Tenant rights and labor rights
I read the letters from local organizer Jordana Sardo and independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader (October Alliance, 2008) with interest. While third parties may well be needed in the United States, I’m not sure that the Freedom Socialist Party (Jordana’s group) or the Nader campaign, in 2008, adequately addressed local/global organizing issues. Moreover, I’m not sure either letter addresses class or race issues in a globalized economy that sees Wall Street bailing out AIG and the yuppies, but tells workers and tenants to take a hike.
In Portland, in terms of tenant rights and housing, the 2008 campaign failed to address the needs of tenants, in general.
At Portland State, organizers have been focusing one of our campaigns on habitability and livability vis-a-vis the biggest nonprofit landlord in downtown Portland, Central City Concern (CCC). CCC has a $33,000,000 annual budget, 400 workers, and 23 buildings. However, pest control and management accountability are not being addressed by CCC at all.
Tenants have asked, for years, to be able to attend board meetings of the nonprofit CCC, but CCC has always said no, or requested written notices of what tenants want to talk about at the board meetings. Despite providing such written requests, tenants still, as of November, 2008, have yet to be “put on the board’s agenda.”
One nine-year Biltmore tenant, Dennis, reports that because of the roach infestation in the building, one of his friends (with some Middle-class women cohorts of Biltmore renters will make one trip to the building, and vow never to return. CCC, two years ago, according to tenants, had $130,000 budgeted to seal the floorboards as a solution to the cockroach infestation, but those funds were diverted and spent elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in the community, downtown businesses and Portland City Council worship the ground CCC walks on because fewer pandhandlers, or other low-income denizens of downtown, are visible on the streets. However, the lack of pest control management and accountability to tenants would seem to violate Oregon Landlord Tenant Law’s habitability statutes, Multnomah County health regulations, federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) sanitation regulations (the Biltmore building is subsidized by HUD via Housing Authority of Portland), and seems to violate the Housing Authority’s own mission to provide decent housing (even for tenants who have never lived in Eastmoreland or Lake Oswego).
Moreover, CCC has been represented this fall before BOLI (Bureau of Oregon Labor and Industries) by Schwabe Williamson, corporate lawyers on the 17th floor of the PacWest Center, trying to abridge the “prevailing wage” rules of CCC union workers on the proposed Ramada/Rose Quarter remodel construction project. I personally attended a 3-hour hearing at BOLI, where two BOLI attorneys, a DOJ attorney, and Administrative Law Judge Lohr, again and again, cautioned the CCC/Schwabe attorney that BOLI had already ruled that CCC was required to pay “prevailing wages” to their workers, and CCC/Schwabe continued to argue that they should be “exempted” and allowed to pay workers less.
It would seem CCC is trashing, or at least, de-valuing, both their own tenants and their own workers.
Consequences of Coke
A second project that PSU Progressive Student Union is working on this fall, is to demand that Portland State kick Coke-Odwalla off campus, in support of the Coke Boycott for human rights and labor rights in Colombia, and for human rights in Darfur. New PSU university president Wim Wievel has been contacted, and asked to kick Coke-Odwalla out of the Smith Center student store. Wievel used to work at the University of Illinois, one of several U.S. colleges where Coke has already been kicked off campus. NYU, Rutgers, DePaul, Smith, and Bryn Mawr are other colleges that have nuked their college Coke contracts, in support of the boycott.
Targeted products of the Coke boycott include: Coke, Odwalla, Glaceau, PowerAde, Minute Maid, Dasani, Tab, Sprite, Fanta, Fresca, Mr. Pibb and Mello Yello.
Coke, like Chiquita/United Fruit, in Colombia, for years has used paramilitaries to harass, intimidate and kill union organizers. In Coke’s case, Isidro Gil, a SINALTRAINAL (Colombian food and beverage worker union) organizer was killed inside the Coke plant, and four years later, Alcira Perez, Isidro’s widow, was set to testify in the court case against Coke when she was taken out of her house and killed by Coke’s paramilitaries, as well. When student activists asked former PSU president Dan Bernstine (who made $350,000 per year at PSU) to kick Coke off campus, Bernstine (a lawyer) dismissed such stories as “anecdotal.”
Darfur activist Mia Farrow has asked Western consumers to switch from Coke to Pepsi, in that Coke (like McDonalds) was one of the corporate sponsors of the recent Beijing Olympics. Some Darfur activists have targeted China as the key international player most responsible for enabling the Sudanese government’s violence against Darfur, through PetroChina’s oil contracts with Khartoum. However, and perhaps more importantly, Coke has been fined several times for continuing to operate their $150,000,000 plant in Sudan, in violation of the sanctions movement against Sudan over Darfur.
John Ukec Lueth, the Sudanese Ambassador to the United States, hoisting a Coke can, told reporters that, “If the West tries to target Sudan over Darfur, we will cut off the world’s soft drink supply.” Ninety percent of the world’s gum arabic (used in soft drinks) is made in one country: Sudan.
In terms of the 2008 elections, neither the Radical Women/Freedom Socialist Party, Ralph Nader, or the Republicans or Democrats specifically talked about Colombia (although we know from working with Jordana and Radical Women in the past that they are, by far, more likely to support such efforts). However, we did note that in the presidential debate between McCain and Obama, when Obama talked about the violence against labor and unions in Colombia, McCain gave one of his patented facial tic expressions and denounced Obama for “never having been south of the border and not understanding free trade.” As with a myriad of other Left domestic and global issues, we think that Obama is far more likely (as the new “Nelson Mandela” or symbol of hope, globally) than McCain was, to take action for tenants and the poor at home, and on behalf of workers and labor (at home or abroad).
To be fair to both Sardo and Nader, however, it appears, so far, that neither Obama nor McCain (or their duopoly) is about to reverse globalization and start advocating for workers and the poor, or the 3 billion people on the planet who live on $2 per day. Both parties seem to be perfectly happy bailing out Wall Street and Detroit (or rather, bailing out Grosse Point, Michigan, since Detroit is the poorest city in America), but letting tenants and workers alike continue to be downsized. A viable third party (like that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, for example) may indeed be needed in the United States to reverse this trend.
No matter how much some political novices are currently trying to equate Obama with Nelson Mandela as “the hope of a new, post-racial world,” the fact remains that in South Africa today, globalization and neoliberalism are attacking jobs and housing (not to mention AIDS) for the poor majority of people now living in a “democratic” post-apartheid South Africa. Obama may herald a “new day” in terms of racial progress in the United States, but the fact remains that, as of today, there are now zero African-Americans in the U.S. Senate, and, to be in the U.S. Senate at all (without real campaign finance reform, like Europe has, with free TV access for all candidates) -- you really need to be a millionaire.
Organizing locally for tenant rights and labor rights is one way to work toward both moving Obama to the Left, and assemble building blocks for a viable third party to the Left of the corporate Democrats.
Lew Church, Coordinator
PSU Progressive Student Union