Wednesday, October 19, 2011

No More Surprises: Cell Phone Companies Agree to Overage Warnings

http://www.flickr.com/photos/angelshupe/
 Article first published as No More Surprises: Cell Phone Companies Agree to Overage Warnings on Technorati.

In an effort to avoid regulation, wireless providers have agreed to notify customers who are reaching their limits on voice, data, text and international roaming charges.

In a joint statement with the FCC, Consumers Union and CITA, a large wireless industry association, the major cell companies announced they will provide free warnings that users are about to incur overage charges on these commonly used services.

CITA members include wireless industry heavyweights such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and TracFone.
Half these notifications must be working by Oct. 17, 2012, with the remainder up and running by April 17, 2013. This is good news for consumers.  According to this report, by the Wireless Consumer Association International, about 13.5 percent of customers will go over their plan's voice limit, and almost one in five (18%) will exceed their data limit.

Cell phone customers have long complained about 'bill shock', when unknowingly exceeding their plan limits. Companies have made billions off these charges, and agreeing to these notifications was only done to avoid mandates from Washington. The joint statement quotes President Obama,

“Far too many Americans know what it’s like to open up their cell-phone bill and be shocked by hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unexpected fees and charges... Our phones shouldn’t cost us more than the monthly rent or mortgage. So I appreciate the mobile phone companies’ willingness to work with my Administration and join us in our overall and ongoing efforts to protect American consumers by making sure financial transactions are fair, honest and transparent.”

The FCC and Policy Council for Consumers Union praised the agreement, saying more than 97% of wireless customers will benefit from the new rules and urged the companies to implement the notifications quickly.
CITA President and CEO said,

..."Today’s initiative is a perfect example of how government agencies and industries they regulate can work together under President Obama’s recent executive order directing federal agencies to consider whether new rules are necessary or would unnecessarily burden businesses and the economy.”

Because compliance is 'voluntary', the Consumers Union said, they are going to work closely with the FCC to make sure companies comply, "and we're pleased the Commission is keeping this proceeding open to help ensure compliance."

So, today cell phone customers enjoy a rare victory against surprise overages and Americans get a rare example of government, industry and consumer groups working together to protect users.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Do We Occupy?

A tired protester tries to sleep at a local occupation
Article first published as Why Do We Occupy? on Technorati.

Beginning on September 17, protesters began to gather near Wall Street in New York City. Inspired by the peaceful occupations of the Arab Spring, they sought economic justice for the vast majority of Americans. They felt shut out of the political system which seemed responsive solely to corporate concerns.

The mantra 'We are the 99%' refers to a UN Report which showed that 40% of the worlds' wealth is owned by 1% of the worlds richest adults.

The movement spread to cities and towns across the US and then spread globally. It has given voice to a growing frustration with the widening disparity between rich and poor and the continuing concentration of wealth among a lucky few. Political leaders appear blind to the increasingly desperate situation of the working class.

I got involved a week ago in a Wall Street inspired Occupation of a city park in a nearby town. It started very modestly. Brought together by Facebook, the first night we were only five occupiers.

It rained all the next day and night, The small but determined group set up canopies and tarps in an often futile attempt to stay dry.

The local newspaper showed up and a radio station interviewed one of the organizers. Word started to spread. Positioned on a busy street, many drivers honked, waved or gave a thumbs up. Strangers showed up with food, water and juice. Pizzas appeared out of nowhere.

The crowds have continued to grow. There is often a festive atmosphere during the day. Musicians entertain and small knots of people gather to share philosophical and mundane conversation. Sleeping bags and blankets are carefully folded and stowed away.

Nights are long and quiet. Tables are lined with donated food and coffee. Some occupiers try to sleep wrapped in blankets or buried in sleeping bags. Some play cards or hacky sack. Someone softly strums a guitar.

The homeless are drawn to us. There is food and water here and someone to talk to. Most help themselves to the food and leave. A few get involved and stay.
A large number of the homeless are obviously mentally ill and I am disturbed to see them huddled against the cold, seemingly hopeless and resigned to their fate. I am nagged by the thought that I am out here by choice. These homeless men and women have no choice and nowhere to go.

Maintaining good relationships with the police and park officials is a top priority. Trash is picked up promptly. Non-violence is a fundamental rule, so anti-social behavior of any kind is not tolerated. There is no on-site drug or alcohol use among the occupiers.

The group is surprisingly non-partisan. I almost never hear the words 'Republican', 'Democrat' or 'Obama'. Although many seem to lean toward progressive concerns such as health care, the wars and the environment, there are many conservatives and Libertarians in the crowd. The movement is leaderless, but decisions are made through a twice-daily General Assembly meeting and committee assignments.

The movement continues to gain steam. The simple message of economic fairness baffles journalists and political pundits. It does not fit easily into any partisan mold and defies talking points. It is driven by frustration but also by hope. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

This is why we occupy.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

An Open Letter to Congressman Wally Herger

Wally Herger (R) has represented the second congressional district in California since 1986. 

Congressman Herger:

This has gone on long enough. Your ideology is not more important than the economy of this country. At age 51, I have been laid off my job and am facing unemployment for the first time in 30 years. I join the ranks of the 14 % unemployed in this county. We need jobs and health care, not more partisan bickering.

Raising the tax rate on the under-paying highest income earners does not raise unemployment. Please note the tax increases by both Regan and Clinton during recessions for historical reference. Can you show a time when lowering taxes on the rich actually lowered unemployment?

Trickle down economics is a myth. The wealthy will happily sit on ever bigger piles of money but will spend millions to fight a quarter increase in the minimum wage.

Yes, the top 5% pay 65% of the taxes, but they have accumulated 95% of this country's wealth. It seems they are under-paying by about 30%. Its time for those who have benefited the most to stop whining about doing their share. And it's time for Republican Congressional Representatives to remember they represent everyone in this district, not just the extreme right wing minority.

Be a grown up. Stop holding the economy of this country hostage to your political agenda. Compromise is how democracies work. Do your job or stop collecting your generous tax-payer funded paychecks and health insurance.

I urge Americans of all political opinions to contact their representatives and tell them compromise is essential to resolve to this critical national issue.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Obama 2012: Applying Herbicide to Your Grass Roots

As election 2012 approaches, President Obama's campaign is reaching out to those of us who worked so hard in 2008 to put him in the White House.  I received another such email today, requesting my continued help in his re-election.  This is a copy of my reply:

"Hello Sara,

I haven't decided if I am going to work for President Obama's re-election this year. I admire his inclination to find common ground but I have been disappointed in his commitment to stand up for causes which are important to Democrats.

His total lack of support for the unions has been an on-going frustration for many, especially after he promised to 'put on his comfortable shoes' and walk the picket lines if collective bargaining rights were under attack.

Aside from his virtual silence on the dismantling of unions by right wing governors in multiple states, the blatant assault on transportation workers via FAA funding is taking place directly under his administration right now.

I still plan to vote for President Obama. I truly admire him for all he has tried to do. But if he wants my help and the help of other union members in this election, he needs to do more than bash us to score political points with the 'moderates.'

President Obama: Stop accommodating the crazies on the right and remember who elected you. The Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated their utter contempt for you and everything you propose, even their own ideas!

Your lack of support for the most fundamental rights of unions to even exist speaks volumes about whose support you seek. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be the working people of this country. I will 'put on my comfortable shoes' and work for your re-election when when you do the same for the unions, whose efforts you court, but whose concerns you ignore.

Maybe you can find some 'fired-up' moderates to do the leg work for your re-election this year. I don't think strong Progressives or Union members who worked so hard last time are going to go the extra mile this time around.

The American people are waiting for you to stand up against the powerful corporate interests who have dominated the debate, and we will stand with you when you do. We continue to wait for that day."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Inmates are Running the GOP Asylum

As the August 2 deadline approaches to raise the debt ceiling or face 'catastrophic' consequences, the Republicans in the House continue to hold firm on shielding their corporate sponsors from any pain in this time of 'shared sacrifice'.

They repeatedly back down from reasonable compromise due to hysterical screams for smaller government from the tea party and tied hands from Grover Norquist's 'No taxes' pledge. Add the fact that most Republicans expect President Obama to eventually cave to their demands for drastic cuts in spending with no increases in revenue, even the rare moderate Republican is towing the hard line.

Even widely acknowledged loopholes which would help lower the debt without impacting job growth are off the table with the statement that these should be fixed during a general reform of the tax code, but of course there is no time for an overhaul of the tax code before August 2.

President Obama has put everything on the table. All the sacred cows of the left: MediCare, MedicAid, Social Security are all suddenly topics for negotiation. The left is up in arms. It appears that once again, President Obama is prepared to give away the store with little to show for it. The Republicans have out flanked him again, they fear.

I join my fellow Progressives in their concern over this. I have been disappointed in our President's bargaining skills. He doesn't seem to understand that you don't come to the table having already given up half a loaf or you leave with a quarter loaf, or less.

For now, I am waiting to see what compromises the President is offering. For example, there are cuts in those programs that are dear to Democrats that could be done without impacting recipients. The often mentioned Bush MediCare giveaway to Pharmaceutical companies would be a great place to start. If the Veterans Administration can bargain for lower cost drugs, why can't MediCare?

Any cuts in actual services in these vital social safety nets are unacceptable, but changes are possible without harming those most vulnerable. Perhaps its time to consider means testing for MediCare cost sharing or Social Security eligibility. Do retired millionaires really need Social Security payments or help with their prescription drug costs?

Democrats continue to try to reason with an increasingly unreasonable GOP, who seem bent on taking this economy over a cliff to earn political points or play chicken with a White House perceived as weak. Americans are left wondering if the inmates are running the asylum among the Republican Party and if the President will again blink in the face of a right wing who seem happy to bring the whole economy down if it increases their chances of unseating a Democratic President.

I call on the President to hold firm. Demand revenue increases from the wealthy before agreeing to cuts in the Social Safety Net. Roll back the Bush tax cuts. Close the loop holes which allow only 38% of American corporations to pay income tax last year. I call on Progressive groups to continue to keep pressure on this President to stand strong and fight for what is best for the people of this country and the shrinking middle class.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Amazon Cuts California Affliates

California just passed a law requiring large online retailers to collect sales tax from sales within the State. These regulations effect those who make more than a half million in sales in California and whose 'affiliates' generate more than $10,000 of those sales. 'Affiliates' are web masters, mostly small, who serve ads for companies like Amazon on their websites. If a visitor clicks on one of those ads and a sale is generated, these companies pay a small commission to the web master.

The law could generate about 317 million in revenues for the cash strapped state.  At least seven other states are considering or currently taxing online purchases. Amazon.com is appealing a lawsuit in New York to prevent implementation of a similar law. Eventually, it will likely fall to the Supreme Court to decide.

Small online retailers would not be effected by the new law. However, Amazon generates about half the out-of-state sales from large retailers in California. They are refusing to collect state sales tax and have abruptly ended their partnerships with all California affiliates

Until yesterday, I was an Amazon affiliate. A few days ago I received an email from Amazon warning me that the law was being considered and if it passed, they would be forced to terminate our partnership. The next day, I received a letter notifying me of the passage of the law and termination of my account.

The public standoff between Amazon and the State of California is generating a lot of press and accounts are rife with declarations by California affiliates that they will leave the state and that the new law will hurt businesses.

This law will effect me directly through my loss of affiliation with Amazon, and also as a frequent online shopper, I will be paying sales tax more often. However, I am not angry with Governor Brown for taking this action and I understand the desperate need for increased revenue for the state. Former affiliates should blame Amazon for their loss of income as this decision was Amazon's alone.

Years of Republican domination of the governors office and state legislature have left California destitute. Their utter refusal to consider any type of revenue increases for decades has left the state schools, roads, cities and the poor to endure an endless stream of cuts in services and funding.

In a recent post, I described how I was recently laid off from my job. I have never faced unemployment, so the prospect is terrifying...I can easily talk myself into a panic if I'm not careful. The prospect of looking for work in a state with more than 12% unemployment is daunting. Especially since my work experience is largely in education and city government and I know chances are slim in the near term to find work in either of those fields.

Regardless of the right wing spin, I don't believe this will lead to a loss of jobs in California. In fact, it may increase employment due to the new equity in prices paid by shoppers at 'brick and mortar' stores and online retailers. Many box stores have complained that shoppers come to the store to examine the merchandise, then go home and buy it online, saving nearly 10% in sales tax costs. Hopefully this will level the playing field a bit for local businesses.

Also, consider this law was written to only effect the largest online retailers. Those companies who do a large volume of business in the state and who receive a large number of paying customers from California referrals.

Of course there are a few web masters who derive a nice income from referring customers to Amazon and they will suffer from Amazon's decision to terminate their partnership. However, there are many online retailers who offer affiliate programs and webmasters will be forced to investigate partnerships with those other companies or leave the state.

A few may leave but most will stay and continue to prosper in spite of Amazon's decision. The state will benefit from the increased revenue and local business will loose fewer sales to online retailers. I think it is a good decision and though I have lost my Amazon affiliation and will be paying a bit more for my online purchases, I am glad to do my part to help dig out of this giant hole we are all in. Now if we could just get the big corporations and the top 2% to pay their share maybe we could all get back to work.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another Empty Desk

The atmosphere where I work is tense. Over half the desks are empty and those empty desks speak volumes in their silence. They are the ghosts of employees past. Each desk whispers of better times when the economy was booming and we were fully staffed. They speak of a time when everyone wasn't carrying the load of two or three and holding their breath for fear it will be their desk to be vacated next.

Today, I got that call from HR. "Could you come to a short meeting in my office, please?" My stomach turned over. Was it my turn? I had survived four rounds of lay offs already but it was rumored another round was coming.

Steeling myself, I opened the door. Seeing my manager and department head sitting there looking glum did nothing to reassure me. I sat down and took a deep breath.

They were polite and sympathetic. They explained about the budget shortfall and how the gap was wider than they had expected and they were so sorry but...

I knew this could be coming. I felt the brush of fate each time those calls went out and I watched cherished co-workers head to HR looking scared and come out looking ashen. I have seen employees of twenty and thirty years get the boot. Each time I felt, 'There but for the grace of God go I'. And I silently thanked Him for our home not in jeopardy and my husband and I both still with our jobs.

Today, my luck ran out. I join the millions of unemployed in America. There are uncertain times ahead for all of us and too many empty desks. May our leaders find the wisdom to fill them again soon.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Assault on Unions is an Assault on the Middle Class

The year is 1910 and you are a working person in the US. The wages are low and the competition for jobs is fierce. There are no laws protecting workers from unsafe work environments, unfair pay or firing and no compensation if you are injured on the job. If you are unlucky enough to be killed at work, most companies will pay no more than funeral expenses. Children work long hours in dangerous conditions with no laws requiring them to go to school or even go outside. Miners die young in underground tunnels from accident or disease. The dreaded 'Black Lung' disease is rampant.

These were normal working conditions before unions became a real force in the workplace in the 30s and 40s. It took years of strikes and sacrifice, often bloody, to force business owners to adhere to a minimum standard for workers. Any concession in working conditions, pay, benefits or safety are seen as expensive for the employer without adding anything to the bottom line, so these have been vigorously opposed by business interests and their political proxies for a hundred years. All gains have been hard won and now the corporate bosses have launched a new assault on unions, who are already down to their lowest membership in years.

Unions raise the bar for everyone, not just union shops. They set wage and working condition standards which benefit all workers and force a better balance in the employee/employer relationship. As unions have lost membership and the power shifts to business, wages among working Americans has dropped dramatically. As the report by Karla Walter, Senior Policy Analyst, and David Madland, Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund showed in this report, that as union membership has dropped, so have the incomes of the middle class. The graph shows that relationship clearly. As unions 'raise all boats' for working peoples income, the decline of the unions leads to the collective 'sinking of all boats.' in worker income, as more and more wealth flows from the middle class to the top.


And this graph from the Wikipedia article, 'Wealth in in the United States' shows where all that money is going:




Some might believe the need for unions is over. Working conditions have improved and children are not expected to work instead of go to school anymore, right? No one gets killed on the job anymore due to safety problems, right? Who gets Black Lung anymore?

Tell that to the families of the non-union Massey Coal Mine disaster just last year that killed 29 miners. According to a report which was commissioned by West Virginia's former governor, the report concluded that the accident was a "total and catastrophic systemic failure” by the company. They followed a culture of profits over safety with multiple and repeated violations of basic safety practices. They were assured protection from regulators and prying eyes and, according to the report, “used the leverage of jobs it provided to attempt to control West Virginia’s political system.”

We used to think Black Lung was a disease of the past. A rare legacy from a time when workers were forced to work in dangerous, dust filled tunnels without ventilation or respirators. Autopsies of the miners killed at Masseys' mine showed most had Black Lung Disease. Even those who had worked there for as little as 10 years. The rate of Black Lung in miners nationally is 3.2%. Among those workers who died at Massey, the rate was a shocking 79%.

Even laws protecting children are not sacred in this anti-worker political environment. Wisconsin is set to eliminate laws which regulate how many hours a school-age teen can work. Current law limits them to 26 hours per week during school and 50 hours per week in the summer. The new proposed law will eliminate that requirement. There is no limit on the number of hours these should-be students can work. Watch the graduation rate fall even further as employers force students to choose between their job and school.

Nevada is considering a bill to abolish the minimum wage. New Hampshire just passed such a law, but thankfully, it was vetoed by the governor. The pressure continues downward on wages and benefits as unions loose political clout in the right-wing statehouses.

The Republican attack on unions is an attack on the Middle class. It is a continuation of the fight to move ever more money and power to the corporations and wealthy. The unions are the last bastion of political and worker power and the Republicans, as proxies for their corporate bosses, are eager to finish them off. Hopefully, the American people will wake up in time.

The Republican Medicare Plan: Bad Medicine for Americans

The Republican Budget Plan includes big changes to Medicare. The debate rages on between the left and the right but the implications for those who are not quite to retirement age are huge.

This group, including myself, have worked and paid into this system our entire working lives. We have accepted this ever-present deduction in our paychecks as assurance of adequate health care in our old age. Health care that left our great-grandparents penniless as they spent and sold a lifetime of savings to pay for increasingly expensive, life saving care.

The Republican proposal assures current seniors that their benefits will not change. They offer no such assurances to workers like myself. Our investments and savings which were supposed to make retirement possible are a fraction of their pre-recession value. We now are wondering if we can ever afford to retire. The Republican plan adds to that uncertainty. We would have to worry about having enough income to cover costly health insurance increases for the rest of our lives. The Republican plan assures the insurance companies a steady income stream and cuts federal spending on health care costs by shifting those costs to the elderly without any attempt to limit the long term increase in health care costs.

There is no question that something needs to be done about Medicare spending. The question is really should we continue to allow insurance and pharmaceutical companies to drain our pocketbooks, paychecks and national coffers forever, without limit?

Again, the Republicans oppose any regulation which would 'interfere with free enterprise'. This is a political euphemism which really means these powerful companies are free to continue to demand any price as they are protected from competition and bleed seniors dry and answer only to shareholders.

Massive savings are possible in the system without turning the system into a pseudo-voucher scheme. The republicans are correct, it is not a voucher. If it were, they would send you a coupon to be used toward the purchase of coverage. The 'premium support' system actually removes you as the 'middle man' and will just pay those premiums directly to the insurance companies. No wonder these companies are big supporters of this plan.

Medicare has huge bargaining power. It is the single largest purchaser of health care in the country. One of the budget busting provisions of Bush's Medicare prescription drug program was to outlaw negotiating on costs and agree to pay whatever the companies demanded. This has been a huge gain for the pharmaceutical companies and a huge burden to taxpayers.

Drugs could be purchased abroad, manufactured to the highest specifications and safety standards, or even US made drugs could be re-imported into this country. However, current law prohibits the importing of drugs into the US. Republican lawmakers have fought all attempts to change this law. It seems regulations are fine if they protect the profits of US drug makers as they soak the American taxpayer for the highest drug prices in the world.

Standing up to the insurance companies is possible, as evidenced by the passage of the Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act of 2010 which, after 65 years, repealed a law which allowed insurance companies to collude to fix prices.

Much can be done to cut the costs of Medicare without turning it into a insurance company give-away which robs soon-to-be seniors of the security of quality health care in our retirement years.

Now we hear that Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, has introduced a bill in Congress to privatize Social Security. This fell flat when Bush tried it and it continues to be unpopular with the working people of this country who have paid into a good system our whole working lives and don't wish to see it become gambling money for Wall Street.

Both these plans will shift more of the wealth from the middle class to the big corporations and further widen the gulf between the rich and the poor in this nation.

We are looking to the President and Democratic Senate to hold their ground against this right-wing corporate money grab of taxpayer funds. We ask them to stand firm against the privatization of Medicare or Social Security and protect a lifetime of investment in these programs by millions of working Americans like me.