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FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART III)

Jason Pramas, summer 2018
Jason Pramas, summer 2018

 

October 10, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In parts one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6) and two (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 40, p. 6), I discussed how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. And how I drove myself one-handed through a snowstorm on country roads in the middle of the night to an emergency room—only to receive substandard care as a poor person. Leading me to make the mistake of letting cheaper chiropractors hurt me more over the next six years. In this final installment, I review my turn to labor activism on behalf of myself… and workers in bad jobs everywhere.

 

I recovered from my spinal injury within a few months. To the point where I wasn’t hurting all of the time. Just some of the time. Yet, as with other life-changing experiences before and since, I wasn’t the same afterward. Physically or psychologically. I was left with the sense that anything could happen to me at any time. Something I had known intellectually before getting hurt, but literally knew in my bones going forward.

 

Regardless, once it was clear I wasn’t going to be entirely disabled, I resolved to move ahead with my life. Which took some time. But by the summer of 1990, I had returned to Boston from Vermont, I was dating the woman who later became my wife, and I had founded New Liberation News Service (NLNS)—the international wire I would run for the next couple of years.

 

Journalism had gone from being an occasional thing for me to a regular thing. Unfortunately, NLNS was a small nonprofit serving the left-wing campus press, the remnant of the ’60s underground press, and some larger community media outlets. Most of which were too broke to pay much for the news packets my service was producing for them. Thus, I wasn’t able to make ends meet doing it for very long. And by 1991, I was temping again on the side.

 

No more manual labor for me, though. That was over, given my damaged vertebrae. This time any temp assignments I took had to make use of my writing, editing, and research skills—which I had developed over the previous few years, despite not having a college degree… and not getting one until 2006.

 

After a number of short assignments, I found a long-term editing gig via a jobs bulletin board at MIT that anyone in the know could just walk up to and use. Faxon Research Services, a now-defunct database company, contracted me through a temp agency. It was March 1992.

 

Over the months, I did well enough at the assignment that I was granted my own office and more responsibilities. I also helped the other NLNS staffer of the time to get a similar gig at Faxon. He, too, started getting more responsibility at the office. Soon, I was being groomed for a full-time job by one vice president. He was being groomed by another vice president. The two vice presidents were at odds with each other. My vice president lost the inter-departmental war. And my temp contract was ended in December 1992. Just like that.

 

Because that’s how temp jobs, and indeed most forms of contingent employment function. Employers want the freedom to use workers’ labor when they need it and to get rid of them the moment they don’t. While paying the lowest wages possible. Saving labor costs and increasing profits in the process.

 

Faxon assumed that, like every other temp, I was just going to take the injustice of losing my shot at a long-term full-time job lying down.

 

But not that time. And I would never accept injustice at any gig ever again. I had learned one key lesson from getting badly injured from the Manpower temp job at Belden Electronics three years previous: If I was treated unfairly in the workplace, I was going to fight. And keep fighting until I won some kind of redress.

 

So, I did something that temps aren’t supposed to do: I applied for unemployment. Because temp agencies and the employers that contract them use such arrangements in part to play the same “neither company is your employer” game that Manpower and Belden played when I got a spinal injury on Belden property.

 

However, I realized that I had been at this temp gig full-time for nine months and figured I had a chance of convincing the Mass unemployment department of the period that I was a Faxon employee in fact even if I was officially a temp at an agency that played so small a role in the gig in question that I can’t even remember its name.

 

My initial unemployment filing was rejected. And I appealed it. And testified to an unemployment department official. And won my unemployment. A small victory, true. But an important one for me, and possibly for other temps in similar situations in the years after me. Faxon didn’t fight the ruling. I got my money.

 

Fortunately, I didn’t need the unemployment payments for long. Back in February 1992, writing as I did not just for NLNS, but also for other publications, I had a chance to join a labor union in my trade. Not the traditional union I had dreamt of helping organize at Belden Electronics prior to—and certainly after—my injury. It was called the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers Local 1981. A small but trailblazing formation experimenting with organizing any of several types of contingent writers—with a constituency of freelance journalists, book authors, and technical writers.

 

I immediately got active in the Boston “unit” of the local. Was elected as a delegate to the national convention in the summer of 1992. Was the youngest candidate for a open vice president’s seat. Lost, but not too badly. And won enough notoriety in the Boston branch that they hired me as their half-time director in December.

 

My fight for justice for myself and millions of other people in temp, part-time, day labor, contract, independent contractor, migrant, and many other kinds of bad unstable contingent jobs besides took off from there. In 1993, I joined the New Directions Movement democracy caucus within the rapidly shrinking but still super-bureaucratic and timid United Auto Workers union, and learned a great deal about how all those purposely precarious employment arrangements were being used by employers to crush labor.

 

In 1994, I started the small national publication As We Are: The Magazine for Working Young People. In 1995, I wrote an article in its third number about the attempt by the radical union Industrial Workers of the World to start a Temp Workers Union, and began actively looking for a way to start a general labor organization for contingent workers. In 1996—just after I published the fourth As We Are, folded the magazine for lack of funds, and took a long-term temp assignment with 3M’s advertising division as a front desk person—I helped launch the Organizing Committee for a Massachusetts Employees Association (OCMEA) with Citizens for Participation in Political Action. A group that straddled the line between the left wing of the Democratic Party and socialists just to their left in the Commonwealth. In January 1997, I quit the 3M assignment a few days before being serendipitously hired by Tim Costello of Northeast Action as the half-time assistant organizer of his Project on Contingent Work there. We rolled the OCMEA effort into our new project and also helped start a nationwide network of similar contingent worker organizing projects called the National Alliance for Fair Employment later that year.

 

In June 1998, I left the National Writers Union gig—having helped build the Boston branch’s membership from just over 200 members to over 700 members in my six-year tenure—and took one final long-term half-time temp editor assignment through Editorial Services of New England at Lycos, a competitor of Yahoo and other early commercial search engines on the World Wide Web. I organized a shadow union of over 25 fellow temp editors— which won pay parity for men and women on the assignment—before leaving to help Costello break away from Northeast Action and begin raising money to form our own independent contingent workers’ organization in September 1998.

 

Finally, in January 1999, we had the funding to found the Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW), the extremely innovative labor organizing network that did much to help workers in bad jobs in Massachusetts over the six years of its existence.

 

That year we also expanded the national contingent organizing group into Canada to form the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE)—which was also based in Boston. Ultimately, Costello was the coordinator of that group and I was coordinator of CCW. And in 2003, during conversations with the CEO of Manpower about a temp industry code of conduct that NAFFE had drafted, Costello started telling him the story of my injury on a Manpower assignment. The CEO cut him off a few sentences in and said, “Forklift?” And Costello said, “Yes.” And the CEO apparently said that years after my injury, so many workers had been hurt driving forklifts in Manpower temp jobs that there had been some kind of settlement with them and the company had instituted reforms. I never bothered to verify the tale. But I don’t doubt its veracity.

 

Because employers can only push workers so far before we start to push back. And I’ve written this series for one reason: to encourage readers in bad jobs in the (now rather old) “new economy” to push back. To fight where you stand. To stop accepting unstable gigs with no benefits for low pay. To start demanding a better deal. Together with your fellow workers. And to keep demanding it. Until we live in a world where no one will ever have to work a bad job. Or get permanently injured the way I did.

 

Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part two here.

 

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.

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART II)

Photo by ekamelev. CC0 Public Domain.
Photo by ekamelev. CC0 Public Domain.

 

October 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In part one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6), I related how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. At the conclusion of that narrative, I was standing in agony in an empty parking lot outside an empty factory in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. My left arm was essentially paralyzed. I was completely alone.

 

I staggered the remaining distance to my car. Struggled to get the keys out of my left pants pocket with my good right arm. Unlocked the door. Opened it. Tumbled into the driver’s seat. Pulled the shoulder belt over my numb left arm. Waves of pain coursed through my body. Got the car started.

 

“Can’t pass out,” I told myself, “Don’t have much gas left, and once it’s gone, the heat goes. I can get hypothermia before anyone notices me in here. Could die.”

 

It was hard to hold my head upright enough to drive, but I managed it. Harder still was getting the car in gear and then driving stick with only my right arm. In a snowstorm. In the middle of the night. Drifting each time my hand was on the stick. Nearly braking into a spin each time I approached top speed in a gear while my hand was on the steering wheel. Nearly stalling whenever I downshifted. And, yeah, that busted second gear I mentioned in part one? That was a real problem. It was tricky enough jumping from first to third gear and back when I wasn’t injured. Doing it while badly hurt and trying to drive one-handed on dangerously icy roads for the roughly half hour I figured it would take me to get from Essex Junction to the emergency room at the big Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington? That was just asking to get put out of my misery the hard way.

 

But that was what I set out to do. Why? Not sure. I was fairly lucid, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. Still, not much was open after 9 pm in the rural suburbs of Burlington in the late 1980s. Especially with the snow falling harder with each passing minute. My recollection is that, given the route I was taking, the first gas station that was likely to be open was close enough to the hospital that I might as well drive the full distance myself and skip an ambulance ride I couldn’t afford. And I hadn’t lived in the area long enough to know if there were any emergency rooms closer to my location.

 

The other problem I faced was the the hypnotizing effect of my headlights reflecting off snowflakes as I drove down unlit back roads. To avoid accidentally getting confused, losing the road, and slamming into something solid, I stayed mostly in first gear. So it took longer to get to my destination. Maybe 45 minutes. Fortunately, I encountered little traffic on the way. And made it to the emergency room.

 

There I got treated the way people without insurance get treated all the time in America. Like dirt. I sat in the waiting room for over an hour. The bored resident that eventually saw me gave me a cursory examination and sent me for an X-ray. More accurate MRIs weren’t yet common and certainly wouldn’t have been given to patients without coverage at that time. I spent the next couple of hours in an emergency room bay. There was a heroin epidemic in Vermont in that period, so I was offered no pain killers in case I was just another junkie “drug seeker” trying to pull a fast one on the staff for a quick opiate fix.

 

Finally, the resident returned, and told me that I had dislocated two vertebrae. He gave me a few Tylenol, told me to put heat on my injury, rest for a few days, and see a general practitioner if my arm function didn’t fully return. I was not admitted for more tests or observation. I was not offered stronger pain meds. I was incredulous, but could do nothing. Naturally, I didn’t pay the medical bill when it arrived.

 

I shuffled back to my car and drove the mile to my apartment. Down the quite steep and icy hill from the University of Vermont campus where the hospital was located to the Old North End. Still one-handed, although I was getting some feeling back in my left arm by that time. At least the snow had let up.

 

It was 5 am. I got the front door open. Closed it. Got a glass of water. Took some Tylenol. Went to my room. Shut that door. Collapsed onto my futon on the floor of my dingy place that was cheap even by the standards of Burlington in that era. Slept fitfully.

 

Woke a few hours later to the first day of my new life as a bona fide member of the walking wounded.

 

It should go without saying that in the days to come both Belden Electronics and the temp service they used to hire me, Manpower, refused to accept responsibility for my injury. Neither company even informed me of my workers’ compensation rights. And I was too young and inexperienced to know much about labor law on my own. So, I proceeded with no money for medical treatment.

 

Surrounded, as I was, by wide-eyed hippies of the type that Vermont is justifiably infamous for producing, I was strongly encouraged to drop the idea of seeking help from “Western medicine” and seek assistance from one or more of the profusion of “holistic healers” that littered the hills and valleys of my temporarily adopted state like so many locusts. I went with the modality that most closely mimicked actual scientific medicine: chiropractic. Because, you know, its practitioners like to wear white coats and pretend they’re doctors. Regardless of whether they’re in the small minority of their colleagues that restrict their practice to scientifically proven treatments, or the majority that does not.

 

Unaware that a) with rest and some physical therapy my injury would probably heal to a tolerable baseline on its own within a few weeks, and b) that the neck twisting employed by less scrupulous chiropractors when “treating” injuries like mine carried a very real risk of inducing a life-ending stroke, I gamely allowed to a succession of chiropractors to twist my neck really fast until its vertebrae cracked. In addition to a fairly random grab bag of similar “treatments.” First once a week and later once a month for the next six years. At $30 a visit to start—up to about $60 a visit by the time I realized my trust in chiropractors was misplaced and stopped letting such charlatans violate my person—the price was significantly cheaper than any medical care I thought I could get without insurance.

 

So, despite feeling worse after every session than I felt when I walked in, I kept it up for far too long. Which was the goal of too many chiropractors. Whatever brings you in their door, they aim to keep you coming back regularly for the rest of your life. Assuming they don’t inadvertently end it. Or merely hurt you badly. As happened when my last chiropractor decided to try electro-muscular stimulation near my head and my vision exploded into whiteness, which faded for an unknown amount of time until I awoke with my face on the quack’s chest. Weak. Somewhat confused. And very angry. I walked out and never came back.

 

But five years later—over 11 years after the initial injury—I discovered that more damage had been done to my spine. No doubt in part from such ungentle and unschooled ministrations. A story for another day.

 

Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part three here… and for more information on why chiropractic is best avoided, check out the Science-Based Medicine blog (sciencebasedmedicine.org/category/chiropractic/) and the older Chirobase (chirobase.org).

 

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.

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART I)

spool of wire

 

September 5, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Every once and a while, I move slightly differently than usual. Maybe I shift position too fast. Maybe I pick up something a bit too heavy. Maybe I’m sitting askew for just a bit too long. Whatever the cause, one second I’m fine… and the next, my old spinal injury flares up. It’s that fast. Pain radiates outward from my core to my extremities.

 

It traces a burning track to the tips of my fingers. I am aware of exactly where each nerve runs back to damaged vertebrae. And there is nothing much I can do in the way of palliative care but let the latest flare-up run its course. I mean, sure, I can do light exercise. I can do some special stretches learned over years of occasional physical therapy. I can use ice, then heat, then ice again. Then I can rest. And start over again the next day.

 

With luck, after a week or three, whatever inflammation I caused calms down. The pain comes with decreasing regularity. And then I return to my “normal” state. The state that has made me unable to do manual labor for many many years. And unable to drive in recent years. If my friends or family need help moving, I can’t do it. If anyone needs me to jump in a car and pick them up, they have to ask someone else.

 

As I type these words on Labor Day, I have just had such a flare-up. Which is, it must be said, kind of ironic. Yesterday, I sat texting someone in a marginally different posture than usual… and bang, I’m hurt again. So it hurts to type. A lot. But I’m pushing through anyway. Like I always do. Like I’ve done for decades.

 

Because I was first injured directly after leaving the last shift of a job in late March 1989. But it was not an actual job. It had neither security, nor benefits, nor decent wages. It was certainly labor, though.

 

The incident occurred at the conclusion of an eight-week temp assignment for Manpower—then, as now, one of the largest so-called “staffing agencies” in the world. The company I worked for—yet didn’t work for—was Belden Electronics. The plant in question was in Essex Junction, Vermont. I had moved up to the Green Mountain State the previous year and was never able to find a decent “job job” in the two years I lived there. Or in several years before or after my “mountain sojourn.” Like many other members of my generation coming of age in the 1980s, I was discovering that the “good jobs” my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation had enjoyed after WWII were already becoming a thing of the past. The late ’80s recession under the first Bush presidency only made things worse.

 

Prior to the factory gig, the temp assignments I had gotten were shorter term. And I wanted something that lasted for longer than a week at a time. The better to pay my rent and keep my car on the road. So when Manpower offered the Belden assignment, I took it. It was swing shift, and I’d be working from 3 pm to midnight, Monday through Friday. I was a night owl, and that allowed me to do other things I was doing in Vermont at that point in my life. I was told I’d be driving a forklift—which I thought sounded interesting. I was 22 years old.

 

So one fine afternoon in early February 1989, I coaxed my old car with manual transmission and a busted second gear I couldn’t afford to fix into driving the half-hour from Burlington’s more or less urban sprawl into the deep woods where some genius had thought it was a good idea to drop an industrial park. Snow was piled 10 feet deep on either side of the country roads as I pulled into a large parking lot outside the commodious Belden facility for the first time.

 

Inside, I was given a quick tour of the factory floor, break room, and bathrooms. Then I was “trained” to drive two kinds of electric forklifts for a total of three hours. One of which involved watching a video. The other two of which involved a manger running me through my paces on actual equipment at speeds much lower than I was going to be expected to drive in the coming weeks. Then I was sent out onto the floor to start work. I received the rest of my training, such as it was, from the guy whose job I was helping eliminate. After working there eight years, he was to be replaced by temps like me.

 

He was a devout Mormon. Many folks don’t realize it, but Mormon church founder Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in the early 1800s. So there are more of that flock about on the starboard side of Lake Champlain than one might think. My trainer and his wife were doing their level best to increase that flock, too. So he had several children. And that was why Belden let him stay on after using me to render his job redundant. He was allowed to work on a machine station, after being forced to accept a pay cut. To make ends meet, he had already started a second job as a janitor at his Mormon temple. Yet despite all this adversity, he never said an unkind word to me—the guy who was to be the first in a series of temps to work his old job—or anyone else in the plant.

 

He was, in fact, one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. Toward the end of my brief tenure at Belden, he gave me a Book of Mormon that he and his family had inscribed with their best wishes. I read it, and discussed it with him. Explained that I was still searching for a spiritual home, but was honored and humbled by his gift. Then went back to work.

 

And what was that work? Well, the factory made wire for electronics companies—including the nearby IBM works. The wire was then spooled. And the spools ranged in size. From little ones that might weigh 10 pounds each. To huge ones that weighed 1000 pounds or more. I am 5’6”, and at the time I weighed 132 pounds soaking wet. My job was to lift or roll those wire spools onto the tines of either of my forklifts—the fast one (which I loved) or the slow one. And take them from station to station, machine to machine, where the wire went through the various stages of its processing.

 

All that lifting and pushing of spools took its toll on me in the brief time I was there, but my body seemed to handle the stress ok. After all, I was young and bouncy. But I didn’t realize that, in the absence of proper training or safety equipment, I wasn’t doing anything correctly. Not to say that I wasn’t a good worker. People from management on down were quite decent to me, as far as it went. I was, however, putting a great deal of strain on my spine.

 

Meanwhile, I was essentially participating in the forced speedup of a nonunion factory by corporate management who were trying to increase profits by cutting labor costs. Driving from station to station, I got to talk to lots of workers—many of whom, like my trainer, had been there for years. They were very stressed out and unhappy. They were working harder and longer for less money with worse benefits. And I began to wonder why they couldn’t unionize.

 

I didn’t know much about unions. Though I was aware that the only recourse working people have on a bad job is to start one. So I actually tried to get a longer-term contract with Belden in hopes of being able to try to do just that.

 

But there was no way they were going to hire a temp they were using to keep their longer-term workers off-balance. And at the end of March, I worked that fateful last shift. Shortly after midnight, I said my goodbyes—taking a few minutes to fill out whatever paperwork Belden and Manpower needed me to complete on the way.

 

By the time I walked out the plant door with the remaining manager, everyone was gone. There was no third shift at that time, so the parking lot was already empty. The manager’s car was parked next to the plant, and he drove off straight away. The door had locked behind me, and there was no one in sight. Except for a lone car in the middle distance that I hadn’t noticed. Which started up unexpectedly, causing me to snap my head to the right to see whose it was.

 

And then I heard a sickening crack. Followed by a massive wave of pain—emanating from my spine—that coursed through my body from head to toe. And then I realized my left arm wouldn’t move.

 

I was only halfway to my car. There was no one around. In the middle of a large parking lot. In the middle of the night. In the middle of the woods. On a freezing Vermont night many years before cell phones became common. A light snow was falling.

 

I was completely alone.

 

Part II coming soon…

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.

‘DON’T MOURN, ORGANIZE!’

 

The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin.
The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin.

 

Why Janus might actually be good for the American labor movement

 

July 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The Supreme Court issued a decision last week that will have profound consequences for American working people. In Janus v. AFSCME, the court overturned a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that allowed public sector unions—like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—to charge government workers who refused to become members a “fair share” fee to defray the expense of representing them.

 

According to the Atlantic, “Until now, 22 states had in place a so-called ‘fair share’ provision, which required people represented by unions who did not choose to be members of these unions to pay fees to cover the cost of the unions’ collective bargaining activities. By contrast, 28 states were so-called ‘right-to-work’ states, and barred employers from including ‘fair share’ requirements in employment contracts.”

 

Private sector unions—although most large unions these days like Service Employees International Union represent both private and public sector workers—are also not allowed to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees in right-to-work states. The thing that makes this ruling so pernicious is that it expands that right-to-work mandate to cover public sector unions nationwide.

 

The understandable view of the majority of labor supporters is that Janus is a disaster for American unionism. Bankrolled by a rogues’ gallery of right-wing donors, its passage virtually guaranteed by the replacement of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative, Neil Gorsuch, the decision is certainly going to have a negative impact on public sector unions. Which comprise the largest wing of the US labor movement of 2018. Private sector unions having already been beaten back by endless attacks from corporations over the last 50 years.

 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate of public sector workers (34.4 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than that of private sector workers (6.5 percent) in 2017. With only 10.7 percent of American jobs unionized overall, and public sector union members outnumbering private sector union members since 2009.

 

This low “union density” rate is no accident, as big business wants to eliminate unions as an impediment to their endless drive for profit. Since unions have the strongest track record of any institution in our society of keeping the pressure on employers and government for higher wages, better benefits, and more spending on government programs that benefit working families. Just the sorts of things that lower corporate profits.

 

But public sector unions have been better protected than private sector unions—organizing jobs that are generally directly funded by government at all levels. This has made them a primary target of the right wing—for whom giving unionized government workers a better deal over decades is tantamount to using public funds to expand the government.

 

Also, public sector unions—like most other unions—provide tens of millions of dollars to the Democrats every election cycle, and most of the ground troops the Dems need to run successful election campaigns in many districts.

 

For those reasons, right-wing strategists have been looking for ways to get rid of public sector unions since they rose to prominence in the mid-20th century. Even more than the private sector unions they’ve had an easier time busting. And Janus moved them a long way toward that goal by cutting into union bottom lines.

 

How? Fair share fees add up. Eliminating them for public sector unions nationwide will cut millions of dollars from their budgets. Effectively slashing the amount of money they can spend on organizing new workers and plumping up Democratic Party coffers. Even though the Aboud decision dictated that fair share fees could only be spent on “collective bargaining” costs—basically, providing nonunion government workers the same services provided to union members—not on political activity.

 

No surprise, then, that many union leaders and boosters think this is the worst anti-labor decision by the court in decades.

 

However, there’s a minority view on the left wing of labor—where I have always situated myself as a longtime union member and activist—that says that the Janus decision may actually save American unions. Why? Two reasons.

 

First, because the more money that American unions have raised from members and nonmembers alike, the more they have tended to bureaucratize. And become top-heavy with high-paid staffers and elected officials that have become culturally distant from those same members.

 

Because union leaders making secure six-figure salaries with generous benefits have very little in common with members making typical union wages. They are also more likely to be college educated than union members are. A phenomenon that’s been growing (ironically) since the radical campus movements of the 1960s produced a generation of student activists who entered union jobs—and staff positions— in an effort to push them to the left politically. After the communists, socialists, and anarchists who actually built many unions through titanic workplaces struggles between the turn of the last century and the 1940s were pushed out of them during the anti-left “witch hunts” of the McCarthy Era.

 

Today’s union leaders therefore are not like the leaders of those earlier struggles. They’re often more comfortable with the college-educated corporate and government leadership sitting across from them at the bargaining table than they are with their own members. And they’ve tended to replace militant grassroots organizing on behalf of the entire working class with narrow bargaining for minor contractual gains for the shrinking number of members they represent. Such leaders make tough-sounding noises when it’s time to get a new contract with an employer or during big election campaigns. Yet they’re actually quite timid compared to their predecessors—who were often on the front lines of literal street battles with police and the National Guard or in jail on trumped-up charges when union activity was deemed illegal by courts stacked with pro-corporate elites.

 

Second, as this timidity in an era of renewed vicious corporate assaults against labor has contributed to declining union membership rolls as a percentage of the growing population, union leaders have turned to spending larger and larger sums of money on the Democratic Party. In a mostly vain attempt to purchase political clout they no longer have in the streets or at the ballot box. Even as the Democrats have moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, and become more and more beholden to corporations. Which still makes the Republican hard right angry enough to fight for court decisions like Janus, since the now slavishly pro-corporate Democrats are insufficiently capitalist by their lights. And, more to the point, since the Republicans have a strong desire to rule—a “will to power,” one might say—and any force that opposes them is an enemy that must be defeated. An attitude that hapless Dem leaders have definitely adopted to anyone to their left, including the social democratic pro-union left of their own party. But have failed to adopt to the Repubs and the outright fascists on their right.

 

So, Janus might be just what’s needed to cause a rebirth of the labor movement. It eliminates a big chunk of the money that union leaders have to spend on the Democrats—who have done little more than take that money and spit on union workers since the neoliberals of the Clinton administration took over party leadership.

 

It also will force the unions to cut staff. Including top staff. Which will definitely dump good leaders as well as bad ones, and that’s a drag. But it might very well help with the other big problem American unions have—a lack of internal democracy. Like other bureaucracies, too many unions have come to vest too much power in their top echelons. And leave their members out in the cold. Which is another factor that has led to union leaders making bad political decisions. Like backing pro-corporate Hillary Clinton over pro-labor Bernie Sanders in 2016.

 

Budget cuts caused by Janus could cause more power to be vested in union memberships’ hands. Leading to more victories like the one won recently by unionized teachers in West Virginia—who organized massive wildcat strikes over the protests of their own leadership. And won big while lighting a fire that has spread to teachers in other “red” states like Oklahoma and Arizona. States that are, among other bad things, right-to-work states.

 

However things play out, moribund American union leadership has been in need of a wakeup call for decades. And if Janus is what it takes to shake them out of their torpor, then so be it.

 

In any case, as storied labor martyr Joe Hill once said, “Don’t mourn, organize!” But don’t expect to win gains in the workplace and at the ballot box without a real fight—and without unions controlled by their members top to bottom.

 

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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

TOWNIE: WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

former GM Framingham plant

 

Or how tax breaks for fat cats relate to a defeat for Harvard management rats

 

April 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

“Opportunity” for the few

Gov. Charlie Baker submitted paperwork to the US Department of Treasury last week, according to the Republican, asking the federal government to consider 138 tracts in dozens of Massachusetts communities for inclusion in the new “Opportunity Zones” program—passed in December as part of the Trump administration’s sweeping tax reform legislation.

 

As the name implies, each opportunity zone is a low-income area of an American city or town. According to Next City, acceptance to the program makes such areas eligible to receive investment from “Opportunity Funds”—which are to be certified by the treasury department. The funds “will be required to invest at least 90 percent of their investment dollars into businesses or properties located in designated Opportunity Zones,” and the initiative “allows investors to defer some of their taxes on capital gains in exchange for investing some of their accumulated wealth into the opportunity zones.”

 

This week, MetroWest Daily News looked at tracts chosen for the program in Framingham and Marlborough. In Framingham, “City officials nominated a pair of contiguous neighborhoods on the southeast side of the city, which has struggled to rebound from the decline of manufacturing and the legacy of environmental contamination in the area.”

 

One of those tracts is particularly interesting because it contains “a significant amount of industrial land, including the state prison and the former General Motors plant, which is now the site of Adesa, the vehicle auction house.” And thus encapsulates everything that’s wrong with neoliberalism—the return to 19th-century dog-eat-dog capitalism in which private interest must always outweigh any possible public good.

 

Which is germane to this discussion because the opportunity zone scheme was cooked up by a “bipartisan” (read “neoliberal”) think tank called the Economic Innovation Group—led by a who’s who of Silicon Valley movers and shakers, according to the Los Angeles Times. Napster founder Sean Parker, former Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot, and a rogue’s gallery of major West Coast venture capital investment house leaders are all part of the organization’s “founders circle.”

 

So it’s absolutely no surprise that the program is essentially yet another tax break for the rich. In a federal tax regime that’s now replete with them—especially after Trump’s ungentle ministrations. More problematic, however, is the fact that the so-called opportunity zones give the rich and powerful even more control over economic development in areas already impoverished by the rich and powerful.

 

Which brings us back to the Framingham tract in question. It houses MCI-Framingham, a medium-security women’s prison with a population that includes a majority of nonviolent offenders. Most of whom are from working-class families, and most of whom would not be there if the state and federal government put less money into the “prison-industrial complex” and more money into guaranteeing economic opportunity for those families.

 

It is also home to the former General Motors plant. Which once employed as many as 5,000 workers in high-paying jobs unionized with the United Auto Workers. Just the kind of jobs that increasingly downwardly mobile working-class families need, if they want to avoid turning to crime to make ends meet.

 

According to the New York Times, the last 2,100 workers were laid off from the GM plant in 1989. And the working families of Framingham and environs have never really recovered since then. Because pols and CEOs and policy wonks can talk all they want about Massachusetts having recovered from the Great Recession of 10 years back. They can claim we’ve achieved “full employment.” But the jobs that working people have been able to get since the destruction of the Bay State’s largely unionized industrial base between the 1950s and the 1990s are not nearly as good as the ones that were lost.

 

Gone also is the social—and therefore political—solidarity that once enabled the local working class to defend and maintain the improvements they won on the job for decades.

 

In its place, we have programs like the “opportunity zones” that help the rich find new and exciting ways to get richer. But that don’t mandate the creation of good jobs for working families, or provide for the democratic control of new enterprises that are created by the people that work in them.

 

Furthermore, as Next City points out, “Opportunity funds could end up raising too much capital without enough deals in the designated census tracts, blunting the impact per tax dollar lost, or they could end up without enough capital raised to make a discernible difference.”

 

Seems likely that the new program will go the way of a similar neoliberal program from the Clinton era: “Empowerment Zones.” Which never produced gains for poor communities that could be tied to the program. Instead lining the pockets of legions of contractors and investors along the way.

 

Harvard University grad union victory

In light of the loss of 5,000 good jobs unionized with the UAW at GM Framingham decades back, it’s extremely ironic that 5,000 graduate assistants at Harvard University just successfully unionized with—you guessed it—the UAW. Big congrats to all concerned.

 

The labor campaign was absolutely necessary because the same neoliberal system that purposely depresses working-class wages and benefits worldwide to increase corporate profits also hurts grad assistants. Harvard is a large employer, and—nonprofit or not—like most large employers it always strives to save money on staffing costs. So it makes perfect sense that a union that was decimated by decades of assaults from auto industry tycoons should get vengeance of a sort by unionizing grad assistants at a ruling-class university that continues to help spearhead the corporate drive to crush global labor power. Grad assistants that—together with various kinds of adjunct faculty—get overused by fully corporatized university management to avoid increasing the ranks of more expensive (and far more powerful) tenured faculty.

 

Naturally, being a teaching or research assistant for a few years is not the same kind of job as the ones lost at GM Framingham. And the fortunes of people with advanced degrees from an elite school are typically much different than those of auto workers that often only had high school degrees. But beyond the improvements that grad assistants will see in their working lives during their short time at Harvard, and the bump that the labor movement will get from their very public victory, here’s hoping that the students will learn to feel genuine solidarity with working families the world over. And move into their professional lives with the determination to help undo the grievous damage that too many of their predecessors did, and continue to do, to the billions of people who don’t control the commanding heights of politics and the economy.

 

 

Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) 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.

CRISIS AVERTED

MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.
MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.

 

MBTA bus mechanics beat back privatization… at a cost

 

February 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Unionized bus mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists Local 264 won an important victory last week when they agreed to a four-year contract with the MBTA—effectively ending a two-year effort by the transportation authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board to privatize three bus garages, eliminate 150 good jobs according to IAM District 15 Assistant Directing Business Representative Mike Vartabedian, and crush the union.

 

The attack on the bus mechanics, and all unionized MBTA workers, actually began in 2015 when Gov. Charlie Baker (with plenty of help from his pals at his old stomping grounds, the right-wing libertarian Pioneer Institute) pushed a three-year suspension of the landmark anti-privatization Pacheco Law through the Mass legislature as part of the annual budget. The suspension applied only to the T. Shortly thereafter, Baker appointed the five-member FMCB—one of them, Steve Poftak, being a former Pioneer staffer like the governor—to get to work privatizing a public transit system serving much of eastern Massachusetts.

 

Because, you know, reasons. Most of them involving transferring as much public wealth into private hands as possible. And freedom. For the rich to get richer and the poor to starve.

 

The 1993 law, officially known as the Taxpayer Protection Act, protects unionized state workers and the people of Massachusetts from outsourcing and related corporate malfeasance in six ways that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was thoughtful enough to summarize:

 

  1. Agencies seeking to contract out a service must prove not only that the move would save money, but that it would save money even if state employees were to work in the “most cost-efficient manner.”

 

  1. Firms cannot win business if they’ll pay less than the lowest amount the state pays its employees for similar services.

 

  1. Every privatization contract must contain provisions requiring the contractor to offer positions to qualified regular employees of the agency whose state employment is terminated because of the privatization contract.

 

  1. The contractor must add lost tax revenues to the cost of the bid if any work is to be performed outside Massachusetts.

 

  1. Private bids must also include estimated costs of monitoring contractor performance.

 

  1. Public employees have the opportunity to submit bids to keep the work in-house and “the agency shall provide adequate resources for the purpose of encouraging and assisting present agency employees to organize and submit a bid to provide the subject services.”

 

In suspending the law, the Baker administration meant to allow corporations free reign to eliminate huge numbers of good unionized public transit jobs and replace them with bad underpaid jobs with few or no benefits and little security. All in the service of reigning in costs at a quasi-independent transportation agency that is only having budget trouble because the state government—including the dominant Democratic legislative leadership that absolutely does not put its money where its collective mouth is—refuses to return to fully funding it based on its actual needs (see my 2016 column “Squawk or Walk” for more background). Rather than hobbling the MBTA with insufficient annual support and then dumping a huge amount of Big Dig debt on it for good measure. Because that might involve finally raising taxes on corporations and the rich. And corporations and the rich don’t want that. Just ask Raise Up Massachusetts—the folks pushing for the upcoming referendum fight for the “Millionaires’ Tax” that would devote money to properly funding public transit, among other worthy goals.

 

The expected script happily got flipped by the Machinists union and the labor-led INVEST NOW coalition, who fought hard for many months to demonstrate that privatizing the MBTA bus garages was a bad move. For everyone but the fat cats that stood to make millions off the misery of T workers and T riders alike. Since the already-overburdened, underfunded T bus system would basically collapse without the skilled union mechanics keeping its bus fleet in good order for short money.

 

The union coalition and allies like Attorney General Maura Healey scored major points when they demonstrated that only one private transportation company, First Transit, had submitted a bid to run the T bus garages in question. The same company that paid a $7.3 million settlement to the Commonwealth in 2012 after backing out of a contract to run the T’s The Ride, a door-to-door service for disabled commuters.

 

Advocates and labor-friendly legislators—including the author of the Pacheco Law, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), himself—testified to the Fiscal and Management Control Board that First Transit’s action resulted in a $66 million deficit for the state, according to State House News Service.

 

Ultimately, the union’s grassroots campaign worked, and the FMCB, the governor, conservatives from both parties in the legislature, and the ideologues at the Pioneer Institute were forced to back off this latest privatization push. But all battles exact a cost. So while the T bus mechanics scored a solid win overall, their new contract looks to be a mixed bag. On the upside, it keeps all nine MBTA bus garages plus one support facility in Everett public and includes Taxpayer Protection Act provisions that will help provide Local 264 members legal cover against privatization until the law’s suspension ends later this year.

 

On the downside, it forces the workers to accept low cost-of-living raises over the contract term and allows the T to bring in new workers for worse money and benefits than they would have started with previously, according to the Patriot Ledger. And, like the Carmen’s Union contract that preceded it, the Machinists’ agreement allows the T to hire private contractors to perform work outside its 955-bus core service. But only if they “maintain the same procedures and quality standards followed by the machinists,” according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Since the devil is often in the details of such statements, it’s hard to tell if that will really stop T management from undercutting the union should bus service expand. Which it very well might—since the Boston Globe reported that T capital expenditures have risen under the Baker administration, even while it has done its level best to ram through cuts in operating expenditures on the backs of workers. Like the 406 bus mechanics and fuelers in Local 264’s MBTA bargaining unit, who are essentially having $4.1 million a year in concessions forced on them in the service of a completely avoidable budget deficit.

 

Still, all in all, the contract demonstrates that fighting for justice in the workplace remains far better than not fighting. If the union had been defeated, many workers would have lost their jobs and their families would have been immediately thrown into poverty. Their replacements would have been un-unionized and unable to easily defend themselves against T management. So, readers observing this fight should think twice before criticizing the bus mechanics, and think carefully about their own work situation. If your bosses decide to outsource your jobs to some fly-by-night company tomorrow, could you and your co-workers defend yourselves? For nearly 90 percent of American workers who aren’t unionized, the answer remains “probably not.”

 

The only thing that can change that sorry situation is for workers to stand their ground. Those of you interested in doing that should check out the website of the main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more information on how to form a union at your workplace: aflcio.org/formaunion.

 

It’s not easy to do, no lie. I lost a job for helping lead a union drive not three years back. Fortunately, all the other workers in my former unit at that employer are now unionized. So it’s worth the risk. And it’s necessary. And everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck should consider it.

 

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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GENERAL ELECTRIC FAIL

 

Conglomerate’s woes throw Boston HQ deal contradictions into bold relief

 

November 15, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

What a surprise. General Electric is tanking, and the scheme to bring the multinational’s headquarters to Boston is looking worse by the day. And whom shall the public blame if that once-secret deal cut by Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh in January 2016 goes south? Potentially tossing away millions in tax breaks and direct aid to a company that has already done massive damage to the Bay State over the past few decades? Readers of the dozen columns I’ve written criticizing the boondoggle will already know the answer to that question. But for those of you who have made the mistake of believing all the massive amounts of PR bullshit that the Boston Globe and other area press have been tossing around about the affair since that time, here’s a bit of a recap.

 

Where to begin? So, the governments of Boston and Massachusetts agreed to shovel tens of millions of dollars at GE in “exchange” for “800 jobs” in a new corporate headquarters campus in the Fort Point district of the Hub. Many of which would simply be transferred from the old headquarters, and most of which would be executive level jobs that will not help Boston’s struggling, underemployed working class.

 

Now there’s a problem. GE’s been losing money all year. According to the New York Times, its stock price had already dropped by 35 percent since January. Then, according to CNBC, the company’s share value dropped another 13 percent this week as of this writing after new CEO John Flannery announced a restructuring initiative—including the one thing investors hate most of all: dividend cuts. Only the second for GE since the Great Depression. So the knives are coming out around the beleaguered behemoth, and it remains to be seen whether some internal reorganization (doubtless costing legions of employees their jobs) and some belt-tightening by its execs will be enough to stop investors from moving to carve the conglomerate up like a Thanksgiving turkey. But let’s not assume the worst just yet.

 

Funny thing about that belt-tightening, though. According to the Boston Herald, cuts are now in store for GE’s still-small local workforce, and construction of the new Fort Point headquarters building was already pushed back two years from 2019 to 2021 in August. The plan is to make do with the two old Necco buildings already being refurbished on the site at first. The PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement signed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority) and the city of Boston guarantees up to $25 million in tax breaks to GE if it provides the much-ballyhooed 800 full-time jobs. But by what date?

 

The discussion around GE moving its HQ to Boston has focused on the corporation creating those jobs by 2024. Herein, then, lies the rub about the PILOT deal: The agreement is framed around GE hiring “approximately 800 employees at the Headquarters Building and the Necco Buildings within eight years of the Occupancy Date.” But that occupancy date is explicitly defined as “the date upon which the Company initially occupies the Headquarters Building.” Which has now been pushed back from 2019 to 2021, according to the Boston Business Journal. So 2024 cannot be the year that GE will need to have 800 employees on its new campus. 2027 would have been the earliest it had to meet that target. And now that’s been pushed back to 2029, given the delay with the headquarters building.

 

Yet it turns out that the PILOT agreement doesn’t actually require 800 jobs to be created. Remember, it starts by stating GE will employ “approximately” 800 people on the Fort Point campus. But further down in the document, in a table explaining the specific tax break the city will actually give the company during each year of the deal, it allows for the creation of as few as 400 jobs in a chart with five tax break tiers between “Job Figure is between 400 and 499” and “Job Figure meets or exceeds 800.” Keeping in mind that the agreement also specifies a “stabilization” period of seven years between 2018 and 2024, during which GE gets $5.5 million in tax breaks no matter what and isn’t required to provide any jobs at all for the first six years. GE is then only required to provide between 400 and 800 jobs from 2024 until the agreement ends in 2037.

 

Job figure table from the GE Boston PILOT agreement
Job figure table from the GE Boston PILOT agreement

 

What’s super puzzling is that agreement first requires the company to start providing annual job figures “from and after” the aforementioned occupancy date. But the agreement already established that it only really has to start meeting any job targets as far out as eight years from the date it occupies its headquarters building. Making the job target requirement trigger as late as 2029, according to current plans. Despite the tax break table in the PILOT agreement using job targets to calculate tax breaks beginning in 2025 based on the 2024 job count.

 

The state, for its part, committed a total of about $120 million to the project. Late last year, GE spent $25.6 million to buy 2.5 acres on the Fort Point Channel that includes the land the existing buildings sit on and the land the new headquarters building will (perhaps) one day occupy from Procter & Gamble. MassDevelopment, part of the Commonwealth’s economic development apparatus, took out a $90 million loan from Citizens Bank—an interesting maneuver worth looking into—using $57.4 million to purchase the two old Necco buildings on the site from P&G, and the rest to refurbish the buildings. The remainder of the state’s “investment” is slated to go to fixing up the area around the site.

 

So, GE is getting basically free rent on the Necco buildings plus free upgrades on abutting public land courtesy of the state. And a big chunk of the taxes it would normally pay over the next 20 years is coming free from the city. Without any real requirement that it actually provide any jobs in Boston for many years, and then only (maybe) 400 jobs by 2029—assuming the headquarters building is built in 2021.

 

Which is the problem with all such erstwhile “economic development” deals in the Bay State. From their origin as a way to help encourage investment in areas of the state that were down on their luck precisely because GE and companies like it moved their manufacturing operations away from cities like Pittsfield, Lynn, and Fitchburg to places without the decent labor and environmental regulation that was in place by the 1970s, they have become yet another way for rich and powerful corporations to get richer and more powerful. Worst of all, such corporations hold all the cards in the deals. If they don’t get lavished with free public money, they can refuse to move their operations here or can leave if they’re already operating in the area. Once they get the cash they’re looking for, they can basically pull out at any time. Or as is the case with GE, they can “alter” the deal Darth Vader-style, leaving our local “Lando Calrissians” like Baker and Walsh to “pray” the deal is not altered “any further.”

 

The Boston Business Journal was correct to point out that GE will get $2.1 million in tax breaks on the Fort Point Complex by 2021—the year that the company now claims it’ll be completing its new 12-story headquarters building on the site. But what if it doesn’t build the new structure at all? It’s not clear. Because the PILOT agreement is pegged to job creation starting as far out as eight years after the headquarters building is built, and then allows for the company providing as few as 400 jobs between 2024 and 2037 rather than the 800 everyone’s been assuming. While not actually demanding any job creation until as late as 2029, making it unclear how the tax break will be calculated between 2025 and 2029 should GE drag its feet for the full eight years. The conditions for the company defaulting on the agreement are also pegged to job creation. Not to the construction of the headquarters building. Oh, and by the way, the PILOT deal only covers the headquarters building and the land the company purchased under and just around it (which the agreement calls the “Headquarters Project”). Not the Necco buildings, now owned by the state. Also, there’s no word about what happens if the company has less than 400 workers in Boston at any point from 2024 to 2037. Do these curious contradictions amount to loopholes for GE to bag the whole deal? It certainly looks that way.

 

The minimum GE will get in tax breaks from the city of Boston over 20 years is $5.5 million by 2024 plus whatever breaks it qualifies for between 2025 and 2037. However, the amount the company actually puts out in annual PILOT payments after 2024 is calculated by a complicated formula based on the taxes that would have been assessed without the PILOT agreement. And the assessed value of the relevant property could change from current projections. So it’s hard to know what the total value of the PILOT deal will ultimately be to GE, other than that it will be a bunch of money… however many jobs it actually creates.

 

But why exactly are Boston and Massachusetts giving a huge company that’s still profitable any money at all? And what happens if GE bails on the scheme by hook (simply running and fighting its PILOT default in court with its vast legal department) or by crook (not building the headquarters building at Fort Point and possibly getting away with delaying the job creation target trigger until the deal ends in 2037)? And what happens if worse comes to worst for GE, and the company actually does collapse?

 

These remain my central questions. And I continue to encourage all of you to ask those and related questions to every Boston and Massachusetts politician you can find. And ask the Globe while you’re at it. They’ve got a loooot of ’splaining to do about their cheap boosterism… which they’ve become awfully quiet about of late. Preferring, it seems, to focus on the next giant company that’s demanding public bribes to come to town, Amazon.

 

A shorter version of this column appears in this week’s DigBoston print edition.

 

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.

TOWNIE: A WORM’S EYE VIEW OF THE MASS POWER STRUCTURE

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From the guy that brings you Apparent Horizon

October 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The rich and powerful interests that control Massachusetts politics and the state economy have their fingers in every conceivable pie. So numerous are their projects that it’s difficult for most news outlets to keep track of them, let alone cover them all. Yet it’s critical for our democracy that they be covered. Which is why I’m launching Townie—a regular news column that will provide short takes on all the elite wheeling and dealing that most people never hear about.

 

Business Organizations Sue to Down “Millionaire’s Tax” Referendum

In an era when taxes continue to be slashed for wealthy people and corporations as government social programs are starved for funds, one would think that the Fair Share Amendment (a.k.a. “millionaire’s tax”) proposed by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition of religious, labor, and community organizations would be a no-brainer. The idea is slated to be put in front of Massachusetts voters as a binding referendum question in November 2018. If passed, it would amend the state constitution to add a 4 percent tax on top of the Bay State’s infamously inadequate 5.1 percent flat income tax for all households earning $1 million or more. The money collected will be mandated to fund public schools, transportation, and road maintenance. All sectors that really need the money. And best of all, only 19,500 families would have to pay in 2019 if the tax goes into effect—0.5 percent of all filers.

Well apparently any tax is a bad tax in the eyes of the Commonwealth’s “business community.” No matter how many people it would help, and how painless it would be for the tiny number of 0.5 percenters. So, according to an Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) press release,  the leaders of five pro-corporate organizations are trying to torpedo the referendum before it can be voted on by filing a lawsuit against it at the Supreme Judicial Court. The plaintiffs are: Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Inc. (MHTC); Christopher Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Richard Lord, president and chief executive officer of AIM; Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF); and, Daniel O’Connell, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (MACP).

They claim that the referendum language is “riddled with constitutional flaws,” with the MTHC’s Anderson remarking that “Amending the Constitution to achieve taxing and spending by popular vote is just a terrible idea, and could undo much of the good work that Massachusetts has done in terms of creating a successful economic climate.” But no matter what kinds of arguments they try to make, it seems like what they’re most afraid of is democracy. Let’s see how far they get with the SJC.

 

About That Opioid Epidemic…

More proof that the rising number of deaths from opioid abuse has more to do with corporate greed than any personal failings of individuals suckered into addiction by pliant doctors colluding with pharma sales reps. And also that those few drug companies that pay any penalty at all for their role in destroying communities across the state, get little more than a slap on the wrist. According to a press release by the office of Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, “An opioid manufacturer will pay $500,000 to resolve allegations that it engaged in a widespread scheme to unlawfully market its fentanyl spray and paid kickbacks to providers to persuade them to prescribe the product…  Insys Therapeutics, Inc. misleadingly marketed Subsys, a narcotic fentanyl product that is sprayed under a patient’s tongue.” The money will be used to “help fund the AG’s prevention, education and treatment efforts.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin. The company claimed its spray version of the drug was useful for treating “minor” pain in non-cancer patients—despite the fact that the FDC had only approved the drug for use in more severe pain in cancer patients. It then pushed its sales staff to give kickbacks to doctors in the form of “fees paid to speak to other health care providers about the product.”

 

Boondoggle in Progress?

When a public college gets involved in land deals, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on. Especially when that college is UMass—a troubled multi-campus institution whose leadership would rather engage in property speculation than fight the legislature for more money for public higher education.

In 2010, the school’s independent development wing, the UMass Building Authority (UMBA), bought the former Bayside Expo Center property after its owners went into foreclosure. According to the Dorchester Reporter, in August, the UMBA issued “a Request for Information (RFI) as it seeks out ideas for the ‘highest and best use’ of the former Bayside Expo Center site on Columbia Point in Dorchester with an eye toward transforming the 20-acre site into a ‘modern-day Harvard Square.’”

Last week, the newspaper reported that 16 developers have responded to the university’s request, including: Accordia Partners; American Campus Communities; Beacon Capital Partners; Bracken Development; Capstone Development Partners LLC & Samuels & Associates; Corcoran Jennison & BTUHWF Building Corp; Core Investment Inc.; Hunt Development Group, LLC & Drew Company Inc.; The HYM Investment Group, LLC; LendLease; Lincoln Property Company; Lupoli Companies; Rhino Capital & Ad Meliora; SKANSKA; University Student Living; and Waterstone Properties Group Inc. The Reporter says the UMass Building Authority “hopes to leverage public-private partnerships toward the massive mixed-use project.” Which usually means big public giveaways to corporations. One way or the other. Stay tuned.

Townie 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.

AMAZON OCTAGON

Mass pols stand ready to fight each other for the right to bribe a multinational

October 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At least 17 Massachusetts cities and towns are now preparing to do battle with each other—and hundreds more municipalities nationwide—for the dubious “honor” of “winning” the right to throw enough public money and tax breaks at Amazon to become the site of its new Headquarters 2 (HQ2). Despite the fact that such a “victory” will result in a worse regional housing crisis, provide mainly low-paying unstable jobs with subcontractors to working class natives without college degrees while tossing thousands of good jobs to software engineers from out of state, and give the vast corporation far too much power in state politics.

To prevent those unfortunate outcomes, here’s a non-exhaustive list of local, state, and federal public officials that should be contacted by constituents and reminded of their responsibilities to defend the public interest. Like, immediately. The deadline to submit HQ2 bids to Amazon is Oct 19. Careful readers will note that many of these bids are being pushed hardest by private developers and by “economic development” nonprofits and government offices that are basically run on behalf of private developers. Fancy that.

Local Government

BOSTON

Mayor Marty Walsh is all over this one. Fresh off of colluding with Gov. Charlie Baker to cut a secret deal to lavish tens of millions on General Electric to bring its once-and-future headquarters to the Hub, he’s back to his old tricks with Amazon. Four possible HQ2 sites are being considered, according to the Boston Globe: putative front-runner Suffolk Downs (partially in Revere), Widett Circle in South Boston, Beacon Yards in Allston, and an area adjacent to South Station.

REVERE

At a Sept 29 meeting, the Revere City Council Economic Development Sub-Committee reacted positively to the Suffolk Downs proposal presented by developer Thomas O’Brien, managing director of the Boston-based Hym Investment Group that owns the property. According to the Boston Herald, committee chair and council vice president Councilor Patrick M. Keefe Jr. then called Amazon the “1A plan” for the land.

SOMERVILLE

CommonWealth reports that Mayor Joe Curtatone is working on a proposal that would include buildings along the Orange Line from Assembly Row in Somerville to North Station in Boston. Which is, according to a DigBoston investigative series, perfectly in keeping with his track record of making a big stink when developers come to town, then ultimately giving them exactly what they want.

ABINGTON, ROCKLAND, and WEYMOUTH

Kyle Corkum, CEO and managing partner of LStar Communities, the company developing Union Point—the former US Naval Air Station—is pushing a bid for the property. According to Wicked Local, Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund is supportive of the bid. Rockland Selectmen Chairman Ed Kimball said, “Rockland will extend open arms to them and Abington will receive indirect benefits as well.”

HAVERHILL, LAWRENCE, METHUEN, AND NORTH ANDOVER

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni, and North Andover Town Manager Andrew Maylor are all preparing a joint proposal featuring the former North Andover Lucent site—which I addressed in detail in my Sept 26 column—likely in tandem with other nearby sites.

BILLERICA, LOWELL, AND TEWKSBURY

According to the Lowell Sun, Lowell Mayor Edward Kennedy has said “we should at least take serious look” at the possibility of bringing Amazon to the area. Also, “City Manager Kevin Murphy said he has already directed his staff to begin working with the Middlesex 3 Coalition, an organization of nearby communities, to explore the possibilities.” Wicked Local reports that Billerica selectmen unanimously support the effort. Billerica Community Development Director Rob Anderson also supports the bid. One possible site is Riverview Technology Park at 495 Woburn St in Tewksbury.

NEW BEDFORD

The entire city council sent a letter to Mayor Jon Mitchell enjoining him to support an Amazon bid, according to the New Bedford Standard-Times, and he’s been in touch with Mass Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash about pursuing a bid. The city has a 100 acres of a municipal golf course that has been slated for business development.

FALL RIVER

According to the Herald News, Fall River Office of Economic Development (FROED) Executive Vice President Ken Fiola—a key figure behind bringing a huge Amazon warehouse to the city—is pushing hard for the Amazon HQ2 contract but apparently doesn’t get along with Mayor Jasiel Correia II. WJAR-TV reports that his challenger in the upcoming election, Councilor Linda Pereira, is attacking Correia for resigning from the FROED board. So it’s not clear if Fall River will manage to field a proposal.

WORCESTER

The city council is unanimously in support of an Amazon deal but was not initially in agreement about whether HQ2 should be sited in Worcester or Boston. Councilor-at-Large Konnie Lukes has been the most vocal supporter of a Worcester site, pushed for council discussion about the deal, and requested that City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. prepare the application. According to MassLive.com, Augustus and some of the council were initially leaning toward supporting a Boston bid, but the city is now planning an independent bid for the contract. According to Worcester Magazine, “Councilor At-Large Kate Toomey said the south side of Worcester, by the intersection of routes 20 and 146, would be an ideal location” for HQ2.

WESTERN MASS

The Republican reports that Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and the entire city council are supporting a bidwith other Connecticut River valley communities (the so-called “Knowledge Corridor”) in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Enfield, Connecticut, is a possible site. The main Bay State booster of the plan is Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts.

State Government

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER

The governor said that the state won’t back a specific site and has urged local governments to “go for it.” Strongly in support of spending public money to bring the Amazon HQ2 to Massachusetts. According to the Boston Herald, Baker has recently stated that the Commonwealth’s request to Suffolk Superior Court to order Amazon to provide records for any third-party vendor who “stores or has stored” products in Massachusetts since 2012 was “routine” and shouldn’t affect an HQ2 deal. The order could result in a flood of similar legal actions around the US to collect back state sales taxes—which will probably tick off the tax-shy multinational.

SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT JAY ASH (D)

An important public servant, though not an elected one. Totally in support of an Amazon HQ2 deal for Massachusetts. In his role as chairman of the quasi-public agency MassDevelopment, he has already overseen a vote “to increase its contract with consulting firm VHB Inc. by up to $200,000 for a technical analysis” in support of the state’s Amazon bids. His bio brags that he “has played a leadership role in the recruitment and expansion of major employers, including Amazon, General Electric, IBM Watson Health, Kronos, and Siemens.”

SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO (D-WINTHROP)

Flacking for the Suffolk Downs site. Completely on board with dumping public money on Amazon and has “said he’s open to legislation that would include financial incentives to draw Amazon to the state regardless of the location,” according to the Boston Globe.

SEN. JOSEPH BONCORE (D-WINTHROP) AND REP. ADRIAN MADARO (D-EAST BOSTON)

Support the Suffolk Downs bid, according to the East Boston Times-Free Press.

SEN. CINDY FRIEDMAN (D-ARLINGTON) AND REP. MARC LOMBARDO (R-BILLERICA)

Support the Billerica, Lowell, Tewksbury bid, according to Wicked Local.

Federal Government

US REP. STEPHEN LYNCH (D-SOUTH BOSTON)

Supports the Weymouth proposal, according to the Boston Herald.

And a Few Cool Kids

REP. MIKE CONNOLLY (D-CAMBRIDGE), SEN. PAT JEHLEN (D-SOMERVILLE), REP. MARJORIE DECKER (D-CAMBRIDGE), AND SEN. JAMIE ELDRIDGE (D-ACTON)

Among the only politicians in the state to speak against spending public funds to “win” the Amazon HQ2 “contest.”

Rep. Connolly of Cambridge put his opinion succinctly on the matter in a Facebook chat to me Monday: “I was asked about it by some Cambridge residents last week and here’s what I told them: ‘I think it’s reasonable for cities and the state to want to be in the discussion, but at the end of the day, when/if I have to vote on something or support a proposal, I am not going to support a neoliberal approach to economic development, so if a deal is on the table I would be looking to scrutinize it in terms of whether it helps the folks who we represent in our communities and in the neighborhoods I represent right now.’”

Massachusetts needs more pols like these. Fast.

UPDATE 10/12/17: LYNN

A reader just pointed me to an article indicating that there is some interest in bringing Amazon to the “City of Sin.” According to The Daily Item, “Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy said the city is in no position to compete with Boston, Revere, Lawrence and Worcester to bring the world’s largest e-commerce company’s second headquarters to Massachusetts.” However, City Councilor-at Large and Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn), Senator and mayoral candidate Thomas M. McGee (D-Lynn), and Charles Patsios—the Swampscott developer who plans to transform the 68-acre former General Electric Co. Gear Works property into a $500 million neighborhood—are all supportive of a Lynn bid.

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.

AN AMAZON NORTH ANDOVER DEAL?

Sketch of the Merrimack Valley Works plant at North Andover while under construction in 1955

Merrimack Valley pols courting the tech behemoth have forgotten recent history

Sept 26, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized the possibility of an Amazon Boston deal—on the grounds that most of the jobs it would provide would be for software engineers, not our struggling local working class. And that allowing a single company to build a 50,000-employee operation here overnight would give it way too much political economic power in our region. However, it’s not just Boston politicians who are hot to dump vast amounts of public funds on the huge multinational. Several other Massachusetts cities and towns are following suit.

Perhaps the strongest proposal of that group of entrants is coming from four municipalities in the Merrimack Valley region of the state: Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover. They are offering to broker a deal with the owners of the underutilized 1.8 million-square-foot industrial facility called Osgood Landing in North Andover. This could conceivably fit Amazon’s bill, although the site is not located in the midst of a major city. Which the company has made clear is a priority. Also at issue is that Osgood Landing’s owners have been working to build a giant marijuana farm on the site instead. But the siren call of ready corporate cash will likely be enough to change their minds given that they’ve already signaled their support for the new venture.

Lost in most of the media chatter about the drive to “win” the Amazon deal is the fact that Osgood Landing was once a Lucent plant—and the context of its shutdown is completely absent. Lucent was the successor corporation to Western Electric. Which was better known as the old AT&T’s manufacturing division. And the North Andover plant was once Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works. Which built the transmission equipment that kept the nation’s phone system going. The company set up shop in Haverhill and Lawrence during World War II—just as the region’s famed textile and shoe industries began to decline. In 1956, it opened the North Andover plant and consolidated its regional operations there, becoming the new dominant industry in the area.

Video: “AT&T Archives: In the Merrimack Valley” [1959] (hat tip to Ryan W. Owen’s website for the find)

The jobs at the Merrimack Valley Works were mostly unionized, and they raised thousands of local families into the ranks of the middle class. But the chaos following the federally ordered breakup of AT&T’s near-monopoly of the US telephone system in 1984 saw the plant’s workforce fall from over 12,000 at the height of the Western Electric era in the 1970sto 7,000 in 1991, to 5,500 under Lucent in 2001 (well into a quick collapse five years after taking over the Western Electric business)… to zero in 2008, after the French telecom multinational Alcatel bought Lucent in 2006 and ordered the facility’s shutdown. The plant itself had already been sold to current owner Ozzy Properties in 2003. Alcatel-Lucent ended up being absorbed by Nokia in 2016.

Ironically, this sad outcome was predicted by local policy experts. In 1991, according to the “History Corner” of the Lucent Retirees’ website, “the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission investigated what the potential loss of … the Merrimack Valley Works might cost the region. The study found that a worst case decline that eliminated the plant’s then 7,000 jobs would cost 15 Valley communities $880 million. Lost supply orders for smaller companies in the area would eliminate another 7,700 secondary jobs.”

That all came to pass by 2008. Compounding the damage already done by the loss of the other 5,000-plus jobs at the plant between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Lucent’s unions slowed but ultimately could not stop the destruction of thousands more good jobs in the Merrimack Valley.

Which highlights the problem of spending public money to attract giant corporations like Amazon. Big companies can change their plans at the drop of a dime. And, without the kind of government regulation and unionization that major companies like AT&T had to operate under between WWII and the 1970s, the promised 50,000 jobs can become no jobs in the blink of an eye. Because who’s to stop an anti-regulation, anti-union company like Amazon from shutting down an operation as fast as it sets it up in this era? No one. No one at all. And, naturally, regions that fall for this “jobs creation” shell game have no plan B.

One would think that political leaders in Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover, informed by their own regional planners, would remember such history and focus on more sustainable economic development options. After all, the 2013 Merrimack Valley Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy produced by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission stated, “The region’s best prospects for future economic growth are its local entrepreneurs.” Local entrepreneurs like the Osgood Landing owners, if they choose to start their marijuana farm rather than grab for the brass ring Amazon could offer them. A sustainable “growth” industry if ever there was one that could provide an estimated 2,500 good jobs to the region—two-thirds of which would not require college degrees. But it seems like local residents, perhaps with former Lucent employees in the lead, will now have to remind their elected officials. If not in lobby days and protests prior to an Amazon deal, then definitely at the ballot box come next election should such a disastrous initiative ever actually come to pass.

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.