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THE VERTEX SHELL GAME

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Pharma’s Donation to Boston, Other Cities Converts Public Funds to PR Gold

October 24, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Vertex Pharmaceuticals made a big PR splash last week with an announcement of a significant donation to Boston and other cities where it does business. The Boston-based company, best known for its cystic fibrosis meds, has pledged to “spend $500 million on charitable efforts, including workforce training, over the next 10 years,” according to the Boston Globe, and “much of the money will go toward boosting education in science and math fields as well as the arts.” The company “also wants to set aside money for grants to help young scientists and researchers.”

Well isn’t that nice. Over 10 years, $500 million works out to about $50 million a year. Sounds quite generous, yes? John Barros, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of economic development, certainly thinks so: “The establishment of a Vertex foundation is a long-term investment in the people of Boston and the neighborhoods of Boston … That’s ultimately what we hope for when corporations move their headquarters to the city.”

But sharp-eyed locals would disagree. We’ve seen this gambit many times before in the Bay State—most recently when General Electric played it last year: A big business that has gotten bad press for various kinds of questionable behavior and/or outright malfeasance decides it needs to improve its image. And it does so by the simple device of expanding its advertising budget in the form of “charity.”

The important thing to remember with such “donations” is that the corporations in question often get far more money from government at all levels than they ever give back to society. So it’s not really charity at all. It’s just public relations by other means. Aimed at being able to continue to dip from the great public money river largely unnoticed by everyone but the few investigative reporters managing to ply their trade in this age of corporate clickbait.

To that point, let’s look at four ways that Vertex has benefitted from public support. Then reconsider its most excellent announcement in that light.

1) Tax breaks and direct aid

Readers might remember Vertex as the company that got $10 million in state life science tax incentives between 2010 and 2014 and $12 million in tax breaks from the city of Boston—both in exchange for adding 500 local jobs to their existing staff of 1,350 by 2015 and, quixotically, for moving their headquarters from Cambridge to Boston. According to the Globe, the Commonwealth also took out a $50 million loan to pay for “new roads and other improvements” to the new HQ’s Fan Pier site.

Why? As is often the case in the wonderful world of corporate finance, Vertex told then-Gov. Patrick that it might leave the state if it didn’t get the appropriate… um… “incentives.” So that apparently played a role in getting state and local government in gear. The deal was based on the expected performance of Vertex’s blockbuster new hepatitis C drug, Incivek. But things didn’t go as planned. According to MassLive, when the company pulled the plug on Incivek in 2013 after being outgunned by another company’s hep C med, it agreed to pay back $4.4 million of the state money. In 2015, according to the Boston Business Journal, after Vertex failed to meet its job creation target, the city reduced its tax breaks to $9 million—but didn’t ask the company to pay anything back and will keep its deal in place until 2018. Leaving Vertex reaping a windfall of almost $17 million in state and local tax breaks. Oh, and that sweet loan, too.

2) Gouging public health programs

With the release of two major successful cystic fibrosis meds and more new related meds set to breeze through the FDA drug approval process, the company is starting to expand. And how could it not? In July 2017 it raised the price of its newer med, Orkambi, by 5 percent to $273,000 per patient per year, according to the Boston Business Journal. A product that did $980 million in sales in 2016 before the price increase. In 2013, the company had already raised the price of its first major med, Kalydeco, from $294,000 to $307,000 per patient per year. With some patients paying as much as $373,000 per year, according to an October 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today article. Cystic fibrosis doctors and researchers have strongly protested, but to no avail.

It’s true that most patients don’t pay anywhere near that amount of money for the meds—because public and private insurance eat the lion’s share of the still-outrageous cost. But the final sticker price remains tremendously high. And the company doesn’t say much about who does pay a big chunk of the bill: the government, and therefore the public at large. Stick a pin in that. Vertex, like virtually every other drug company, has a business model based on gouging the public with ridiculously high prices that various government insurance programs are mandated to pay.

Programs like, in this case, federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As an Oct 4 letter from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (whose eminently questionable role in the funding and development of Vertex’s cystic fibrosis meds will likely be the subject of a future column) to the Senate Finance Committee explained, about half of all cystic fibrosis patients—who used to die young before the new treatments came online—are under 18 years old. So they’re generally covered by CHIP. That program, sadly, was defunded on Sept 27 by our psychotic Congress as part of the Republican Party’s crusade against Obamacare. Most states will run out of their 2017 CHIP money early next year, and unless they find money in their own budget to replace it or Congress manages to do the right thing, over 4 million kids—including thousands of cystic fibrosis patients—are in danger of losing their health coverage.

Vertex is not directly to blame for that crisis, but the situation does make its promise that some of its $500 million donation “will be spent helping cystic fibrosis patients get access to Vertex drugs that help them breathe easier and live a more normal life” look even more ridiculous than it otherwise would. Because Vertex and other pharmas certainly have no plans to lower the outrageous prices of their top meds for any reason. They’ll give some destitute patients “access” to their drugs. But everyone else pays—primarily through government insurance, often in tandem with private insurance. After what the pharma industry terms “discounts”… that still result in usurious prices. So even if one takes whatever portion of the donation actually goes to helping patients get cheaper meds as an inadvertent giveback of some of the lucre they’ve leeched off the government, it’s going to be even less helpful than it otherwise would have been if half the patients on those meds lose their insurance next year.

But Vertex isn’t content with just draining funds out of the US federal and state governments. According to Forbesit’s pioneering ways to suck public funds out of countries with national health services. “Vertex seems to have finally cracked a long-festering problem: selling its expensive drugs in European markets, which are tougher at negotiating prices. Ireland recently agreed to give Vertex a flat, undisclosed annual payment; in return, all patients who need the drug will get access … other countries outside the U.S. will make similar deals … new CF drugs, including discounts, will cost $164,000 per patient in the U.S., where a fragmented health care system allows for less tough negotiation, and $133,000 in other countries. With almost all of the 75,000 CF patients in those countries treated, that would be an $8.5 billion market.”

3) Government-backed monopolies

Moving on, there’s another key way that Vertex makes bucketloads of money with government help: gaming the Orphan Drug Act. Passed in 1983, it was meant to create a strong incentive for pharmas to research drugs that treated conditions suffered by less than 200,000 patients. In practice, it’s become a standard way for pharmas to get a seven-year monopoly on many of their meds. And while it’s certainly true that cystic fibrosis afflicts about 30,000 people in the US—well below the 200,000 patient threshold—it’s also true that it’s no accident that Vertex chose to focus on the disease. Because, according to its 2016 10-K annual report filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company has won orphan drug status for both Kalydeco and Orkambi. Guaranteeing it seven years of monopoly production and distribution of both of the desperately needed and wildly overpriced meds. And 10 years in the European Union, under similar laws.

As Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers commented in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology in November 2015, such monopolies make “it’s hardly surprising that the median cost for orphan drugs is more than $98,000 per patient per year, compared with a median cost of just over $5,000 per patient per year for non-orphan status drugs.” The same study demonstrated that “44 percent of drugs approved by the FDA [in 2012] qualified as orphan drugs.” So winning orphan drug status is one structural mechanism that makes it possible for pharmas like Vertex to charge crazy high prices for many meds.

A recent article by Harvard Business Review adds that pharmas enjoy monopolies on many other meds thanks to the 1984 Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act—which allows them to enjoy “patent protection to effectively monopolize the market” for new meds. Once that protection expires, the field is then supposed to be open to other pharmas to produce far cheaper generic versions. Which is doubtless what Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden was referring to in a June Globe piece when he defended the company’s sky-high drug prices, saying “‘This is a system that actually works. It rewards innovation and stimulates it. And then after the period of [market] exclusivity is over, it actually makes these innovations free’ for future patients.”

What he doesn’t mention, however, is that pharmas routinely lobby and litigate to extend their monopolies on meds, and actually pay off potential generic producers to not manufacture generics. Delaying the cheaper meds’ arrival on the market and costing public insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the VA system, and CHIP huge amounts of extra money. Which then flows into corporate coffers. All the more so because the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) did not finally give the government the power to negotiate with pharmas to rein in drug prices, according to Morning Consult. The HBR story also notes that generic companies themselves often obtain exclusive monopolies for shorter periods of time and that their products are sometimes substandard—resulting in recalls. All these delays can keep cheaper meds off the market for years.

4) Public science, private profit

Finally, there’s the fact that much of the basic research that allows pharmas to exist is done by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health. In the case of Vertex, a direct connection has already been demonstrated. A May 2013 article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today explains that the company’s first cystic fibrosis med, Kalydeco, was only possible thanks to “a hefty investment from taxpayers through grants from the National Institutes of Health, which underwrote the cost of early research, which identified the gene that the drug targets.”

If one were to put a price tag on all the basic science Vertex uses to develop its cystic fibrosis meds—and other meds—that comes straight from the NIH, what would it be worth? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? It would be a great research project to estimate the total, but suffice to say that it would be a great deal of money. Money that Vertex could never have leveraged on its own back in 1989 when it was a startup.

Conclusion: the racket and the damage done

Add it all up: tax breaks, direct aid, profits from price gouging CHIP and other public insurance programs, profits from orphan drug status, and profits based on research directly attributable to NIH research. How much money will Vertex ultimately get from government at all levels? A hell of a lot more than that $500 million it proposes to give back to communities like Boston—mostly in ways that either benefit the company directly by providing it with a new generation of trained researchers or indirectly by gilding its public image. Assuming that it ever actually gives that much money away. Which the public has no way of knowing at this juncture.

Any more than we can know how much Vertex spends on lobbying annually to guarantee a constant flow of fat stacks of public cash. Since its shareholders at its most recent annual meeting in June thoughtfully shot down an initiative by a small number of religious shareholders to force the company to report its actual lobbying budget going forward, according to the Boston Business Journal. Not long after Vertex successfully colluded with 10 other pharmas to get the SEC to allow them to quash shareholder resolutions from the same religious groups that would have made the company’s drug pricing formula public, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Then, taking all the above into consideration, check out Vertex’s annual advertising and promotions budget for the last three years: $16.2 million in 2014, $24.5 million in 2015, and $31.4 million in 2016, according to its latest annual report. Going up, right? So tack $50 million a year onto that last figure and we get an $80+ million ad budget. Totally doable for a company with cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities worth $1.67 billion on hand on June 30, 2017. A company that’s now becoming profitable after years of running in debt—all of which has only been possible with massive public support.

Now come back to Vertex’s “donation.” Doesn’t look so generous anymore, does it?

Reforming the twisted wreckage of our drug research and distribution systems in this country will take a massive grassroots effort lasting years. But there’s one way that local advocates can get going on that project fast: demand that municipal and state officials stop giving public money to pharmas like Vertex, or participating in pharma PR stunts like promising to recycle some of that money to educate local kids—more of whom would have a fine education already if our elected officials stopped throwing money at giant corporations that should be going to social goods like public schools.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

STRIKE. IRON. HOT.

Ettor_IWW_barbers_strike-1-728

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) demonstration with Joseph J. Ettor speaking from platform to striking barbers in Union Square, New York. (1913)

You don’t need a union to take action for justice on the job

July 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week 1,200 Tufts Medical Center nurses unionized with the Mass Nurses Association (MNA) called a rare one day strike for a better deal on their latest contract. This doubtless left many onlookers — especially younger ones — scratching their heads and asking “what’s a strike?” No surprise, given the American corporate media’s ideological aversion to covering all matters labor, past and present. But fortunately a willful omission that is easily remedied by news outlets willing to honestly discuss the political economic struggles of working people.

A strike occurs when any group of workers refuses to work. Usually to demand reforms on the job like better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Although commonly perceived as an action that can only be taken by members of a labor union, that is not the case. Historically, workers struck long before there were formal unions — and more recently, the right of most workers in the private sector to strike was enshrined in section 7 of the New Deal era National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The salient part of which reads:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…

The Supreme Court supported the idea that any group of workers covered by the NLRA had the right to strike and engage in “other concerted activities” — whether unionized or not — in the 1962 decision National Labor Relations Board v. Washington Aluminum Company. Finding that a group of seven ununionized workers had the right to refuse to work in an unheated factory in the dead of winter until its furnace was repaired.

Naturally, most formal strikes are called by organized unions like the MNA, but it’s worth focusing on the right of ununionized workers to strike because we live in an era when labor unions have been beaten down by giant corporations and the rich people who own them. To the point where the vast majority of all working people in the US are not unionized. Over 89 percent of us in fact. Much research indicates that the precipitous decline in living standards for American families since 1979 is directly connected to the decline of union power. Notably a 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers” that demonstrates the important role unions play in increasing wages for all workers when they are strong.

But another way of looking at the situation is that worker militance on the job has been in steep decline over the same period that unions have been smacked down to the proverbial curb. When strikes were common, working people got the goods. As strikes have become more and more infrequent since the 1970s, the fortunes of the working class (which by the way includes all you supposedly “middle class” people out there who wear dressier clothes to work and have fancy degrees) have trended downward.

This state of affairs is certainly the fault of the “one percent” who control the commanding heights of capital, but blame can also be laid at the feet of many American unions — which have become decidedly less willing to fight over the decades since they won concessions like the NLRA from bosses and the government. Its leaders preferring to put their dwindling funds and often woefully limited political aspirations into backing Democrats for office at all levels. Who — on the rare occasions that they get elected now that most Americans understand them to be bought and paid for by the same ruling class that has made the Republicans into a caricature of a political party — continue to backstab working families with depressing regularity.

So workers in Boston and beyond, unionized and ununionized, need to step up and start exercising their NLRA right to “concerted activities” on the job… up to and including strikes. Before we all lose that right. The Trump administration is many things, but it is no friend of working people. And any damage it does to labor will not be undone by corporate Democrats or anyone else without pressure from below. Strikes, aside from their instrumental value, are very much part of the necessary political pressure for a more fair and just America.

It won’t be easy. Many, many laws have been passed by Democratic and Republican administrations alike since the McCarthy Era to reverse pro-labor reforms and stop working people from fighting for their rights on the job. People who do so will definitely lose battles on their way to building a better society. Believe me, I know. I have taken such risks inside and outside of unions, and lost jobs on more than one occasion.

But there will also be many victories. And as Frederick Douglass, a man who did not just help lead the abolitionist movement to victory, but was also elected president of the Colored National Labor Union in 1872, said:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

If you believe in democracy, on and off the job, then you will stand with union workers like the Tufts nurses when they strike. And you will take the fight to your workplace — whether it’s unionized or not. Reviving existing unions and building new ones along the way. And then onward to vie for control of the halls of power.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

THE LONG GAME: SANCTUARY CITIES FIGHT POINTS TO NEED FOR GLOBAL LABOR PROTECTIONS

Original flag image by Adbusters. Or Betsy Ross, depending on who you ask

March 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. Yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and related federal agencies often rely on local police to help round up undocumented immigrants for deportation. That problematic lies at the heart of the rising sanctuary cities movement. Local governments in opposition to increasingly inhumane federal immigration policy under the Trump administration are passing resolutions ordering police forces under their control to refuse to aid federal agencies seeking to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant advocates hope that creating large numbers of such sanctuary cities—plus sanctuary campuses and sanctuary religious institutions—will stop or at least slow the latest wave of deportations until the US finally develops a more fair and rational immigration policy.

That’s not going to happen without popular support. And all too many Americans have not been provided with the information that will allow them to make an informed decision on the matter.

Citizens who back slowing or stopping immigration do so because they believe immigrants “steal jobs” from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and/or increase crime. Positions that are not borne out by major research studies. But if they looked more closely at what has actually happened on the immigration front since the early 1990s, there’s every possibility that they would join a groundswell of support for progressive immigration policy… and for something else besides: support for strong labor legislation at the national and international levels.

So it’s imperative that nativist Americans begin to understand the structural crisis that led to the current situation. The biggest precipitating factor was a so-called “trade” treaty signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It went into effect in 1994.

According to labor journalist David Bacon, NAFTA was the result of a major lobbying effort by American multinational corporations with support from CEOs in Canada and Mexico. It was sold to Congress as a remedy to the supposed dilemma of migration from Mexico (and points south) to the US. The argument was that by eliminating “barriers to trade” like tariffs and taxes on major corporations, profits would rise, the economic boats of all three countries would be lifted, more good jobs would be produced, and immigration would slow to a trickle. Because there would be no reason for anyone to leave home.
As often happens in politics, this turned out to be a pack of lies. Removing the so-called trade barriers meant that US multinationals were able to flood the Mexican market with cheap goods and services. Goods and services that Mexicans had once produced for themselves either in Mexican-owned companies or in a robust public sector that included a strong nationalized oil industry.

The Mexican economy went into immediate freefall—throwing over one million people out of work. Then the American multinationals were able to move more manufacturing operations to Mexico than ever before—where they were free of pesky labor unions and tax burdens—resulting in the loss of over 682,000 good American jobs by 2010 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Corporations that kept major factories and farms in the US were free to take advantage of a seemingly endless flood of undocumented immigrant workers who are rarely able to organize into labor unions—since one call to the feds ensures the deportation of any “troublemakers.” Canada was also badly hurt by NAFTA. Billionaire CEOs got even richer, and extended their political power significantly in all three countries.

And here’s the irony: It is precisely those Americans who lost their jobs to NAFTA and other neoliberal schemes like it who voted for Donald Trump in significant enough numbers in key states to ensure his victory.

That’s why any successful movement for immigration justice must be linked directly to the most far-sighted sectors of the labor movement in the US and abroad. The key to ending the fight over immigration is to enshrine strong labor rights worldwide; so that major corporations will no longer be able to pit workers in the US against workers in other countries in what’s been aptly called a “race to the bottom.” Spread that message widely enough, and the nativist movement will evaporate—aside from a small core of outright racists. Because if workers can make a decent living wherever they live, then immigration will cease to be an issue anywhere. And when people do migrate to the future US once a fair immigration regime is finally in place, it will be much easier to do so legally and permanently.

Which is the kind of world we all want, yes? One in which the rights of human beings to make a decent living and to move about the planet freely are respected more than the rights of corporations to maximize their profits.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest showco-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

GENERAL STRIKE: IS THE TRUMP VICTORY SPARKING THE RETURN OF LABOR’S MOST POWERFUL TACTIC?

NYC (1970)

February 22, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

You know we live in interesting times when general strikes get discussed matter-of-factly in an American big city newspaper. A subject which would have only been raised in a publication like the Boston Globe in recent decades to attack it.

But to give the Globe’s Shirley Leung—an occasional target of my ire—credit where it’s due, she did just that in her recent column about three calls for general strikes against the policies of the Trump administration. One fairly small, hastily organized “Day Without Immigrants” strike last Thursday, and two upcoming one-day strike calls: “A Day Without a Woman” on March 8 (International Women’s Day), and a second “Day Without Immigrants” on May 1 (May Day, the international workers’ holiday) that are likely to be much larger affairs.

It’s fairly obvious why Leung is suddenly interested in the strongest tactic in labor’s arsenal. She’s a bit of a feminist and was supportive of Hillary Clinton, and like many people fitting that description is now considering political action that would have been unthinkable for her only three months agone. That’s fine. She gets some things wrong, but interviews some experts that know their stuff, and does her audience a service by discussing the concept of a general strike at all.

To review, a strike occurs when working people withhold their labor for any reason. A general strike occurs when massive numbers of workers from more than one industrial sector withhold their labor in a city, state, region, or nation. The difference is that a strike is typically called to demand redress in a single workplace or industry. A general strike is called to cause serious economic disruption aimed at bringing corporations and the government to their knees on a single issue, a group of issues, or even to overthrow the current political economic system itself. US strikes are usually called by labor unions, general strikes by coalitions of labor unions and left-wing political groups.

The problem for organizers considering the tactic is that general strikes are basically illegal. At least for labor unions. Leung briefly mentions that the Oakland General Strike of 1946 was the “last” general strike. But she didn’t say why. Turns out that the main reason there have been no “official” general strikes since then is because the Oakland action was part of the massive five-million worker national strike wave of 1945-46—in total, the largest sustained protest of any kind in American history.  The strike wave won some victories. Then triggered a political backlash by a coalition of major corporations and right-wing legislators, leading directly to the passage of the anti-labor federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The law specified a number of political economic tactics unions were henceforth banned from using, including: jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. Long story short, those types of strikes, boycotts, and pickets translate to a general strike. Not that the many general strikes prior to 1947 were treated as legal either, but after 1947 there was little ambiguity as to their legality.

Does that mean that the American labor movement just rolled over? No. It took decades for corporations and their political allies to crush it down to the diminished state it languishes in today—when only 10.7 percent of the US workforce is unionized (down from a high of almost 35 percent in 1954). And does that mean that there have been no actions like a general strike since 1946? Again, no. There have been subsequent general strikes if you include the major wildcat strikes of the 1970s and accept that the 2006 immigrant boycott (that Leung does mention) was essentially a general strike in some cities.

Wildcats are strikes organized by union workers against their employers … and two forces that often collude with bosses: the government and their own union leadership. The most recent major wave of wildcat strikes occurred in the 1970s. Some of them were large enough in some locales to be considered general strikes—especially where strikers drew support from other unions. Particularly the 1970 National US Postal Workers Wildcat Strike (200,000 workers in 15 states), the 1970 Teamsters Wildcat Strike (500,000 workers, mostly east of the Mississippi River), and the 1974 Wildcat Miners Strike (26,000 workers in West Virginia and Virginia). Some of the wildcats dragged on for weeks. For comparison, the Oakland General Strike involved 100,000 workers over a couple of days (although it wasn’t called as a traditional strike, and had elements of a wildcat).

As for the 2006 May Day immigrant action, “The Great American Boycott,” its title in Spanish was “El Gran Paro Estadounidense”—meaning “The Great American Strike.” In practice, as it involved multi-industry boycotts and strike actions, the 2006 mass walkout for immigrant rights can be viewed as a general strike. Over 1.5 million people participated. But since they were mostly immigrants, many American citizens, Leung included, don’t think of it as a strike at all. Certainly it wasn’t as strong as the 1945-46 strike wave, or the 1970s wildcat strikes. But in immigrant cities like LA and Chicago it definitely had significant political and economic impact. If it had gone on longer than a few days, many citizens would likely have felt those effects nationwide.

So the question is: Will the upcoming one-day strike calls have as powerful a political economic effect as a classic general strike? Probably not. In that case, will they be as powerful as a major wildcat strike? Not just yet. How about the 2006 Great American Boycott by immigrants? Will they be that big? That’s probably the sweet spot. The recent Women’s Marches were able to pull an estimated minimum of 3.3 million people out on a weekend when many participants weren’t working. Do a third of those numbers on a workday, and you’ve reached the lower estimate for the 2006 immigrant strike.

Frankly, both the March 8 and May 1 strike calls could be big. Both are aimed at constituencies that have demonstrated ability to turn out in large numbers. And neither call is led by labor unions that can’t easily call general strikes; so there is an opening to do so. But they will only be powerful to the extent that they threaten the established political order. And there the differences between the two events become clear. The March 8 Day Without a Woman strike is being called by some of the same forces that organized the Women’s Marches in January. Forces that, as I’ve previously written, are directly connected to the neoliberal Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party. Folks who just lost an election because they refused to put working people’s needs over corporate profits.

But the May 1 Day Without Immigrants strike call is being organized by Movimiento Cosecha—a fast-growing coalition of militant young left-wing immigrant organizers. They are potentially limited by their focus on immigrant communities. However, they were recently screwed by the Democratic Party and the Obama administration—which both failed to respond to their demand that all 11 million undocumented immigrants be granted legal status before Trump came into office. So they are less likely to heed the siren call of Democratic leaders to tone down their protests when they become inconvenient for the Dems’ corporate backers, and therefore far more likely to actually build their May Day effort into something approaching a general strike than the March 8 organizers are.

Their call to action makes that intent quite clear:

One day is just the beginning of a season of strikes and boycotts. We know that each time we strike for a day, we will build power. And the more days we strike, the stronger we will feel. The more desperate those in power become. The more the elite will want business to return to normal. They will be forced to figure out a way to give us permanent protection. And in the process, we will win the dignity and respect that we deserve and demand.

Ultimately, debates over whether major work stoppages are “real” general strikes aren’t the point. What matters is “boots on the ground,” and the ability of organizers to translate their numbers into political and economic gains. Any coalition that can pull millions out of work and into the streets against the Trump administration will write a new chapter in both American political and labor history. Which could be just the game changer our incipient movements for democracy need. But if there turns out to be more than one such coalition, so much the better.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

 

HARD DRUG TRUTHS: END MANDATORY MINIMUM DRUG SENTENCES

January 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The opioid crisis is dire enough without adding insult to injury. With almost 12,000 deaths from overdoses in Massachusetts since the year 2000—increasing sharply in recent years with fentanyl-laced heroin hitting the streets—the human cost to users, their families, and our communities is already tremendous. But thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related criminal offenses that cost is far higher than it needs to be.

A bit of history is in order. Decades back, sentencing decisions for such offenses were generally made by individual judges—who could then lower or remove jail time, or order an alternative sentence to a drug treatment facility, for non-violent offenders convicted of simple possession and the like.  

The passage of the Controlled Substances Penalties Amendments Act by Congress in 1984—followed by a number of related laws on the federal and state level—took that power away from the courts and set mandatory minimum sentences that could not be modified by judges. Prisons around the country began to fill with drug offenders. And many nonviolent offenders ended up doing more time than violent offenders like members of major drug cartels.

Worse still, racism was baked into the new system, with drugs like the crack form of cocaine sold in poorer communities of color drawing far longer sentences than drugs like the powder cocaine sold in wealthier white communities. The arrest rate for people of color has remained consistently higher as well. According to the state Sentencing Commission, Massachusetts imprisons Black defendants eight times more than white defendants. Latino defendants are sent up almost five times more.

Then, in 1996, OxyContin—a synthetic opiate pain medication—came on the market in 80 mg pill form. It was developed by a small Connecticut pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma—an early pioneer … not in synthesizing oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin which had originally been developed in Germany in 1916, but in something more insidious: the direct marketing of drugs to doctors. According to Pacific Standard, Purdue doubled its sales staff in the first four years of the OxyContin rollout. That staff developed a database that identified doctors who prescribed pain medication more heavily than others. They focused their sales effort on those doctors—encouraging them to overprescribe the medication for a wide variety of conditions. In 2000, the company released a 160 mg pill specifically aimed at users that had developed tolerance to opioids—which became the wildly popular street drug we know today. Crushed and sniffed by tens of thousands of users in the Bay State alone. And so, by 2010, OxyContin accounted for over one-third of American painkiller sales.

Most of you know the rest of the story. The legions of newly addicted Oxy users eventually ran out of prescriptions, and turned to whatever they could get to replace it—inevitably leading many of them to heroin. A sane government would’ve stepped in early on in this process, shut a company like Purdue down, and significantly expanded public funding for solid treatment and recovery facilities for the drug’s many casualties. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Purdue was making over $3 billion a year on OxyContin by 2010, and had a lock on legal sales of the drug until its patent expired in 2013. Even as public funding for treatment got cut.

Meanwhile, street sales of Oxy and the resulting spike in heroin sales led to a whole new wave of nonviolent offenders sent to prison for years with mandatory minimum sentences.

Unfortunately, action to reform such strict sentencing laws has been slow to come at the federal level and here in the Commonwealth. With a new session of the state legislature just beginning, there are no new reform bills to recommend. But it’s reasonable to expect the main reform bill of the last session, An Act to Repeal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws for Drug Offenses, will be reintroduced this time around. The bill would repeal all mandatory minimums for drug offenses and let courts impose sentences that fit the crimes.

It’s ironic that, according to WBUR, “several other states, including conservative states, have overhauled their sentencing laws” while ostensibly progressive Massachusetts lags behind. But thanks to the work of grassroots organizations like Jobs Not Jails and the Mass Organization for Addiction Recovery, high level officials like Mass Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Mass Supreme Judicial Court have recently gone on record in support of mandatory minimum reform.

That’s great, but without voters across Mass putting pressure on state legislators it could still be years before the needed reform passes. So, the best thing that readers can do to help stop this devastating outgrowth of the already tragic opioid crisis is to watch for the new mandatory minimum reform bill and join advocates to demand that your state reps and senators do the right thing and pass it.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest showco-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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PLAY TO WIN: UK LABOUR PARTY LEADER SHOWS THE AMERICAN LEFT HOW TO MOVE BEYOND SYMBOLIC POLITICS

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September 29, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week—as is the case many weeks every fall and spring in Boston—notices of small scripted protests by an array of area progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups got me thinking about the rut the anti-corporate American left has been stuck in for decades. Most especially about the damage done by the habit of ineffectual symbolic political action on a host of important issues. Combined with tailing after a corporate-dominated Democratic Party establishment. Which, time and time again, ignores or actively betrays its base on key issues like jobs, education, healthcare, global warming, and military spending. As it’s done during the current presidential race.

But what if there was a way to change the whole political game for the oppositional left? After all, we almost saw such a tectonic shift happen this year with the Bernie Sanders campaign. There have also been glimpses of a more vibrant, creative, and successful progressive politics from the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements over the last five years. What if left activists could get back to a mass politics that can really win solid victories for working families?

The way forward, it seems, is not yet to be found on our shores. However, it might be on view in the United Kingdom … where Jeremy Corbyn just won yet another vote to remain the leader of the Labour Party.

Who is Jeremy Corbyn?  Think of him as the Bernie Sanders of the UK. But one who has gotten a good deal farther politically than the original Sanders has to date. In his context, being the leader of the Labour Party is kind of like being the head of the Democratic National Committee. Except that the levers of actual power are more built into the Labour Party structure than the Democratic Party structure. And the party sits within a parliamentary political system where its leaders have a lot more control over what their elected officials do than their American counterparts. At the same time, Labour members get to vote directly for their party leaders—unlike Democrats. So when a socialist like Corbyn wins leadership elections twice in under a year and a half, it means that he has the power to help spark changes in his party of the type that Sanders can only dream of presently.

Since Corbyn first ran for Labour Party leader last year—on a platform well to the left of Sanders that calls for an end to austerity policies that hurt working people, renationalizing the once-public UK rail system, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and refusal to support Clinton-style “bomb diplomacy” (sorry, “humanitarian intervention”) in the Syrian war—he has increased the number of voting party members and supporters from 200,000 to over 600,000. Even while fighting a running battle with the corporate-backed acolytes of the neoliberal warmonger Tony Blair for full control of the party. Many of those new members are disenfranchised young voters of the same type that supported Sanders.

What Corbyn is doing with those young folks is fascinating. Upon winning his second leadership election by 61 percent last week, he didn’t talk about beating the ruling Conservative Party in the next general election. Instead he’s planning to deploy the growing militant grassroots of his party to win political victories in advance of the next election. Which looks like a completely different strategy than the one Sanders is taking post-primary—so far focusing his new Our Revolution organization on electing more progressive Democrats to office. Even as that party remains in full control of its Clintonite corporate wing. [Although in recent days, Our Revolution is starting to sound more like Corbyn’s similar Momentum organization—which is all to the good, and perhaps unsurprising given that the two insurgencies have long been in touch.]

And what issue is Corbyn focusing on? Public education. Namely stopping the Conservatives from increasing the fairly small number of UK public exam high schools known as “grammar schools.” He is calling for the large socialist camp coalescing around Labour to defend the egalitarian tradition of quality public education for all in Britain. Rather than allow the grammar schools to continue cherry-picking middle and upper class students, and helping them get into elite universities over the heads of working class students. Thus attempting to perpetuate the ancient British system of class privilege in education long after it was formally constrained. The Labour left is also likely to push to end the charter school-like “academy” (or “free school”) system that is allowing corporations to run many public secondary schools in Britain. Lining their pockets, threatening unionized teachers, and further limiting opportunity for working class students in the process. The Conservatives, for their part, plan to expand the academy system to 100 percent of secondary schools and many primary schools besides. If allowed to proceed unchallenged.

Street protests are absolutely part of what the reviving Labour Party and its allies are doing to challenge the corporate wing of their own party and the Conservative Party. Plus, Corbyn supporters have the possibility of leading their party to victory in a future general election, and starting to implement significant democratic socialist reforms thereafter. Echoing their predecessors in Labour leadership at the conclusion of World War II. Reforms like massive public jobs programs, building lots of good public housing, expanding government-funded lifelong educational opportunities for all, deprivatizing the still-impressive UK national health system, rolling back the assault on unions—while cutting the military budget and raising taxes on the rich and the corporations to pay for it all.

So their protest campaigns against conservative policy initiatives are not limited to small numbers of people waving signs and chanting slogans at the wealthy and their minions in business and government like latter-day Don Quixotes. Corbyn and his supporters are taking control of the Labour Party away from its discredited neoliberal leadership and using it to build a democratic socialist movement in the UK. That very project has been attempted in the Democratic Party before by movements like the Rainbow Coalition – and has been crushed every time. Based on that kind of experience, some American leftists feel that the structure of the party precludes such maneuvers from succeeding. A position potentially strengthened by Sanders’ dispiriting loss in the primary—after what was arguably the strongest attempt to take over the Democrats from the left in history.

Positioning the left—the actual left—for political victory in the US will therefore be extremely difficult. No two ways about it. And it’s not clear whether trying to commandeer the Democrats like Corbyn’s movement is doing with the UK Labour Party or building up small left-wing formations like the Green Party into a national powerhouse or some combination of the two strategies will lead to the desired outcome.

But one thing’s for sure. Corbyn’s success is built on grassroots activism. If we’re going to see similar successes for the American left at the national level, progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups in cities like Boston will have to do better than calling sporadic underattended rallies, marches, and teach-ins—coupled with desultory lobby days where their peonage to the Democratic establishment is generally on display to their detriment. And start winning real political battles instead of scoring points on phantom targets.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 4

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February 29, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

In May 2012, three former GE executives were imprisoned after being convicted on multiple charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and defraud the United States. Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm had all worked for GE Capital—the financial division that operated as a semi-legal “shadow bank,” and that accounted for about half of its parent corporation’s profits until the global financial collapse it helped precipitate began in 2007. Between 1999 and 2006, the trio conspired to skim millions from municipal bond investment contracts. With the full approval of their bosses.

According to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, the scam worked as follows for the company that Marty Walsh, Charlie Baker and cheerleaders like the Boston Globe have welcomed to Boston with open arms: Municipal governments commonly partner with big banks to sell bonds to pay for significant capital costs—like building schools. The banks invite investors to buy the municipal bonds and deposit the resulting funds in tax-exempt accounts from which all necessary project expenses can be paid. However, since all the bond money does not get spent at once, municipal governments typically hire brokers to find major financial institutions to invest it for them through a public auction process. In general, it is legally required that brokers get bids from at least three financial institutions—and the one that offers the highest annual rate of return wins the contract to invest the spare cash from a given bond fund.

But for GE Capital—and a host of other major financial institutions—the process was rigged from top to bottom. In the case of GE’s Carollo et al, the defendants conspired with executives at the brokerage CDR and financial institutions like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley to divvy up investment contracts for municipal bond funds. CDR would drum up business with local politicians around the country—often bribing them with various kinds of campaign donations and gifts. The pols would then reward CDR with contracts to invest unspent funds from municipal bond issues, while CDR would work with the GE Capital—in concert with the other major financial institutions—to illegally decide which corporation would win which auction for such investment contracts in advance. The “winner” of each auction would collude with the other bidding financial services companies on the bid rate to ensure that the “winning” bid was as low as possible. The agreed upon rate was usually lower than a fair market rate by just a few tenths of a percent. But that was enough to make a killing.

For example, if a fair bid in an auction might have been that GE Capital would invest a municipal government’s unused bond funds at a 5.04 percent annual rate of return, CDR would coach the company to only offer 5 percent. The other bidders would purposely offer lower rates, losing in exchange for winning future rigged auctions. GE would then pocket the .04 percent windfall. A municipal bond fund that might have $200,000,000 to invest in its first year would return around $80,000 extra to GE in that fashion. Which doesn’t sound like much. But such bond funds would be invested by GE Capital for years until they were spent down fulfilling their original purpose to build schools and the like. And GE Capital and CDR colluded on huge numbers of such illegal arrangements, pouring vast sums into GE’s coffers. While depriving municipal governments of that same money. GE Capital then kicked back some of its take to CDR as “fees.”

Given the complexity and ubiquity of this practice, no one knows exactly how much was stolen. But since fines paid by large corporations to governments at various levels for such crimes tend to be vanishingly small, it’s possible to get an idea of the scale of the crime. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), GE paid a $70 million coordinated settlement in 2011 to the SEC, Department of Justice, Internal Revenue Service, and a coalition of 25 state attorneys general. The SEC alleged that “from August 1999 to October 2004, [GE Capital] illegally generated millions of dollars by fraudulently manipulating at least 328 municipal bond reinvestment transactions in 44 states and Puerto Rico.”

GE committed yet another massive crime against the public interest. And got away with it. In November 2013, Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm were freed on appeal. The reason? The government had taken too long—ten years—to build its case against the former GE executives.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 3

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Image by Kent Buckley

February 15, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Returning to our ongoing look at General Electric’s recent and inconvenient history of violating the public trust, in part 2 of this “missing manual” the corporation got out of the subprime housing loan market just in time to avoid destruction in late 2007. But it could not escape from the consequences of an economy based on selling toxic home loans to poor people who were defaulting in vast numbers by 2008.

That year, everything began to unravel for GE—as it did for all other large interlocked financial services companies that derived a substantial percentage of their profits from predatory loans in the same period.

According to Fortune magazine, after reporting an unprecedented first quarter loss of $700 million, GE’s stock price began spiraling downwards in April 2008. Failing to sell off its light bulb, appliance, and private-label credit card businesses over the summer due to the worsening economic climate stopped the corporation from making typical course corrections to get back on its feet.

In September 2008, GE’s stock price crashed after Lehman Brothers—a financial services titan—collapsed on the heels of Bear Stearns’ disintegration that March. The company became starved for operating funds. But the private credit markets were frozen in terror.

On September 30, GE made two desperate moves. At 7:30 am it sold $3 billion in preferred stock to billionaire investor Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. on very bad terms. At 1:44 pm, GE announced its deal with Buffet and said it would sell $12 billion of common stock the next day at prices far lower than it had paid to buy back $15 billion of its own stock over the preceding year. Meaning it was selling the stock at a huge loss in exchange for ready cash.

The next day, the coup de grace: Word spread throughout the markets that GE would be unable to cover billions in regular payouts to holders of its commercial paper. Basically a kind of I.O.U., commercial paper is a kind of short-term promissory note that big corporations like GE are able to issue on an ongoing basis to raise money to cover things like daily expenses. There is no collateral behind commercial paper. Only the good name—and, ideally, top-flight credit rating—of the company issuing it. In normal times, it’s a far cheaper way to borrow money than a line of credit with a commercial bank. But 2008 was not a normal time. At one point that year, GE had over $100 billion dollars out in commercial paper as it tried to stay afloat.

Executives clearly knew their company was doomed unless the government bailed it out. Already on September 30, a GE spokesperson “e-mailed the media with a message that Congress must act ‘urgently’ on the pending financial bailout package.” But the company didn’t wait for congressional action. Since it was not a traditional bank, GE did not qualify for a significant direct cash infusion under the infamousTroubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). So it spent the next few weeks brokering a backroom deal with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

According to the New York Times, on November 12, 2008 the FDIC announced that it would back GE’s commercial paper for up to $139 billion under the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP). A program that the federal government changed overnight to allow GE to qualify—just as TARP was changed to benefit Goldman Sachs et al—according to Pro Publica and the Washington Post. GE had “joined major banks collectively saving billions of dollars by raising money for their operations at lower interest rates.” The company was able to sell $74 billion in government-backed commercial paper and longer-term notes by Spring 2009.

And how did GE survive the period between its early October 2008 financial collapse—when it was still short on funds despite the precipitous sale of $15 billion of its stock—and its November 2008 bailout by the TLGP program? In 2010, Pro Publica reported that Federal Reserve Board documents released that year showed that GE had effectively borrowed $16 billion more dollars at that time by selling commercial paper through the Fed’s Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF).

So General Electric was saved by two government programs that provided it with upwards of $90 billion dollars of cheap credit. According to the corporation’s own September 30, 2009 10-Q filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, GE paid only $2.3 billion in fees for its participation in the TLGP and CPFF programs. Meaning that GE got unbelievably good loan terms—the equivalent of a flat 2.56 percent interest rate. Less than the rates that Americans pay on most any other loans. Including the housing loans that wrecked the economy in 2007-2008. And the student loans that could very well lead to another financial catastrophe before this decade is out.

That is how GE got to survive the recession it helped create. By gaining access to a massive pool of public funds totally unavailable to its tens of thousands of subprime housing loan victims. The same company under the same leadership that Massachusetts officials are paying $270 million to bring to Boston. Excelsior!

Coming soon in part 4: GE’s municipal bond scandal and other amusements.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 2

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Image by Kent Buckley

February 1, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Two weeks after the first installment of this Missing Manual, we now know that GE will receive up to another $100 million of Boston’s largesse in the form of reopening the Old Northern Avenue Bridge and $25 million in state money for work on roads, pedestrian walkways, and bike lanes near the corporation’s new Seaport District HQ. Pushing the total giveaway to over $270 million in public funds.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, and boosters like the Boston Globe claim that the investment will be worth it. Yet GE’s record of slashing jobs, despoiling the environment, and evading taxes says otherwise. And their role in the subprime mortgage crisis further repudiates such official optimism.

Back in 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act—a critical piece of Depression-era social legislation that put up a firewall between commercial banks and investment houses—was torpedoed by Congress. One of the excuses for the deregulatory push was the claim that so-called “shadow banks”—institutions that perform banking functions outside of the traditional system of federally-regulated banks—were doing great business with less regulation. The now-diminished GE Capital was then one of the largest shadow banks, since as the finance arm of an industrial concern it was not classified as a bank. Thanks to that fact and the happy coincidence that GE Capital owned a small Utah savings and loan operation, it was allowed to “engage in banking under the lighter hand of the Office of Thrift Supervision.” Rather than the more strict banking regulations overseen by the Federal Reserve—which do not allow banks to engage in commerce—according to a 2009 report by ProPublica and the Washington Post.

Ironically, the deregulation of the banking system proved to be a key factor in the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting 2008 financial crisis. And the much-praised practices of shadow banks like GE Capital were precisely the ones that nearly wiped out the US economy. GE had long used GE Capital, equivalent to the seventh largest banking company in the US until 2008, to fatten its bottom line. According to Maureen Farrell of the Wall Street Journal, “GE got into lending decades ago and grew that arm of its business steadily in the years before the crisis, as it was able to leverage its triple-A credit rating for access to cheap capital. Before the credit crisis, GE relied upon lending for around 50 percent of its earnings.”

So in 2004 GE Capital had plenty of ready cash to buy California-based WMC Mortgage Corp.—a company that specialized in foisting subprime housing loans on poor families that couldn’t really afford them, using highly unethical sales tactics—for about half a billion dollars. According to a 2012 report by Michael Hudson of The Center for Public Integrity, even before the purchase, WMC “… was producing $8 billion a year in subprime home loans and boasting profits of $140 million a year.”

Then in 2006, US housing prices declined sharply. Subprime borrowers with no reserve cash were unable to refinance their home loans as their adjustable-rate mortgage payments increased mercilessly. Subprime lenders then began to automatically slap late-paying borrowers with even higher penalty rates. More and more people defaulted on their loans. Lenders like WMC suddenly went from being cash-rich to being cash-poor.

GE Capital was hemorrhaging money by 2007. During the first half of that year WMC lost over $500 million as the mortgage industry “spun into chaos.” By October 2007, the Center for Public Integrity report concludes, “WMC Mortgage was effectively out of business, dead after having pumped out roughly $110 billion in subprime and ‘Alt-A’ loans under GE’s watch.”  

Meanwhile, GE Capital, like many other financial institutions of the period, had rolled packages of subprime mortgage debt into Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBSs)—which it then sold to investors. Including institutional investors like government-sponsored housing lender Freddie Mac. When the WMC subprime mortgages collapsed in 2007, the GE Capital RMBSs based on them followed suit. And the whole house of cards built on bad mortgages to poor people fell down. GE Capital immediately put hundreds of millions of dollars aside to pay off its investors. But not its mortgage holders. WMC-issued mortgages failed at rates of up to 75 percent in some areas. Ruining the lives of tens of thousands of working families in the process.

GE had gotten out of the subprime racket just in time to stay solvent into 2008. The most significant federal blowback from the episode came in 2011 when the Federal Housing Finance Agency that regulates Freddie Mac sued General Electric for selling them $549 million in subprime-based RMBSs. According to American Banker, they “charged GE’s former mortgage lending unit with presenting a false picture of the riskiness of residential mortgages behind securities that were sold to Freddie Mac.”

GE settled the suit in 2013 for just $6.25 million.

Coming soon in part 3: the 2008 financial crisis and federal bailout of General Electric.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: AN ACTIVIST HANDBOOK

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Images (from 2012 protest against GE in Boston) by Chris Faraone

January 28, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Say friend … is a multinational corporation with a terrible reputation, a limitless PR budget, and a penchant for backroom deals with fawning politicians bleeding your state for hundreds of millions of public dollars that would be better spent on virtually anything else? A multinational named General Electric?

Are you afraid of the consequences of such malfeasance for your community and for democracy itself? Want to do something about it? Then look no further. What you need is a corporate campaign. Sourcewatch—a fine resource for journalists and researchers alike—has a concise definition of the term:

Corporate campaigns were developed in the mid twentieth century by activists and organizers such as Saul Alinsky, and honed in recent decades by labor unions and non-governmental organizations in the environmental, social justice and consumer movements. The goal of a corporate campaign is to publicize undesirable behavior or practices by a corporation through various strategies and tactics that can force change upon the company and thus allow the campaigning organization to claim a victory for its cause. At any given time organizations and even individual citizen activists are waging scores of corporate campaigns, some of which last for years, with varying results.

In my own experience, a corporate campaign is a limited strategy. It does not automatically lead to a broader democracy movement in a society, but can be a stepping stone along that path. It is not always a progressive strategy, although progressives probably use it more than any other political current. NIMBY activists in rich towns use it to keep apartment buildings and wind farms out. Right-wing Christians use it to attack companies that publicly support things they oppose—like reproductive rights, gay marriage, and the wheel.

That said, a corporate campaign is still a useful arrow in the proverbial quiver of justice. And here’s how you can run one.

  • First, decide that a campaign is needed. Gather some like-minded friends into a loose organization, and agree to work together towards a common goal.
  • Second, see if there’s already an organization running such a campaign. If there is, check them out. Do they seem to be a real grassroots expression of the needs of some definable community? If they do, then consider joining them or working with them in coalition. Or do they look like what seasoned activists call an “astroturf” group—a fake organization typically set up by some powerful interest or other to help confuse its antagonists and stop them gaining public support. If so, give them a wide berth and spread the word that others should do the same.
  • Third, start researching your target corporation. Talk to librarians, journalists, academics, and experienced campaigners for advice. Find out everything you can about the company —with a focus on their recent activities. Look for proof of bad behavior in their business and political dealings.
  • Fourth, research possible remedies. What have other communities done to reign in the power of your target corporation and corporations like it? Court action, regulation, and legislation are all good avenues to pursue.
  • Fifth, publish your evidence. Papers, articles, broadsides, podcasts, and videos are all good ways to get the word out.
  • Sixth, if you haven’t already, start fundraising. You’ll need money to win a corporate campaign. You might get some small grants from open-minded foundations early on, but your lifeblood will (and should) be donations you raise from your personal network, your new organization’s network, online via crowdfunding using platforms like GoFundMe, and through fundraisers of various types. You’ll never have anything like the money of your opponents. But you’ll have the strength of your convictions, and—if you do your job well—the support of your community. And can therefore overcome any obstacle if you persevere.
  • Seventh, organize your allies. Pull together community organizations, religious groups, non-profits, labor unions, friendly politicians—anyone who is going to aid your campaign and is willing to work with you.
  • Eighth, build a solid social media presence. Make use of widely available free communications technology to make friends and turn them into supporters. Create a page on Facebook, and a central Twitter account—both with your campaign’s name on them. Regularly feed your presence with updates about campaign activities and links to relevant material. Converse directly with your followers as interaction is key on social media.  Keep in mind that you may never have to create a full website for your campaign if you make good use of social media, but it’s usually a good idea to at least launch a blog on one of the many free blogging communities.
  • Ninth, prepare your public relations campaign. Develop contacts in the press. Plan events and actions that will get and hold the public’s attention. Encourage journalists to cover those events and actions.
  • Tenth, hold your events and actions: open forums, lobby days, protests, and boycotts are all good ways to pressure politicians and corporate leaders to change their policies.

Finally, mobilize as many people as you can to support your campaign. Be sure to give them simple things they can do to show their support and attract even more people: like wearing one of your campaign buttons or putting one of your bumpers stickers on their car. If you’ve done your job well, so many people in your community will agree with you that it will become possible to win your campaign goals—whatever they are.

For a useful model, check out the recent successful #NoBoston2024 campaign—which wasn’t a traditional corporate campaign, but that nonetheless had all the elements of one. And it was a slam dunk resulting in a resounding popular victory against putting the City of Boston in hock for decades for a sporting event with a long history of corruption.

Questions? Feel free to contact me at jason@binjonline.org. And for those of you who might launch a corporate campaign against GE: let’s be careful out there.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.