Albany dysfunction deux : MTA fare hikes

Earlier today I blogged about New York’s Workers’ Compensation Board and its link to the dysfunctional legislature that is Albany. Now I get an email from the Working Families Party about the MTA fare hikes which said the following.

I’m sure you’ve heard that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) voted last week to raise fares by at least 25% on New York City subways, buses, Metro North and the Long Island Railroad.

They took this step because our state legislators in Albany failed to pass an alternative that would solve the MTA’s budget crisis without these painful fare increases.

So due to inaction in Albany, New Yorker’s are going to feel the pain? The WFP have started an online action (shout out to DIA!) to get people to contact their legislators to get them to propose a better solution than the one the MTA is about to impose. What’s also cool is a parallel action where they’ve created a clever poster that they want people to download and post all over the place. They then want you to take pictures and email them to clenchner@votewfp.org. Lastly, there’s the Facebook component where they’ve created a graphic that they are asking people to post on their wall or make it their profile picture. Now I may not be living in New York anymore (I’m in DC metro) but I still care about what goes on there! This fare hike is going to hurt millions!

Injured workers in NY know the true meaning of dysfunctional Albany…

Back in 2004 I remember all the hullabaloo about the Brennan Center report calling Albany the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation. This dysfunction is like a disease which has infected almost every aspect of government down to New York’s Workers’ Compensation Board.

From Consumer Reports:

The New York Times starts a new series today examining the challenges faced by injured workers in New York State, as they deal with the vast bureaucracy that is the state’s Workers’ Compensation Board. According to the paper, which spent 18 months investigating the issue, the $5.5 billion agency is a “subbasement of the legal world,” that “struggles to treat workers with due speed, protect employers from fraud or mute tensions in the workplace.”

When you click over to the NY Times article there is a paragraph that clearly links the dysfunction of the legislature to the other parts of New York’s government.

Though its commissioners largely function as a legal tribunal, most are not lawyers but relatives or allies of politicians, appointed usually without regard to experience in the field.

Is this “heckuva job Brownie” at the state level we’re witnessing? Now I know for a fact that there are some good Republicans and Democrats in Albany but clearly there aren’t enough good government types there to change things yet.

The race to the bottom

This is what you get when it’s “free trade” and not fair trade.

About 90 percent of the former mill workers surveyed last fall found some other form of employment by the end of 2008, but those workers rehired by service-sector companies such as Wal-Mart and The Home Depot complained they earn far less as non-union workers. Only 23 percent of those surveyed by Food AND Medicine still worked at union jobs by 2008, down from 93 percent in 2000.

These workers once had good jobs and were laid off. Now they’re in the service sector. By the way, this article in the Bangor Daily News sort of doesn’t state EFCA the right way.

The organization used the interviews to build the case for legislation aimed at increasing protections for U.S. workers, including the TRADE Act, which would renegotiate U.S. trade agreements, and the controversial Employee Free Choice Act, which would let workers unionize by having a majority of the work force sign authorization cards rather than using a secret-ballot election.

It makes it sound as if the secret-ballot would be no more. When in reality

Once 30% of the work force has signed the cards, the employer may decide to hold a secret ballot election on the question of unionization.[3] In practice, the results of the card check are not presented to the employer until 50 or 60% of employees have signed the cards to help ensure winning the election.[3] If the majority of votes favor the union, the National Labor Relations Board will certify it as the exclusive representative of the employees for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Rumble in the Bronx support (BCTGM) Local 50 – Don’t buy Stella D’oro Cookies!

Thanks to @in_struggle for alerting me to the video.

I was really amazed and humbled to read about this local union in the Bronx and their fight against Brynwood Partners owners of Stella D’oro and the cookie factory on W 237th Street and Broadway.

But far from cowed by the odds they face, after seven months on the picket line, the Stella D’oro strikers have mounted an energetic campaign that has been boosted by outside support. In the process, they have emerged as representatives of a larger struggle escalating between labor and management as the economy continues to spiral downward.

“[Business owners] are going to start to use the recession to take back wages and benefits, so I think people should resist,” Filippou says. As he sees it, the Stella D’oro strikers “are making the beginning for other people to start resisting.”

Imagine. They have been on strike for seven months. At one point they had a 24 hour picket line set up. Lastly, what is truly amazing is their refusal to not have their union divided into two camps as Brynwood Partners was aiming to have happen.

As a workers’ representative to the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union Local 50, Mike Filippou had already been through two sets of contract negotiations when he and other union officials sat down with representatives from Brynwood in late May 2008 to negotiate a new contract for the Stella D’oro workers. He expected the meeting to follow the model of past negotiations: “You give me this, I give you that.”

Instead, Fillipou says, “as soon as they get to the table, the company gives the union reps a big presentation about how bad the company is doing, how many millions they are losing. I was ready to cry.”

A lawyer from Brynwood then rolled out a proposal that divided the Stella D’oro workforce into two camps, the skilled and the non-skilled. Among the skilled the company counted the factory’s mechanics, electricians, foremen and mixers. Among the non-skilled were the sanitation workers and cookie packers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the workforce. While the wages of the skilled would remain intact, from the salary of the so-called non-skilled, Brynwood wanted to subtract one dollar from the hourly wage each year for the next five years. Under this plan, workers who earned $37,000 in 2007 would see their annual income drop to $27,000 by 2012 (how much would the salaries of Brynwood Partners executives and their lawyers drop I wonder).

This cutback was really reaching!

Brynwood’s other proposals, which extended to the entire Stella D’oro workforce, included the elimination of overtime pay and all sick days, plus the loss of one week of vacation and four holiday days. Brynwood also wanted employees to pay for 20 percent of the cost of a company healthcare plan, whereas before the employees had paid nothing for health benefits.

Moreover, says Joyce Alston, Local 50 president, Brynwood rewrote “anything [in the contract] that gave members a sense of protection,” including work rules and conditions of employment. “They would have a grievance procedure but it wouldn’t be effective because the contract was saying that the company could change your schedule, change your job at will,” a condition that would leave the workers at the mercy of management. “You give that contract, you give your union,” Filippou says.

Another major problem here is that Brynwood Partners also did not want to easily cough up the financials so that the union could look at the data for themselves. I mean you’re asking these workers to basically give up everything. Either the Stella D’oro factory is in dire straits or you’re trying to use the recession to forgo regular management/labor give and take to gut the union.

According to Alston, the union requested a copy of Brynwood’s financial records for an accountant to review in order to verify the company’s claims. She says that Brynwood denied union reps a copy, informing them that they could access the financial records only at company headquarters, in Greenwich, Conn., where they would be allowed to sit and take notes.

Brynwood Partners has hired scabs to replace the striking workers. At this point in time who can eat Stella D’oro cookies in good conscience? As a side note it is interesting to see that the Wikipedia entry makes full reference to the strike and casts a rightly deserved negative light on Brynwood Partners.

The Real on Realage.com aka The Matrix

I’ve seen these ads for realage.com plastered all over websites for at least a year if not more now. In some ads they’ve featured the “real age” of people like Barack Obama and John McCain even. I was surprised to learn from Stepahine Clifford writing in the NY Times and reposted on CorpWatch that Real Age is a lucrative avenue for Big Phrma.

According to RealAge, more than 27 million people have taken the test, which asks 150 or so questions about lifestyle and family history to assign a “biological age,” how young or old your habits make you. Then, RealAge makes recommendations on how to get “younger,” like taking multivitamins, eating breakfast and flossing your teeth. Nine million of those people have signed up to become RealAge members.

But while RealAge promotes better living through nonmedical solutions, the site makes its money by selling better living through drugs.

How does it do this I wonder?

Pharmaceutical companies pay RealAge to compile test results of RealAge members and send them marketing messages by e-mail. The drug companies can even use RealAge answers to find people who show symptoms of a disease — and begin sending them messages about it even before the people have received a diagnosis from their doctors.

IAO-logo-facebook Wow. Join Pointdexter and his dreams that temporarily resulted in the Information Awareness Office, where most of the programs are now continued in the DOD somewhere I’d imagine, would be proud of Real Age and Big Phrma. It also turns out that this site even has a doctor promoting it on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

And it has become something of a sensation in the marketing world. Many marketers, online and off, segment potential consumers within broad categories. But RealAge gathers very specific information and, unlike some sites, it gives its consumers an incentive to tell the truth, namely, a chance to live longer.

So is this going to be the new marketing trend? Are we going to see similar websites springing up to engage us and convince us to give up all of our information so that we can be better marketed to? For example I can totally see some “green lifestyle” website being created where it gathers information from environmentally concerned netizens and then sells that information to corporations.

RealAge allows drug companies to send e-mail messages based on those test results. It acts as a clearinghouse for drug companies, including Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, allowing them to use almost any combination of answers from the test to find people to market to, including whether someone is taking antidepressants, how sexually active they are and even if their marriage is happy.

This is rather depressing to read. However I do have to say that this is a great article by Ms. Clifford. This is the kind of reporting I’d like to see more of in the New York Times.

Stay away from H & R Block and their refund anticipation loans

H & R Block is seriously pathetic.

Poor Sam didn’t take our advice. He let H&R Block do his taxes and then took out a refund anticipation loan. The money, which was deposited on an H&R Block Emerald Card, is now tied up by several inexplicable holds for transactions he didn’t make. The companies supposedly holding the funds have no clue who Sam is, or why they’d be holding his money. H&R Block’s only response is to charge Sam $2 whenever he calls their customer service line for help.

It is at this time that I’d like to mention AARP and their great program Tax Aide. If you’re working poor or middle class and don’t want to spend money at H & R Block or buy any of the tax software out there [Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner likes Turbo Tax :) ] I’d say go with AARP. AARP has been doing this program for years and I used it a lot back in Westchester County, NY (in the city of White Plains). I can use it where I am now in Arlington, VA too, but this year I only have one W-2 and not much else so I shall attempt to fill out a 1040 next weekend or something.

The world plagued by Monsanto

So I read on Common Dreams that Monsanto is trying to “fight back” using Web 2.0.

One example of a company that effectively did that is PC maker Dell Corp. Dell-bashing escalated a few years ago, giving rise to the term "Dell Hell." When the company finally started its own blog, it became the forum of choice for critics.

Monsanto similarly appears to be trying to steer discussion about critical issues to its blog so it’s easier to influence the debate, Barnes said.

"Now they’re controlling the posts, they’re answering the questions, they’re directing them to different places within Monsanto and maybe another site," she said. "They’ve taken control of the situation."

Why even bother to comment on their blog? That allows them to control the debate which cannot be allowed. It’s one thing to monitor their online activities but totally another thing to engage them on their own battlefield. For example I follow the dirty coal industry’s @americaspower on Twitter. I responded to them a few times but no more. There’s no point. Now I just monitor what they’re saying. It’s about building power against them not engaging them.

Monsanto has been in the cross hairs of social activists for decades, going back to its days as a maker of Agent Orange and PCBs. That didn’t change with the company’s new focus on biotech and agriculture.

A decade ago, activists expressed themselves by torching fields of genetically modified crops and throwing tofu cream pies at Monsanto’s chairman. These days, activists are challenging the company through the use of YouTube videos and countless blogs that demonize GMOs.

Facebook, the social networking site, is full of anti-Monsanto groups, including one, Millions Against Monsanto, with more than 22,000 members. Another group’s avatar depicts CEO Hugh Grant with a handful of soybeans. Below the words: "No Food Shall Be Grown That We Don’t Own." It seems there’s a way to revile the company in any language.

There is a reason to hate Monsanto and the entire board of directors and other executives, not only their current CEO Hugh Grant. After watching the documentary The Corporation I myself saw the face of evil. Just look at the cows in the documentary.

This is what Monsanto is capable of

Monsanto’s artificial bovine growth hormone BGH (Posilac) is designed to make cows produce more milk. Ignoring the fact that no body needs more milk one of the problems with the use of the hormone is that it pushes the cow to the limits of production and causes illness such as Mastitis. In Monsanto’s own words: "Use of Posilac has been associated with increases in cystic ovaries and disorders of the uterus…digestive disorders…enlarged hocks and lesions (lacerations, enlargements, calluses) of the knee…" On March 1993 the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee of the FDA unanimously agreed with the Monsanto conclusion that "Cows injected with Posilac are at an increased risk for clinical mastitis." If you drink milk you will be pleased to know that this disease is treatment with high levels of antibiotics which no doubt find their way into the milk supply. Since the introduction of BGH in the USA, reports of serious health and reproductive problems among U.S. cows have increased significantly.

The Internet is a tool that can be used by both sides. It is just one tool and it is not the only one either. The foundation will always be organizing and communication.

Why corporations never do anything good solely for being good

Whenever a corporation donates money and &c. to a good cause there’s one thing that you have to keep in mind. If they are a publicly held corporation they have shareholders who would not take too kindly to their money being given away for no good reason (meaning they expect some sort of return). Therefore, it is good business for a corporation to appear as a good corporate citizen.

With that being said I saw two stories on the website Commercial Alert that I wanted to highlight. The first involves the Yum! Brands owned Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Kentucky Fried Chicken today announced its own urban renewal program. The chicken chain has offered to fill up the potholes in five major U.S. cities to promote its “fresh” brand positioning.

Giving back has become a trend for marketers, including Starbucks, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and others that have centered their message around helping the community.

KFC sent a letter to U.S. mayors today asking them to nominate their cities’ roads to be refreshed. Every pothole filled by the fast feeder will be covered in nonpermanent street chalk with the words “Re-freshed by KFC.”

What’s sad is that in these turbulent economic times we’re in, there are going to be government officials in major cities that will take KFC up on this offer. You could not ask for better advertising! In the age of personal video recorders which let you skip commercials this is the kind of advertising we’re going to see more and more of.

Not everyone is enthused about the publicity stunt. “There is an aggressiveness towards moving into new dimensions of public spaces. This would be another example of this unfortunate incursion of advertising messaging into [consumers’ lives],” said Robert Weissman, director of Commercial Alert. “KFC should fix their menu first.”

Which brings us to McDonalds and their announcement that they want to “move into” school education with a free online math program. With the article in yesterday’s NY Times on the proximity of schools next to a fast food establishment playing a factor in student obesity. Is there any wonder that McDonalds would try and shore up their base?  They want to burn the image of the golden arches into student’s brains so that they’ll keep on coming back for more punishment. Whatever investment they are making in the program is a good one for them considering that these kids will grow up to be McDonalds eating adults too. Like the tobacco corporations fast food aims to get ‘em while they’re young.

Shantytowns on the rise throughout America

This is really starting to look ugly.

Like a dozen or so other cities across the nation, Fresno is dealing with an unhappy déjà vu: the arrival of modern-day Hoovervilles, illegal encampments of homeless people that are reminiscent, on a far smaller scale, of Depression-era shantytowns. At his news conference on Tuesday night, President Obama was asked directly about the tent cities and responded by saying that it was “not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.”

I did notice that some non-profits are doing really creative things even in a bad situation like this.

Dozens of homeless men and women here have found more organized shelter at the Village of Hope, a collection of 8-by-10-foot storage sheds built by the nonprofit group Poverello House and overseen by Mr. Stack. Planted in a former junkyard behind a chain-link fence, each unit contains two cots, sleeping bags and a solar-powered light.

Doug Brown, a freelance electrical engineer, said he had discovered the Village of Hope while unemployed a few years back and had returned after losing his job in October. Mr. Stoops, of the homeless coalition, predicted that the population at such new Hoovervilles could grow as those without places to live slowly burned through their options and joined the ranks of the chronically homeless, many of whom are indigent as a result of illiteracy, alcoholism, mental illness and drug abuse.

Obviously people should not be living in shantytowns but at least Poverello House is trying to do something. What Poverello House is doing also reminds me of the of an inflatable temporary shelter I saw online a few years ago.

0090_a01-600x400

This inflatable temporary shelter is called paraSITE and was created by artist Michael Rakowitz. This gets me thinking that maybe its time we rethink housing for everyone anyway.