IPS Blog

Fibs and Falsehoods: Darden Corporation Claims ‘No One Makes $2.13 An Hour’

An op-ed I published on September 12 has provoked an unfounded attack by the world’s largest full service restaurant chain.

The op-ed calls attention to the struggles of restaurant workers who are paid a subminimum “tipped worker wage” by their employers. Starting in 1966, when the tipped minimum wage was first established, it was pegged to 50 percent of the prevailing minimum wage. In 1996 the linkage was undone, and the tipped minimum wage has remained $2.13 an hour in, except in the 32 states that have adopted higher wage standards.

Red Lobster, owned by Darden Corporation. (Calgary Reviews/Flickr)

Red Lobster, owned by Darden Corporation. (Calgary Reviews/Flickr)

Darden Corporation, which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and several other chains, has been a leader in the National Restaurant Association’s efforts to defeat national legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and require that tipped workers be paid at least 70 percent of this amount.

The op-ed, which was distributed through the McClatchy-Tribune syndicated service and appeared in a dozen major newspapers, has drawn considerable attention from those who are tirelessly working to see that the amount they pay their tipped workers does not rise.

Samir Gupte, the Senior Vice President for Culture at Darden, responded with an open letter that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, saying the op-ed was full of errors and denying that any workers at Darden make $2.13 an hour.

This letter was pure obfuscation. Gupte focused on restaurant servers’ total earnings, including tips. The op-ed focused on what Darden actually pays these servers directly. In a September 25 article in Nation’s Restaurant News, Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers contradicts Gupte’s claim that “No one makes $2.13 an hour,” when he admits that 20 percent of Darden’s hourly workers receive $2.13 an hour from Darden, before tips, affirming the claim which we made in our op-ed.

More than 40 percent of Darden’s restaurants are located in states where the tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour.

In another rebuttal, Melissa Autilio Fleischut, CEO and President of the New York State Restaurant Association, called our op-ed a “disservice” to hard-working restaurant workers, noting that New York recently adopted an increase to the state’s minimum wage. Ms. Fleischut failed to point out that her organization led the fight to oppose New York’s minimum wage increase.

In a recent editorial “Tips and PovertyThe New York Times concluded: “In effect, a tip for a waitress is a wage subsidy for her employer.” Most restaurant patrons assume their tip augments the wages paid by the restaurant owners, not that they replace the basic wages that restaurant owners can legally avoid paying in many states.

Having a tipped minimum wage is not only unfair to workers, it creates an unlevel playing field within the restaurant industry. The law requires McDonald’s and other fast food chains to pay all their workers at least $7.25 an hour, while allowing full service restaurants to pay large segments of their staff two-thirds less, just $2.13 an hour.

Controversies concerning Darden’s policies toward tipped workers are not new. In 2011, the company announced that it would force servers to share their tips more broadly with other restaurant employees. Now considered tipped employees, Darden cut hourly pay for bartenders and busboys by several dollars an hour in some cases. Some employees have complained that tips have not made up for their cut in basic wages provided by Darden.

Darden’s disinformation campaign will likely backfire, leading more consumers to seek the facts about the tipped minimum wage. Once more people know more about how our nation’s most profitable restaurants are working to keep workers living near the poverty line, it will leave a very bad taste in their mouths.

Inequality for All: Documentary Antidote to “Elysium Economy”

Matt Damon battles his way toward affordable health care for the masses in Elysium

Matt Damon battles his way toward affordable health care for the masses in Elysium

Two cinematic experiences about extreme wealth inequality are worth seeing, one dramatic and the other documentary.

I recently saw the Hollywood blockbuster film Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in 2154, degraded by ecological disasters and extreme inequalities of wealth.

In the film, the super-rich have relocated to the ultimate gated community, a pristine orbital station called “Elysium,” which is based onlocation shots from Malibu, Calif., and replete with turquoise swimming pools and palatial mansions. On Elysium, all physical illnesses are instantly cured by climbing into a “med-bay,” a contraption that looks like a designer MRI machine. As a result, life expectancy is three time longer on Elysium than on earth.

Which brings us to the film’s scenes of earth, which were filmed in a populated garbage dump in Mexico City. There, people dream of getting to Elysium to cure their cancers and other illnesses. Max DeCosta, played by Matt Damon, is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and his only chance of survival is to get to Elysium. In his quest to get to Elysium, he becomes an unwitting hero.

Read more on YES! Magazine

This Week in OtherWords: September 25, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Marge Baker sizes up the next big campaign-finance case before the Supreme Court, Chuck Collins explains why you should see Inequality for All, and Jason Salzman predicts that Colorado isn’t going to be split into two states. On our blog, Jim Hightower surprises himself by saluting Nixon and Kathryn Cassibry laments the collective shoulder shrugs that followed last week’s mass shootings at Washington’s Navy Yard and a Chicago park.

Do you want to make sure you don’t miss the latest from OtherWords? Then subscribe to our free weekly newsletter. Do you value our sharp analysis and bold ideas? Please make a tax-deductible donation today to keep this valuable service running. We can’t do it without your support.

  1. Citizens United, the Sequel / Marge Baker
    With its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court could deepen the damage it has already done to our campaign finance laws.
  2. Faster Chicken Processing, More Injured Workers / Tom Fritzsche
    The USDA proposal for poultry plants would make a bad situation worse.
  3. Our Road to Elysium / Chuck Collins
    Robert Reich’s new film Inequality for All exposes America’s growing wealth disparities.
  4. No North Colorado on the Horizon / Jason Salzman
    The state’s alleged secession movement is a right-wing media stunt.
  5. Taking Stock of Factory Farm Pollution / Wenonah Hauter
    The EPA has to stop standing by while factory farming pollutes our airways and watersheds and poisons our communities.
  6. Bursts of Light and Fresh Air / Donald Kaul
    Peace and tolerance are starting to break out.
  7. A Golden Rule that Might Chip Away at Inequality / Sam Pizzigati
    By making it mandatory for corporations to disclose the gap between what they pay their chief executives and most typical workers, the government will empower investors and consumers to compare individual corporations by their level of CEO greed.
  8. Junking Food Is Bad for Everyone / Jill Richardson
    The food Americans waste could help end hunger in this nation.
  9. Colorado’s Fracking Disaster / Jim Hightower
    In Colorado’s flood-struck areas, a tsunami of floodwater and destructive debris swamped fracking infrastructure.
  10. The Latest Trend in Trade Secrets / William A. Collins
    The Obama administration is quietly forging two deals that are being written by and for the benefit of corporations, to the detriment of workers and consumers.
  11. USS Inequality / Khalil Bendib cartoonEmily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

    USS Inequality, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    USS Inequality, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

This Week in OtherWords: September 18, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Saru Jayaraman calls on Congress to raise the “sub-minimum” wage paid to servers and other tipped workers after a 22-year freeze and Donald Kaul illustrates the irresponsibility of GOP lawmakers who would have our government stop paying its bills. Farrah Hassen shares her colorful memories of Saul Landau, an OtherWords contributor who died September 9.

Do you want to make sure you don’t miss the latest from OtherWords? Then subscribe to our free weekly newsletter. Do you value our sharp analysis and bold ideas? Please make a tax-deductible donation today to keep this valuable service running. We can’t do it without your support.

  1. Remembering Saul Landau, 1936-2013 / Farrah Hassen
    All roads lead to Damascus and my mentor.
  2. Operation Secret Loopholes / Jo Comerford
    Senate efforts to revamp the tax code are off to a rocky start, including a plan to keep taxpayers in the dark about their lawmakers’ actions until 2063.
  3. Reasons to Steer Clear from a Syrian Attack / Jim Abourezk
    The American people don’t want another Middle East war.
  4. Raise the Sub-Minimum Wage / Saru Jayaraman
    The rock-bottom pay mandated for tipped workers like servers in restaurants needs to rise from $2.13 an hour.
  5. A Higher Minimum Down Under / Salvatore Babones
    Australian fast-food workers make at least twice the U.S. minimum wage and get many more benefits.
  6. The Stiffing State / Donald Kaul
    You can be for a smaller government or a bigger one but you have to pay your bills.
  7. Going Full Circle Back to the Heyday of Inequality / Sam Pizzigati
    America has returned to the same kind of deep economic divide that ushered in the 1930s Great Depression.
  8. Bossing the Poor Around / Jill Richardson
    How about a bill banning soda sales at the House of Representatives’ cafeterias?
  9. Abusing Animals to Defend Tar Sands Oil / Jim Hightower
    Loveable bears, deer, and such would “like to snuggle under the [Keystone XL] pipeline [for] warmth,” conservative pundit Larry Kudlow fantasized on TV.
  10. Higher Education Takes the Low Road / William A. Collins
    Millions of smart young people are stuck in an impossible bind.
  11. Tax Houdini / Khalil Bendib Cartoon

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

Tax Houdini, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Tax Houdini, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Electrifying Africa – But at What Cost to Africans?

This originally appeared in IPS’ Foreign Policy in Focus project.

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

As children throughout the United States head back to school, it’s a good time to remember that schoolchildren throughout Africa often attend schools with no electricity. In areas that do have the utility, frequent power outages are a constant reminder of the need for dependable access to electricity.

In June, U.S. policymakers announced two initiatives aimed at increasing electricity production in Africa. President Obama launched Power Africa, an initiative that makes a $7-billion U.S. commitment to the energy sector in six African countries. And Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Electrify Africa Act in the House, which sets a goal of providing access to electricity for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Both initiatives place increasing investment by U.S. companies in Africa at their center.

Africa is home to almost 600 million people without electricity, all of whom struggle to meet their basic needs as a result. Access to power translates into refrigerating vaccines, keeping food from spoiling, studying after dark—the kinds of activities that can dramatically improve basic health, education, and economic opportunity.

While rhetoric around the two U.S. initiatives is about reducing poverty and improving Africans’ quality of life, the approaches being outlined seem likely to lead to large, climate-polluting, centralized power projects—not the decentralized, renewable energy systems that are the most efficient and cleanest means of reaching Africa’s poorest families.

Decentralized, renewable energy sources are best for the rural poor.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that universal energy access can be achieved by 2030 with significantly stepped-up investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, it would require an extra $19 billion a year, and money pledged by the U.S. government could be a strong down payment.

The IEA also notes that the majority of the additional investment needs to go to small-scale mini-grid and off-grid solutions—which are more efficient at delivering electricity to people in rural areas, where 84 percent of the energy-poor live—not to centralized power plants. Small-scale systems produce energy at the household and community level from renewable sources, including micro-hydro, solar, wind, and biogas.

So an energy access win for the poor is also a win for the environment. By developing clean energy instead of burning fossil fuels, decentralized renewable systems help curb greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change. That’s important because if left unfettered, climate change is predicted to wreak havoc across Africa.

Africa will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

According to the World Bank, climate change is likely to undermine the development gains made in recent decades, pushing millions of people back into poverty. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the leading global scientific body on climate change—notes, warming on the African continent could be some of the developing world’s most severe, reaching one-and-a-half times the global average.

Droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change are expected to significantly compromise agricultural production and access to food in Africa. Yields from rain-fed agriculture could drop by 50 percent in some countries by 2020, and crop revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100. Food insecurity and exacerbated malnutrition in turn will compromise human health.

Sea level rise is anticipated to threaten the 320 coastal cities and 56 million people living in low-lying coastal zones around the continent. And the cost to African nations of adapting to a warmer world could amount to between 5 and 10 percent of their gross domestic product.

“All of the above” means dirty and clean power.

While Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act do include language about developing “an appropriate mix of power solutions, including renewable energy,” proponents of these policies have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent.

In fact, with only $20 million allocated toward project preparation, feasibility, and technical assistance for renewables, clean energy makes up less than 0.3 percent of the White House initiative’s budget.

Natural gas, on the other hand, is front and center. While gas is sometimes talked about as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, it can be even more polluting than dirty coal when methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide) is released during its production.

In other words, gas is no “bridge fuel” between energy poverty and the clean power that every person deserves. Once Africans are locked into natural gas infrastructure, they’re locked into 40 years of increasing emissions—and four more decades of global warming’s impacts.

Continued fossil fuel expansion threatens U.S. climate policy.

The push for natural gas is so forceful that one of the U.S. government’s strongest climate policies to date—the cap on greenhouse gas emissions at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)—has come under fire.

OPIC’s cap—an outcome of a 2009 legal settlement with environmental groups over the agency’s practice of lending to large, destructive oil and gas projects—forces a 30-percent greenhouse gas reduction across its portfolio over 10 years and a 50-percent reduction over 15 years.

The results have been notable. By 2011, the agency’s renewable energy finance had risen to nearly $1 billion—about a third of its total commitments that year. By contrast, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im)—OPIC’s sister organization—steadily increased investment in dirty energy, with fossil fuel funding doubling between 2011 and 2012.

Unfortunately, some development groups say that to achieve energy access for Africa, OPIC’s hard-won greenhouse gas cap has to be weakened. For instance, a lobbying document from the ONE campaign highlights how the Electrify Africa Act “unlocks OPIC’s investment potential by requiring OPIC to revise its existing policy on the carbon emissions of its investments to permit significant investment in the electricity sector of the poorest and lowest pollution-emitting countries.”

Ironically, the impacts of doing away with this policy—more greenhouse gas emissions and fewer renewable projects focused on access—would only come back to hit communities in Africa even harder as climate change intensifies.

While this provision is not yet part of the bill introduced in Congress, there are concerns that it will appear as an amendment now that Congress has reconvened. And that’s particularly worrying. Of the $1.5 billion that the Power Africa initiative promises from OPIC for energy, less than 2 percent has been earmarked for renewables.

Who stands to gain by busting the cap?

If large, centralized fossil fuel production won’t particularly help poor Africans access energy—and would exacerbate climate change, which in turn threatens development on the continent—why would anyone want to bust the greenhouse gas cap at OPIC?

For one possible explanation, look no further than the oil and gas fields recently found off the coast of Africa. Big reserves mean big money, and the business of extracting and processing new oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa will be lucrative.

It’s OPIC’s job to help U.S. companies gain a foothold in emerging markets like these by providing finance. And by doing away with lending restrictions on climate polluting projects, OPIC is free to grease the wheels for mega-deals between U.S. fossil fuel companies and African interests.

One of those companies appears to be General Electric, which recently signed a tentative deal with Ghana to build a power plant likely to be fueled with natural gas from the Jubilee offshore field. (Perhaps not uncoincidentally, G.E.’s CEO traveled with Obama on his Africa trade mission.) According to Forbes, G.E. has recently pivoted its attention to Africa and is marketing power generation products like natural gas engines to African companies. Not surprising, then, that Ex-Im chairman Fred Hochberg called Power Africa a “$7B plan to power up General Electric” on Twitter.

Helping to bring electricity into the homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces of tens of millions of people living on the African continent is the right thing to do. The United States can support energy access through public finance—raised from innovative sources like afinancial transaction tax and by ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies—and by directing the $7 billion Obama promised to decentralized, renewable energy systems. That would ensure that we’re spending our money to benefit African families, not U.S. energy companies.

Africans deserve to live full, dignified, productive lives free from dirty energy and safe from the climate disaster it promises. African schoolchildren demand no less. U.S. policymakers and taxpayers can power Africa best by protecting the planet and securing future generations.

Saul Landau, Presente!

Saul Landau, who died September 9, 2013 at age 77, toiled for years to change the national conversation on everything from the Cuban embargo to climate change. Saul also had a knack for turning newfound acquaintances into soulmates that shines through the many tributes and obituaries pooled here to share with people who either had the good fortune to know him and those who are just now discovering his legacy and want to learn more. These essays and articles serve as a testament to his brilliance, perseverance, and boundless generosity.

Saul Landau

Saul Landau

In addition to his achievements as a writer of prose and poetry, filmmaker, radio show host, connoisseur of odd food, professor, tireless traveler, devoted family man, and a master of off-color jokes, Saul was a longtime Institute for Policy Studies fellow and trustee. IPS will commemorate his life in Washington, DC, on October 12 as part of our 50th anniversary celebration. If you can join us, please RSVP.

IPS Tributes

The Institute for Policy Studies Mourns the Loss of Filmmaker and Author Saul Landau, tribute by the IPS staff. We encourage Saul’s many friends and admirers to make their comments on our website.
Excerpt:
“Saul’s commitments were forged of steel,” said Isabel Letelier, the widow of Orlando Letelier and a former IPS staff member. “He was an impeccable and exemplary revolutionary.”

More Than a Sonnet for Saul Landau, poem posted on the IPS website by IPS Board Chair Ethelbert Miller
Excerpt:
…So tell me
another joke. I want to laugh long into the night. I want our
friendship to wait for the stars to come down and kiss California

Mainstream Media

Saul Landau, Maker of Films with Leftist Edge, Dies at 77, New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin
Excerpt:
“You want to do what you can while you’re on this earth,” Mr. Landau said in 2006. “Otherwise the alternative is to go shopping.”

Activist and filmmaker Saul Landau dies at 77, Washington Post obituary by Matt Schudel
Excerpt:
“Since the late 1960s, Mr. Landau’s family said, his provocative films and political statements led to frequent death threats, particularly while he was investigating the murders of (Orlando) Letelier and (Ronni Karpen) Moffitt. “I’m sure he must have been terrified at times,” Cavanagh said, “but he never showed it.”

‘Fidel’ filmmaker Saul Landau dies at 77, Los Angeles Times obituary by Daniel Miller
Excerpt:
“I came out of Madison with a passion for social justice and the idea that you only get one shot at participating in the history of the world and that you have to make the most of it,” Landau told Madison’s Capital Times in 2006, the year he donated his papers to his alma mater.

Saul Landau – documentary filmmaker – dies, San Francisco Chronicle obituary by Sam Whiting
Excerpt:
“He would not suffer pompous statements by politicians from either the right or the left,” Rep. George Miller said. “He was a constant battler for human rights, whether they were being crushed by American involvement in Latin America or by dictators. To him that was the battle.”

Documentary Filmmaker Saul Landau Dies, AP obituary by John Rogers, which appeared in the Charlotte Observer, USA Today, the Chicago Sun-Times, and dozens of other newspapers.
Excerpt
“He knew he’d made a contribution and he was happy about that, he was happy, but he wanted to talk about how to make the world a better place,” (IPS Director John) Cavanagh said Tuesday, recalling an hours-long discussion the two had earlier this year. “When we got into that is when he really got animated and full of life, it was fascinating to see.”

American documentary filmmaker Saul Landau dead at age 77, Reuters obituary by Eric Kelsey.
Excerpt:
Novelist Gore Vidal once quipped that the prolific Landau “is a man I love to steal ideas from.”

Progressive Media

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Saul Landau’s Investigations of US Ties to the Pinochet Regime, The Nation essay by Katrina vanden Heuvel
Excerpt:
“It was The Nation’s honor to publish (Saul Landau’s) work at such an early and definitive moment in his career, when he sought to uncover who was responsible for the brutal and untimely death of his dear and principled friend” (Orlando Letelier).

Remembering Saul Landau, a tribute by Nation intern Andrés S. Pertierra
Excerpt:
Saul awakened my political consciousness. He called us all to thought, gave an example to emulate in his fights for justice and left his mark forever. He survives through us in the decisions we make. We’ll try and not let him down.

My Socrates Wore a Guayabera, in CounterPunch, essay by Farrah Hassen
Excerpt:
Regardless of the time of day, or time zone, he delivered his pearls of wisdom in pairs: “Don’t be a victim,” followed by, “Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one shot at life.” Unrelenting wit, even at bleak moments, encapsulated his pearls: “If you ask the Rabbi, nothing’s kosher.” And sadly, in more recent months, “Cancer schmancer, as long as you have your health!”
Also read this shorter version, at OtherWords.org

The Authentic Landau, in CounterPunch, by Jeffrey St. Clair
Excerpt:
Last year, our daughter was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma. Saul, who lived across the San Francisco Bay in Alameda, said, “Tell Zen to call me. I know what it’s like. I can talk her through it.” And so he did. Saul helped take much of the fear out of facing the disease. He searched for doctors, advised us on how to handle the insurance companies, talked about diet after treatments and recommended an excellent acupuncturist. He called every week to ask how Zen was doing. He never forgot, even as his own health began to deteriorate. That’s the kind of friendship that you can’t fake…or replace.

Travels With Saul Landau, in CounterPunch, by former Senator James Abourezk
Excerpt:
“We traveled together to Cuba where Saul introduced me to Fidel Castro; we went to Wounded Knee together after the militant Indian takeover and where Saul made a film centered on the Indian Committee hearings I held to document the AIM takeover of Wounded Knee. In 2003, he went to Syria without me, but my Syrian wife, Sanaa, was there visiting her family at the time, so he drafted her as his guide and narrator as he filmed around Syria”

Documentary Filmmaker and Activist Saul Landau Dead at 77, Common Dreams obituary by Jon Queally
Excerpt
“He stood up to dictators, right-wing Cuban assassins, pompous politicians, and critics from both the left and the right,” said IPS Director John Cavanagh. “When he believed in something, nobody could make him back down. Those who tried would typically find themselves on the receiving end of a withering but humorous insult.”

Saul Landau, American leftist, 1936 – 2013, OpenDemocracy, tribute by Anthony Barnett
Excerpt:
“His smile was unforgettable. It could be mistaken as cynical. It was the opposite: part skeptical, part an impish demand to make trouble if you can: an encouragement laced with practical intelligence. Many of us have been helped and supported by him often in ways we did not fully realize until later. ‘Make it happen and stay cool’ was his adage and he did both.”

Journalist & Filmmaker Saul Landau, 77, Dies; Chronicled Cuban Revolution for Decades, Democracy Now! Obituary
Excerpt:
“What did Cuba do to us?,” Landau asks. “Well, the answer, I think, is that they were disobedient, in our hemisphere. And they did not ask permission to take away property. They took it away. They nationalized property. And the United States…has never forgiven them.”

Additional reports and essays on Saul’s life and death appeared around the world in the UK, Canadian, Indian, Pakistani Argentine, Costa Rican, Japanese, Cuban media.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Read Saul Landau’s wide-ranging OtherWords op-eds.

My Socrates Wore a Guayabera

Cross-posted from CounterPunch with permission.
Read the Institute’s tribute to Saul Landau.
IPS will celebrate the life of Saul Landau in Washington, DC on October 12. If you can join us, please RSVP.

Saul Landau

Saul Landau

By Divine Intervention, Saul Landau entered my life 12 years ago and taught me how to write, film, and live with dignity.

We instantly bonded over having fathers from the “old country” — his father, from Ukraine, mine, from Syria — and being Semites with prominent noses. We communicated by exchanging stories and news articles, watching and dissecting films, exploring puns, and testing one another’s tolerance for salacious humor (his was particularly impressive).

Regardless of the time of day, or time zone, he delivered his pearls of wisdom in pairs: “Don’t be a victim,” followed by, “Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one shot at life.” Unrelenting wit, even at bleak moments, encapsulated his pearls: “If you ask the Rabbi, nothing’s kosher.”

And sadly, in more recent months, “Cancer schmancer, as long as you have your health!”

I met Saul just after finishing my freshman year at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught courses on Latin America, history, and digital media. A wide-eyed 19-year-old at the time, the formation of my political consciousness had coincided with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. From what I could comprehend, the continued occupation of Palestinian territory seemed “wrong” and contrary to international law, but I lacked the language, tools, and platform to thoughtfully explain why.

In August 2001, I walked into Saul’s office. For the next three years, it became my intellectual equivalent of Warhol’s Factory, without the Velvet Underground, drugs, hangers-on, and troubled pseudo-starlets, but where film scripts, detective novels, and muckraking commentaries percolated at a fiendish pace. His friends would often stop by, including Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, and Arianna Huffington, before giving campus-wide talks organized by Saul.

“So, are you interested in making movies and learning how to play a part in your history?” he asked me nonchalantly, during my research assistant job interview.

“Sure!” I replied, captivated by both his lofty proposition and his eyes that narrated more riveting stories than Scheherazade, radiating whimsy, strength, and unabashed soul.

“Watch these films that I made with Castro [“Fidel,” 1968; “Cuba and Fidel,” 1974; “The Uncompromising Revolution,” 1988] and Allende [“Que Hacer?” and “Conversation with Allende,” 1971] and read some of my books [The Dangerous Doctrine;Guerrilla Wars of Central America; Red Hot Radio]. If you’re interested in working with me after that, let me know next week.”

And that began my real political education, outside the stifling halls of academia, thanks to the ever generous, ever humble, Saul. On my first day at work, I prepared to bombard him with questions about Cuba, given his history of making six films there. Why did the 1959 Cuban Revolution succeed? Is revolution in the 21st Century still possible? What crossed your mind as you were sitting next to Fidel, filming him in his Jeep? And, what compelled you to show footage of him striking out while playing baseball, alongside the extreme close-up shots of dirt in his fingernails?

He answered these questions throughout our relationship. But on this particular day, September 11, 2001, Cuba took a back seat to the acts of terrorism against the United States. No sooner had Saul arrived to the office that we had to depart for the day, as the state-university closed early in the aftermath of the events. Nonetheless, he still managed to instill the most valuable lesson of my life—in a parking lot, no less.

As the hours passed and it became clear that Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and those who looked “suspicious” would face backlash, for no other reason than their identity, Saul uttered these immortal words as I entered my car: “Do not be afraid. You have a duty to speak out.” He knew I was an Arab. And a Muslim. But for him, righting wrongs, regardless of where they occurred, always trumped narrow identity politics. How else would a boy from the Bronx go on to make documentaries exposing hypocrisy, torture, militarism, and the consequences of neoliberalism in Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, and Mexico, respectively?

It did not matter that I had never before penned an article, op-ed, or letter-to-the-editor. Or, that I feared public speaking. At a moment when the Bush administration launched its wide-reaching assault on civil liberties in the U.S. and its war on Afghanistan, my guayabera-wearing Socrates, whose probing questions always revealed higher truths about power and injustice, empowered me to play a role (however modest) in my history.

Saul gave me my radio debut on Pacifica Network News a few days after 9/11, challenging me to write a commentary from my community’s perspective. With his literary scalpel, he rearranged my sentences, deleted extraneous words, and converted the passive into the active voice. By the end of it, my first draft hemorrhaged from his edits. He winked, delivering another Saulism that still haunts me: “Never fall in love with your own work.”

As a student of history, who studied with William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Saul implored me to look beyond the accepted version of news events, especially when broadcast by the corporate media. He reminded me of that other 9/11 in Chile, when General Augusto Pinochet, backed by the U.S., overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. That “altered the destiny of the Chilean people,” he would say, pointing to the ensuing reign of terror targeting his own friends, like Orlando Letelier, the Defense Minister under Allende who was arrested and imprisoned on Dawson Island following the coup, and later assassinated by agents of the Chilean secret police in Washington D.C. on September 21, 1976.

Three months after 9/11, Saul wrote a ZNet commentary called “The Logic of Our Time,” where he questioned the new axioms offered by the Bush administration justifying a military response to terrorism. His still relevant conclusion merits repeating:

I plan to persuade my university colleagues to begin offering courses in the new logic so that students can compare the words officials use against what they see, hear and read. If anyone doubts the veracity of our leaders, recall Richard Pryor’s wife when she discovers him in bed naked with a naked woman.

“Hey, sugar, it’s not what you think,” says Pryor.

“What do you mean? Are you nuts? I’m seeing this scene with my own eyes,” she says.

“Hey, honey,” says Pryor, “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, and in the midst of President Barack Obama’s momentary pushback on bombing Syria, I miss my mentor and friend’s shrewd analysis and penetrating wit more than ever. As I walked around the humid streets of D.C. last night, where he called home for over 20 years before moving to California, I felt limbless without my guayabera-wearing Socrates. How would he respond to Obama’s Syria’s remarks? What will he write his next commentary on? And, when will he release his next film?

I could barely make out the stars the night after Saul died, so instead I turned to the streetlights. In them, I saw the perpetual gleam in his eyes, illuminating the far corners of the Earth, however imperfect, disheveled, disillusioned. In the morning, the birds on my windowsill chirped in my ears, reminding me just how privileged I was to work with and learn from the best. I treasure every article we wrote together, including our film reviews and Syria pieces for CounterPunch. I traveled to Syria for the first time with my mentor just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, allowing me to simultaneously discover my roots and the art of filmmaking. All roads lead to Damascus — and Saul.

“In times of need the living need a poem,” he once wrote.

I call mine Saul Landau.

Farrah Hassen, a Syrian-American writer and filmmaker, was the associate producer of the 2004 film, “Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” directed by Saul Landau. She is currently a first-year law student at Howard University in Washington DC. For two years, she served as the Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and she made several short films featuring Landau that the Institute will screen at its upcoming 50th anniversary celebration.

 

Why Your Waiter Hasn’t Gotten a Raise in 22 Years

Note: McClatchy-Tribune News Service distributed this op-ed.

Most people assume restaurant tips are a reward for good service that helps servers get ahead. In reality, your tip fills a gap created by a loophole. Federal minimum wage law allows restaurant owners to pay their tipped employees just $2.13 an hour.

This sub-minimum wage hasn’t increased for 22 years and amounts to less than a third of the federal minimum wage. It helps large restaurant corporations and their CEOs pad their bottom lines while trapping millions of American workers in economic insecurity.

penguincakes/flickr

penguincakes/flickr

The average server earned $20,710 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because these workers start in such a hole, they are three times more likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to be eligible for food stamps as employees in other industries. A quarter of all servers are over 40, and many of them have families to support.

From 1966, when the tipped minimum wage was first introduced, until 1996, it was pegged at 50 percent of the prevailing minimum wage. But aggressive lobbying by the National Restaurant Association, which is dominated by large restaurant chains, removed the linkage and froze the minimum wage for tipped workers at its 1991 level of $2.13 an hour. Since then, about half the states have either raised the tipped minimum wage or have no minimum wage at all for tipped workers. For the rest, $2.13 an hour remains the standard.

Scott Klinger is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Tata Mundra Coal Plant: A Test for Presidents Obama and Kim

The Tata Mundra coal plant in India (Joe Athialy/Flickr)

The Tata Mundra coal plant in India (Joe Athialy/Flickr)

In June 2013, President Barack Obama announced that he was “calling for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas.” Within weeks of this announcement, World Bank President Jim Kim announced the Bank would phase out its support for most forms of coal. However, what World Bank President Kim and President Obama left unsaid was how both presidents would treat current public financing of coal-fired power plants, particularly plants that are violating the policies set by the World Bank.

President Kim may soon have to tackle just this issue. A case in point is the Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant in India. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private sector lending arm, in 2008 provided $500 million in financing to back this massive coal-fired power plant in Tunda-Vandh village near Mundra, a town in the Indian state of Gujarat. The complex of five 800-megawatt supercritical boiler plants was supposed to cost $4.14 billion to build and be owned and operated by Coastal Gujarat Power Limited, a special purpose vehicle owned by India’s largest private multinational corporation, the Tata Group.

The IFC isn’t the only powerful public international financial agency backing the Mundra power project: The Asian Development Bank, The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and the Korea Export Insurance Corporation are also involved.

The project now faces a whopping 270% in annual debt, and its CEO has stated the project is financially unviable unless electricity tariffs are drastically raised, effectively passing on the costs of Tata’s poor planning and misleading calculations to the Indian people. This negates one of the primary justifications the IFC presented in financing this project: that it would bring cheap electricity for the energy-deprived and energize the local economy.

Furthermore, the project also faces mounting debt which must be paid back in dollars, not rupees, at a time when the Indian rupee is dropping in value.

This power plant is burning about 13 million tons of coal a year, emitting nearly 40 million tons of CO2. It also generates tons of toxic fly ash and other toxic byproducts and radioactive elements due to coal combustion. This Tata Mundra plant, plus two others nearby, burn a total of 30 million tons of coal per year and emit about 88 million tons of CO2 annually—more than the combined total annual emissions of Bangladesh (a nation of 150 million people), Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives.

The Mundra plant is situated on the Gulf of Kutch, with ready access to ports and coal that is being imported from Indonesia and Australia. What once was a region with abundant fish, farms, and pastoralists is now a region contaminated by pollution, with tens of thousands of fisher-folk and pastoralists losing their livelihoods.

In June 2011, community groups asked the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) to investigate environmental and social violations of the contract Tata signed with the IFC. The CAO full audit report and the IFC management’s response are expected this week. A report produced by an independent fact-finding team found numerous violations of IFC policies.

So now the question becomes: Does the IFC remedy the Tata Mundra violations, or simply cancel its support for the project, given President Kim’s and President Obama’s stated opposition to public financing of coal-fired power overseas? To do otherwise is to allow Tata to not only violate IFC policies, but to mislead its investors and then pass on the costs of its boondoggle to the very people whose poverty the company is theoretically alleviating.

What the Tata Mundra case should make clear to President Kim and others around the world is: Coal is a bad investment—for the poorest, for those consuming the power, for the Bank, and more broadly, for all of us. As a recent study of a dozen of 2012′s wildest weather events found, man-made greenhouse gas emissions from coal burners like Tata’s are increasing the likelihood of about half of the wild weather events we lived through in 2012, including Superstorm Sandy; estimates suggest Sandy alone cost $68 billion.

We can’t afford to keep subsidizing these boondoggles. We can and must use public funds to invest in clean, renewable energy alternatives, with a primary focus on energy for the poorest.

Homeless Need Not Enter Columbia, S.C.

Being homeless is not illegal. At least, that was before the City Council of Columbia, South Carolina voted to implement an “Emergency Homeless Response” that will give those experiencing homelessness a choice—either vacate to a designated emergency shelter, or go to prison.

The reason? According to local business owners, “the growth of economic development is being hindered, and business owners are beginning to look elsewhere to set up shop.” Rather than addressing the reasons for the increase in homelessness (48% reported this January that they were experiencing homelessness for the first time), the city will shuttle people to a building accessible only by bus, providing “immediate relief to the business community.”

AR McLin/Flickr

AR McLin/Flickr

The new emergency shelter can only house 240 people—barely 16 percent of Columbia’s homeless population and less than 30 percent of those both homeless and unsheltered. If anyone refuses to be bussed to the shelter, police are allowed to arrest them for any number of public nuisance laws. “No person will be subject to any law in a manner that is different from any other citizen,” the Emergency Homeless Response presentation affirms. Yet local business owners need only pick up the phone to call a dedicated number when “a person in need is identified.” Allowing the police to detain anyone believed to be homeless could serve as an entry point to racial and socio-economic profiling.

The city’s report provides no measures for people willing to go to the emergency shelter after it’s full. Police officers will likely be instructed to send individuals straight to prison. The 241st person could be anyone—an elderly person with a serious medical condition, a high school student, or a single mother with young children. Out of the nearly 1,500 people surveyed by a South Carolina Point in Time Count—a single day census of those experiencing homelessness— about 80 were mothers with children and over 50 were under five years of age.

The social cost to Columbia will likely be greater than the $1.7 million allotted to the Emergency Response. A single incarceration could cost $50 per day and would be detrimental to a person’s ability to find a job or an apartment. Removing a person’s opportunity to earn an income limits Columbia’s ability to grow as a city, even if some of its businesses expand. The emergency policy and a 240-person shelter outside the city won’t be effective in revitalizing Columbia’s economy, but merely move the issues out of sight. After March, the emergency shelter will be sold for private development, and any replacement won’t be allowed in the downtown business district.

By contrast, Connecticut passed the “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights” this June, which protects basic rights such as safety from harassment, nondiscrimination in housing and employment, and the right to vote. If Governor Malloy signs the bill, Connecticut would be the third state to protect the homeless from discrimination, following Rhode Island and Illinois.

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