decades. Quebec was long a center of cooperative businesses; the Desjardins Group, a credit union network owned by its depositors, is one of Canada’s largest financial institutions.

And residents took for granted another key strategy of the solidarity economy—government ownership of key enterprises like electricity generation. But the solidarity economy movement truly blossomed as a phenomenon in Quebec in the 1990s, resulting in the government launch of Chantier de l’Économie Sociale du Québec to promote cooperative and other social enterprises including nonprofits. Public money gave the sector a huge boost in that decade. Quebec unions took on a leadership role as well and their pension funds remain an important source of capital for the growth of this democratic sector of the economy. The solidarity economy is a “prefigurative” movement, which aims to create a model of the kind of society it envisions by creating democratic institutions run by workers (or farmers or consumers or citizens) themselves.

Worker-owners rarely outsource their own jobs and their enterprises seem to be surprisingly resilient during downturns.

Black America’s long tradition of co-op banks and other enterprises is another source of inspiration for solidarity economy activists. Civil rights activist Ella Baker was director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League in the 1930s, and as economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard has documented in her pathbreaking research, black people pooled their resources to create mutual insurance companies, relied on consumer co-ops through the Great Depression, and established agricultural co-ops during the Populist era and through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives starting in 1967. Today, three of the mayors who have championed co-ops as a way to build jobs in poor communities are African American: Reading’s Vaughn Spencer, Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi (who died in Spring 2014), and Dwight Clinton Jones of Richmond, Virginia.

The work of political scientist Gar Alperovitz has been vital to the solidarity movement as well as a direct inspiration to those in Reading (with whom he has met). Alperovitz and his allies at the Maryland-based Democracy Collaborative advocate democratizing the economy by creating ties among existing networks of land trusts, consumer and worker cooperatives, employee stock-ownership programs, and credit unions. In their view, these endeavors provide the base for “community wealth-building” and a more egalitarian future. This vision echoes the “cooperative commonwealth” advocated by late nineteenth-century Populists and socialists. Markets would be left intact, but government would step in to advance the interests of the great majority.

A more obvious stream of inspiration for Reading’s civic activists is “localism,” a largely middle-class movement, often of small-business owners, which challenges the inevitability of globalization by promoting local small enterprises, municipal ownership, and sustainable local economies. Like solidarity-economy activists, localists are trying to rebuild social relations in communities hurt by disinvestment, not just create jobs and growth. Localism is visible in the growing prominence of the 40-year-old “think and do tank” Institute for Local Self-Reliance and organizations such as the 22,000-member Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which the City of Reading has joined. Like solidarity-economy activists, localists are refusing to accept their weakened influence on the economy and public policy in the face of corporate power. Like solidarity-economy activists, many embrace municipal ownership of utilities or even champion cooperative ownership. But it is a diverse movement and at its worst, localism can be “reduced to shopping at farmers markets and local stores” and “turning your back on the world’s environmental and social problems,” as scholar David Hess warns. In addition, some localists are skeptical about the role of unions in building economic alternatives.

As it happens, several cities with healthier economies than Reading are also adopting some of the same ideas. In New York in June 2014, with the support of the powerful Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and the local cooperative movement, the City Council, under progressive leadership, appropriated $1.2 million to launch new worker co-ops as a way to fight poverty, inspired in part by immigrant-owned cleaning co-ops. Some of their members increased their hourly wage to $25. (However, the power of cooperation is not infinite. Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, the largest worker co-op in the country, pays only $10 an hour plus benefits given the constraints of the health care market it operates in.) Perhaps more importantly, New York City’s small business support network is now promoting worker co-ops. In Madison, Wisconsin, starting in 2016, Mayor Paul Soglin will spend $1 million a year for five years on co-op development.

If these civic leaders succeed, one might be able to call Reading one of the new “solidarity cities” on the horizon.

But it is elected officials in smaller, gritty cities who view the systematic building of local economic democracy as a form of survival. Other “solidarity cities” in the making could include Richmond, Virginia, where Mayor Jones hired political scientist Thad Williamson, a longtime collaborator of Gar Alperovitz, to lead his new Office of Community Wealth Building starting in the summer of 2014.

In Richmond, California, outgoing Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin helped launch the Richmond Worker Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund (RWCRLF), providing small loans to co-op businesses; she hired seasoned co-op developer Terry Baird as part of her Worker Empowerment Based Economic Development Initiative in 2011. “There are three benefits to co-ops,” McLaughlin said. “Job creation, democracy in the workplace, and local wealth building.” Facing a 17 percent unemployment rate, she embraced this development strategy after a fall 2010 visit to the Mondragon network of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, the largest co-op in the world. While Baird is no longer on staff, the city has not abandoned the strategy. Her winning “Team Richmond” slate for city council in November 2014 promoted the idea of the city giving co-op businesses additional points when selecting vendors and contractors. The mayor-elect Tom Butt won a resounding victory against candidates backed by the city’s largest industry, Chevron.

Jackson, Mississippi, is the Southern pioneer of the solidarity economy. Neighborhood assemblies organized by the black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Movement helped win the election of Mayor Lumumba as part of its campaign to promote worker cooperatives and local jobs using municipal resources. Many city services like garbage pickup are provided by white contractors who don’t even live in the city; Lumumba and his allies wanted to train local residents to form co-ops to bid on the city contracts themselves, and they organized the inspiring Jackson Rising conference last May to start that process. Lumumba, however, tragically died before the conference even took place, and the movement has sought to retain its momentum after one of Lumumba’s rivals was elected to succeed him. In November, Cooperation Jackson issued an ambitious call for $500,000 in donations to launch the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, along with a community land trust for residential and commercial properties and an urban farm in West Jackson. The activists want to build a “Mondragon of the South” using a community development corporation as the hub.

Reading reformers are not abandoning traditional economic development strategies enticing larger employers—as one leader said, “in an economy that is struggling, it’s not whether it’s a co-op but whether an enterprise is viable.” Indeed, they are challenged by civic activists like Sheila Perez who says, “there’s a lot of reasons we’re in a financial hole—Keystone Opportunity Zone is able to claim exemption from taxes!” And somehow, she points out, the big giveaways to developers and businesses don’t end up in the hands of Latinos, even though they make up 61 percent of Reading’s population.

But the Mayor’s staff and Sustainability Committee also want jobs that are more likely to stay put, and this is a big reason why they are promoting worker cooperatives. Worker-owners rarely outsource their own jobs and their enterprises seem to be surprisingly resilient during downturns.

“I’ve been interested in anything where workers could control their own destiny,” said Dean Showers, the local Steelworkers president. “We had about 2,400 members spread out over sixteen employers a little over ten years ago. Each year we’ve seen that erode. This year, we have only about eight employers and 600 workers.” When I met Showers at the office building his union had recently bought, meeting in a nearby room were steel-tube workers from nearby Hofmann Industries who had been locked out for 173 weeks.

Localists are refusing to accept their weakened influence on the economy and public policy in the face of corporate power.

Conversions of existing businesses to worker ownership tend to be among the most successful co-ops, since they don’t face the deadly challenges of a startup. But industrial conversions require a lot of capital to buy out the owner. Showers struggled to save one local smelter by converting it to a co-op. Although his union, the United Steelworkers, forged an alliance with Mondragon in 2009, Showers says he didn’t receive much support from its leadership. On the other hand, offering inspiration is the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative, an alliance of unions including United Food and Commercial Workers, USW, NAACP, local universities, Mondragon USA and others, which has already launched a unionized farm and distribution co-op and an energy retrofitting co-op.

The local Laborer’s Union is also interested in taking ownership of a demolition company. But it looks like the first worker co-op the mayor’s Sustainability Committee will create will result from expanding Philadelphia-based Home Care Associates, which has 200-plus members. Unlike its counterpart in New York, this branch of HCA is not unionized. But an affiliate of the United Way, which was launched by local unions, will take charge of training the worker-members of the new home care co-op in Reading.

Vaughn and his allies want to create greater reciprocity among local institutions, for instance by borrowing the “anchor institution” model of economic development in Cleveland, promoted by Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative. In Cleveland, a major hospital, university, and the hospitality industry became the clients for new worker cooperatives, including an industrial laundry and hydroponic farm, so their purchasing power provides good jobs for low-income residents. Sustainability Committee member David Myers, a former aide to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell now based at a local Roman Catholic college, is leading the charge in this area and an industrial co-op laundry for local health networks seems most viable.

Mayor Spencer and his allies also want to keep money circulating in Reading longer. Reading has two credit unions. But unless they receive accreditation as a “community development” credit union (CDCU) serving a low-income or other underserved group, these financial institutions are barred by laws—promoted by the banking industry—from giving business loans over $50,000. Rather than promote CDCU status in Reading, Spencer hopes to create a city-owned bank—like the state bank in North Dakota, which began in 1919 as a project of the left-wing Nonpartisan League. A former top aide to Spencer served on the board of the Pennsylvania Public Bank Project, and its chairman, Mike Krauss, drew up a strategy document for Reading. “Right now, as in most local governments, we’re dealing with large banking institutions like Wells Fargo,” Spencer explains. “When it comes to investing in the city, they are not interested. Put our monies into a community bank that is committed to giving loans locally—it helps money circulate, builds small businesses, and builds our local economy.”

Even in the midst of stiff financial and political challenges, the mayor and his team have gone beyond the idea stage in a few areas. They turned recycling, once contracted to a private company, into a municipal concern. Now 10 local workers earn a living wage with the city. Just as Cooperation Jackson is trying to do, Reading launched a CDC dedicated to coordinating alternative forms of economic development to supplement the existing initiatives. Called Redesign Reading, it was created by four city authorities—parking, water, housing, and redevelopment—as well as the City and the Reading Downtown Improvement District. The three authorities provide the funds for its operation.

Mayor Spencer hopes to create a city-owned bank—like the state bank in North Dakota, which began in 1919.

While it is exploring creating a community land trust for housing, and supporting the development of worker-co-ops as staff for the Sustainability Committee, thus far, ReDesign Reading is most visible from its efforts to enhance Reading’s livability and attractiveness for newcomers through such projects as pop-up art exhibits in the downtown area, collective bike rides, and a volunteer-run bike shop.

Community broadband is another development goal, and ReDesign Reading explored the issue with Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. But Pennsylvania law creates huge barriers to community-owned broadband. “In 2004, Verizon basically went to the Pennsylvania legislature saying it’s unfair this little town of Kutztown built one of the best fiber-optic networks. Verizon said ... cities shouldn’t be allowed to compete with us unless they get permission first from an existing provider.” A national coalition is opposing these laws, now in place in nineteen states. Until then, Reading can only promote fast fiber-optic cable with its local provider or draw on a model from rural Vermont, where EC Fiber sold community shares to fund a community network.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance also worked with the city to create a waste-to-wealth plan, which, along with replacing city traffic lights with energy-saving models, anchors the mayor’s environmental plan. The program began by bringing recycling pickup in-house. But it also helped enlarge the mission of Opportunity House, a shelter and supportive housing nonprofit, so that it can become a reuse center that now provides low-skilled jobs. Promoting industries and co-ops that can employ the city’s poorly educated workforce while also investing in them is one of the Sustainability Committee’s priorities.

An expert in zero waste, Neil Seldman, the ILSR consultant, also connected the city to a Canadian paper-recycling company to set up a plant in the town, but the project is currently in limbo. Like the Mayor’s other initiatives, it faces opposition from a city council, which once worked well with Spencer when he was council president. (A bemused Seldman said he’s never seen elected officials oppose good paying jobs coming to town.) Local activists dismiss the opposition as stemming from thwarted ambition—everyone wants to be mayor! Indeed, council members failed to get on the fall ballot a proposal to shift to a city-manager form of government, with the city council president as leader.

On the other hand, council members faced an uprising of citizens who joined the mayor in opposing their plan this spring to basically dissolve the city water authority by leasing its operation to a private business. The privatization of assets that the Act 47 activists originally feared finally loomed. The council voted in the summer to dissolve the authority, then reversed course and negotiated for the authority to pay $8 million in leasing fees to the city (up from $3 million) to help with next year’s budget. There is a Keystone Kops quality to some of their actions that, in the end, support the status quo.

Sheila Perez, the civic activist, was one of a diverse group of citizens including a former city council member who circulated petitions that helped secure a vote in November for a requirement that citizens approve any sale or lease of city assets valued over $1 million. Despite low turnout, the city voted overwhelming to defend the water authority against privatization. “We busted our butts with the petitions, protecting the assets,” said Perez.

"Giving loans locally ... helps money circulate, builds small businesses, and builds our local economy.”

Even without a skeptical city council, the alternative economic development strategy faces a hydra-headed opposition from a variety of businesses, the state government, and some local residents. Pennsylvania bars public utilities from channeling funds to their city governments, putting the $8 million from the water authority in doubt and creating legal pressure for privatization of public assets. Banks weave a web of rules through their paid representatives in statehouses to ensure they will continue to receive government deposits; in New York, former Mayor Bloomberg couldn’t invest even a small share of city receipts into local credit unions because of one such rule in his state. Entrenched contractors don’t want to see municipalities bring jobs in-house or have the city require them to pay a living or prevailing wage that would raise the living standards of their workers. A group of city residents are suing Reading over charging a recycling fee; it turns out that, under state law, cities can only fund collections with grants from the state or by selling the waste. Meanwhile, businesses continue to fail or leave, taking jobs and tax receipts with them. The vital United Community Services, a potential hub to support worker co-ops and training for the new home care workers, lost a grant for $1 million and, like any nonprofit, is looking for funds to do its most innovative work. And as Luis Tejado, head of the civic group Dominicans United and a strong Spencer supporter explained, to keep the city running and pay arrears into the pensions of retirees, “They have to collect $2 million a month from 90,000 people.” People move to Reading for the affordable housing and then feel squeezed.

Against these obstacles, Mayor Spencer and his team can muster an energetic but narrow base of community leaders and local foundations. Theirs is like a movement of Progressive-Era reformers, mostly educated, mostly—though not entirely—white, and mostly middle class, in a city made up largely of working-class Latinos. Looking ahead to the mayor’s race for re-election in 2015 and the pressures of the Act 47 process, they are in a race against time and money; they need to fill pension coffers in order to dig themselves out of the city’s financial hole.

It is tempting to give subsidies to bring even a hundred jobs into town, but that overlooks small businesses.

In the absence of a widespread movement, Reading civic leaders seek out support where they can. Co-op activists from Cincinnati come to talk about their success in starting unionized co-op businesses. The mayor’s staff search for ideas in ALICE, a database of model progressive state and local laws created by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. They think about empowering a demoralized constituency through participatory budgeting, where residents have a direct say in how the city spends some of its money. They are trying everything they can think of, including promoting structural changes to the economy. What I did not hear was confidence that the federal or state government was on their side, helping them find a way out of Act 47 bankruptcy or other ways to enrich their community.

“We’re a mini-Detroit,” said one civic leader, burdened by years of disinvestment. Or maybe, if somehow all their plans come to pass, they are building the city of the future.

Abby Scher wrote this article for Dissent, where it originally appeared. Abby is a sociologist and journalist. She is also an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and former co-editor of Dollars and Sense magazine.

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Categories: News

This Rust-Belt Town’s Survival Strategy Is All About Giving Workers Control

This article originally appeared at Dissent.

Photo by Shutterstock.

The first thing you notice about Reading, Pennsylvania, the small city that lies an hour and a half north of Philadelphia, is its many parks and muscular civic buildings. Mount Penn anchors the east of the city with a steeply landscaped park and a historic district of graceful homes. The Blue Mountains rise in the distance.

Localists are trying to rebuild social relations in communities hurt by disinvestment, not just create jobs and growth.

“This is all WPA [the federal building program during the Great Depression] and the socialists,” says Bill Vitale, an architect who serves as chair of the Mayor’s Sustainability Committee, waving his hand at the park’s greenery. Reading was one of those rare cities, like Milwaukee, whose working-class voters regularly elected socialists to represent them both in the statehouse and in the mayor’s offices from 1910 to the mid-1940s. In Reading, the socialists were the good-government party, and their administrations extended and modernized the sewer system, built playgrounds, and turned private-sector jobs into better-paying municipal ones.

Before I arrived, civic leaders warned me that because of its good bones, I wouldn’t be able to tell at first glance that Reading was under Act 47, the Pennsylvania law governing municipal bankruptcy, or that it is one of the poorest cities of its size in the nation. Just over 39 percent of its 88,000 residents lived in poverty in 2013. Many of them are the working poor: Reading’s unemployment rate in the summer of 2014 was about 6 percent.

Bill’s Khaki makes its clothing in Reading and electronics and appliance factories still operate there; manufacturing employs a quarter of the city’s workforce. But the city is rapidly deindustrializing, and that decline can be blamed, along with the attraction of more suburban parts of Berks County, for hollowing out the comfortable working class. A once thriving middle class now hovers at 20 percent of the population.

“All the takers left the city,” says Dean Showers, president of Steelworkers Local 6996. “They took all they could take and are gone. Now if you’re not working to give, you’re not going to be successful.”

Showers and Vitale are among the civic leaders working with Mayor Vaughn Spencer to improve people’s lives, create living-wage jobs, and green the economy using a more democratic and localized style of economic development. They serve on the Mayor’s Sustainability Committee to mobilize those civic initiatives to rebuild Reading that supplement the official actions taken by the city administration. Their work started even before the mayor was elected in November 2011, when civic leaders met to plan how the city could avoid the draconian actions—such as selling off public assets like the city’s water authority and appointing private consultants to run the city—often taken by cities under Act 47. After Mayor Spencer took office in January 2012, their interest expanded to nurturing worker co-ops along with other “solidarity economy” approaches that are designed to create more democratic control of businesses, finance, and utilities. If these civic leaders succeed, one might be able to call Reading one of the new “solidarity cities” on the horizon.

Despite the impoverished state of their city, these activists believe they have enough local resources to realize their vision. At any rate, they feel they have no other choice since little help is coming from the state and federal government.

“Part of it is understanding that in a globalized economy we have to re-localize as much as possible to keep money circulating here,” says Eron Lloyd, the 34-year-old special assistant for policy and sustainability who returned to Reading, his hometown, to join the effort. “The first step is understanding that the status quo does not work. We’ve done everything you can do from a conventional [economic development] standpoint. We had all these fancy financial instruments right before everything collapsed in the stock market and we lost our shirts.”

Today, three of the mayors who have championed co-ops as a way to build jobs in poor communities are African American.

Like most cities, Reading lures employers with tax incentives. It is tempting to give subsidies to bring even a hundred jobs into town, but that overlooks small businesses that have been the nation’s top job generators over the past fifteen years. As Lloyd says, “Once those incentives are over, they [the big employers] can leave,” adding, “We’ve been trying to learn from failures in urban policy.” Lloyd served on the Act 47 committee before the mayor was elected. So did Lenin Agudo, who now leads the city’s community development office for Mayor Spencer. A board member of the Berks County Latino Chamber of Commerce, he had been director of Kutztown State’s Latino Business Resource Center (LBRC) based in Reading, a majority Latino community. Now he promotes small-business development—a key part of the city’s “localist” agenda—from inside city hall, with a new federally funded program offering grants of up to $30,000 to lower- and moderate-income business owners.

This localist agenda is part of Mayor Spencer’s ambitious program to create a fairer and more sustainable local economy whose businesses stay put and where money spends more time circulating locally among networked enterprises. His administration is promoting worker cooperatives, energy efficiency, public banking, a local “food shed” and urban agriculture, remunicipalization of jobs (like the Socialists before them), and creating new jobs by reclaiming the city’s waste. No other current city administration in the United States, to my knowledge, is embracing such a broad range of “solidarity economy” strategies (although Spencer himself doesn’t use that specific term) to promote the well-being of its residents. And few other city administrations also face such steep challenges.

What’s the solidarity economy?

In this hemisphere, the “solidarity economy” idea first took root in Latin America and Quebec in the 1990s. It was popularized in North America by activists during the U.S. Social Forum in 2007. American activists were inspired by participatory budgeting in Brazil, a process where citizens get to vote on how to spend public money; by workers occupying abandoned factories in Argentina in the wake of its 2001 financial crisis and making them worker-owned; and by other examples of cooperative and democratic challenges to neoliberal approaches to the economy that had dominated the continent for decades. Quebec was long a center of cooperative businesses; the Desjardins Group, a credit union network owned by its depositors, is one of Canada’s largest financial institutions.

And residents took for granted another key strategy of the solidarity economy—government ownership of key enterprises like electricity generation. But the solidarity economy movement truly blossomed as a phenomenon in Quebec in the 1990s, resulting in the government launch of Chantier de l’Économie Sociale du Québec to promote cooperative and other social enterprises including nonprofits. Public money gave the sector a huge boost in that decade. Quebec unions took on a leadership role as well and their pension funds remain an important source of capital for the growth of this democratic sector of the economy. The solidarity economy is a “prefigurative” movement, which aims to create a model of the kind of society it envisions by creating democratic institutions run by workers (or farmers or consumers or citizens) themselves.

Worker-owners rarely outsource their own jobs and their enterprises seem to be surprisingly resilient during downturns.

Black America’s long tradition of co-op banks and other enterprises is another source of inspiration for solidarity economy activists. Civil rights activist Ella Baker was director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League in the 1930s, and as economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard has documented in her pathbreaking research, black people pooled their resources to create mutual insurance companies, relied on consumer co-ops through the Great Depression, and established agricultural co-ops during the Populist era and through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives starting in 1967. Today, three of the mayors who have championed co-ops as a way to build jobs in poor communities are African American: Reading’s Vaughn Spencer, Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi (who died in Spring 2014), and Dwight Clinton Jones of Richmond, Virginia.

The work of political scientist Gar Alperovitz has been vital to the solidarity movement as well as a direct inspiration to those in Reading (with whom he has met). Alperovitz and his allies at the Maryland-based Democracy Collaborative advocate democratizing the economy by creating ties among existing networks of land trusts, consumer and worker cooperatives, employee stock-ownership programs, and credit unions. In their view, these endeavors provide the base for “community wealth-building” and a more egalitarian future. This vision echoes the “cooperative commonwealth” advocated by late nineteenth-century Populists and socialists. Markets would be left intact, but government would step in to advance the interests of the great majority.

A more obvious stream of inspiration for Reading’s civic activists is “localism,” a largely middle-class movement, often of small-business owners, which challenges the inevitability of globalization by promoting local small enterprises, municipal ownership, and sustainable local economies. Like solidarity-economy activists, localists are trying to rebuild social relations in communities hurt by disinvestment, not just create jobs and growth. Localism is visible in the growing prominence of the 40-year-old “think and do tank” Institute for Local Self-Reliance and organizations such as the 22,000-member Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which the City of Reading has joined. Like solidarity-economy activists, localists are refusing to accept their weakened influence on the economy and public policy in the face of corporate power. Like solidarity-economy activists, many embrace municipal ownership of utilities or even champion cooperative ownership. But it is a diverse movement and at its worst, localism can be “reduced to shopping at farmers markets and local stores” and “turning your back on the world’s environmental and social problems,” as scholar David Hess warns. In addition, some localists are skeptical about the role of unions in building economic alternatives.

As it happens, several cities with healthier economies than Reading are also adopting some of the same ideas. In New York in June 2014, with the support of the powerful Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and the local cooperative movement, the City Council, under progressive leadership, appropriated $1.2 million to launch new worker co-ops as a way to fight poverty, inspired in part by immigrant-owned cleaning co-ops. Some of their members increased their hourly wage to $25. (However, the power of cooperation is not infinite. Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, the largest worker co-op in the country, pays only $10 an hour plus benefits given the constraints of the health care market it operates in.) Perhaps more importantly, New York City’s small business support network is now promoting worker co-ops. In Madison, Wisconsin, starting in 2016, Mayor Paul Soglin will spend $1 million a year for five years on co-op development.

If these civic leaders succeed, one might be able to call Reading one of the new “solidarity cities” on the horizon.

But it is elected officials in smaller, gritty cities who view the systematic building of local economic democracy as a form of survival. Other “solidarity cities” in the making could include Richmond, Virginia, where Mayor Jones hired political scientist Thad Williamson, a longtime collaborator of Gar Alperovitz, to lead his new Office of Community Wealth Building starting in the summer of 2014.

In Richmond, California, outgoing Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin helped launch the Richmond Worker Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund (RWCRLF), providing small loans to co-op businesses; she hired seasoned co-op developer Terry Baird as part of her Worker Empowerment Based Economic Development Initiative in 2011. “There are three benefits to co-ops,” McLaughlin said. “Job creation, democracy in the workplace, and local wealth building.” Facing a 17 percent unemployment rate, she embraced this development strategy after a fall 2010 visit to the Mondragon network of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, the largest co-op in the world. While Baird is no longer on staff, the city has not abandoned the strategy. Her winning “Team Richmond” slate for city council in November 2014 promoted the idea of the city giving co-op businesses additional points when selecting vendors and contractors. The mayor-elect Tom Butt won a resounding victory against candidates backed by the city’s largest industry, Chevron.

Jackson, Mississippi, is the Southern pioneer of the solidarity economy. Neighborhood assemblies organized by the black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Movement helped win the election of Mayor Lumumba as part of its campaign to promote worker cooperatives and local jobs using municipal resources. Many city services like garbage pickup are provided by white contractors who don’t even live in the city; Lumumba and his allies wanted to train local residents to form co-ops to bid on the city contracts themselves, and they organized the inspiring Jackson Rising conference last May to start that process. Lumumba, however, tragically died before the conference even took place, and the movement has sought to retain its momentum after one of Lumumba’s rivals was elected to succeed him. In November, Cooperation Jackson issued an ambitious call for $500,000 in donations to launch the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, along with a community land trust for residential and commercial properties and an urban farm in West Jackson. The activists want to build a “Mondragon of the South” using a community development corporation as the hub.

Reading reformers are not abandoning traditional economic development strategies enticing larger employers—as one leader said, “in an economy that is struggling, it’s not whether it’s a co-op but whether an enterprise is viable.” Indeed, they are challenged by civic activists like Sheila Perez who says, “there’s a lot of reasons we’re in a financial hole—Keystone Opportunity Zone is able to claim exemption from taxes!” And somehow, she points out, the big giveaways to developers and businesses don’t end up in the hands of Latinos, even though they make up 61 percent of Reading’s population.

But the Mayor’s staff and Sustainability Committee also want jobs that are more likely to stay put, and this is a big reason why they are promoting worker cooperatives. Worker-owners rarely outsource their own jobs and their enterprises seem to be surprisingly resilient during downturns.

“I’ve been interested in anything where workers could control their own destiny,” said Dean Showers, the local Steelworkers president. “We had about 2,400 members spread out over sixteen employers a little over ten years ago. Each year we’ve seen that erode. This year, we have only about eight employers and 600 workers.” When I met Showers at the office building his union had recently bought, meeting in a nearby room were steel-tube workers from nearby Hofmann Industries who had been locked out for 173 weeks.

Localists are refusing to accept their weakened influence on the economy and public policy in the face of corporate power.

Conversions of existing businesses to worker ownership tend to be among the most successful co-ops, since they don’t face the deadly challenges of a startup. But industrial conversions require a lot of capital to buy out the owner. Showers struggled to save one local smelter by converting it to a co-op. Although his union, the United Steelworkers, forged an alliance with Mondragon in 2009, Showers says he didn’t receive much support from its leadership. On the other hand, offering inspiration is the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative, an alliance of unions including United Food and Commercial Workers, USW, NAACP, local universities, Mondragon USA and others, which has already launched a unionized farm and distribution co-op and an energy retrofitting co-op.

The local Laborer’s Union is also interested in taking ownership of a demolition company. But it looks like the first worker co-op the mayor’s Sustainability Committee will create will result from expanding Philadelphia-based Home Care Associates, which has 200-plus members. Unlike its counterpart in New York, this branch of HCA is not unionized. But an affiliate of the United Way, which was launched by local unions, will take charge of training the worker-members of the new home care co-op in Reading.

Vaughn and his allies want to create greater reciprocity among local institutions, for instance by borrowing the “anchor institution” model of economic development in Cleveland, promoted by Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative. In Cleveland, a major hospital, university, and the hospitality industry became the clients for new worker cooperatives, including an industrial laundry and hydroponic farm, so their purchasing power provides good jobs for low-income residents. Sustainability Committee member David Myers, a former aide to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell now based at a local Roman Catholic college, is leading the charge in this area and an industrial co-op laundry for local health networks seems most viable.

Mayor Spencer and his allies also want to keep money circulating in Reading longer. Reading has two credit unions. But unless they receive accreditation as a “community development” credit union (CDCU) serving a low-income or other underserved group, these financial institutions are barred by laws—promoted by the banking industry—from giving business loans over $50,000. Rather than promote CDCU status in Reading, Spencer hopes to create a city-owned bank—like the state bank in North Dakota, which began in 1919 as a project of the left-wing Nonpartisan League. A former top aide to Spencer served on the board of the Pennsylvania Public Bank Project, and its chairman, Mike Krauss, drew up a strategy document for Reading. “Right now, as in most local governments, we’re dealing with large banking institutions like Wells Fargo,” Spencer explains. “When it comes to investing in the city, they are not interested. Put our monies into a community bank that is committed to giving loans locally—it helps money circulate, builds small businesses, and builds our local economy.”

Even in the midst of stiff financial and political challenges, the mayor and his team have gone beyond the idea stage in a few areas. They turned recycling, once contracted to a private company, into a municipal concern. Now 10 local workers earn a living wage with the city. Just as Cooperation Jackson is trying to do, Reading launched a CDC dedicated to coordinating alternative forms of economic development to supplement the existing initiatives. Called Redesign Reading, it was created by four city authorities—parking, water, housing, and redevelopment—as well as the City and the Reading Downtown Improvement District. The three authorities provide the funds for its operation.

Mayor Spencer hopes to create a city-owned bank—like the state bank in North Dakota, which began in 1919.

While it is exploring creating a community land trust for housing, and supporting the development of worker-co-ops as staff for the Sustainability Committee, thus far, ReDesign Reading is most visible from its efforts to enhance Reading’s livability and attractiveness for newcomers through such projects as pop-up art exhibits in the downtown area, collective bike rides, and a volunteer-run bike shop.

Community broadband is another development goal, and ReDesign Reading explored the issue with Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. But Pennsylvania law creates huge barriers to community-owned broadband. “In 2004, Verizon basically went to the Pennsylvania legislature saying it’s unfair this little town of Kutztown built one of the best fiber-optic networks. Verizon said ... cities shouldn’t be allowed to compete with us unless they get permission first from an existing provider.” A national coalition is opposing these laws, now in place in nineteen states. Until then, Reading can only promote fast fiber-optic cable with its local provider or draw on a model from rural Vermont, where EC Fiber sold community shares to fund a community network.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance also worked with the city to create a waste-to-wealth plan, which, along with replacing city traffic lights with energy-saving models, anchors the mayor’s environmental plan. The program began by bringing recycling pickup in-house. But it also helped enlarge the mission of Opportunity House, a shelter and supportive housing nonprofit, so that it can become a reuse center that now provides low-skilled jobs. Promoting industries and co-ops that can employ the city’s poorly educated workforce while also investing in them is one of the Sustainability Committee’s priorities.

An expert in zero waste, Neil Seldman, the ILSR consultant, also connected the city to a Canadian paper-recycling company to set up a plant in the town, but the project is currently in limbo. Like the Mayor’s other initiatives, it faces opposition from a city council, which once worked well with Spencer when he was council president. (A bemused Seldman said he’s never seen elected officials oppose good paying jobs coming to town.) Local activists dismiss the opposition as stemming from thwarted ambition—everyone wants to be mayor! Indeed, council members failed to get on the fall ballot a proposal to shift to a city-manager form of government, with the city council president as leader.

On the other hand, council members faced an uprising of citizens who joined the mayor in opposing their plan this spring to basically dissolve the city water authority by leasing its operation to a private business. The privatization of assets that the Act 47 activists originally feared finally loomed. The council voted in the summer to dissolve the authority, then reversed course and negotiated for the authority to pay $8 million in leasing fees to the city (up from $3 million) to help with next year’s budget. There is a Keystone Kops quality to some of their actions that, in the end, support the status quo.

Sheila Perez, the civic activist, was one of a diverse group of citizens including a former city council member who circulated petitions that helped secure a vote in November for a requirement that citizens approve any sale or lease of city assets valued over $1 million. Despite low turnout, the city voted overwhelming to defend the water authority against privatization. “We busted our butts with the petitions, protecting the assets,” said Perez.

"Giving loans locally ... helps money circulate, builds small businesses, and builds our local economy.”

Even without a skeptical city council, the alternative economic development strategy faces a hydra-headed opposition from a variety of businesses, the state government, and some local residents. Pennsylvania bars public utilities from channeling funds to their city governments, putting the $8 million from the water authority in doubt and creating legal pressure for privatization of public assets. Banks weave a web of rules through their paid representatives in statehouses to ensure they will continue to receive government deposits; in New York, former Mayor Bloomberg couldn’t invest even a small share of city receipts into local credit unions because of one such rule in his state. Entrenched contractors don’t want to see municipalities bring jobs in-house or have the city require them to pay a living or prevailing wage that would raise the living standards of their workers. A group of city residents are suing Reading over charging a recycling fee; it turns out that, under state law, cities can only fund collections with grants from the state or by selling the waste. Meanwhile, businesses continue to fail or leave, taking jobs and tax receipts with them. The vital United Community Services, a potential hub to support worker co-ops and training for the new home care workers, lost a grant for $1 million and, like any nonprofit, is looking for funds to do its most innovative work. And as Luis Tejado, head of the civic group Dominicans United and a strong Spencer supporter explained, to keep the city running and pay arrears into the pensions of retirees, “They have to collect $2 million a month from 90,000 people.” People move to Reading for the affordable housing and then feel squeezed.

Against these obstacles, Mayor Spencer and his team can muster an energetic but narrow base of community leaders and local foundations. Theirs is like a movement of Progressive-Era reformers, mostly educated, mostly—though not entirely—white, and mostly middle class, in a city made up largely of working-class Latinos. Looking ahead to the mayor’s race for re-election in 2015 and the pressures of the Act 47 process, they are in a race against time and money; they need to fill pension coffers in order to dig themselves out of the city’s financial hole.

It is tempting to give subsidies to bring even a hundred jobs into town, but that overlooks small businesses.

In the absence of a widespread movement, Reading civic leaders seek out support where they can. Co-op activists from Cincinnati come to talk about their success in starting unionized co-op businesses. The mayor’s staff search for ideas in ALICE, a database of model progressive state and local laws created by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. They think about empowering a demoralized constituency through participatory budgeting, where residents have a direct say in how the city spends some of its money. They are trying everything they can think of, including promoting structural changes to the economy. What I did not hear was confidence that the federal or state government was on their side, helping them find a way out of Act 47 bankruptcy or other ways to enrich their community.

“We’re a mini-Detroit,” said one civic leader, burdened by years of disinvestment. Or maybe, if somehow all their plans come to pass, they are building the city of the future.

Abby Scher wrote this article for Dissent, where it originally appeared. Abby is a sociologist and journalist. She is also an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and former co-editor of Dollars and Sense magazine.

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“They’re driven by love. And they’re fierce.” Naomi Klein on the Climate Heroes Who Inspire Her

Naomi Klein. Photo by Aaron Stern.

Note: Sections of this interview appeared at the YES! website on October 3, 2014.

The climate crisis is no longer a future danger: Extreme weather, water shortages, heat waves, and flooding are here now. And the impacts of burning fossil fuels continue to worsen.

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Why has it taken so long to respond? Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, explores that question. Klein points to the “terrible timing” of the climate crisis coming into public awareness—with NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress—right at the time free-market “neoliberal” ideology was on the rise. This ideology led to:

1) Anti-government sentiment, austerity budgets, tax cuts, and deregulation, which undercut government’s ability to lead a transition to a clean economy and to protect residents from climate impacts.

2) Global trade deals that override environmental regulations and local green-jobs initiatives.

3) Privatization of sectors needed to transition to renewables.

But Germany has gone the other direction, Klein reports. Taking back their electric utilities helped Germany generate a record 27 percent of electricity from renewables this year. Unlike many who write about climate change, Klein goes beyond analysis of the crisis. She reports on the grassroots activists who are standing up to the coal, tar sands, and gas industries and building alternatives that are green and just. These are the powerful people’s movements that together, she says, could “change everything.”

Sarah van Gelder: One of things I love about your book is that you show we can still rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. Let’s start by talking about “Blockadia”—the places where people are shutting down oil, coal, and gas extraction and transportation. Why is that so important?

We need investments in the next economy and the next paradigm.

Naomi Klein: The term Blockadia, as you know, comes from the tar sands fight in Texas around the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the movement to keep the carbon in the ground didn’t begin there. We’ve always had local resistance in places like Appalachia and the Alberta tar sands. And, in the book, I start with the Ogoni struggle against oil extraction in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

But in the past five years, we’ve seen Blockadia emerge very forcefully in North America as the flip side of the fossil fuel frenzy. In the past, the people who enjoyed more socio-economic privilege were protected from having to see the sacrifice zones and face the risks. But now the hunger to get at the hardest-to-reach fossil fuels is voracious and requires so much new infrastructure. If you’re going to dig up the Alberta tar sands, for example, you have to build a whole network of new pipelines. If you’re going to open up Montana to Wyoming-style coal mining, you’ve got to build new railways and new export terminals to get the coal out, because the market for it is collapsing in the U.S.

So this network of fossil fuel infrastructure—and I would include fracking—has built a movement that includes unlikely coalitions, like the Cowboy and Indian Alliance.

What I heard again and again is that their biggest problem is entrenched poverty and decrepit services.

I think it goes deeper than alliances of convenience, though. The fight against the Northern Gateway Pipeline through British Columbia to carry tar sands bitumen has provided a real education for non-Native Canadians. They’re seeing on a deeper level the extent to which First Nations’ land rights are the single most powerful barrier to putting our whole ecology at risk.

van Gelder: I was in Bella Bella, British Columbia, at a First Nations rally to protest the pipeline. I remember a Haida leader saying, “The non-Natives are finally coming out on the front lines with us.”

Klein: When [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper approved the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the immediate response was, “We’ll see about that!” Even mainstream editorials were saying, “Wait a minute. How can he do this when our Supreme Court has ruled that First Nations’ rights are real and can’t just be rolled over?”

In the book, I write that there is also a history in the environmental movement of an extractive relationship to indigenous rights, where it’s: “OK, I just want to use your special rights to win our lawsuit.” It isn’t a reciprocal relationship—it isn’t based on fighting for decolonization and for real sovereignty.

van Gelder: What does it look like when the relationship is done right?

Klein: Part of the way it’s done right is by listening to people in frontline communities, where the extractive industries are offering jobs that potentially destroy a way of life. What I heard again and again in my research is that their biggest problem is entrenched poverty and decrepit services.

Phillip Whiteman Jr., a spiritual leader in a Northern Cheyenne community, has been fighting coal on Northern Cheyenne land for a very long time. When I first met him, he said, “I can’t keep asking my people to suffer with me.” When you have unemployment levels around 80 percent and all you’re saying is “just say no to coal,” but you’re not offering other economic opportunities, it wears people down. We need to be able to offer something else.

This one felt like a people’s march … because of a remarkable, often painful, coalition that was built.

One of the best examples of people trying to do that is the Black Mesa Water Coalition and their proposal to convert land that has been depleted by coal mining into a utility-scale solar generation farm owned and operated by the Navajo. They say they’ve taken the coal fight as far as they can take it. They’ve won some big victories, but when coal is the major employer, it can’t just be “no.” There has to be a “yes.”

van Gelder: As part of Climate Week this fall, there was a big announcement of a $50 billion divestment from fossil fuels. How can the divest/invest movement help build the sort of local economy that can alleviate poverty?

Klein: Divestment isn’t about trying to bankrupt ExxonMobil. It’s about delegitimizing this industry so that taking fossil fuel money is like taking tobacco money—there is a moral taint to it. Also, if those profits are illegitimate, then that means the public has a right to them to help get us off fossil fuels.

The unexpected piece of news was that the Rockefeller family is divesting parts of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Valerie Rockefeller Wayne [chair of the foundation] said, “I have a moral responsibility—because my family fortune comes from oil—to fund this transition.” I think we should call that the Rockefeller Principle.

But it’s not just about flipping from big coal to big green. We need to invest in the tools that frontline communities need to win, like real economic options that are owned and controlled locally. We need investments in the next economy and the next paradigm so that people in Richmond, Calif., for example, have the opportunity to work in a solar co-op instead of in the Chevron refinery.

van Gelder: What was it like for you to be part of the People’s Climate March in New York City? Did you experience the coming together of social movements that you were hoping to see when you wrote This Changes Everything?

The hope is that climate is the biggest tent—it’s our atmosphere.

Klein: Oh, yeah. The march was a glimpse of the movement we need. It wasn’t just that it was so diverse. It was that the most energetic parts of the march were the nurses’ unions—they were just incredible—and the transit workers, and the South Bronx contingent, which was made up of young people making the connections between climate justice and things like health and jobs.

The sense of threat from climate change and the hope were so powerful. It was in every way different from the last big climate march at a U.N. gathering I attended, which was in Copenhagen in 2009.

van Gelder: How was the New York march different?

Klein: In Copenhagen, it felt like only professional activists were there. This one felt like a people’s march, and that was because of a remarkable, often painful, coalition that was built.

One of the things that happened is that the big NGOs checked their branding at the door and actually made real space for communities to lead and speak.

I think that the whole funder model has been part of the problem, where it’s all about getting your photo op and showing “Our brand’s here!” and then going to a foundation and going, “Look! We did this. Look at our logo. It’s everywhere.”

People get so pissed off when organizing is done that way. This was the first time that I’ve seen real progress in this regard. Because everybody is so happy with how the march turned out, I think that, with any luck, this will lead to lasting change in how we build a movement.

van Gelder: You talk in your book about the “unfinished liberation struggles.” Many of the people’s movements we celebrate—civil rights, anti-apartheid, women’s rights—succeeded in some ways, but failed to win economic power. Did you see in the People’s Climate March renewed attention to these “unfinished liberation struggles”?

Klein: The kind of hope that climate action represents—to people in the South Bronx and other low-income communities of color in the U.S., but also in countries like Bolivia—is because it directly addresses foundational issues around why our societies are so unequal. Colonialism predates coal, but coal supercharged the colonial project, allowing the pillaging of the Global South, and locked us into these incredibly unequal extractive relationships.

Watching this new generation of women leaders come up with great confidence and humility and eloquence and just love.

We in the Global North have built up an ecological debt. Fossil fuels built the modern world. And the countries that have a 200-year head start on emitting carbon have a special responsibility to both cut emissions first and fastest, and also to help countries that have not been contributing to this problem for nearly as long to leapfrog over fossil fuels and not be forced to choose between poverty and pollution. This is a process by which we begin to heal these colonial wounds.

And so, yeah, I talk about this as the unfinished business of liberation because so many of the past great social movements won on the legal and cultural sides but not on the economic side. There never were reparations for slavery. There never were the investments in the public sphere that the Civil Rights movement demanded.

So the dream is that in responding to climate change through a justice lens—through a lens that is not afraid to look at history and the real roots of inequality—we build a movement of movements that brings together all of these struggles. The hope is that climate is the biggest tent—it’s our atmosphere. We just have to know we’re all in the tent.

van Gelder: Among the people who you’ve met in your travels, who has moved you most personally? Who has deepened your connection to this work?

Klein: A few of the women in the book are my heroes. Crystal Lameman is from the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation in northern Alberta, which is suing the Canadian government over the tar sands expansion. Meeting Crystal and seeing what she’s up against and how accountable she is to her community and to her elders—and just the huge burden being placed on some of the poorest people in the world to fight some of the biggest battles—is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The countries that have a 200-year head start on emitting carbon have a special responsibility to both cut emissions first and fastest.

Also Melina Laboucan-Massimo. It was exciting for me to see Melina and Crystal at the front of the climate march on either side of Leonardo DiCaprio.

And Alexis Bonogofsky, a goat rancher in Billings, who says, “Love will save this place.” I think that’s the best quote in the book. She says, “That’s what Arch Coal will never understand—that it isn’t about hate.”

And Jess Housty who’s from Bella Bella, who taught me early on how much these movements are based on the deep love of place.

All are deeply connected to where they live. And they are all relatively young women. There are particular challenges about being a woman in that kind of leadership role, but the joy that all of them bring to the struggle … I mean, it’s not simple. It’s painful. But it is so much about love of community and love of place.

Jess in particular, when she talks about the fight against the Northern Gateway Pipeline, she’s so eloquent in describing this as being a transformative process of people becoming more deeply connected to one another and to the land and water.

That’s been the most inspiring thing for me—watching this new generation of women leaders come up with great confidence and humility and eloquence and just love. They’re driven by love. And they’re fierce.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is co-founder and editor in chief of YES! Magazine.

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Vermonters Lobby for Public Bank—And Win Millions for Local Investment Instead

Photo by Shutterstock.

Right before 2014 came to a close, Wall Street won an enormous victory in the year-end spending bill. The so-called “CRomnibus” bill, which included language written by Citigroup lobbyists, gutted a key piece of Wall Street reform meant to prevent future bailouts of big banks with taxpayer money.

Reducing a state’s need to borrow from Wall Street, public banks threaten private banks’ profits.

This win came after the financial industry spent years chipping away at the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which passed in 2010. Wall Street lobbyists gained little victories along the way, but never stopped asking for more. By making bold and ongoing asks, Wall Street was able to win, even when lawmakers sought a compromise.

There’s another group of Americans, however, with a different agenda for the future of banking—people who are also pushing hard for policy change. They’re advocates of public banking, and they want to see new banks created that would be owned and operated by the government, usually at the state or city level. (This would greatly increase the amount of investment capital available for small business development, local infrastructure, and affordable public transportation, none of which are much favored by private banks seeking a high return on investment.)

Gwendolyn Hallsmith in Montpelier. Photo courtesy of Gwendolyn Hallsmith.

Gwendolyn Hallsmith is one of those advocates. She’s currently the executive director of the Public Banking Institute, but she worked previously as a public servant in Montpelier, Vermont, where she resides and ran for mayor in 2014. Hallsmith also spent some time in divinity school, and you can hear it in her voice—which is soft but strong and deliberately paced.

“Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than giving a politician the microphone is giving a former pastor the microphone,” Hallsmith joked at a recent forum on public banking.

To Hallsmith, the main advantage of a public bank is lower-cost financing, which can enable the state to pay for things like building affordable housing, repairing infrastructure, and expanding educational opportunities. And each of these projects creates jobs. Public banks “allow cities, counties, and states to finance important public priorities without needing to rely on Wall Street and pay the hidden interest tax that Wall Street imposes on all our money,” Hallsmith said.

The quest to achieve public banking at the state and local level has been a long slog. Until quite recently, you had to go back almost 100 years to find the last major victory: the founding of the bank of North Dakota, the only state-run public bank in the United States, which was established in 1919.

But interest has been picking up around the country. Santa Fe, New Mexico, voted in October to conduct a study on the feasibility of a city-run public bank. And in December, the Seattle City Council’s finance committee hosted experts in public banking to explore the topic.

But nowhere have the steps toward public banking been more successful than in the state of Vermont. There, Hallsmith and other advocates won a small victory against Wall Street through an effort so relentless and strategic that it would have made any banking lobbyist proud. They combined savvy organizing with data-driven reports and policy briefs to prove the benefits of a public bank—like avoiding fat interest payments to Wall Street banks—for the state’s economy.

And because the original bill put forward by Vermont state Senator Anthony Pollina and others included multiple demands—create a public bank, direct 10 percent of the state’s reserves to initially fund it, and establish an advisory committee on how best to invest locally—advocates won a decent compromise in the end.

They may not have gotten the state bank they wanted, but they were able to pass new rules that make the Vermont state treasury’s cash balances available for low-cost loans to local projects.

$10 million additional dollars for local investment

The step Vermont took is called “10 Percent for Vermont.” Under this law, passed in June, up to 10 percent of the state treasury’s cash balance—which as of November was about $350 million—can be used for lending and investment within the state. The law also created a Local Investment Advisory Committee to advise the treasurer on “funding priorities” and “mechanisms to increase local investment.”

Pollina was one of the main champions of the law. Pollina has been a state senator since 2010, but has a long career in politics; in 2000, he ran for governor as a member of the Vermont Progressive Party against Howard Dean.

“It’s just logical that you’d want to invest it in your own cities,” he said, describing the program as an “economic development tool.”

“It’s just logical that you’d want to invest it in your own cities."

The final version of the 10 Percent for Vermont program did not create a public bank. But it helped to accomplish some of the same goals, like providing low-cost financing for state projects that might otherwise not be able to secure affordable or long-term funding.

It’s not new for Vermont to enable its treasurer to lend locally—the state has had several similar programs in place since 2012. But typically, according to Hallsmith, the state would “borrow the money from Wall Street to do it.” Now, state officials can use the money from the state treasury’s deposits to do this kind of lending directly.

In 2014, the treasurer’s office made several local investments that counted toward the “10 Percent” total, but were authorized under previous laws. One example is the Vermont Clean Energy Loan Fund, which allocated $6.5 million in loans to encourage energy efficiency in residential home projects in the state, such as in Shelburne and Rutland counties. Another is a $2.8 million loan to Vermont’s Housing Finance Agency to support 111 units of multifamily affordable housing. A third is a loan fund approved in June that allocated $8 million for improved energy efficiency in state government buildings, with the goal of reducing their energy use by at least 5 percent (the state currently spends $14 million a year on energy bills).

All told, in 2014, Vermont’s treasury lent out $24.5 million to local projects. Even though this money was authorized by prior legislation, it still counts toward the 10 percent of the state’s cash balance—that is, $35 million—that the treasury may lend to the community. That means there is still approximately $10 million in additional funds available for local investment—money that the treasurer would not have been able to lend were it not for the 10 percent program.

The long fight for a public bank in Vermont

Public bank advocates, state Treasurer Beth Pearce, and the Vermont Bankers Association (VBA) all agree that 10 Percent for Vermont is off to a good start. Christopher D’Elia of the VBA said the program has “worked very well under the treasurer’s leadership” and that he believes “the taxpayers will receive a very nice rate of return.”

But the road to get there began with the more dramatic goal of a true public bank in Vermont.

The effort picked up steam in January 2012, when the Vermont House introduced legislation to conduct a study on creating a state bank, with 67 legislators co-sponsoring the bill. That February, the think tank Demos released a policy brief outlining the potential benefits. They pointed out that the for-profit TD Bank is a juggernaut in the state, holding over $2.3 billion of Vermont’s $10.9 billion total, in 2011. And yet, in 2010 the bank only made $416,800 in Small Business Association 7(a) loans (which are loans provided to small businesses that meet certain requirements), a 90 percent decline from the volume of similar loans it made in 2008.

Momentum kept building: In May 2013, the League of Women Voters of Vermont voted to conduct a study on the feasibility of a public bank. That December, a coalition of organizers, business, and individuals called Vermonters for a New Economy published a report again laying out the case for a public bank in the state. The report argued that a state bank could create more than 2,500 new jobs and add $192 million to Vermont’s Gross State Product (which is the economic output of a state. You can think of it as the state version of GDP). And because the state no longer would have to borrow money from private banks to finance important projects, the report found a public bank could save the state $100 million in interest payments over 20 years.

A report published by the Vermonters for a New Economy argued that a state bank could create more than 2,500 new jobs.

All three studies showed significant benefits, and state legislators were starting to listen. Last January , six Vermont state senators (Anthony Pollina, Claire Ayer, Eldred French, Dick McCormack, Jeanette K. White, and David Zuckerman—all Democrats except for Pollina and Zuckerman, who are members of the Vermont Progressive Party) proposed a stand-alone bill to implement the 10 Percent for Vermont program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), which would be granted a banking license and thus become the second state bank in the United States. In addition, an advisory committee would be created to “to enlist the help of private enterprise and encourage the use and growth of the program.”

The idea didn’t sit well with the treasurer’s office or the Vermont Bankers Association. Both argued that a public bank might hurt the state’s bond rating. Advocates countered that North Dakota’s public bank hadn’t damaged its rating, which was almost as high as Vermont’s—AA- versus AA+.

State Senator Anthony Pollina addresses constituents. Photo courtesy of Anthony Pollina.

The VBA remained hopeful that the state legislature would not follow through with its plan to create a state bank—noting in a January 2014 report that the Vermont Congress showed “willingness to consider other options.” But Vermonters for a New Economy continued to build pressure through a campaign of “Town Hall” discussions. In March, 23 Vermont towns voted on resolutions urging the creation of a state bank, with 19 towns ultimately approving it. The votes were not legally binding, but they demonstrated broad support because each town needed to generate petition signatures for at least 5 percent of its legal voters to even hold the votes.

At the end of March, Pollina abandoned the stand-alone version of the public bank bill and instead inserted a modified version as an amendment into a large, must-pass economic development bill (seven other senators offered the amendment along with Pollina).

Now, instead of VEDA implementing the 10 Percent program and getting a banking license, the treasurer’s office would oversee the program and chair the Advisory Committee. This amendment didn’t completely abandon the idea of a public bank: It mandated that the Advisory Committee give a report in January that include a recommendation on whether to eventually turn VEDA into a public bank.

But the VBA opposed even that. And after Pollina’s amendment, it announced that it planned to fight in the Vermont House to get the public bank recommendation removed from the overall economic development bill.

The Vermont Bankers Association was successful in that. But the 10 Percent program survived, albeit in an amended form.

Can other states learn from Vermont’s fight?

Approximately $10 million is left to be invested from the 10 Percent program, and there are many options. Presentations to the Local Investment Advisory Committee have provided plenty of ideas for how to invest that money.

In November, the committee met to discuss potential investments in infrastructure, like water supply projects or bridges. (During the meeting, Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns pointed out that one-third of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient). And in December, committee members discussed possible transportation investments. This month, the treasurer’s office reports on its progress with the 10 Percent program, make a preliminary recommendation on how to loan the rest of the money, and will take proposals through March 1.

The 10 Percent program was also given a built-in sunset, so the program will either end or be renewed in July. The loans already made won’t go anywhere—the $2.8 million in loans for new affordable housing, for example, is good through 2024. But, once all the loan money is paid back, the treasurer’s office won’t be able to loan the additional $10 million locally if the program isn’t renewed.

The Bankers Association remains firmly against a state bank: “We see no reason to create a state bank in Vermont,” d’Elia said.

“The sunset shows again how difficult this struggle is and how strong the opposition can be,” Pollina said. “We are fighting the banking interests every step of the way.”

But the odds for renewal seem good. Even d’Elia of the Vermont Bankers Association said that his group supports a continuation of the 10 Percent program. “We would be supportive of the program continuing in the sense that, as the money comes back in, it gets lent out again,” d’Elia said.

But when asked if he would support an increase in the program, d’Elia expressed familiar concerns about cash flow and the state’s bond rating. And the Bankers Association remains firmly against a state bank: “We see no reason to create a state bank in Vermont,” d’Elia said.

Perhaps the VBA is right to be nervous about a possible expansion of the program. After all, by reducing a state’s need to borrow from Wall Street, public banks threaten private banks’ profits. But thus far, it’s advocates who may have paid a steeper price than private banks: Hallsmith alleges that she was fired from her job as a public servant because she advocated for a public bank in her private time. She has an open case with the Vermont State Supreme Court.

But Hallsmith remains positive about the public bank movement and its momentum: “Once we realize the power of credit creation—using money we are now sending to Wall Street—I don’t think there will be any stopping it,” she said.

Could other cities and states stand to benefit from emulating what Vermonters have done? Pollina thinks so, noting that similar programs “could help states and cities dig out of the Grand Recession.”

That’s exactly the kind of idea that thinkers like Mike Krauss of the Public Banking Institute are hoping to spread across the country.

Public banking is “a way to enable prosperity at the local level,” he said.

Vermont’s continued work on expanding local lending is a small step toward such prosperity. And if advocates can continue to combine their demands for a public bank with increases in local lending, they can ensure a small win for their city or state, even when the effort ends in a compromise. Those advocating for public banks in the rest of the country would do well to learn from the fight waged in Vermont.

Corrections: This article originally stated that 19 towns in Vermont voted on resolutions supporting a statewide public bank, and that 15 passed it. In fact, 23 towns voted on resolutions and 19 passed them. Also, the article originally stated that Gwendolyn Hallsmith lives with her husband and son, which she does not.

Alexis Goldstein wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Alexis is a former Wall Street professional who currently serves as the communications director for The Other 98%. She is the co-host of the radical finance and economics podcast Disorderly Conduct. Follow her on Twitter at @alexisgoldstein.

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Laid-Off Baltimore Workers Beat Disney in Court—And Ask All the Right Questions About Urban Development

Emanuel McCray addresses a crowd of supporters outside the ESPN Zone restaurant where he used to work. Photo courtesy of United Workers.

Emanuel McCray is an army veteran with four combat tours under his belt. Despite his military service and his B.A. in political science, he, like many veterans, had a hard time finding work when he returned to civilian life in 2007. He felt pretty lucky when he finally found a position he loved, working as a host at ESPN Zone—a Disney-owned chain of sports bars. A sports fan, McCray prized the chance to interact with the many athletes who stopped in after games at the nearby stadiums. He hoped to move into management and thought that if he got a salaried position he’d make working at the restaurant his career.

“It’s not justice, but it’s a huge victory.”

In June of 2010, when McCray had been at the restaurant for almost two years, he arrived at work to find his co-workers in tears. Rumors had leaked in the press that Disney was closing the restaurant because they weren’t making enough money. One week later, Emanuel’s restaurant, along with four other locations in the chain, shut its doors. Around 140 Baltimore workers were left without new jobs, without health care, and without wages and tips from the upcoming busy summer season that supported many of them through the slow winter.

McCray felt betrayed by the owners for not telling employees about the closure directly, and for hiding the information for so long. Fair warning might have made it easier to find other restaurant jobs before the busy summer season was underway. “It was an emotional night. I was furious,” he remembers.

As the closure approached, McCray remembers the company issuing orders to employees not to talk to the media under the threat of losing their severance packages. When severance checks did come, they were calculated based on the average earnings from the past six months, instead of the full year. That meant that they were paid based only on the slower winter months when workers were given fewer shifts and receive smaller tips, right at the beginning of what should have been the busiest time of the year.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has been called “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”

McCray remembers feeling hopeless. But the night that the closure rumors leaked, he was greeted outside the restaurant by organizers from the United Workers, a local human rights organization led by low-wage workers. (Full disclosure: The author has worked with the UW in a volunteer capacity.) They invited McCray and his co-workers to a meeting with labor lawyers to discuss their rights. Several dozen ESPN Zone workers attended, where they learned that they might have recourse under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, which requires large employers to give 60 days notice to employees before mass layoffs. McCray remembers the United Workers giving him a “glimmer of hope” that he and his co-workers might be treated fairly in the closure, with fair severance packages or some compensation for losing their jobs.

The closure of the ESPN Zone was significant in Baltimore not just because of the loss of the individual jobs, but because of the restaurant's place—literally—in Baltimore’s larger economic development strategy. The Baltimore ESPN Zone was located in the Power Plant development—a former power plant located on the shore of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that housed businesses, stores, and offices. The harbor area, a gleaming waterfront promenade featuring parks, shops, restaurants, museums, and the National Aquarium, is the most visible and heralded piece of Baltimore’s redevelopment plan.

The former ESPN Zone restaurant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor development. Photo by Lyndi and Jason.

Equitable development? Or just a facade?

The current incarnation of the Inner Harbor has its roots in the 1950s and 1960s, when politicians and developers sought a new purpose for the neglected waterfront property left behind when the city’s shipping and manufacturing industries declined. Over the next several decades, the city improved the area's infrastructure and courted private developers and businesses. In 1980 the Rouse Company capped the development with Harborplace, a series of glass and steel shopping centers the company called “festival marketplaces,” which were based on the company’s development of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston.

The Cordish Company paid a yearly rent of $1,000 for the first 10 years of the lease on a building.

The Inner Harbor was one of the first examples of a city redeveloping its waterfront into a tourist destination, an idea that has since become commonplace in cities around the world. It is often heralded as a great success for the city. In 2009 the Urban Land Institute, an urban planning nonprofit, awarded the Inner Harbor a Heritage Award, which are given to projects that pioneer new models of development. They called the Harbor “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”

A private study commissioned by an association of Inner Harbor businesses and other local organizations estimated that in 2012 the Harbor supported 21,000 jobs, produced $102 million in city and state taxes, and drew 14 million visitors.

Laura Schwartz is the president of the Waterfront Partnership, an association of businesses and property owners around the harbor that also gets a small percentage of their funding from the city. She cites the tax and jobs benefits that the Harbor provides, but believes that the district benefits the city in other ways as well.

“It spurred an enormous amount of development throughout the city beyond just the Inner Harbor,” she says. She points to an association of families living in areas around downtown who have pledged to stay and raise their kids in Baltimore as an example of the benefits that the redevelopment helped encourage.

Schwartz believes that the jobs that the Harbor provides are beneficial to Baltimore residents, despite the fact that many of the positions are low-wage, service industry jobs. “Our restaurants and our services correspond to a national scale, and many people use their experience or their time working at a restaurant or retail shop to get some experience, get a reference, and move onto a next job or move up.” She cites recent research by the Waterfront Partnership that documented stories of employees who started as servers and moved up to become management, noting examples at Phillips, The Cheesecake Factory, and Tír na nÓg. “Mayor [Stefanie Rawlings Blake] worked at Harborplace,” she adds.

More than $1.5 billion in public money has been spent at the Inner Harbor since the 1970s, according to a report.

To the United Workers, however, the true story of the Inner Harbor development is much more complex. They point to a lack of accountability for promises made by private developers who received public money. Luis Larin, a longtime Leadership Organizer with the United Workers, points to the Hyatt Regency, the first subsidized hotel in Baltimore, as an example of the broken promises at the harbor. The hotel received a $10 million construction grant in 1979 and, according to Larin, promised to bring 500 new jobs in exchange. Now, he says, the hotel employs only around 130 people. Unite Here Local 7, which is working to organize the hotel’s workers, says that the Hyatt relies on temporary workers to do jobs that should be done by employees under the terms of its agreement with the city.

Then there is the lease the city signed with the Cordish Companies, one of the two major Inner Harbor developers and the developer of the Power Plant building where the ESPN Zone was housed. The company paid a yearly rent of $1,000 for the first 10 years of the lease on a building that houses retail and restaurant tenants—and the two floors of the Cordish corporate headquarters. Larin notes that most workers have to pay more in rent per month than the multi-billion dollar corporation paid per year. In 2011, Cordish asked for $3 million worth of rent breaks on two other nearby city-owned properties in exchange for making improvements to the Power Plant complex.

According to a report the UW co-authored with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, more than $1.5 billion in public money has been spent at the Inner Harbor since the 1970s, including tax breaks, bonds, grants, and below-market loans. They see the fact that there is no exact accounting of that public money as representative of the broader lack of transparency and public participation in the area. Perhaps most importantly, the United Workers point out that most of the jobs created with that public investment are low-wage and unstable. As rents for the retail spaces climb, local businesses are priced out and most of the spaces are filled with national chains, which means that instead of staying in the local community, the profits flow upwards and away from the workers and local economies. All of this adds up to what the United Workers calls “poverty zone development.”

That focus on development was what brought the United Workers to the ESPN Zone. They looked at the closure and didn't see just a single employer shutting its doors, but instead saw it as part of a broader pattern of public money in Baltimore going toward developments that benefit large corporations instead of local citizens. While they were after justice for the individuals who worked at ESPN Zone, the larger goal was to draw attention to the need for “fair development,” which they define as developments that “build the local economy, provide an abundance of living wage jobs, and create a vibrant community for everyone.”

McCray points out that the most important issue for the UW is a lack of public representation in development decisions. “Developers build […] housing or shopping centers, you don’t even use your own money, but you use people’s tax dollars to build them. And we should have more say what should go into the shopping center or what housing should be built in the area.”

Roots of a workers’ movement

When you enter the United Workers office, you come face-to-face with a giant paper mâché sculpture of Harriet Tumban’s head. It’s a physical reminder of something that is immediately apparent if you talk to any of the members or organizers—everyone is keenly aware of the history of the social justice movement in America, and sees their work as its direct continuation. Talk to anyone here for long enough and suddenly it doesn't seem like much of a leap between between Tubman’s struggle for freedom and the belief that restaurant workers in Baltimore should get a fair deal when a large corporation lays them off.

A United Workers demonstrate for workers' rights. Photo courtesy of United Workers.

Although the United Workers do sometimes seek to organize individual workplaces and often work closely with the labor movement, they are not a union. Their admittedly ambitious goal—ending poverty—requires flexibility that the traditional union model doesn’t always offer. The drive to organize the ESPN Zone after it closed is one example of that.

Mike Fox, who was a leadership development organizer with the United Workers during the ESPN Zone fight, says of their strategy, “It’s not just about if you’re a worker or you’re not a worker. That’s a distinction that’s made in labor movements and things like that. It’s about how communities and people across the city are being affected by development policies. Failed development policies. And how people can respond and stand up to that.”

The UW was founded in Baltimore in 2002 by homeless day laborers and organizers who were interested in rooting out the causes of economic inequality and poverty. The first two years were devoted to listening and learning: the founding members met at a shelter to talk about their lives and to discuss economics, the root causes of poverty, and the history of social change.

Development gone wrong

In 2004, the group decided to take on their first big campaign. It targeted Baltimore’s publicly owned baseball stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in 1992. The 1992 construction of the park cost around $210 million of public money. It was touted as an economic benefit for the city, but to many homeless UW members who earned as little as $4.50 an hour for cleaning the stands, it didn’t seem like such a good deal.

The workers at Oriole Park—and other temporary workers—are not likely candidates for unionization. The high job turnover makes it almost impossible to get the critical mass necessary to begin the process of legally forming a union. Temporary workers are particularly vulnerable to illegal or abusive practices, as with the Camden Yards workers, who were paid a flat rate for a night of cleaning, no matter how many hours they worked.

Luis Larin, who is now a leadership organizer on the UW staff, was working as a day laborer when he was approached about the campaign. He had immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, and had been laid off from a job fabricating trucks after he attempted to organize his co-workers. He remembers being suspicious at first.

“My experience in Guatemala was more direct action. And I was under the impression that in the U.S. most of the organizing happens from top to bottom, and it’s not something that I really enjoy,” he recalls. After the first meeting, his mind began to change. “When I saw the organizing they were doing, it reminded me a lot of what I was used to, which was more like participation. Yes, there is one person facilitating the process, but the person facilitating is not telling you what to do. It wasn’t just participation, but also developing the skills for you to participate on another level. You can create this [campaign] and not just say yes or no.”

One example of that participatory process at work, Larin remembers, was the workers’ decision to go on hunger strike. It was three years into the campaign for fair wages at the stadium, and the United Workers had slowly ramped up their campaign of protests and media outreach. “When we got to that point, people were ready to make a commitment, to make a sacrifice. It just felt right for everyone,” he recalls. “It was just feeling right for the workers, and feeling right for the public, too. It wasn't just these random crazy people from nowhere.” Just before the strike began, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley called for the workers to receive a living wage.

After that, the United Workers negotiated an agreement that bumped worker pay to $11.30 an hour. It was a stunning victory for a temporary, low-wage work force.

Beyond a living wage

The Camden Yards victory notwithstanding, the fight to change broader development practices in Baltimore has been an uphill battle.

“Just because people make a living wage, it won’t change the reality in their communities.”

Shantress Wise, 39, who’s been a UW member for over two years, remembers her frustration when the City Council passed $107 million in tax incentives for the controversial new Harbor Point development in 2013. “We were pushing to make sure that it’s not just the developer that gets the profit, to make sure that the community gets some of the money,” she said, but by the time the public was aware of the proposal, “it seemed like the decision was already made by the City Council and City Hall to go through with it.”

Wise is not alone in her criticism of the process. A state panel ruled that the city’s Board of Finance broke the law when it barred members of the public from the meeting where they issued their favorable recommendation of the project and passed it along to the City Council. The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote shortly before the final City Council vote approving the project that “despite an unusual amount of public criticism of the city’s support for this project, there has in fact been little question that it would be approved since the mayor stood with the City Council president to endorse the deal months ago.”

Recognizing that the relationship between developers and the city won’t change overnight, the United Workers has expanded their campaign from focusing on Inner Harbor workers to encompass issues facing communities all around the city. In the summer of 2012, members from the United Workers’ West Side Committee collected thousands of signatures and organized a successful campaign to keep open a recreation center and fire station that had been slated for closure by the city.

Luis Larin says that they were excited to be able to expand their focus. “There was this realization: Just because people make a living wage, it won’t change the reality in their communities.”

To Larin, the framework of fair development is a way to spark a larger discussion about capitalism and economics. “It is a way for us to criticize a larger system in a local place, and use that as an example to develop leaders.”

New leaders, new economy

If you talk to any United Workers member about what they get out of the organization, leadership development and learning are bound to come up. Keith Brown, 30, grew up in Baltimore and had been working at the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone for six years when they closed. He says that after he came to his first meeting he just kept coming back. “I was learning a lot of interesting stuff I didn’t know about, so I decided to stick around.”

Keith Brown gets quiet when asked whether the settlement check he receives was enough.

In addition to the hard skills in audio and video he’s learned as part of the media team, he remembers learning about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, who fight farm labor exploitation and human trafficking. “I was just shocked to learn that this was going on all around the world. That people were treating other people like this.” When asked if there was a relationship to his own struggle in Baltimore, he said, “I didn’t experience anything like they did but I felt I understood what they were going through. These people who have power try to get away with anything. It’s crazy.”

The UW education model relies on around 13 neighborhood and issue-based committees. Organizers develop curriculum units (the current one is housing, and economics is up next), and train Human Rights Educators from the committees in facilitation skills and the subject matter itself. They go back to their neighborhoods and discuss the readings with their community.

As the UW has expanded their campaign for fair development, the fate of the ESPN Zone workers wound its way through the court system. The situation looked grim at first.

Workers began the painstaking process of looking for new jobs. Despite his college degree and leadership experience in the military, McCray took a job at Wal-Mart because he knew it was the only work he could get under such short notice. Keith Brown looked for work for a year before he found another job. Some of the workers had to move their families out of state, and McCray remembers one co-worker who wound up homeless.

On January 3, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake agreed that Walt Disney Co. and its subsidiary, Zone Enterprises of Maryland, had violated the federal WARN act by failing to provide workers with 60 days notice of the closure. In November, a $230,000 settlement was announced for the 140 workers.


How Seattle Led the Country’s Wage Revolution

UW Leadership Organizer Mike Fox says while the settlement wouldn’t fix the wrong done to the workers, it was an important step. “It’s not justice, but it’s a huge victory,” he says.

Keith Brown gets quiet when asked whether the settlement check he receives was enough. “Even if it was enough ... it’s still messed up,” he says. He has struggled with unemployment since leaving ESPN Zone. An avid drawer, he says that all he wants out of a job is to be able to save up enough money to go to art school.

Emanuel McCray was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2011. He’s been in and out of remission, and after a transplant this summer hasn’t been able to return to full-time work.

Despite all that, McCray has become an advocate for universal health care as well as fair development, and he frequently speaks at meetings and rallies about battling his own illness. His next plan? Running for public office, where he believes the real change happens. He said that the lawsuit was motivation for him  “to fight for a cause bigger than just my job. For me it’s bigger than ESPN Zone.”

Meanwhile, he’s working to help provide people across Baltimore with the same “glimmer of hope” the United Workers gave him.

Christina Arrison wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Christina is a freelance journalist, producer, and artist in Baltimore, Maryland. She produced the Marc Steiner Show for two years and has lived in Berlin as a recipient of a Fulbright grant for young professional journalists.

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Owning Together Is the New Sharing

This article originally appeared at Shareable.

Participants in an event hosted by the Paris-based network OuiShare, which connects sharing-economy entrepreneurs around the world. Photo by Flickr / OuiShare.

One chilly morning last winter, I reconnected with an old friend, Joel Dietz, on a video chat. We hadn’t seen each other for years, and we’d each had several starts and stops in our lives since. He began telling me about his latest undertaking, Evergreen, a digital currency system that he described as “organic” and “without additives.” I was doing all I could to understand it, and he was struggling to fund it in a way that suited his vision. He needed money, and quickly, but he didn’t want to sabotage his ideals in the process.

People who want an economy of genuine sharing are coming to recognize that they must embrace ownership.

“I’m working to find a steady economic base,” he said. “I don’t really want to put it into the hands of the VCs.” Venture capitalists, that is—the go-to source of quick and easy money for clever tech entrepreneurs like him. He’d get cash, but they’d get the reins. “I’ve considered this before, but it always leaves me feeling a bit dirty.”

A few months passed, and we traded emails about our various projects—including some dead ends. By mid-May, though, he’d alighted on something new, something that seemed to address the problem that had been burdening him before. I was skeptical. He was soon writing to me from the domain name of his new company, Swarm, the world’s first experiment in what he was calling “cryptoequity.”

Swarm would be a crowdfunding platform, using its own virtual currency rather than dollars; rather than just a thank-you or a kickback, it would reward backers with a genuine stake in the projects they support. Entrepreneurs could sidestep the VCs by turning to a “swarm” of small investors—and maybe supplant the entire VC system. By the end of the summer, he’d raised more than a million dollars in cryptocurrency. The legality of the model is uncertain, but the feds haven’t come knocking yet.

Dietz is part of a subtle insurgency taking place, one of bylaws, financing schemes, and ownership structures. The details can seem abstruse, but the craving is everywhere. High hopes for a liberating Internet have devolved into the dominance of a few mega-companies and the NSA’s watchful algorithms. Platforms entice users to draw their communities into an apparently free and open commons, only to gradually enclose it by tweaking terms of service, diluting privacy, or charging fees for essential features. Thanks to users’ unpaid labor of friending and posting, tech companies can employ far fewer people, and extract five to 10 times more profit per employee, than businesses in other industries. Fiduciary responsibility to their investors requires that they turn on the people who made them successful.

Those people are turning on them back. Oculus Rift raised $2.4 million from fans on Kickstarter, then enraged backers by selling to Facebook for $2 billion. Users frustrated with an increasingly ad-friendly Facebook started flocking to Ello (whose “manifesto“ eschews advertising and selling user data) and Tsu (which pays its users for their contributions)—but when Ello took venture capital, its boosters started to flee. Reddit’s finicky users have succeeded in preventing the company from turning profitable with intrusive ads or selling data; it’s now in the process of setting up a Swarm-like digital currency scheme to share 10 percent of new equity with users .

The line between workers and customers has never been so blurry. Online platforms depend on their users, and pressure is mounting all over the Internet. People are tired of seeing their communities treated like commodities, and they’re looking for ways to build platforms of their own.

Sharing was the new owning

VC-backed sharing economy companies like Airbnb and Uber have caused trouble for legacy industries, but gone is the illusion that they are doing it with actual sharing. Their main contribution to society has been facilitating new kinds of transactions—for a fee, of course, to pay back to their investors. “The sharing economy has become the on-demand economy,” laments Antonin Léonard, co-founder of the Paris-based network OuiShare, which connects sharing-economy entrepreneurs around the world.

Once the VC-backed sharing companies clear regulatory hurdles, local co-ops will be poised to swoop in and spread the wealth.

The notion that sharing would do away with the need for owning has been one of the mantras of sharing economy promoters. We could share cars, houses, and labor, trusting in the platforms to provide. But it’s becoming clear that ownership matters as much as ever. Whoever owns the platforms that help us share decides who accumulates wealth from them, and how. Rather than giving up on ownership, people are looking for a different way of practicing it. OuiShare, for instance, is starting to prioritize supporting new projects that bake new models of ownership—that is, real sharing—deep into their business model.

Léonard and his collaborators are part of a widespread effort to make new kinds of ownership the new norm. There are cooperatives, networks of freelancers, cryptocurrencies, and countless hacks in between. Plans are being made for a driver-owned Lyft, a cooperative version of eBay, and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers are scheming to build a crowdsourcing platform they can run themselves. Each idea has its prospects and shortcomings, but together they aspire toward an economy, and an Internet, that is more fully ours.

“Society needs a new narrative about the world,” Léonard thinks, “and that narrative has to be different from the one Uber is offering.”

One kind of narrative is that a more collaborative, less unequal future will happen almost by itself. Jeremy Rifkin, a futurist to CEOs and governments, contends that the Internet-of-things and 3-D printers are ushering in a “ zero marginal cost society“ in which the “collaborative commons” will be more competitive than extractive corporations. Investor Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures has predicted that a new crop of grassroots “skinny platforms” will spell trouble for behemoths like Uber. Sharing economy expert Arun Sundararajan expects that once the VC-backed sharing companies clear away regulatory hurdles, local co-ops will be poised to swoop in and spread the wealth.

These stories are certainly possible, even plausible. But they’re also a bit like expecting Amazon to usher in a renaissance of local bookstores; big companies seeking big profits for the investors who own them tend to get their way in this economy. People are recognizing that doing business differently will require changing who gets to own what.

“We’re moving into a new economic age,” says Marjorie Kelly, who spent two decades at the helm of Business Ethics magazine and now advises social entrepreneurs. “It needs to be sustainable. It needs to be inclusive. And the foundation of what defines an economic age is its form of ownership.”

Cooperative intelligence

When the Occupy movement spread to Wellington, New Zealand, in 2011, Ben Knight says, “It seemed like the perfect social movement.” Before that, he had been studying cognitive science, working with primates to understand the evolution of group learning—and he saw group learning take place in the movement’s consensus-based assemblies. “It was the collective intelligence angle that got me really, really interested in the beginning,” he recalls.

Soon, Knight went from the perfect movement to the perfect tech company. He and fellow Occupiers took the best of what they’d seen in Occupy’s kind of direct democracy and made it available to the world in the form of an app—Loomio, they called it. And they built their organization to reflect Occupy values as thoroughly as they could: It’s a worker-owned cooperative that produces open-source software to help people practice consensus—though they prefer the term “collaboration”—about decisions that affect their lives. Only after Loomio incorporated did its team notice that it was the only worker-owned cooperative registered in New Zealand.

They were not, however, working in a vacuum. From the start Loomio was part of Enspiral, an “open value network“ of freelancers and social enterprises devoted to mutual support and the common good. Through Enspiral, its team had a place to work, an Internet connection, and a receptive community. Before long, Enspiral was using Loomio to make decisions collaboratively, and members began building a companion tool, CoBudget, to help them allocate resources together. Loomio is now being used by governments, organizations, and schools; a significant portion of the current usage comes from Spain’s ascendant political party, Podemos. Still, Loomio’s ideals have kept its revenue flowing slowly. The team members recently had to come to terms with the fact that, for the time being, only some of them could be paid for full-time work They called the process “participatory downsizing.”

The resurgent co-op model

The worker cooperative is an old model that’s attracting new interest among the swelling precariat masses—youthful and idealistic, but with dwindling chances of finding an old-fashioned job. Co-ops help ensure that the people who contribute to and depend on an enterprise keep control and keep profits, so they’re a possible remedy for worsening economic inequality. And they can take many forms. Loomio and other tech companies, for instance, are aspiring toward the model of a multi-stakeholder cooperative—one in which not just workers or consumers are voting members, but several such groups at once. It’s the ideal model for an Internet that doesn’t draw clear lines between employees and users. But it’s easier said than done.

Loconomics is a San Francisco-based startup designed, like TaskRabbit, to manage short-term freelance jobs; but unlike TaskRabbit, administrators and freelancers alike will be members with equal voting rights. The Sustainable Economies Law Center is advising the project, and others like it, on the strategy and the paperwork. As Loconomics prepares to begin operations this winter, it’s running out of the pocket of the founder, Josh Danielson—a far cry from the millions that TaskRabbit raised from investors in its early years.

The ambition of a cooperative Facebook or Uber—competitive, widespread, and owned by its community—still seems out of reach for enterprises not willing to sell large parts of themselves to investors. Organizations like The Working World and the Democracy Collaborative have been developing models of financing suited for co-ops, but they’ve tended to focus on local or industrial businesses, not so much the lean-and-leveraged strategy of a tech startup. A cooperative tech economy might require very different ways of operating.

People have been trying, to build alternatives to concentrated wealth and ownership for a long time.

“When you talk about cooperatives with entrepreneurs, they’re super afraid,” says Antonin Léonard. “They’re like, ‘Are you crazy, man? Cooperatives in the digital age just don’t work.’” His fellow OuiShare founder Benjamin Tincq is concerned that too much fixation on a particular model will make it hard for well-meaning ventures to be successful. “I like the idea that we don’t need to have a specific legal status,” he says. “It’s more about hacking an existing legal status and making these hacks work.”

No blueprint

Few have been so successful at turning hacking into sharing as Casey Fenton. In 2003, he founded CouchSurfing, one of the original sharing economy platforms, which built relationships around the world by connecting travelers, free of charge, with the spare couches of trustworthy strangers. But the community-driven heyday didn’t last. After the IRS failed to recognize CouchSurfing’s activities as charitable, it transitioned from a non-profit to a for-profit B Corporation in 2011. In that form, it raised millions in venture capital, but saw a precipitous decline in vibrancy. Much of the once-loyal user base turned against the company.

Fenton’s new undertaking, Sovolve, proposes to “create innovative solutions to accelerate social change,” much as CouchSurfing did, but it’s doing the innovating cautiously. All work is done by worker-owners located around the world. Sovolve uses an internal platform—soon to become a product in its own right—through which contributors decide how much they want to be paid in cash and how much in equity. They can see how much others are earning. Their virtual workplace is gamified, with everyone working to nudge their first product, WonderApp, into virality. In the process, they’ve invested more than $1 million worth of unpaid work—$1 million less that Fenton needs to seek from traditional investors.

“I think we’re finally coming to the point where we have complex enough tools that we can start to do this stuff,” he told me over lunch and a can of Rockstar—“complex enough legal instruments and complex enough software.”

Loomio’s members use a similar system, which they call Loomio Points. But Sovolve is no cooperative; contributors are not in charge. “I wanted to give more people ownership to create more alignment,” Fenton says. “But we don’t want to have a whole bunch of people making decisions every day. I’ve tried to do that. That’s like some kind of democracy.”

Governments already subsidize business as usual. They need to be pressured to encourage more just alternatives instead.

It’s also like Sensorica. For the past four years, Tiberius Brastaviceanu has been trying to build a truly open-source business model from a shared lab in Montreal. He was troubled that many leading open-source projects, like WordPress and Arudino, rely on unpaid labor and are managed by a closed, traditional company. As it designs and builds high-end scientific equipment, Sensorica is an experiment in another approach. “You have to break the walls down and create a more permeable membrane,” Brastaviceanu says. But doing so is no easy hack. “There’s no blueprint for the kind of organization we’re trying to build.”

Open-source software and share-alike licenses have revived the ancient idea of the commons for an Internet age. But the “ commons-based peer production“ that Sensorica seeks to practice doesn’t arise overnight. Just as today’s business culture rests on generations of accumulated law, habit, and training, learning to manage a commons successfully takes time.

Like Sovolve, Sensorica pays workers for their contributions to the product. Unlike Sovolve, they participate in the company democratically. Everything from revenues to internal criticism is out in the open, wiki-style, for insiders and outsiders alike to see. The whole company, not just the product, is open source—sharing not just code but profits. Progress has been slow, though. Only one device has been sold, and the 3-D modeling and printing business barely supports one person. At the same time, Brastaviceanu is getting more and more calls from people interested in adapting the model Sensorica has pioneered. He believes a change along these lines is coming. “It’s inevitable,” he says.

If this is true, one reason may be Bitcoin. It is becoming increasingly clear that the technology underlying the digital currency—a secure network that doesn’t rely on any central server or authority—is good for a lot more than currency. It makes possible decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs, which exist entirely on a shared network. While a conventional corporation, for instance, exists because of documents held by the corporation itself and a government, the code that defines a DAO is shared across the network. On this kind of open-source platform, an organization like Sensorica actually starts to seem more sensible than closed-source alternatives.

The most ambitious successor to Bitcoin, Ethereum, has raised more than $15 million in crowdfunding on the promise of creating such a network. With it, proposals have been made to develop decentralized social networks, Airbnb-like rental services, Dropbox-like file-sharing systems—even an entirely new Internet—all with technology that makes collective ownership a lot easier than a conventional legal structure. A project called Eris is developing a collective decision-making tool designed to govern DAOs on Ethereum, though the platform may still be months from release.

“The foundation of what defines an economic age is its form of ownership.”

For now, the burden of reinventing every wheel at once makes it hard for companies like Sensorica and Loomio to compete. In tech culture’s rush for making all things new, it may be overlooking older approaches to the challenges of community ownership and financing. People have been trying, after all, to build alternatives to concentrated wealth and ownership for a long time. For instance, Cutting Edge Capital specializes in helping companies raise money through a long-standing mechanism called the direct public investment, or DPO, which allows for small, non-accredited investors.

It involves neither Swarm’s Bitcoin-like technology, nor the murky new crowdfunding investment provisions in the 2012 JOBS Act that AngelList is relying on lately. Cutting Edge Capital is trying to bring the DPO into the digital age with a new online marketplace for investors, but few of Cutting Edge Capital’s clients have been tech companies. Part of the problem may be that DPOs require state-by-state registration, which makes it hard to cast a wide net for funders. CEO Jenny Kassan suspects it is also partly a matter of culture—in many people’s minds, tech culture is synonymous with fast-and-furious venture capital.

“Everyone knows that the model is broken,” she says, “but it still has this prestige factor.” And, for the moment, easy money is hard to beat.

Photo courtesy of Sensorica. Picture taken at the ecoHACK hachaton on the Garden Manager project. Photo by Cesar Cubillian.

Where the money is

Swarm has competition. During its early months, when Joel Dietz was first trying to get his idea off the ground, he talked with a lot of people about it. Many of them liked it. Some of them liked it so much that they found investors, and persuaded them to like it, and to finance a company of their own. Venture funding may be in competition with Dietz’s cryptoequity vision, but it provides a fearsome head start.

For those hoping to mend the inequality of the existing economy, Swarm’s competition makes it hard not to notice the inequalities built into the models vying to disrupt the status quo. Bitcoin’s micro-economy holds the dubious distinction of being more unequal than the global economy as a whole. On a sharing platform, who owns, and who just rents? In an economy of cooperatives, who gets to be a member, and who gets left out? And in a workplace like Sovolve built on sweat equity, some people can afford to work for less cash upfront than others; those who have some already will be poised to end up with a lot more than those with less.

Devita Davison, co-director of FoodLab Detroit, a network of local food entrepreneurs, finds that new kinds of sharing economies can be hard to embrace for those living in poverty. “People who have been without for a long time,” she says, “often operate with a mindset that they can’t share what they have, because they don’t know when that resource will come along again.”

Sooner or later, transforming a system of gross inequality and concentrated wealth will require more than isolated experiments at the fringes—it will require capturing that wealth and redirecting its flows. This recognition has been built into some of the most significant efforts under the banner of the so-called “new economy” movement. They’re often offline, but that makes them no less innovative.

Co-ops help ensure that the people who contribute to and depend on an enterprise keep control and keep profits.

Building on the model of the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, the Democracy Collaborative helps seed new cooperative enterprises by connecting them to large anchor institutions in their communities; hospitals and universities with deep pockets can help a new enterprise become viable much more quickly than it can on its own. In France, OuiShare supports new collaborative business models through partnerships with its own set of anchor institutions—including MAIF, an 80-year-old mutual insurance company, and the public train operator SNCF. A less consensual strategy was employed to fund the Catalan Integral Cooperative in Spain; over the course of a few years, one activist borrowed around $600,000 from Spanish banks without paying any of it back.

Government is an important source of support, too. Perhaps more than some go-it-aloners in tech culture might like to admit, a new economy will need new public policies to level the playing field between traditional corporations and collaborative enterprises. In Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor in 2013 on a platform of fostering worker-owned cooperatives, although much of the momentum was lost when Lumumba died just a few months later. This year in New York City, for the first time, co-op advocates secured public funds to support training programs that will help the sector grow—and other cities are taking similar steps. Governments already subsidize business as usual, and they need to be pressured to encourage more just alternatives instead.

This is not the first time people have longed to replace owning with sharing, to forgo property through community. In the Middle Ages, say: The early followers Francis of Assisi at first sought to do away with property altogether, to use without having to own. It may be an ambition worth pursuing. But to ensure their autonomy, and to protect their growing movement in the feudal world in which they lived, the Franciscans ended up having to hold communal property, though they managed it very differently than the neighboring lords did.

There are many ways to own. Simply giving up on ownership, however, will mean that those who actually do own the tools that we rely on to share will control them. People who want an economy of genuine sharing are coming to recognize that they must embrace ownership—and, as they do, they’re changing what owning means altogether.

Nathan Schneider wrote this piece for Shareable, where it originally appeared. Nathan is an editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, both published in 2013 by University of California Press, are Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet.

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Categories: News

10 Ways Human Rights and Democracy Won in 2014 (Yeah, You Heard That Right)

Ferguson, Missouri. October, 2014. Photo by Sarah-Ji.

In 2014, we saw a lot of brutality. Unarmed black men and women were killed by police, women were raped on college campuses and in military barracks, foreign nationals were tortured, and young and mentally ill Americans were confined for extended periods in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

The privilege of whiteness is under review.

It was a violent year, but no worse than other years. What was different was the emergence of new movements of resistance—and with them new possibilities for change.

1. Black Lives Matter

It was no secret to black Americans that they were disproportionately targeted for police violence, arrests, and incarceration. Black men are 21 times as likely to be shot by police as white men, according to a report by ProPublica. And the Pew Center reports that black men are six times as likely to be imprisoned as white men.

It was the young black activists who took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, night after night who sparked a movement. And the African American women and men, and allies of all races, in cities and towns across the United States, who stood up, making the issue impossible to ignore.

This new civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, has already resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and calls for a truth and reconciliation commission. There is sure to be more in 2015.

2. White folks are re-evaluating privilege

Many believe that implicit bias contributes to police violence against African Americans and more punitive treatment by schools, courts, and prison officials. White folks across the country are doing some soul searching about the effects of bias against people of color, who will soon make up a majority of Americans. (Test your implicit biases here.) The controversial hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite showcased white people who confessed to breaking the law and getting away with it.

3. New alliances to protect the planet are succeeding, led by people of color

The willingness of white activists to support leadership by people of color is opening doors to some powerful new alliances. Native American tribes, building on their treaty rights, are blocking efforts to develop tar sands pipelines and new coal export facilities; non-Native allies are joining in. If built, the projects proposed for the Pacific Northwest would, together, bring to market fossil fuels with five times the carbon impact of the KXL pipeline. Most recently, after months of protests and lawsuits, residents of Vancouver, British Columbia, joined with the Tseil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations to block Kinder Morgan’s plans to build a tar sands pipeline through Burnaby Mountain.

"We are saying no to the destruction of Mother Earth."

"Everything we get out of the land and water is sacred," said Ruben George of the Tseil-waututh Nation during a September rally against the pipeline. "Today, we are blocking all directions of the Alberta pipelines—across Canada and the United States, we are saying no to the destruction of Mother Earth."

4. The climate march inspired millions

The massive climate march in New York City in September was also led by communities of color, who mobilized young, diverse activists by the thousands—along with progressive unions and environmentalists—creating one of the largest, most energized climate marches yet. The momentum of this march carried through to Peru, where international climate talks narrowly skirted collapse. The resulting agreements may have fallen short of the commitments needed, but at least they have kept talks alive. Leadership continues in state and local governments among grassroots activists and enlightened businesses.

5. Governor hears activists, bans fracking in New York

In December Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York state, citing hazards to health, drinking water, and climate stability. In making his decision, the governor pointed to a report, compiled by the New York State Department of Health, which also noted the increase in seismic activity associated with fracking. The tenacious activism of communities most at risk helped the governor find the political courage to take this stand.

6. With the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, and calls for a criminal investigation, democracy scores one over tyranny

Government transparency is one factor that separates democracies from tyrannies. The fact that Senator Diane Feinstein succeeded in getting the torture report released is an indication that at least some democratic accountability continues to function, in spite of the powers of the national security state.

The contents of the report, according to Senator Feinstein, are a "stain on our values and on our history.”

She said, “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say 'never again.’”

The New York Times is now calling for a criminal investigation of those responsible, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Two institutions of democracy—the U.S. Senate and independent news media—have stepped up to have their say. In 2015, we'll see if democracy and accountability are further revived.

7. War on Terror blows back

Just 25 percent of Americans think we are winning the “war on terrorism,” the lowest number in 10 years

Of the 25 most important leaders of ISIS, 17 of them spent time at Iraq prison Camp Bucca or one of the other prisons run by the U.S., according to an article in The Guardian. "We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else," one informant told the paper. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”

ISIS has now become a powerful force in the region, making a so-called U.S. victory in Iraq even more elusive.

This is just one part of the blowback resulting from the decision in 2003 to invade Iraq and upend its government and entire society. We broke it, but we as outsiders cannot fix it.

The utter failure of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the millions of lives lost and destroyed, and the billions of dollars spent have caused a fundamental rethinking of U.S. posture in the region. Just 25 percent of Americans think we are winning the “war on terrorism,” the lowest number in the 10 years since Rasmussen pollsters started asking; 69 percent oppose the United States acting as the world’s police.

We are well-positioned for a serious national dialogue about how to convert our war-dependent economy to one that meets human needs and preserves life on earth in an era of climate disruption.

8. Cuba recognized in battle against Ebola; U.S. normalizes relations

Cuba, in spite of its small size and relative poverty, has sent over 250 doctors to fight the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia—a number that dwarfs that of much larger countries. For years, Cuba has been sending doctors to disaster areas around the world and to some of the poorest communities in Latin America and Africa. In a 2007 interview with YES! Magazine, Dr. Juan Ceballos, advisor to the Cuban Ministry of Health, revealed that doing this was a humanitarian effort but also a defense strategy. Instead of building a big military, which the small country could ill afford, medical diplomacy kept Cuba from being isolated and the target of aggression from the United States and its closest allies.

On December 17, President Obama announced the United States would be normalizing relationships with the small island nation, citing, among other reasons, Cuba’s contribution to the battle against Ebola: "I believe American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease," President Obama said.

9. Opposition continues to secret trade talks

During his first presidential campaign, Obama was a vocal opponent of NAFTA and other race-to-the-bottom trade deals. But today, the Obama administration is pressing for the completion of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP): a trade deal more accurately described as a global constitution, as it pre-empts local, state, and national laws in favor of binding international agreements that benefit transnational corporations.

The good news for opponents of this deal is that, thus far, the Obama administration has failed to get Congress to grant “fast track” status, which would require an up-or-down vote by Congress, without modification. Leaders in both political parties support the deal, although members from both parties recently signed a letter opposing fast track; both parties also face substantial grassroots opposition. Many see the TPP as continuing policies like NAFTA that have undercut the middle class. Berkeley, California, is the latest city to declare itself a TPP-Free zone.

10. Rape culture: Women and people who love them are pushing back

Violence against women is nothing new. But headlines in 2014 highlighted the aggression women suffer in the military, on college campuses, on Native American reservations, in the online gaming world, and in intimate relationships with sports celebrities. This was also a year of resistance to that violence.

Thanks to a law passed by Congress in December, women in the military—one in three of whom are sexually assaulted—will have more say over how their cases are handled. In California’s public universities, students must receive "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” according to a law that went into effect this fall. Consent will no longer be defined as not objecting (or being too drunk to express an opinion.) Three tribes are using their new authorities under the Violence Against Women Act to prosecute those who assault Native women. Until the passage of the act, tribal authorities were prevented from prosecuting non-Native assailants.

#YesAllWomen became a conversation about sexual violence; #WhyIStayed explained why many stay in violent relationships.

Meanwhile, the online world has become a location for the harassment of women, but also a place where there is a renewed conversation about the impact of sexual violence. Labeled #Gamergate on Twitter, online harassment and threats directed at prominent women in the online gaming world created such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that at least two women fled their homes when their addresses were revealed, and one woman canceled a speech when university officials were unable to guarantee her safety.

One Australian gamer addressed the problem by tweeting politely to the mothers of the harassers, who turned out to be mostly boys. The hashtag #StopGamerGate was launched in response to the harassment.

#YesAllWomen became a place for a conversation about widespread sexual violence, and #WhyIStayed explained why many stay in violent relationships.

The continuing controversy over a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia is just one arena where the question of women’s safety and rights will continue into the new year.

What's next?

The politics of resentment have been used to whip up hate against women and people of color. It’s been an effective way to distract the American public from some very real resentment: like the fact that just a few at the top have been siphoning the power and money that enabled the American dream.

As we head into 2015, we face huge challenges to restore (and redefine) a middle-class way of life, to deal with the climate crisis and the blowback from war, and to reclaim our government from big corporations and Wall Street. We will only be able to take on these and other key issues if we fully and consciously include men and women of all races. That means, as a starting point, asserting everyone’s right to safe participation in the public spaces that make up our society.

The biggest hope for 2015 is that we will turn to each other, not on each other. By building a strong foundation of mutual respect, we can use our collective power to transform our society into one that works for everyone.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Sarah is co-founder and editor in chief of YES! Magazine.

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Categories: News

Thomas H. Greco interviewed on Bartertown Radio

Beyond Money - Tue, 12/23/2014 - 15:02

My December 13 interview by Bob Prentice and Sandra Harshman on Bartertown Radio considered moneyless trading in general then zeroed in on what needs to be done to take credit clearing and private currencies to scale. To stream it or download it, click here.


Categories: News

What the Classics Can Teach Us About Cherishing Holiday Foods, From A Christmas Carol to Moby Dick

This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.

Photo by Shutterstock.

Last Christmas, over sev­eral nights, my husband read Charles Dickens’ A Christ­mas Carol aloud to our two daughters, ages 10 and eight. Propped up on the couch on either side of their father, they were alternately thrilled by time-traveling ghosts and bored by Dickens’ long, wandering descriptions. In the third chap­ter, in which Scrooge walks the streets of London with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens launches into such an animated, detailed description of food in a Christmas mar­ket that I asked my husband, as the girls sighed and rolled their eyes, to reread the passage. I later found myself look­ing up the history of the unfamiliar varieties he describes, the filbert nuts and Norfolk Biffin apples.

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A few generations ago, people spent more time in the field and the kitchen, grew more local varieties of crops, and were conversant with the nuanced use of each. Some apples were best fresh off the tree, others after six months in the cellar. There were specific apples for pie, for cider, and even a variety for frying. These days most of us are only familiar with the apple meant for our lunchbox.

For most of our history, end-of-season feasts celebrated local harvests. Here in North America, we prepared feasts when turkeys were fat, apples were plump, and pumpkins were ripe. But we’re not reliant on local harvests anymore. Nowadays, our festivities often involve opening a can and pouring its contents into a premade crust, ordering a shrink-wrapped factory-raised turkey, and filling it with stuffing from a plastic bag. It’s hard to know when or where these foods were harvested, but it’s likely they’re from far away, and, especially if they arrive frozen or canned, not from a recent harvest. Local varieties and their accompany­ing traditions fall by the wayside.

From a modern perspective, Dickens’ lavish passage about Christmas food in London can read like a dirge for disappearing foods, dishes, and customs. After hearing Dickens’ description of the Christmas market, I began mulling over the connection between food, place, and liter­ature, and wondering if some wisdom or inspiration about how to eat sustainably over the holidays (and the rest of the year) could be gleaned from old stories that focused on celebration of place and the food of that place.

Using traditional recipes and local ingredients deepens our understanding of what makes our region unique.

My search led me first to The Good Life, by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, a book featuring food local to my place: New Mexico. This book, first pub­lished in 1949, combines traditional New Mexican recipes with stories of a quasi-fictional family—actually a compos­ite of the many northern New Mexican families Cabeza de Baca worked with during her years as an agent for the Agricultural Extension Service, which aimed to help rural families make their farms more productive. From 1929 to 1959, when most of her female contemporaries married and stayed home to raise children, Cabeza de Baca trav­eled to remote corners of New Mexico to show ranching and farming families everything from the latest agricultural techniques to how to use a sewing machine. Her ethnicity, gender and love of traditional ways (most extension agents in New Mexico during those decades were white men who spoke only English), helped her win the hearts of ranch­ing and farming women. But Cabeza de Baca, who herself grew up on a ranch in New Mexico, was conflicted about her success. She knew that modern technology made the lives of rural families easier, especially women’s, but she deplored “the passing of beautiful customs which in spite of New Mexico’s isolation in the past, gave happiness and abundant living.”

Pozole de Nixtamal/Hominy Stew

2 c. hominy
6 c. water
1 lb. pork ribs or other pork cuts suitable for boiling
1/2 lb. pork rind
1 medium onion
4 dried red chile pods
2 t. salt
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 t. oregano
2 t. saffron


Cook hominy until corn kernels begin to burst; add meat, pork rind, onion, chile pods (seeds and stems removed). When meat is nearly done add seasonings. Cook until well done. If the pressure cooker is used, cook corn without pressure until kernels begin to burst: then add meat, pork rind and chile pods. Close cooker and cook for 30 minutes at 15 pounds pressure. Open, add seasonings and cook slowly for at least 15 minutes—From The Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Food, by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Despite passing time and changing customs, Cabeza de Baca’s description of Midnight Mass and posole evokes strong memories from my childhood Christmases. Posole, a stewed hominy, has long been a food staple in Mexico, and most likely came to the Southwest during the colonial period. Over the centuries each region developed its own unique preparation method. Cabeza de Baca’s character prepares hers with ingredients traditional to New Mexico: “There was so much to be done before Midnight Mass,” she writes. “The lime hominy had been cooking all day and it was all ready but the seasoning. Doña Paula who was a proud cook had to have everything well seasoned. From astring of chile in her store room she took three pods; she removed stems and seeds and washed the pods. She took the lid off the kettle, added the chile, orégano, salt, garlic and onion. Now she could get ready for Mass.”

The elderly character Doña Paula could be any of the diminutive, white-haired ladies who brought posole to Christmas-season potluck suppers I attended as a child. They’d arrive lugging immense Crock-Pots of posole, pre­pared just like Doña Paula’s, to be set among the dishes of pinto beans, tamales, empanaditas, biscochitos, and Jell-O salad on long, sturdy tables in the parish hall.

Hominy is made from dried corn kernels that have been soaked in a mineral bath, usually lime—a process called nixtamalization. Processing corn in an alkaline bath is a 3500-year-old Mesoamerican tradition that makes it pos­sible to make it into masa (the dough used in tortillas or tamales), and makes the niacin in corn available to the body. The women that Cabeza de Baca visited at their post-Depression-era farms processed their own hominy, but I don’t know anyone who does this at home nowadays. Other traditions in New Mexican cooking have likewise fallen out of use: the hype against saturated fats has compelled many cooks to replace lard with margarine in tortillas and bisco­chitos (my favorite Christmas cookie), despite recent evi­dence that lard has several health benefits and margarine none. The factory-raised, ungainly, and unnaturally broad-breasted white turkey has replaced the elegant, tastier Black Spanish heritage turkey as the centerpiece of a New Mexican Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.

Noting that the recipes she records “have been passed down in New Mexico households for generations, often adapted to conditions and to the availability of certain ingredients of the locale,” Cabeza de Baca reminds us that using traditional recipes and local ingredients deepens our understanding of what makes our region unique and what our local fields can sustainably produce for our table.

Cabeza de Baca balanced embracing the best of the new and holding on to the best of the old.

I came across another one of my Christmas favorites in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—in this case, a dish local to New England. On a cold winter’s evening, after anchoring at Nantucket, whaler Ishmael and his shipmate Queequeg go ashore for a hot meal: “Oh! sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage—and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition.”

Like his characters, Melville whaled and ate chowder during the mid-nineteenth century, the golden age of Yankee whaling, when marine life was plentiful. Ishmael describes the inn where he and Queequeg eat and sleep as the “fishiest of all fishy places,” and he cheers for the profusion of clam and cod chowder: “for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fishbones coming through your clothes.”

Today in Nantucket, clams and other mollusks do not pour forth from great cauldrons as they did for Queequeg and Ishmael. Chef Brian Williams of the aptly-named Nan­tucket bistro, Queequeg’s, is “concerned about the lack of local harvests,” and says he has to outsource clams for his chowder. He suspects global warming is to blame, and adds that the supply has grown so sparse that Nantucket fishermen simply cannot bring in enough local clams to supply his restaurant.

In the 200 years since the advent of the Industrial Revo­lution, human activity has released about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The world’s oceans have absorbed a good deal of that, becoming 30 percent more acidic. Ecologists, hatchery staff, and fishing com­munities all along the Northeast coast are concerned about ocean acidification, which kills mollusks by dissolving their shells.

I envy Ishmael and Queequeg as they steep themselves in chowder. My aunt Susan makes a creamy Christmas oyster chowder that I have loved since I was little. If I take Cabeza de Baca’s wisdom to heart and consider the “avail­ability of certain ingredients of the locale,” I have to accept that oyster chowder is a special treat, honor that mollusks are a strained resource, and for the rest of the year stick with my posole, which, for where I live and the time I live in, is more sustainable.

Why don’t we get excited about the miracle of citrus in our stockings or grapes on our holi­day table anymore?

The, Grocers’! Oh, the Grocers’!” beckons Dickens: “The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep though withered leaves; there were Norfolk Bif­fins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”

This is the passage I asked my husband to reread, that had both of us giggling at Dickens’ playful verbal romp; it made me realize that we lose this joy when our holi­day foods are shipped over oceans and across continents, with no distinguishable or relevant cultural starting place. In Dickens’ time a Christmas orange was a special treat. Grapes and lemons came from far afield to London grocers in the winter season. Why don’t we get excited about the miracle of citrus in our stockings or grapes on our holi­day table anymore? Can we find our way back to treasuring what comes from far away while reveling in local, abun­dant foods, whose proximity makes them affordable and sustainable?

My friend Janet has a rogue apple tree, of no distinguish­able ancestry. The apples are pithy, hard and small, unde­sirable as snack apples. Many of us would have considered them a nuisance, swept them up, and chucked them out with the trash. But, as Janet happily discovered, these tart little apples are perfect for pie.

We don’t always have to spend a lot to enjoy local abundance, we just need to look at what grows locally, is often free, and is wasted otherwise.

The Norfolk Biffin Dickens described is a localized endangered variety, now rarely seen in English orchards. Like Janet’s apples, it is wonderful for cooking, but less for snacking, which is all we expect of apples these days. Janet’s apples, the Norfolk Biffin, and all the other local varieties that spill uneaten fruit into our yards and roads need new fans. A little culinary creativity can transform a seemingly undesirable food into apple pie. We don’t always have to spend a lot to enjoy local abundance, we just need to look at what grows locally, is often free, and is wasted otherwise.

In her work in the field and in her writing, Cabeza de Baca balanced embracing the best of the new and holding on to the best of the old. Although she brought new methods to isolated villages, she was always appreciative of the local tra­ditions and the people who still understood them: “As you use the recipes I hope you will think of my people and the occasions in the lives of those people who added ‘un poquito de … y un poquito de …’ to produce savorous and nutritious New Mexico foods.” She speaks specifically of northern New Mexico but her words ring true for anybody’s people, home place, and traditional foods. As we tuck into our holiday ban­quet, let us consider Cabeza de Baca’s behest to remember the food history of our place, wherever we live, and, be it posole, Christmas chowder, or Nor­folk Biffin pie, to honor the sumptuous food on our doorstep.

Nina Bunker Ruiz wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Nina is a freelance writer native to New Mexico. She currently lives in Santa Fe with her husband and two daughters.

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Categories: News

Neighbors Helped This Immigrant-Owned Dry Cleaner in Boston Go Nontoxic—and Stay in Business

Chuck Collins is a co-founder of JPNET and Polly Hoppin leads the environmental health program at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.

Photo courtesy of the authors.

In 1996, Guatemalan immigrant Myra Vargas and her Venezuelan husband Ernesto bought J&P Cleaners, a neighborhood dry cleaner in Boston. But something always smelled funny.

“The chemicals we used—we knew they were not healthy,” Myra said. She stayed away from the shop when she was pregnant with her second child.

The evolving local economy doesn’t have to use materials that make everyone sick.

Like most conventional dry cleaners in the U.S., J&P used a chemical called perchloroethylene, known in the industry as “PERC.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified PERC as a “likely human carcinogen.” Because it can be absorbed through the lungs and skin, it is primarily a threat to employees of dry cleaning businesses, who are subjected to it throughout the workday. But customers are also exposed when the chemicals seep out of clothing into the air in their homes.

California is phasing out the use of PERC in dry cleaning, requiring all businesses to discontinue its use by 2023. But regulations in most states, including Massachusetts, focus on limiting air emissions and promoting safer ways to dispose of chemicals, while continuing to allow the chemical’s use.

Thriving local businesses can also be safe

In J&P’s Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, toxic chemicals are used by many local businesses. These include dry cleaners, beauty and nail salons, automotive repair facilities, and most restaurants and retail establishments, where industrial cleaning substances are used. Many are owned and operated by recent immigrants and people of color.

Meanwhile, Jamaica Plain has higher rates of certain types of cancer than Massachusetts as a whole. When the Massachusetts Department of Health crunched the numbers in 2011, they found that Jamaica Plain’s rate of brain cancer in men was more than 275 percent higher than the state’s; when the department averaged all forms of cancer together, the rate among males was 20 percent higher, while the rate for women was 18 percent higher.

Of course, the causes of cancer are multiple, and scientists debate the percentages of the cancer burden that are attributable to various causes. But even taking the low estimates of cancer caused directly by environmental exposure, pollutants are responsible for tens of thousands of cases of cancer in the United States each year. Particularly for certain kinds of cancers, it is clear that environmental pollutants play an important role—one that people can do something about.

Historically, most attempts to take action on this issue have focused on closing down offending businesses or cleaning up messes created in the past. But no neighborhood with high unemployment wants to push out jobs or raise costs on small, locally owned businesses. The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JPNET), a local community group, has approached the issue differently—in part because its members consider themselves part of the “new economy,” an effort to build a resilient economic system that supports local, independent business while promoting sustainability.

“We want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households.”

“We want to be proactive and help existing businesses adopt healthier and safer processes, attract more customers, and thrive financially,” said Carlos Espinoza-Toro, lead organizer of JPNET. “In a gentrifying urban neighborhood, we want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households.”

JPNET teamed up with researchers at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to create the Cancer-Free Economy Project, a neighborhood-based group designed to help local business avoid toxic substances. They mapped local cancer patterns, identified chemicals likely to be used in the neighborhood, and picked dry cleaners, beauty salons, and auto businesses as places where they could make the greatest difference.

JPNET organized a number of community forums to educate the public about local cancer rates, chemical exposures, and actions residents could take. One forum focused on helping local artists identify the “hidden hazards of the art studio,” and considered how artists could reduce their exposure to toxic substances.

“A lot of us have put on pink shirts and marched to raise money for cancer treatment,” said Mary Wallace, a local realtor and member of JPNET. “So it is refreshing to focus on some of the root causes of cancer, rather than treating an expensive epidemic.”

Can our local economy be free of carcinogens?

Groups that see themselves as part of a “new economy movement” often focus on building community resilience to face the economic and ecological shock waves of the future. At JPNET, this has meant strengthening the local food and energy systems; creating an “enterprise hub” to support businesses that share its worldview; building a time exchange network; cultivating emergency preparedness, and other projects.

After learning about cancer rates in Jamaica Plain, JPNET set out to explore how a transition to a “new economy” could also be cancer free—or at least involve significantly lower use of toxics.

“It is refreshing to focus on some of the root causes of cancer, rather than treating an expensive epidemic.”

That goes against the grain of the mainstream economy, where the chemical industry has seen rapid growth over the last 70 years. But this growth has increased everyone’s exposure to hazardous chemicals, whether through manufacturing, selling, or consuming mass goods, and it especially affects people of color, who often live in historically lower-income neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain.

“With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread,” the President’s Panel on Cancer reported in 2010.

The members of JPNET felt that reducing the number of toxic chemicals in their environment should be an important part of the transition to a new economy. The evolving local economy doesn’t have to use materials that make everyone sick.

One laundry goes green

Community organizer Espinoza-Toro approached all the existing dry cleaners about the possibility of converting away from PERC. Several of the owners were nearing retirement and uninterested in converting. Then he met Ernesto and Myra Vargas at a green cleaning demonstration at a suburban cleaner. The Vargas family owned a dry cleaner in the adjacent neighborhood of Roslindale and wanted to expand to Jamaica Plain.

JPNET worked with J&P Cleaners to explore what it would take to replace the hazardous solvent PERC with a green alternative to dry cleaning called “wet cleaning.” Professional wet cleaning uses water and nontoxic detergents in computer-controlled machines, and is a proven alternative to the dry cleaning process.

Some dry cleaners claim to be “green” because they have transitioned away from PERC, but most of these still use harmful chemicals. A comprehensive “alternatives assessment” by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute concluded that professional wet cleaning saves energy and water, and is the safest alternative for human health.

But the cost of conversion is about $80,000, mostly for new equipment purchases—a big expense for a small business. The Vargases also expressed concern about whether their customers even wanted a “green dry cleaner.”

JPNET worked to organize local government, customers, hospitals, and investors not only to help J&P make the conversion but also to become the first professional wet cleaner in Boston. The group secured a $15,000 grant from the state and organized a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $18,000 from neighborhood residents. This also got a lot of local publicity for J&P and attracted new customers.

On September 11, J&P Cleaners opened its new Jamaica Plain location, which uses the wet cleaning process. JPNET has subsequently reached out to a local hospital, a hotel, several nursing homes, and other businesses about steering their dry cleaning to J&P Cleaners.

Along with eight other professional wet cleaners in Massachusetts, J&P is demonstrating that shifting away from reliance on hazardous chemicals is good for customers, workers, and neighbors—and good for business too.

“I’m thrilled with our wet cleaning,” said Myra Vargas at their grand opening. “The whites are whiter. We use less energy and water. I don’t pay to have toxic chemicals hauled away. There is no chemical smell in the store. What is not to love?”

 

Chuck Collins and Polly Hoppin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national,  nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions is a senior scholar. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good and co-founder of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition.

 

Polly Hoppin co-leads the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production’s work to build a multi-organization national network to shift the U.S. economy away from reliance on chemicals that contribute to cancer.

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Categories: News

Newsletter – 2014 Year end

Beyond Money - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 09:49

In this edition:

  1. Upcoming interview—December 13, 11 AM Eastern time (8 AM Pacific time)
  2. My New Course Offering — Principles of Exchange Innovation
  3. Report on California Tour
  4. Major conference upcoming, June, 2015
  5. My next book?, + video projects

______________________________________________________

Upcoming Interview

I have accepted an invitation to be the featured guest on Bartertown Radio on Saturday, December 13.

Bartertown Radio, which describes itself as “your educational station for Trade,” is a Live Radio Talk Show every Saturday Morning at 11:00 EST ( check your local time please). My interview will be all about moneyless trading and exchange innovation, particularly as it applies to the commercial trade exchange business. To listen in and/or share your thoughts you can call 1-347-989-8557 for the show. Calls can be made using any phone or by using your Skype account which provides calls at very low cost especially for those living outside the U.S.

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My New Course Offering — Principles of Exchange Innovation

As the years pass I become ever more aware of time as a scarce commodity, and as the global mega-crisis intensifies, I feel a greater urgency about the need to transcend the global interest-based, debt-money system that is driving us to destruction. Thus I am eager to pass on to the next generations the important insights and discoveries I have made over the past 35 years. I am intent on doing this in ways that will have a greater impact than the presentations, workshops and writings I have been producing over the past many years.

While I relinquished my formal academic career decades ago in favor of independent inquiry, scholarship, writing, and consulting, I remain a teacher a heart and am making it my highest priority to offer a course in the Principles of Exchange Innovation. I am quite sure that there is no other course like this anywhere, and I am uniquely qualified to conduct it.

It is my intention to guide dedicated cadres of change agents through an intensive process of inquiry, discovery, and planning to bring to market revolutionary structures and processes for value exchange that promote a sustainable economy and have the potential to usher in a new equitable and peaceful economic paradigm.

I am willing to go wherever suitable venues might be found. I’ve considered offering this as an online course, and that can be one component of it, but I believe that the impetus toward timely and effective action requires the continuity and intensity that comes from the regular face-to-face interaction and ongoing collaboration in a classroom setting.

You can find the detailed course description and syllabus here: https://beyondmoney.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/principles-of-exchange-innovation-course-syllabus.pdf.

Prospective course participants and host institutions are invited to fill out the short form at http://wp.me/P43RA-Ea. If you know of other institutions, departments, or individuals that might be interested in participating, please pass this along to them.

______________________________________________________

California Tour-October/November

My two week trip to California in October could not have been better. It started with the Living the New Economy Convergence that was held in Oakland, October 23-24, and ended with a delightful visit with my dear friends, the Lub family, in Napa and Martinez. In between, I gave another presentation at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, attended an open house at the new Oakland offices of Berrett-Kohler Publishers, and conferred with several long-time friends and colleagues.

Living the New Economy Convergence

The convergence was the best conference I’ve attended in many years—well organized, with excellent presenters, and participants that were enthusiastic, well-informed, and intelligent.

A few of the presentations, including one of my own, were recorded by Bitcoin magazine. My presentation during the panel on The Future of Value Exchange can be found in my blog post here. Links to the others can be found here, and a few photos that I took at the Convergence can be viewed on my Picasa Web gallery. If you would like to see a more detailed report on this event, check out this one on the Shareable website.

The convergence was followed by a two day “hackathon” that gave participants an opportunity to brainstorm together and propose ideas, collaborations, and business projects. Sergio Lub’s pictures from that part of the event (October 25) are on his Flickr site.

IONS

The event at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) on the evening of October 30, was very gratifying, drawing about a dozen participants, many of whom I’ve known and worked with over the past several years. My presentation titled, The Evolution of Money and its Potential to Improve Humanity, was followed by a lively discussion that went on for more than 2 hours. The entire proceedings were video recorded by Sergio Lub and can be seen via my blog post at BeyondMoney.net.

Sonoma GoLocal

The day before I left to return to Arizona, Sergio and I visited our friends who run the Sonoma GoLocal project. This is an exciting project that goes well beyond the conventional “buy local” agenda.

A few years ago, Sonoma GoLocal initiated a merchant rebate program, which is gradually becoming more popular. According to Terry Garrett, about 17,000 swipe cards have been issued to consumers and there are now 53 merchants offering “Reward Points,” with each merchant choosing their own percentage rate of rebate that varies from 2% to 10%, with the median rate being 5%.

Over the past year they have experienced a growth rate of about 20% in both the number of participating merchants and the number of cardholders. Between January1 and September 30, 2014, the amount of transactions involving either issuance or redemption of Reward Points was about $3.8 million with that number expected to reach $5.5 million by year’s end. Sonoma GoLocal has been publishing both a printed pocket guide and a free bi-monthly magazine that help to make the project financially viable. You can see some photos from our meeting, including cover photos of the publications here.

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Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization

I would like to make everyone aware of a major conference that is upcoming next June 4-7. This conference, to be held on the campus of Pomona College, located in Claremont, CA, is the result of several events held in conjunction (10th International Whitehead Conference, 9th International Forum on Ecological Civilization, Inaugural Pando Populus Conference, Pilgrim Place Centennial Celebration, and Process & Faith Summer Institute) and will consist of 12 Sections divided into approximately 78 Tracks. Each Track will have 8 sessions, which will be 90 minutes each.

After my meeting with renowned philosopher and theologian, John Cobb, a couple years ago, he invited me to participate in this conference which he was then helping to plan. I will be presenting in Section I, The Threatening Catastrophe: Responding Now, Track 6, Political Collapse: The Alternative. You can get all the details, and register at http://www.ctr4process.org/whitehead2015/.

______________________________________________________

My next book?, + video projects

I’m aware that in today’s information-rich environment people tend to be overloaded and getting their attention is becoming ever more difficult. Short videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or other video showcases are probably the best bet for getting a message across. I’m hoping to find someone with the requisite editing skills to help me parse some of my recorded presentations into short topical lessons. That, combined with a new book aimed at the mass market, might attract the kind of attention, and provide the essential information needed to dispel false beliefs that prevail in the minds of the general public and stimulate the kinds of fundamental structural changes that are becoming ever more urgent. I’m inclined to give this new book a provocative title, like Everything You Know About Money (And Banking) Is Wrong! It would follow a question and answer format that presents first a fundamental question, then the orthodox answer and prevalent belief, then the truth of the matter as I have come to see it.

This project is of course a major undertaking, and if it is to achieve the kinds of results hoped for, calls for some skills and resources that exceed my own. Collaborators and suggestions are invited.

______________________________________________________

Finally, on a personal note, after spending the summer in Bisbee, I’ve reestablished myself in Tucson, sharing a house on the far east side, close to the Rincon Mountains and Saguaro National Park. Though a bit distant from downtown, it is in a lovely, peaceful setting—rather ideal for creative work.

My accustomed robust health has been disturbed in recent months by some digestive difficulties. A course of medication and a combination of dietary changes and natural supplements seem to be resolving the worst of it and I’m hopeful that I’ll soon be back to normal.

Best wishes to all for a Happy Holiday Season, and may the coming year bring a great leap forward in creating a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

Thomas


Categories: News

The New Economy Comes of Age: 7 Steps Toward Shared Prosperity

Photo by Shutterstock.

In June, I attended an event in Boston that signaled to me that the concept of the New Economy—and the grassroots movement behind it—had come of age.

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The event was the conference of the New Economy Coalition. The halls were full of students, cooperative leaders from the deep south, climate justice activists from Native reservations, labor leaders, and others identifying with the New Economy.

Folks who had been at conferences such as this for years were also there—farmers, Main Street business owners, sustainability entrepreneurs, and big thinkers. But suddenly the movement felt bigger. A diverse set of communities is coming together in a shared recognition that our economic structures are the root cause of many different crises.

The New Economy Working Group, based at the Institute for Policy Studies, formed just six years ago. The group was one of the first to adopt the term “New Economy” to describe an economy that supports ecological balance, shared prosperity, and deep democracy. Now, many individuals and organizations are using that term.

I have been struck that even as the New Economy movement diversifies, its advocates are converging regarding the actions to take, including:

  • Place ownership in the hands of real people, not globalized corporations;
  • Localize control of food, energy, land, housing, retail;
  • Advance cooperative enterprises where workers share in profits and decision-making;
  • Shift from fossil fuels to renewables and from destructive to regenerative agriculture;
  • Expand credit unions, community banks, and public banks so that finance benefits communities rather than Wall Street;
  • Reform trade rules to reduce the power of global corporations and enable local economies to flourish;
  • Adopt a worldview that we humans are part of the ecosystem and our economy must work with nature rather than against it.

The ideas are not new. Some are ancient. Many have been advocated for years in places deeply affected by poverty, pollution, and racism. What's changed is that so many communities are coming together under a common umbrella, forming new alliances and lifting up new messengers.

The ideas are not new. Some are ancient.

For example, at a recent Praxis Peace Institute conference Michael Peck, who advocates union-cooperative alliances, told of a group of East African taxi drivers in Denver. The Communications Workers of America helped them form a taxi cooperative so they didn't have to work for an out-of-state company. The result? They increased their incomes, benefits, and well-being.

Many leaders are pointing out ways the New Economy movement can collaborate with the racial-justice movement, as Anand Jahi did in “My Cousin Was Shot Dead by a Police Officer: Here’s What it Means for the New Economy.”

As those identifying with the New Economy expand, the movement gains power. And a wider embrace brings the danger of cooptation. Corporations will be happy to put on a New Economy gloss. One already doing so is HBSC, which tags itself “The World’s Local Bank.”

To continue to grow its power and avoid cooptation, the New Economy movement must keep broadening its communities while maintaining its principles. Of special importance will be the principle that ownership of enterprises must be in the hands of real people who directly bear the consequences of their decisions, not in distant computerized markets. If the movement holds fast to its key ideas, its growing embrace can create what is truly a New Economy.

Fran Korten wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.

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Categories: News

Graphic: Convince Your Relatives to Ditch Amazon and Go Local This Holiday Season

Every Christmas, my grandmother, a retired journalist and voracious reader of murder-mystery novels, used to send my parents money to buy each of my eight siblings and me a gift. The stipulation was: It had to be a book.

It’s worth the extra time and effort to shop at local and independent stores.

Our “grandma book” gift tradition continues and, now, includes my three in-laws, and five nieces and nephews. The task of fulfilling seventeen book requests often falls to my dad.

Normally the great, Grinch-y grumbler this time of year, he brags that, thanks to Amazon, this is one Christmas to-do he can complete without having to leave house.

Well, this year, I’m asking my dad to do things differently, and shop locally. And luckily, the Institute for Local Self Reliance published the handy infographic below to help me explain why it’s worth the extra time and effort to shop at local and independent stores this holiday season.

Infographic by Advocates for Independent Business. Published courtesy of the Institute for Self-Reliance.


Mary Hansen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Mary has a hard time staying in one place, but is known to write, edit, and be a die-hard Steelers fan. She is an online reporting intern for YES!

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Categories: News

The Battle in Seattle, 15 Years On: How an Unsung Hero Kept the Movements United

Tyree Scott stands on a picket line. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the “Battle in Seattle,” the historic protest against the World Trade Organization in 1999. The author, a labor and community organizer for 31 years, was at the time director of Seattle Union Now, a joint project of the King County Labor Council and the National AFL-CIO.

“There can be no separate peace.”

If you spent any time with Tyree Scott, you probably heard him say that. It was a lesson seared into his experience through years of struggle—first, in militant closures of Seattle construction sites intended to pry open the building trades to black workers, and then, in uniting construction workers with progressive Filipino cannery workers and farmworkers.

When it came to the World Trade Organization—the international group that sets the rules of trade between nations—Tyree insisted that no single justice struggle could be resolved apart from others; we had to stand together. A union electrician by trade, Tyree played a low-key but pivotal role in the 1999 protests against the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle.

At the big march downtown on Nov. 30, the two camps looked united—as long as you didn’t look too closely.

Now 15 years down the road and facing today’s tremendous challenges, contemporary workers and their allies would do well to heed Tyree’s call for unity.

This month in 1999, behind the street drama of tens of thousands of people battling police and world trade leaders, a raw, visible friction was growing within the broad movement. Would this diverse collection of protesters—aging French farmers and young anarchists, truck drivers and tree planters, radical students and cautious labor leaders—hold together, or would divisions implode the anti-WTO forces?

Intuitively, most of us involved in organizing the protests recognized that to make an impact we needed to stay united. Throughout the week, that unity was sharply tested. At times, it nearly shattered. And at a key moment, when the violent police reaction threatened to drive a wedge into the movement, Tyree intervened decisively to preserve a commitment that we would stand together, and not abide a separate peace.

You’re unlikely to read about that in any mainstream account. Tyree didn’t give dramatic speeches to thousands of people, pen famous editorials, or seek out interviews. He never pursued a position of status or broader recognition. But over his lifetime he combined a sharp internationalist working-class perspective with smart, militant action. By the time I met Tyree in the early 1990s, his organization, the prosaically named Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, was connecting rank-and-file workers from a dozen countries in substantive discussions about how to build a worldwide workers’ movement.

Tyree had the gift of being able to pluck clarity out of complexity. Often, in the years leading up to the WTO, when I was working as a union and community organizer, I’d go visit him when I was wrestling with a vexing problem. Stocky, with graying dreadlocks and round glasses on a round face, he would sweep aside my mental gymnastics about personalities, egos, and institutional concerns, and return the issue squarely to unity and class interests. His method was always direct but empathic. I would leave these meetings slightly humbled to not have seen through the fog as deftly as he did.

For Tyree, “no separate peace” was not some gauzy paean to unity, but a battle call for rank-and-file workers to take on a fight for their class interests—against corporations, and if need be, against their putative leaders in unions. Years of struggle against black workers’ exclusion from the building trades taught him that the problem was not just employers, but also shortsighted union leaders intent on preserving narrow institutional interests.

There was nothing to be gained—and now a lot to lose—by mixing with those battling the police on the streets

He was withering in his condemnation of labor leaders who sold the working class short; for Tyree “no separate peace” was a challenge to all workers to think big and speak for themselves: “The low wages and exploitation of one will pull down the wages and conditions of the other,” he said. “Any advancement of one is tied to the advancement of the other. It is in this context that makes foreign policy, trade, and immigration central issues to the labor movement,” he said, defining the labor movement as all workers, not just those who paid dues to unions.

Going into the week of protest against the WTO meeting in Seattle, the tension within the movement was palpable. There were two main camps. The more radical was the loosely formed Direct Action Network, which included a wide array of environmental and human rights activists, many of whom were steeped in the confrontational strategies of civil disobedience. The Direct Action Network rejected the legitimacy of the WTO and was committed to blockading the ministerial meeting. Unions, led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, didn’t want to destroy the WTO, but rather to persuade the Clinton administration to give labor a seat at the negotiating table. Sweeney had affection for the younger protesters, but he was a conciliator, not a rabble-rouser. And since union leaders are more accustomed to bargaining than barricades, the question for the national AFL-CIO was, “What can we get from Clinton out of Seattle?”

And yet, at the big union-led march downtown on Nov. 30, 1999, the two camps looked united—as long as you didn’t look too closely. Colorful banners, enormous puppets, marching brass bands, and festooned delegations from around the world swarmed through the streets. Workers and environmentalists marched side by side, declaring “Teamsters and turtles, united at last.” More than 50,000 of us, from around the world and from every imaginable struggle for social or economic justice, marched united against unfettered world trade.

Union leaders were jubilant. But as the daylight faded and most of the protesters filtered out of downtown, it began to feel like we had birthed two separate movements: one that made its point and departed, and another that remained to confront the WTO and its police protectors.

I joined a group of labor leaders and organizers in a celebratory dinner Tuesday night at Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union.

“We’re done,” one leader declared. We’d made a powerful statement; union demands were now going to be taken seriously by President Clinton. There was nothing to be gained—and now a lot to lose—by mixing with those battling the police on the streets. We raised our glasses in a toast.

Our pagers and cell phones beeped throughout the meal, informing us of tear gas on Capitol Hill and rubber bullets and arrests downtown. Done? Especially for those of us who called Seattle home, it didn’t quite feel like that.

The following morning, Dec. 1, we joined the steelworkers’ rally on the waterfront—a city-sanctioned event outside Mayor Paul Schell’s newly declared “no-protest” zone downtown. After the last speaker had decried unfair trade, Teamsters union leader Bob Hasegawa grabbed the mic and challenged the crowd to stand up against the imposition of “martial law.”

“Brothers and sisters!” he cried. “They’re tear-gassing students downtown. Let’s-”

Someone shut the mic off on Bob.

We went anyway, probably 200 of us, and met up with a huge crowd of students at Second and Pike. Riot police in armored vehicles promptly ambushed us. Volleys of tear gas and concussive grenades sent us scattering in every direction. Police herded a group of protesters north, surrounded them just beyond the Labor Temple, and then cuffed them and bussed them off to Sandpoint Naval Yard. Union members spilled out of the Labor Temple and were appalled at the scene.

The police were angry, too; they didn’t want spectators, and they had the weapons to back up their wishes. They shoved us with nightsticks. One cop clubbed King County Labor Council leader Ron Judd. There’s nothing more radicalizing than a truncheon smack on the back of your neck. Judd returned to his office and started speed-dialing allies.

Who were we, he asked, if we didn’t resist the ban on protests?

But the following day, Thursday, the movement was divided about how to respond. With Judd’s declaration that unions would fight back, movement leaders and activists had called for a mass rally at the Labor Temple for the next day—Friday at high noon. But what would we do? Enter the “no-protest” zone and risk mass arrests? Avoid provocation by marching outside the “no-protest” zone?

And what about the more than 630 people in jail, mostly young community activists and students? The debate was still unsettled Thursday night when 40 organizational leaders and activists met at the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office for a final planning session. It was a diverse lot—Direct Action Network activists, trade policy experts, radical students, Lawyers Guild representatives, union organizers, and Sierra Club staff, among others.

Some groups wanted a demonstration of unity but not anything that would provoke the police. The Direct Action Network organizers called for a march through the “no-protest” zone to the jail, to support a ‘round-the-clock vigil already underway demanding the release of the arrestees. There were many questions. How would we deal with hooligans who might try to hijack the protest with property destruction, as they had on Tuesday? Someone suggested we just do a big press conference. And what was the purpose of our action—should our focus be the WTO? Or the suspension of our right to free speech? Or the jailing of our colleagues? What are we demanding, and of whom?

For the first hour, speakers laid out their ideas, pressing their organizational positions passionately, gingerly avoiding incendiary provocations. Everyone sensed our unity was delicate. But the clock was ticking; tomorrow was coming fast.

At one point, a speaker suggested we needed to risk mass arrests. Teamster leader Steve Williamson spoke up. “Labor,” he said, “is not going to do it.”

The meeting exploded with overlapping shouting matches. Recriminations flew across the room. Suddenly, the battle lines that had simmered just below the surface all week emerged in stark relief.

“Who are you to come in here and say that?” Tyree said. “You don’t speak for labor.” Tyree had zero patience for union leaders who purported to speak for the broader working class.

In fairness to Williamson, he was as unfamiliar with the audience as they were with him. A longtime union organizer, he had absorbed more than his share of tear gas the previous night in a courageous stand with young protesters on Capitol Hill. But his words were poorly chosen, it was getting late, everyone was beyond exhaustion, and he didn’t know the group. I did, but I had my own distraction: urgent phone calls from top national AFL-CIO leaders, directing me to stop all organizing for Friday’s march. I had to step out of the meeting at a critical juncture to explain to my boss why I had no intention of cooperating with her order. This was my community; of course I would march.

Back in the room, Steve apologized. The tension lifted slightly. Perhaps the outbreak had released some of the pressure. Tyree spoke up again, more quietly. Who were we, he asked, if we didn’t resist the ban on protests, an attack on everyone’s rights? We had to march. And who was in jail? “These are workers too,” he reminded us. There could be no separate peace.

We marched straight through the heart of the mayor’s “no-protest” zone.

With Tyree’s words fresh in our minds, we agreed to march downtown and then back to the Labor Temple. And, although our march would not lead to the jail as some had wanted, we agreed that anyone who wished to could go to the jail solidarity action after the march. With these plans we would be risking arrest, but if there were enough of us, and if we were disciplined, we might just succeed.

With that fragile agreement in place, we adjourned the meeting.

The next day, with jitters still reverberating in the coalition—a few unions boycotted the march, and a last-minute pullout by the Sierra Club was averted only by Judd’s emergency mediation—we marched straight through the heart of the mayor’s “no-protest” zone. On just a few hours’ notice, more than 5,000 people—teamsters, steelworkers, human rights advocates, grocery clerks, janitors, students, construction workers, faith leaders, domestic workers, office workers, retirees, health care workers, musicians, and university workers—came out to reclaim our downtown.

Chanting “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” we celebrated every delightful forbidden step down Second Avenue, left up University Street, and into the heart of downtown. We screamed as loudly and joyfully as our worn-out lungs permitted, our voices echoing through the canyons between the office buildings. Indeed, this was what democracy looked like. The police stood back. When we returned to the Labor Temple, a dance party erupted in the street.

Then we went to the jail. Hundreds of us trekked a second time across downtown, in small marches, knots of activists, or as lone pedestrians. The police dared not disturb us; we had wrecked the mayor’s ban.

We joined the hundreds of young activists already occupying the square outside the jail, giving courage to the detainees who waved their arms from behind the narrow windows and sending a message to city leaders that we wouldn’t go away until everyone was released.

Throughout the weekend, teamsters, longshore workers, construction workers, and others brought food, blankets, and tarps to the protest outside the jail. Religious leaders led an interfaith prayer service. And Judd pressed prosecutors to release the arrestees. He was a savvy negotiator, bolstered in this instance with a bit of leverage: The longshore union was threatening to shut down West Coast ports unless the jail doors were opened.

By the end of the weekend, the WTO ministerial meeting had collapsed in disarray, and our people were out of jail.

It’s easy in retrospect to trace an uncomplicated, made-for-TV narrative arc of WTO week, from the unity at the start, to the testing of our movement, to the restoration of solidarity leading to victory. But in the fog of tear gas, the cacophony of struggle, amid the raw emotions of trust and doubt, courage and fear, exuberance and exhaustion, deep compassion and blind rage, the right choices aren’t always self-evident and the path forward isn’t linear.

By the end of the weekend, the WTO meeting had collapsed and our people were out of jail.

Life gets quite messy at street level. We make mistakes or allow creeping doubts to paralyze us. In a crisis, people often seek out commanding leadership to point the way; a Moses to provide clear answers, part the waters and lead us through. I’m grateful that we didn’t take that path, but rather trusted our instincts, struggled with one another, took risks, and heeded the words of a visionary worker who held no high office and sought no fame, but saw through the fog of battle and tenaciously pressed his conviction that there could be no separate peace on the streets of Seattle—or anywhere, for that matter.

Cancer stole Tyree from us in 2003, but his insistence on no separate peace provided an important lesson for our movement—one that we would do well to abide by more often today.

For five days in Seattle 15 years ago, the world watched as a popular uprising shocked world powers, teetered precariously, and—just in the nick of time—found its footing by remembering that we are all workers, and we had better stand together.

Jonathan Rosenblum wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jonathan is a longtime labor and community organizer.

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Bank of Japan announces plan for massive inflation of the Yen, as US Fed curtails dollar monetization (QE). What does it mean for you?

Beyond Money - Mon, 12/01/2014 - 16:52

A recent article in the Guardian (UK) reports that the Japanese central bank has announced plans to “inject ¥80tn (£447bn) a year into the financial system, mainly through the purchase of government bonds, in a bid to ward off the threat of deflation.”

Thus, Japan takes over much of the burden of keeping a flawed global money system alive, as the US central bank (the Federal Reserve) ends its own program of dollar inflation.

Bloomberg provides a “quick take” on the FED policy saying, “It was the biggest emergency economic stimulus in history and now it’s over. The U.S. Federal Reserve’s once-in-a-lifetime program to buy immense piles of bonds, month after month, in an extraordinary effort to restart a recession-deadened economy came to an end in October after adding more than $3.5 trillion to the Fed’s balance sheet – an amount roughly equal to the size of the German economy. The bond-buying program, called quantitative easing or QE, had been controversial since its start in 2009, as had the Fed’s decision in 2013 to gradually reduce the monthly economic boost, a plan that became known as the taper. Whether the Fed tapered too soon, given global economic weakness, or too late, given signs of bubbles in some markets, was hotly debated. But even after the taper’s end the Fed continued to pump support into the economy the old-fashioned way, by holding its interest rates near zero.”

As I’ve pointed out before, “Quantitative easing” is simply a euphemism for inflation of the currency (mainly by central banks buying government bonds and other uncollectable debt). Other things being equal, currency inflation eventually leads to price inflation. But other things are not equal. The US has indeed seen significant inflation of prices in some sectors, especially food, but other prices are being kept down, primarily because of layoffs and underemployment, leaving consumers with lower incomes and reduced purchasing power. If income from wages and interest on savings are held down, people must either do without or borrow more money to maintain their levels of spending. The following table from the Federal Reserve shows the growth in consumer credit over the past few years.

Consumer Credit Outstanding ($ Billions) 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
As of 8/31 2,552.8 2,647.4 2,755.9 2,923.6 3,097.9 3,225.3

These figures cover most short- and intermediate-term credit extended to individuals, excluding loans secured by real estate.

Those figures show a more than a 26% increase in consumer credit just over the past four and one half years, much of it high-interest credit card debt. Although credit card debt has declined somewhat from its 2009 peak, according to nerdwallet.com, falling indebtedness is largely due to defaults rather than repayment.

The same site reports that, in total, American consumers owe:

  • $11.63 trillion in debt, an increase of 3.8% from last year
  • $880.5 billion in credit card debt
  • $8.07 trillion in mortgages
  • $1,120.3 billion in student loans, an increase of 11.5% from last year

Central banks find currency inflation necessary in order to offset the reductions in the money supply caused by charging interest on money that banks create when they make “loans.” There is never enough money in circulation to enable repayment of the aggregate of principal plus accrued interest of money created as bank “loans.” Thus the “natural” tendency of the usury-based debt-money system is toward deflation. Central governments then must become the borrowers of last resort and central banks become the lenders of last resort as bankers and politicians continue their absurd dance that is a death spiral of recurrent and ever more extreme financial crises.

The real solution to our monetary, financial, and economic problems is to end the usury-based debt-money system. But the bankers, the rulers of the world, will not stand for that. By control of the money creation process, they have extended their power to tightly control the political process, as well. Thus, the wealth and purchasing power of the vast majority of people will continue to decline as the system continues to pump up the wealth and power of the few who control the money system, and their minions.

According to the Fed, between 2010 and 2013, “mean (overall average) family income rose 4 percent in real terms, but median income fell 5 percent, consistent with increasing income concentration during this period.” And “Families at the bottom of the income distribution saw continued substantial declines in average real incomes between 2010 and 2013, continuing the trend observed between the 2007 and 2010 surveys.”

So, what can people and communities do to counter these trends and regain control of their economic fortunes and enhance their political power?

Considering the dynamics of power that prevail in the so-called democratic countries today, reliance on the political process to effect systemic reforms seems futile. So, while it is necessary to continue to protest the status quo and reframe the political dialog, it is even more important to take action to rebuild society from the bottom upward. We must reduce our dependence upon the very systems that are being used to disempower us, of which the political money system is foremost.

That is not so daunting as it might first appear, and conceptually it is not very complicated. It is what my work of the past quarter century as been all about. The biggest difficulties have had to do with dispelling erroneous myths about money and banking and helping people to see beyond the orthodox. This, and the lack of adequate tools have retarded the process of taking promising alternatives to scale, but that is quickly changing as new technologies that enable moneyless trading become available.

But don’t sit idly by waiting for things to happen “out there.” Start with your own personal development and empowerment, while working to strengthen your various communities and networks, your city, state, and region. Some tips to get you started can be found here. –t.h.g.

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Categories: News

New Film Shows How Florida Farmworkers Won Fairer Pay From America's Biggest Food Companies

Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Photo by Jeffery Salter.

The small city of Immokalee, Florida, provides produce to millions of people. It’s one of the country’s agricultural hubs, but with an average per capita income of $9,518, the majority of residents—many of whom are farmworkers—live well below the national poverty level.

“The wealth doesn’t stay here with us.”

That’s Lucas Benitez, founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and a former farmworker, in the new film Food Chains.  The documentary, by director Sanjay Rawal and executive producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser, follows the Coalition’s fight for human rights and fair wages for tomato pickers. “There is more interest in food these days than ever,” the filmmakers write on the film’s website. “Yet there is very little interest in the hands that pick it.”

Rawal, who spent 15 years working in the nonprofit industry and several years abroad, was aware of the routine human rights abuses against agricultural workers overseas. “I had no idea that these same abuses could be happening here,” he told me. “I knew I couldn’t just focus on the problem, I had to focus on the solution.”

For Rawal, the most promising path out of this kind of exploitation comes from the Coalition’s strategy of organizing workers at the bottom to revolutionize entire supply chains.

In the 1990s, Benitez and a small group of other tomato pickers founded the Coalition to create a safer working environment in Florida’s fields and raise farmworkers' pay. In addition to winning wage increases, the group has been instrumental in fighting sexual exploitation, violence, human trafficking, and debt bondage on farms.

Many tomato pickers live in trailers with up to 16 other people during the growing season, since rent is otherwise unaffordable. Until recently, when Coalition organizers succeeded in increasing their pay, workers received 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they picked—a pay-per-piece practice that’s a holdover from slavery, according to the film. Pickers’ wages usually amount to less than $50 a day, and they work long hours under the constant threat of sexual assault and abuse. Because many are undocumented, crimes against them often go unreported.

In 2011, the Coalition launched the Fair Food Program, an project aimed at getting corporations to pay farmers an additional cent for every pound of tomatoes purchased. The program also demands that allegations of abuse and sexual assault on the farms are taken seriously.

Many large companies have already signed on—some of them after tenacious, drawn-out campaigning by Coalition members. Whole Foods, Subway, Walmart, and Chipotle are among several corporations that now comply with Fair Food Program standards.

Now, upwards of 80,000 Florida farmworkers—about 90 percent of the state’s total—are receiving the benefits of these protections. But Food Chains largely focuses on Publix, a major regional grocery chain in Florida, which has refused to meet with Coalition members or join the Fair Food Program, despite public pressure.

Part of what makes the Fair Food Program so successful is that the additional cost for tomatoes is offset to consumers: Since it’s distributed among millions of buyers, each family pays just pennies more per year. Plus, the program holds producers accountable: If they’re found guilty of inappropriately handling a case of sexual assault or abuse, for example, partner companies can’t buy their produce. In other words, if workers report an issue and a supplier in Florida doesn’t address it, that supplier won’t be able to sell to Subway or Whole Foods. Janice R. Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers, called it “the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the U.S.” earlier this year in The New York Times.

Julia de la Cruz, a Coalition member, says farmers are already seeing the benefits of the program. Workers now have a right to take breaks, to leave the farm when they feel threatened, and to report cases of sexual assault or abuse without fear of retaliation.

According to de la Cruz, farms are enforcing a zero tolerance policy against sexual assault. There have been cases where women have reported abuse, and those supervisors were investigated and fired. And that additional penny per pound of tomatoes? It’s a “significant economic relief for our workers, and our community,” she told me.

Rawal sees this fight in the American tomato industry as part of a bigger global issue. “More than 95 percent of the products that we purchase come through a supply chain system,” he said. And other, non-agricultural workers who produce for major retailers—like the Gap and Walmart—face very similar issues at the bottom of their respective supply chains.

Rawal and and his colleagues believe the Coalition’s model of grassroots organizing can be a solution for workers all over the world.

“This is not a film about oppression,” executive producer Eva Longoria told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes this week. “It’s actually about transformation.”

Watch the interview below. Food Chains opens on November 21. Click here to find out about screenings near you.

Nur Lalji wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Nur is a contributor to YES! based in the Seattle area. Follow her on Twitter at @nuralizal.

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Thomas Greco’s presentation at the Living the New Economy convergence, Oakland, CA, October 23, 2014

Beyond Money - Thu, 11/13/2014 - 13:16

At the recent Living the New Economy convergence in Oakland, I was the first speaker on a panel that addressed the question of the Future of Value Exchange. Here it is below:

If you would like to download the slide deck of that presentation, you can get it here. I had only enough time to show the first 15 slides; the other were included for possible discussion.

You can also find some of my other presentations and interviews on my YouTube playlist.

You can find video recordings of several other sessions from Living the New Economy convergence here.


Categories: News