Workers in Maine Buy Out Their Jobs, Set an Example for the Nation

This article originally appeared at Truthout.

The Board of Island Employee Cooperative. Photo by Island Employee Cooperative / Facebook.

On remote Deer Isle, Maine, the movement for a more just and democratic economy won a major victory this summer. More than 60 employees of three retail businesses­—Burnt Cove Market, V&S Variety and Pharmacy, and The Galley—banded together to buy the stores and create the largest worker cooperative in Maine and the second largest in New England.

[The] jobs are democratically owned by the people who work and live there.

Now the workers own and run the businesses together under one banner, known as the Island Employee Cooperative(IEC). This is the first time that multiple businesses of this size and scope have been merged and converted into one worker cooperative—making this a particularly groundbreaking achievement in advancing economic democracy.

When the local couple that had owned the three businesses for 43 years began to think about selling their stores and retiring, the workers became concerned. The stores were one of the island's biggest employers and a potential buyer probably would not have come from within the community or maintained the same level of jobs and services. Only a worker buy-out could achieve stability.

Because these workers were trying to accomplish something historic, it took more than a year—and it wasn't always an easy road. But the workers' strength lay in their own determination, and in the ability to rely on a group of allies dedicated to growing the cooperative movement. The Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative (IRSSC) and the Cooperative Development Institute helped them develop their management, governance, legal, and financial structures. They were also able to secure financing from Maine-basedCoastal Enterprises and the Cooperative Fund of New England, both Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs). Without that dedicated technical assistance and available capital, it is doubtful the IEC would be here today.

While the creation of the IEC maintained dozens of decent paying jobs and a remote community's only nearby access to essentials such as groceries and prescription medications, it also points to a successful model that could be used across the country to expand ownership and wealth to regular working people. This experience shows that if only we had more resources to experiment with grounded, practical economic policies, we could create many more of the living-wage jobs and community-sustaining businesses we desperately need.

Worker cooperatives hold the promise of fundamentally addressing our longstanding economic woes.

The Great Recession has led many to consider better ways to organize our economy, as always happens during economic downturns. But the reality is that our economy, even during the "good times," has always been failing working people. So we need to think long term and change our strategies in order to build a durable, democratic, equitable and just economy.

The Great Recession in Maine

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, Maine has won back less than half of the jobs we lost (ranking us 46th among the states): We are second from the bottom for total job growth, and we have one of the highest numbers of part-time workers who want more employment but can't find it. Nearly one-third of unemployed Mainers have been looking for work for more than six months, which is more than twice the national average. And what little growth there has been has occurred almost exclusively in the Portland metro region, in far southern Maine.

But it's not as if our workers were prospering before the Great Recession.

Over the last 30 years, the incomes of the poorest Maine workers grew by only 27 percent, while incomes for the wealthiest Mainers jumped by 67 percent. Starting in the late '90s, Maine lost more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other state. Maine workers also have the lowest average incomes of all the New England states and, of Maine's 16 counties, 14 of them are among the poorest in the region. As a result, one in seven Mainers overall and more than one in five children live in poverty. Most shamefully, poverty characterizes more than one in four young children, and one in three in our poorest counties.

This is the first time that multiple businesses of this size and scope have been merged and converted into one worker cooperative.

In short, Maine's low wages, limited job prospects, deepening poverty and growing inequality are not just the result of the Great Recession; it is structural and long-standing. We've needed to change the way the economy works for quite a while. And that's exactly why strategies to create sustainable, democratic businesses like the Island Employee Cooperative are so critical.

A model for Maine and the nation

Worker cooperatives hold the promise of fundamentally addressing our longstanding economic woes. Because they give members an equal voice in the co-op's governance, a worker co-op will almost never pick up and leave its community. Those jobs are democratically owned by the people who work and live there.

In addition, in worker co-ops, employees have an incentive to work harder and smarter, because they benefit from an equitable share of the profits. And when a worker co-op is facing financial difficulty, the first response isn't to lay people off. That's because the worker-owners are sharing the risks and burdens of the business as well. Instead, members often come together to find democratic solutions to their problems, such as temporarily lowering wages or cutting hours for all workers, so that no one person has to lose their job. This is one of the major factors that also make worker co-ops more economically sustainable in low-income communities.

For the new worker-owners of the Island Employee Cooperative, the transformation into a co-op will, over time, create profound changes in their lives as they begin investing some of the business' profits into better wages and benefits—something that is extremely uncommon for those in the retail business. The co-op is also already collaborating with the Maine Community College System to deliver education programs on-site so that the workers can improve their knowledge and skills. While retail jobs are often depicted as low-wage and dead-end, these retail workers are now business owners who will learn to make many hard decisions together. And because IEC is one of the island's largest employers, the cooperative ownership model will make a tremendous impact on the community as many more families build wealth through democratic ownership.

That's a model we can and should scale up.

A new approach to economic development

Unfortunately, successful examples like the IEC are rare in the United States because worker cooperative development gets little to no support from city, state and federal governments. Instead, these institutions spend a fortune on economic development programs that create windfall profits for corporations, but very few sustainable, living-wage jobs.

We could create many more of the living-wage jobs and community-sustaining businesses we desperately need.

The way states have traditionally pursued economic development relies primarily on "chasing smokestacks" and dreaming up new tax giveaways for out-of-state corporations. That serves to benefit the 1% while leaving workers in the dust.

A less costly, more effective and more equitable strategy of focusing on worker co-op development would drive investments into grassroots initiatives for economic sustainability. Some support already exists: For example, New York City just passed its 2015 budget and is investing over $1 million in a comprehensive program to support the development of worker cooperatives , including directing existing business-development resources to be more supportive of worker co-ops. Ohio has provided small grants for feasibility studies and technical assistance to employees considering a cooperative buyout of their workplace, using federal funds that are available in every state (but utilized by only a half-dozen or so). Rural Cooperative Development Grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture support state and regional groups that provide cooperative development services in rural areas (though not just to worker co-ops).

There are more examples of supportive policies, but they all amount to a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what is spent on typical economic development approaches that do little for working people.

In order to begin scaling up worker co-op development, we need to provide technical assistance and small pre-development grants to people starting co-ops within their own communities, make available better education on how to operate a cooperative, provide loan guarantees for groups who would otherwise struggle to access credit, and offer targeted, accountable tax incentives.

Communities across the country would benefit from more initiatives that support development of new co-ops, as well as converting existing businesses into worker-owned ones like the Island Employee Cooperative.

This approach would allow many more communities to sustain themselves, cultivate jobs with dignity, improve wages and help more people build wealth through democratic ownership. And then we might see a transformation into an economy that truly and sustainably serves the needs of all.

Rob Brown, Noemi Giszpenc, and Brian Van Slyke wrote this article for Truthout, where it originally appeared. Rob is the director of the Cooperative Development Institute's Business Ownership Solutions program, which assists companies attempting to become worker-owned cooperatives. Noemi is executive director of the Cooperative Development Institute. Brian works at The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a worker cooperative that develops and distributes resources for social and economic change, such as Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives.

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Community currency thriving in Kenya’s slums

Beyond Money - Sun, 09/28/2014 - 13:03

In the slums of Kenya, money is especially scarce. Still, the residents are productive and have plenty of goods and services to offer one another. American social entrepreneur Will Ruddick, together with hundreds of local enterprisers, has found a way to create supplemental exchange media that enable them to trade with one another despite the lack of Kenyan shillings.

Here’s a new video about their Bangla-Pesa currency that they have created in Bangladesh, a slum area of Mombasa.

http://youtu.be/qNOjVyz7e_4?list=PLPUExzwZAUpZgrTqH55aAV2tjlohT_qlD

And, here’s a recent TV news report, which is described as follows:

Published on Apr 10, 2014. When news of the complementary currency branded Bangla-pesa first broke out, claims arose that it was linked to the proscribed Mombasa Republican Council, MRC, and its secessionist agenda, almost spelling doom for the project. A year later, we returned to Bangladesh slum in Mombasa county where the vouchers were first launched, and discovered that not only has the program grown in leaps and bounds, but plans were afoot to roll it out in different slum in the region.

http://youtu.be/CFlolsjwdWY?list=PLPUExzwZAUpZgrTqH55aAV2tjlohT_qlD


Categories: News

Nurses’ Unions Send Thousands to Climate March, Call Global Warming a “Health Care Emergency”

Photo by Yessenia Funes.

This story is part of the Climate in Our Hands collaboration between Truthout and YES! Magazine.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York’s Bellevue Hospital and cut off its power, Anne Boyé, a registered nurse and president of the union’s Health and Hospitals Corporation Executive Council, helped evacuate more than 740 patients.

Meanwhile, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez and her team of nurses were walking door to door through the floods with flashlights on their heads, determined to find and save victims of the storm.

Climate change is a public health care emergency.

“The heroism that I saw among average people was extraordinary,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses’ Association (NYSNA).

Some hurricane victims were left stranded in the city’s high-rise buildings because, as Sheridan-Gonzalez says, “No one’s going to get there.”

But her nurses did. They walked through dark hallways, knocking on doors without knowing who—or what—lurked behind them. Sheridan-Gonzalez could hear dogs barking in some apartments. At some residences, her team was threatened with guns.

“Some people were desperate,” she said.

While the connection between public health and climate change may seem abstract to some, Sheridan-Gonzalez sees it every day. Even when her city is not besieged by hurricanes, in the Bronx—where she works as an emergency room nurse at Montefiore Medical Center—pollution emitters like power plants, sludge processing facilities, and waste disposal industries contribute to the borough's consistently high asthma-related death rates.

These sites emit pollutants that not only hurt her patients’ health, but the planet’s health too. In fact, climate change is a public health care emergency, says Fernando Losada, director of environmental health and climate justice for National Nurses United (NNU).

That’s why Losada and other nurses’ union members showed up by the thousands at the People’s Climate March in New York City September 21. Of the roughly 400,000 marchers, 5,000 were from United Healthcare Workers East (1199SEIU). Another 100 nurses showed up, from all around the United States, to represent NNU, a national union with about 185,000 members.

Jean Ross, one of three NNU presidents, came from Minnesota.

“This is just the beginning,” she said. “This is going to be big, but it’s going to get bigger and bigger.” Organizers are looking for action from world leaders, not just talk, she told YES.

Photo by Yessenia Funes.

Nurses’ concerns about climate change are rooted both in their history of organizing and in the effects they experience every day. So this relationship is only natural, said Chelsea Lyn-Rudder, 1199SEIU’s press secretary.

Many union members are poor women of color who face environmental injustice in their daily lives. “We’re looking at it as a social justice issue,” Lyn-Rudder said.

The nurses provide a justice framework that enables other unions concerned about class issues to become involved, said Tammy Lewis, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who’s studied the history of “blue-green alliances”—or partnerships between labor and environmental groups.

Climate impacts on human health

The alliance between labor unions and environmental advocacy is nearly as old as labor unions themselves. It began in the two decades following World War II. Until that time, unions had primarily focused on wages. But the focus shifted to health once union leaders and rank-and-file realized pollution could harm union members, their families, and their communities.

“Labor was interested in this early and from the perspective of the environmental impacts on human health,” said Kenneth Gould, another professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has worked with Lewis.

“The connection between public health and climate can never be separated because what is bad for the planet is bad for health."

These impacts on human health are already being noted—not only in communities like the Bronx but in extreme weather disasters many believe are exacerbated by climate change: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and last year’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Nurses served on the front lines after each of these disasters.

For some labor unions, solidarity with environmental protections are not as straightforward. Many fear that environmental regulations will take workers’ jobs away. Workers in the fossil fuel industry worry that transitioning into renewable energy will cost them their livelihoods.

“There will always be points of conflict between environmental protection and organized labor, especially as long as organized labor doesn’t have control of production processes,” Gould said.

But nurses' unions are the exception to that rule, Losada said. While some unions worry about losing jobs, Losada and other nurse union members worry about losing patients.

NYSNA and NNU now hold education programs on climate change for their members. “We’re not just here to pressure and criticize,” Losada said. “We’re also here to offer solutions.” For one, oil and coal workers should be the first ones to take new jobs in clean, sustainable energy, when that transition happens.

Photo by Yessenia Funes.

Another solution’s been offered too: the Robin Hood Tax. Also known as a Financial Speculation Tax or Financial Transaction Tax, the Robin Hood Tax would place a tiny sales tax of less than half of 1 percent on Wall Street transactions. It's an idea that could generate $350 billion in revenue, according to estimates.

Bill Gallagher, the campaign coordinator and organizer for NNU, said this revenue can go toward addressing climate change and other effects of pollution. Treating asthma alone costs $56 billion a year. Moreover, air quality is expected to worsen—so the number of people with asthma will increase too.

On Sunday, nurses paraded through the streets, holding signs that read, “Tax Wall Street. End climate change.” Members of several different unions expressed their support for a Robin Hood Tax by sporting green hats topped with the trademark single red feather.

Losada and Sheridan-Gonzalez marched among the array of red and green. It looked like Christmas—and sounded like it too. A hand drum echoed throughout the crowd as nurses sang, “Tell me what nurses stand for! Climate justice, climate justice!”

“The connection between public health and climate can never be separated because what is bad for the planet is bad for health," Gallagher said. "Period.”

Yessenia Funes wrote this article for YES! Magazine. It's presented here as part of Climate In Our Hands, a collaboration with Truthout that focuses on the climate justice movement. Yessenia is a double major in magazine journalism and environmental studies at SUNY Plattsburgh and a freelance writer.

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Stanford's Coal Divestment: Meet 2 Students—And 1 President—Who Made It Happen

Erica Knox: Leveraging privilege

Stanford University student Erica Knox went to see Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour in November 2012. That’s when McKibben and 350.org launched a divestment movement to address climate change and challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry. Knox has been involved with divestment group Fossil Free Stanford ever since. “It’s definitely the group on campus where I feel like I’m actually creating change,” she said.

Modeled after the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and ’80s, the divestment campaign pressures universities and other institutions to sell their stock in fossil fuel companies. The movement has spread to more than 300 schools nationwide, as well as cities and faith-based institutions. San Francisco and Seattle, churches including the United Church of Christ, and small colleges such as Hampshire and Pitzer have already pledged to divest.

Divestment is just one strategy to combat climate change, says Knox, who is majoring in earth systems. But she says Stanford students can use their connection to the university’s $18.7 billion endowment to make a strong statement. “It’s important for us while we’re at a university with this kind of power and privilege to leverage that to actually make a difference.”

Donald Kennedy: President Emeritus for fossil fuel divestment

Divestment is nothing new to Donald Kennedy. While he was serving as president of Stanford in the 1980s, the university divested from specific companies that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. Now, the former president and current Bing Professor of Environmental Science and Policy is supporting the university’s decision to begin divesting from coal-mining companies.

Kennedy was one of 170 tenured professors who signed a letter addressed to President Hennessy and the Board of Trustees. The letter, which followed a university-wide divestment petition that gathered nearly 2,000 signatures, called for Stanford to divest from all fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas. As President Emeritus, Kennedy’s was one of the most prominent names supporting the request to divest.

Kennedy, whose research interests include global climate change, believes coal divestment is valid, as there are alternative fuels that could be substituted for coal. He hopes there will be “careful and thoughtful analysis of what might be done elsewhere in order to promote a more effective set of climate policies.” He’s in favor of actions like divestment that encourage companies to pursue “a more controlled approach to the very serious problem of climate change.”

Amy Tomasso: Calling for climate change action now

Amy Tomasso, a Stanford urban studies major from Farmington, Conn., was drawn to Fossil Free Stanford’s focus on student activism and the momentum that divestment was gaining on campus.

Last year, the group met with the university’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing to request divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. After months of review, Stanford’s Board of Trustees announced on May 6, 2014, that it had agreed to begin divesting its stock in coal-mining companies.

The announcement, which came sooner than expected, was a surprise to Tomasso and other activists on campus. It positioned Stanford as the first major university to make a commitment to divest from coal. Fossil Free Stanford organizers celebrated their victory while planning to push for divestment from all fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas. Tomasso says it’s important for young people to lead the fight for fossil fuel divestment because they’re the first generation who’ll be living through the consequences of climate change.

“Everyone can be an activist,” says Tomasso. “Everyone has things they care about and love. If you take a moment to think about them, you’ll realize that the call to action is now.”

Dana Drugmand wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Dana is a YES! editorial intern.

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Occupy Offshoot Cancels $4 Million in Predatory Student Loans—and Starts a Debtors Union

Photo by Shutterstock.

Nathan Hornes was sitting on the couch watching Maury when he saw the ad for Everest College.

Owned by the for-profit education company Corinthian Colleges, Inc., Everest commercials are known to target low-income people, promising a flexible education and, through it, jobs that earn more than minimum wage. They're often aggressive, the actors calling viewers out for being lazy and then daring them to live up to their full potential. Hornes was an easy target.

“The first commercial I saw was the girl and she’s like ‘Oh, you’ve got to get off the couch,’” he said. “You can go to work, go to school, everything like that.”

Hornes, who had dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music, had just turned 20 and thought getting a degree sounded like a good idea. Plus, the woman in the ad promised, he could work around his current gigs. So he called Everest.

After that first informational call, Hornes said Everest representatives phoned him constantly, sometimes up to four times a day. They told him he needed to enroll for classes in order to graduate as soon as possible. They promised that a “network of employers” would be waiting after he graduated, and they would help him find a job. So Hornes signed up for a degree in business management, and at Everest’s suggestion he took out loans to pay for it.

Nathan Hornes on graduation day. Photo courtesy of Nathan Hornes.

“I used to always tell people I went to Everest,” he said of the early days, when he was proud of being a college student. But now, he said, “I don’t even like telling people I went to this school.”

At the time he enrolled, Hornes didn’t know how to evaluate a school’s accreditation or what to expect from college classes. Sometimes teachers didn’t even show up, and much of what they did teach felt like common sense. He said he didn’t even really have homework.

When he started to look for work after graduation, Hornes quickly realized his options were not as abundant as Everest had led him to believe. Job leads from the career center were sometimes forwarded from Craigslist. He hadn’t realized that many other colleges and employers don’t take degrees from for-profit colleges seriously.

“Employers find it laughable,” he said. “I’ve literally taken it off my resume. That’s how embarrassing it is.”

Now 24, Hornes shares a Los Angeles studio apartment with his aunt. He often works 16 hours a day at two part-time jobs, one of them at a Carl’s Jr. restaurant in the airport.

And that degree from Everest? He owes $56,000 for it.

A Rolling Jubilee for student debt

The abysmal quality of Hornes' academic experience may be extreme, but the debt—and the way it will constrain his life, possibly for decades—is not. Hornes and millions of other former students and their families are part of a student debt crisis of tremendous proportions: Americans—some of them senior citizens—together owe more than $1 trillion in student loan debt, the figure steadily rising as states and the federal government cut funding for higher eduction. Even credit card debt is not as large.

Graphic from Demos.

That's why Strike Debt, an organization that emerged out of Occupy Wall Street to protect debtors' rights, announced today it has purchased—and abolished—more than $4 million in student debt. It's a first for the organization, which until now has only canceled medical debt.

The organization's Rolling Jubilee project used $100,000 of raised capital to buy the privately owned debt of more than 2,700 Everest College students. They did this by purchasing private student loans from secondary markets for pennies on the dollar—just the way collection agencies do. And then, they simply canceled it.

The idea arose from conversations three years ago at Occupy Wall Street. There, and at smaller gatherings focused specifically on the issue of debt, people who held student loans or medical debts often stood in a circle and encouraged each other to shake off their feelings of guilt. Sometimes they brought their bills or other paperwork and set them on fire. Meanwhile, members were constantly studying the mechanisms through which banks, collection agencies, and other organizations traded and profited from debt.

They took what they learned and turned it into Rolling Jubilee.

The project kicked off in November 2012—on the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from New York’s Zuccotti Park—and organizers raised more than $250,000. Because Strike Debt was paying only about $5 for $100 of debt, that amount allowed them to purchase millions of dollars worth of other peoples’ unpaid medical obligations.

In the nearly two years since then, organizers this week told YES! that Rolling Jubilee has canceled more than $15 million in medical debt.

But unlike hospital bills, federal student loans are guaranteed by the government and are mostly unavailable for purchase on secondary markets. This is where debt collectors usually hunt for it. However, because Everest College encourages students to privately borrow a percentage of their tuition to supplement money available through federal student loans, this for-profit school created a unique pool of student debt ripe for the raiding.

“We started with medical debt because there is a clear moral argument,” said Laura Hanna, a Strike Debt organizer. “People shouldn't be forced into debt because they get sick.”

Hanna said education was a natural next step, from an ethical point of view: “With education, people are trying to work to improve their lives. To make something better for themselves. Instead, most people fall into a debt trap. And there is no escape ... not even through bankruptcy.”

Graphic from Demos.

Predatory Lending U

Yesterday, the national Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Corinthian Colleges, Inc., for defrauding tens of thousands of students. The CFPB accused Corinthian of running a “predatory lending scheme,” enrolling students in an overpriced education that would never help them get a job.

Corinthian is charged with lying to prospective students about job placement statistics. Ben Lopez, a former Everest student, told us he was hired as a librarian's assistant in January when he finished his program, but after his graduation ceremony a few months later, he was laid off. Part of the company’s schtick is to hire recent grads to inflate career placement numbers, classifying one or two days’ employment as a career.

When 20-year-old Hornes first talked to Everest on the phone, the numbers they fed him were based on this and similar practices.

According to the suit, from July 2011 to March 2014, Corinthian issued 130,000 private loans to pay its own exorbitant fees. The outstanding loans total more than $568 million.

And what kinds of students did they target? The CFPB claims that according to Corinthian's own internal documents, they sought out people with “low self-esteem” and “[f]ew people in their lives who care about them”; “isolated” people who felt “stuck, unable to see and plan well for future.” They intentionally marketed to people with little-to-no financial literacy or credit history.

Everest recruits through daytime television advertisements like this one, which Hornes says he saw.

Moreover, the school misled students to believe it had no financial interest in the private loans they were pushing, known as “Genesis” loans. But because the law prevented Everest schools from receiving all of their funding from federal loans, they were incentivized to convince students to take private ones, which then allowed the school to receive more public money. As the Bureau put it, “Every Genesis loan dollar that Corinthian induced its students to borrow, in effect, allowed Corinthian to receive up to an additional nine dollars in Title IV aid.”

Corinthian has been under fire for a long time. It’s been accused of fraud by more than one federal agency and is on the verge of collapse. (For more on Corinthian's sad backstory, check out John Oliver below).

If won, the CFPB’s case will secure more than $500 million, which will be used to cancel existing private student loans. That would be great for former students like Hornes. But it could also take years, while many who owe the company money slog away at minimum wage, trying to pay down their Genesis loan.

When asked whether he might consider going to college somewhere else in the meantime, Hornes says he is interested, but wary. Going to school almost anywhere else would, for him, mean more debt.

A debtors union

As effective as Rolling Jubilee has been in calling attention to debt issues, $4 million hardly makes a dent in a trillion-dollar picture—not to mention the billions of dollars tied up in medical and other debts.

“Rolling Jubilee is a fantastic way to punch through the illusion that you actually owe what the 1 percent thinks you owe,” said Thomas Gokey, a Rolling Jubilee co-founder who's eager to take things to the next level. “It’s not going to be possible to buy all the debt out there and get rid of it, so we’re going to need other tactics to win … it’s going to be a coordinated, large-scale effort.”

Alongside today’s $4 million abolition announcement, Strike Debt is also unveiling plans for a new project: Debt Collective. Gokey, who's forthright about his personal investment in the effort (“My student debt today is significantly more than the last time I talked to YES!” he told us—and that was just two years ago), calls Debt Collective an “on ramp” to bigger changes and more aggressive tactics when it comes to abolishing debt. “There’s never been something like a debtors union before.”

Gokey envisions a movement where debtors are empowered to “renegotiate, resist, and refuse unfair debts” in the same way labor unions collectively leverage better pay, safer work environments, and time off. And to beat down the enormous pile of debt in general, they’ll advocate for free education and universal health care.

Hanna compares Debt Collective to “the factory floor of the past,” when labor organizers, gathered in the same physical space, came up with tactics like slowdowns, walkouts, and strikes. As debtors, Hanna said, “We might engage in collective bargaining or more robust refusal campaigns down the line … with an aim to transform the way we fund and access social goods.”

As for this round of jubilee, Strike Debt has been sending letters to the thousands of debtors from Everest, delivering the news of a lifetime. Unfortunately, Hornes will not be one of them (debts are purchased anonymously, and Strike Debt only finds out debtors' identities afterward). Still, he’s not giving in to the prospect of a lifetime of interest payments while working minimum wage jobs.


Our Economy Wants You to Be In Debt—5 Things You Can Do to Take Charge

Back in Los Angeles, Hornes is now a key organizer with the Everest Avengers, a group of nearly 200 current and former Everest College students who feel they were duped into believing they were paying for a good education and are now burdened with crippling debt because of it. And within the Avengers, the Corinthian Collective was formed.

Made up of about 40 former students from the for-profit school system, the Corinthian Collective has been working directly with Strike Debt to strategize around freeing students from unfair and fraudulent loans. On the table, Hornes hopes, will be options like legal action and working to convince the Department of Education to discharge outstanding debts for Everest students across the country.

He may have missed out on the high-quality education in business management he aspired to. Instead, though, Hornes has gotten a crash course in leadership and organizing. Today, he’ll be facilitating national conversations uniting Everest students, publicizing the facts behind his fraudulent debt, and fielding questions from the media.

Finishing up his short shift break before heading back to Carl’s Jr. last night, he said he now sees himself as a “buffer” who helps demoralized classmates understand that the education they received at Everest College will likely never lead to the jobs they were promised. Instead, it has brought them together.

Liz Pleasant, Christa Hillstrom, and James Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions.

Liz is web assistant and Christa and James are web editors at YES!

 

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NY Unions Will Bring Fresh Ideas about Jobs, Energy to Historic Climate March

A member of New York's transit workers union attends Occupy Wall Street in September 2011. Photo by Timothy Krause / Flickr.

This story is part of the Climate in Our Hands collaboration between Truthout and YES! Magazine.

New York's unions are digging deep to support the march that calls on world leaders to take action to avert catastrophic climate change.

There is a grinding nature to labor solidarity. Having never been active in a union before, I never experienced it until becoming the National Writers Union rep to organizing meetings for the Sept 21 Climate March happening in New York City right before a U.N. summit.

Now I'm feeling it. It's not enough to get your union on board; has your president signed a statement? It's not enough to get your local; how about your international? And of course, words are cheap, so how many members are you mobilizing, and how are you doing it?

Everyone in the room knows that grunt work feeds whatever power labor has. Yet New York's unions are digging deep to support the march that calls on world leaders to take action to avert catastrophic climate change.

The march takes place just two days before President Obama and world leaders gather for an emergency Climate Summit at the United Nations called by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Moon wants to ensure they sign a new international climate treaty when they gather again in Paris in December 2015.

The unions are among 1,000 endorsers of the People's Climate March challenging the big corporations and governments that have stymied any real agreement. It's been 26 years since the U.N. launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and then the treaty process two years later, but we're stuck—even as scientists educate us on the urgency to act.

Will unions be part of the problem or part of the solution? The International Trade Union Federation endorsed the march, as has the Canadian Labour Congress and the Connecticut and Vermont labor federations. But in New York, local and state unions are the ones stepping up—including some of the building trades, which, on a national level, help block the AFL-CIO from showing any climate leadership.

Larry Moskowitz, the march's organizer for unions, exhorted us in the first meetings: "Every union that endorses—what is your turnout plan? What materials do you need? Can you set up an internal committee to mobilize? How do we get in the ranks?"

And then the question: Who's not in the room yet?

The nurses union was there, its reps eloquently discussing the impact of the massive storm Sandy and environmental hazards on those they care for. To enlist their members, NYS Nurses Association began holding lunch and dinnertime sessions in hospitals about climate change and health. The health care workers of the service workers (SEIU 1199), a 200,000-strong union including many immigrants and African Americans, were there. JJ Johnson, its retired spokesman, said at one gathering sponsored by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, a network of 30 unions from 15 countries, "Climate protection is consistent with everything else that we do [as health workers]."

And not just because of the devastation of the massive storm Sandy, which laid waste to New York in October 2012. "We have members from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia. There is a growing encroachment of the sea going into agricultural land that would be rendered totally useless for farming. In places like Haiti, where pollution and silt are going out to sea, fisherman have to go out further and further to fish. So the climate issue resonates very strongly."

We all need to be committed to a "just transition" that doesn't leave people behind.

Eventually, the metaphorical room got crowded with 100 endorsing labor organizations because New York's unions' alliance with environmental groups has only intensified since Sandy. A lot of us now know firsthand that more of our city will be underwater as the seas rise and that food and other crucial supplies for living will be harder to get as the weather becomes more volatile. We experienced it. The transit workers and unionized utility workers became heroes getting the city back online (a process that isn't finished, as subway riders and residents of shoreline housing know).

The transit workers are my personal heroes of the climate justice movement; when you encounter members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 while flyering for the march on city streets, not only are they already on board, they often have something to say about the state of the world that doesn't deal with the reality of climate change.

And while the building trades may be among the unions holding the AFL-CIO back from seriously taking on the massive ecopolitical shifts needed in these dark times, in New York you've got big machers on board from this sector. Chris Erikson, head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, was downright inspiring at a press conference in Times Square launching the march, at one moment describing the climate fight as a class war (while wading into contentious political terrain at others):

I stand today with this coalition of alarmed citizens to voice our concerns about the future of our planet ... Sadly, there is no greater incentive than profit. No corporation has given anything without a fight. No union has made gains without a fight, and if this global crisis that affects all mankind is defined as an economic war with winners and losers—I stand ready with my brothers and sisters to march and to fight for worldwide energy democracy and to demand climate protection for the human race.

Some building trade unions were already primed by Obama's "green jobs" rhetoric and money to see retrofitting as in their interest. Even before Obama, the Blue-Green Alliance launched by United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club eight years ago promoted good green jobs and emission cuts, broadening the conversation in the union movement.

Blue and green ties

Recent lobbying for a "climate jobs" policy in New York City has intensified blue and green ties. The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding is a labor-community coalition trying to keep the heat on various levels of government to support those whose housing was wrecked in some way by the storm, whether from wind, water or mold, and to ensure that rebuilding happens using union jobs so workers aren't exploited.

Taking the lead is the local Jobs with Justice affiliate ALIGN-NY. The group started as the affiliate of the Apollo Alliance (now part of the Blue-Green Alliance), which brought green groups together with unions to work toward cleaner energy. Local teamsters began working with environmentalists to campaign for recycling in the commercial waste stream and now endorse the climate march.

"It's the culmination of long, hard conversations, many of which are still in process," said Tomás Garduno, of ALIGN-NY. "'Jobs versus the Environment' or 'The Economy versus the Environment' is the best example of pretty old thinking."

"Unions should be advocating public ownership, social ownership of energy."

While nitty gritty alliances are creating bridges locally (and not just in New York), the march doesn't see those alliances operating nationally. National Nurses United, the National Education Association, SEIU, and Amalgamated Transit Union signed on. So did the Communication Workers of America, which, along with the two major transit unions, opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline, still a possibility, would transport dirty Canadian tar sands oil from the northern border to Gulf Coast refineries.

To widen union support, the march organizers kept the demand simple: World leaders must take real action on climate change. No denunciation of fracking, a big issue in New York state because there is only a moratorium against it at the moment. No denunciation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which had split the national labor movement. Just that one simple demand for the leaders who are gathering at the U.N. Secretary General's request.

When issuing the call for the march in Rolling Stone, 350.org founder Bill McKibben even crafted a simple slogan to unite the two movements on a single banner: "Climate/Jobs: Two Crises, One Solution." The unions put something like that slogan on their flyer promoting the march at the Labor Day parade.

The Blue-Green Alliance (BGA) endorsed the march, as did leading BGA members CWA, ATU and SEIU. But the Steelworkers, among other union affiliates, didn't. The BGA endorsement is admittedly an advance over its silence on fracking and the Keystone XL Pipeline—the BGA lost credibility among many labor environmentalists by not navigating those fights. But is that enough?

Unions like the Laborers, Steelworkers and Pipefitters are caught in the short-run game of defending members' jobs in dirty industries. As one environmentalist in the labor movement pointed out, the Steelworkers represent the chemical workers producing the toxic brew used to frack natural gas and can't get beyond the politics of the old energy regime. I've heard Steelworkers President Leo Gerard rightly chide environmentalists for not discussing the imperative to employ those displaced if the fossil fuel industry is shut so that carbon emissions stabilize at a livable level. We all need to be committed to a "just transition" that doesn't leave people behind. Well, Gerard's green allies earned the right to chide him back.

"Climate change changes everything: everything about how we organize society, how we conduct politics, even how we think of progress."

Green radicals in the labor movement, like Dr. Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability, are calling the question on this old politics. As Sweeney, who also co-direct's Cornell's Global Labor Program, put it, it's time to get beyond the call for "green jobs" and what he calls "a light green agenda."

Uehlein asks union leaders like Gerard if mainstream proposals don't deal with the economic hit workers will take in any transition, what does labor's climate protection strategy look like? It's time for labor to have one. With SEIU 1199, SEIU 32B/32J, IBEW Local 3, and the NYS Nurses Association, TUED is holding an open meeting after the march for all unionists and allies to try to seize the moment for a deeper discussion along these lines to accelerate the momentum created by the expanding coalition.

Like the rest of the country, says Sweeney, a lot of unions "don't recognize the science. The ones that do are unclear about what the changes mean, the enormity of it. I don't blame them. The politicians don't talk about it," he said. "But if we take the science seriously, as we should, then nothing less than an FDR-type intervention is necessary."

And the transformation must happen fast, within the next 20 or 30 years.

What is energy democracy?

What does it mean to build a transportation system not powered by fossil fuels? How do we shift the country, really the world, to sustainable energy? What does the "energy democracy" Chris Erikson talked about actually look like? "We believe . . . that unions should be advocating public ownership, social ownership of energy," says Sweeney. "There's no other way to do it in my opinion."

Any deep economic shift protecting people and the planet needs all hands on deck, and that includes union leaders and their members.

For Uehlein, the former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department who now leads the Labor Network for Sustainability, climate change is the real job killer, not the environmentalists who take on the fossil fuel industry. "Climate change changes everything," he said, "everything about how we organize society, how we conduct politics, even how we think of progress. For us in the labor movement, it must change how we envision the role of an organized labor movement in society."

In New York, the state with the highest density of union workers in the country, the conversation has started.

"We still have a long way to go in the labor movement," said Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU 32B-32J, which represents building cleaners and supers, and has a green building program. "The most challenging issue is how do we transition from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewables. Bringing urgency to climate change, having a strategy that is sufficiently convincing that we can transition to a new economy for these workers—we are at a turning point."

Any deep economic shift protecting people and the planet needs all hands on deck, and that includes union leaders and their members. We know we can't let union leaders fall back on flowery speeches to hide inaction, as too often happens. It's up to us to make sure we don't run out of time.

Abby Scher wrote with article for Truthout. It's presented here as part of Climate In Our Hands, a collaboration with YES! Magazine. Abby is a sociologist and journalist who writes frequently about economic justice and the right.

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

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Kentucky Town Beats High Gas Prices—By Opening a Public Gas Station

This article originally appeared at Community-Wealth.org.

Photo by Kzenon / Shutterstock.

Earlier this month, the small city of Somerset, Kentucky, drew national attention when it opened a municipally owned and operated fuel center in an effort to drive down gas prices for local residents. As a result of its proximity to Lake Cumberland, a popular tourist destination, the city of 11,000 residents has long struggled with high fuel prices—especially during the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Under the leadership of Republican Mayor Eddie Girdler, the conservative-leaning city purchased a fuel storage facility for $200,000 and spent $75,000 building the infrastructure to distribute gasoline to the public—including the installation of 10 pumps. The city now purchases gas from a local supplier (Continental Refining Company) and uses city employees who rotate in from other departments to operate the station.

In a city where gas prices can spike 20 to 30 cents a gallon on weekends, the public station will not aim to turn a profit.

In a city where gas prices at private stations can spike 20 to 30 cents a gallon on weekends, the public station will not aim to turn a profit. Rather the mayor’s office intends to set prices in a way that the city breaks even on the cost of fuel plus operating expenses. However, an additional goal is to provide an incentive for motorists on their way to Lake Cumberland to stop in Somerset to refuel, thus generating additional business for—and greater tax revenues from—the city’s restaurants, shops, and other small businesses.

Gas station owners and their regional and national associations (such as the Kentucky Petroleum Marketers Association, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, the Kentucky Grocers Association, and Kentucky Association of Convenience Stores) have cried socialism and denounced the effort as an attempt to “interfere with the free market.” However, lower gas prices are proving popular with local residents, and Mayor Girdler is showing no signs of backing down.

“If government doesn't do it to protect the public, then who does it?” he told reporters. “It’s the role of government to protect us from big business.”

While Somerset’s publicly owned gas station is the first of its kind in a good many years, it draws upon a rich tradition in the United States of municipal enterprises that reduce costs for local residents, provide services for those underserved or exploited by private operators, and allow for community participation in economic decision-making. Historically, municipal ownership and operation of strategically important industries and services was commonplace in America’s cities. Often these included subways, trolleys, buses, power plants, power lines, telephone networks, water and sanitation systems, railroads, ice plants, bus and train stations, freight shipping facilities, grocery stores, coal distribution companies, and lodging houses.

One legacy of this approach is represented in the 2,000 municipally owned electric utilities, which, together with co-ops, supply more than 25 percent of the nation’s electricity. Another is the longstanding and highly successful publicly owned Bank of North Dakota, set up in 1919 (along with a state-operated mill and insurance program) by the state’s governing Non-Partisan League in response to the suffering of local farmers at the hands of out-of-state corporations.

Support for public ownership and enterprise at the local, municipal level often cuts across political ideologies and affiliations.

As both history and the recent events in Somerset attest, support for public ownership and enterprise at the municipal level often cuts across political ideologies and affiliations.

Of course, public ownership and operation of a gas station in order to reduce the cost of carbon-intensive, high-polluting fossil fuel raises important environmental and climate change-related questions. Ultimately, however, what is important is not the type of enterprise being owned and operated but rather the template that municipal ownership offers communities to regain direct control over the vital economic decisions that affect their daily lives.

While today they have municipalized a gas station, perhaps in the future the citizens of Somerset—like their counterparts in Boulder, Colorado—will push for a public utility in order to achieve greater renewable energy generation. Mayor Girdler hints at such a larger perspective.

“We are one community that decided we’ve got backbone and we’re not going to allow the oil companies to dictate to us what we can and cannot do,” he said. “We’re going to start out small. Where it goes from here we really don’t know.”

Thomas Hanna wrote this article for Community-Wealth.org, where it originally appeared. Thomas is senior research associate with The Democracy Collaborative. His areas of expertise include public ownership, nationalization, privatization, and banking.

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9/11 — the Myth and the Reality

Beyond Money - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 21:25

Dr. Paul Craig Roberts is a man with impeccable credentials. Besides having been affiliated with a half dozen universities and think tanks, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy in the Reagan administration.

In his latest web post, he recalls the events of 9/11, 2001, debunks the official story, and sums up the changes that have transformed the United States into a “warfare/police state.”–T.H.G.

9/11 After 13 years

Paul Craig Roberts

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, goes far beyond the deaths of those who died in the towers and the deaths of firefighters and first responders who succumbed to illnesses caused by inhalation of toxic dust. For thirteen years a new generation of Americans has been born into the 9/11 myth that has been used to create the American warfare/police state.

The corrupt Bush and Obama regimes used 9/11 to kill, maim, dispossess and displace millions of Muslims in seven countries, none of whom had anything whatsoever to do with 9/11. .. More..


Categories: News

Migrant Farmworkers Find Paths Out of Poverty Through Incubator Farms

Octavio Garcia and his brothers now manage their own 6.5 acres leased from ALBA. Photo by Nancy Porto / ALBA.

Nine years ago Octavio Garcia was a seasonal laborer, spending long days bent over another man’s field in California’s Central Valley, picking strawberries for $6.25 an hour. Today the 24-year-old is manager of his own 6.5 acres, growing strawberries, tomatoes, garlic, and other produce on land leased to him by ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in Salinas, Calif.

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ALBA is one of a growing number of “incubator farms” across the United States dedicated to training the next generation of farmers. According to NIFTI, the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative at Tufts University, there are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states—up from 45 projects at the start of 2012. More than half the 5,700 aspiring farmers they serve are refugees and immigrants who will help fill an important demographic gap as current farmers age out of the profession. The average farmer, according to USDA Census of Agriculture statistics, is now over 57 years old.

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Garcia heard about ALBA from a fellow migrant worker. He went to an introductory talk and decided to take the five-year training. “My earnings are not huge,” he says, “because I am still investing most of what I make back into the farm. But they are more than $6.25 an hour. And what I really like is being my own boss, the freedom to do what I want when I want.” Garcia looks forward to buying his own land with help from California FarmLink, a nonprofit organization that offers loans and matching funds to beginning farmers.

There are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states.

Chris Brown, executive director of ALBA, believes the program is a good model for ending poverty among seasonal farmworkers. For farmworkers, he says, “It’s very difficult to break out of poverty. We’re trying to help them pursue their own business.”

Though learning new regulations and marketing techniques can be challenging, ALBA’s beginning farmers often bring solid agricultural experience and entrepreneurial skills to the program, he says. Their hard work, plus growing consumer interest in buying organic, has helped ALBA’s annual produce sales go from $500,000 in 2008 to $5 million in 2014.

“This is money that’s going back into the pockets of farmers,” Brown says.

“What I really like is being my own boss, the freedom to do what I want when I want.”

ALBA, started in 2000 on land sold to the federal government’s anti-poverty program in the 1970s, is one of the oldest incubator farm programs in the country. Earnings from organic produce sold to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Stanford University help build economic self-sufficiency for beginning farmers and fund 70 percent of ALBA’s operating budget. The rest comes from USDA and private grants.

Aspiring farmers pay sliding scale tuition to attend ALBA’s introductory course part-time while working other jobs. Graduates can go on to the Incubator Farm Program, which provides subsidies to lease land and equipment over a five-year period. Of the 200 people who have completed the introductory course, Brown says, 90 have entered the incubator farm program, and around 25 now lease their own land elsewhere. He hopes those numbers will double over the next few years.

Mauricio Soto, 44, is Viva’s general manager, in addition to running his own farm. Photo by Amanda Wilson / Viva.

At Viva Farms, an incubator in Washington state’s Skagit Valley, farm-to-community fellow Leigh Newman-Bell also sees the incubator model as a way out of poverty for seasonal migrant workers.

“It always shocks me that a high percentage of farm workers are also receiving SNAP benefits,” she says. “How is it that people who grow the food can’t afford it themselves?”

To Save Family Farms from Corporate Buyout, Retiring Farmers Connect with a New Generation

Seasonal farmworkers who take advantage of incubator farm training will also lead healthier lives, she adds. “Many of our farmers worked as migrant laborers on large conventional farms prior to starting our program, and they came here because they wanted to farm organically to avoid being exposed to harsh pesticides.”

Newman-Bell says the program is highly valued in the community. Though only 26 people have participated in Viva’s program so far, “If you were to include all the family members, volunteers, community members, and friends who come out to lend a hand, that number would easily be in the hundreds,” she says.

Mauricio Soto, 44, worked for more than 20 years on farms in California, Washington, and Mexico. He took Viva’s training and now works as its general manager, in addition to leasing a three-quarter acre farm from the organization.

“The classes that Viva offers are very interesting,” he says. “If you apply yourself, you can do well.”

“Working my farm,” he adds, “I feel happy and free.”

 

 

Lisa Gale Garrigues wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Lisa is a writer, teacher, and healing consultant based in San Francisco.

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A Wealthy Capitalist on Why Money Doesn't Trickle Down

Photo by AAstock / Shutterstock.

The fundamental law of capitalism is: When workers have more money, businesses have more customers. Which makes middle-class consumers—not rich businesspeople—the true job creators. A thriving middle class isn’t a consequence of growth—which is what the trickle-down advocates would tell you. A thriving middle class is the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies.

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Our economy has changed, lest you think that the minimum wage is for teenagers. The average age of a fast-food worker is 28. And minimum wage jobs aren’t confined to a small corner of the economy. By 2040, it is estimated that 48 percent of all American jobs will be low-wage service jobs. We need to reckon with this. What will our economy be like when it’s dominated by low paying service jobs? What proportion of the population do we want to live on food stamps? 50 percent? Does this matter? Should we care?

Businesspeople tell me they cannot afford higher wages. Not true. They can adjust to all sorts of higher costs. The minimum wage is much higher here in Seattle than in Alabama, and McDonald’s thrives in both places. Businesses adjust to higher costs, even when they say they can’t.

Our economy can be safe and effective only if it is governed by rules. Some capitalists actually don’t care about other people, their communities, or the future. Their behavior, if left unchecked, has a massive effect on everyone else. When Wal-Mart or McDonald’s or any other guy like me pays workers the minimum wage, that’s our way of saying, “I would pay you less, except then I’d go to prison.”

A thriving middle class is the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies.

Which brings us to the civic dimension of what the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 is really about. We’re undeniably becoming a more unequal society—in incomes and in opportunity. The danger is that economic inequality always begets political inequality, which always begets more economic inequality. Low-wage workers stuck on a path to poverty are not only weak customers; they’re also anemic taxpayers, absent citizens, and inattentive neighbors.

Economic prosperity doesn’t trickle down, and neither does civic prosperity. Both are middle-out phenomena. When workers earn enough from one job to live on, they are far more likely to be contributors to civic prosperity—in your community. Parents who need only one job, not two or three to get by, can be available to help their kids with homework and keep them out of trouble—in your school. They can look out for you and your neighbors, volunteer, and contribute—in your school and church. Our prosperity does not all come home in our paycheck. Living in a community of people who are paid enough to contribute to your community, rather than require its help, may be more important than your salary. Prosperity and poverty are like viruses. They infect us all—for good or ill.

An economic arrangement that pays a Wall Street worker tens of millions of dollars per year to do high-frequency trading and pays just tens of thousands to workers who grow or serve our food, build our homes, educate our children, or risk their lives to protect us isn’t an expression of the true value or economic necessity of these jobs. It simply reflects a difference in bargaining power and status.

We’re undeniably becoming a more unequal society—in incomes and in opportunity.

Inclusive economies always outperform and outlast plutocracies. That’s why investments in the middle class work, and tax breaks for the rich don’t. The oldest and most important conflict in human societies is the battle over the concentration of wealth and power. Those at the top will forever tell those at the bottom that our respective positions are righteous and good for all. Historically we called that divine right. Today we have trickle-down economics.

The trickle-down explanation for economic growth holds that the richer the rich get, the better our economy does. But it also clearly implies that if the poor get poorer, that must be good for our economy. Nonsense.

Some of the people who benefit most from that explanation are desperate for you to believe this is the only way a capitalist economy can work. At the end of the day, raising the minimum wage to $15 isn’t about just rejecting their version of capitalism. It’s about replacing it with one that works for every American.

Nick Hanauer wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Nick is an early investor in Amazon and a Seattle-based entrepreneur. He is co-founder, with Eric Liu, of The True Patriot Network and co-author of The True Patriot. He speaks and writes nationally on inequality, the economy, and democracy. His recent article for Politico Magazine, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats,” was published in June 2014.

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Video: Inside a Miami McDonald's on Strike

On Thursday, September 4, thousands of fast-food workers walked out on the job in a nationwide wave of demonstrations for a $15 minimum hourly wage and the right to form a union. More than 400 workers and supporters were arrested.

“Keep your burgers, keep your fries, make our wages super sized.”

The video above—created by the Florida chapter of the Service Employees International Union—documents strikes at Burger King and McDonald's restaurants in the Miami area. The union has spent more than $10 million in the “Fight for $15.”

The video provides an unusually intimate glimpse into the movement. Protesters wave signs and chant “Keep your burgers, keep your fries, make our wages super sized.” Many give personal testimonials about the challenges of living on fast-food wages, even when working full-time.

While Thursday’s day of action is the seventh in a series of one-day strikes, home health aides joined the fight for the first time, adding momentum to the movement for low-wage workers' rights.

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The Enchanted Land Where Community College Is Free? Welcome to Tennessee in 2015

Photo by Ian Norman / Flickr.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam promised his state something unprecedented: free community college tuition.

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The “Tennessee Promise” is now more than a promise: It’s a law Haslam signed in May. The bill provides two years of tuition at a community college or college of applied technology for any high school graduate who agrees to work with a mentor, complete eight hours of community service, and maintain at least a C average. High school graduates will start to reap these benefits in fall 2015.

Oregon Sen. Mark Hass is selling the idea to his state, too. He sponsored a bill that passed earlier this year to study whether a similar system in Oregon would work. The results should be out later this year.

Hass feels passionate about this bill because his generation didn’t have to deal with the same hardships as today’s young people. When he graduated from Tigard High School in 1975, his friends could score a job at a timber mill and make a decent living for the rest of their lives.

In 2013, by contrast, high school grads without a college degree faced an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than their associate-degree holding peers; their annual income was lower by more than $6,500.

Alabama and other states neighboring Mississippi are also looking into the idea.

If the outcome of the Oregon study is positive, the state is likely to follow in Tennessee’s footsteps and increase college enrollment and reduce poverty all at once through the free community-college system. The legislature will vote on the proposal during the 2015 legislative session.

“It won’t, by itself, eradicate poverty,” Hass says, “but I think it’s a very positive step in the right direction of not only reducing poverty but also meeting the needs of employers who are trying to find qualified people for jobs.”

Several of Mississippi’s community colleges already offer free tuition, but state Rep. Jerry Turner won’t stand for “several.” He wants to make all 15 of the state’s community colleges free. Turner authored a bill that proposed that idea, and though it died in committee earlier this year, it’ll be up for discussion again in January.

Alabama and other states neighboring Mississippi are also looking into the idea.

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges, expects efforts that address the cost of college will grow.

While he thinks these policies are positive, Baime worries about the less well-prepared students and the part-time students who work and will be excluded by full-time eligibility requirements. “Sometimes, the students who are sort of on the margin are left behind,” Baime says.

Kell Smith, the director of communications and legislative service for the Mississippi Community College Board, says full-time requirements encourage students not only to complete school but to complete it in a timely manner.

For now, it’s uncertain how these policies will affect students “on the margin” or whether Oregon or Mississippi will move forward with their initiatives. It’s certain, however, that Tennessians can now reap the benefits of a college degree—for free.

Yessenia Funes wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Yessenia is an editorial intern at YES!

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For Walkers and Cyclists, A Swedish Road-Planning Strategy Helps Save Lives

Photo by Ed Yourdon/ Flickr.

More than 4,500 pedestrians are killed and more than 68,000 are injured by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors, and people of color.

A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition found that from 2003 to 2012, more than 47,000 people were killed crossing the street. That's 16 times the number of people who died in natural disasters over the same period.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous streets.”

The pedestrian safety crisis is even more dire internationally. Worldwide, more than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year—that's 22 percent of a total 1.24 million yearly traffic fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a coalition of walking advocacy groups. “We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency.”

Unfortunately, pedestrian deaths—and all traffic fatalities—are viewed as an inevitable side effect of modern life. “People accept this as normal, just as 100 years ago most people accepted that women could not vote,” observes Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, an international organization that's working to make streets safe for people of all ages.

Yet recent history offers genuine hope for making our streets safer. A generation ago domestic abuse and drunk driving were seen as sad, unalterable facts of human nature. But vigorous public campaigns to prevent these tragedies have had remarkable results, offering clear evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.

Sweden paves the way for zero traffic deaths

From Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon, campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country.

The campaigns are based on a new safety strategy called Vision Zero, which is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden. Pedestrian deaths in Sweden have dropped 50 percent since 2009, and overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000—making Swedish streets the safest in the world, according to the New York Times.

Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country.

The Economist reports that Sweden accomplished this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design, and attributes the impressive drop in traffic deaths to improved crosswalks, narrowed streets, lowered urban speed limits, and barriers that separate cars from bikes and pedestrians.

Sweden took a far different approach than conventional transportation planning, where “road users are held responsible for their own safety” according to the Vision Zero Initiative website. Swedish policy believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist, and walker errors, “based on the simple fact that we are human and we make mistakes.”

This is similar to the Netherlands’ Forgiving Roads policy, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 75 percent since the 1970s. In comparison, there's been less than a 20 percent reduction in the U.S. over the same period.

Utah, Minnesota, and Washington have adopted aggressive measures that are similar to Vision Zero to cut traffic deaths. All three states have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent or more—25 percent better than the national average.

Streets of New York

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office last year on the promise of reducing traffic deaths in a city where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle every two hours on average.

“The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable,” he wrote in a letter to New Yorkers. “They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians—especially our children and seniors.”

To save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist, and walker errors: “We are human and we make mistakes.”

Traffic accidents are the largest preventable cause of death for children under 14 in New York, and the second highest cause of fatal injuries for people over 65.

In May, New York’s city council passed 11 bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments.

The plan includes teaching street safety in schools; allowing the city legislature to lower speed limits to 25 mph; increasing police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, and dangerous driving; and creating a permanent Vision Zero Task Force at City Hall.

According to walking and bike advocates, one of New York’s biggest problems is that the police department focuses more resources on street crime than on street safety—even though in 2013, there were 356 traffic-related deaths (half of those killed were pedestrians or bicyclists), compared to 333 murders.

Advocates cheered when de Blasio chose as his police chief William Bratton, who has spoken out about the need to curb traffic injuries and deaths.

“It’s really impressive what Mayor de Blasio has done,” said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “He has put his money where his mouth is” by finding funding for street safety projects and increased police enforcement in an era of tight budgets.

Streets of San Francisco and beyond

After New York, San Francisco has advanced the farthest with Vision Zero planning. The city saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities last year. To combat the rising number of fatalities, Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition launched the Vision Zero Coalition with the San Francisco School District and more than two dozen community organizations. Their mission is to encourage city officials to:

  • Fix dangerous intersections and streets;
  • Ensure “full and fair enforcement of traffic laws,” with an emphasis on curbing dangerous behavior;
  • Invest in training and education for all road users, focusing on helping frequent drivers share the road with walkers and bicyclists;
  • Eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous streets,” wrote Nicole Schneider of Walk San Francisco and Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicyle Coalition. “[It] is also about empowering historically under-represented communities that are disproportionately burdened by traffic injuries.”

The plan has already been endorsed by the San Francisco Police Department.

A number of local advocacy organizations around the country are working with the national Alliance for Biking and Walking to launch the Vision Zero Strategic Collaborative. The collaborative will push for these policies across the nation.

America’s emerging walking revolution

America is on the verge of a walking revolution. After many decades in which walking continually lost ground to other modes of transportation and recreation, there’s growing interest about restoring walking as a way of life.

A diverse network of organizations came together last year at the first-ever walking summit to champion walking as one solution to our health care crisis (one-half hour of walking each day reduces the risk of many major diseases); as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heighten the sense of community and security); and as a clear route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means less CO2 emissions).

“We won’t increase walkability—which is good for people’s and communities’ health—until we make the streets more safe and comfortable for walking,” said Katherine Kraft, America Walks’ National Coalition Director and Coalition Director of Every Body Walk!

Vision Zero, Kraft says, is the path toward a better life for all of us.

Jay Walljasper is the author of the Great Neighborhood Book; he writes, speaks, and consults about how to create safer, sustainable, more enjoyable communities.

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