All posts by Natasha Chart

What Are Your Demands?

Every time people want to change the world for the better, they’re asked for demands. Sometimes, that’s even appropriate. But I work in DC, and I know a lot of people who have demands.

There’s the ever-popular 10-point list of demands. There’s the classic position paper; usually just one demand, often with a narrow set of policy suggestions centered on that demand, backed up by research expressed in charts, graphs, diagrams and extended essays. There are the demands spoken by lobbyists to congressional staff in regards to specific pieces of pending legislation. Demands are legion in our nation’s capital.

For all those demands though, for all the practiced organizing and inside game connections, almost everyone I know in DC has been vastly disappointed in recent years. Excepting those members of the LGBT community who decided to complain loud and long and publicly.

So, Occupy Wall Street, what do they want? I don’t speak for them, but I’m going to guess it’s a little something like this: to whatever extent human cruelty or greed makes life suck, it should stop.

Which probably, when you think about it, is a common theme of most of the demands made by non-corporate advocacy groups everywhere. And OWS, lack of more specific formulations notwithstanding, has gotten us all talking about that with a greater degree of success than anyone else in many, many years.

OWS’ strategy is, ‘We’re going to camp in a park, come join us.’ The only clear ask is, ‘let us keep camping in the park.’ Participants are offering their help to veterans and single moms and police officers’ families and dockworkers. They’re standing up against home foreclosures, bad bosses, corporate crime and landlords who won’t fix the boiler in the basement.

It’s a messaging disaster from beginning to end. It seems incoherent and unfocused. There’s no theory of change. Hope is not a plan. The actions and locations often have no clear connection to the name of the movement. The spokespeople are whoever the hell happens to show up for the press working group.

It’s enough to cause fits in a platoon of hacks and flacks.

But it’s working. I’m beginning to think that demands are overrated.

The Economy

Much of the OWS ire is clearly reserved for Wall Street and the banking industry, centered on the economy, and money-related problems.

Some people think that’s weird, because market capitalism is so accepted that it’s become our unofficial state religion in the United States, whose main dogma includes the sovereign independence of the central bank and the worship of high profit margins. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I mean.

So we talk about the economy as if it were a natural phenomenon, almost as if, and this is where people start using it as a tool with which to judge each other, it were an Act of God.

It isn’t.

The economy isn’t like a volcano or a meteor. The economy is how people treat each other, and too often the way we treat each other is for sh*t.

The economy doesn’t happen to people. People happen to each other through the economy, even when we use money as a means of distancing ourselves from that.

Did you ever see ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’? The plot has this sweet, young kid ask his newly discovered, aristocratic and super-crusty grandfather not to throw his tenants out of their homes. The grandfather has lawful contracts! The tenants have obligations! Please, grandfather, don’t be mean to them. Well, okay.

Can you even imagine that happening at Bank of America?

We’ve been to the moon, mapped the Mariana Trench and walk around with Starfleet communicators in our pockets. We can’t stop treating each other like sh*t? Really? Is it that f*cking hard?

The story of our economy is Adam & Eve standing before their maker and saying, ‘It was the money. The money made me do it.’ Bull.


When the Greek tragedies were written, it was key that they were about important people. That’s what was supposed to make them tragic. If they’d been about ordinary people, the thinking went, who would have cared that the characters lives went horribly wrong?

Those stories are some of the first examples of celebrity culture that still seem relevant to the modern world. We still have plays, after all.

Celebrity is the foundation of the ‘great man’ model of history, with its harsh judgments on who was worth wasting vellum on prior to the advent of cheap printing, and who should die unremembered and unremarked.

Celebrity, whether we’re talking monarchs or entertainers, has been an enduring feature of concentrated human settlements. Beyond your immediate circle of friends, family and coworkers, you can really only know so many people.

Though because democracy is supposed to be about the idea that we all mattered as much as each other, celebrity culture has always been quietly at odds with it. Hardly anyone has ever believed that all human beings were equally worthy, and it really, really shows.

Celebrity culture is ancient. It’s unlikely to disappear in our lifetimes, or maybe ever, but space is now being made for something else.


I’m not sure it was entirely our fault that we took so long to try democracy and equality. And by try, I mean mostly fail what we said were our own goals.

For most of history, everyone lived in tiny communities with virtually no connection to the outside, except maybe a war, all their lives. People knew their own neighborhood, they knew about a few aristocratic celebrities, and everyone else who might exist was a highly suspicious mystery.

Even in a relatively small place (by today’s standards,) like the British Isles, there was so little travel that each village generally had its own very distinct dialect. That’s how separate most people usually were from each other. They were divided and relatively easy for their local celebrity governors to rule.

As true-to-life sound and image recording developed into mass media, it seems that there was a corresponding increase in the understanding that people in other places were just people. Just like the people you knew. It was harder to fear them.

Caricature in service of the powerful became more difficult and had to be subtler, even when mass-produced.

Toni Morrison described the phenomenon of white Americans who think that they know all the good black people, while still holding on to stereotypes of black people they’d never met as lazy or dangerous or otherwise no good. The black people they knew were people, individuals with demonstrable worth and variable personalities, but the ones they didn’t know remained caricatures.

Which is exactly how the wealthy landowners, who invented whiteness to avert class-based political alliances among the poor, wanted all European immigrants to the Americas to think.

Then Americans were shown a picture of Emmet Till in his coffin. For many white Americans, this was the first image of a black person they didn’t know that broke caricature. He was not an insult; he was a child. His humanity was impossible to deny.

Robert Kennedy showed America the face of Appalachian poverty during his presidential campaign, and it touched people’s hearts. After that, there was a war on poverty, which was even taken seriously for a while.

A Vietnam War photographer showed America a picture of a napalmed child. It made people hurt, one person seeing another in pain and feeling an echo of horror. The discussion of the war changed from that moment.

After these disasters for the powers that be, media stopped showing many actually touching images of caricatured groups.

The establishment media, partly owned by such wealthy warmongers as General Electric, has worked to caricature the poor, for example, as violent or lazy, layering that in with established slurs on predominantly poor racial minorities. Infamously and recently, white victims of Hurricane Katrina were labeled as ‘looking for supplies,’ while black victims were labeled as looters.

The beautiful thing about this moment in time is that social media is giving us back the early promise of true-to-life recording.

We can see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices and know each other’s strength and folly from far away. When we can know each other like that, with technology as a direct facilitator rather than a lying intermediary, it’s harder to make each other into jokes and slurs.

I saw Neda Agha-Soltan close her eyes for the last time. She and her fellow demonstrators will forever be real to me. I saw. People, not abstractions.

You may have seen that, too. It was one of many moments of ordinary people becoming real to ordinary strangers far away.

From the pictures of people who held Tahrir Square to those of Spain’s Indignados, or from the words of Syrian demonstrators tweeted live and direct to the entire world, we are all creating space for non-celebrities to become real to each other.


Our encounters with the reality of previously distant people, who aren’t friends or family or coworkers, but also not celebrities, are hugely important.

Because if we want to someday have a real democracy, it must become more important, to both you & me, to know the name Oscar Grant than the names Brad Pitt, Hillary Clinton or Richard Branson.

Which seems to be what’s happening with the occupations; I see ordinary people more interested in each other’s doings than the deeds of the mighty. It’s a thing that’s only possible because of the level of detail & fidelity with which we can, and now do, publicly communicate.

We are silly and serious together. We can read each other’s live commentary on events as if in a vast auditorium where each voice still carried clearly. The audience is as real as the person on stage we’re all looking at and getting to know.

Humans have never before had such powerful tools for amplifying ordinary conversation. Even when our conversations are infuriating, we’re getting to know each other. We are interested in each other. We care.

I don’t mean care in some warm and fuzzy kind of way, or as an expression of sympathy in case of misfortune. To care is to concern oneself, to attend, to notice.

If you can’t care about someone, you can’t believe in his or her equal humanity. You can’t coexist in meaningful democratic relationship to each other, where you respect each other as co-creators of a shared society.

It takes time to care about people, to develop the practice of attending to them and looking out for their interests.

Millions of people have decided that it’s time to develop this practice in regards to one another, right now.  This exercise, if it’s to be done at all, will take a while. We don’t all get along very well, as you may have noticed. But we have every reason to hope that if we come to this honestly, with compassion, we will learn to appreciate and care for each other.

The most important encounters of our lives, and possibly human history, are happening today, between ‘nobodies’, through a hybrid of online and offline public forums.

What are our demands? Care about us.

This is not a request solely of the powerful, but also of each other, of ordinary strangers. You learn to care about me as I learn to care about you.

Whoever you are. It doesn’t matter. But also, it matters more than anything. We must live together and share the same world.

Millions of us have decided to have these encounters as part of inviting ourselves to the discussions where big decisions are made. We’re meeting our fellow ambassadors and forming working groups. So we’re going to have to also demand some patience and some space. Especially because we all need more practice at democracy, and not waiting on great people who neither know nor care about us.

In order to make this happen, we’re going to have to insist, and believe, that a General Assembly is as important as a G20 summit.

Very little has prepared us well for the ongoing practice of democracy.  It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out together, which is the whole point.

“Child care keeps families working in California”

Lopez, Austin and Clemens at the Child Care Providers United rally in Long Beach, CAA family child care provider for 13 years, Susan Austin cares for 8 children whose attendance is supported by the Stage 3 child care threatened by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto. A single mother who was on public assistance herself 40 years ago, all of Austin’s clients are single mothers who are also working their way to independence.

Though if the program closes entirely, Austin says, “I will have no business. I tried to work with my parents to try to keep a roof over my head, but they couldn’t afford it.” All she has now, she said, “is my home and my dignity.”

But Austin doesn’t think of her child care as a job, but a career and a lifestyle. She says her reward is “when kids graduate college. When I take a parent from living in a car with two little kids, to getting on public assistance, to working, to her son serving two terms in Iraq.”

Then there’s something else Austin has; plenty of stories about the families she works with, takes care of and clearly worries for. Families like Monica’s*, a single mom who’s had her three children in Austin’s care for some time now.

Austin has watched Monica’s children for 7 years. Because Monica had been earning more at her current job in medical billing, Austin thought she was doing well and expected the family to be off the program within a year.

Then Austin had to tell Monica about the end of the Stage 3 program.

“She just fell apart,” Austin said. “She was just saying, ‘What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?’ Within days of me telling her, she was at the heart specialist and they were telling her she’d gone down hill.”

Austin explained that Monica had suffered a heart attack four years earlier, brought on by the birth of her youngest child. Monica’s doctors have been concerned that she might follow her mother, who’d died early of heart failure. But the news about losing access to child care may have been too much to take.

“She’s in the hospital for heart surgery right now,” Austin said tearfully, “and I’m taking care of her kids for free.”

Another of Austin’s charges is a 2 1/2 year old whose mother is in college. Austin explained that she was trying to get her master’s degree because she couldn’t get a job with a B.A., and needed child care while she was in school.

Austin, whose own adult daughter can’t find a job in Orange County, CA, even with dual High School teaching credentials in English and music, is sympathetic.

And several of Austin’s clients depend on her for help they can’t get elsewhere. “Many of the children stay with me because they have behavioral issues no one else wants to take care of,” she said.

“I have a boy who came to me three years ago. He has ADHD, he was kicking and biting me at first,” Austin said. “Now he’s in the 6th grade and he’s no longer in the principal’s office all the time, because he had stable, consistent care.” Though if the Stage 3 program closes and his mother keeps her job, Austin worries that he might have to stay by himself after school with a younger sister who’s in 2nd grade.

Susan Austin, on caring for children with ADHD:

Be patient. It’s not going to turn around over night. You need a lot of communication between parents and providers to establish consistency and structure.

The children need consistent, positive reinforcement. You should always have a calm, caring tone, even when they’re kicking you.

You’ve got to give the kids who have these issues a double dose of love, establish trust and respect with them so they know they can count on you.

“Child care is different than being on aid,” Austin said, “you don’t get it unless you work. These people have to work or they wouldn’t get care. So we’re getting them out and working, encouraging them to work. Taking it away takes away our jobs, takes away their jobs, takes away the safety and health of the children.”

“California’s primary workforce is 20-40, that’s the child bearing age,” Austin said. “Child care keeps families working in California.”

“We live in this beautiful place where the whole world wants to come for vacation and we’re turning it into a desert, … devoid of hope and future,” Austin said. “These are hard working people who just need a little support. We’re destroying the American Dream for our youth.”

“The only thing keeping me going is my faith,” Austin said. “I believe He’ll have the last word and it will be good. He’s always looked after me before, He will again, and these children and their families.”

Photo: From left to right, R. Maggie Lopez, Susan Austin and Gloria Clemens at the October 26th rally in Long Beach, where family child care providers demonstrated in front of the Women’s Conference to ask Governor Schwarzenegger to extend Stage 3 child care funding. The cuts have been halted by a judge through this week. Entry cross-posted from the Early Learning blog.

* Name changed for privacy.

About California public employees’ reasonable wages …

Surprise! State workers aren’t overpaid.

… [From] a study by the University of California Berkeley’s Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics.

“California public employees, both state and local, are not overpaid,” the report states. Based on its research, state workers make about seven percent less in wages than private sector counterparts, but their benefits are better, so there is “no significant difference” between the two. …

Translation: California gets its public workforce at discounted wages that it makes up for with benefits like pensions. Without those benefits, state workers are just getting ripped off for about 7% of the value of their work. Either way, the state is getting a good deal.

As much as conservatives would like to suggest that teachers and janitors and bus drivers are to blame, even those scary, underfunded pensions aren’t a problem.

For every dollar California pays out in pensions (pdf), it gets $1.47 worth of economic activity. For every dollar taxpayers put into the state and local pension system, they get $7.91 worth of economic activity. Much of that activity goes through local businesses and adds to state revenues. Importantly, it represents deferred compensation that the state agreed to pay in the future so it could offer lower salaries in the present.

Then even if the state laid off even more public workers, a lot of their work would still need to be done. Hello, outsourcing.

$175 to empty an ashtray. $2,166 to fix five smoke detectors. $8,000 to scrape gum off four feet of sidewalk. Those are some of the maintenance charges from companies on contract with California’s court system — and all were approved by the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees court budgets. …

If California’s public workers were making that much for such small tasks, it’d be news all over the country. But it was a private, for-profit company charging that much, so the only people who care are the public employees who worry that their stable, if lower paid, jobs will be lost to companies that charge the government a lot and may pay their employees even less.

Not that governments have that kind of money to spend, because the recession has slashed state and local tax revenues.

Though for conservatives it isn’t really about deficits or smaller government. It’s all about the cheap labor.

They came for the private unions and their overpaid layabouts, all thinking they had a right to a decent house and a college fund for the kids. Then they came for private pensions, which were running those poor, innocent companies into the ground. Now they’re coming for the last group of people in the country with any job or retirement security, because, at base, they don’t believe that ordinary people should have the right to stable, comfortable lives. They heap contempt on the idea of a living wage and miss no opportunity to suggest that people-who-aren’t-CEOs are lazy, greedy, and dreadfully overpaid.

Yesterday it was grocery clerks, today it’s teachers. The shape of the conversation doesn’t change. The salaries of the 95% are an inefficient drag on the salaries of upper management and the profits of investors. Your public services are a drag on their ability to intimidate a desperate workforce into accepting even less pay. Your quality of life is wasteful overhead, unless you’re an investment banker, because those guys are under a lot of stress and $500,000 doesn’t go very far.

Scapegoating public workers won’t make any of the country’s problems go away. All it will do is to increase inequality and make things worse for everyone.

And the truth is that the state gets a good return on money it spends on public services and pensions. I’d be curious to know if it makes as much back from shoveling money to fossil fuel companies.

While I’m proud to work for SEIU, I’m only speaking for myself in this post.

Budget crisis collateral: child care and the families who depend on it

(California’s late state budget has been hurting child care providers, holding up reimbursement checks for time they’d already worked. Yesterday, some of the affected educators and caregivers held a press conference where family child care provider, and SEIU member, Tonia McMillian told her story.)

Hello, my name is Tonia McMillian, and I’m a licensed home-based child care provider in Bellflower. I care for 11 children, many of whom receive state subsidies to help their parents afford child care. The current budget delay has presented a mix of emotions for me and the families that I care for. For the first time in my 15 years of child care service, I have been forced to face the reality that I might have to shut my doors.  

tonia-mcmillian-with-s-hernandez.jpgChild care has been my passion and desire for many, many years. After completing my child care education at Long Beach City College, I decided that I would make a difference in the lives of children and, as far as I know, I did just what I set out to accomplish.

However, maintaining my business and my home with no money has proven to be a monumental challenge.

Because of the current budget stalemate, I have not been paid to care for some of these children for the last 3 months and others for the last 2 months. I can no longer plan or budget for my week. I have to take each day as it comes. I’ve extended and, in some cases over-extended, arrangements to meet my needs, i.e. utility bills, food, rent, and many other bills.

My parents need the help that the subsidies provide and are extremely grateful that I have not shut my doors…yet. Without child care, my single father who is raising his son as a single parent, will be forced to quit his job. Did I mention that he is considered one of California’s working poor? Yet, through his job, he contributes back to our economy and he can walk tall with his head held high knowing that he is working to make his life and the life of his son better.

But the loss of this income has made it extremely hard to continue to run my business. I have taken on a part-time job in addition to my child care business to pay the bills for myself and my own two children, and I have talked with all of my parents about the real possibility that in the coming weeks I may have to shut my doors in order to find other work to support my own family. This is a decision that is truly devastating for me, for I have been an excellent child care provider for 15 years and love this work, and I know that these children and parents are going to really struggle in my absence.

Almost every other child care provider in my area is in the same situation as I am. We’ve all had to cut costs dramatically since our paychecks were halted, including laying off staff who help us pay more attention to each child in our care and who also badly need these jobs.

Worse yet, the money we normally receive from the Federal Food Program is being withheld simply because the state of California can’t contribute its meager 5% share. Think about that–tens of thousands of providers in California aren’t getting their monthly food program checks–which can be anywhere from 100 to 1000 dollars a month–because the state can’t contribute their tiny 5% share and won’t release the much greater federal portion.

That’s millions of dollars being left on the table – dollars that are usually recycled back into the community through the grocery stores where we shop. Hundreds of thousands of children in the state depend on these funds to help them get nutritious meals that they might not otherwise get.

I know providers who are now feeding their own families peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles every day – just so they can afford to feed their daycare children.

I came to speak here today to put a face on this budget crisis. This is about the future of quality child care in our state, not partisan politics or politicians squabbling in Sacramento. Children are suffering. Providers and their families are suffering. And if a solution isn’t found soon we are going to be doing irreversible harm to our state’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Thank You.

Cross posted from the Early Learning blog.

The Terrible Public Pension Threat

(Brilliant work from Natasha, and quite relevant as we battle to protect retirement security for all Californians. – promoted by Robert Cruickshank)

It’s time for a class war over public union pensions. So says Ron Lieber, writing in the New York Times. Okay, let’s rumble. What’s the score, so far?

Despite defined benefit (DB) pensions, like the ones public employees get, being more economically efficient (pdf) and offering better returns, private employers have mostly switched to 401(k) plans, or defined contribution (DC) plans (pdf), because they’re cheaper. Between 1979 and 2001, the portion of the workforce covered by defined benefit pensions dropped by half. By 2008, only 20 percent of private workers had such a pension.

Businesses saved a lot of money by either switching to low cost 401(k) plans or dumping their pension obligations on the government (pdf). Did they use their savings to create jobs? Not lately. These days, businesses are firing more people than they need to and sitting on the cash.

If recent history is any guide, those business savings still won’t go to average employee wages, which have been stagnant since the 1970s when union membership started declining to its current 12.3 percent of the labor force. Since 1979, extra savings have gone to the richest 1% of Americans who’ve seen their income go up 281 percent, with CEO pay going up 298 percent as the value of the minimum wage dropped 9.3 percent in value, and the pay of manufacturing and maintenance workers had gone up by only 4.3 percent, as of 2005.

Clearly, the investor class won that round.

The rich were positioned to get richer, even during this recession. It isn’t that there’s no money, it’s that money has been steadily taken out of circulation to be uselessly hoarded by the top one percent of income earners. And now, with government revenues starved by tax cuts for the rich and wage declines for most everyone else, the proposed solution is to break pension obligations to the few people who still have them.

Funny how big a threat pensions are supposed to be, now that they’re so rare. Ha ha.

“Who took our pensions and what do we have to do to get them back?” – Rep. Alan Grayson at Netroots Nation, July 24, 2010

You can see how it would have been harder 50 years ago to attack pensions, as Lieber does, as an unjustified, “terrifying” and “titanic” waste of resources. More people would have agreed with Rep. Grayson’s statement last month that, “everyone who works in America for 30 years should have a pension,” because more of them had decent pensions of their own.

Now, pensions are almost surprising. And about that, Jonathan Cohn had the best next question, emphasis mine:

But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking [during the debate about auto worker pensions]: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?

For their age and education level, public employees receiving pensions make less than comparable private sector workers. They may even be excluded from Social Security benefits, as Dean Baker points out, adding that they tend to make no more than $40,000 to $50,000 per year and that the shortfall in their pension funds comes to less than two percent of government spending over the next 30 years.

One thing that about half of all public employees do for their not-very-princely salaries is educate children. On that score, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s statement that, “Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial.” Not crucial enough to get them 281 percent pay raises, but crucial.

At present, 62 percent of US jobs now require some sort of special training beyond high school and in a decade, that might go up to 75 percent of jobs. Maybe some of these requirements are excessive, but it’s weird to hear anyone say we need less education.

Cut teachers’ lifetime compensation and, one way or another, less education is exactly what we’ll get.

And as for complaining about the pensions of all the other people who make less than their experience and education might be worth, our public police, fire department, emergency, maintenance, construction and engineering workers, you might as well come out in opposition to law and order and in favor of all the trains being late.

The pension alarmists would have us believe that the debate is about whether the public can afford to honor promises to retirees, which is bad enough. Though what it’s actually about is whether ordinary taxpayers should have to either pay for private schools, private bodyguards and private groundskeepers in private real estate developments, or accept that their cities and towns are going to keep falling apart around them because it isn’t anyone’s job to hold them together anymore.

Which is nothing less than a threat to price the average taxpayer out of all the benefits of civilization so that the top one percent of income earners won’t have to suffer the return of Clinton-era tax rates.

Cross-posted from, where I’m proud to work.