Depending on A Global Workforce

This is the second and third parts in a series of blogs Nourishing the Planet will be writing about workers in the food system. Nourishing the Planet research intern Ronit Ridberg recently spoke with Erik Nicholson, National VP of the United Farm Workers of America. In the first part of this two-part interview, Erik talks about the global agricultural system and the role American consumers play in it. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Erik Nicholson

Affiliation: National Vice President, United Farm Workers of America; International director of the Guest Worker Membership Program. Founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers of America is the nation's first successful and largest farm workers union currently active in 10 states.

Location: Tacoma, Washington

Bio: Erik Nicholson has worked extensively on pesticide issues affecting farm workers and their families as well as child labor, housing, consumer outreach, education and legislative issues. He currently serves as one of two national farm worker representatives to the Environmental Protection Agency's national pesticide advisory committee, the Pesticide Program Dialog Committee.

Nicholson led the two-and-a-half year organizing campaign at the national guest worker labor-contracting firm Global Horizons, resulting in the first national guest worker union contract in the history of the United States. He currently is working to develop an international infrastructure to better advocate on behalf of guest workers.

Can you please contextualize the work you do, in what has become a global system of agriculture?

We are now importing the majority of the food we eat. The overwhelming majority of workers who harvest the food we eat in the United States are not from this country. And many if not most of the workers employed in the fields in the United States are displaced farmers from their own countries (mostly Mexico but not exclusively.)  So we're seeing that many of the same pressures and challenges that are facing farmers in the US are the very same ones that are displacing small farmers in the global South and resulting in them coming in search of employment to the United States, Canada, Australia, and European Union. At the same time, farmers and sometimes their spouses in the US are looking for second jobs in more urban settings.

When Vietnam entered the global market with coffee we saw an unprecedented exodus of coffee farmers out of eastern Mexico. When NAFTA was signed, mass exodus of corn farmers - so we see a direct correlation between these international trade policies and agricultural practices and kind of the global crisis of agriculture that we're facing.

Within that context you look at agriculture in the United States and pretty much anyone born in this country has no aspirations to work in the fields. And I think if we're honest with ourselves, the reason is because we all know the conditions are not good, the pay is pretty bad, and there's really no benefits. As a result we have depended on immigrant workers to come up and do the work that we haven't wanted to do. And so if you look at the history of the United Farm Workers, we've had workers literally from around the world as members - from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Yemen, African Americans and of course, Mexicans, Central Americans, and the internationalization of the work-force continues. We now have workers working under contract from Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, and it's very much become a global workforce that is harvesting the food we eat.

UFW recently hosted an international gathering of farm workers from 14 different countries. Can you share some of your impressions of that gathering?

It was just amazing to have people who are doing the same work we've been doing for fifty years in the United States, together in the same room. We were in awe of just how bad it is out there. We think it's bad here, and then you talk to folks from Ecuador or Peru, who come to the States telling us, "What are you guys complaining about? You don't know the half of it." And so as we really compared notes, the contexts were different but it was appalling just how bad it is for farm workers across the world. That was sobering.

But at the same time, it was tremendously exciting to meet people who give a damn, and who are actually out there in the trenches trying to make a difference. It was a very lively conversation. We did a lot of work just getting to know each other and the different contexts in which we're working and actively looking for ways to collaborate. One of the first things that came to mind for all of us was that we need to educate the world about how bad it is for farm workers and why everyone who eats should care! We've established relationships that have never existed before, and are actively working to build upon those to see what we can do for workers globally.

What do the popular "food movements" of today have to do with farm workers' rights, and how can individual consumers get more involved in supporting change around the world?

Just look at the whole conversation about "sustainability", the Buy Local fad, and that was preceded by the organic fad, and the whole mythology that was erected around those concepts that included somehow that workers were going to be treated better. When the reality is there are local farmers I would never ever in a million years buy something from, and gladly pay a premium to have it flown in 2000 miles because I know workers are treated well. And while workers aren't exposed to as many toxins in organics, there are still toxins in the organic world that are allowed, and organics does nothing on the labor front. So I think we need to make sure that labor is part of the equation.

I've found that people are frequently reluctant to dirty their hands because you're dealing with three very politically charged issues: the sustainability of small farmers, immigration policy, and labor. If you really want to stand with the people who are out there right now in the field, rather than projecting a better future theoretically, find out who's picking your food and how you can stand with them. Boycott Arizona and let your voice be heard that those types of laws are unacceptable. Support immigration reform, so we can provide legal status to the hundreds of thousands of people that put food on our table. And then really be an advocate to help support the people that are here, now, in their struggle to make a better life for themselves.

It is incumbent on us as people who care about food and care about the viability of small farmers, to understand that these realities are the same for hundreds if not millions of people worldwide.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing farm workers?

Two of the biggest issues are a lack of legal status and lack of economic viability. And so you have hundreds of thousands of people that we depend on, that have no vehicle currently to obtain legal status. And they're literally dying to be able to be here legally, but we've offered them no way to do it.

We find labor is still one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flexible cost, rather than a fixed cost. There's not a lot of space in terms of negotiating what you're going to pay for diesel fuel, or what the newest and greatest pesticides are going to cost, but there's a constant search for the cheapest labor. And as a result we continue to see, from our perspective, widespread violations of workers' rights in the fields. So things like 15 workers literally dropping dead in the fields in California, just under the administration of our current governor, due to farmers' failure to provide a shaded rest area and adequate drinking water. On top of that, and depending on who's statistics you're looking at, you add that agriculture has  a 4-7 times higher injury and fatality rate than non-agricultural industries, and you get a sense of just how bad it is out there.

We're not unsympathetic to the economic pressures that US producers are facing. But unfortunately the way that the response has been is for farm workers literally to subsidize the cost of our cheap food with their lives, with their family's well-being, and make this industry a profoundly unsustainable one. Documented or undocumented, the average wage in agriculture is somewhere between $15,000-18,000 a year. That's just not economically sustainable. So we've got to figure out a way that the folks that pick our food can have a true livelihood.

The other issue that I guess we shouldn't beat around the bush is, is race. It's not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of people that work in the fields are people of color. I would put out that if we had a majority of Anglos out there, there would be an absolute outrage if 15 people dropped dead in the fields in California due to heat stress. But there's barely a sound made. So I think we've got some serious obstacles in terms of making sure that literally everybody is at the table in this conversation. We need to raise those sensibilities and the awareness that workers have an important voice - that is the foundation on which any kind of true sustainability in our food production has to be based.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agricultural, labor, or immigration policies?

First of all, we need to break down the national barriers, and recognize that it is a global system, regardless of what we think about it. That is just a reality - people are in boats right now, crossing to the Canary Islands, they're in boats right now, crossing to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Puerto Rico, and crossing the desert as we speak. And so the first thing we need to figure out is how to support those people who, due to primarily economic desperation, are searching for better lives for their families, and minimize the deaths, the debt peonage, the trafficking that's occurring.

We have got to start talking to each other across boundaries. Respect the national differences and the work, and how we do it, but understand for us and Mexico, we're tied at the hip. And so it's incumbent upon us to care about a small Mexican producer who's scrounging up $5000 to pay a recruiter so he can get a H2A guest worker visa, and then he shows up here and is subjected to slave-like conditions. That reality is bi-national, and our work needs to reflect that. So I think that's the first challenge.

The second challenge is to recognize that we have global opportunities as a result of this global system. We could work collaboratively to hold multinational companies accountable and raise the standards for workers and producers in all those countries. Same goes for supermarket chains: There are very few supermarket chains that are only active now in one country. Increasingly, they're active in a multitude of countries. That's an opportunity for us to approach those chains and say hey, it's not okay for you to be sourcing products from workers who are mistreated or held in debt peonage or worse. And to collaborate across borders to hold those supermarket chains accountable.

And then I think the third component is we've got to figure out a way to support these producers so their livelihoods can be sustainable. And that the workers they employ, regardless of the country, also have a sustainable future. Because at the end of the day, we need people to work the fields. And our perspective is it's a very dignified job and one of the most important jobs out there because absent those folks, we don't eat. But we've got to get to a point where at a minimum, those working in the fields need to earn a fair wage, get fair benefits, and have improved working condition. That's a responsibility that we all bear throughout the supply chain from consumers to retailers to farmers, all the way through. If we were to boil it down to economics and immigration, and be able to make changes there, that would revolutionize the industry.

To learn more about innovations in fighting for farm workers' rights and livelihoods, and how consumers can get involved, see Giving Farm Workers a Voice,  New Frontier Farmers and Processor Group: Reviving Farmland and Improving Livelihoods, Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees and Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Shayna Bailey

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Burkina Faso next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

Depending on A Global Workforce

This is the second and third parts in a series of blogs Nourishing the Planet will be writing about workers in the food system. Nourishing the Planet research intern Ronit Ridberg recently spoke with Erik Nicholson, National VP of the United Farm Workers of America. In the first part of this two-part interview, Erik talks about the global agricultural system and the role American consumers play in it. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Erik Nicholson

Affiliation: National Vice President, United Farm Workers of America; International director of the Guest Worker Membership Program. Founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers of America is the nation's first successful and largest farm workers union currently active in 10 states.

Location: Tacoma, Washington

Bio: Erik Nicholson has worked extensively on pesticide issues affecting farm workers and their families as well as child labor, housing, consumer outreach, education and legislative issues. He currently serves as one of two national farm worker representatives to the Environmental Protection Agency's national pesticide advisory committee, the Pesticide Program Dialog Committee.

Nicholson led the two-and-a-half year organizing campaign at the national guest worker labor-contracting firm Global Horizons, resulting in the first national guest worker union contract in the history of the United States. He currently is working to develop an international infrastructure to better advocate on behalf of guest workers.

Can you please contextualize the work you do, in what has become a global system of agriculture?

We are now importing the majority of the food we eat. The overwhelming majority of workers who harvest the food we eat in the United States are not from this country. And many if not most of the workers employed in the fields in the United States are displaced farmers from their own countries (mostly Mexico but not exclusively.)  So we're seeing that many of the same pressures and challenges that are facing farmers in the US are the very same ones that are displacing small farmers in the global South and resulting in them coming in search of employment to the United States, Canada, Australia, and European Union. At the same time, farmers and sometimes their spouses in the US are looking for second jobs in more urban settings.

When Vietnam entered the global market with coffee we saw an unprecedented exodus of coffee farmers out of eastern Mexico. When NAFTA was signed, mass exodus of corn farmers - so we see a direct correlation between these international trade policies and agricultural practices and kind of the global crisis of agriculture that we're facing.

Within that context you look at agriculture in the United States and pretty much anyone born in this country has no aspirations to work in the fields. And I think if we're honest with ourselves, the reason is because we all know the conditions are not good, the pay is pretty bad, and there's really no benefits. As a result we have depended on immigrant workers to come up and do the work that we haven't wanted to do. And so if you look at the history of the United Farm Workers, we've had workers literally from around the world as members - from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Yemen, African Americans and of course, Mexicans, Central Americans, and the internationalization of the work-force continues. We now have workers working under contract from Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, and it's very much become a global workforce that is harvesting the food we eat.

UFW recently hosted an international gathering of farm workers from 14 different countries. Can you share some of your impressions of that gathering?

It was just amazing to have people who are doing the same work we've been doing for fifty years in the United States, together in the same room. We were in awe of just how bad it is out there. We think it's bad here, and then you talk to folks from Ecuador or Peru, who come to the States telling us, "What are you guys complaining about? You don't know the half of it." And so as we really compared notes, the contexts were different but it was appalling just how bad it is for farm workers across the world. That was sobering.

But at the same time, it was tremendously exciting to meet people who give a damn, and who are actually out there in the trenches trying to make a difference. It was a very lively conversation. We did a lot of work just getting to know each other and the different contexts in which we're working and actively looking for ways to collaborate. One of the first things that came to mind for all of us was that we need to educate the world about how bad it is for farm workers and why everyone who eats should care! We've established relationships that have never existed before, and are actively working to build upon those to see what we can do for workers globally.

What do the popular "food movements" of today have to do with farm workers' rights, and how can individual consumers get more involved in supporting change around the world?

Just look at the whole conversation about "sustainability", the Buy Local fad, and that was preceded by the organic fad, and the whole mythology that was erected around those concepts that included somehow that workers were going to be treated better. When the reality is there are local farmers I would never ever in a million years buy something from, and gladly pay a premium to have it flown in 2000 miles because I know workers are treated well. And while workers aren't exposed to as many toxins in organics, there are still toxins in the organic world that are allowed, and organics does nothing on the labor front. So I think we need to make sure that labor is part of the equation.

I've found that people are frequently reluctant to dirty their hands because you're dealing with three very politically charged issues: the sustainability of small farmers, immigration policy, and labor. If you really want to stand with the people who are out there right now in the field, rather than projecting a better future theoretically, find out who's picking your food and how you can stand with them. Boycott Arizona and let your voice be heard that those types of laws are unacceptable. Support immigration reform, so we can provide legal status to the hundreds of thousands of people that put food on our table. And then really be an advocate to help support the people that are here, now, in their struggle to make a better life for themselves.

It is incumbent on us as people who care about food and care about the viability of small farmers, to understand that these realities are the same for hundreds if not millions of people worldwide.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing farm workers?

Two of the biggest issues are a lack of legal status and lack of economic viability. And so you have hundreds of thousands of people that we depend on, that have no vehicle currently to obtain legal status. And they're literally dying to be able to be here legally, but we've offered them no way to do it.

We find labor is still one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flexible cost, rather than a fixed cost. There's not a lot of space in terms of negotiating what you're going to pay for diesel fuel, or what the newest and greatest pesticides are going to cost, but there's a constant search for the cheapest labor. And as a result we continue to see, from our perspective, widespread violations of workers' rights in the fields. So things like 15 workers literally dropping dead in the fields in California, just under the administration of our current governor, due to farmers' failure to provide a shaded rest area and adequate drinking water. On top of that, and depending on who's statistics you're looking at, you add that agriculture has  a 4-7 times higher injury and fatality rate than non-agricultural industries, and you get a sense of just how bad it is out there.

We're not unsympathetic to the economic pressures that US producers are facing. But unfortunately the way that the response has been is for farm workers literally to subsidize the cost of our cheap food with their lives, with their family's well-being, and make this industry a profoundly unsustainable one. Documented or undocumented, the average wage in agriculture is somewhere between $15,000-18,000 a year. That's just not economically sustainable. So we've got to figure out a way that the folks that pick our food can have a true livelihood.

The other issue that I guess we shouldn't beat around the bush is, is race. It's not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of people that work in the fields are people of color. I would put out that if we had a majority of Anglos out there, there would be an absolute outrage if 15 people dropped dead in the fields in California due to heat stress. But there's barely a sound made. So I think we've got some serious obstacles in terms of making sure that literally everybody is at the table in this conversation. We need to raise those sensibilities and the awareness that workers have an important voice - that is the foundation on which any kind of true sustainability in our food production has to be based.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agricultural, labor, or immigration policies?

First of all, we need to break down the national barriers, and recognize that it is a global system, regardless of what we think about it. That is just a reality - people are in boats right now, crossing to the Canary Islands, they're in boats right now, crossing to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Puerto Rico, and crossing the desert as we speak. And so the first thing we need to figure out is how to support those people who, due to primarily economic desperation, are searching for better lives for their families, and minimize the deaths, the debt peonage, the trafficking that's occurring.

We have got to start talking to each other across boundaries. Respect the national differences and the work, and how we do it, but understand for us and Mexico, we're tied at the hip. And so it's incumbent upon us to care about a small Mexican producer who's scrounging up $5000 to pay a recruiter so he can get a H2A guest worker visa, and then he shows up here and is subjected to slave-like conditions. That reality is bi-national, and our work needs to reflect that. So I think that's the first challenge.

The second challenge is to recognize that we have global opportunities as a result of this global system. We could work collaboratively to hold multinational companies accountable and raise the standards for workers and producers in all those countries. Same goes for supermarket chains: There are very few supermarket chains that are only active now in one country. Increasingly, they're active in a multitude of countries. That's an opportunity for us to approach those chains and say hey, it's not okay for you to be sourcing products from workers who are mistreated or held in debt peonage or worse. And to collaborate across borders to hold those supermarket chains accountable.

And then I think the third component is we've got to figure out a way to support these producers so their livelihoods can be sustainable. And that the workers they employ, regardless of the country, also have a sustainable future. Because at the end of the day, we need people to work the fields. And our perspective is it's a very dignified job and one of the most important jobs out there because absent those folks, we don't eat. But we've got to get to a point where at a minimum, those working in the fields need to earn a fair wage, get fair benefits, and have improved working condition. That's a responsibility that we all bear throughout the supply chain from consumers to retailers to farmers, all the way through. If we were to boil it down to economics and immigration, and be able to make changes there, that would revolutionize the industry.

To learn more about innovations in fighting for farm workers' rights and livelihoods, and how consumers can get involved, see Giving Farm Workers a Voice,  New Frontier Farmers and Processor Group: Reviving Farmland and Improving Livelihoods, Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees and Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Shayna Bailey

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Burkina Faso next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

Amid Oil Spill Crisis, U.S. Authorities Search for Undocumented Immigrant Clean Up Workers

From the Restore Fairness blog.

Talk about misplaced priorities. In the midst of a national crisis over the gargantuan BP oil spill that is destroying the water, marine eco-systems, and coastal livelihoods along the Gulf Coast, Federal immigration officials have decided to focus their resources on checking the immigration status of the people that BP has finally employed to begin cleaning up the massive destruction that the oil is causing along the coast.

Check out this amazing exclusive report co-produced by Feet in Two Worlds (English) and El Diario (Spanish)-

Federal immigration officials have been visiting command centers on the Gulf Coast to check the immigration status of response workers hired by BP and its contractors to clean up the immense oil spill.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Louisiana confirmed that its agents had visited two large command centers—which are staging areas for the response efforts and are sealed off to the public—to verify that the workers there were legal residents.

“We visited just to ensure that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems,” said Temple H. Black, a spokesman for ICE in Louisiana.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented, flocked to the region to help in the reconstruction of Louisiana’s coastal towns.  Many stayed, building communities on the outskirts of New Orleans or finding employment outside the city in oil refineries and in the fishing industry.

These Hispanic workers have been accused of taking away jobs from longtime Louisiana residents, and the tension has grown as fishing and tourism jobs dry up, leaving idle workers to compete for jobs on the oil spill clean-up effort.

Black explained that ICE and Border Patrol began to monitor the response efforts shortly after job sites were formed following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began on April 20 and has yet to be contained.

ICE, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, visited two command centers, one in Venice and the other in Hopedale, twice in May. ICE agents arrived at the staging areas without prior notice, rounded up workers, and asked for documentation of their legal status, according to Black.

The command centers, located in the marshes a few hours east of New Orleans, are among the largest, with hundreds of workers employed at each site.

“We don’t normally go and check people’s papers—we’re mostly focused on transnational gangs, predators, drugs. This was a special circumstance because of the oil spill,” said Black.

“We made an initial visit and a follow-up to make sure they were following the rules,” he said.

“These weren’t raids—they were investigations,” he added.

There were no arrests at either site, according to the ICE spokesman. But he said if undocumented workers had been discovered, they “would have been detained on the spot and taken to Orleans Parish Prison.”

BP and one of the companies that holds a large contract in Hopedale, Oil Mop, did not return calls requesting comment. A high-level employee for another contractor in Hopedale, United States Environmental Services, who did not give her name, said, “I just got a phone call. I heard they were visiting.”

St. Bernard Parish, where the Hopedale site is located, assured that the local government had nothing to do with the checks and had no knowledge of them.

The ICE agents who visited the sites reminded subcontractors of immigration laws and their obligation to use programs including E-verify, an electronic system run by the Department of Homeland Security which checks workers’ immigration status.

An Oil Mop subcontractor called Tamara’s Group has hired more than 100 Hispanic workers from the region to work at the Hopedale site. The owner of Tamara’s Group, Martha Mosquera, said that when ICE came in the first week of May, “they gathered them all in the tents and they asked for their papers.”

One of the workers in this group, a 61-year-old Mexican woman named Cruz Stanaland, rememberes ICE’s visit: “They were civilians, they weren’t wearing uniforms and they were driving in cars that didn’t have the Immigration logo…dark cars with tinted glass.”

Another worker from the same group, Etanlisa Hernández, who is 30 and from the Dominican Republic, said, “There were five or six men. They were very polite.”

 

Although Mosquera said her company had no problems because all of her employees were legally employed, some pro-immigrant leaders criticized the government’s quickness to enforce immigration requirements during a crisis.

“It’s like, ‘round everybody up and leave the oil on the beach,’” said Darlene Kattan, Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. “In a catastrophic situation like this, I think we should be more well-reasoned.”

“People are desperate for jobs,” she added, “And they think that if someone looks like an undocumented immigrant they’re taking the food from their mouth.”

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group in Washington DC, said, “the clean-up effort is a gargantuan effort and we have to ensure that the crews are working in a way that protects their health and safety, and that should be the priority.” She added, “if ICE thinks that there are bad apple employers, they should go directly to them instead of harassing clean-up crews that we all know are doing a crucial job.”

Despite the visits by ICE, some undocumented workers have been hired by BP contractors. One fisherman from El Salvador, who didn’t want to reveal his name because he was afraid of being deported, has been laying down boom alongside the marshes for a week.

“You’re always afraid Immigration is coming,” he said.

He explained that although he didn’t feel safe doing the clean-up work, he took the risk because the job pays $360 a day. “I came because I have a wife, and kids, I came to give them a better life. My uncle’s family lent me money to come here. Maybe this will help me pay them back.”

Listen this week to NPR’s Latino USA for Annie Correal’s report on the latest from the Gulf Coast.

Photos courtesy of news.feetintwoworlds.org

Learn. Share. Act. Go to restorefairness.org

 

 

 

Weekly Audit: Protect Consumers, Not Wall Street

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

The economy is still getting worse. Foreclosures are surging above last year's epic highs and the unemployment rate marches upwards every month. As the misery grinds on, Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Congress are pushing hard to distract the public from the real causes of the current global economic crisis. Corporate America is trying to pin the blame for our empty pocketbooks on President Barack Obama and the phantom socialist menace, and cable news pundits are taking the bait.

As David Korten explains in a blog post for Yes!, this surge of distractions is a conscious political strategy designed to sabotage reform. "Wall Street's greatest fear is that the public might demand Congress and the president shut down the casino," Korten writes. "Any issue that shifts attention away from Wall Street and pins the blame for job loss and mortgage foreclosures on President Obama works in its favor."

The banking lobby is kicking and screaming over President Obama's plan to overhaul consumer protection in finance. As a result, the battle over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) has become the most heated economic controversy in the nation's capital, even though the issue isn't controversial where ordinary citizens are concerned.

The existing hodgepodge of bank regulators completely failed to stand up for consumers as the housing bubble grew and burst. Our current bank regulators are charged not only with consumer protection, but safety and soundness regulation, which basically means making sure that banks don't fail. Preventing bank failures often means protecting bank profits, even when those profits come at the expense of communities. Instead of relying on the same inept and conflicted agencies, consumer regulation of credit cards, mortgages, student loans, payday loans should be funneled into a single, new agency with no other priorities: The CFPA.

As Greg Kaufmann details for The Nation, recent economic history isn't stopping Wall Street's favorite lawmakers from pushing against the CFPA. Kaufmann highlights some of the most outrageous comments from a hearing on the CFPA last week. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) claimed that if the CFPA had existed a few years ago, there would be no ATMs or frequent flyer miles. David John, a researcher from the Heritage Foundation, said that employees of the new agency would spend too much time trying to find their new desks to actually do any regulating. Bank lobbyist Ed Yingling tried to erase the last ten years with his claim that "no real case has been made" for better enforcement of consumer protection in banking.

These are not serious arguments. They are intentional distractions designed to kill an obviously productive policy. Kaufmann's headline says it all: "Do They Take us for Schmucks?"

But loudmouth Republicans like Hensarling aren't the only politicians we need to keep tabs on. Plenty of lawmakers on the Financial Services Committee won't stand up and make crazy speeches about ATMs, but will still go to bat for Wall Street behind the scenes. As I emphasize in a piece for AlterNet, with outsized Democratic majorities in both chambers of commerce, conservative, pro-Wall Street Democrats pose just as great a threat to our economic security as loony Republicans.

If you think that sounds pessimistic, consider Ralph Nader, who Matthew Rothschild profiles in The Progressive. Nader knows corporate America has its hands on nearly every lever in the U.S. political system. Lobbyists don't just hurl money at lawmakers, they spend tremendous sums on misleading advertisements to sway public opinion. Rothschild quotes from a recent speech Nader gave on his current book tour. He argues that progressives don't just need concerned citizens on our side. They need concerned citizens with money to counter the flood of corporate cash in the political system.

"There is a poignance in listening to Ralph Nader these days," Rothschild writes. "Here is a man who, for the last 45 years, has hurled his body at the engine of corporate power. He's dented it more than anyone else in America. But he knows it's still chugging, even more strongly than ever."

Even when lawmakers talk tough about Wall Street, it's not obvious what's really going on. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) recently rolled out an extremely ambitious plan to overhaul the bank regulatory system. It has very little common ground with Obama's plan, and in some respects would be an improvement. Obama's plan is very strong on consumer protection and not much else. But Dodd's plan is so ambitious, it seems like a politically impossible waste of time, one that could easily delay reforms into next year. Dodd wants to consolidate all four bank regulators into a single agency to prevent a race to the bottom and strip the Federal Reserve of all of its regulatory responsibilities. They aren't bad ideas, but they have absolutely no political momentum. Dodd has been holding hearings on the financial crisis since 2007-- he could have started pushing for this plan a long time ago. By introducing it so late in the process, major legislative delays seem inevitable. The longer it takes to pass a regulatory bill, the more time the bank lobby has to water it down. Writing for Mother Jones, Nick Baumann suggests this may be exactly what Dodd intends.

"Maybe getting it done by 2010 isn't the point. Dodd is up for reelection that November. If he manages to win by talking populist while raising money from Wall Street, he'll have plenty of time afterward to figure out what to do next."

For now, the economy is still absolutely horrible. Writing for In These Times, David Moberg translates the statistics from the government's most recent unemployment report and deciphers some recent polling on the economy. Things are bad, and people know it. Many economists believe the recession may have technically already ended. The Gross Domestic Product, a statistical measure of the country's economic output, may no longer be declining. But the unemployment rate keeps going up. It was 9.8% at the end of September.

Moberg notes that if the rate counted the long-term unemployed who have given up looking and people who want full-time jobs but settled for part-time work, the unemployment rate is a staggering 17%. Over one-third of the 15.1 million would-be workers encompassed by the 9.8% unemployment rate have been out of a job for at least six months. Voters overwhelmingly believe that government policies have helped Wall Street, while just 13% think the government has given a lot of help to the average working person.

Economics and politics are inextricably linked. To strengthen our economic foundation, we need policymakers who are willing to stand up to corporate America and corporate media and serve the citizens who elect them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Weekly Audit: Cheating Workers and Pampering CEOs

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Low-wage workers are struggling to navigate the current recession. A new study conducted by a team of academics reveals that the majority of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder have been shorted on their paychecks as recently as last week. But the compensation crisis looks very different on Wall Street, where excessive pay tied to risky activities helped set the economy on its crash course. Despite the resulting deep recession, pay for high-level U.S. financiers remains over-the-top, even as low wage workers struggle to navigate the downturn.

The U.S. has made a few gestures toward scaling back executive compensation for banks that it bailed out under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the rules have amounted to little more than window-dressing, according to a paper published last week by the Institute for Policy Studies. The paper's authors, Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati, found that ten of the 20 largest bailout banks have reported stock option compensation for 2009, and the top five executives at those companies have scored a full $90 million so far this year. That's just through stock options. The number gets even more obscene if you include bonuses, salary and other payouts.

As Anderson and Pizzigati explain in a companion piece published in AlterNet, bank executives collected huge bonuses based on the profits from subprime loans during the housing bubble. Since subprime mortgages were more expensive than traditional loans, profits were high--until borrowers stopped being able to pay back their predatory, unaffordable debt. Suddenly the banks were all busted, but the executives had already made a killing.

Katrina vanden Huevel emphasizes in The Nation that the U.S. government doesn't even try to tax this kind of income, much less regulate its connection to risk-taking. Billions of dollars in tax revenue are lost each year as financiers hide payouts in offshore tax havens, while on-the-books income from financial activities are taxed at arbitrarily low rates. Capital gains like stock price increases, for instance, are taxed at just 15%, while income from an ordinary paycheck is taxed at 35% for the wealthiest individuals.

While the U.S. dallies on executive pay, key leaders in Europe are moving to rein in risky compensation practices in the financial sector, as detailed in this video report over at The Real News. President Barack Obama will meet with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders of the G-20 in Pittsburgh later this month, and financial regulatory reform will be at the top of the agenda.

For ordinary workers, there are few positive signs in the current economy. The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen dissects the latest batch of unemployment numbers from the Labor Department. The good news is that the overall pace of layoffs seems to be abating. The bad news? The U.S. still lost a whopping 216,000 jobs in August. And broader measures of workplace woe are even worse. The unemployment rate does not include discouraged workers who have stopped looking for a job, and it doesn't include those who want to work full-time but have to settle for part-time employment. That statistic actually declined slightly in July, giving some economists cause for optimism. But the metric soared again in August, reaching the highest level on record.

And unemployment is not the only problem workers face. Both Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect and Elizabeth Palmberg of Sojourners highlight a New York Times story by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, which details how low-wage workers are routinely cheated by their employers. According to a recent study, a full 68% of these workers report having experienced an illegal workplace abuse in the past week, such as being denied overtime pay or being required to work for less than minimum wage. On average, workers lost 15% of their weekly income as a result of this exploitation.

We have good laws to protect workers, but they just aren't being enforced. Companies have successfully intimidated their employees into not reporting blatantly illegal pay practices. The best way to resolve this situation is to expand unionization and give workers a stronger voice in the workplace, making it safe to speak out against abuses. And the best way to expand unionization is to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, which lowers barriers to creating a union. But the legislative process has been delayed by a smear campaign organized by executives and managers claiming that unions, and not corporate elites, are the actual source of workplace coercion.

"It ought to make your blood boil--especially as people decry union thugs 'intimidating' people into joining unions when that doesn't happen and most workers want to join a union," Fernholz writes.

The U.S. needs to get its economic priorities in order. We should be protecting low-wage workers from executive excess, not the other way around. President Obama will have an opportunity to coordinate that effort globally at the G-20 summit later this month. Let's hope he doesn't squander it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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