IPS Blog

Berta Cáceres Lives On, And So Does Violence By Honduran Government and Dam Company


(Photo: Flickr /
Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos)

Fifteen hundred people from at least 22 countries convened in Honduras from April 13-15, 2016 for the “Peoples of ¡Berta Vive!” International Gathering. They came to honor slain global movement leader Berta Cáceres and to commit themselves to keeping her legacy alive.

Members of the international gathering also experienced the violence of the Honduran government and Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. – DESA, the foreign-backed company illegally constructing a dam on the indigenous ancestral Gualcarque River – which shadowed Berta throughout her final years and ended her life this past March 2.

Berta Cáceres’ “Emancipatory Vision”

The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the group Berta founded in 1993 and ran until her assassination, and two other Honduran organizations hosted the gathering. The final declaration gave the context of the meeting.

In this land which has struggled for more than 500 years, with the sound of the free-running rivers, the strength of the mountains, the neighborhoods and communities; with the fury and tenderness of the beings of nature; with the spirit of the ancestors, and the hope and pain of men, children, and women [who are] all people of Berta… We are convened here for her memory and her rebellious life.

The forum combined presentations by COPINH leaders and members of Berta’s family; workshops on extraction and its prerequisite, militarization, on human rights, and on women’s power; a cultural presentation by the Afro-indigenous Garifuna; a videotaped message from Gustavo Castro Soto, Berta’s Mexican counterpart in environmental defense and the sole witness to her murder; and much more. A march through the capital of Tegucigalpa was loud, long, and invigorated.

The overarching message of the gathering was two-fold justice for Berta. This includes, first, the fair investigation and prosecution of Berta’s killers, both intellectual authors and paid hitmen. (Toward this end, COPINH and Berta’s family are requesting that the Honduran government allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights actively contribute to the legal process.) Second, justice for Berta means the fulfillment of what she lived and died for. In the short term, this is the cancellation of the dam project on the Gualcarque River. In the longer term, it means a liberatory transformation toward a human- and earth-centered economics, politics, and society in Honduras and around the world.

The Declaration of the International Peoples of “Berta Vive” characterized her contribution toward that transformation as her:

…ethics and practice… and her commitment to the peoples of the world. Her proposal for life was sustained by the radicality and honesty of her words; the profundity of her decolonized thoughts; her profound knowledge and great confidence in people who struggle; and the international horizon of her emancipatory vision.

Assault by Machetes and Rocks

The third day of the gathering, March 15, consisted of a procession to the Gualcarque River. Numerous busloads of farmers, environmentalists, anarchists, human rights observers, children, and others from throughout the Americas and Europe, including many Hondurans, traveled to the village of San Ramón, municipality of San Francisco Ojuera. This villages abuts the river from the north side, from which DESA is now constructing the dam. The internationally financed company moved operations after protests by the COPINH community of Rio Blanco, on the south side of the river, forced construction to a standstill.

During five years of dam-building operations in Rio Blanco, five people have been killed and four have been injured by DESA’s hired guns. Despite this non-prosecuted violence, DESA could not quash the opposition from the highly organized community. The dam construction is in violation of both the Honduran constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which grants free, prior, and informed consent before development or extraction may occur on indigenous lands.

San Francisco Ojuera, alternatively, is composed of campesinos/as who are not organized through COPINH. They do not identify as indigenous, and have not chosen to resist.

This past Friday, after having been arbitrarily stopped by police twice, and passing several phalanxes of soldiers in anti-riot gear, the caravan of vehicles parked and the crowd began the 45-or-so minute walk to the river. As the crowd approached a bend in the road, 20 or so goons – protected by about an equal number of Honduran national police – shook their machetes in the air. Some held rifles, sticks, and rocks. They voiced vicious statements about Black people and COPINH.

Among the group were individuals who had several times threatened Berta and other members of COPINH with death, according to a communique of April 16, 2016 by COPINH and the other conference organizers. The men and a few women called out that the “fly” had been killed, though she left behind a “plague.”

This was reminiscent of an attempted visit to the river by about 100 COPINH members, including Berta, on March 20. Then, police, soldiers, anti-riot special forces called the Tigres (created and funded by the US), and armed men in civilian clothes blocked their route and assaulted them.

According to testimony given to COPINH by contracted criminals, DESA pays 200 lempiras, or US$8.87, for a day’s work of violence and harassment of dam opponents. On this recent march, a well-known red truck belonging to DESA was parked next to police cars along the road to the river.

The hundreds of Honduran and international delegates continued down to the dam-threatened Gualcarque River despite the threat. There, some swam and others participated in a ceremony, led by Guatemalan Mayans, for Berta’s spirit and strength and for protection of the new COPINH leaders. Some of the armed men followed, filming the faces of delegation members.

As the visitors began to return from the river valley in late afternoon, the operatives became even more wild, lunging and screaming and thrusting their machetes. The police, who had been standing in front of the group to protect them,  now moved aside to let them loose. The men, some of whom were clearly drunk, began throwing rocks at delegation members’ heads, using their fists to beat others, and throwing still others on the ground and kicking them. One assailant slashed a delegation member’s wrist with his machete. Two men, within moments of each other, drew their machetes sharply to the top of the head of this writer, but halted inches above their target. Another attacker tried to slash his machete down on the arm of a Spanish activist, but one of the COPINH team was able to wrest the machete away.

Human rights reporters, after subsequent investigation, put the number of those wounded at 8 or 10. Throughout it all, COPINH members remained completely nonviolent and called for calm.

The policemen stood by all this while, doing nothing to stop the attacks. Then at a certain point, they began aggressively trying to push all those who had returned from the river back down the road to the buses.

However, many refused to leave because a group of delegation members still remained at the river. This included Tomas García, Berta’s successor as COPINH coordinator, whom the goons had been shouting that they wanted to attack. Dusk was approaching.

After some negotiation with caravan members, the police agreed to go collect the remainder at the river in their truck. They refused, though, to allow representatives of the delegation to ride along with them. This would have left the same police who had threatened and arrested Tomas in the past to have free access to him and other COPINH members. Pressure from the visitors finally prevailed, and they were allowed to ride along in the trucks. Everyone was shuttled up to the village safely.

There the safety ended. The police then actively joined the paid attackers. They shoved people and pointed their rifles at them, shouted and cursed them. On foot and in their trucks, policemen pushed the delegation down the road, driving so closely as to almost hit some of the retreating group.

Adelante, Forward

A favorite expression of Berta’s was, “They fear us because we are fearless.” COPINH is not retreating in the face of this or countless earlier attacks.

The final declaration of the international gathering reflects this spirit. It says:

To all the peoples, men and women, we invite you with energy and ethical unity to strengthen the struggle. We will never give up hope. We will live toward a future of utopia with justice, liberty, and autonomy… on this land.

New Climate Action Plan, Same Old Results?

climate-funding-world-bankThe World Bank’s recently released Climate Action Plan reiterates the risk of climate change to development gains, and adds another document to a long list of cleaner energy strategies published by the Bank since the turn of the century. But will the global development institution’s rhetoric be matched by action this time?

Last fall, the Institute for Policy Studies and Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab reviewed the Bank’s major plans for tackling climate change released since 2000 and surveyed its energy sector financing through the branches specifically targeting poverty reduction.

In comparing energy funding from 2000 to 2004 and 2010 to 2014, we found some good news. The number of new renewable energy (geothermal, wind, solar, small and run of river hydro-power) and demand-side energy efficiency projects is on the path to reaching parity with fossil fuel projects and lending to new renewables increased almost five-fold.

That achievement was somewhat marred by the fact that, despite evidence of their negative environmental and social impacts, financing for large hydroelectric projects has enjoyed a renaissance at the Bank, growing more than 10-fold, from $373 million to $4.3 billion between the two periods.

But the really bad news was that financing for oil, coal, and gas grew almost four-fold in that time frame. The World Bank was still providing more than 1.5 times the funding for fossil fuel projects as for renewable energy projects. That number doesn’t even include dirty energy lending through the Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.

The new climate plan commits the World Bank to linking nearly 30 percent of its total portfolio –financing in all sectors, through all four arms – to climate in the next five years. But climate change affects 100 percent of the world’s population, and the poorest are hit by its impacts first and worst. In a world where the consequences of climate change are being experienced more rapidly than predicted, shouldn’t the other 70 percent of the Bank’s lending address climate change, too?

If the World Bank is serious about putting its money where its mouth is, it must immediately end coal financing, quickly phase out oil investment, and reassess its approach to financing natural gas expansion infrastructure – even those improving the efficiency of fossil fuel facilities. To do this, the Bank must make specific commitments to reduce absolute fossil fuel financing within specific timelines, and devote more resources to renewable energy development.

Across Racial Justice Issues, a Common Enemy

(Photo: Domenica Ghanem)

(Photo: Domenica Ghanem)

It’s an odd thing to watch your boss, fist in the air, being led away by police to be booked for “crowding, obstructing, and incommoding” as a crowd of supporters cheers him on.

The April 13 agenda for Democracy Spring was racial justice, and as I found myself surrounded by many different organizations and individuals, I started to think that this could be a defining moment for cross-issue collaboration.

The movement to combat police brutality and hold murderers accountable can ally with the movement for a living wage. The movement to battle voter suppression should support the movement to end mass incarceration. The fight of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United should include the fight of Black Lives Matter.

“The Democracy Spring demonstration recognizes a common problem amongst those working for racial justice – money in politics,” Jessica Wynter Martin of ROC told me. “The reason that we [ROC United] have to fight so fiercely for a fair wage is because of hugely funded lobbying campaigns that keep our legislators from representing the rights of restaurant workers.”

The majority of restaurant workers are people of color, and the lowest paid are women of color. Groups like the National Restaurant Association flood Congress with money every year to keep the minimum tipped wage at just $2.13 an hour.

Just as the racial justice movement has multiple layers, “Protesting at the capitol is just one step in a multi-tiered approach to fighting money in politics,” Wynter Martin said.

While dozens were arrested at the demonstration on Wednesday and hundreds more the days prior, not everyone who marched on Capitol Hill could afford to risk arrest.

Some people of color avoided as much interaction with police as possible, for the very real fear of violence, or as we’ve seen too many times, death. Some of those who stood further back were immigrants, fearing deportation even if they had the proper documentation. I kept to the side myself, a Muslim woman with my own concerns about having my name in the system.

“The important thing is that we’re burdening them just by being here. They have to hire all of these police, all of this security,” Wynter Martin said. “We’re taxing them like they’re taxing us.”

Four Common Tax Confusions

(Photo: Gillette Blog)

(Photo: Gillette Blog)

Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society. It’s that time of year when we talk about taxes with our friends, neighbors, and family. But there are a lot of misconceptions out there, and our biggest tax problem — that the very wealthy and our largest corporations have reduced their taxes, shifting obligations onto everyone else — often gets obscured. Facts don’t always work to change people’s minds, but sometimes they break through. Try these.

  1. “The Rich Are Paying More and More Taxes”

Wrong. Wealthy individuals today pay about half of what they paid in taxes a generation ago. Top tax rates have fallen from over 90 percent in the 1950s to under 40 percent for the last decade. As a result, the wealthiest 0.1 percent – the top one in a thousand households – used to pay an average effective rate of 60 percent. Today they pay between 25 and 30 percent of their income in federal taxes.

See for yourself: For a history of tax rates and revenue, see the IRS Historical Tables, IRS data on top income tax rates, the Joint Committee on taxation report on income tax rates, or this report from the National Taxpayer Union

  1. “Those Corporations Are Forced Overseas by High U.S. Corporate Income Taxes!”

Some people have heard about the Panama Papers and corporate tax dodging and go “ho hum” because they believe corporations move offshore because “U.S. corporate taxes are the highest in the world!”

The statutory U.S. corporate income tax rate does stand at 35 percent, but the actual annual effective rate corporations pay runs about 27.1 percent, a rate lower than the OECD average for industrialized countries. Some large corporations, using offshore tax havens and aggressive tax avoidance techniques, have gamed their taxes down considerably below that 27.1 percent figure.

The largest 288 profitable corporations among the Fortune 500 paid an average effective federal tax rate of 19.4 percent between 2008 and 2012. General Electric, Boeing, Verizon, and 23 other profitable Fortune 500 firms paid no federal income taxes between 2008 and 2012.

See for yourself: Read “The Sorry State of Corporate Taxes: What Fortune 500 Firms Pay (or Don’t Pay) in the USA and What they Pay Abroad – 2008 to 2012.” by Citizens for Tax Justice. Also check out “International Corporate Tax Rate Comparisons and Policy Implications” by Congressional Research Service.

  1. “Don’t Corporations Pay a Big Share of U.S. Taxes”

It’s the opposite. Corporations used to pay a more significant share of the national budget. In 1952, corporations paid 32.1 percent of federal income. By 2013, corporate taxation paid 9.9 percent of federal income.

See For Yourself: Check out the IRS historical data.

  1. “We Need Tax Cuts to Stimulate the Economy”

Actually, we need public investment to stimulate the economy. The rich and large corporations used to pay more — and we used that money to do great things. Between the 1950s and 1970s, we built an interstate highway system and a first-class infrastructure. This stimulated our economy and created millions of good jobs. We sent millions of people to college debt-free and provided first-time homebuyer loans at low interest rates that built a (white) middle class after World War II. When people complain there is no money for these things, we just have to look at our own history and priorities.

See for yourself: “Corporate Tax rates and economic growth” by the Economic Policy Institute.

Hundreds of People Are Getting Arrested For Democracy This Week

john-cavanagh-roc-dem-spring (2)

IPS Director John Cavanagh and ROC-United’s Co-Director Fekkak Mamdouh marching on Capitol Hill at Democracy Spring. April 13, 2016. (Photo: Eric VanDreason)

“We couldn’t sit at home any longer watching democracy being undermined, so we hopped in the car and drove here from Pennsylvania,” said a mom with her two high school kids from Pennsylvania.

“I had to be part of this,” said a young pharmacist from Alabama who had driven 10 and a half hours to get arrested on the steps of the Capitol building.

“They are stealing our democracy,” said a young Indian-American woman who had driven in with her husband from Columbus, Ohio, also to face arrest.

“I’m scared to get arrested,” said a young woman who had left her boyfriend, her cats and her dogs back in Pennslyvania, “but I had to speak up for those who are being left behind.”
These and hundreds of other people I joined with several Institute for Policy Studies colleagues in a training, a rally, a march, and arrests on the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday were participating in their first direct actions as part of the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening protests that are drawing thousands of people to Washington, DC between April 11 and April 18.

Read the full article on the Nation’s website.

Iraq’s Artifacts Have Become Refugees, Too


Tell Harmal lion, by Michael Rakowitz

In the initial aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, looters swept through the National Museum in Baghdad and carted off 15,000 items of incalculable value. Some of these items were destroyed in the attempt to spirit them away. Some disappeared into the vortex of the underground art market. Only half of the items were eventually recovered.

In February 2015, after a dozen years in limbo, Iraq’s National Museum reopened. But it was a bittersweet reopening, and not only because of the thousands of missing treasures. That February, Islamic State (ISIS or IS) militants recorded themselves smashing priceless objects in the central museum in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that IS had occupied since June 2014. U.S. troops had largely left the country, and Washington had declared the war over. But the destruction of Iraq—its heritage and its people—was still ongoing.

Michael Rakowitz is involved in a massive reclamation project. Since 2007, in a project called The invisible enemy should not exist, the Iraqi American artist has been recreating the lost treasures of Iraq. He and his studio assistants locate the description of the objects, along with their dimensions and sometimes a photograph, on the Interpol or Oriental Institute of Chicago websites, which have been set up to deter antiquity dealers from buying looted artifacts. Then they set to work.

“To date, we’ve reconstructed 500 of the 8,000 objects,” Rakowitz says. “It’s potentially a project that will outlive me and my studio.” In addition to the objects looted from the National Museum, they’ve begun to reconstruct pieces that IS has destroyed in Mosul, Nineva, and Nimrod.

Rakowitz recently gave me a tour of an exhibit of these reconstructed objects at the George Mason University School of Art, which was part of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here Project. The largest piece on display is a brightly colored lion that stands about three feet tall.

“The Tell Harmal lion was destroyed,” Rakowitz says of the lion that once stood in the main temple of the Babylonian city of Shaduppum (today known as Tell Harmal) over 3,500 years ago. “Looters tried to take the head off the lion, and not knowing how fragile the terra cotta was, the entire head shattered beyond repair. We don’t just reconstruct the head but the entire lion: to give the viewer a sense of what that lion’s ghost might look like.”

The lion destroyed in Baghdad in 2003 was various shades of grey and white. But the reconstructed lion has a yellow torso and blue jaws. The difference in coloring is a function of the materials used for the reconstruction. “The artifacts are reconstructed out of the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs and the Arabic-English newspapers available in the US where there are Arab communities,” Rakowitz explains.

The artist got the idea of using such materials during another of his art projects, the reopening the import-export business in Brooklyn that his grandfather established when he moved to the United States from Iraq in the late 1940s. This art project also involved an attempt to import Iraqi dates as a test case for the lifting of sanctions against the country.

In the process, Rakowitz discovered that packages of date cookies, for instance, rarely indicated the provenance of the fruit, often listing the ingredient as coming from countries that don’t even grow dates for commercial purposes. The sanctions had effectively rendered Iraq invisible. Later, for his tribute to the National Museum artifacts, Rakowitz wanted “to enlist these fragments of cultural visibility to construct what are now for all intents and purposes invisible objects.”

Curator in Exile

The person most responsible for retrieving so many of the pilfered objects from the National Museum was the former director, Donny George Youkhanna. Having participated in many of the excavations that uncovered these objects in the first place, Youkhanna felt a deep connection to the museum’s inventory.

After receiving a bullet in the mail that clearly suggested that he was in the crosshairs of militants, Youkhanna went into exile. He left for Syria, where he spent six months, and then accepted an offer from SUNY Binghamton to join its anthropology department.

During the creation of his project, Rakowitz formed a close friendship with Youkhanna and was touched that the former museum director visited his show when it was in New York. “He stayed at the gallery for hours, and as viewers came in, he gave tours of the artifacts on the table in the same way he would have given tours back in Baghdad,” Rakowitz said. “Donny George became very emotional about the artifacts. He said, ‘This is probably as close as I’ll get to them again.’”

Youkhanna passed away in 2011 as a result of a massive heart attack while traveling to Toronto. Not only did he die in exile, Rakowitz points out, but he didn’t even die within a country. He suffered a heart attack in the no man’s land between the United States and Canadian customs.

On Anger and Looting

The Iraq War, Rakowitz insists, was not just a disaster for Iraqis. Because it involved the destruction of so many ancient treasures from the birthplace of Western civilization, it was “a disaster for all of humanity.” He adds that, “It was also a lost opportunity when the outrage for missing objects did not translate into an outrage for missing bodies. So, the project does have an angry side.”

Through the reconstruction of these objects, Rakowitz wanted to make the Iraq War more present for American viewers. “In 2006, it was possible to go through Chelsea and not know that a war was going on,” he remembers. “I wanted to find a way of disturbing that. It is an antiquities market that made these objects desirable for the people who looted them for whatever reason. I’m an artist who is dealing with the contemporary art market, which is allowing me to show in a Chelsea gallery. Why not make an object that essentially haunts these collections as an uncomfortable apparition: to make us think about our complicity, conscious or unconscious.”

The name of the project—The invisible enemy should not exist—is the literal translation of the name of the street that ran from the Ishtar Gate, which Nebuchadnezzar built in 575 BC as a northern entrance to his city of Babylon. The gate was excavated between 1902 and 1914 by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey and then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

“The countries of origin have called for the return of these objects,” Rakowitz argues. “There’s a large debate about this and the value of the imperial museum. For me it’s very simple. When things are taken without permission or under questionable circumstances, like backroom deals, this is a problem.”

The effort to reconstruct the objects looted from the National Museum in Baghdad is designed to be part of this debate. “The project has been acquired by several institutions, including the British Museum,” Rakowitz explains. Both the British institution and the Metropolitan will “take these replicas of looted artifacts from 2003 and put them next to Mesopotamian artifacts that they got under questionable circumstances.”

The juxtaposition of items representing two different eras of looting is a kind of artistic truth-and-reconciliation process.

“I appreciate when museums can be self-reflective or even critical when looking at its immense inventory the provenance and acquisition history of some of these things and to allow for some of the more uncomfortable stories to emerge,” Rakowitz points out.

At the same time, the objects that the British Museum or the Metropolitan essentially looted from Iraq many decades ago have at least been kept safe from the latest round of destruction. “Many Iraqis were calling for objects at the British Museum to return to Iraq,” Rakowitz says with a measure of sadness. “In the immediate aftermath of the looting, this attitude changed and these same Iraqis regarded those artifacts as fellow refugees and exiles just like themselves.”

Corporate Lobby Pulls Out Old Playbook


(Photo: Wikipedia)

After many years of publishing reports critiquing corporate behavior that increases economic inequality, I’m well familiar with the PR response playbook.

First, the corporate spokespeople go on offense, charging that your report is “bogus” or “completely inaccurate” – without pointing out specific inaccuracies. This can be effective in intimidating journalists who are considering covering the report but may not have time to check every number in it.

Then they raise questions about your funding. That usually provokes a few chuckles among us employees of nonprofit organizations that operate on budgets which would be considered de minimis in the corporate world.

Then they pivot to their role as the protector of everything that is good about America.

I saw this playbook deployed against Corporate Accountability International this week, in response to their new congressional scorecard on one of the most powerful DC corporate lobby groups–the National Restaurant Association.

The report uses publicly available information on the restaurant association’s policy agenda, including their opposition to various worker and consumer protection reforms, such as increasing the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and GMO labeling. It then looks at the lobby group’s campaign contributions, pointing out that members of Congress who have received large sums have (surprise, surprise!) voted in line with the NRA’s agenda.

Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the restaurant association, demonstrated her mastery of the PR playbook in her response to Politico:

“This report is funded by ROC [Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a worker advocacy organization] which has continuously used backdoor tactics, bogus reports and well-funded publicity stunts to disrupt public order and disparage America’s restaurants. This is no exception. Today, they are shamefully attacking small business owners who have achieved the American Dream and are giving back to their communities in countless ways.”

In three short sentences, Fernandez managed to insinuate that the report was “bogus,” accused the research group of taking money from ROC to pay for the report, and then waxed poetic about small businesses and the American Dream.

Never mind that the NRA didn’t point to a single factual inaccuracy in the report. Never mind that the charge about funding is utterly false, according to the bemused author of the Corporate Accountability International report. And never mind that the big players in the NRA are some of the world’s largest corporations, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Darden, and Walt Disney.

You’ll also notice there was no attempt to defend the National Restaurant Association’s legislative agenda.

And by the way, while I was viewing this article on Politico’s web site, the National Restaurant Association advertisement below was running as a banner on the top of the page.

restaurants-decide-banner-nraAgain, masterful.

Before Bankruptcy, Peabody Execs Feasted on Climate Disaster


Peabody Energy filed for bankruptcy today, but its top executives will still be enjoying the millions they pocketed before the collapse of coal.

While it remains to be seen whether Peabody will honor its $1.47 billion in environmental liabilities, the company has ensured its executives won’t have to worry about money for the rest of their lives. In 2015, the Institute for Policy Studies exposed Peabody’s executive compensation cushioning system in our Executive Excess 2015 report.

ee-cover-final-2-01The report found top executives at Peabody cashed in stock options worth $47 million in the four years before their industry began to implode in 2010, with former CEO Greg Boyce pocketing a whopping $26 million. Peabody stock has been trading in recent days at around $2 per share, down from $64 at the end of 2010.

IPS has long criticized stock options and other forms of equity-based pay for offering executives the possibility of hitting massive jackpots while times are good, while shielding them from downside risks.

According to IPS executive compensation expert Sarah Anderson, “Peabody’s former CEO Greg Boyce was like the cat who ate the canary in the coal mine. Before investors caught on to the coming implosion of the coal industry, he managed to cash in tens of millions in stock options that would soon be worth next to nothing. Shareholders and coal industry workers have wound up paying the price.”

Why I’m Ready to Get Arrested with Restaurant Workers

John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, at a rally with Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).

John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, at a rally with Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).

Under the banners of Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening, we will be sticking our necks out to demand an end to the destructive influence of big money on our politics and the need to enfranchise all people.

I have signed up to risk getting arrested on April 13. Why that day? I want to show my support for the worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) as they take on one of the prime examples of excessive money in politics: the National Restaurant Association.

The “other NRA,” as ROC likes to call this corporate lobby group, is holding their own Washington mobilization on April 13. They will be the flooding Capitol Hill with hundreds of high-powered lobbyists attempting to buy congressional votes for policies that will increase profits for a $787 billion industry while trampling workers.

Here’s just one example of their staggering power: for a quarter of a century, this mouthpiece for the country’s largest restaurant chains has successfully commandeered members of Congress to keep the tipped minimum wage for restaurant servers and other tipped workers at the paltry sum of $2.13 per hour. Yes $2.13.

Even on the rare occasions when Congress voted to increase the federal minimum wage, the NRA has managed to get tipped workers excluded. The NRA has also used their financial muscle to oppose many other worker-friendly reforms, including paid sick leave and affordable health care, as well as a long list of food safety rules.

ROC’s irrepressible co-director, Saru Jayaraman, has written a riveting new book, Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, which contrasts the “low-road” approaches of many of the top NRA members with the growing number of “high-road” restaurants that are proving decent working conditions can be good for business.

Meanwhile, millions of restaurant workers, especially women and people of color, are still working under poor conditions. A ROC survey concluded that an overwhelming majority of women servers feel pressured to endure sexual harassment from customers, in order to not lose out on tips.

My colleague Marc Bayard, who runs IPS’s Black Worker Initiative, has also pointed out that women and minorities are overly represented in these “tipped wage” professions (i.e. bartending, waitresses), with women representing 72 percent of all tipped workers and minorities representing 38 percent. Overall, tipped workers are twice as likely to be impoverished and half of all bartenders and servers are in need of federal assistance.

Why doesn’t Congress act to protect restaurant workers instead of doing the NRA’s bidding?

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending, calls the NRA “a powerful force in the nation’s capital.” The Association spent $4.2 million lobbying at the federal level in 2015. More importantly, they coordinate and supply talking points for lobbyists employed by their 52,000 corporate members. The NRA also plays a major role in fighting worker and consumer protections at the state level.

In the face of this assault, ROC is also organizing the rest of us to use our power as diners to counter the power of the restaurant lobby. They are also partnering with a “high-road” restaurant owner network called RAISE, which is advocating for better standards in the industry and providing an alternative to the NRA.

This election season has exposed that millions of people in this country are fed up about corporate money in politics. Groups like ROC and the hundreds of others that are leading the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilizations are working to build the power that can counter the NRA and other corporate lobby groups.

Everyone who cares about the state of our democracy should join them.

General Electric to Pay Taxes: The Prank that Cost $3.5 Billion in Market Capitalization

(Image: Flickr / Jeff Turner)

(Image: Flickr / Jeff Turner)

“We want to get off on the right foot in Massachusetts,” said GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. “We usually expect jurisdictions to pay for the privilege of hosting us in their community, state, or nation. But we’re taking a different approach.”

General Electric has decided to contribute $18,318 in taxes to the City of Boston, enough to cover the costs of one student in the Boston Public Schools.**

GE is relocating their global headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut to Boston, Massachusetts after the city and state agreed to hand over more than $150 million in tax breaks and financial incentives. This is roughly $181,000 for each of the 800 employees that GE is relocating to Boston. Boston also tossed in a cool $100 mill to repair the Northern Avenue Bridge as part of G.E.’s relocation deal. Go big or go home, right?

So given all the gifts laid at the feet of Mr. Immelt by the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, why would he decide to chip in his fair share of taxes?

It all started with the busboy Immelt met during a meal at Legal Seafoods. Caleb Hannon, a junior at Boston Latin School casually brought up the the school system budget shortfall to Immelt while picking up the CEO’s lobster shells and refreshing his water glass.

“I heard about the school’s troubles and thought General Electric should chip in something,” said Immelt. “Everyone should do their part.”

“We’re moved by General Electric’s generosity,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “They are truly a corporate leader and we look forward to having them in Boston.” Walsh indicated hope that in the future G.E. might chip in for snow removal on public streets around their headquarters.

General Electric has historically gamed the tax system to keep their contributions extremely low, routinely paying little or no state or federal taxes.

A Real April Prank

The April Fools Day story above was inspired by a real prank on General Electric.

In April 2011, the YES Men and US Uncut issued a press release, allegedly coming from General Electric’s press office, announcing the company’s intention to pay taxes that the company had been dodging through the use of off-shore tax havens.

The Associated Press circulated the news that General Electric would pay a $3.2 billion tax refund to the U.S. Treasury. The faux release quoted G.E. CEO Jeffrey Immelt as saying the company “will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility.”

Upon news of G.E.’s newfound religion on taxes, Wall Street investors punished the company, driving share prices down 1.6 percent from the day’s opening price. Over $3.5 billion in market capitalization evaporated in the first hour before recovering as the hoax was revealed.

General Electric was under scrutiny in 2011 for its aggressive tax avoidance after a New York Times expose revealed that despite $14.2 billion in global profits, including $5.1 billion from U.S. operations, the company claimed a tax refund of $3.2 billion.

For more information on the prank, watch this video of the news coverage:

Also check out 2011 radio interview with me and Andrew Boyd of US Uncut

**Facts distorted in the first part of this post in April Fools Day jest. Unfortunately, GE has not actually decided to pay their fair share of taxes in Massachusetts or Boston. Yet.

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