BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A
Subscribe

Archive for the ‘Work’

Work Less. We Need You.

May 23, 2017 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification, Work

It seems like everyone I know is in one of two situations. Either they are un(der)employed and trying to figure out how to get some hours/money to survive or they are working far too many hours and trying to figure out how to fit any kind of a life into a workday.

I used to work appallingly long hours. It started because I was severely underpaid and had little choice. But it continued because I had internalized the idea of a “hard worker” being a good thing. I succumbed to the expectation that people are supposed to fit their life around their work, rather than the other way around. I also wanted independence. Work seemed like a better route to independence than housewife, the only other option on offer.

There were some rewards for all that “hard work” and long hours. It might almost make you believe in the pull yourself up by your bootstraps nonsense. Of course, not everyone can do it. While I was getting raises and promotions for being “indispensable,” my coworker was struggling just to get to the office on time. She was a single mother who lived in a part of Liberty City where the buses, when they were working at all, only ran Monday through Friday during rush hour. Ostensibly my raises and promotion were a result of all those long hours. But the reality is that requiring long hours to “get ahead” is a way of privileging certain people without seeming to.

Even a forty hour week is too much. It worked o.k. for my father, when I was small.  He was able to work full time, still have a social life, and participate in his community. But that is because he had a stay at home wife, a support staff in his office, a periodic housekeeper, and various babysitters for us kids. In other words, he had a cadre of women doing much of the work for him. Once his business was crushed by the big box stores, life changed. No more stay at home wife. No more support staff. The community participation stopped. He had a stroke and was never really able to work full time again.

So if you are feeling like you are somehow failing, if you think you need some self-help bullshit about how to manage your time better, you don’t. There is nothing wrong with you. The reason we have so many exhausted, sick people hanging by one last nerve is not that we are all inadequate. It is that the grind is killing us.

When I entered the nonprofit world things got even trickier. Suddenly, it isn’t that you are giving all your life hours to make an owner even richer. It is that you are dedicated to a cause. When the people you are ostensibly helping seem even worse off than you, how can you justify cutting them off?

Ironically, one of the first nonprofits I worked for was an organization in California that helped people who were caring for someone with a brain impairment. I worked long hours. I was tired, stressed, and cranky. I spent zero time trying to be a part of the community. I didn’t treat people the way they should be treated. While I was supposedly helping caregivers, I had a life which would not have allowed me to do any caregiving. So how was that really helping anyone?

What I have come to see is that the more we work at our jobs, the worse off we are as a society. Our work structure is designed to provide cover for continuing discrimination and inequality. It is designed to prevent us from being able to participate in the life of our communities. It relies on a cadre of women – disproportionately poor women of color – whose struggles are mostly invisible. It is exploitation that we are all complicit in, whether you hire someone to clean your house or are so busy that you need to rely on the poverty wage workers who make your fast food. I began to understand what Nancy Fraser refers to as a “crisis of care.”

Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our “caring” energies to the breaking point. This “crisis of care” should be understood structurally. By no means contingent or accidental, it is the expression, under current conditions, of a tendency to social-reproductive crisis that is inherent in capitalist society, but that takes an especially acute form in the present regime of financialized capitalism.

In short, Capitalism cares only about production and marginalizes the relationship building and care that our lives actually depend on. If our communities are falling apart, it is because the time we need to nurture the relationships that make communities strong is being stolen from us. I don’t see how we will resolve any other problem unless we can tackle this one.

Clearly, this is a systemic issue that will require collective action. But one of the first steps has to be reprogramming our own thinking and pushing back on the theft of our time and well-being.

It is not easy to break the cycle. It might even be a little terrifying. We have been programmed our whole lives to believe that one false move will land us on the streets. The reality is that some people really are in such a precarious position that they have little room to push. But that isn’t true for all of us. And the more collective hours we can recover, the more time we will have to do things to open space for the people who don’t have it now.

A good start is to push back against all the voices, including the ones in the back of our heads, which tell us to judge people for not being hard working enough. Push back when people start every conversation by asking what a person does for a living. Don’t work overtime if you can afford not to. Find ways to decrease your material needs or alternate ways to meet those needs. Refuse to get on emails outside of work hours. Take every minute of your vacation (if you are lucky enough to have it).

Thank people who actually take off when they are sick. Support paid sick days for everyone. Applaud publicly those who prioritize their family and community in actions and not just words. Call out anyone who criticizes people who actually have their priorities straight. Build a support system that makes risking your job a little less scary. Be there for others so that they can take risks too. Be the one who helps those trying to live without wage labor, not the Petty Crocker who resents anyone that isn’t working as much as they are.

When you have a moment of guilt or fear, think about how this system is designed to make it impossible to have a reasonable life. Think about all the people who could benefit from a drastic shift in culture and expectations. Ask why, if you leave work early or get on Facebook at your desk, employers say that you are stealing time. Yet it is totally accepted that an employer expects you to be on email 24/7, schedules meetings during lunch hour, or takes advantage of lax overtime exemption laws to make people work late for free.  Get pissed. Remember that you aren’t just pushing back for yourself. Remember that time is not money, time is life. They are stealing your life.

No matter how you earn your living, you aren’t doing anyone any favors by abandoning your loved ones, community, and health to the organization. No person can work 40 hours a week or more, support their loved ones in the way they deserve, be an active member of a community, be aware of what is going on in the world, be conscious about the systems they support, take care of themselves, create beautiful things, and find time for the joy that makes life worth living. Too many of us are sacrificing all the most important things on the altar of work. We need to look at our lives differently. Or as Fraser puts it

“The idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments. That’s not utopian. It’s a vision based on what human life is really like.”

You can (and should) read the whole interview here.

On Porn Stars and Seamstresses

February 23, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Sex, Work

I know Chris Hedges has been blowing up the internets lately because of that piece he did on the black bloc. But I’d like to take him to task for something he said back at the beginning of January in this C-Span interview.  It comes about 12 minutes into the second hour when he starts talking about pornography.

I get very angry with the liberal class and the left over their refusal to condemn pornography. Why is it morally indefensible to physically abuse a woman in a sweatshop in The Philippines or in Southern China, but somehow it is an issue of free speech when it is done by the sex industry in the United States?

When I started interviewing these women who came out of the porn industry, having suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, I instantly after literally a minute or two said these people all have PTSD. And I wrote it graphically and brutally. And I think intended to engender a kind of disgust.

I never write in the chapter we should or shouldn’t ban porn. I just said if you want to defend porn than you better understand what it is you’re are defending. These women, and they are just thrown up, ya know they last one or two years on the sets. And then if they continue within the industry they just in essence become call girls shipped around the country in hotel rooms and its just awful.

But they are popping handfuls of painkillers before they go on the sets. This violence which sells, and porn it’s not the soft lit porn of the playboy channel anymore. It is so-called gonzo porn. The violence is not simulated. It’s real.

These women are black and blue by the time they finish. They are constantly going in for surgery for anal and vaginal tears because they are penetrated by two three dozen men in the course of an afternoon, knocked around, abused, insulted verbally, assaulted physically. And I was, as somebody who doesn’t watch porn, I was pretty blown away. It was really sick.

You are going to be surprised to find out that I actually agree with Hedge’s analogy at the top of that quote. There are comparisons between the porn industry and the clothing industry. But not every person who makes clothes is a sweatshop worker. And not everyone who is a sex worker is brutally gang raped for two years and then thrown on the streets to be interviewed by white knight book writers.

Donatella Versace is no more in the same place as a sweatshop worker in The Phillipines than Jenna Jameson is in the same place as someone making a gonzo film in Vegas. Every industry we have in our society brutally exploits people somewhere in the world. If it isn’t a sweatshop worker, it is a farm worker. But just because farm workers are exploited, poisoned, and dying from heat stroke does not mean that Mario Batali and his whole industry should be shut down. (Well, o.k.  Maybe him.)

I don’t know what pisses me off the most about this crap. How someone can be so smart and so intellectually dishonest? How sanctimonious it is? How he turns every woman in porn into a victim with PTSD? How he erases every man or lesbian from the porn industry? It is just so hard to chose.

 

Targeted, Vilified, Ignored

December 22, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Politics, Stratification, Work

In a strip mall, right across the border from DC, there is a small event center called Plaza 23. People can rent the space for all sorts of things, from birthday parties to cabarets. Often, they have go-go shows.

Go-go is DC music. This is a city that can be incredibly segregated by both race and class. Go-go is the music of the working class and poor black people that are all too often targeted, vilified, or ignored. The people who listen to go-go are portrayed as violent and dangerous. So is the music they listen to and any place that plays it.

That isn’t to say that there have never been violent incidents at or near go-go shows. But any time there is violence nearby, it is all too easy for the “authorities” to swoop in and scapegoat the artists and venues based on already preconceived ideas about who listens to go-go.

Plaza 23 is located in PG County, Maryland. PG county had a spate of violence in January of 2011. Unfortunately for Plaza 23, and all the other music and dance venues in PG County, the sixteenth homicide of 2011 happened not far outside the Plaza after a TCB show.

In response, the PG county council passed an emergency bill regulating dance halls. Lowlights of the bill include:

  • A $1,000 nonrefundable license fee
  • A background check and denial of a license to anyone who has been “convicted of a felony, violating any Federal or State laws relating to offenses involving moral turpitude, or crimes involving financial misrepresentations”
  • A security plan, including installation of cameras inside and outside
  • Private security officers to patrol the perimeter
  • Suspension or revocation of the license at the whim of the “authorities”
  • No dancing between 2:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.
  • A $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail for anyone who “is a licensee, and/or owns, leases, operates, is in charge of or in apparent charge of an adult dance hall or teen dance hall, or promotes a facility or event required to be licensed under this Division without first having obtained a public dance license”. Same penalties for violating any provision of the act.

The emergency bill sailed through the PG County council in July of 2011. Just before the bill was passed, the owner of the Plaza tried to get his license renewed, but the county was not renewing them. Applications in accordance with the new bill were not made available until October. In November, as the Plaza was trying to apply for their license, they were cited and closed down.

According to this Washington Times article from December 18th, “no new dance hall licenses have been granted and the county has ceased to renew old licenses…save for the two venues whose old dance hall permits are still valid, Prince George is a dry county in regard to dancing.”

Isn’t this the plot from Footloose?

Shutting down the Plaza because someone got shot outside is like saying we should shut down the Hilton across from my house. After all, Reagan got shot there. And those shady political types are always gathering there. It’s just too damn dangerous. And perhaps we ought to outlaw homes too. That is where the biggest chunk of violent crimes occur.

That part about hiring security for the outside of venues. They were already required to do that. Every event required inside security and the hiring of off duty cops for the outside. Except that the PD in PG county refused to show up for some shows. That saying about how we should respect cops because they run towards violence while we run away from it – turns out not so much.

What about felons not being allowed to own dance venues? DC has the highest rates of incarceration of any city in the United States, often on bullshit drug charges. Three out of four black men in DC will go to prison. Then they come out and nobody will hire them. On top of that, all kinds of licenses are denied to former felons. Now we can add owning a dance hall to that list. How is a person supposed to make a living?

Ironically, at the very same time this is happening, the DC council is holding press conferences on jobless ex-offenders.

“We need to look at helping ex-offenders get businesses and apply for contracts,” said Charles Thornton, director of the Office of Returning Citizen Affairs in the D.C. Mayor’s Office. “If you own a certified business, with more contracts, you can hire who you want.”

Charles, maybe you could go and have a chat just over the border? In fact, perhaps you could have a chat with a whole bunch of Maryland officials. While incarceration rates across the country are decreasing, Maryland has the dubious distinction of being one place where they are going up. Somehow I don’t think bills like this are going to help.

Plaza 23 is not giving up without a fight. They have hired an attorney. But they are fighting without being able to operate their business. And their funds are sure to dry up soon. They are asking people to spread the word and to sign this petition to let them operate while they contest this.

I said before that this is about a community that is routinely targeted, vilified, or ignored. Let’s not be the people that ignore them.

Unions? NBA? Sigh.

July 01, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change, Work

I’m in the middle of writing a completely different post on media, which is taking me entirely too long and should have been up yesterday. But while on the gerbil machine at the gym, I caught Sports Center’s coverage of the NBA lockout.  Now I can’t get my head back into what I was writing. So I guess I’ll switch gears for a second.

In principle, I’m a fan of unions. In reality, they piss me off about 90% of the time. And while the sports strikes are the most extreme examples of some of the bullshit that makes me so grouchy, you see a lot of the same BS on a smaller scale in other places.

First of all, the ideal is for the workers (or in this case, the players) to be the owners. If any industry had workers with enough money to do it, it is the NBA. Am I right? And don’t tell me about needing stadiums and shit. How many of those stadiums were paid for with taxpayer dollars? They should belong to us. Then all you need is a damn ball.

Somehow the idea of worker ownership always seems to get lost in the shuffle. In fact, massive unions like SEIU operate in exactly the same unjust, hierarchical manner that they criticize in other orgs. They pile millions in worker money into their salaries and to support political candidates. And for what? Imagine if they used that money to support converting businesses into coops.

But let’s get back to the NBA. You want us to back you up? Where the hell were you when people making far less money needed support? Were you showing up on picket lines? If the NBA was filled with people like Etan Thomas, someone who actually risked having an opinion, your plea would be more convincing.

Now, I don’t know what the NBA contracts say. I do know that even the supposedly uber-lefty university that I went to (UC Santa Cruz) made their lecturers sign an agreement that disallowed any kind of sympathy strike. I know that federal regulations have made all the most useful actions illegal. I’m short on time, so I’m going to quote Wikipedia here.

The amendments enacted in Taft-Hartley added a list of prohibited actions, or “unfair labor practices“, on the part of unions to the NLRB, which had previously only prohibited “unfair labor practices” committed by employers. The Taft–Hartley Act prohibited jurisdictional strikes,wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketingclosed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. It also required union officers to sign non-communist affidavits with the government. Union shopswere heavily restricted, and states were allowed to pass “right-to-work laws” that outlawed union shops. Furthermore, the executive branch of the Federal government could obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if an impending or current strike “imperiled the national health or safety,” a test that has been interpreted broadly by the courts.

We were screwed. So legal options are limited. But there are plenty of players who don’t appear to have qualms about breaking other laws. More importantly, if you are calling for solidarity when you are on lockout, yet doing commercials for Nike (that bastion of worker rights) when everything is going well for you…Well then you can just fuck off.

And how about those people selling cokes and pretzels at your games. Are they unionized? Are you standing in front of their bosses trying to get them more than minimum wage? I’m gonna take a big leap and guess probably not.

When I was living in Santa Cruz, the bus drivers went on strike. They were on strike for months. While the relatively well-off bus drivers were negotiating, housekeepers who depended on the bus system to get them to town from Watsonville ended up losing their jobs. It didn’t exactly endear bus drivers to the community.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve heard about other bus strikes where the drivers kept driving, but refused to collect the fares. Now that is a strike that builds support. Instead the system is designed to create animosity between us. And we keep playing that stupid game.

Look at this gallop poll. People have less confidence in unions than they do in banks, newspapers, the (in)justice system, police…pretty much everybody. The only people less liked than unions are HMOs and congress. That’s pathetic.

And don’t give me a sob story about how unions have been attacked and the public is deceived. It is bullshit to blame low union opinion on the anti-union campaigns.  Unions are supposed to be the bulwark helping workers stand up to those pressures. If unions were not able to do that, they failed.

Unions have to take responsibility for that failure. They can’t just bitch and moan that they were unfairly characterized. If unions had managed to save jobs, help people get better wages, get them benefits, and just make their lives better – no amount of propaganda could have turned people against unions. Some unions may have managed to hang on to something. But overall, in the last thirty or forty years, unions failed.

If you want people to start trusting unions again, then I suggest we start being a little more critical about how unions act. Perhaps a good start would be to take up some of the suggestions in this piece about Building the Rank and File.

So, to get back to the NBA. If you want me to support your strike, you are going to have to show some love to the rest of us.

If you want to hock some company’s product for millions of dollars, then that product should be made by people who get a decent wage. If you want to keep playing for millions, then the people who clean the stadium and sell the hotdogs should be earning decent money.

If you want us to back you up, you need to start backing us up. And making a two minute “NBA Cares” video of you reading to children doesn’t count.

 

But Who Would Do ___ ?

May 26, 2011 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core, Stratification, Work

One thing that really seems to throw people for a loop, when I talk about a world without rulers, is how we would decide who does what. The really interesting thing about that question is what it says about life today. By asking that question, you are pretty much admitting that

1. People spend most of their time doing shit they don’t want to do

2. All the shittiest work is done by people who have no better options

If you defend the status quo, you are defending a system which forces people to waste much of their lives. And you defend a system that absolutely must constrain our options in order to make sure that there will always be someone desperate enough to do the really shitty work.

There are some cultural beliefs that we are fed in order to justify this system. One cultural belief is that self-sacrifice is to be applauded. Well, self-sacrifice is not all it is cracked up to be. I’m not saying that life is all fairies and unicorns. I don’t think that the whole world will be able to lay around on beaches all day smoking pot and trying to keep the sand out of our beers. (Although more time to do that would be lovely.) And I appreciate those people who have spent their lives sacrificing themselves for their family and community. I also think it is a fucking tragedy that they had to do it.

For instance, I worked with a woman who had three jobs cleaning hotel rooms. She was a Haitian immigrant without a whole lot of options. Her life was spent cleaning up after people, most of whom treated her like shit. I respected her and the sacrifices she made in order to give her kids a chance for better life. But I think it is a tragedy that she had to make those sacrifices.

Meanwhile, other people that I have worked with have never had to clean up after themselves, much less anyone else. There are people who get paid to sit around reading journals and opinionating. They are often surrounded by “support staff” who clean up after them, file their papers, answer their phones, and generally make sure that they can spend most of their time doing what interests them. (And that goes for at home as well, where the support staff are called “wife” or “housekeeper.”)

The difference between the hotel maid and the researcher is usually an accident of birth, one which has largely predetermined how many options they will have in life. Sometimes an individual overcomes the odds. Sometimes an individual screws up every advantage they have been given. But we do not all start off in the same place. We do not all have the same expectations or options.

I think that sucks. I think it is a waste of talent. I think it makes people miserable. And I don’t think it is necessary.

All people should be able to pursue whatever interests them. Luckily for us, people have all different interests. I don’t like playing in the dirt. My parents used to punish me by making me pull weeds. They ruined me for gardening forever. But lots of people love growing things. So they would. So far so good.

What if there are some things that nobody wants to do? In some cases, those things just wouldn’t get done. If nobody out there thinks that knowing how to make a slinky is the coolest thing in the world, then the world will have to live without the joy of a slinky.  That makes me a little sad, but not sad enough to learn how to make a slinky.*

What if there are things that take huge sacrifices to learn? What if people need to go to school for years? Who would do that? Have you ever seen the sacrifices that people make to become ballerinas? What about people who go to med school and then go work in some rural village and get paid in chickens? There are some seriously dedicated people out there. A better question would be, how many obsessive geniuses have had to abandon their passion in order to do droll jobs to pay the rent?

But what about the icky tasks? Who would pick up the garbage? There will undoubtedly be tasks that everybody wants to be done but nobody wants to do. And those tasks will need to be split up somehow. In my office, everybody takes turns doing the dishes. It is sometimes a friggin disaster, to be sure. But we muddle through o.k. Perhaps this task could be accomplished more efficiently otherwise, but sometimes it is o.k. to compromise efficiency for fairness.

And the really great thing is that people would no longer spend time doing inane things just because one person with power got a bug up their ass. I cannot tell you how many reports and projects I have completed only to see them filed away in some bosses drawer, never to be looked at again. In a fairer system, that boss would be just another worker. And they would have to convince us that their project was worthwhile or do it themselves.

But what about tasks that come with power? Doesn’t specialized knowledge give someone a certain amount of power? Yes. Sometimes it does. I have told many a nonprofit boss that they should really, actually look at the books once in a while, because I could be robbing them blind. There is a certain power in having that knowledge. Some things should not be in the hand of just one person. In accounting, we have a segregation of duties that is designed to catch mistakes or fraud. Certain types of tasks may be important enough to design those kinds of controls. With other things, it may suffice to simply have backup people, or cross-training as the biz peeps call it. Those individuals don’t have to be at different levels. They can be equals.

Wont some people be doing tasks that are more useful? Maybe. But isn’t usefulness somewhat subjective? It is true that some tasks deal more directly with basic human needs, like growing food, but maybe the person tinkering in their garage will come up with an invention that unexpectedly makes growing food easier. Besides, some of those seemingly unnecessary things are what we live for. Food keeps me alive, but I don’t know how much I would like my life without music,literature, and sex toys.

What about status? Won’t doctors always have more status than people who make sex toys? Not for me! Seriously though, status is also subjective. What confers status in a community of artists is not the same as what confers status in a community of farmers. As human beings, each of us will undoubtedly value some human contributions more than others. We just have to recognize that not everyone will agree with our opinion. And so long as my low opinion of your work does not come with my having power to restrict your life, it isn’t really a problem.

What about rewards? Don’t some people work harder than others? Shouldn’t they be rewarded for that? Isn’t it demotivating when you work hard and other people don’t? Yes. Maybe. And sometimes. Some people do work harder than others. But those people who slack at the job they hate might work their asses off doing something they love. People may want to get appreciation for extra effort. But people are motivated by lots of things besides fear and money. Fear and money are actually really crappy motivators.

I could start talking about gift economies or maybe some of the interesting things that parecon has to say about division of labor. But I will leave those discussions for another day. The essential thing is not the details of how work will be split up or how people will receive what they need to survive, but the principles which we should be looking at when we are deciding how to do things. We should always be aiming for more freedom, options, opportunities, fairness, information, and creativity. We should always be aiming for less constraints, power imbalances, secrets, and mind numbing bureaucracy.

To some extent, what I am talking about is a huge change in thinking. We need to stop ourselves from automatically reverting to authority when we should be focused on process and organization. And there are certainly skills that we could all use more of – better communication and conflict resolution being two of the most important. But much of what I am saying here is widely known and talked about in business.

Read management books and they will tell you how customer service is related to employee empowerment. They will tell you how monetary rewards only motivate employees for a short time. You’ll read about the benefits of cross-training and autonomy. Some businesses even institute policies based on these principles –  to an extent. But the people in charge of the policies are always constrained by their need to justify and preserve the privileges that they enjoy within the current hierarchies. So they can never take things to their logical conclusion.

When you talk about a more just system, people will pose all sorts of problems that they want you to solve. These are always problems that are not really solved now. In fact, they quite often aren’t problems to be solved at all. They are tensions to be managed. There are always tensions between pursuing your interests and taking care of your responsibilities. There are always tensions where people have different priorities. We will always have to be vigilant that specialized knowledge doesn’t lead to power over others. But those tensions can be managed much more fairly.

_______________

* I now have this song stuck in my head. Damnit

Clarity Through Microcosm

March 31, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification, Work

I used to work for a hotel in Miami called the SeaView. It was owned by stockholders who had condos in the building. In a crunch, some of the condos were rented out. But generally only the parts of the building that were purely hotel rooms were for the public. The interesting part is who the stockholders were.

The penthouse was owned by Dwayne Andreas. At the time, Andreas was chairman of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). That would be the food, feed, and fuel company that The Informant worked for. It was Dwayne’s kid that was found guilty of price fixing. And it is ADM that that hears that ka-ching every time congress votes for more ethanol subsidies.

ADM got to price fix and collect all those subsidies because Andreas gave huge wads of cash and other nifty gifts (like cheap condos) to politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike). This bipartisanship was evident in the hotel. We had both Republicans and Democrats who were stockholders there. Bob Dole was one. Business and media were well represented among the owners too. David Brinkley had a pad. So did the Hoovers and the Duponts.

Some of the stockholders got occasional shit for being extra cozy with Andreas. New York Magazine wrote about Bob Dole’s Sugar Daddy. And Brinkley got heat for becoming an ADM pitchman. But mostly nobody really knew who Andreas was. Nobody ever called to inquire about the high profile visitors to the hotel. Nobody protested outside. We had no need for anything more than one very sleepy security guard at night. I watched Andreas, Dole, and Brinkley take off unmolested to go eat at The Palm and decide our fates.

And while the rich white dudes of business, government, and media were out schmoozing; the rest of us held down the fort at the hotel. The nicer jobs – management, office staff, front desk, supervisors – tended to be held by Asians, Light Latinos, and Europeans. The housekeepers were Haitian women. As a front desk person, I was allowed to walk in the front door. The Haitian housekeepers had to use a back door.

Dwayne Andreas had a private jet and his own personal pilot. There were cars and drivers, of course. Management and office staff drove to work. The cars ranged from Mercedes to clunkers. I took the bus, but since I lived on the beach it only took me 30 or 45 minutes to get home. The housekeepers I worked with at night also took the bus. But they had three buses and a sometimes two hour commute home. Bad enough on its own, but a lot worse when you consider that they had to have other jobs to barely get by.

What got me thinking about all of this was a post over at Eye of the Storm.  It describes how Chuck Schumer was overheard briefing all the other senators on what they should say when their media conference call started.  It was the commentary about these powerful people being told exactly what talking points they had to parrot out to the media that brought back the SeaView.

I was working there in 2000 when the election fiasco occurred. Gore’s people stayed there for a while. Then Bob Dole swooped in to do media while the Republicans arranged the election for Dubya. The party used to fax Dole’s talking points to our hotel office. I got a kick out of reading them. But I got an even bigger kick out of seeing how much control the party had over someone who was once a skip away from the presidency.

I always thought that hotel would make a great book or documentary. Every strata of society was represented. All the relationships and machinations were blatantly obvious. It is hard to hold the illusion that government, media, and corporations have separate interests when they just went out for steaks and share the same pool boy. You can’t really believe that Democrats and Republicans are much different when none had any qualms living in a place where the people who cleaned their shit couldn’t walk in the front door. And you can’t believe that elections mean much when someone as high up as Dole could basically be replaced by a very talented and congenial talking bird.

Haiti Donations and How Nonprofits Work

January 15, 2010 By: Mel Category: Nonprofits, Work

There has been a lot of internet chatter on what organizations to donate to in order to best help the Haitian people.  Naturally, you want the maximum amount of your dollars to go to the people who need it.  So you read articles like this one about Yele or you go to charity navigator and you check out what percentage of donations go to program vs. administration or fundraising.

The thing is, those percentages can be deceiving. One of the biggest expenses for any nonprofit is salary costs.  So while your idea of “program cost” might be medicine bought and provided for someone in need.  In actuality, program cost might be the salary of the program assistant who does paperwork in the office.

Or let’s say you receive an email report from a nonprofit that also includes a link for donations.  You might think that goes to fundraising, but it probably gets coded with media, outreach, or campaigning.

How an organization codes things depends a lot on the person doing the coding.  Some organizations are more likely to code things to show less administrative costs.  Organizations that have been around longer have more experienced staff who understand that donors don’t want to see high admin costs.  Organizations that receive restrictive grants will have more constraints they are working within.  Large organizations are often more closely scrutinized.

Low administrative costs could also mean that administrative people are being screwed.  The organization could be using a ton of unpaid interns to do work.  Not only are they relying on free labor, they are restricting their labor pool to only those privileged enough to be able to work for free.  Or they could just be underpaying their admin staff.  I’ve seen full time admin positions in New York being offered less than $30,000 a year.  Do you really want to support an org that doesn’t pay its people enough to even pay the rent?

All of that is to say that you should not use program cost percentage as your only decision maker.

Then there is the choice between large and small organizations.  In the case of an emergency situation like Haiti, there are many large humanitarian organizations who have vast experience with catastrophes.  They know how to set up camps and what to do for sanitation.  They are experts at providing potable water and avoiding diseases.  That is invaluable expertise.  They have also been around long enough to have tested systems and they probably have survived a lot of scrutiny.

But there are downsides to larger organizations.  Many of them do not work in Haiti all year round, although they may begin to now (especially if they receive massive funds that have been restricted to use in Haiti*).  Aid workers flown in will not necessarily have knowledge of the language, community, politics, and culture – knowledge that will also be important in the coming days.  Large organizations can be bureaucratic and experience diseconomies of scale.  They are usually heavily populated by managerial class elites from the United States and Europe.

Smaller, local organizations are closer to the community.  They are more likely to have local staff in key decision-making positions.  Your money won’t go to pay salaries of people based in London or DC.  Their people will be sticking around.  They won’t be moving on to the next catastrophe when the immediate crisis is over.  They don’t require large bureaucracies or  thousands of dollars in conference calls.

But small organizations have their problems too.   They can’t respond on the same scale as large organizations.  Their inexperience can be costly.  There may be less accountability, because fewer eyes are on them.  The staff are even more likely to be massively underpaid.  Their equipment is probably held together with duck tape and rubber bands.  They are less stable, especially when new, and have fewer processes.  The loss of one employee (and their institutional knowledge) can set the organization back months or years.

There is no perfect organization.  If you want a guarantee that your money will go straight into the hand or mouth of a Haitian, then you should go to Haiti or Miami or New York and drop a wad of cash on someone.  If you donate to a charity, you need to accept that some of your money will be spent on administration.  Some may be spent on fundraising.  A large portion will pay staff costs (program and otherwise).  Some money will likely be wasted.  Some may even be stolen.  Given the absolute chaos in Haiti, expecting that not to be the case is just unrealistic.

So how do you decide?

Check the organization out.  Go to Charity Navigator or Guidestar or the charity’s website.  Look what people have to say about them.  Read their 990s (the form U.S. nonprofits have to file with the IRS) or their annual report.

Who are the board members? How much do the big shots make – officers and employees?  Board compensation is reported on 990s, as are salaries of some highly compensated employees.

How are their expenses broken down by function?  One organization may have a higher percentage of program costs, but it is all in staff salaries. Another organization may have lower program costs but give that money in direct aid.  One is not necessarily better than the other (humanitarian staff need to get paid), but it gives a more detailed picture than just program v. management or fundraising.

Does the organization have local offices?  Have they been working in country for a long time?  Does it look like they will stick around?  Are they staffed by locals or is it all people from the U.S. or Europe?

What kind of programs do they do?  Are they in keeping with your values?  If you are passionate about environmental issues or health care for all, then you should support organizations whose mission most closely matches your own.

If the organization doesn’t have much history, are you willing to treat it like a startup?  Are the ideas so great that you are willing to risk your donation on the chance that they can use this new (extremely rare)  influx of capital to get their dreams off the ground?

My recommendation is to spread it around.  Give some money to a large experienced organization with the planes and equipment ready to address the rescue, food, water, and sanitation needs. But also give money to smaller and/or local organizations whose salaries are paying locals and who are likely to stick around.  Haiti will need help long after the Red Cross moves on to the next disaster.

You can find a comprehensive list of organizations to donate to here.

____

* If you send money and tell an organization that you want it to be used for a certain project or place, they must do that.  In most circumstances, I would actually discourage you from restricting your money.  For smaller nonprofits, funds for basic expenses are hard to come by.  Having all their funding restricted actually weakens the organization and, in the end, could lead to less accountability – no money for auditors, bookkeeping staff, board training, etc.

____

Disclaimer:  All thoughts and opinions on my site belong to me alone.  I am usually quite careful not to post anything even remotely related to my day job.  This post is a bit close to the line, as I work for an organization that is working in Haiti.  They are not an organization that I have listed or talked about on my blog.  I have no intention of recommending or not recommending them.  If you know where I work, nothing should be read into that.  I just don’t want to have to vet my blog through my work and, if I spoke about them directly, I would feel that obligation.

Poor Women Feed the World

September 24, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification, Work

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about women using women.  In it I commented on privileged women using poorer women to clean their houses and raise their children – women who have low salaries and no benefits.

But the truth is that all of our lifestyles are built on the backs of poor people (and women in particular), even if we don’t have the direct exploitative employer/employee relationship.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

Rural women in particular are responsible for half of the world’s food production and produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries.

And yet while these women are feeding us all, estimates are that 70 percent of the worlds poor are women.

It isn’t just an issue of small-holder agriculture either.  Women are overrepresented in all aspects of the grossly underpaid food system.  Women are the majority of wait staff, fast food workers, and counter attendants.

The latest occupational employment report shows the U.S. median wage at $15.57 per hour.  Workers in the food industry typically make little more than half that.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “more than two-thirds of all low-wage workers in 2003 were in service-type occupations, mostly in food service jobs.”

Every step of food production  – from the farm worker to the food processing plant to the food prep worker to the counter help or wait staff – relies on millions of underpaid workers with few (if any) benefits and little security.

How is it that the people who do the jobs most fundamental to survival are so undervalued?

Women Using Women

September 08, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Stratification, Work

I have worked with many self-described feminists who have housekeepers and nannies.  I am amazed at how few of them see the conflict inherent in building your freedom on some other woman’s lack thereof.  And I’m not talking about Wall Street women.  I’m talking about liberal women who supposedly care about inequality, oppression, racism and poverty.

What I find especially frustrating is how a reliance on hiring poor women allows men to continue to shirk their responsibilities.  How many of you have friends whose husbands refuse to clean or do their fare share of the childcare?  Did they confront their husbands?  Did they attempt to confront the sexism and unfairness of it all?  Or did they just cop out and use their privilege to buy someone poorer to make the problem go away?

Racewire has an important article out that you all should read.  It is called
Immigrant Workers at Home: Hired Hands Hold Family Bonds and it reads, in part:

So immigrant workers help lift white-collar mothers toward that coveted work-life balance. But back at home, work remains the same as it ever was: hard, endless, and never fairly compensated. The difference for domestic workers, of course, is that they are still outsiders in the home, culturally and professionally. And when overworked and exploited, they end up tending to other people’s families at the expense of their ability to care for their own.

And let’s not forget that domestic workers have few rights.  They work long hours for low pay.  They work without health insurance or other benefits.  And they are specifically excluded from the labor laws that protect the rest of us.  Families that rely on domestic workers to give them time to pursue their careers, are relying on an exploitative system.

All inequality is related. If we accept the inequality inherent in using money to resolve a problem for a few women, at the expense of others, then we accept inequality, period.

Submissive Education

June 16, 2009 By: Mel Category: Education, Work

In one of Maggie Anderson’s interviews about the Empowerment Experiment (her effort to buy from black owned businesses for a year), she talks about how hard it is to find black owned businesses. She felt that, black people having been in this country for so long, it shouldn’t be so hard to find black entrepreneurs.

Which got me thinking. Maybe it is in part because of being from this country that African Americans entrepreneurs are harder to find. Is our education and socialization system creating workers that obey rather than entrepreneurs that innovate?

When I was a kid, my father had a little office supply business. He used to leave the house every morning to go out and “make” a living. Today, you only hear people talk in terms of “earning” a living.

Education, as William Astore wrote in his article Selling Education, Manufacturing Technocrats, Torturing Souls: The Tyranny of Being Practical, has become about “a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials.”

Note the focus on others opinions. Focusing on “marketable skills” means finding out what some employer wants and then learning it. (Convenient for them as they no longer have to provide training before they start making money off of you.) “Impressive credentials” means focusing on looking good to the powers that be, rather than contributing something useful to society.

Interestingly, immigrants are 30% more likely to start a business. Perhaps the type of people who immigrate are naturally more comfortable with risk. Maybe they can’t find good work elsewhere. Or maybe, some of these immigrants have not been trained to be compliant workers by our educational system.

Just a thought.