May 2015

In this age of instant media and round-the-clock news, many stories seize our attention for a moment and then drop off the radar, leaving us wondering about their outcomes. Even our monthly Lowdown sparks some of you steady readers to ask, “Whatever happened?” with the issues we’ve dug into.

It’s a good question, for our overarching theme–the ongoing democratic struggle by America’s ordinary people against its plutocratic elites–is expressed through stories of grassroots efforts on behalf of fairness, justice, and opportunity for all. This evolving work reveals the cumulative progress (or regression) of democracy itself, making periodic revisits not just interesting, but important.

Accordingly, here’s our first “LowDOWN UPdate.” Tell us what you think at editors@hightowerlowdown.org or 81 San Marcos St., Austin, TX 78702.

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Mountaintop removal

Updated from the Lowdown, November 2005

Mountaintop removal

Removal is a shamefully dishonest euphemism for the devastation caused by this abominable form of coal mining. Avaricious coal corporations blow up the top third of ancient, forested mountains in Appalachia and then bulldoze the rubble of soil, rock, toxic materials, annihilated plants and wildlife off the mountain stumps and into the valleys below, heedlessly burying pristine streams with exploded debris.

By purchasing key lawmakers, judges, and “regulators,” Big Coal has gotten away with this immoral profiteering for almost half a century. But several intrepid, savvy, and well-organized coalitions of local people, churches, scientists, and national advocates have arisen in the past decade to battle the money-grubbing bastards. They’ve carried this fight into Appalachia’s “hollows,” mine sites, and town halls, then into statehouses, the EPA, courts, college campuses, corporate board meetings, and the court of public opinion.

Incrementally, they’ve been winning battles and gaining nationwide support. In 2012, for example, constant public pressure by indefatigable citizen groups compelled Patriot Coal, a major mountaintop decapitator, to negotiate an unconditional surrender. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups sued the coal giant, charging that its mountaintop mining had contaminated West Virginia’s water with toxic selenium. Already hit by the high cost of such mining, Patriot settled the lawsuit, conceding that blowing up mountains was neither financially viable nor environmentally acceptable. Patriot’s CEO agreed to phase out existing mountaintop mines and “never” seek new permits for the pernicious process.

Getting such an agreement from even one coal company was a big morale booster, but this March, the people’s campaign made a breakthrough that altered the entire dynamic of the fight.

The roots of this success go back several years to when Rainforest Action Network and Earth Quaker Action Team helped the mountaintop defenders add a new target: Wall Street. For decades Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and a few other financial barons have quietly supplied the rivers of capital needed for destroying entire mountain ecologies. But it turns out that urbane, well-heeled barons don’t want to be stained publicly by association with this infamously rapacious industry. So, when environmental groups exposed their role, some bankers backed away.

But PNC Financial, a key Wall Street capitalizer wouldn’t budge –until the coalition got inside the bank, and the bankers’ heads. “We showed them evidence, delivered them Appalachian water poisoned by mountaintop removal and brought them face-to-face with residents hurt by this practice,” says a retired teacher who was part of the PNC campaign. “We had to take direct action for them to see the light.” In early March, the bankers blinked: PNC would no longer lend money to explode Appalachian mountains.

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This grassroots rebellion not only cut the bulk of Wall Street financing but made new capital more expensive just as energy markets shifted from coal to natural gas and renewables. Only a decade ago, taking on Big Coal seemed a fool’s errand, and while the fight is not over, a happier ending is in sight. Take heart and stay tuned at ilovemountains.org.

Snowden Speaks

Updated from the Lowdown, February/March 2014

Snowden Speaks

Like an apparition, Edward Snowden keeps reappearing, startling us with new revelations about the National Security Agency’s constant spying on Americans. Even though the our government’s Orwellian spook establishment forced the NSA whistleblower into Russian exile two years ago, his whistle keeps blowing. The trove of digital documentation of the deeply intrusive and unconstitutional domestic surveillance programs flows like an espionage Horror-of-the-Week Club.

In March, a doozie pounded the NSA’s already-shattered reputation. You might recall that Obama assured the public back in 2013 that we need not worry about massive phone- and internet-monitoring programs that Snowden had exposed. It’s okay, Obama rushed to tell us, the computers are only collecting metadata: “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. [They’re merely] looking at phone numbers and duration of calls,” not “people’s names” or “content,” he promised.

He fibbed. As analysts dug deeper into Snowden’s mine of snooping secrets, they found that these programs were the siblings of another immense network of NSA programs called Upstream. In early March, Wikipedia sued NSA, charging pervasive invasions of our privacy rights by Upstream surveillance, which does indeed grab, record, search, listen to, and store the content of phone and email communications of US citizens who’re not suspected of any illegal activity. That’s a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Whatever you think of Snowden, his cyber-stash of official documents provides information and insights that We the People ought to have. Moreover, we should be discussing the fundamental questions they raise about secret government and demanding answers from authorities who spy and lie. Keep tabs at www.aclu.org.

Encouraging that civic discourse is what prompted Snowden’s surprise appearance in Brooklyn. (Well, not in person.) Before dawn on April 6, an anonymous group of Snowden admirers surreptitiously installed a 100-pound, four-foot-high bust of Ed and placed it atop a column among Fort Greene Park’s other heroic monuments.

Ed’s appearance that day was brief. Park workers were quickly dispatched to shroud the bust, take the plaster Snowden into custody, and incarcerate it in an undisclosed city facility.

But the next morning, Ed was back! Early on April 7, the Illuminators, another group of guerilla artists who came out of Occupy Wall Street, projected a hologram of the bust onto a cloud of ash they created at the spot where the statue had been. The 3-D image hovered for about 20 minutes, long enough to be seen, photographed, and make a point. “We wanted to further the discussion,” said the 29-year-old originator of the ephemeral Snowden.

The fast food revolt

Update from the Lowdown, November 2013

The fast food revolt

For more than two years, thousands of poorly paid workers have been on a roll, literally. In dozens of US cities, they have audaciously mounted a rolling series of strikes against such mingy chains as McDonald’s. Then, on April 1, big news: McDonald’s, the world’s largest burger behemoth, announced that, at last, it would raise the poverty pay of its 90,000 U.S. restaurant employees. Mass media declared a triumph for low-wage workers. USA Today even cited it as evidence of corporations’ eagerness “to do the right thing.”

But Big Mac’s big pledge is actually small potatoes. The chain will phase in a pay hike of only $1 above the prevailing local minimum wage. That’ll average under $10 an hour, still poverty pay. Thus, even full-time workers will remain dependent on food stamps and other public programs to subsidize the labor costs of this $27.5-billion-a-year giant.

In fact, the 90,000 affected workers are only those who work in restaurants the company owns and directly manages. The vast majority of McDonalds workers–the 750,000 who toil in its franchised outlets–are coldly excluded. The company was not even generous enough to acknowledge that its own workers, who joined the fast-food protests, had gotten management’s attention and sparked the lift in pay: “We’re too big and complicated a system to do anything in reaction to a particular group,” sniffed Karen King, a corporate vice president with the odd title “chief people officer.” She added, snappishly, “We are and will be a modern, progressive burger restaurant.”

Not even close. You’re a pathetic fraud.

Not fooled, workers are still demanding $15 an hour. McDonald’s insulting ploy re-energized their rolling protest and provided a fresh chant: “Hey McDonald’s!/Let’s be blunt/This is just a PR stunt.” Keep up at www.FightFor15.org.

Kicking out the Kochs

Updated from the Lowdown, February 2010

Kicking out the Kochs

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Known for buying elections, lawmakers, laws, governors, academics, and universities, the billionaire Koch boys now want a precious asset that’s always been beyond their reach: public respectability. As of 2013, David Koch had donated $23 million to PBS, and you can see one of the purchases by tuning-in to Nova, the weekly PBS series that purports to be a serious program of science education. How serious can it be, though, when each edition opens and closes with the ludicrous announcement that it is sponsored by America’s most notorious and self-serving science denier? David and brother Charles have spent untold millions to fund front groups, campaigns, hokey “studies,” videos, and other means of distorting, discrediting, dissembling, or otherwise denying the legitimacy of science–from human-caused climate change to the dangers of pipelines–that conflicts with Koch Industries’ profits.

But Nova is not even the Koch boys’ most prestigious science bauble. David’s donations to science museums have been rewarded with seats on the boards of the American Museum of Natural History (he gave it $20 million) and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (he’s bestowed $50 million, including the largest single gift in the museum’s history). Apparently, the eminences of the Smithsonian were so impressed by his scientific credentials that they installed the “David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins” in its DC complex. These acquisitions supply the Kochs a veneer of credibility, and the board seats give them a say on the museums’ educational content. Good for the two billionaires, but bad for the institutions, the public, and science. More than tawdry, this “corporate philanthropy” is corrupt.

Now the good news: Outraged scientists, museum members and staffers, grassroots environmental groups, educators, and others are teaming up to stop the Kochs and other fossil-fuel donors from using their greenbacks to greenwash their faux science in our public museums. In March, an activist museum–highlighting the social, political, and financial forces shaping and (misshaping) nature–launched a campaign to rally scientists and the public to demand that museum officials “cut all ties” with corporate compromisers of scientific integrity. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others are circulating a petition to “Kick Koch” off museum board seats he bought (www.KickKochOffTheBoard.com).

Adjuncts advance

Updated from the Lowdown, April 2014

Adjuncts advance

The grubby little secret of today’s ivory tower is that the entire structure is propped up by a growing, exploited underclass. Called “adjuncts,” they comprise an astonishing 75 percent of America’s higher education faculty. Highly capable, top-rated, fully accredited professors–most with PhDs–struggle in temporary, part-time, low-paid teaching jobs with no security, benefits, or even offices. And, of course, there are usually no unions to give them a say in campus policies.

In the past few years, however, unionization drives among adjuncts have been gaining strength from coast to coast, despite ferocious opposition from aloof, richly paid college administrators. Two especially galling anti-union ploys by private schools have been 1) the claim that adjuncts are managers and therefore ineligible to form a union, and 2) the insistence by most church-affiliated universities that the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause exempts them from collective bargaining laws.

At last, though, these boneheaded campus executives have been struck by a bolt of enlightenment hurled by the National Labor Relations Board. In a December ruling on a case from Pacific Lutheran University, the NLRB refuted both those bogus claims. First, it noted the obvious: Adjuncts are managers only if they manage something–academic programs, enrollment, finances, personnel, etc. However, adjunct faculty members are, by definition, “contingent employees” with zero control over their own jobs and no voice in campus-wide decisions.

Second, the NLRB declared that a church-backed school can use religion as a shield against adjunct unionization only if the faculty’s role is to teach religion. One Pacific Lutheran teacher, Dr. Jane Harty, told the New York Times she performs a religious function “in my parish church, [but] there’s nothing religious about our jobs here.”

The corporatized bosses of these colleges, undeterred by logic or decency, will try to get Congress and/or the Supreme Court to over-rule the NLRB. Still, the agency’s findings set a new, sensible way to frame the debate on the exploitation of our workers. It’s an advance for both adjuncts and the overall fight for fairness. www.NewFacultyMajority.org, www.FutureOfHigherEd.org.

A net good

Updated from the Lowdown, June 2014

A net good

Once in a great while, I see a front-page headline that makes me feel good all over, such as this one on February 25: “GOP Concedes Fight to Obama on Internet Rule.” Though “net neutrality” seems arcane, this move heralded a huge, progressive victory over corporate greed and Republican servility to corporate power. It was achieved by millions of everyday people from Everyplace USA who spontaneously rose up as democracy fighters to save the Internet as an essential communications tool available to all on equal terms.

Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner, and a handful of other profiteering providers made an all-out political and lobbying push to become the robber barons of the World Wide Web. They intended to allow only the biggest and wealthiest interests to enter privileged superfast information lines.

To their dismay, however, an unprecedented hailstorm of “No, Never, Not Fair, Hell No,” propelled by a storm of grassroots energy, blew into Washington, and last November, having felt the public fury, Obama came out for equal access to the Internet as a democratic concept. This February, Senate Republicans rushed to override the FCC before it could act, but–KABLAM!–thunderbolts from the countryside exploded all over Congress, and the GOP had to back away. The open democratic Internet was saved by what New York Times called “a swarm of small players.” Go swarm!

As soon as the new rules were published, a trade group representing the phone behemoths filed suit to block them, so the fight isn’t over yet. Keep up with the latest developments–and support efforts to “defend the win”–at FreePress.net.

Make mine a Willie

Updated from the Lowdown, May 1999

 

With marijuana prohibition finally broken in states and cities across the land–and with full legalization/ commercialization approved in Alaska, Colorado and Washington State–who better than our friend Willie Nelson to lead the way for weed quality and social responsibility?

Willie has announced that he will market his own brand, Willie’s Reserve, and open a group of stores selling top-quality pot and paraphernalia. The tireless champion of small farmers, civil liberties, the environment, common sense, and the common good plans to start rolling out his stores and products (including hemp goods) this year in Colorado and Washington and will expand further as state regulation allows. In the typical Willie way, the stores will be “the anti-Walmart model,” with a core purpose to help expand the market for small, energy-efficient, environmentally sound growers.

In the May 1999 issue of the Lowdown (the fourth issue of our first year), we cited Willie’s work and called for legalization and restoration of hemp farming in America. We’ve since called repeatedly for an end to the Orwellian, Kafkaesque drug war that has criminalized the cannabis equivalent of cocktail hour–750,000 people are arrested each year for marijuana-related offenses. And now, we salute the innumerable grassroots activists who’ve steadily pushed America from the darkness of marijuana madness to being able to light up a Willie without getting busted. Find out more at Marijuana Policy Project (mpp.org), NORML (norml.org) and the Drug Policy Alliance (drugpolicy.org).

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