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.
This article originally appeared at Community-Wealth.org.
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.
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..
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.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.
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?”
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.”
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.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.
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.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam promised his state something unprecedented: free community college tuition.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.
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.
Do I roll down my window and hold out some coins? Or pretend I don’t see him?
Do I avoid eye contact because, deep down, seeing him forces me to confront a scary reality—that I, too, could wind up begging on the streets? Do I let his presence reinforce the common belief that poverty is inevitable, a timeless plight I cannot solve?
My stoplight turns green. Problem solved. For now.
Although not for the man with the hand-lettered sign, nor for about 47 million other Americans who live beneath the official poverty line, as well as under a daily judgment of failure.
The question today is: Whose failure?
In this storied “land of opportunity,” where those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps are exalted, any failure to do just that is reflexively disparaged: “If you fail to succeed, then you must be lazy. You didn’t try hard enough. So you deserve to sleep in a doorway downtown or maybe in a park.”
Yet the official numbers reveal an altogether different reality: The vast majority in poverty are not those we see begging at stoplights. In 2012, 2.9 million Americans worked full-time jobs and still lived below the poverty line. Some 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and it’s worse for African American youth—38 percent—and Hispanic children—34 percent.
You don’t have to crunch many numbers to see that having a permanent underclass is neither natural nor inevitable but is, in fact, a choice our society has made. Consciously.
For the very wealthy, top marginal tax rates have been lowered from 91 percent, when Lyndon B. Johnson became president, to 39.6 percent by 2013 under President Obama’s administration. Those were intentional changes to the tax code that widened the gap between the rich and the rest. And, starting around 1994, policy changes encouraged offshoring of U.S. jobs, and corporations moved to downsize domestic workforces, shrink wages, and destroy pensions.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared his War on Poverty. Yet, in less than a decade, demagogic politicians began refocusing the nation on a new foe. America’s leaders retooled from our noble War on Poverty to a cynical war on crime. The term “criminal” came to mean poor people, usually with brown or black skin. If you were poor, you were not just the problem; you became the enemy.
“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning,” explained Warren Buffet, the billionaire who became a traitor to his class by calling for higher taxes on the wealthy.
If we want to do something about poverty, our first step is crucial: Change the story. Stop believing the myths: that “we’ll always have poor people” or that “the poor deserve their lot.” Accepting these fictions will assure more poverty and send more money upward to transnational corporations and the superrich—who will spend it to further manipulate a political process that already has made inequality more extreme in America than in any other developed country.
This issue of YES! looks at strategies Americans can choose—or already are choosing—that can help us write a new story, one that shows how the wealthiest nation in history can choose to eliminate poverty, reduce inequality, and include all of us in a New American Dream.
Dean Paton wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Dean is executive editor of YES!
It was an outrageously ambitious goal—a 64 percent pay hike to more than twice the federal $7.25 an hour minimum wage. But in a short time the Seattle City Council met the demands of workers and organizers, unanimously approving the first $15 minimum wage in the nation. Read more about how it happened here, and meet some of the workers on the front lines below.
For low-wage workers, Seattle's minimum wage increase means a chance to go to school, pay the rent, and visit the dentist.
Portraits and interviews by Betty Udesen.
Imeleta Noa, 51
Noa works 36 hours a week and is paid $10.53 per hour as a home care provider. She lives with her husband, their 14-year-old son, plus three other family members in SeaTac.
The Noa family likes living near the airport because it is convenient for travel and to have visitors. Noa’s husband, Liu, is disabled. After a friend told her about the campaign to raise Seattle’s minimum wage, Noa got busy with the phone bank, calling other caregivers. Now that Seattle and SeaTac have set the national minimum-wage bar, Noa is hopeful the movement will spread. She took part in rallies and made a three-day bus tour to campaign in other cities. She speaks passionately about her continued involvement. “With a raise in pay, I’ll be able to pay the bills, especially the rent, and maybe we can have a little vacation,” she says.
Brittany Phelps, 23 and Martina Phelps, 22
Brittany makes $9.52 per hour. Martina makes $9.47 per hour. Both work full-time at McDonald’s in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Brittany’s daughter, Emonie Phelps, 5, marched with her mother and aunt, chanting “What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!” She says her favorite thing to do is “play outside.” Her mom doesn’t let her out to play in the South Seattle neighborhood where they live, saying it’s too dangerous. With the increased minimum wage, Brittany hopes to move out of her mother’s 2-bedroom, 1-bath apartment that is currently home to five people. Both women have college degrees. Martina hopes to get her own place to live and to return to school for a degree in cosmetic chemistry so she can make beauty products for skin and hair.
Sam LeLoo, 19
LeLoo makes $9.57 per hour at McDonald’s in North Seattle.
This is his first job. He lives with his mother and 3-year-old sister in a townhouse in Shoreline and rides the bus for transportation. LeLoo got involved with the movement to raise the minimum wage a few months before the fast-food-worker strike. He didn’t have an opinion on whether Seattle voters would approve the $15 minimum wage. He simply knew he had to take a stand. With his upcoming raise, LeLoo sees college as “the first stepping stone to where I’m going.” He used to want to be a game designer, but now he’s thinking of becoming a counselor or something similar, “because it’s real, and I can make a difference.”
Colton McMurray, 24
McMurray works as a sales associate at Red Light Vintage & Costume in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He makes $10 per hour and works 31 hours a week.
“I basically make a little over $500 each paycheck,” he says. “Half my paycheck goes to rent, and the rest to groceries, commuting for work, phone, and laundry.” He rents a room in a home in the University District, a 15-minute bus ride from work that costs him $5 per day. “Growing up, you think that once you have a job, things are going to be easy, but it’s not that way. Stressing about money for food is the worst—deciding whether to spend my last $5 to get to work and back or to spend it on something to eat on my lunch break.”
As for his goals? “I’d love to have my own amazing online vintage store or a little boutique. Meanwhile, I think it would be nice to live your life when you’re young and not be worried about having the dollars to get to work. And, it would be nice to go to the dentist.”
Jason Harvey, 43
Harvey makes $9.32 per hour at a Ballard neighborhood Burger King, his employer for the past eight years. He’s scheduled to work 28.5 hours a week but often gets called in to work extra hours. He takes the bus.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” says Harvey of his pending wage increase. “I might be able to get my teeth fixed. My three front teeth are broken. There’s a program with the VA that, for $50 a month, they’ll take care of everything. I just can’t afford that with what I’m making now.” Harvey is a Navy veteran. “I still love America and the freedom that we have here.”
“The wage increase will give me a greater level of opportunity,” he says. “I’m 43 years old, probably not ever going to be able to buy a house, but at least I’ll be a little more comfortable in my own surroundings.” Harvey says, “I don’t really feel like I’m a part of mainstream society. I haven’t gone out to see a movie in three or four years, or to a concert, the zoo, or aquarium for about five years. I save up to do Karaoke once a month.”
Ubah Aden, 40
Aden makes $10.95 per hour as a home care aide. She lives in Tukwila with her brother and her three children, ages 7, 9, and 13.
“There are a lot of people in my shoes,” Aden says. “They’re not earning enough money to pay their bills.” She recently moved to Washington state from Atlanta to be near her parents. “They are getting older, and they’re the whole reason I’m getting into health care.” She explains that as she went through her training and met other caregivers, she was “shocked” to learn how low their pay would be. “My eyes were opened to the whole [minimum wage] thing.” So she got involved in the movement to raise it to $15. “I believe in saying what is right,” she says.
At age 17, she was the first of her Somali family to leave a refugee camp in Kenya. After earning her citizenship, Aden sponsored 12 family members to come to the United States. “I’m glad it passed in Seattle,” she says. “Everybody deserves to have better pay. I hope it will pass across the state and across the nation.” Aden also works as a medical interpreter, making “more than $20 an hour.” She is about to begin a position with Neighborcare Health. She is also taking night classes, with plans of a future working in public health.
This photo essay was compiled by Betty Udesen for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Betty is a pioneer in multimedia reporting that combines still images with field-recorded sounds and interviews. She has done projects in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Central and South America, and Israel as well as in her hometown of Seattle. Her work has been recognized with two first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. For more of her photographs, visit www.udesen.com
When the financial crisis of 2008 sent U.S. automakers to the precipice of failure, conservatives, notably Mitt Romney, urged the Obama administration to let the car companies go bankrupt. Neoconservatives blamed “high wages” paid to unionized autoworkers for the inability of GM, Ford, and Chrysler to compete. In his book The Crash of 2016, author Thom Hartmann points out a flaw in the argument that high wages to American workers are the problem. He says:Actually, Germany paid their autoworkers about $67 an hour (including wages and benefits). But the United States paid its average worker only $33 an hour (also including wages and benefits). On top of that, German car manufacturers were highly profitable, despite the comparatively large paychecks of their workers. BMW earned a before-tax profit of 3.8 billion euros, and Mercedes-Benz hauled in profits of 4.6 billion euros.
So how did Germany just completely blow up the myth that car companies have to pay their workers less to be more profitable and manufacture more cars? How can Germany do the opposite: pay their workers more, be more profitable, and make more cars?
The answer: democracy.
First, Germans have completely democratized the auto plant by unionizing nearly every single autoworker in the country—under IG Metall, the German autoworkers union. With such a high union membership rate, autoworkers hold a lot of sway when they threaten to go on strike. That’s how workers have been able to keep wages high and working conditions satisfactory. But as Horst Mund, the head of the International Department of the German autoworkers union, pointed out, unions hardly ever go on strike in Germany “because there is an elaborate system of conflict resolution that regularly is used to come to the sort of compromise that is acceptable to all parties.”How did Germany just completely blow up the myth that car companies have to pay their workers less to be more profitable and manufacture more cars?
One reason for the more collaborative relationship between CEOs and workers is that, unlike in the United States, unions aren’t under attack and there aren’t any “right to work for less” zones in Germany to which car manufacturers can flee so they can ignore the voice of organized labor.
Another and perhaps more powerful reason is that there is a constitutional amendment in Germany that forces corporate executives to listen to labor unions. The Works Constitution Act requires every factory to set up a works council that gives representatives of the workers a seat at the table in every decision-making process at the factory. That is the democratization of capitalism, expanding the decision-making process to not just the corporate elite but the entirety of the company, from the bottom up.
This, according to Mund, is the real reason why the autoworkers union has a loud voice in the German economy. Pointing to the adversarial relationship between employers and labor unions in America, Mund says, “The accusation that American unions are more radical and destructive … definitely has to do with the hostile environment in which the unions have to act. How can they be constructive and friendly if their asses are kicked all the time?” He goes on to say that without the Works Constitution Act in Germany, “employers would not talk to us either if they had the choice.”
But intentions aside, the empowerment of labor unions in Germany and the democratization of the workplace through an enforced constitutional amendment have been an economic boon for Germany, as demonstrated by car sales, employee wages, and profitability.
As Mund concludes, “We have strong unions, we have strong social security systems, we have high wages. So, if I believed what the neo-liberals are arguing, we would have to be bankrupt, but apparently this is not the case…the economy is working well in Germany.”
So how do we democratize capital in the United States and give workers more of a say in how our economy is run?
Thom Hartmann wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Thom is a writer, activist, and talk show host. This column is an excerpt from his latest book, The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America—and What We Can Do to Stop It (Twelve Books, 2013). Used with permission of the publisher.
This infographic was featured in The End Of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. It was adapted from Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith. Random House Publishing Group, 2012, 592 pages.
Inequality and poverty are suddenly hot topics, not only in the United States but also across the globe. Since the early 1980s, there has been a growing underclass in America. At the same time a much smaller class, now called the superrich, built its wealth to levels of opulence not seen since France’s Louis XVI. Despite this, the resulting inequality went mostly unnoticed. When the Great Recession of 2008 hit, and the division between the very wealthy and the rest of us came starkly into focus, various people and groups, including the Occupy movement, began insisting more publicly that we tax wealth. But still, helping the poor has been mostly a discussion on the fringes. At last, the terms of public debate have changed, because inequality and poverty now are debated regularly in the mainstream media and across the political spectrum, not solely by labor, by the left, and by others imagining a new economy.Inserting such a controversial topic into mainstream discourse is French economist Thomas Piketty. His 700-page tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, shocked everyone this year when it made The New York Times bestseller list and bookstores found themselves backordering an economics book for legions of eager readers. Piketty did exhaustive searches of tax records from Great Britain, France, and the United States, going as far back as the late 18th century in France. Using sophisticated computer modeling and analyses, the professor from the Paris School of Economics debunks a long-held assumption—that income from wages will tend to grow at roughly the same rate as wealth—and instead makes a compelling case that, over time, the apparatus of capitalism grows wealth faster than wages. Result: Inequality between the wealthy and everyone else will widen faster and faster; and, without progressive taxation, his data show we’ll return to levels of inequality not seen since America’s Gilded Age.
Piketty, no Marxist, says a solution lies in a “confiscatory” tax on wealth: Tax salaries over $500,000 at 80 percent worldwide, and tax wealth at 15 percent worldwide. Every year.
Unless we can reverse the inequality trends of the past 35 years, Piketty says, the ensuing social chaos will eventually destroy democracy. Unfortunately, not even Piketty sees much chance of all nations on Earth simultaneously enacting his tax plans.
But at least he sparked a widespread discussion. And fortunately, others have been digging deeply, thoughtfully into the same questions, and they have some practical as well as achievable ideas for reversing poverty and inequality trends.Investigation
Pulitizer Prize-winner Hedrick Smith authored a pageturner called Who Stole the American Dream? Despite his whodunnit title, Smith reveals the perps long before you finish the book. The former New York Times reporter uses data and real-life stories to build a case against American CEOs and the politicians who do their bidding.
Between 1945 and 1973, Smith notes, U.S. workers’ productivity grew by 96 percent, and they were rewarded with a 94 percent increase in their wages. Between 1973 and 2011, years that parallel a collapse of the middle class, U.S. workers’ productivity grew by 80 percent, yet those evermore-productive employees saw only a 10 percent increase in their wages. Millions who created that wealth were thus pushed into poverty or to its precipice, while those who fancy a neomedieval economic system transferred billions in profits, generated by that labor, upward to themselves.
Gar Alperovitz is a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland. Like Smith, Alperovitz asks a question with his book’s title: What Then Must We Do? To be more accurate, he might have called it “Here’s What We’re Already Doing”—to create fresh models that can inspire a new economy.
What makes Alperovitz’s ideas valuable is that he not only lays out an array of alternatives already keeping people from poverty, but solutions we also can build upon to create strategies that, over time, might replace corporate capitalism.
And replacing capitalism no longer is farfetched. In 2013, Alperovitz was invited to address the Academy of Management, a group mostly of corporate advisers and business school professors with 20,000 members worldwide, “and the entire focus of the meeting was: Is capitalism over?—and, if so, where are we going?” Alperovitz pointed out during an extended conversation. “Even these people are now open to new ideas.”
Smith makes a similar point. The American system is now so obviously broken that even some corporate leaders are calling for a “domestic Marshall Plan” to repair our economy. From their thinking and others, he puts forward a proposal to reclaim the American Dream.
Start, he says, by creating a public-private partnership to generate 5 million new jobs rebuilding infrastructure—bridges, highways, and rail corridors. Increase government investment in science and high-technology research to bolster U.S. innovation and spur a manufacturing renaissance.
Make income tax fairer, which will decrease inequality, then fix the corporate tax structure so it promotes American jobs and curtails outsourcing. At the same time, force China to live up to ethical trading principles because that would generate up to 4 million U.S. jobs.
We can cut the Pentagon budget by $1 trillion—not much more than 10 percent of annual military spending—over the next decade, Smith says, and pump the money into this domestic Marshall Plan. We should also refinance millions of homes now “underwater” and strengthen safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
The bad news: Much of this new Marshall Plan depends on congressional action, where such ideas have little chance as long as the current gridlock prevails.
“Changing America’s direction will not be easy,” Smith says. “It will happen only if there is a populist, grassroots surge demanding it, like the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s.”
Our political system is as broken as our economic system. But Americans could mobilize to reform electoral politics and reduce the influence of money in elections. And for those who are disenchanted with government, Smith recommends that they take a look at how well it’s working for the mobilized and active financial superclass.In the meantime
While we’re working on mobilizing to take back our democracy, we can start from the bottom up to “democratize wealth,” as both Piketty and Alperovitz say we must. Alperovitz puts less faith in top-down institutions than does Smith (the subtitle of What Then Shall We Do? is Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution ). He lays out bottom-up solutions already in practice across America that offer superior alternatives to the status quo. Here’s a sampling:Worker ownership.
It’s not just little startups and co-ops. Alperovitz points to the company ranked 48th on the Forbes list of the largest U.S. private companies: Hy-Vee, a Midwestern supermarket chain that currently has more than 69,000 employees and more than $8 billion in sales, is owned by employees through a profit-sharing program. W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex, has been owned since 1974 by its workers—currently more than 10,000 in 30 countries generating annual revenues of about $3 billion.
Already, some 11,000 companies employing 10.3 million people operate under such employee stock-ownership plans, with more forming regularly.Social enterprises.
Pioneer Human Services, in Seattle, is a textbook example of this model, a form of democratized ownership that uses the money it earns as well as the enterprises it creates to achieve broader social purposes. According to Alperovitz, a large portion of Pioneer’s $67 million annual budget comes from businesses it created. The organization produces thousands of machined parts for Boeing, caters more then 1,500 meals a day for hospitals and other facilities, and employs almost 1,000 people usually classified as impaired or unemployable. Pioneer is but one of many such social enterprises doing good and democratizing wealth.Traditional co-ops.
Alperovitz says that more than 130 million Americans—more than 40 percent of the population—belong to one or more co-ops. Not just food co-ops but also agricultural co-ops, electric co-ops, insurance co-ops, retail co-ops (such as REI) and retailer-owned co-ops (such as ACE Hardware), health care co-ops, high-technology industry co-ops, artist co-ops, and credit unions. The Alliance to Develop Power, in Western Massachusetts, has developed what Alperovitz calls an $80 million “community economy” of housing co-ops and other cooperatively controlled businesses.Community development corporations.
Almost 5,000 such organizations now operate in larger U.S. cities. These primarily incubate small businesses and develop low-income housing. In Newark, Alperovitz says, the New Community Corporation employs about 600 neighborhood residents, manages 2,000 housing units, and has built up $500 million in assets. Profits from its businesses, which include a shopping center, help support day-care and afterschool programs and a nursing home.Land trusts.
Hundreds of these exist today, both urban and rural. By taking land out of the speculative market and democratizing ownership, such nonprofits prevent gentrification and support low- and moderate-income housing with development profits. By 2012, Alperovitz says, 255 land trusts were operating in 45 states and the District of Columbia.Government-owned and operated businesses.
Today, more than 50 percent of cities larger than 100,000 are making municipal equity investments in local business. Now is the time, Alperovitz says, to expand these investments to co-ops, employee-owned businesses, social enterprises, and nonprofit land development. “If you’re going to get serious about systemic change—not just ‘projects’—you’re ultimately going to have to consider what government does,” he says, “and how it can be used to further the vision and the model you affirm.”
Already forms of this are happening from Cleveland to San Diego. One of the first was Boston, which in 1976 renovated historic Fanueil Hall, transforming it into Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a downtown retail center with 49 shops, 18 restaurants and pubs, and 44 pushcarts. Instead of turning things over to its joint-venture partner, Rouse Company, the city kept the property under municipal ownership and took profits in lieu of property taxes from Rouse. The strategy earned the city 40 percent more revenue that it would have collected in taxes.
Another example: More and more cities are building—and owning—hotels and using the profits to shore up their emaciated budgets. Dallas, Texas, not known for left-wing collectivism, opened the city-owned $500 million, 23-story, 1001-room Omni Dallas Hotel in 2011.Transform too-big-to-fail-banks, "Building from the bottom up, over time, is actually how you transform systems.”
and other private corporations that teeter on insolvency, into public utilities. The next time Bank of America’s risky scams threaten to implode the world’s economy, Alperovitz says we should bail out the bank—and assume public ownership of the corporation. If that idea seems radical, it arose from the militantly conservative economists of the Chicago School of Economics during the Great Depression.
“Every industry should be either effectively competitive or socialized,” wrote Harry C. Simon, one of the school’s revered thinkers. Simon and seven of his conservative colleagues proposed a “Chicago Plan” that called for public ownership of Federal Reserve Banks, nationalizing the creation of money, and turning private banks into highly restricted savings-and-loan associations.
Or, in Alperovitz’s 21st century version, “Take them over; turn them into public utilities.”Need for strategy
Plenty of other ideas for democratizing wealth exist now, all of which can start small and scale up to large, even national enterprises that provide wellpaying jobs. But, Alperovitz cautions, “What hasn’t happened yet is that people haven’t seen this change strategically; they’re mainly developing ‘projects’—and I think the next level will be when people begin to realize that this could be a powerful strategy, not just for building a movement, but actually for building political power.”
At the moment corporations “certainly have the power. But I’m a historian; I think in decades,” he says, “not months. Power comes and goes. It could take 20, even 50 years,” adding that in the face of so much money and corporate power “it might not be possible to change the system.
“Or,” he adds, after a perfectly timed pause, “as in the case of ending apartheid; as in the case of the American Revolution; as in the case of the French Revolution; as in the case of the women’s revolution; as in the case of the fall of communism—building from the bottom up, over time, is actually how you transform systems.”
Last week, we published a piece by Laura Flanders that showed how worker-owned cooperatives can help lift poor families out of poverty. The piece focused on the largest co-op in the United States, Cooperative Home Health Care Associates.
That co-op is also the subject of this short film, which profiles some of its founders, owners, and workers, and takes you deep into the day-to-day decisions that go into making this powerhouse co-op a lasting success.
Before Zaida Ramos joined Cooperative Home Care Associates, she was raising her daughter on public assistance, shuttling between dead-end office jobs, and not making ends meet. “I earned in a week what my family spent in a day,” she recalled.After 17 years as a home health aide at Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), the largest worker-owned co-op in the United States, Ramos recently celebrated her daughter’s college graduation. She’s paying half of her son’s tuition at a Catholic school, and she’s a worker-owner in a business where she enjoys flexible hours, steady earnings, health and dental insurance, plus an annual share in the profits. She’s not rich, she says, “but I’m financially independent. I belong to a union, and I have a chance to make a difference.”
Can worker-owned businesses lift families out of poverty? “They did mine,” Ramos said. Should other low-income New Yorkers get involved in co-ops? She says, “Go for it.”
New York City is going—in a big way—for worker-owned cooperatives. Inspired by the model of CHCA and prodded by a new network of co-op members and enthusiasts, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council allocated $1.2 million to support worker cooperatives in 2015’s budget. According to the Democracy at Work Institute, New York’s investment in co-ops is the largest by any U.S. city government to date.
Cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by their members on the basis of one member, one vote. Given enough time, worker-owned cooperatives tend to increase wages and improve working conditions, and advocates say a local co-op generally stays where it’s founded and acts as a leadership-building force.
“There is no greater medicine for apathy and feelings of living on the edges of society than to see your own work and your voice make a difference,” says a report on co-ops by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in New York.Selling the council on co-ops
This January, as a new mayor (who ran on combating inequality) and a progressive majority of the City Council were taking office, the Federation’s report inspired Councilmember Maria Del Carmen Arroyo to think about co‑ops. “A bulb went off,” she said.
Arroyo, incoming chair of the Community Development Committee, represents a South Bronx district that’s still one of the poorest in the nation, even after years of “development.” National retailers, attracted by tax breaks, typically pay low wages and squeeze out local businesses. Partly in response, the Bronx is also home to an array of co‑ops, from the large CHCA to the small Green Worker Cooperatives, which incubates local green businesses.New York’s investment in co-ops is the largest by any U.S. city government to date.
When Arroyo convened a first-of-its-kind hearing on co-ops this February, New Yorkers packed not one but two hearing rooms at City Hall.
Among the co-op members who testified was Yadira Fragoso, whose wages rose to $25 an hour—up from $6.25—after becoming a worker-owner at Si Se Puede, a cleaning co-op incubated by the Brooklyn-based Center for Family Life. Translation at the hearing was provided by Caracol, an interpreters’ cooperative mentored by Green Worker Cooperatives.
By spreading risk and pooling resources, co-ops offer people with little individual wealth a way to start their own businesses and build assets. That said, if starting and sustaining a successful cooperative business were easy, there would probably be more of them.
As of January 2014, just 23 worker-owned co-ops existed in New York, of which only CHCA employed more than 70 people. Nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, roughly 300 worker-owned cooperatives average 11 workers each. Lack of public awareness and funding, as well as a weak support system, holds co-ops back, researchers say, and cumbersome city paperwork doesn’t help.A working model
CHCA is over 90 percent owned by women of color and yet (because of the co-op’s many owners) it hasn’t qualified as a minority- and women-owned business, Arroyo told the hearing. (Such businesses enjoy privileges in bidding for contracts.) “There’s no earthly reason we can’t change that,” Arroyo said.
If they are to change anyone’s life for the better, though, co-ops have to be successful businesses, and that’s hard, says Michael Elsas, CEO of CHCA.
The co-op was founded in 1985 on the premise that if workers owned their own company they could maximize their wages and benefits, and if workers were better trained and better treated, they’d offer better care to their clients. Creating the worker co-op was the first step. But to truly change life for their workers in a race-to-the-bottom industry such as health care, the founders knew they’d have to change the industry.“There is no greater medicine for apathy...than to see your own work and your voice make a difference.”
To that end, CHCA worked on several connected tracks. To raise industry standards, not just for CHCA workers but across the field, CHCA started the worker-run Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI) that trains agencies across the country while also fighting for policy shifts. (PHI was instrumental in the campaign that recently expanded the Fair Labor Standards Act.)
To better address the needs of home care clients, in 2000 they created Independence Care System (ICS), a multibillion-dollar managed-care company, which contracts with the city to work with chronically sick and disabled adults. With ICS, CHCA filled an unmet need while also creating its own primary customer to fuel the co-op’s growth. ICS is responsible for 60 percent of CHCA’s business, and the co-op has grown from 500 workers in the late 1990s to 2,300 today.
Workers become “owners” with a buy-in of $1,000, paid over time. Of today’s 2,300, some 1,100 are worker-owners, Elsas says. The company had $64 million in revenues in 2013. They’ve raised wages, but more important to workers like Ramos are the regular hours, the family health insurance, and membership in the Service Employees International Union Local 1199. In short, respect.
CHCA occupies two floors of a new office building on Fordham Road. Peer-mentors answer caregivers’ calls at desks, with plenty of cushioned sitting-room space for talking. In the PHI training lab, there are no model plastic dummies. Workers in training learn what it’s like to be both caretaker and patient.
Wages for CHCA’s health care workers stand at $16 an hour including benefits, Elsas says. It’s not affluence, but it’s still almost twice market rate. Workers enjoy guaranteed hours—an average of 36 a week, compared to an industry norm of 25 to 30. They’re paid for business meetings, and in a state where the CEO-to-minimum-wage-worker pay ratio stands at 405: 1, the ratio at CHCA hit its highest (11:1) in 2006. Turnover stands at 15 percent, compared with an industry standard close to four times that.
“If I didn’t like it here, I wouldn’t have stayed all these years,” Ramos says.
Asked about New York’s new co-ops, CHCA’s Elsas hesitates. He’s all for making it easier for co-ops to get contracts, but he’s concerned about scale.
“I’m just not sure that setting up 26 new small co-ops will help change policy or practice,” he says.We needed a new approach to workforce development that would not only reduce poverty but also promote upward mobility.
Helen Rosenthal was changed by a small co-op: Her mother started one of the first nursery co-ops in Detroit, and she saw how lives improved. Now she chairs the New York City Council’s powerful Committee on Contracts, where she’s helping push the co-op legislation. “With co-ops, democracy is built into the legal DNA,” she said.
Administered by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), the city’s new funds will go to 10 nonprofits (among them, Green Worker Cooperatives and the Center for Family Life). The groups must create “234 jobs in worker cooperative businesses, reach 920 cooperative entrepreneurs, provide for the start up of 28 new worker cooperative small businesses, and [assist] another 20 existing co-ops.”
With so few co-ops in existence, creating more is better, says Hilary Abell, author of a new study from the Democracy Collaborative titled “Pathways to Scale.” More is better. Co-ops thrive in a mutually supportive ecosystem. “But the biggest need right now is certainly for larger businesses, capable of hiring 100 workers and up,” she says, adding that start-ups may not be the best path to scale: “There are 200,000 small businesses in the U.S. today, employing half of all America’s workers. Most have no succession plan.” Might some be ripe, she asks, for takeover by their workers?
After 92 years of the Federation’s fight against poverty, its leaders are clear: “Making sure that a safety net exists is not enough to help New Yorkers have satisfying lives. We needed a new approach to workforce development that would not only reduce poverty but also promote upward mobility, and that’s where co-ops can be an anchor,” says Wayne Ho, FPWA’s chief program and policy officer.
Funding for supportive nonprofits is not the only thing co-ops need from cities. In Spain, Northern Italy, Quebec, and France, robust worker co-ops benefit from laws that help co-ops access capital and public contracts. In New York, even as public dollars flow to big businesses as incentives, public spending is on the chopping block. The first city-sponsored trainings with a new, cooperative-inclusive curriculum started this summer, but passing co-op-friendly laws is going to take political power—of the sort that elected today’s progressive city leadership.
This $1.2 million won’t end poverty, but it’s a step in the right direction, says Christopher Michael of the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives. “We have all the raw ingredients of a successful policy initiative: engaged groups, a bit of a track record and support in the city council…
“This is just a start.”
Laura Flanders wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Laura is YES! Magazine’s 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer, founder, and host of “GRITtv with Laura Flanders.” Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.
Living the New Economy is a major event slated for Oakland, California October 23-26.
LNE Oakland is designed to be different from any event you’ve attended before. Drawing inspiration from hackathons, conferences, networking events, festivals, and jams, the result is a unique event that has components of each. More than a conference, this is a convergence.
The first two days will be provide opportunities for you to “hear about thriving New Economy projects, identify gaps and opportunities, and find out how you can plug into the New Economy on a personal level.” During the second two days the New Economy principles will be explored and “participants will collaborate in teams to develop a business idea, program, art project, or anything that supports the transition to a New Economy.”
Get tickets NOW to receive substantial early bird discounts available until August 15. Register and get tickets here.
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I will be giving a free presentation in Tucson on August 18 to show local small businesses how to create liquidity based on their own capacity to produce desired goods and services.
Details can be found at: https://beyondmoney.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/2014-tucson-flyer-local.pdf
Even if you don’t live anywhere near Tucson, I’m sure this will be of interest to many in your network so please help to get the word out. Our communities cannot afford to be complacent. We need new creative approaches to economic development, and locally controlled exchange alternatives are a key requirement to future prosperity, resilience, and a sustainable world.
This presentation will be recorded and made available on this website following the event.
Thomas H. Greco
In a move that has many on the left cautiously celebrating, Reuters reported on July 28 that Germany might reject a new trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.Some commentators see Germany's move as proof that organizing against the new round of trade agreements is gaining ground.
The deal is called the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA. It’s part of a new wave of large, aggressive trade deals that also includes the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the European Union, and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) between 12 countries of the Pacific Rim.
If all the deals passed, they would affect more than half of the world’s economy. But the red light from Germany could signal that these agreements are not as inevitable as their advocates suggest.
Germany’s objections are centered specifically on the so-called “investor-state dispute settlement” provisions in CETA. These provisions—also known by the acronym ISDS—allow transnational corporations to take legal action against individual governments if they believe that the country’s domestic laws violate a trade agreement. And the legal disputes happen through arbitration, which is a way to settle disputes completely outside of the involved countries’ courts.
We’ve seen this movie before. Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) stipulates that three-person panels of private attorneys decide who wins in disputes between corporations and individual governments. These proceedings are closed to public observation.
The fallout has been dramatic: Corporations have used the NAFTA tribunals to win big-ticket monetary settlements from the taxpayers of nations whose domestic laws interfere with corporate profits. According to a report by the consumer-rights advocacy group Public Citizen, there are 17 pending claims in which corporations are seeking a total of $38 billion through NAFTA and other deals.
The compensation won through these claims hits particularly hard in Argentina—the most frequent target of these cases according to a 2014 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. In one example, Argentina was ordered to pay $185.3 million to the energy company BG Group, who sued for profits lost when the country froze gas prices in 2001.
Argentina is not alone: another report by the same U.N. group shows that 66 percent of investor-state cases initiated in 2012 were brought against “developing or transition economies”:
Meanwhile, the number of corporate claims has been on the rise: The UNCTD’s report from 2014 shows that in 2002 there were fewer than 100 known treaty-based ISDS cases. By 2013, that number had reached 568—a five-fold increase over 11 years:The cases settled through NAFTA’s dispute resolution tribunals show corporate and investor rights trumping national sovereignty and domestic laws. Exxon Mobil won $60 million from Canada in 2007 because local regulations required oil companies to pay to support research and development in the country’s poorest provinces. U.S. energy company Lone Pine Resources is seeking CA$250 million in damages because the firm “expended millions of dollars and considerable time and resources” on a fracking project before Quebec banned fracking in 2011—a decision Lone Pine called “arbitrary” and “capricious.”
Opposition to these provisions is not limited to the political left. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has taken issue with investor-state dispute provisions in trade agreements like the TPP and TTIP. The institute’s Free Trade Bulletin argued in March that investor-state dispute settlements are “an unnecessary, unreasonable, and unwise provision to include,” and suggests sacrificing the provision in order to save the trade agreements.Some implications
Germany is no stranger to similar dispute settlements. After the country decided to phase out nuclear power following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, the Swedish energy firm Vattenfall filed for arbitration to seek €3.5 billion ($4.6 billion) in damages, blaming the country for past and future loss of profits.Not everyone is convinced by the messages coming out of Berlin.
Considering how that worked out, Germany’s change of heart is perhaps to be expected. But some commentators see the move as proof that global organizing against the new round of trade agreements is gaining ground. Arthur Stamoulis, director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, noted that “The German government and other governments are starting to feel the heat from public opposition to [investor-state dispute settlements].”
Yet not everyone is convinced by the messages coming out of Berlin. Peter Fuchs, executive director of PowerShift, a Berlin-based NGO focused on international trade and investment policy, expressed skepticism toward the idea that German opposition will sink CETA.
“Unfortunately, you cannot trust this government at all when corporate interests are at stake,” Fuchs said, calling the German government “a staunch proponent of neoliberal trade and investment agreements.”
According to Fuchs, this is a time for the public to ramp up pressure by calling on politicians to reject the trade deals. He pointed to the upcoming European Citizens Initiative against TTIP and CETA as one campaign aimed at making that happen.
However seriously one takes Germany’s apparent about-face, the development has emboldened the fight against the agreement. And with a growing chorus of skeptics from both left and right, these problematic provisions seem newly vulnerable, as do the agreements overall.
As Arthur Stamoulis told YES, “With renewed activism, corporate power grabs like CETA, TTIP and the TPP … really can be stopped.”
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.