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Allison Kilkenny | The Nation

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Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Activists Are Arrested Protesting Walmart’s Low Wages

Activists in Secaucus, New Jersey, engage in an act of civil disobedience during a Black Friday Walmart protest. All photos by Allison Kilkenny

Walmart employees and supporters protested in cities all across the country on Black Friday in opposition to Walmart’s low wages and poor treatment of workers. In some cases, protesters volunteered to engage in acts of civil disobedience and were arrested by police. Organizers expected 1,500 total protests in California, Alaska, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Illinois, Washington and Canada. In Secaucus, New Jersey, thirteen activists were arrested after sitting in the middle of the street to block traffic.

Marc Bowers said he worked at a Walmart in Dallas, Texas, for eight years before he was fired for participating in a strike. After Walmart fired him, he decided to get more involved with worker organizing, including traveling to New Jersey for this year’s Black Friday protest. Bowers said he hopes to inspire other workers enduring similar hardships. (Photo: Elaine Rozier and Marc Bowers, right, at today’s New Jersey protest)

“If you let people know what’s going on, they’ll get involved too. They’re probably fed up with the same things,” he said.

Bowers added that this labor struggle will influence future generations.

“I’m here to fight for everybody who has been done wrong. I feel like, if I don’t fight, our next generation of kids will not have a future. As a man, I have the right to stand up on my own two feet. And I’m doing it right now,” he said.

The National Labor Relations Board announced last week that it plans to pursue charges against Walmart for threatening and punishing workers who planned to go on strike last year. The agency’s general counsel investigated and “found merit” in workers’ claims that Walmart “unlawfully threatened” employees for participating in walkouts during last year’s Black Friday.

According to the agency, Walmart intimidated, surveilled or punished workers in fourteen different states, which is illegal under US labor law.

The threats and intimidation include comments from official Walmart spokesperson David Tovar, who told CBS Evening News last year, “There could be consequences” for workers participating in any actions.

Also in attendance at the Secaucus protest was Elaine Rozier, who worked at a Walmart in Miami, Florida, for eight years.

“I’m here today to represent all the solid Walmart workers that are afraid to stand up for their rights. I’m here to represent the nation, to let Walmart corporation know that we’re not standing back. I’m stand up for my rights, for my kids, for my grandkids and their kids. I’m tired of not getting living wages,” Rozier said, before thanking the other activists for lending support.

Other arrests occurred in Chicago, where ten protesters were arrested for allegedly blocking traffic, along with nine activists in Alexandria, Virginia. In Balch Springs, Texas, thirteen protesters were also arrested for blocking traffic and “creat[ing] a dangerous situation” for themselves and drives, according to Deputy Chief Paul Haber.

“Everyone has a living wage and we need one, too,” said Myron Byrd, 45, a Walmart worker who was led away in handcuffs by police.

According to organizers, at least fifty-five people have been arrested during this year’s Black Friday Walmart protests.

Update: Organizers from UFCW and Our Walmart now estimate more than 110 activists have been arrested.

Activists Plan Nationwide Walmart Protests for Black Friday

Black Friday

Protesters picket outside a Walmart store as holiday sales commence in San Leandro, California, November 22, 2012. (Reuters/Noah Berger)

OUR Walmart, the group behind last year’s Black Friday activism, has promised even more actions this year with 1,500 protests scheduled at stores all across the country. Walmart is clearly nervous ahead of this year’s plans because the company has asked judges in Maryland and Florida to bar protesters from entering stores on Black Friday.

“This is yet another move from Walmart to try to bend the law to its liking. Walmart has made it a practice to pursue over-the-top legal maneuvers to try to avoid hearing the real concerns of workers and community members,” said Derrick Plummer, spokesman for the organizer, Making Change at Walmart, in a statement.

OUR Walmart announced that Black Friday protests are scheduled in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Miami, Chicago; Seattle, Washington (DC), Minneapolis and Sacramento, and the group calls it the “largest mobilization of working families in recent history.”

“Workers are calling for an end to illegal retaliation, and for Walmart to publicly commit to improving labor standards, such as providing workers with more full time work and $25,000 a year. As the country’s largest retailer and employer, Walmart makes more than $17 billion in profits, with the wealth of the Walton family totaling over $144.7 billion—equal to that of 42% of Americans,” the group said in a statement.

Anthony Goytia, a part-time worker who stocks shelves during the overnight shift, says he isn’t protesting because he hates Walmart. Al Jazeera America:

“I actually do like my job. It’s fast-paced, and time goes by quick,” he said. “But last year I made $12,000. I’m a husband. I have four kids. It’s not enough. I’m living in poverty.”

Goytia is a member of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), which is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He has taken part in several protests for better wages and working conditions at the store, including one in early November, when fifty-four people were arrested during protests at a new Walmart store in Los Angeles.

But worker actions against Walmart aren’t isolated to Black Friday. On Monday, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) joined Walmart workers in Minnesota who walked off the job, and in Los Angeles, workers went on a two-day strike that culminated in the largest-ever act of civil disobedience against Walmart. Last week, workers in Seattle, Chicago, Ohio and Dallas joined them in walking off their jobs.

Additionally, Walmart workers at three Washington, DC, area stores went on strike Tuesday, calling on the company to end its illegal retaliation against workers, and calling for better wages and full-time work.

“I’m speaking out today because Walmart can afford to do better by its workers,” said striking worker Tiffany Beroid. “We want to work full time, and earn above the poverty level. And we are taking action today because Walmart needs to publicly commit to ending illegal retaliation against workers and better wages.”

In fact, the resistance against Walmart’s low wages never really went away. Workers have continually organized, fought for higher wages, and engaged in creative civil disobedience. For example, these workers led a flashmob back in September at a Raleigh, North Carolina Walmart store:

Since June, Walmart has illegally disciplined more than eighty workers, including firing twenty worker-leaders, and more than 100 Unfair Labor Practice charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the company. Recently, the NLRB regional office announced it found merit to OUR Walmart’s charge, and found Walmart committed eleven violations of national labor law.

At a time when workers are struggling to survive on low wages, activists expressed outrage at the retirement pension of Walmart CEO Mike Duke, which at $113 million, is more than 6,200 times greater than the average worker’s pay.

“Walmart should be ashamed of the vast labor mismanagement under CEO Mike Duke. From the low wages at Walmart stores to dangerous working conditions in warehouses and the inexcusable safety conditions in factories in Bangladesh and other countries, as the world’s largest employer, Walmart can and should do better to create good jobs and safe working conditions,” Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, said in a statement.

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Following the announcement that Doug McMillon will succeed Duke as CEO, Beroid said the change of leadership is “a testament to the pressure the company is feeling that they’re changing leadership at this moment.”

She added:

“We’re happy to see Mr. McMillon acknowledge the hard work of associates in his statement this morning, and we hope that this appreciation translates into improving jobs for Walmart workers. Americans nationwide are looking to Walmart to improve jobs and strengthen our economy, and Mr. McMillon has an opportunity to be a leader in moving Walmart in the right direction, not just in offering more empty promises. We sincerely hope that Mr. McMillon will answer the country’s calls for Walmart to publicly commit to paying $25,000 a year, providing full-time work and ending its illegal retaliation against its own employees.”

I will be live-tweeting from Black Friday actions in New Jersey. Follow me on Twitter @allisonkilkenny.

Wages for Walmart workers are so low that one retail outlet in Ohio held a food drive for its own employees.

Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees

Walmart protest

Activists have long criticized Walmart for failing to pay its employees living wages, and instead relying on the state to step in and pay for the healthcare and food of workers. In Canton, Ohio, another Walmart recently demonstrated this kind of corporate welfare by holding a food drive—for its own employees.

“Please donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” reads a sign accompanied by several plastic bins.

Understandably, the food drive has sparked outrage in the area.

“That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers—to me, it is a moral outrage,” Norma Mills, a customer at the store, told the Plain Dealer.

A company spokesman defended the drive, telling the Plain Dealer it is evidence that employees care about each other. And it’s a good thing they care about their fellow workers because Walmart certainly doesn’t care about its employees.

In the wake of the Ohio Walmart food drive story, Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, raised on interesting question on Twitter: “Why not just pay a living wage?

Stephen Gandel, a senior editor at Fortune, recently penned an op-ed in which he argued Walmart could afford to give its employees a 50 percent raise without negatively affecting shareholders.

I called a couple of really smart economists to get it “peer”-reviewed. Sendhil Mullainathan, who teaches at MIT and received a MacArthur genius grant for his work in behavioral economics a few years ago, said he basically came to a similar conclusion as mine a few years ago. He says companies have more discretion in setting wages then they let on. “Really the question is not whether this is possible but why some companies don’t do it [this way],” says Mullainathan.

Wal-Mart didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Workers have already announced plans for “widespread, massive strikes and protests” on Black Friday at Walmarts this year, but smaller, isolated protests have continued to erupt all across the country even before the holiday shopping season.

Randall Lewis, 24, has been working at a Chicago Walmart for about a year. Lewis participated in last week’s strike that involved three Chicago store locations.

“Sometimes I have to borrow money. Sometimes, if I don’t have money for deodorant, I have to ask my grandmother for some money. Going to the doctor is expensive because I have to go to a clinic, and if I go to the dentist, it’s expensive,” he says.

Lewis expressed disillusionment with Walmart, a company he once saw as a reliable way to make a living.

“They sell you a bill of dreams, telling you you can be promoted, but if you’re not kissing up to the right person, to the right manager, they will walk right past you like you don’t exist.”

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He also suspects the company has nefarious motives for reducing employee hours.

“I worked forty hours [a week], and they reduced me to thirty-two hours a week. I think they reduce the hours to avoid paying us health benefits.”

In 2011, Walmart substantially rolled back coverage for part-time workers and significantly raised premiums for many full-time staff, citing “rising costs.” The decision had an immediate, and detrimental, effect on Walmart stores. By largely using part-time staff, the company was unable to keep its shelves stocked, and began to lose customers, so they decided to add more full-time workers for the holiday shopping season this year.

Walmart workers continue to demonstrate extraordinary bravery by striking all across the country, even though the company has demonstrated a habit of retaliating against staff’s attempts at collective organizing.

For his part, Lewis says he is willing to take that risk:

“I was afraid that they might retaliate, but the one thing I’ve learned is, if I don’t stand up for what I believe in, nothing will be done. I’m doing something that could help me and my co-workers get a liveable wage, healthcare, the respect that we deserve.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Walmart was in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Nation contributor John Nichols appears on the Ed Show to discuss public support for raising the minimum wage.

Survey: 81 Percent of Universities Say Sequester Has Directly Affected Research Activities

UC Berkeley

According to a new survey released Monday, 81 percent of responding universities said that the automatic federal spending cuts of budget sequestration have directly affected their research activities. More than half of universities said a decrease in new federal grant opportunities, and the shrinking value of existing grants, has prompted them to reduce research-related positions, and nearly a quarter of the institutions said they have laid off research employees as a result of the cuts.

“The survey shows that sequestration is already eroding America’s research capabilities at universities across the country,” the Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and The Science Coalition announced in a written statement.

(graphic via Inside Higher Ed)

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has been criticized in the past by student activists for dolling out lavish salaries for high-profile hires amid tuition hikes, budget cuts and recession, but on Monday he stated that a $50 million loss to the university’s research funding could lead to a brain drain, top researchers leaving in a mass exodus.

Block put things in stark terms, reminding members of Congress that many universities have no more emergency funds or administrative flexibility to help compensate for the sequester cuts.

The buffer is much thinner,” said Block. “So if faculty members lose their grants, if grants don’t get re-funded because of sequestration, there is a limited amount we can do to keep labs running. So if you ask what is the long-term effect? …. Literally labs close and people end up on the street. That’s the danger.”

The negative effects of sequester are already on display in Ohio. Dr. Stan Gerson, director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, spent much of the past year calling members of Congress in hopes they would repeal cuts to research programs. Gerson told WCPN, “It’s real jobs and real people” at stake.

WCPN:

Case, like Michigan, receives some of the biggest federal grants in the U.S. for research.

Of the roughly $400 million Case spends on research annually, about 80 percent comes from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Dept. of Defense, and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Case’s cancer center offers an example of how sequestration funding is slowly squeezing the budget. This summer, news came that the center’s 5-year operational grant fell by $6 Million.

“It’s undoubtedly the case over an 18-month period that there will be a smaller workforce in our school and our university. Just because, where else are the dollars going to come from?” Gerson says.

While Case isn’t planning layoffs yet, it is more selectively filling positions, and faculty members are being encouraged to consider flexible hours. Gerson also told WCPN that labs on campus aren’t hiring as many graduate students.

Others also expressed concern that cuts in research would result in the loss of a competitive edge against other countries that prioritize education and research.

“We lose our competitiveness with foreign countries, especially China and India, which are investing very heavily in research and development,” said Philip DiStefano, chancellor at University of Colorado Boulder. “The longer that sequestration goes on, the more chances are that we are going to lose our competitive edge that we have had with foreign countries.”

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The world of academia has objected to harsh austerity measures for a long time. In March, Science Works for US collected video editorials from professors and administrators, who argued that the then-proposed cuts would threaten American research and innovation. An op-ed in the Financial Times from before the sequester stated that, “fully 75 percent of postwar growth is tied to technological innovation, according to the commerce department.”

But these concerns fell on deaf ears, even though budget cuts will have a ripple effect for multiple generations, stripping opportunities from burgeoning students, researchers, and scientists.

“There is a clear and present danger that sequestration will damage America’s pre-eminence in scientific research and higher education over the long-term,” said Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun. “Given the impact we already have seen, we urge the members of the House and Senate who are negotiating funding for FY2014 and beyond to end sequestration, enable investments in scientific research and higher education, and restore the dividends these investments produce for our economy and society.”

Allison Kilkenny has previously written about the effect of budget cuts on mental health services. 

Parents and Teachers Rally to Save North Carolina Schools

Mural closed school

Parents and education supporters participated in a “walk-in” at North Carolina schools today to voice dissatisfaction with state legislators’ votes to cut teacher assistant positions, freeze pay, eliminate tenure and increase the number of students per class. The Republican-led legislature simultaneously increased incentives for parents to enrol their kids in public charter and private schools.

North Carolina already ranks poorly in terms of education funding. The state is forty-sixth in teacher pay and forty-eighth in student funding.

The walk-in entailed parents’, and other supporters’, wearing red and showing up at schools to leave statements of support for teachers.

North Carolina is a “right to work” state, sunnily titled legislation that forbids union contracts from requiring employees to pay for union representation. Much like the Republican-led Clear Skies Act of 2003 that turned out to be terrible for the environment, right-to-work legislation defunds unions that advocate on behalf of workers.

The Charlotte Observer cheered the walk-in by pointing out that a “walk out” of teachers would be “against the law,” and recycled the same tired cliché that teachers’ exercising leverage to better education standards would somehow be bad for North Carolina students.

The Observer conceded the budget-cutting and policy-making by North Carolina’s GOP have been abysmal for students, and have devalued teachers, but it fell shy of supporting any kind of collective action beyond donning red shirts. And the Observer isn’t alone. In fact, this position is supported by the North Carolina Association of Educators.

[…]many teachers have rightly said they won’t [participate in a walk out], noting that it would hurt students rather than make a useful point with lawmakers. The NCAE, the North Carolina Association of Educators, was among those discouraging a walk out. President Rodney Ellis said “that only results in teachers losing their positions… there are other ways that we can get our message out.” Thus began the “walk in” idea.

The walk-in was meant to spark a conversation among teachers and parents about budget cuts and low teacher pay. While that conversation has been taking place for a while, it seems as though the only parties speaking with a sense of urgency are the young students shouldering the burden of austerity.

Rosa Ramirez, a student at Durham School of the Arts, says she has always wanted to be a teacher, but the ninth-grader might change her mind now that she’s seen how her state treats teachers.

Thanks for crushing my dream,” she said before a crowd of protesters outside Weaver Auditorium at Durham School of the Arts.

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Indyweek:

At Durham School of the Arts, the top-ranked high school in North Carolina, state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat, railed against the Republican policies that he said “abandoned the commitment to public education.”

“We don’t need to pack kids in a class like sardines in a can,” McKissick said, adding that without tenure and higher salaries for teachers holding master’s degrees, North Carolina is “moving toward the bottom.

“Why would we destroy incentives? It’s the wrong message to send.”

In Raleigh, more than 200 people gathered in an auditorium at Lacy Elementary School, Indyweek reports. Several teachers said they have to work one or more part-time jobs just to get by, and Wake County school board member Christine Kushner says teachers’ salaries in North Carolina have shrunk more than 16 percent since 2001.

Lacy teacher and parent Suzzette Acree teared up as she told Indyweek about her daughter, an education major in college.

“I asked her why she wanted to be a teacher,” Acree said. “She said, “you made it seem like it wasn’t work, and what could be more fun than spending the day working alongside children as they discover, uncover and grow from the inside out.?”

Allison Kilkenny has previously written about school closures in Washington, DC.

Occupy Sandy: One Year Later

St. Jacobi Church Occupy Sandy distribution center, Brooklyn. (Flickr/occupy617)

Superstorm Sandy destroyed large swathes of New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula last October, and in the storm’s wake, it immediately became clear that the traditional modes of relief (FEMA, the Red Cross) were performing inadequately, if the aid groups bothered to show up at all.

In order to fill the vacuum, Occupy Wall Street activists quickly mobilized on the ground. At one point, Michael Premo, one of the volunteers, estimated the recovery effort included 2,500 volunteers, 15,000 meals and 120 carloads of supplies sent to recovery sites.

But temporary charity is no match for permanent institutional structures, and Occupy Sandy was never meant to shoulder the burden of the failed state.

Al Jazeera America reports that similar problems plague both OWS and Occupy Sandy, including a necessity to engage in politics in order to alleviate certain social ills like poverty, a process that is unappealing to many activists.

In the wake of a tragedy like Hurricane Sandy, where thousands of poor New Yorkers were left without basic resources like electricity and water for many weeks—including many families that are still homeless—activists understandably have disdain for a government that seems determined to serve only an elite 1 percent (though the NYPD did manage to embed an undercover police officer with Occupy Sandy).

However, such a mentality produces a talent vacuum. Bright, young activists avoid engaging with a power structure that badly needs reform, leaving the system to be savaged by corrupt players.

“Unbeknownst to them and surely unintentionally, I think they’re kind of reinforcing a right-wing message that government isn’t the answer,” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said to AJA.

Berg goes on to say Occupy’s social critique resonated with him, but any permanent reform will inherently involve engaging with politics.

“Forget ideology; just look at scale—there is no way that charitable efforts can ever, ever, ever come up vaguely close to the scale we need as a society to solve these major problems,” he said. “They’ve done all this really important work, (but) I do just want to put it in context that we’re thinking really, really small.”

Some problems Occupy Sandy was never equipped (nor should activists have been expected) to solve.

AJA provides one example:

Diane Bourbon, a neighbor and mother who works night shifts at a convenience store, received a $10,000 Homeowner Resettlement Program grant from the state, which was aimed at keeping residents in place after Sandy and could not be used for construction or repair. But like others in her situation throughout New Jersey, Bourbon missed out on grants to repair her trailer or buy a new home—worth up to $150,000 and $50,000 respectively—because the vague language in state brochures and websites did not specify whether mobile home owners qualified, leaving many confused and discouraged from applying.

As AJA notes, such problems are beyond Occupy Sandy’s abilities to tackle, and the mantle is instead being taken up by Janet Sharma, the executive director of the Volunteer Center, who coordinates the Bergen County response.

Nathan Kleinman, from Occupy Philadelphia, says he considers Occupy’s main role now to be a “watchdog” over the state and nonprofit recovery work.

Lisa Ewart, another Occupy activist, told AJA the problem is a lack of funds.

“Without money, you can have the best intentions in the world, but nobody is going to stick around to volunteer,” Sharma said.

But it would be a mistake to frame the Occupy Sandy story as a failure. Given the narrow mobilization window, limited recourses and labor pool consisting of volunteers who toiled for free, Occupy Sandy was a resounding success. In the early days of the recovery efforts, The New York Times, in addition to Mayor Bloomberg and the National Guard, all praised the group’s remarkable work.

Any subsequent blame should be heaped upon a government that has focused the recovery effort only on bringing the power back to Wall Street. One year after the storm hit New York, more than 200 survivors are still without a home.

These survivors live in shelters and rented rooms, and sometimes with friends, as many await to hear for the Bloomberg administration to approve two-year housing vouchers to help them pay for rent.

“We still have clients who are waiting to hear whether they are eligible for these coupons or not,” said Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid Society attorney helping the displaced. “That’s ridiculous.”

Goldiner emphasizes that these are people who used to work hard for their incomes, but they lost everything in the storm.

“They just can’t afford housing on the private market especially because the rents have gone up in the places they used to live,” said Goldiner. “The city has completely abandoned them and seems to just want them to go away.”

Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo says the city cannot afford to single-handedly continue the program in the absence of FEMA funding.

Juquetta Johnson, 40, worked a seasonal job as a parking attendant at the MCU Park, where the Brooklyn Cyclones play, and relied on public assistance. She lived in Coney Island with her daughters Shaquasa, 18, and Sequoia, 9, and son, Jahmarie, 7.

But when the storm hit, they lost power in their building and in much of the neighborhood. Johnson told the New York Daily News they toughed out the freezing cold conditions and managed to remain in the building until she was evicted in January for not paying rent for three months.

A Housing Court judge was not sympathetic when she told him, “I can’t pay because of Sandy.”

He refused to give her an extension, and even though Johnson had a FEMA voucher for a hotel, all the hotels were booked.

She and her family wound up in a Brownsville shelter, which has a rule that if a family is gone more than forty-eight hours, they’re kicked out.

In late April, Johnson and her children spent a couple nights at a friend’s house in Coney Island because her daughter Sequoia was taking the citywide reading and math exam and Johnson didn’t want her to be worn out by a long subway ride.

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Johnson told the Daily News she returned to the shelter with ten minutes to spare before the forty-eight-hour curfew only to discover the staffers had already thrown out her belongings. She also claims her pocketbook, with $1,000 cash for the tax return check she had just cashed, was gone, along with the family laptop, a Nintendo Wii game and the children’s birth certificates.

A Department of Housing Services spokeswoman, Heather Janik, denies these charges.

“After Sandy, my whole life just went down,” said Johnson, who is now squatting in the living room of her friend’s apartment. “They keep teasing my kids in school because they have to wear the same clothes. They don’t even have winter coats.”

Breaking down in tears, Johnson said “my son keeps waking up asking if we have to go back to the shelter.”

“There is no recovering from Sandy,” she said.

In a written statement at their website, Occupy Sandy claims their network of more than 50,000 volunteers provided over 300,000 meals, remediated over 1,000 homes and provided over a million dollars’ worth of donated supplies by working with neighbors to “provide mutual aid through the rebuilding process.”

Occupy Sandy shares a story about Roca Mia Construction Inc., a business that struggled to make ends meet between low-paying subcontracting gigs. Life got even tougher after Sandy because work was scare and businesses began to shut down across Far Rockaway. Occupy Sandy provided start-up funding and skill building assistance to the small business, and the men have since set up their own worker-owned cooperative.

“After receiving their license to operate last week, they are ready to start working on home repairs in their own neighbourhood,” the group states. “This is just one way that Occupy Sandy has been able to invest in both residents and local economies.”

Allison Kilkenny has previously written about the evolution of Occupy Wall Street into numerous groups combatting various social problems.

Suicide Rate Climbs by 30 Percent in Kansas as Government Slashes Mental Health Budgets


(Wichita Eagle)

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment recently released a startling report(PDF) showing a 30 percent increase in suicides from 2011. Nationwide, the number of deaths by suicide surpassed the number of deaths by motor vehicle accidents in 2009, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided data.

The Wichita Eagle reports that the largest increase in suicides in Kansas occurred among white males, who already were the segment of the population most likely to take their own lives. More than 80 percent of suicides in Kansas last year were men, like Scott Dennis, a 42-year-old fitness company owner.

Last year, Dennis was busy getting ready for an industry convention in Las Vegas.

Dennis had already paid for a $20,000 sponsored dinner, booked his flight, hotel and rental car and sent out some work e-mails.

He showered and shaved. He packed his bag.

“He wrote a note that said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ and left his wallet and his watch on his desk, drove to Wal-Mart down the street and shot himself in the chest,” said Brook Phillips, a friend of Dennis for 35 years.

Nationally, the CDC reported a spike in suicide rates in 2010 among the middle-aged, a 28 percent rise overall, a 40 percent jump among white Americans, and among men in their 50s, suicides increased by more than 48 percent. Guns remained the leading method used in all suicides, followed by poisoning, overdoses, and suffocation.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC told PBS: “We don’t know what specifically is causing [the suicide spike], but the trend has been consistent, and if anything our numbers would underestimate the gravity of the problem.”

Frieden also commented that more people die from prescription opiates today than from heroin and cocaine combined, and called alcohol a “significant contributor to depression and to mental health problems.”

But many people consume opiates and alcohol to self-medicate, or to escape their dire economic circumstances. One popular theory floated to explain the suicide epidemic is that the recession has caused emotional trauma in individuals.

Pat Smith, the violence-prevention program coordinator for the Michigan Department of Community Health, told The Huffington Post the recession may have pushed already troubled people over the edge. Being unable to find a job or settling for one with lower pay or prestige could add “that final weight to a whole chain of events,” she said.

There does appear to be a correlation between the recession and increasing suicide rates. For example, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased by 36 percent in 2008, and another 15 percent in 2009.

Data compiled by The Wall Street Journal in late 2009 showed increases in several states. Of 19 states surveyed, 13 saw marginal increases in suicide rates. Tennessee had the highest rate of increase, with over 15 percent more suicides in 2008 than 2007. Across the 19 states, the average increase was 2.3 percent.

And as The Huffington Post notes, this same trend was also seen during the Great Depression, when the suicide rate increased by 21 percent in the early 1930s (about 17 of every 100,000 people).

Even though there have been horrific stories in the news related to the nation’s poor mental health care of its citizens (Aaron Alexis’ attack in Washington’s Navy Yard and Miriam Carey’s murder by DC police), officials seem determined to continue slashing funding. From 2009 to 2011, states cut mental budgets by a combined $4 billion, the largest single combined reduction to mental health spending since de-institutionalization in the 1970s.

In Chicago alone, state budget cuts combined with reductions in county and city mental health services led to shutting six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, Forbes reports.

Threats of sequestration in 2013 had a significant impact on people’s ability to access mental health services and programs, including children’s mental health services, suicide prevention programs, homeless outreach programs, substance abuse treatment programs, housing and employment assistance, health research, and virtually every type of public mental health support. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) claimed it alone would be cutting $168 million from its 2013 spending, including a reduction of $83.1 million in grants for substance abuse treatment programs.

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Since 2009, a community health center in Sedgwick County, Kansas, has lost 53 percent of its state funding, according to Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare of Sedwick County. She told The Wichita Eagle the county is trying to appeal to the state to replace some of that money.

“This is a community problem and a public health problem, not just a mental health problem,” Cook said. “Treatment dollars have gone down and more and more people are coming to us, a growing number without any other payment for services.”

She said they’ve seen an increase in the number of calls to the crisis program and more law enforcement officers have been trained in crisis intervention, which is a good thing, she said, but “without adequate funding, it’s difficult for us to get to everybody who needs care and help.”

In 2012, Sedgwick County 911 dispatch received more than 2,400 calls related to suicide threats or attempts and more than 61,000 crisis phone calls for suicide risk or urgent mental health help.

Liz McGinness, a member of the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition and a retired school psychologist and mental health crisis team director for USD 259, says the suicides may be related to social stigmas and the economy.

“I think one of the biggest things we can rally around is reducing stigma and talking about getting help,” McGinness said.

“There has been an uptick in suicides in middle-class, white professional men.… We do likely attribute that incidence as being related to the economy, for men particularly. So much of their identity is tied up in their job, and they lose their moorings.”

 

Greg Kaufmann wrote about what defunding Obamacare really means for those in need.

Federal Judge Dismisses Much of Suit to Stop DC School Closures

A mural depicts a student entering the closed Alexander Wilson Elementary School in West Philadelphia. Across the nation, public schools have suffered over the past few years as the recession prompted cuts in state education funding and losses in property tax revenues (Reuters/Tom Mihalek).

A federal judge has dismissed most of a lawsuit seeking to stop the closure of fifteen DC public schools, but is allowing several of the plaintiffs’ civil rights claims to move forward, The Washington Post reports.

In March, activists with the community group Empower D.C. filed the lawsuit in March as part of an effort to stop thirteen of the schools from being closed in June. The activists argue the school closures violate a number of local and federal laws, including civil rights provisions because the closures disproportionately affect black, Hispanic and disabled children.

Of the 2,700 students who will be impacted by the closings, just two (less than 0.01 percent) are white, even though white students account for 9 percent of the overall District of Columbia public school student population, according to district budget expert Mary Levy.

Conversely, African-Americans make up 93 percent of those affected despite making up just 72 percent of the district student body.

But Judge James E. Boasberg appeared skeptical of the activists’ position, saying that their civil rights arguments “may ultimately be too slender a reed” on which to hang their case. However, under the law, he said they deserve time to gather and present information before he issues a final ruling.

Despite Boasberg dismissing most of the lawsuit, Empower D.C. activists say they’re pleased with the ruling.

“We’re happy that we can still litigate on some of the counts around discrimination,” said Daniel del Pielago, an organizer for the group, to The Washington Post. “We’re still in the game.”

Meanwhile, Philadelphia officials are calling for a review of school budgets cuts that they believe might have contributed to the death of a sixth-grader.

Laporshia Massey was laid to rest this week after her death from asthma, following budget cuts that eliminated the school nurse officials say may have saved her life.

City Paper reports Massey, 12, had complained during the school day of symptoms related to her asthma. However, Bryant Elementary School only has a nurse on staff two days a week in the wake of severe budget cuts.

Massey called Sherri Mitchell, her father’s fiancée, telling her, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Mitchell and Daniel Burch, Massey’s father, didn’t know how severe Massey’s condition was, and so they waited for her to get home, believing they could then take her for treatment. Once home, Massey grabbed her nebulizer before he father rushed her to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, but Massey collapsed in the car, so her father instead jumped out and flagged down an ambulance.

But by then it was too late.

Representative Ron Waters told City Paper: “We don’t have the people in place in the schools right now that can provide necessary services to our students. At the end of the day, there’s only but so much that any building can provide if it has to deal with skeleton operation.”

Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell added: “Without school nurses, she didn’t feel well, where could she go? You got to call emergency when you think it’s at that point.”

In response to budgetary shortfalls, the School District of Philadelphia laid off forty-seven nurses in December 2011. Additional layoffs and retiring nurses resulted in a net loss of more than 100 school nurses in the 2011–12 school year, according to a report by the Education Law Center (PDF).

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While schools are required to offer some level of healthcare, the current student-to-nurse ration is 1,500 students for every one nurse.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote to Governor John Corbett, decrying the tragedy.

“We’ll never know if having a school nurse on site could have spared Laporshia’s life, but we do know that school nurses are trained to detect symptoms of asthma attacks,” Weingarten wrote on October 11. “We know that 1 in 11 children nationwide have asthma. And we know that in Philadelphia, the statistic is closer to 1 in 5.”

Weingarten also asked that Corbett release $45 million of federal funding he has been withholding from the district until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers signs a new contract that would require educators to take a massive pay cut.

Meet the senator using the government shutdown to shill for the medical-device lobby.

Many Government Workers Are Expected to Work for Free During the Shutdown

A federal worker posts a sign a turning away potential park-goers. (AP)

Seven days after the government shutdown began, workers nationwide continue to protest missing out on paychecks.

In Houston, workers staged a protest outside the VA Hospital to say lawmakers are putting politics above the well-being of workers and their families.

Fernando Grajales, a government worker who represents the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, was protesting alongside workers from NASA and TSA, among other government agencies.

“We’re asking people to call their congressmen and tell them to do what they are paid to do,” Grajales said to ABC.

While many workers have been told not to come to work, others are expected to labor without compensations, such as TSA screener Mike Sanders.

“We’re still having to work, but we’re not going to get any pay,” Sanders said to ABC. “We’re not getting paid.”

Working without compensation is a reality for many government employees, including the Capitol Police, who were on duty when Miriam Carey led officers on a car chase originating at the White House before fatally shooting her outside the US Capitol.

“We’re protesting against the shutdown, to Congress to do their job,” NASA employee Bridget Broussard-Guidry said to ABC. “If we didn’t do our job, we would be fired.”

ABC reports that federal workers might receive retroactive pay once the government reopens, but many workers say this fails to address the bigger issue: “Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, independent, you cannot be happy with what’s going on in Washington,” veteran Kenneth Aitken said.

Clifton Buchanan, who works at the prison in downtown Houston, says the shutdown has him working for free.

“It affects us because we’re required, as law enforcement officers, to come to work even though we will not be getting paid,” he said to Newsfix. “It just doesn’t make sense that we’re having to go without pay and many of us will get behind and will not be able to fill our financial obligations.”

On Friday, several hundred workers gathered on Capitol Hill for a rally organized by federal worker labor unions and democratic lawmakers.

WJLA:

With no end to the shutdown in sight, federal workers with the National Treasury Employees Union and other labor groups demanded a vote on a “clean” continuing resolution in the House, as well as back-pay.

NIH researcher Tyrone Wilson said, “I know a lot of people in a lot worse shape than I am [with] mortgages, kids in college, living from paycheck to paycheck.”

Department of Labor employee Lucia Cruz said, “That’s my rent money. And then where’s my grocery money? My student loans—I have to apply for deferments now. I have to look into taking money out of my retirement, my 401k so I can float on. It’s ridiculous.”

The furlough follows a three-year pay freeze for Department of Labor employees.

“We love serving the public. It’s just really hurtful that we’re always taking the blame,” said Cruz to WJLA.

While prison workers, Capitol Police and TSA workers have to do without paychecks for the time being, the Pentagon last week ordered most of its approximately 400,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work.

Many workers, who previously believed working for the federal government was supposed to be stable work, now feel jilted by being furloughed.

Steve Hopkins, an Environmental Protection Agency employee for 25 years, told The Huffington Post:

We went through a furlough, a very long term of uncertainty. You’re not even recovered from that and you’re coming into another era of uncertainty [with the shutdown]. And that promises to be followed by another era of uncertainty with the debt ceiling. You brought me here to do a job—if you want it done, let’s do it. If you don’t want it done, say so and send us home.

In North Carolina, veterans and federal workers spent hours protesting the government shutdown last week.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees Union and veterans stood across the street from the veteran’s hospital protesting the shutdown, WSOC-TV reports.

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Local Union President Essie Hogue said, “We want to work and we’re being told we can’t work and we’re being used as pawns between Congress. They need to do what they were elected to do go to work and pass a budget.”

While the shutdown won’t affect funding for VA hospitals, some Veteran’s Affairs workers face furloughs, and if the shutdown lasts at least a month, funding for disability and pension checks will run out by the end of October.

Army veteran Curtis Jennings told WSOC-TV he and his service dog Dorothy will be evicted form his apartment next month if he doesn’t get his check.

“They’re pretty much making us feel like pawns for their political party, and making us into what they want us to be instead of what we are: humans just trying to get by,” Jennings said.

 

Greg Kaufmann detailed the ways that the government shutdown exacerbates poverty in his latest blog post. 

Federal Workers Nationwide Protest Government Shutdown

The US Capitol is photographed through a chain fence in Washington, DC, on September 30, 2013 (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque).

The US government shut down at midnight as the Republican-controlled House continued to demand changes to Obamacare, and in response workers all across the country are protesting the GOP’s actions.

Nearly 100 government employees rallied in downtown Chicago at Federal Plaza on Monday to protest the shutdown, the first in seventeen years, calling Congress’ actions, “political theater of the absurd.”

Fox Chicago reports workers carried signs reading: “Jobs Not Furloughs.”

When asked about the impact of a shutdown, a spokesperson for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office responded vaguely: “I think we all know what that looks like.”

The Chicago Tribune offered some more specifics: “The early prevailing wisdom is that the Chicago area should be able to weather a short-term shutdown largely unscathed but that the impact will become more apparent the longer federal funding is suspended.”

And the Sun-Times reports that if employees considered “non-essential to national health safety and security” are furloughed, it will be “more difficult or impossible” to get a passport, a gun permit, or a new Social Security card.

Chris Black, who workers for the EPA, told CBS that a shutdown would do more than just furlough workers. A shutdown will also affect the jobs they do.

“I’m involved in ongoing cleanups at different hazardous waste sites. They’re long-term cleanup projects and they’re going to be delayed,” said Black.

“We won’t have people inspecting wastewater treatment plants or sewage treatment plants, drinking water plants. We won’t have people out there checking the water quality,” John O’Grady, AFGE Local 704, said.

“It’s going to cost millions of dollars to shut the government down nationwide and then it’s going to cost millions of dollars to get the government up and running,” O’Grady said to ABC.

The shutdown might also disrupt the federal investigators at Monday’s CTA crash that injured forty-eight people.

ABC: “As of midnight tonight—if the government shuts down—they’ll be required to gather the evidence they have, the perishable evidence and fly back to Washington,” said Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

“We have dedicated public servants here. They’re basically being used as guinea pigs,” said Mike Mikulka, an environmental engineer and a vice president of the union, to the Sun-Times. “Lawmakers had all summer to do their job and fund the government.”

Mikulka added that with the shutdown looming, he was ordered not to travel to northern Wisconsin to supervise cleanup of an arsenic-laced site. As a result, the work will be delayed, he said.

Sun-Times: “Capt. Dustin Cammack, a public affairs officer for the Illinois National Guard, said about 1,200 employees of the Guard are subject to furlough, most of them military technicians at the bases, the Springfield headquarters or an aviation facility at Midway Airport. The Guard has 10,500 people working in Illinois, he said.”

Brent Barron, president of the union’s Local 648 and a workers’ compensation claims examiner with the US Department of Labor, told the Sun-Times that he falls into a category of workers who would be expected to report but might not get paid. Furthermore, Labor Department aids who compute the unemployment numbers will themselves be jobless, and a long shutdown could affect unemployment compensation checks, which are sent out by states, but involve federal money.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal employees in the St. Louis region, will hold an informational picket Tuesday morning to protest the government shutdown.

“We need Congress to do what they were elected to do and pass a budget that allows the federal government to function,” AFGE Local 3354 President Steven Hollis, said in a statement.

According to a statement from the union, under a shutdown, federal employees will be furloughed without pay while contractors who operate outside federal facilities will continue to be paid for their work, a practice the union calls a “double standard” that is “outrageous.”

A similar coalition protested at the Tip O’Neill federal building in Boston on Monday.

Karen Carson, a wheelchair-bound activist, told Boston Magazine that a government shutdown could result in her losing disability checks, missing her rent payment, and not collecting the food stamps she needs in order to survive.

“I have $70 left in my checking account,” she said, sitting alongside protesters on Merimac Street in Boston on Monday, where close to 100 people gathered on the steps of the Massachusetts Republican Party headquarters to protest a possible government shutdown. “I’m fearful of this happening. If federal payments don’t go through, I won’t be able to afford my rent tomorrow.

Another demonstration took place last week as the American Foreign Service Workers Association held a rally on Friday titled, “Don’t Shut Down Diplomacy” in Washington, DC, The Washington Post reports.

“Thousands of Foreign Service employees—diplomats and development experts—will be kept from their posts [in the event of a shutdown],” AFSA president Bob Silverman said in a statement. “In this time of continuing instability in the Middle East and uncertainty around the world, we appeal to members of Congress to allow these men and women to continue doing their jobs.”

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The Oregon Air National Guard base is already feeling the impact of the shutdown. Guard members are still being asked to show up this week for “further guidance,” but there remains the question of whether they’ll be paid.

KOIN:

Critical services—such as the fighter jets and guard fire fighters—will stay online. The government stresses public safety is priority No. 1.

But there will be fewer training flights at the Portland, Ore., base. And the guard’s Starbase program, which teaches advance math and science to Portland school students, has already been cancelled for the week. One of the teachers in the Starbase program, who also works for the airfighter wing, is one who would be furloughed in the event of a federal shut-down.

Amanda Schroder, who represents local federal employees, is organizing a Portland rally Tuesday that is being coordinated through the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2157.

In the midst of these protests, KOIN >notes, Congresspersons will still take home their paychecks of $174,000 a year.

Zoe Carpenter wrote about who would be hurt most from a prolonged government shutdown.

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