This article originally appeared at Dissent.
The first thing you notice about Reading, Pennsylvania, the small city that lies an hour and a half north of Philadelphia, is its many parks and muscular civic buildings. Mount Penn anchors the east of the city with a steeply landscaped park and a historic district of graceful homes. The Blue Mountains rise in the distance.Localists are trying to rebuild social relations in communities hurt by disinvestment, not just create jobs and growth.
“This is all WPA [the federal building program during the Great Depression] and the socialists,” says Bill Vitale, an architect who serves as chair of the Mayor’s Sustainability Committee, waving his hand at the park’s greenery. Reading was one of those rare cities, like Milwaukee, whose working-class voters regularly elected socialists to represent them both in the statehouse and in the mayor’s offices from 1910 to the mid-1940s. In Reading, the socialists were the good-government party, and their administrations extended and modernized the sewer system, built playgrounds, and turned private-sector jobs into better-paying municipal ones.
Before I arrived, civic leaders warned me that because of its good bones, I wouldn’t be able to tell at first glance that Reading was under Act 47, the Pennsylvania law governing municipal bankruptcy, or that it is one of the poorest cities of its size in the nation. Just over 39 percent of its 88,000 residents lived in poverty in 2013. Many of them are the working poor: Reading’s unemployment rate in the summer of 2014 was about 6 percent.
Bill’s Khaki makes its clothing in Reading and electronics and appliance factories still operate there; manufacturing employs a quarter of the city’s workforce. But the city is rapidly deindustrializing, and that decline can be blamed, along with the attraction of more suburban parts of Berks County, for hollowing out the comfortable working class. A once thriving middle class now hovers at 20 percent of the population.
“All the takers left the city,” says Dean Showers, president of Steelworkers Local 6996. “They took all they could take and are gone. Now if you’re not working to give, you’re not going to be successful.”
Showers and Vitale are among the civic leaders working with Mayor Vaughn Spencer to improve people’s lives, create living-wage jobs, and green the economy using a more democratic and localized style of economic development. They serve on the Mayor’s Sustainability Committee to mobilize those civic initiatives to rebuild Reading that supplement the official actions taken by the city administration. Their work started even before the mayor was elected in November 2011, when civic leaders met to plan how the city could avoid the draconian actions—such as selling off public assets like the city’s water authority and appointing private consultants to run the city—often taken by cities under Act 47. After Mayor Spencer took office in January 2012, their interest expanded to nurturing worker co-ops along with other “solidarity economy” approaches that are designed to create more democratic control of businesses, finance, and utilities. If these civic leaders succeed, one might be able to call Reading one of the new “solidarity cities” on the horizon.
Despite the impoverished state of their city, these activists believe they have enough local resources to realize their vision. At any rate, they feel they have no other choice since little help is coming from the state and federal government.
“Part of it is understanding that in a globalized economy we have to re-localize as much as possible to keep money circulating here,” says Eron Lloyd, the 34-year-old special assistant for policy and sustainability who returned to Reading, his hometown, to join the effort. “The first step is understanding that the status quo does not work. We’ve done everything you can do from a conventional [economic development] standpoint. We had all these fancy financial instruments right before everything collapsed in the stock market and we lost our shirts.”Today, three of the mayors who have championed co-ops as a way to build jobs in poor communities are African American.
Like most cities, Reading lures employers with tax incentives. It is tempting to give subsidies to bring even a hundred jobs into town, but that overlooks small businesses that have been the nation’s top job generators over the past fifteen years. As Lloyd says, “Once those incentives are over, they [the big employers] can leave,” adding, “We’ve been trying to learn from failures in urban policy.” Lloyd served on the Act 47 committee before the mayor was elected. So did Lenin Agudo, who now leads the city’s community development office for Mayor Spencer. A board member of the Berks County Latino Chamber of Commerce, he had been director of Kutztown State’s Latino Business Resource Center (LBRC) based in Reading, a majority Latino community. Now he promotes small-business development—a key part of the city’s “localist” agenda—from inside city hall, with a new federally funded program offering grants of up to $30,000 to lower- and moderate-income business owners.
This localist agenda is part of Mayor Spencer’s ambitious program to create a fairer and more sustainable local economy whose businesses stay put and where money spends more time circulating locally among networked enterprises. His administration is promoting worker cooperatives, energy efficiency, public banking, a local “food shed” and urban agriculture, remunicipalization of jobs (like the Socialists before them), and creating new jobs by reclaiming the city’s waste. No other current city administration in the United States, to my knowledge, is embracing such a broad range of “solidarity economy” strategies (although Spencer himself doesn’t use that specific term) to promote the well-being of its residents. And few other city administrations also face such steep challenges.What’s the solidarity economy?
In this hemisphere, the “solidarity economy” idea first took root in Latin America and Quebec in the 1990s. It was popularized in North America by activists during the U.S. Social Forum in 2007. American activists were inspired by participatory budgeting in Brazil, a process where citizens get to vote on how to spend public money; by workers occupying abandoned factories in Argentina in the wake of its 2001 financial crisis and making them worker-owned; and by other examples of cooperative and democratic challenges to neoliberal approaches to the economy that had dominated the continent for decades. Quebec was long a center of cooperative businesses; the Desjardins Group, a credit union network owned by its depositors, is one of Canada’s largest financial institutions.
And residents took for granted another key strategy of the solidarity economy—government ownership of key enterprises like electricity generation. But the solidarity economy movement truly blossomed as a phenomenon in Quebec in the 1990s, resulting in the government launch of Chantier de l’Économie Sociale du Québec to promote cooperative and other social enterprises including nonprofits. Public money gave the sector a huge boost in that decade. Quebec unions took on a leadership role as well and their pension funds remain an important source of capital for the growth of this democratic sector of the economy. The solidarity economy is a “prefigurative” movement, which aims to create a model of the kind of society it envisions by creating democratic institutions run by workers (or farmers or consumers or citizens) themselves.Worker-owners rarely outsource their own jobs and their enterprises seem to be surprisingly resilient during downturns.
Black America’s long tradition of co-op banks and other enterprises is another source of inspiration for solidarity economy activists. Civil rights activist Ella Baker was director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League in the 1930s, and as economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard has documented in her pathbreaking research, black people pooled their resources to create mutual insurance companies, relied on consumer co-ops through the Great Depression, and established agricultural co-ops during the Populist era and through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives starting in 1967. Today, three of the mayors who have championed co-ops as a way to build jobs in poor communities are African American: Reading’s Vaughn Spencer, Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi (who died in Spring 2014), and Dwight Clinton Jones of Richmond, Virginia.
The work of political scientist Gar Alperovitz has been vital to the solidarity movement as well as a direct inspiration to those in Reading (with whom he has met). Alperovitz and his allies at the Maryland-based Democracy Collaborative advocate democratizing the economy by creating ties among existing networks of land trusts, consumer and worker cooperatives, employee stock-ownership programs, and credit unions. In their view, these endeavors provide the base for “community wealth-building” and a more egalitarian future. This vision echoes the “cooperative commonwealth” advocated by late nineteenth-century Populists and socialists. Markets would be left intact, but government would step in to advance the interests of the great majority.
A more obvious stream of inspiration for Reading’s civic activists is “localism,” a largely middle-class movement, often of small-business owners, which challenges the inevitability of globalization by promoting local small enterprises, municipal ownership, and sustainable local economies. Like solidarity-economy activists, localists are trying to rebuild social relations in communities hurt by disinvestment, not just create jobs and growth. Localism is visible in the growing prominence of the 40-year-old “think and do tank” Institute for Local Self-Reliance and organizations such as the 22,000-member Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which the City of Reading has joined. Like solidarity-economy activists, localists are refusing to accept their weakened influence on the economy and public policy in the face of corporate power. Like solidarity-economy activists, many embrace municipal ownership of utilities or even champion cooperative ownership. But it is a diverse movement and at its worst, localism can be “reduced to shopping at farmers markets and local stores” and “turning your back on the world’s environmental and social problems,” as scholar David Hess warns. In addition, some localists are skeptical about the role of unions in building economic alternatives.
As it happens, several cities with healthier economies than Reading are also adopting some of the same ideas. In New York in June 2014, with the support of the powerful Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and the local cooperative movement, the City Council, under progressive leadership, appropriated $1.2 million to launch new worker co-ops as a way to fight poverty, inspired in part by immigrant-owned cleaning co-ops. Some of their members increased their hourly wage to $25. (However, the power of cooperation is not infinite. Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, the largest worker co-op in the country, pays only $10 an hour plus benefits given the constraints of the health care market it operates in.) Perhaps more importantly, New York City’s small business support network is now promoting worker co-ops. In Madison, Wisconsin, starting in 2016, Mayor Paul Soglin will spend $1 million a year for five years on co-op development.If these civic leaders succeed, one might be able to call Reading one of the new “solidarity cities” on the horizon.
But it is elected officials in smaller, gritty cities who view the systematic building of local economic democracy as a form of survival. Other “solidarity cities” in the making could include Richmond, Virginia, where Mayor Jones hired political scientist Thad Williamson, a longtime collaborator of Gar Alperovitz, to lead his new Office of Community Wealth Building starting in the summer of 2014.
In Richmond, California, outgoing Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin helped launch the Richmond Worker Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund (RWCRLF), providing small loans to co-op businesses; she hired seasoned co-op developer Terry Baird as part of her Worker Empowerment Based Economic Development Initiative in 2011. “There are three benefits to co-ops,” McLaughlin said. “Job creation, democracy in the workplace, and local wealth building.” Facing a 17 percent unemployment rate, she embraced this development strategy after a fall 2010 visit to the Mondragon network of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, the largest co-op in the world. While Baird is no longer on staff, the city has not abandoned the strategy. Her winning “Team Richmond” slate for city council in November 2014 promoted the idea of the city giving co-op businesses additional points when selecting vendors and contractors. The mayor-elect Tom Butt won a resounding victory against candidates backed by the city’s largest industry, Chevron.
Jackson, Mississippi, is the Southern pioneer of the solidarity economy. Neighborhood assemblies organized by the black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Movement helped win the election of Mayor Lumumba as part of its campaign to promote worker cooperatives and local jobs using municipal resources. Many city services like garbage pickup are provided by white contractors who don’t even live in the city; Lumumba and his allies wanted to train local residents to form co-ops to bid on the city contracts themselves, and they organized the inspiring Jackson Rising conference last May to start that process. Lumumba, however, tragically died before the conference even took place, and the movement has sought to retain its momentum after one of Lumumba’s rivals was elected to succeed him. In November, Cooperation Jackson issued an ambitious call for $500,000 in donations to launch the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, along with a community land trust for residential and commercial properties and an urban farm in West Jackson. The activists want to build a “Mondragon of the South” using a community development corporation as the hub.
Reading reformers are not abandoning traditional economic development strategies enticing larger employers—as one leader said, “in an economy that is struggling, it’s not whether it’s a co-op but whether an enterprise is viable.” Indeed, they are challenged by civic activists like Sheila Perez who says, “there’s a lot of reasons we’re in a financial hole—Keystone Opportunity Zone is able to claim exemption from taxes!” And somehow, she points out, the big giveaways to developers and businesses don’t end up in the hands of Latinos, even though they make up 61 percent of Reading’s population.
But the Mayor’s staff and Sustainability Committee also want jobs that are more likely to stay put, and this is a big reason why they are promoting worker cooperatives. Worker-owners rarely outsource their own jobs and their enterprises seem to be surprisingly resilient during downturns.
“I’ve been interested in anything where workers could control their own destiny,” said Dean Showers, the local Steelworkers president. “We had about 2,400 members spread out over sixteen employers a little over ten years ago. Each year we’ve seen that erode. This year, we have only about eight employers and 600 workers.” When I met Showers at the office building his union had recently bought, meeting in a nearby room were steel-tube workers from nearby Hofmann Industries who had been locked out for 173 weeks.Localists are refusing to accept their weakened influence on the economy and public policy in the face of corporate power.
Conversions of existing businesses to worker ownership tend to be among the most successful co-ops, since they don’t face the deadly challenges of a startup. But industrial conversions require a lot of capital to buy out the owner. Showers struggled to save one local smelter by converting it to a co-op. Although his union, the United Steelworkers, forged an alliance with Mondragon in 2009, Showers says he didn’t receive much support from its leadership. On the other hand, offering inspiration is the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative, an alliance of unions including United Food and Commercial Workers, USW, NAACP, local universities, Mondragon USA and others, which has already launched a unionized farm and distribution co-op and an energy retrofitting co-op.
The local Laborer’s Union is also interested in taking ownership of a demolition company. But it looks like the first worker co-op the mayor’s Sustainability Committee will create will result from expanding Philadelphia-based Home Care Associates, which has 200-plus members. Unlike its counterpart in New York, this branch of HCA is not unionized. But an affiliate of the United Way, which was launched by local unions, will take charge of training the worker-members of the new home care co-op in Reading.
Vaughn and his allies want to create greater reciprocity among local institutions, for instance by borrowing the “anchor institution” model of economic development in Cleveland, promoted by Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative. In Cleveland, a major hospital, university, and the hospitality industry became the clients for new worker cooperatives, including an industrial laundry and hydroponic farm, so their purchasing power provides good jobs for low-income residents. Sustainability Committee member David Myers, a former aide to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell now based at a local Roman Catholic college, is leading the charge in this area and an industrial co-op laundry for local health networks seems most viable.
Mayor Spencer and his allies also want to keep money circulating in Reading longer. Reading has two credit unions. But unless they receive accreditation as a “community development” credit union (CDCU) serving a low-income or other underserved group, these financial institutions are barred by laws—promoted by the banking industry—from giving business loans over $50,000. Rather than promote CDCU status in Reading, Spencer hopes to create a city-owned bank—like the state bank in North Dakota, which began in 1919 as a project of the left-wing Nonpartisan League. A former top aide to Spencer served on the board of the Pennsylvania Public Bank Project, and its chairman, Mike Krauss, drew up a strategy document for Reading. “Right now, as in most local governments, we’re dealing with large banking institutions like Wells Fargo,” Spencer explains. “When it comes to investing in the city, they are not interested. Put our monies into a community bank that is committed to giving loans locally—it helps money circulate, builds small businesses, and builds our local economy.”
Even in the midst of stiff financial and political challenges, the mayor and his team have gone beyond the idea stage in a few areas. They turned recycling, once contracted to a private company, into a municipal concern. Now 10 local workers earn a living wage with the city. Just as Cooperation Jackson is trying to do, Reading launched a CDC dedicated to coordinating alternative forms of economic development to supplement the existing initiatives. Called Redesign Reading, it was created by four city authorities—parking, water, housing, and redevelopment—as well as the City and the Reading Downtown Improvement District. The three authorities provide the funds for its operation.Mayor Spencer hopes to create a city-owned bank—like the state bank in North Dakota, which began in 1919.
While it is exploring creating a community land trust for housing, and supporting the development of worker-co-ops as staff for the Sustainability Committee, thus far, ReDesign Reading is most visible from its efforts to enhance Reading’s livability and attractiveness for newcomers through such projects as pop-up art exhibits in the downtown area, collective bike rides, and a volunteer-run bike shop.
Community broadband is another development goal, and ReDesign Reading explored the issue with Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. But Pennsylvania law creates huge barriers to community-owned broadband. “In 2004, Verizon basically went to the Pennsylvania legislature saying it’s unfair this little town of Kutztown built one of the best fiber-optic networks. Verizon said ... cities shouldn’t be allowed to compete with us unless they get permission first from an existing provider.” A national coalition is opposing these laws, now in place in nineteen states. Until then, Reading can only promote fast fiber-optic cable with its local provider or draw on a model from rural Vermont, where EC Fiber sold community shares to fund a community network.
The Institute for Local Self Reliance also worked with the city to create a waste-to-wealth plan, which, along with replacing city traffic lights with energy-saving models, anchors the mayor’s environmental plan. The program began by bringing recycling pickup in-house. But it also helped enlarge the mission of Opportunity House, a shelter and supportive housing nonprofit, so that it can become a reuse center that now provides low-skilled jobs. Promoting industries and co-ops that can employ the city’s poorly educated workforce while also investing in them is one of the Sustainability Committee’s priorities.
An expert in zero waste, Neil Seldman, the ILSR consultant, also connected the city to a Canadian paper-recycling company to set up a plant in the town, but the project is currently in limbo. Like the Mayor’s other initiatives, it faces opposition from a city council, which once worked well with Spencer when he was council president. (A bemused Seldman said he’s never seen elected officials oppose good paying jobs coming to town.) Local activists dismiss the opposition as stemming from thwarted ambition—everyone wants to be mayor! Indeed, council members failed to get on the fall ballot a proposal to shift to a city-manager form of government, with the city council president as leader.
On the other hand, council members faced an uprising of citizens who joined the mayor in opposing their plan this spring to basically dissolve the city water authority by leasing its operation to a private business. The privatization of assets that the Act 47 activists originally feared finally loomed. The council voted in the summer to dissolve the authority, then reversed course and negotiated for the authority to pay $8 million in leasing fees to the city (up from $3 million) to help with next year’s budget. There is a Keystone Kops quality to some of their actions that, in the end, support the status quo.
Sheila Perez, the civic activist, was one of a diverse group of citizens including a former city council member who circulated petitions that helped secure a vote in November for a requirement that citizens approve any sale or lease of city assets valued over $1 million. Despite low turnout, the city voted overwhelming to defend the water authority against privatization. “We busted our butts with the petitions, protecting the assets,” said Perez."Giving loans locally ... helps money circulate, builds small businesses, and builds our local economy.”
Even without a skeptical city council, the alternative economic development strategy faces a hydra-headed opposition from a variety of businesses, the state government, and some local residents. Pennsylvania bars public utilities from channeling funds to their city governments, putting the $8 million from the water authority in doubt and creating legal pressure for privatization of public assets. Banks weave a web of rules through their paid representatives in statehouses to ensure they will continue to receive government deposits; in New York, former Mayor Bloomberg couldn’t invest even a small share of city receipts into local credit unions because of one such rule in his state. Entrenched contractors don’t want to see municipalities bring jobs in-house or have the city require them to pay a living or prevailing wage that would raise the living standards of their workers. A group of city residents are suing Reading over charging a recycling fee; it turns out that, under state law, cities can only fund collections with grants from the state or by selling the waste. Meanwhile, businesses continue to fail or leave, taking jobs and tax receipts with them. The vital United Community Services, a potential hub to support worker co-ops and training for the new home care workers, lost a grant for $1 million and, like any nonprofit, is looking for funds to do its most innovative work. And as Luis Tejado, head of the civic group Dominicans United and a strong Spencer supporter explained, to keep the city running and pay arrears into the pensions of retirees, “They have to collect $2 million a month from 90,000 people.” People move to Reading for the affordable housing and then feel squeezed.
Against these obstacles, Mayor Spencer and his team can muster an energetic but narrow base of community leaders and local foundations. Theirs is like a movement of Progressive-Era reformers, mostly educated, mostly—though not entirely—white, and mostly middle class, in a city made up largely of working-class Latinos. Looking ahead to the mayor’s race for re-election in 2015 and the pressures of the Act 47 process, they are in a race against time and money; they need to fill pension coffers in order to dig themselves out of the city’s financial hole.It is tempting to give subsidies to bring even a hundred jobs into town, but that overlooks small businesses.
In the absence of a widespread movement, Reading civic leaders seek out support where they can. Co-op activists from Cincinnati come to talk about their success in starting unionized co-op businesses. The mayor’s staff search for ideas in ALICE, a database of model progressive state and local laws created by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. They think about empowering a demoralized constituency through participatory budgeting, where residents have a direct say in how the city spends some of its money. They are trying everything they can think of, including promoting structural changes to the economy. What I did not hear was confidence that the federal or state government was on their side, helping them find a way out of Act 47 bankruptcy or other ways to enrich their community.
“We’re a mini-Detroit,” said one civic leader, burdened by years of disinvestment. Or maybe, if somehow all their plans come to pass, they are building the city of the future.
Abby Scher wrote this article for Dissent, where it originally appeared. Abby is a sociologist and journalist. She is also an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and former co-editor of Dollars and Sense magazine.
Laid-Off Baltimore Workers Beat Disney in Court—And Ask All the Right Questions About Urban Development
My December 13 interview by Bob Prentice and Sandra Harshman on Bartertown Radio considered moneyless trading in general then zeroed in on what needs to be done to take credit clearing and private currencies to scale. To stream it or download it, click here.
Chuck Collins is a co-founder of JPNET and Polly Hoppin leads the environmental health program at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.
In 1996, Guatemalan immigrant Myra Vargas and her Venezuelan husband Ernesto bought J&P Cleaners, a neighborhood dry cleaner in Boston. But something always smelled funny.
“The chemicals we used—we knew they were not healthy,” Myra said. She stayed away from the shop when she was pregnant with her second child.The evolving local economy doesn’t have to use materials that make everyone sick.
Like most conventional dry cleaners in the U.S., J&P used a chemical called perchloroethylene, known in the industry as “PERC.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified PERC as a “likely human carcinogen.” Because it can be absorbed through the lungs and skin, it is primarily a threat to employees of dry cleaning businesses, who are subjected to it throughout the workday. But customers are also exposed when the chemicals seep out of clothing into the air in their homes.
California is phasing out the use of PERC in dry cleaning, requiring all businesses to discontinue its use by 2023. But regulations in most states, including Massachusetts, focus on limiting air emissions and promoting safer ways to dispose of chemicals, while continuing to allow the chemical’s use.Thriving local businesses can also be safe
In J&P’s Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, toxic chemicals are used by many local businesses. These include dry cleaners, beauty and nail salons, automotive repair facilities, and most restaurants and retail establishments, where industrial cleaning substances are used. Many are owned and operated by recent immigrants and people of color.
Meanwhile, Jamaica Plain has higher rates of certain types of cancer than Massachusetts as a whole. When the Massachusetts Department of Health crunched the numbers in 2011, they found that Jamaica Plain’s rate of brain cancer in men was more than 275 percent higher than the state’s; when the department averaged all forms of cancer together, the rate among males was 20 percent higher, while the rate for women was 18 percent higher.
Of course, the causes of cancer are multiple, and scientists debate the percentages of the cancer burden that are attributable to various causes. But even taking the low estimates of cancer caused directly by environmental exposure, pollutants are responsible for tens of thousands of cases of cancer in the United States each year. Particularly for certain kinds of cancers, it is clear that environmental pollutants play an important role—one that people can do something about.
Historically, most attempts to take action on this issue have focused on closing down offending businesses or cleaning up messes created in the past. But no neighborhood with high unemployment wants to push out jobs or raise costs on small, locally owned businesses. The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JPNET), a local community group, has approached the issue differently—in part because its members consider themselves part of the “new economy,” an effort to build a resilient economic system that supports local, independent business while promoting sustainability.“We want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households.”
“We want to be proactive and help existing businesses adopt healthier and safer processes, attract more customers, and thrive financially,” said Carlos Espinoza-Toro, lead organizer of JPNET. “In a gentrifying urban neighborhood, we want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households.”
JPNET teamed up with researchers at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to create the Cancer-Free Economy Project, a neighborhood-based group designed to help local business avoid toxic substances. They mapped local cancer patterns, identified chemicals likely to be used in the neighborhood, and picked dry cleaners, beauty salons, and auto businesses as places where they could make the greatest difference.
JPNET organized a number of community forums to educate the public about local cancer rates, chemical exposures, and actions residents could take. One forum focused on helping local artists identify the “hidden hazards of the art studio,” and considered how artists could reduce their exposure to toxic substances.
“A lot of us have put on pink shirts and marched to raise money for cancer treatment,” said Mary Wallace, a local realtor and member of JPNET. “So it is refreshing to focus on some of the root causes of cancer, rather than treating an expensive epidemic.”Can our local economy be free of carcinogens?
Groups that see themselves as part of a “new economy movement” often focus on building community resilience to face the economic and ecological shock waves of the future. At JPNET, this has meant strengthening the local food and energy systems; creating an “enterprise hub” to support businesses that share its worldview; building a time exchange network; cultivating emergency preparedness, and other projects.
After learning about cancer rates in Jamaica Plain, JPNET set out to explore how a transition to a “new economy” could also be cancer free—or at least involve significantly lower use of toxics.“It is refreshing to focus on some of the root causes of cancer, rather than treating an expensive epidemic.”
That goes against the grain of the mainstream economy, where the chemical industry has seen rapid growth over the last 70 years. But this growth has increased everyone’s exposure to hazardous chemicals, whether through manufacturing, selling, or consuming mass goods, and it especially affects people of color, who often live in historically lower-income neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain.
“With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread,” the President’s Panel on Cancer reported in 2010.
The members of JPNET felt that reducing the number of toxic chemicals in their environment should be an important part of the transition to a new economy. The evolving local economy doesn’t have to use materials that make everyone sick.One laundry goes green
Community organizer Espinoza-Toro approached all the existing dry cleaners about the possibility of converting away from PERC. Several of the owners were nearing retirement and uninterested in converting. Then he met Ernesto and Myra Vargas at a green cleaning demonstration at a suburban cleaner. The Vargas family owned a dry cleaner in the adjacent neighborhood of Roslindale and wanted to expand to Jamaica Plain.
JPNET worked with J&P Cleaners to explore what it would take to replace the hazardous solvent PERC with a green alternative to dry cleaning called “wet cleaning.” Professional wet cleaning uses water and nontoxic detergents in computer-controlled machines, and is a proven alternative to the dry cleaning process.
Some dry cleaners claim to be “green” because they have transitioned away from PERC, but most of these still use harmful chemicals. A comprehensive “alternatives assessment” by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute concluded that professional wet cleaning saves energy and water, and is the safest alternative for human health.
But the cost of conversion is about $80,000, mostly for new equipment purchases—a big expense for a small business. The Vargases also expressed concern about whether their customers even wanted a “green dry cleaner.”
JPNET worked to organize local government, customers, hospitals, and investors not only to help J&P make the conversion but also to become the first professional wet cleaner in Boston. The group secured a $15,000 grant from the state and organized a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $18,000 from neighborhood residents. This also got a lot of local publicity for J&P and attracted new customers.
On September 11, J&P Cleaners opened its new Jamaica Plain location, which uses the wet cleaning process. JPNET has subsequently reached out to a local hospital, a hotel, several nursing homes, and other businesses about steering their dry cleaning to J&P Cleaners.
Along with eight other professional wet cleaners in Massachusetts, J&P is demonstrating that shifting away from reliance on hazardous chemicals is good for customers, workers, and neighbors—and good for business too.
“I’m thrilled with our wet cleaning,” said Myra Vargas at their grand opening. “The whites are whiter. We use less energy and water. I don’t pay to have toxic chemicals hauled away. There is no chemical smell in the store. What is not to love?”
Chuck Collins and Polly Hoppin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions is a senior scholar. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good and co-founder of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition.
Polly Hoppin co-leads the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production’s work to build a multi-organization national network to shift the U.S. economy away from reliance on chemicals that contribute to cancer.
In this edition:
- Upcoming interview—December 13, 11 AM Eastern time (8 AM Pacific time)
- My New Course Offering — Principles of Exchange Innovation
- Report on California Tour
- Major conference upcoming, June, 2015
- My next book?, + video projects
I have accepted an invitation to be the featured guest on Bartertown Radio on Saturday, December 13.
Bartertown Radio, which describes itself as “your educational station for Trade,” is a Live Radio Talk Show every Saturday Morning at 11:00 EST ( check your local time please). My interview will be all about moneyless trading and exchange innovation, particularly as it applies to the commercial trade exchange business. To listen in and/or share your thoughts you can call 1-347-989-8557 for the show. Calls can be made using any phone or by using your Skype account which provides calls at very low cost especially for those living outside the U.S.
My New Course Offering — Principles of Exchange Innovation
As the years pass I become ever more aware of time as a scarce commodity, and as the global mega-crisis intensifies, I feel a greater urgency about the need to transcend the global interest-based, debt-money system that is driving us to destruction. Thus I am eager to pass on to the next generations the important insights and discoveries I have made over the past 35 years. I am intent on doing this in ways that will have a greater impact than the presentations, workshops and writings I have been producing over the past many years.
While I relinquished my formal academic career decades ago in favor of independent inquiry, scholarship, writing, and consulting, I remain a teacher a heart and am making it my highest priority to offer a course in the Principles of Exchange Innovation. I am quite sure that there is no other course like this anywhere, and I am uniquely qualified to conduct it.
It is my intention to guide dedicated cadres of change agents through an intensive process of inquiry, discovery, and planning to bring to market revolutionary structures and processes for value exchange that promote a sustainable economy and have the potential to usher in a new equitable and peaceful economic paradigm.
I am willing to go wherever suitable venues might be found. I’ve considered offering this as an online course, and that can be one component of it, but I believe that the impetus toward timely and effective action requires the continuity and intensity that comes from the regular face-to-face interaction and ongoing collaboration in a classroom setting.
You can find the detailed course description and syllabus here: https://beyondmoney.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/principles-of-exchange-innovation-course-syllabus.pdf.
Prospective course participants and host institutions are invited to fill out the short form at http://wp.me/P43RA-Ea. If you know of other institutions, departments, or individuals that might be interested in participating, please pass this along to them.
My two week trip to California in October could not have been better. It started with the Living the New Economy Convergence that was held in Oakland, October 23-24, and ended with a delightful visit with my dear friends, the Lub family, in Napa and Martinez. In between, I gave another presentation at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, attended an open house at the new Oakland offices of Berrett-Kohler Publishers, and conferred with several long-time friends and colleagues.
Living the New Economy Convergence
The convergence was the best conference I’ve attended in many years—well organized, with excellent presenters, and participants that were enthusiastic, well-informed, and intelligent.
A few of the presentations, including one of my own, were recorded by Bitcoin magazine. My presentation during the panel on The Future of Value Exchange can be found in my blog post here. Links to the others can be found here, and a few photos that I took at the Convergence can be viewed on my Picasa Web gallery. If you would like to see a more detailed report on this event, check out this one on the Shareable website.
The convergence was followed by a two day “hackathon” that gave participants an opportunity to brainstorm together and propose ideas, collaborations, and business projects. Sergio Lub’s pictures from that part of the event (October 25) are on his Flickr site.
The event at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) on the evening of October 30, was very gratifying, drawing about a dozen participants, many of whom I’ve known and worked with over the past several years. My presentation titled, The Evolution of Money and its Potential to Improve Humanity, was followed by a lively discussion that went on for more than 2 hours. The entire proceedings were video recorded by Sergio Lub and can be seen via my blog post at BeyondMoney.net.
The day before I left to return to Arizona, Sergio and I visited our friends who run the Sonoma GoLocal project. This is an exciting project that goes well beyond the conventional “buy local” agenda.
A few years ago, Sonoma GoLocal initiated a merchant rebate program, which is gradually becoming more popular. According to Terry Garrett, about 17,000 swipe cards have been issued to consumers and there are now 53 merchants offering “Reward Points,” with each merchant choosing their own percentage rate of rebate that varies from 2% to 10%, with the median rate being 5%.
Over the past year they have experienced a growth rate of about 20% in both the number of participating merchants and the number of cardholders. Between January1 and September 30, 2014, the amount of transactions involving either issuance or redemption of Reward Points was about $3.8 million with that number expected to reach $5.5 million by year’s end. Sonoma GoLocal has been publishing both a printed pocket guide and a free bi-monthly magazine that help to make the project financially viable. You can see some photos from our meeting, including cover photos of the publications here.
I would like to make everyone aware of a major conference that is upcoming next June 4-7. This conference, to be held on the campus of Pomona College, located in Claremont, CA, is the result of several events held in conjunction (10th International Whitehead Conference, 9th International Forum on Ecological Civilization, Inaugural Pando Populus Conference, Pilgrim Place Centennial Celebration, and Process & Faith Summer Institute) and will consist of 12 Sections divided into approximately 78 Tracks. Each Track will have 8 sessions, which will be 90 minutes each.
After my meeting with renowned philosopher and theologian, John Cobb, a couple years ago, he invited me to participate in this conference which he was then helping to plan. I will be presenting in Section I, The Threatening Catastrophe: Responding Now, Track 6, Political Collapse: The Alternative. You can get all the details, and register at http://www.ctr4process.org/whitehead2015/.
My next book?, + video projects
I’m aware that in today’s information-rich environment people tend to be overloaded and getting their attention is becoming ever more difficult. Short videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or other video showcases are probably the best bet for getting a message across. I’m hoping to find someone with the requisite editing skills to help me parse some of my recorded presentations into short topical lessons. That, combined with a new book aimed at the mass market, might attract the kind of attention, and provide the essential information needed to dispel false beliefs that prevail in the minds of the general public and stimulate the kinds of fundamental structural changes that are becoming ever more urgent. I’m inclined to give this new book a provocative title, like Everything You Know About Money (And Banking) Is Wrong! It would follow a question and answer format that presents first a fundamental question, then the orthodox answer and prevalent belief, then the truth of the matter as I have come to see it.
This project is of course a major undertaking, and if it is to achieve the kinds of results hoped for, calls for some skills and resources that exceed my own. Collaborators and suggestions are invited.
Finally, on a personal note, after spending the summer in Bisbee, I’ve reestablished myself in Tucson, sharing a house on the far east side, close to the Rincon Mountains and Saguaro National Park. Though a bit distant from downtown, it is in a lovely, peaceful setting—rather ideal for creative work.
My accustomed robust health has been disturbed in recent months by some digestive difficulties. A course of medication and a combination of dietary changes and natural supplements seem to be resolving the worst of it and I’m hopeful that I’ll soon be back to normal.
Best wishes to all for a Happy Holiday Season, and may the coming year bring a great leap forward in creating a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.
In June, I attended an event in Boston that signaled to me that the concept of the New Economy—and the grassroots movement behind it—had come of age.
The event was the conference of the New Economy Coalition. The halls were full of students, cooperative leaders from the deep south, climate justice activists from Native reservations, labor leaders, and others identifying with the New Economy.
Folks who had been at conferences such as this for years were also there—farmers, Main Street business owners, sustainability entrepreneurs, and big thinkers. But suddenly the movement felt bigger. A diverse set of communities is coming together in a shared recognition that our economic structures are the root cause of many different crises.
The New Economy Working Group, based at the Institute for Policy Studies, formed just six years ago. The group was one of the first to adopt the term “New Economy” to describe an economy that supports ecological balance, shared prosperity, and deep democracy. Now, many individuals and organizations are using that term.
I have been struck that even as the New Economy movement diversifies, its advocates are converging regarding the actions to take, including:
- Place ownership in the hands of real people, not globalized corporations;
- Localize control of food, energy, land, housing, retail;
- Advance cooperative enterprises where workers share in profits and decision-making;
- Shift from fossil fuels to renewables and from destructive to regenerative agriculture;
- Expand credit unions, community banks, and public banks so that finance benefits communities rather than Wall Street;
- Reform trade rules to reduce the power of global corporations and enable local economies to flourish;
- Adopt a worldview that we humans are part of the ecosystem and our economy must work with nature rather than against it.
The ideas are not new. Some are ancient. Many have been advocated for years in places deeply affected by poverty, pollution, and racism. What's changed is that so many communities are coming together under a common umbrella, forming new alliances and lifting up new messengers.The ideas are not new. Some are ancient.
For example, at a recent Praxis Peace Institute conference Michael Peck, who advocates union-cooperative alliances, told of a group of East African taxi drivers in Denver. The Communications Workers of America helped them form a taxi cooperative so they didn't have to work for an out-of-state company. The result? They increased their incomes, benefits, and well-being.
Many leaders are pointing out ways the New Economy movement can collaborate with the racial-justice movement, as Anand Jahi did in “My Cousin Was Shot Dead by a Police Officer: Here’s What it Means for the New Economy.”
As those identifying with the New Economy expand, the movement gains power. And a wider embrace brings the danger of cooptation. Corporations will be happy to put on a New Economy gloss. One already doing so is HBSC, which tags itself “The World’s Local Bank.”
To continue to grow its power and avoid cooptation, the New Economy movement must keep broadening its communities while maintaining its principles. Of special importance will be the principle that ownership of enterprises must be in the hands of real people who directly bear the consequences of their decisions, not in distant computerized markets. If the movement holds fast to its key ideas, its growing embrace can create what is truly a New Economy.
Every Christmas, my grandmother, a retired journalist and voracious reader of murder-mystery novels, used to send my parents money to buy each of my eight siblings and me a gift. The stipulation was: It had to be a book.It’s worth the extra time and effort to shop at local and independent stores.
Our “grandma book” gift tradition continues and, now, includes my three in-laws, and five nieces and nephews. The task of fulfilling seventeen book requests often falls to my dad.
Normally the great, Grinch-y grumbler this time of year, he brags that, thanks to Amazon, this is one Christmas to-do he can complete without having to leave house.
Well, this year, I’m asking my dad to do things differently, and shop locally. And luckily, the Institute for Local Self Reliance published the handy infographic below to help me explain why it’s worth the extra time and effort to shop at local and independent stores this holiday season.
Mary Hansen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Mary has a hard time staying in one place, but is known to write, edit, and be a die-hard Steelers fan. She is an online reporting intern for YES!
This month marks the 15th anniversary of the “Battle in Seattle,” the historic protest against the World Trade Organization in 1999. The author, a labor and community organizer for 31 years, was at the time director of Seattle Union Now, a joint project of the King County Labor Council and the National AFL-CIO.
“There can be no separate peace.”
If you spent any time with Tyree Scott, you probably heard him say that. It was a lesson seared into his experience through years of struggle—first, in militant closures of Seattle construction sites intended to pry open the building trades to black workers, and then, in uniting construction workers with progressive Filipino cannery workers and farmworkers.
When it came to the World Trade Organization—the international group that sets the rules of trade between nations—Tyree insisted that no single justice struggle could be resolved apart from others; we had to stand together. A union electrician by trade, Tyree played a low-key but pivotal role in the 1999 protests against the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle.At the big march downtown on Nov. 30, the two camps looked united—as long as you didn’t look too closely.
Now 15 years down the road and facing today’s tremendous challenges, contemporary workers and their allies would do well to heed Tyree’s call for unity.
This month in 1999, behind the street drama of tens of thousands of people battling police and world trade leaders, a raw, visible friction was growing within the broad movement. Would this diverse collection of protesters—aging French farmers and young anarchists, truck drivers and tree planters, radical students and cautious labor leaders—hold together, or would divisions implode the anti-WTO forces?
Intuitively, most of us involved in organizing the protests recognized that to make an impact we needed to stay united. Throughout the week, that unity was sharply tested. At times, it nearly shattered. And at a key moment, when the violent police reaction threatened to drive a wedge into the movement, Tyree intervened decisively to preserve a commitment that we would stand together, and not abide a separate peace.
You’re unlikely to read about that in any mainstream account. Tyree didn’t give dramatic speeches to thousands of people, pen famous editorials, or seek out interviews. He never pursued a position of status or broader recognition. But over his lifetime he combined a sharp internationalist working-class perspective with smart, militant action. By the time I met Tyree in the early 1990s, his organization, the prosaically named Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, was connecting rank-and-file workers from a dozen countries in substantive discussions about how to build a worldwide workers’ movement.
Tyree had the gift of being able to pluck clarity out of complexity. Often, in the years leading up to the WTO, when I was working as a union and community organizer, I’d go visit him when I was wrestling with a vexing problem. Stocky, with graying dreadlocks and round glasses on a round face, he would sweep aside my mental gymnastics about personalities, egos, and institutional concerns, and return the issue squarely to unity and class interests. His method was always direct but empathic. I would leave these meetings slightly humbled to not have seen through the fog as deftly as he did.
For Tyree, “no separate peace” was not some gauzy paean to unity, but a battle call for rank-and-file workers to take on a fight for their class interests—against corporations, and if need be, against their putative leaders in unions. Years of struggle against black workers’ exclusion from the building trades taught him that the problem was not just employers, but also shortsighted union leaders intent on preserving narrow institutional interests.There was nothing to be gained—and now a lot to lose—by mixing with those battling the police on the streets
He was withering in his condemnation of labor leaders who sold the working class short; for Tyree “no separate peace” was a challenge to all workers to think big and speak for themselves: “The low wages and exploitation of one will pull down the wages and conditions of the other,” he said. “Any advancement of one is tied to the advancement of the other. It is in this context that makes foreign policy, trade, and immigration central issues to the labor movement,” he said, defining the labor movement as all workers, not just those who paid dues to unions.
Going into the week of protest against the WTO meeting in Seattle, the tension within the movement was palpable. There were two main camps. The more radical was the loosely formed Direct Action Network, which included a wide array of environmental and human rights activists, many of whom were steeped in the confrontational strategies of civil disobedience. The Direct Action Network rejected the legitimacy of the WTO and was committed to blockading the ministerial meeting. Unions, led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, didn’t want to destroy the WTO, but rather to persuade the Clinton administration to give labor a seat at the negotiating table. Sweeney had affection for the younger protesters, but he was a conciliator, not a rabble-rouser. And since union leaders are more accustomed to bargaining than barricades, the question for the national AFL-CIO was, “What can we get from Clinton out of Seattle?”
And yet, at the big union-led march downtown on Nov. 30, 1999, the two camps looked united—as long as you didn’t look too closely. Colorful banners, enormous puppets, marching brass bands, and festooned delegations from around the world swarmed through the streets. Workers and environmentalists marched side by side, declaring “Teamsters and turtles, united at last.” More than 50,000 of us, from around the world and from every imaginable struggle for social or economic justice, marched united against unfettered world trade.
Union leaders were jubilant. But as the daylight faded and most of the protesters filtered out of downtown, it began to feel like we had birthed two separate movements: one that made its point and departed, and another that remained to confront the WTO and its police protectors.
I joined a group of labor leaders and organizers in a celebratory dinner Tuesday night at Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union.
“We’re done,” one leader declared. We’d made a powerful statement; union demands were now going to be taken seriously by President Clinton. There was nothing to be gained—and now a lot to lose—by mixing with those battling the police on the streets. We raised our glasses in a toast.
Our pagers and cell phones beeped throughout the meal, informing us of tear gas on Capitol Hill and rubber bullets and arrests downtown. Done? Especially for those of us who called Seattle home, it didn’t quite feel like that.
The following morning, Dec. 1, we joined the steelworkers’ rally on the waterfront—a city-sanctioned event outside Mayor Paul Schell’s newly declared “no-protest” zone downtown. After the last speaker had decried unfair trade, Teamsters union leader Bob Hasegawa grabbed the mic and challenged the crowd to stand up against the imposition of “martial law.”
“Brothers and sisters!” he cried. “They’re tear-gassing students downtown. Let’s-”
Someone shut the mic off on Bob.
We went anyway, probably 200 of us, and met up with a huge crowd of students at Second and Pike. Riot police in armored vehicles promptly ambushed us. Volleys of tear gas and concussive grenades sent us scattering in every direction. Police herded a group of protesters north, surrounded them just beyond the Labor Temple, and then cuffed them and bussed them off to Sandpoint Naval Yard. Union members spilled out of the Labor Temple and were appalled at the scene.
The police were angry, too; they didn’t want spectators, and they had the weapons to back up their wishes. They shoved us with nightsticks. One cop clubbed King County Labor Council leader Ron Judd. There’s nothing more radicalizing than a truncheon smack on the back of your neck. Judd returned to his office and started speed-dialing allies.Who were we, he asked, if we didn’t resist the ban on protests?
But the following day, Thursday, the movement was divided about how to respond. With Judd’s declaration that unions would fight back, movement leaders and activists had called for a mass rally at the Labor Temple for the next day—Friday at high noon. But what would we do? Enter the “no-protest” zone and risk mass arrests? Avoid provocation by marching outside the “no-protest” zone?
And what about the more than 630 people in jail, mostly young community activists and students? The debate was still unsettled Thursday night when 40 organizational leaders and activists met at the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office for a final planning session. It was a diverse lot—Direct Action Network activists, trade policy experts, radical students, Lawyers Guild representatives, union organizers, and Sierra Club staff, among others.
Some groups wanted a demonstration of unity but not anything that would provoke the police. The Direct Action Network organizers called for a march through the “no-protest” zone to the jail, to support a ‘round-the-clock vigil already underway demanding the release of the arrestees. There were many questions. How would we deal with hooligans who might try to hijack the protest with property destruction, as they had on Tuesday? Someone suggested we just do a big press conference. And what was the purpose of our action—should our focus be the WTO? Or the suspension of our right to free speech? Or the jailing of our colleagues? What are we demanding, and of whom?
For the first hour, speakers laid out their ideas, pressing their organizational positions passionately, gingerly avoiding incendiary provocations. Everyone sensed our unity was delicate. But the clock was ticking; tomorrow was coming fast.
At one point, a speaker suggested we needed to risk mass arrests. Teamster leader Steve Williamson spoke up. “Labor,” he said, “is not going to do it.”
The meeting exploded with overlapping shouting matches. Recriminations flew across the room. Suddenly, the battle lines that had simmered just below the surface all week emerged in stark relief.
“Who are you to come in here and say that?” Tyree said. “You don’t speak for labor.” Tyree had zero patience for union leaders who purported to speak for the broader working class.
In fairness to Williamson, he was as unfamiliar with the audience as they were with him. A longtime union organizer, he had absorbed more than his share of tear gas the previous night in a courageous stand with young protesters on Capitol Hill. But his words were poorly chosen, it was getting late, everyone was beyond exhaustion, and he didn’t know the group. I did, but I had my own distraction: urgent phone calls from top national AFL-CIO leaders, directing me to stop all organizing for Friday’s march. I had to step out of the meeting at a critical juncture to explain to my boss why I had no intention of cooperating with her order. This was my community; of course I would march.
Back in the room, Steve apologized. The tension lifted slightly. Perhaps the outbreak had released some of the pressure. Tyree spoke up again, more quietly. Who were we, he asked, if we didn’t resist the ban on protests, an attack on everyone’s rights? We had to march. And who was in jail? “These are workers too,” he reminded us. There could be no separate peace.We marched straight through the heart of the mayor’s “no-protest” zone.
With Tyree’s words fresh in our minds, we agreed to march downtown and then back to the Labor Temple. And, although our march would not lead to the jail as some had wanted, we agreed that anyone who wished to could go to the jail solidarity action after the march. With these plans we would be risking arrest, but if there were enough of us, and if we were disciplined, we might just succeed.
With that fragile agreement in place, we adjourned the meeting.
The next day, with jitters still reverberating in the coalition—a few unions boycotted the march, and a last-minute pullout by the Sierra Club was averted only by Judd’s emergency mediation—we marched straight through the heart of the mayor’s “no-protest” zone. On just a few hours’ notice, more than 5,000 people—teamsters, steelworkers, human rights advocates, grocery clerks, janitors, students, construction workers, faith leaders, domestic workers, office workers, retirees, health care workers, musicians, and university workers—came out to reclaim our downtown.
Chanting “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” we celebrated every delightful forbidden step down Second Avenue, left up University Street, and into the heart of downtown. We screamed as loudly and joyfully as our worn-out lungs permitted, our voices echoing through the canyons between the office buildings. Indeed, this was what democracy looked like. The police stood back. When we returned to the Labor Temple, a dance party erupted in the street.
Then we went to the jail. Hundreds of us trekked a second time across downtown, in small marches, knots of activists, or as lone pedestrians. The police dared not disturb us; we had wrecked the mayor’s ban.
We joined the hundreds of young activists already occupying the square outside the jail, giving courage to the detainees who waved their arms from behind the narrow windows and sending a message to city leaders that we wouldn’t go away until everyone was released.
Throughout the weekend, teamsters, longshore workers, construction workers, and others brought food, blankets, and tarps to the protest outside the jail. Religious leaders led an interfaith prayer service. And Judd pressed prosecutors to release the arrestees. He was a savvy negotiator, bolstered in this instance with a bit of leverage: The longshore union was threatening to shut down West Coast ports unless the jail doors were opened.
By the end of the weekend, the WTO ministerial meeting had collapsed in disarray, and our people were out of jail.
It’s easy in retrospect to trace an uncomplicated, made-for-TV narrative arc of WTO week, from the unity at the start, to the testing of our movement, to the restoration of solidarity leading to victory. But in the fog of tear gas, the cacophony of struggle, amid the raw emotions of trust and doubt, courage and fear, exuberance and exhaustion, deep compassion and blind rage, the right choices aren’t always self-evident and the path forward isn’t linear.By the end of the weekend, the WTO meeting had collapsed and our people were out of jail.
Life gets quite messy at street level. We make mistakes or allow creeping doubts to paralyze us. In a crisis, people often seek out commanding leadership to point the way; a Moses to provide clear answers, part the waters and lead us through. I’m grateful that we didn’t take that path, but rather trusted our instincts, struggled with one another, took risks, and heeded the words of a visionary worker who held no high office and sought no fame, but saw through the fog of battle and tenaciously pressed his conviction that there could be no separate peace on the streets of Seattle—or anywhere, for that matter.
Cancer stole Tyree from us in 2003, but his insistence on no separate peace provided an important lesson for our movement—one that we would do well to abide by more often today.
For five days in Seattle 15 years ago, the world watched as a popular uprising shocked world powers, teetered precariously, and—just in the nick of time—found its footing by remembering that we are all workers, and we had better stand together.
Jonathan Rosenblum wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jonathan is a longtime labor and community organizer.
- The WTO and the Myth of Activist Violence
- Young Climate Marchers: Support From Boomers Makes Us Feel Less Alone
Bank of Japan announces plan for massive inflation of the Yen, as US Fed curtails dollar monetization (QE). What does it mean for you?
A recent article in the Guardian (UK) reports that the Japanese central bank has announced plans to “inject ¥80tn (£447bn) a year into the financial system, mainly through the purchase of government bonds, in a bid to ward off the threat of deflation.”
Thus, Japan takes over much of the burden of keeping a flawed global money system alive, as the US central bank (the Federal Reserve) ends its own program of dollar inflation.
Bloomberg provides a “quick take” on the FED policy saying, “It was the biggest emergency economic stimulus in history and now it’s over. The U.S. Federal Reserve’s once-in-a-lifetime program to buy immense piles of bonds, month after month, in an extraordinary effort to restart a recession-deadened economy came to an end in October after adding more than $3.5 trillion to the Fed’s balance sheet – an amount roughly equal to the size of the German economy. The bond-buying program, called quantitative easing or QE, had been controversial since its start in 2009, as had the Fed’s decision in 2013 to gradually reduce the monthly economic boost, a plan that became known as the taper. Whether the Fed tapered too soon, given global economic weakness, or too late, given signs of bubbles in some markets, was hotly debated. But even after the taper’s end the Fed continued to pump support into the economy the old-fashioned way, by holding its interest rates near zero.”
As I’ve pointed out before, “Quantitative easing” is simply a euphemism for inflation of the currency (mainly by central banks buying government bonds and other uncollectable debt). Other things being equal, currency inflation eventually leads to price inflation. But other things are not equal. The US has indeed seen significant inflation of prices in some sectors, especially food, but other prices are being kept down, primarily because of layoffs and underemployment, leaving consumers with lower incomes and reduced purchasing power. If income from wages and interest on savings are held down, people must either do without or borrow more money to maintain their levels of spending. The following table from the Federal Reserve shows the growth in consumer credit over the past few years.Consumer Credit Outstanding ($ Billions) 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
As of 8/31 2,552.8 2,647.4 2,755.9 2,923.6 3,097.9 3,225.3
These figures cover most short- and intermediate-term credit extended to individuals, excluding loans secured by real estate.
Those figures show a more than a 26% increase in consumer credit just over the past four and one half years, much of it high-interest credit card debt. Although credit card debt has declined somewhat from its 2009 peak, according to nerdwallet.com, falling indebtedness is largely due to defaults rather than repayment.
The same site reports that, in total, American consumers owe:
- $11.63 trillion in debt, an increase of 3.8% from last year
- $880.5 billion in credit card debt
- $8.07 trillion in mortgages
- $1,120.3 billion in student loans, an increase of 11.5% from last year
Central banks find currency inflation necessary in order to offset the reductions in the money supply caused by charging interest on money that banks create when they make “loans.” There is never enough money in circulation to enable repayment of the aggregate of principal plus accrued interest of money created as bank “loans.” Thus the “natural” tendency of the usury-based debt-money system is toward deflation. Central governments then must become the borrowers of last resort and central banks become the lenders of last resort as bankers and politicians continue their absurd dance that is a death spiral of recurrent and ever more extreme financial crises.
The real solution to our monetary, financial, and economic problems is to end the usury-based debt-money system. But the bankers, the rulers of the world, will not stand for that. By control of the money creation process, they have extended their power to tightly control the political process, as well. Thus, the wealth and purchasing power of the vast majority of people will continue to decline as the system continues to pump up the wealth and power of the few who control the money system, and their minions.
According to the Fed, between 2010 and 2013, “mean (overall average) family income rose 4 percent in real terms, but median income fell 5 percent, consistent with increasing income concentration during this period.” And “Families at the bottom of the income distribution saw continued substantial declines in average real incomes between 2010 and 2013, continuing the trend observed between the 2007 and 2010 surveys.”
So, what can people and communities do to counter these trends and regain control of their economic fortunes and enhance their political power?
Considering the dynamics of power that prevail in the so-called democratic countries today, reliance on the political process to effect systemic reforms seems futile. So, while it is necessary to continue to protest the status quo and reframe the political dialog, it is even more important to take action to rebuild society from the bottom upward. We must reduce our dependence upon the very systems that are being used to disempower us, of which the political money system is foremost.
That is not so daunting as it might first appear, and conceptually it is not very complicated. It is what my work of the past quarter century as been all about. The biggest difficulties have had to do with dispelling erroneous myths about money and banking and helping people to see beyond the orthodox. This, and the lack of adequate tools have retarded the process of taking promising alternatives to scale, but that is quickly changing as new technologies that enable moneyless trading become available.
But don’t sit idly by waiting for things to happen “out there.” Start with your own personal development and empowerment, while working to strengthen your various communities and networks, your city, state, and region. Some tips to get you started can be found here. –t.h.g.
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The small city of Immokalee, Florida, provides produce to millions of people. It’s one of the country’s agricultural hubs, but with an average per capita income of $9,518, the majority of residents—many of whom are farmworkers—live well below the national poverty level.
“The wealth doesn’t stay here with us.”
That’s Lucas Benitez, founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and a former farmworker, in the new film Food Chains. The documentary, by director Sanjay Rawal and executive producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser, follows the Coalition’s fight for human rights and fair wages for tomato pickers. “There is more interest in food these days than ever,” the filmmakers write on the film’s website. “Yet there is very little interest in the hands that pick it.”
Rawal, who spent 15 years working in the nonprofit industry and several years abroad, was aware of the routine human rights abuses against agricultural workers overseas. “I had no idea that these same abuses could be happening here,” he told me. “I knew I couldn’t just focus on the problem, I had to focus on the solution.”
For Rawal, the most promising path out of this kind of exploitation comes from the Coalition’s strategy of organizing workers at the bottom to revolutionize entire supply chains.
In the 1990s, Benitez and a small group of other tomato pickers founded the Coalition to create a safer working environment in Florida’s fields and raise farmworkers' pay. In addition to winning wage increases, the group has been instrumental in fighting sexual exploitation, violence, human trafficking, and debt bondage on farms.
Many tomato pickers live in trailers with up to 16 other people during the growing season, since rent is otherwise unaffordable. Until recently, when Coalition organizers succeeded in increasing their pay, workers received 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they picked—a pay-per-piece practice that’s a holdover from slavery, according to the film. Pickers’ wages usually amount to less than $50 a day, and they work long hours under the constant threat of sexual assault and abuse. Because many are undocumented, crimes against them often go unreported.
In 2011, the Coalition launched the Fair Food Program, an project aimed at getting corporations to pay farmers an additional cent for every pound of tomatoes purchased. The program also demands that allegations of abuse and sexual assault on the farms are taken seriously.
Many large companies have already signed on—some of them after tenacious, drawn-out campaigning by Coalition members. Whole Foods, Subway, Walmart, and Chipotle are among several corporations that now comply with Fair Food Program standards.
Now, upwards of 80,000 Florida farmworkers—about 90 percent of the state’s total—are receiving the benefits of these protections. But Food Chains largely focuses on Publix, a major regional grocery chain in Florida, which has refused to meet with Coalition members or join the Fair Food Program, despite public pressure.
Part of what makes the Fair Food Program so successful is that the additional cost for tomatoes is offset to consumers: Since it’s distributed among millions of buyers, each family pays just pennies more per year. Plus, the program holds producers accountable: If they’re found guilty of inappropriately handling a case of sexual assault or abuse, for example, partner companies can’t buy their produce. In other words, if workers report an issue and a supplier in Florida doesn’t address it, that supplier won’t be able to sell to Subway or Whole Foods. Janice R. Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers, called it “the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the U.S.” earlier this year in The New York Times.
Julia de la Cruz, a Coalition member, says farmers are already seeing the benefits of the program. Workers now have a right to take breaks, to leave the farm when they feel threatened, and to report cases of sexual assault or abuse without fear of retaliation.
According to de la Cruz, farms are enforcing a zero tolerance policy against sexual assault. There have been cases where women have reported abuse, and those supervisors were investigated and fired. And that additional penny per pound of tomatoes? It’s a “significant economic relief for our workers, and our community,” she told me.
Rawal sees this fight in the American tomato industry as part of a bigger global issue. “More than 95 percent of the products that we purchase come through a supply chain system,” he said. And other, non-agricultural workers who produce for major retailers—like the Gap and Walmart—face very similar issues at the bottom of their respective supply chains.
Rawal and and his colleagues believe the Coalition’s model of grassroots organizing can be a solution for workers all over the world.
“This is not a film about oppression,” executive producer Eva Longoria told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes this week. “It’s actually about transformation.”
Watch the interview below. Food Chains opens on November 21. Click here to find out about screenings near you.
Nur Lalji wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Nur is a contributor to YES! based in the Seattle area. Follow her on Twitter at @nuralizal.
Thomas Greco’s presentation at the Living the New Economy convergence, Oakland, CA, October 23, 2014
At the recent Living the New Economy convergence in Oakland, I was the first speaker on a panel that addressed the question of the Future of Value Exchange. Here it is below:
If you would like to download the slide deck of that presentation, you can get it here. I had only enough time to show the first 15 slides; the other were included for possible discussion.
You can also find some of my other presentations and interviews on my YouTube playlist.
You can find video recordings of several other sessions from Living the New Economy convergence here.