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Jason Pramas

EDITORIAL: SAVE COMMUNITY MEDIA

Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.
Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.

Tell the FCC That You Support Your Local Cable Access Station by Dec 14

 

December 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.

 

Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.

 

In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.

 

For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”  

 

Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.

 

Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low.   Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.

 

Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.

 

Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.

 

Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.

 

Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.

 

Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.

 

On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”

 

If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.

 

Gaithersburg, Maryland Mayor Jud Ashman gets to the crux of the problem with the possible FCC action in his recent testimony against it:

As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in:
• Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by
federal law.
• Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way.
• Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.

 

In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.

 

But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.”  If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.

 

Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.

 

In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.

Readers can find a letter template and simple instructions for how to file your “reply comments” with the FCC on the Somerville Media Center website: somervillemedia.org/federaassaultonlocalmedia/.

 

It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

FAIR HOUSING WHACKED: TUFTS STUDENTS FIGHT ADMIN PROPOSAL TO ESTABLISH “CLASSIST” DORM SYSTEM

Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.
Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.

 

December 5, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

More than 200 Tufts University students, faculty, and allies from surrounding communities held a march and demonstration last week to protest a new campus housing policy, according to the Boston Herald. Over the summer, the Tufts administration announced that its annual lottery system for on-campus housing during each academic year would be heavily modified to establish “14 different tiers, ranging from $8,220 to $10,219 a year, in contrast to the $7,934 students currently pay.”

 

According to a recent press release from the Tufts Housing League (THL), Tufts Student Action, and several other student groups: “The administration’s tiered housing proposal will effectively segregate dorms by income levels. Students able to afford the $2,000-a-year difference will live in the nicest dorms, while low-income students, middle-income students, and students on financial aid will opt to live in old dorms without kitchens—or be forced to live off-campus and exacerbate the lack of affordable housing in the Somerville and Medford communities. This classist pricing plan reflects the same gentrifying process that the university is imposing on the surrounding communities.…”

 

The student activists are demanding that “Tufts end this policy, commit to building a new dorm, and create a democratic decision-making structure.” They point out that the university has already been accepting more students than it can house and that this move will only force more students off-campus where they will put even more pressure on an overburdened local housing market. Pushing rental, condo, and house prices even further skyward.

 

There is clearly a good deal of student resentment about the move given that the release explains that “less than 24 hours after the initial tiered housing announcement was sent to students on July 23, THL put out a statement signed by 29 student groups and a petition which included 1,582 signatures (over 1,000 garnered in the first 48 hours alone).”

 

Tufts spokesman Patrick Collins told the Herald that “the school is simply following the footsteps of Bay State colleges.” He then “acknowledged some students would see an increase in housing costs” but said that student aid would be adjusted no matter what kind of housing they selected.

 

A quick glance at the “Tufts plans to move to a more expensive tiered housing system, because screw you” discussion on the /r/Tufts subreddit provides a window into informed student opinion on the university position. According to anonymous poster “75812”: “They don’t increase financial aid grants in proportion to cost increases, though they always claim that the ability to pay stays the same. In reality they give you more loans, and in some cases ‘review your need’ and then cut your aid entirely. A lot of my friends, particularly those involved in student organizing (hmmmmmmm) have lost all their aid and had to transfer. But it’s okay because 50k in loans meets 100% of your demonstrated need, even though you’ll be a serf for ten years! Many students on financial aid work two or three campus jobs, while others work nearly full time at off campus shops and restaurants.”

 

The THL’s “Coalition Statement Opposing the Tufts Administration’s Plan to Implement Tiered Housing Prices” echos that sentiment: “Tiered pricing would be a betrayal of low-income students, yet another indication, along with perpetually rising tuition and paltry student resources, that the administration does not care about them. This policy would invariably lead to economic segregation on campus as richer students congregate in the more expensive dorms and lower-income and middle-class students are left with the cheaper, less comfortable housing units. Despite claims to the contrary, students on financial aid may be blocked from higher-cost housing, either by complicated or inadequate reimbursement policy or by self selection.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the lived experience of on-campus financial aid students at an elite school (in terms of its $73,500 sticker price this academic year at least) like Tufts is a far cry from administration public relations speak on matters like housing. So, I think the activists are doing a fine job of researching the policy crisis the school’s action is creating and proposing an eminently reasonable solution: scrap the plan and build at least one new dorm at speed.

 

This is an old problem in Boston and environs given how many institutions of higher learning we have in the area. In fact, Boston University under the leadership of the infamous John Silber was doing pretty much the same thing when I started school there in 1984. Over-accepting students to get the (bloated) tuition and (considerable) federal loan monies that came with them, and then placing literally hundreds of the new arrivals who we called “nomads” into hotel rooms for at least a semester or two. Until the usual forces of attrition did their job, and brought student numbers down to what would fit in the already packed dorms. Which only worked after floor lounges were converted to dorm rooms. The main aspect of that past crisis that differs from the current imbroglio at Tufts was that BU did not have a tiered dorm system at that time.

 

Over the intervening decades, big private schools like BU and Northeastern have gradually built more dorms and mandated that students stay in dorms at least the first year or two—under pressure from abutting neighborhoods and city governments. But they still play an outsized role in causing our region’s ongoing housing crisis.

 

All our wildly expensive major universities—Tufts, MIT, and Harvard first among them—make the situation even worse than it would otherwise be by attracting very wealthy students in significant numbers to move to the Boston area. Who then distort the housing market on their own by offering landlords mountains of cash on demand for properties that would have once rented or sold for far less.

 

So it’s great to see a major coalition of students in the very heart of this system push back against something that will throw gasoline on the fire of bad housing policy at a school like Tufts.

 

However, I will add (as I have many times before) that we’re only going to fix all the problems that our existing university system creates—including housing crises—when we finally admit that the entire American higher education system is already public due to massive government subsidies at every level, and make the governance of all colleges public as well. While mandating university education as a right in a new K-20 system—coupled with expanded lifelong educational opportunities. All funded directly out of taxes like K-12 ed is now. Though preferably through income taxes, not property taxes… to ensure much more equality in educational outcome.

 

That’s way too tall an order for a bunch of student activists at one school to take on given everything they’ll have to do to win their current housing fight. As such, I’m just putting it out there for now.

 

Still, if enough student activists at enough colleges get behind the demand for federal higher ed reform it could happen overnight. And our society would be the better for it, when every student born in this country and every immigrant student besides is able to go all the way to grad school without paying a dime beyond taxes everyone pays anyway. Without, therefore, any of the terrible student debt that is crushing the life out of millions of former college students—young and old.

 

Sure, we’ll have to scrap a few government weapons programs to cover the new costs. And ludicrously large college “endowments”—like Tufts’ $1.8 billion war chest as of June 2017—that exist in no small part because schools get so much public money, would naturally need to be seized by the feds to help provide solid college educations for all who want one. But that’s a (super fun) discussion for another day.

 

For now, best wishes to the Tufts student activists. Hope you all force your administration to build a much-needed new dorm, and move from strength to strength in your campaign to make your school’s housing policy more fair for its campus community and surrounding communities alike.

 

Readers who would like to support the student campaign can check out the Tufts Housing League’s Facebook page at facebook.com/TuftsHousingLeague/.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GROSS POINTS BLANK: BOSTON’S TOP COP SHOULD THINK TWICE BEFORE BASHING THE ACLU

Mayor Walsh announcing William Gross as new police commissioner from July 2018 via City of Boston
Mayor Walsh announcing William Gross as new police commissioner from July 2018 via City of Boston

 

November 27, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

BPD Commissioner William Gross has had a bad few days. Last week, ACLU Massachusetts sued the city of Boston for using “a system—nicknamed the ‘gang packet’—which awards points for choice of clothes and social media selfies, and [is] used to designate ‘gang affiliation’ without any accompanying allegations of criminal activity,” according a Guardian article by DigBoston contributing writer Sarah Betancourt.

 

In response, Gross had a meltdown on his personal Facebook account—accusing the ACLU of being “paper warriors” who “turn a blind eye to ‘atrocities,’” according to the Boston Herald.

 

His attack was weak. And it was off the wall. He said that the civil liberties organization was nowhere to be found when the BPD has done tough stuff like working in East Boston and El Salvador to find ways to bring the international MS-13 gang to heel. He then said that ACLU did not have the “‘common decency’ to call with condolences after a city cop was shot in the face.”

 

“No ACLU when officers are shot. No ACLU when we help,” Gross continued.

 

ACLU Mass Executive Director Carol Rose then fired back the following statement, also in the Herald:

 

Commissioner Gross’ accusations appear to be nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from the serious issues raised by an ACLU lawsuit that seeks to uncover whether the Boston Police Department is unfairly and arbitrarily targeting people of color. … In order to make Boston a safe city for all its residents, we must meaningfully address discriminatory policing, and confront the role the gang database plays in the lives of young Black and Latinx people in our city.

 

Naturally, I’m going to side with the ACLU on this one.

 

Because, first, civil liberties lawyers are civil liberties lawyers and cops are cops. So, right away, Gross is off base in attacking the ACLU for doing its job. Which is to defend civil rights for all American citizens and immigrants to these shores. Including putative gang members. No surprise he’s doing that, though. When faced with a serious critique, it makes sense that he finds it easier to toss red meat to the “Blue Lives Matter”/“cops can do no wrong” crowd than to try to refute ACLU claims head on. Because he knows it’s going to be tough to win such a debate. Especially after the ACLU demonstrated that BPD PR about its being a kinder, gentler praetorian guard was less than truthful in a landmark 2015 report that “found racial disparities in the BPD’s stops-and-frisks that could not be explained by crime or other non-race factors.” Something local police, and their commissioner most of all, cannot have forgotten.

 

Second, cops are public servants and government employees. It’s therefore up to government officials to issue formal condolences when police officers get injured or killed in the line of duty. Which officials like Mayor Marty Walsh—who publicly supported Gross as this article went to press—do all the time. Private citizens like ACLU staff can send their best wishes at such times or not. It’s neither required nor expected of them.

 

Third, the fact that ACLU observers may be present where police are working, something that particularly irked Gross, is no surprise at all. They’re doing their jobs—which sometimes involves watching cops to make sure they’re not violating anyone’s civil liberties. While the cops are doing theirs—which all too often does result in civil liberties violations. Like tarring someone as a gang member in a database based on super sketchy criteria. And then trying to pretend that it’s no big deal.

 

Finally, if Commissioner Gross wants to trash the ACLU on such ludicrous grounds, then he has to accept that other people—like this journalist—are going to come back at him with facts.

 

For example, the fact that police cannot defeat gangs. Especially in the black and Latino/a communities under discussion in this dustup. Even assuming they want to. Which is not a good assumption, since a primary rationale for the outsized police budgets of this era is the threat of gang violence.

 

Cops can’t stop gangs because myriad problems lead to their formation. Problems that sociologists and anthropologists and psychologists have studied exhaustively for over 100 years. Problems of family. Problems of intergenerational networks. Problems of communication. Problems of geography. Problems of education. Problems of substance abuse. Problems of incarceration. And worst of all, the problems of structural racism and entrenched economic inequality.

 

Racism and poverty. Problems that at their heart are problems of capitalism. A political economic system based on economic inequality… and, in these United States, on structural racism. A system propped up by increasingly militarized police forces. Whose job, before all other jobs, is to protect the rich and powerful. And to repress the poor and marginalized. For fear they should rise up and demand a better deal. As they have done on numerous occasions in American history.

 

So, maybe Commissioner Gross should think twice before taking cheap shots at an organization whose only “failing” is trying to protect disenfranchised communities from the very police who claim they are there to do the same thing.

 

Because he may find that the conversation moves in a direction that he doesn’t like.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

A GOOD SEASON TO BE A GOOD HUMAN BEING

And keep it up through the hard times to come

 

November 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

It’s Thanksgiving this week. More correctly the National Day of Mourning. A holiday fraught with contradiction, as I’ve written repeatedly in the past. And what is one to make of it? Originally an opportunity for the descendants of the European colonists who seized Massachusetts—the country it eventually sat within, and the continent that surrounds it—from Native American nations through a combination of deadly diseases, grand theft, and genocidal violence to celebrate their good fortune. Now one of a number of nearly indistinguishable chances throughout the calendar year for (most, not all) people to take a day off from work, eat too much food (often prepared courtesy of women’s unpaid labor), drink too much alcohol, watch sports on TV, and maybe catch up with friends and extended family in the margins somewhere.

 

Once a harvest festival inaugurated by a Christian theocracy, it has morphed into a secular affair. Though its nationalist overtones remain strong. Nevertheless, it kicks off a period of the year—however commercialized—where people are encouraged to think about other people. To talk to each other, and to give each other gifts.

 

So, Turkey Day is as messed up as the warmongering capitalist republic it celebrates. But it does bring out some good behavior in Americans that I believe should be encouraged. An attitude that continues through to another secularized Christian holiday, Christmas, and beyond to a hopeful and libidinous New Year’s Eve.

 

Which is why it’s a fine time of year to make a few suggestions of things readers can do to make the world a better place. Whether you’re religious or not, and regardless of your politics… or lack thereof.

 

Help Someone Less Fortunate Than Yourself

I’m talking on an individual level here. One on one. You’re walking down the street. You see a homeless person. You see a hand being held out in supplication. So, give that person some money. Some food. Some coffee. Whatever they need in the moment. Look that person in the eye. Talk to that person. That fellow human being in need in front of you. A person you may have passed by a dozen times without raising your gaze from the sidewalk. Maybe ask a question or two. Think about the circumstances that resulted in that person ending up on the street. Then reflect upon how you might help build a society that will not allow anyone to lose their home to begin with.

 

Volunteer

Now help a bunch of people. For a couple hours a week or a couple hours a month. Donate your time, labor, and experience. Give a workshop at a local school on something you’re passionate about. Work in a homeless shelter. Build a community garden. Visit with folks in a nursing home. After a fashion, mull over how much can be done outside a system of market transactions. Look for ways to network volunteer efforts together into a front for social betterment.

 

Donate to Charity

Finding a nonprofit organization that really does the good work it says it does can be tricky. So, ask around. Check the news media for background. Go to the website of any organization that looks decent and read some of the group’s materials. Your basic litmus test should be whether the charity in question spends most of the money it raises in the service of its chosen community of interest. Groups that do that are generally worthy of your support. Donate annually… or, and I say this as someone who runs a nonprofit alongside a commercial newspaper, donate monthly. Keep it up as long as you can. And if you can afford it, give to many solid organizations. Set a percentage of your income to devote to good works and give that sum consistently. Note the power of giving, and think about how to expand the gift economy to become the dominant mode of exchange.

 

Day of Service

Too late a plan for this year, but in the years to come try converting your Thanksgiving from just party time into a time to both party and help others. Tell your friends and family that you’re going to spend part of the day helping people in need in your community, and invite them to come along. Over time, this could become a tradition. And the more personal networks that do it, the more the idea will catch on. Not that such a service day is a new notion. But it is something that could stand to be spread nationwide. Perhaps supplanting the current majority view of the holiday at some point. Inspiring many people to make such activities part of daily life—and ultimately baking them into our culture.

 

In closing, I make these suggestions for what I consider to be obvious moral reasons. But also for reasons as political as anything I’ve ever written. Because we’re entering what may well be the most difficult period that the human race has ever faced. And if our species is going to survive and thrive in the decades to come, it will be thanks to simple human solidarity. Based on the kind of actions I suggest above at base.

 

And if humanity is going to stop genocides like the one that was committed against Native Americans—and far too many other groups of people since—from ever happening again, such solidarity is not optional. It is essential.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

QUESTION 1: THE ROAD NOT TRAVELLED

Creative Commons Public Domain
Creative Commons Public Domain

A broader appeal could have resulted in a win for nurses and patients

 

November 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There was no way I was going to criticize Question 1, prosaically dubbed the Nurse-Patient Assignment Limits Initiative, in advance of Election Day. As a longtime labor advocate, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to publicly gainsay a decent union, the Mass Nurses Association (MNA). Even though I thought that its ballot campaign was a strategic miscalculation. But now that the election’s over and the PR dust around the effort is settling, I think it’s important to say something on the matter. Because I hate to see popular organizations I like make political moves that I view to be avoidable mistakes. And I really want the labor movement to go from strength to strength in this difficult era for working people. Not get crushed at the polls.

 

The referendum question, for those of you who need a refresher, aimed to mandate specific staff-to-patient ratios for registered nurses in the Bay State so that RNs would have fewer patients to care for on each shift in most situations. The aim of the initiative was to reduce overwork for RNs and improve patient care. Certainly laudable goals. And ones that the MNA and other advocates have been fighting to reach for years, according to the union’s own literature. In the course of that struggle, the MNA had tried to win better staffing ratios at the contract bargaining table, and in the regulatory and legislative arenas. All with limited success.

 

Finally, they decided to take the issue to the voters. A sensible step… when the other efforts didn’t bring the desired results.

 

But Question 1 was resoundingly defeated—with 70.38 percent voting against, and only 29.62 percent in favor. When just a couple of months ago, it looked like the union position might prevail. So I think it’s worth looking at why the initiative failed.

 

It’s certainly true that one reason for the outcome was that the hospital industry had significantly deeper pockets than the MNA and its allies. But only by a factor of two-to-one. Which is not terrible for this kind of David v. Goliath fight. According to Ballotpedia, the labor-backed Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care raised over $11 million ($10 million plus of that sum from the MNA) to the hospital industry-supported Coalition to Protect Patient Safety’s $26 million ($25 million of that total coming from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association).

 

If Question 1 co-author 1199SEIU—a larger healthcare workers’ union—had not chosen to remain neutral on the question it helped draft, perhaps there would have been funding parity between the two sides. Yet even without the extra money and troops SEIU would have brought with it, the MNA put an impressive organizing campaign on the ground.

 

So I don’t think money’s the main factor behind the strong no vote on the MNA ballot effort.

 

I think the big problem with Question 1 was that it took a policy wonk approach that appeared to benefit a relatively small group of workers if passed. Rather than a rights-based approach that could have demanded direct benefits for a demonstrably larger community. Namely patients. A group that includes literally everyone in the state at one time or another.

 

So, as written, the referendum question appeared to mainly benefit registered nurses. And that is where the MNA and allies immediately ran into trouble. There aren’t that many RNs. According to the Mass Board of Registration in Nursing, there were 130,048 RN licensees in 2018. Which it says includes 12,112 active advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)—mainly nurse practitioners with master’s degrees.

 

If we subtract the APRNs, we’re left with nearly 120,000 RNs of various types out of a total workforce of over 3,500,000. Or about 3.4 percent of Massachusetts workers. A significant group. But not a major group like, again, all the once-and-future patients in the state.

 

MNA definitely tried to target the political campaign around their initiative on benefits to patient safety. The difficulty the union faced there was that the language of Question 1 was quite obviously framed more around what was good for RNs than what was good for patients. Even its committee name pointed to “safe patient care”—wording aimed at nurses—while the hospital industry committee name directly mentioned “patient safety.” In a situation where the ballot campaign’s opposition seemingly put the interest of the much larger community of patients front and center while the MNA didn’t, the union lost control of its own narrative. Which probably resulted in the one group that should have backed the question strongly—RNs—being almost evenly split (48 percent for, 45 percent against) on it by the time of the vote, according to a poll by WBUR.

 

The nurses’ union also tried to make a yes vote on its initiative sound like a great struggle for the labor movement as a whole. Yet here again, it was hamstrung by the narrow language of its referendum question. MNA and other advocates strove mightily to show that a vote for Question 1 was a vote for all workers. But once people sympathetic to labor and the working class in general read the question, what did they see?

 

The question didn’t seek to expand workers’ power in any broad way. It didn’t try to expand patients’ rights, although it could have potentially improved their care. And it didn’t expand the rights of any other stakeholder communities.

 

Mostly what people saw was a question that would raise costs for hospitals and only help one group of healthcare workers—registered nurses. Not orderlies, not techs, not LPNs, not physical therapists, not respiratory therapists, not nutritionists, not speech therapists, not physician assistants, not pharmacists, and certainly not doctors.

 

Add to those problems the fact that Question 1 was too long—the summary presented on voters’ ballots was twice the length of either of the other two questions at 626 words—and too technical (using inside baseball language like “[t]he proposed law would also require every covered facility to develop a written patient acuity tool for each unit to evaluate the condition of each patient”), and it seems pretty clear in hindsight that the effort was doomed from the start. Matching the hospital industry dollar for dollar likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome enough for the MNA to win.

 

I’m writing this brief analysis to make sure that similar future efforts take such issues into account in advance. And that labor advocates choosing to embark upon referendum campaigns going forward make sure that they are rights-based and expand power for major communities of interest.

 

That is the path to victory for grassroots political campaigns of any type. Most especially ones aimed at expanding rights for working people and other currently disenfranchised groups.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

PIZZA BARONS LAY OFF 1,100: PAPA GINO’S & D’ANGELO WORKERS NEED TO ORGANIZE FOR JUSTICE

Image by Don Kuss
Image by Don Kuss

 

November 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Mainstream press coverage of mass layoffs like Sunday’s shutdown of almost 100 Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo fast food restaurants generally looks upon such tragic events through a glass, darkly. Because journalism in the service of the rich and powerful is a poor reflection of reality when it comes to all things labor. Which is why early reportage in major news media typically involves simple transcription of executives’ rationales for such precipitous decisions. Rather than immediate investigation of the massive damage done to the lives of, in this case, more than 1,100 area workers summarily terminated with no official warning of any kind, according to the Boston Globe.

 

True to form, PGHC Holdings Inc., the Dedham-based parent company of both brands, has excuses at the ready for credulous reporters. None of which explain why it’s acceptable to treat its workforce—the people that built the company and kept it running through good times and bad—like so much garbage. But that’s fine and dandy, yes? Given that few journalists ever seem particularly concerned about the human cost of mass layoffs. It’s just assumed (and sometimes stated) that “the market” will take care of everything. Such “disruption” is “good for the economy,” doncha know. And if some hapless working poor people lose their apartments, lose custody of their children, go hungry, and end up on the streets, then that’s their fault for not being “competitive” enough and getting more degrees. Or something. Not the fault of the company that put them there.

 

In any event, according to the Boston Business Journal, PGHC released a statement on Monday explaining “that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. [The company] also announced that it had reached an agreement in principle to be sold to a portfolio company of Wynnchurch Capital, a private equity firm that has offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.”

 

“Private equity firms,” according to a major 2014 investigation by the New York Times, “now manage $3.5 trillion in assets. The firms overseeing these funds borrow money or raise it from investors to buy troubled or inefficient companies. Then they try to turn the companies around and sell at a profit.” Ironically, some of the largest investors in such firms are public sector pension funds. Whose unionized members have no idea what their money is being used for—thanks to byzantine and opaque agreements between their pension funds and firms like Wynnchurch that aim to keep them and the public at large in the dark about buyouts like the tentative PGHC deal.

 

The details that are visible are disturbing enough. According to Boston Globe business columnist Jon Chesto, PGHC “[c]hief financial officer Corey Wendland pointed to one big reason for his company’s need for more dough: minimum-wage increases across many of its markets, combined with higher health insurance expenses.”

 

You read that right. One of the executives directly responsible for destroying the lives of hundreds of working-class families in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire is blaming legislation that’s gradually raising minimum wages in three of those states (minus, sadly, the Granite State) to levels that they should have been at over a decade back for his company’s crisis. Not corporate mismanagement or malfeasance.

 

It’s basically all the fault of those darned unions and other labor advocates for pushing higher wage floors that still don’t even allow many workers to make ends meet once enacted. Massachusetts, for example, will go from the abysmal $11 an hour rate mandated by 2017 to a somewhat less abysmal $15 an hour over five years starting in January. For readers who think that wage is too high, try living on $15 an hour most anywhere in southern New England right now—assuming you get 40 hours work a week, which many Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers didn’t—and see how you do.

 

Naturally, since laid-off PGHC workers weren’t unionized, they had nothing and no one to protect them when the corporate ax fell over the weekend. Even the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act that provides extended unemployment and retraining benefits to victims of a narrow range of mass layoffs may not apply here. Although, as with area NECCO workers who were also laid off en masse this year with no notice, it may be worth trying a class action lawsuit to demand WARN coverage anyway. But with most of the affected PGHC workers making minimum wage, they have next to nothing saved to see them through the difficult period they now face. While the unemployment they may not all qualify for will definitely not be enough to live on until they find new jobs, given their low pay rate. So, it will even harder for them to mount such a suit than it has been for the NECCO crew.

 

A D’Angelo manager who writes under the nom de plume C.D. Madeira took a job at another company about three months ago and agreed to provide an insider’s perspective on the layoff crisis to me in an interview. Unsurprisingly, Madeira says that PGHC was not a decent employer even before its recent action.

 

“I worked for D’Angelo for two and a half years as a manager. They treated us like trash, the minimum wage employees worse. Management was paid as little as possible while required to work 50 hours a week and often much much more. More often than not they required us to work that extra off the clock so as not to skew their labor information. They refused to repair restaurants even when it was a danger to employees and customers.

 

“Basically, I’m glad I don’t work there anymore and that I got out before this happened, but I know many people who are now out of a job.

 

“They closed nearly 100 locations, between the Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo brands, leaving over 1,000 people without jobs and without notice. No severance pay. No PTO [paid time off] payout. Nothing. People went to work assuming they would have a job and they were turned away. Those who had jobs were given calls throughout the day to tell them to close up shop permanently. They were told they could apply at other corporate locations for consideration for rehire.”

 

Not that laid-off PGHC workers are exactly taking the situation lying down. Many have plastered the Papa Gino’s Facebook page with angry messages. Leading the parent company to respond on the page with another statement, “While we regret the rather abrupt closures, we are currently undergoing major updates to better serve our guests and ask for your patience as we make these changes. As New England’s local pizzeria since 1961, we are still standing strong and will be relaunching our restaurants, introducing improvements for the benefit of all of our guests.”

 

Madeira doesn’t buy it: “I saw the breakdown of the conference call they had with the general managers who remain. Basically they’re painting this as, ‘Well, now that we have all these underperforming restaurants out of the way, we can totally renovate the remaining locations!’ Many stores they closed were not underperforming. Also they’ve known about this sale for months. They were talking about putting the brand up for sale a couple of months before I left. So this has been in the works for well long enough to have warned people.

 

“They’ve always been shady. Papa Gino’s originally bought the D’Angelo brand to try and save itself but instead ended up dragging it down completely from what I heard from old-time employees.”

 

This is the testimony that the public has not yet heard in the local press. And it’s infuriating, if not much of a shock to anyone who has worked in low-wage sectors like fast food before.

 

The question now is: What can laid-off Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers do to get some simple justice? PGHC executives responsible for major social dislocation across our region thanks to the layoffs will be fine. They’ve got golden parachutes. PGHC shareholders will make some money in the sale to buyout firm Wynnchurch Capital. Wynnchurch will make plenty of money by reviving the Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo brands and selling them to the highest bidder, and/or by dumping the buyout debt on the company and making millions in “consulting” fees whether the company succeeds or tanks, and/or by gutting company assets for cash.

 

But what about the workers?

 

All I can say is what I say in pretty much every article I write about labor issues: Workers need to stand and fight. Wherever we are. Whatever our situation.

 

So, for the remaining Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers, you all need to unionize. To make sure you have at least the protection of a union contract in the likely event of more layoffs. And better wages, benefits, and working conditions while you all are still employed there. It won’t be easy. But you can be sure that at least two or three major unions—I’m guessing UNITEHERE, SEIU, and possibly UAW—are eager to get in touch with you. I recommend you work with the union that will give you the best service (in the form of staff dedicated to your group) and the most autonomy.

 

And for the laid-off Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers? You, too, need to organize. Get together. Talk things over. Get advice from some experienced union leaders and pro bono representation from some labor lawyers. Maybe find a way to sue your former bosses or the new owners for redress under the WARN Act or some other applicable law. Build community support the way Market Basket workers did a few years ago. Explain why it’s not acceptable for large companies to treat people the way PGHC treated you—and even less acceptable for government at all levels to let them get away with it. Raise money and awareness. Formulate demands. For severance pay. For extended unemployment benefits. For retraining. For damages. For whatever you all need to be made whole. Stay in close touch with your former colleagues as they try to strengthen their position.

 

Then figure out how to win some justice… together.

 

Fortunately, a Facebook page has been started to do just that. Called, fittingly, Papa Gino’s Workers’ Reparations. Here’s a short link for PGHC workers reading in print: tiny.cc/papajustice/. Check it out. And best of luck to all of you.

AFTER PITTSBURGH: HOW WE DEFEAT THE HARD RIGHT

Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

October 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In August 2017, over 40,000 Bostonians marched on Boston Common to tell a small gaggle of nearly incoherent hard-right louts that they were not welcome in our city. Especially in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of a left-wing counterdemonstrator by a young Nazi. At the time, I was concerned that by drawing too much attention to the tiny affair, protestors risked giving the local hard right more power than they deserved—and helping them grow their numbers in the process. But I understood why so many people reacted so viscerally to it, and supported their decision to call what turned out to be one of the largest political actions of any kind in Hub history against it.

 

With Saturday’s slaughter of 11 older parishioners at a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburgh by a heavily armed, raving anti-Semite—literally screaming for the death of all Jews—we’re not precisely entering a new era. After all, we’ve seen a number of mass shootings by the same kind of white guy in the brief period since Boston’s big protest against hate. Including the killing of two African-Americans in a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger supermarket just three days before the Steel City incident. But events are starting to look increasingly similar to the dawn of an earlier era. The Nazi era. And any moderately well-educated adult that failed to hear the shattering glass of Kristallnacht in the bullet casings that hit the floor of the Tree of Life synagogue as the killer pumped lead into the bodies of innocents has learned precisely nothing from history.

 

So, I think it would have been appropriate for Bostonians from all walks of life to call an even larger rally this week than last year’s to take up an old slogan, “Never Again,” in memory of the honored dead of Pittsburgh. And to put all latter-day Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists on warning that we will not allow them to take control of Boston, or Massachusetts, or the United States.

 

However, the Red Sox won the World Series the day after the attack. Making it less likely that the kind of rally we need—a show of force that would inspire people around the nation—will happen here in this critical moment.

 

Which is a pity. Since this is one killing spree that we can absolutely blame President Donald Trump for instigating with his disgusting and completely fallacious attacks on the caravan of asylum-seeking refugees fleeing government persecution in countries like Honduras and poverty in general.

 

As Adam Serwer put it in an excellent Atlantic piece (“Trump’s Caravan Hysteria Led to This”), “The Tree of Life shooter criticized Trump for not being racist or anti-Semitic enough. But with respect to the caravan, the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture.’


“The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election.”

 

So Trump needs to pay a political price for his propagandizing in the service of increasing the right-wing turnout on the sixth of November. And a lot of big protest rallies—perhaps galvanized by a successful Boston action—right before one of the most important elections in decades would have gone a long way toward exacting that price where it hurts him the most.

 

But it was not to be this time around. Which is OK. As there is a lot more that people of good conscience can do to deflect the rise of the hard right before they become strong enough to take more direct and long-term control of significant American political institutions… and start legally murdering their opponents in great numbers. Because if there’s one attribute that Nazis and fascists and white supremacists have in common, it’s a thirst for the blood of their many enemies. As such, they must be defeated politically—and defeated definitively—by people from across the compassionate political spectrum to forestall that possibility from ever becoming a reality. While they are still a small force relative to the population.

 

Before I continue, though, let me just lay out a couple of ideas that are important to any discussion of defeating the hard right.

 

First, the perpetrators of the recent wave of deadly attacks on African-Americans and now Jews (and other targeted groups) aren’t crazy. Sure, they have psychiatric issues. Lots of people do. But they’re generally quite clear about what they’re doing and why. And they are not lone nuts. They are soldiers. Even if they’re not members of a hard-right organization.

 

Second, the attacks these killers are carrying out are not random. Even if, as with the recent massacre, some of them seem to be done on the spur of the moment. They are part of a strategy. The killers are not generally the authors of that strategy. Hard-right leaders are. The strategy and the tactics that comprise it are laid out every day across thousands of channels of communication—most obviously social media discussions. The basic directive of the strategy is to attack “soft targets”—unarmed people who are members of groups deemed enemies by Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. To kill as many of those people as possible. To spread fear in those enemy communities and beyond. And, most importantly, to encourage an armed response from those communities and/or their allies.

 

Allies like young left-wing activists who sometimes put on on masks and try to defend vulnerable communities. Often called “antifa” rightly or wrongly. And demonized by right-wing pundits up to and including Trump as some kind of massive army ready to undermine the very foundations of our republic. Which is purest fantasy. But absolutely a truism in current right-wing circles… be they hard or soft.

 

The goal of the strategy is to trigger a civil war. Which the hard right—being armed and trained and having infiltrated the military and many police forces for decades—fully expects to win. Once it’s won, democracy can be replaced with dictatorship. And the bloodbath they so desire can begin.

 

To stop that strategy from succeeding, the overwhelming majority of Americans and immigrant residents that are not on the hard right must out-organize them politically. And here we arrive at the work that everyone can do. Whatever walk of life you come from. Whatever your background is. Whatever age you are.

 

Study. If you don’t have a basic grounding in history and politics relevant to the fight at hand, get one. If you’re rusty, brush up. We have lots of great public libraries and bookstores in the Boston area. Use them. Look for works by academics and researchers recognized as experts in their fields. If you need suggestions, ask librarians and bookstore clerks. If you need formal instruction, and you’re not a student, enroll in courses at adult education centers and community colleges. If that’s too expensive—or as an adjunct to coursework—form study groups with friends, read key texts together, and discuss them.

 

Organize. Either start or join political groups that are committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and tolerance for the broad array of political, economic, religious, social, and cultural views that don’t involve slaughtering other people. If you’re launching one in your community, and you already started a study group, you can build your organization out of that. It’s also great to start chapters of existing organizations. Definitely don’t “reinvent the wheel” unless you have to. Whether you decide to work with an existing political party or start your own is purely up to you. Political groups can do a lot of useful work outside of political parties. You can also both join or start a political party and join or start extraparliamentary political organizations. Just don’t spread yourself too thin.

 

Educate. You’ve got some knowledge. You’re doing political organizing. Now get out there and talk to as many people as you can. Hold public educational events on important issues of the day. In election years, hold candidate forums and panel discussions on referendum questions. The important thing is that you don’t just do this in neighborhoods already friendly to your core ideas. Go to places that the harder edge of the right wing is known to dominate. Talk up your positions. Spread the word that there is more than one way to think about the world. Also, work with democracy-friendly media outlets (like BINJ and DigBoston). Write opinion pieces for publication. Get on talk shows. Start your own news outlets if necessary. At least a blog and a podcast can be a great start. Use social media judiciously. Build an audience carefully, and encourage its members to join your organization.

 

Debate. This is key. Constantly engage in debate with the broad right wing. You may not exactly win hearts and minds every time. But you may very well stop run-of-the-mill conservatives from turning into hard-right fanatics. You will also learn more about their ideas in conversation than most anything you could glean from your readings. And you will learn to better express your own ideas through practice under some duress.

 

Mobilize. Defend and expand democracy through direct political action. Hold rallies, marches, and pickets against the hard right. Don’t let vulnerable communities struggle alone. Join with them. Work with them. Meet the threat of violence with determined nonviolence. Then beat politicians that support the hard right at the ballot box.

 

Build. Establish small- and large-scale institutions that enshrine democratic values and make them part of everyday life. Social clubs. Sports facilities. Cultural centers. Institutes. For the long haul.

 

In short, create the more democratic society that you want to live in. Run the hard right to ground with the force of your ideas and the people you mobilize politically. Not with guns. Make it impossible for Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists to find significant audiences for their rhetoric of hate for the foreseeable future. And you will have won.

 

We will all have won.

 

NOTE: Since this article went to press, a rally has been called for tomorrow (Thursday, November 1) at 6pm at the New England Holocaust Memorial next to Faneuil Hall. Boston Shiva: Rally Against Antisemitism and White Supremacy. Full info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/330051917546731/. Check it out!

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

MAINE EVENT: PAGU MAKES A SUPER FINE LOBSTER ROLL

PAGU black lobster roll. Photo by Jason Pramas.
Photo by Jason Pramas

 

October 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

People all over the US labor under many misapprehensions about the Boston area—to the extent they think about us at all. One of the worst of these is the idea that lobster rolls are a local delicacy. Or that Bostonians eat them all the time. Or that we have lots of joints that specialize in their production.

 

This is not, of course, the case. It’s certainly true that lobster rolls are a regional speciality, found all over New England. But they’re really a Maine thing. So, it’s not particularly easy to find a really good lobster roll in or around the Hub. Not to say that there aren’t several places that do a nice job with the old standby and a few spots that even specialize in it.

 

So it was with some surprise that I found a great lobster roll at PAGU—a fairly upscale Cambridge establishment at which I recently chose to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Because, heretofore, I’ve been something of a purist when it comes to the crustacean creation in question. The roll has to be a split-top hot dog roll. White bread, naturally. I allow for either of the two traditional condiments: melted butter or mayonnaise. But nothing else. And the lobster itself has to be as fresh as possible. Having had rolls featuring lobster that had literally just come off a boat, I can’t accept frozen product or meat more than a day out of the ocean. It should be lightly boiled or steamed by an expert hand so it has that all-important snap when you bite into it. If it’s chewy at all, it’s not going to make a good roll.

 

I had already heard about PAGU’s version long since. It, and chef owner Tracy Chang, have hardly lacked for write-ups. Which is why I knew it was notable for its black roll. And figured, “What the heck, I might as well try it.” Very glad I did. It was super fine. The roll was made with squid ink and sake, and just tasted like really light savory bread—which it was. Instead of mayo or butter, the lobster was dressed with pear, avocado, and an unusual soy aioli. Giving it a really bright flavor without adding unnecessary and distracting acidity. And the meat had that perfect snap.

 

Some might consider the portion small for the $23 PAGU was charging the day of my visit. But I think of the eatery’s offering as a more traditional-sized roll. Like the ones I very occasionally got to enjoy on trips to the Pine Tree State in my childhood. Before the fad for “overstuffed” sandwiches took hold. With the house-made chips it’s served with, it’s solid light supper for the average person. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off, or that I was in need of more lobster when I was finished. And its price point is comparable to other rolls around town. So check it out some evening soon. Sit at the bar, as I did—obviating the need for a reservation—order a roll, let friendly and knowledgeable mixologists like Andy and Veronica take care of your libations, and reflect that the old ways of doing things are not forever the best ways.

 

PAGU. 310 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. GOPAGU.COM.

EDITORIAL: A NOTE TO BOSTON-AREA JOURNALISM STUDENTS

Let’s talk

 

October 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”

 

Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.

 

Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.

 

Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.

 

Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.

 

Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.

 

The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.

 

Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.

 

For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.

 

Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.

 

We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.

 

It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at internships@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.