MLK reflections – National Consumers League

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of America’s greatest leaders, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have been 87. What a different place America might have been had he lived. He was gunned down in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was rallying in support of the sanitation workers’ strike after workers had been killed on the job due to unsafe conditions. MLK is revered by National Consumers League and labor leaders alike. 

What made MLK such a great leader? He rose above the fray, and he made connections with issues beyond his own sphere. He opposed the Vietnam War, he fought the militant and divisive image of Malcolm X, the public face of the Nation of Islam, he spoke against anti-Semitism, and he drew connections between worker protections and the civil rights movement. 

Dr. King’s legacy as a civil rights icon and irreplaceable voice of humanity and nonviolence is very much with us today. 

As I watched the 2015 Kennedy Center Awards, I thought of Dr. King and how I think he would have been proud of the mosaic of honorees that night. He played an enormous role in making all of this possible by waging a struggle for civil rights for all Americans. And though there is much work to be done and American has many problems ahead of us, the Kennedy Center Awards evening showcases America’s best qualities: 

George Lucas, the Star Wars creator and director, a hugely original creative mind and a white man – married to an African American woman; Cicely Tyson, a 90 year old African American actress with a stunning list of credits who is currently – yes currently – acting in the Broadway show The Gin Game with James Earl Jones.

Rita Moreno, an 84 year old Puerto Rican dancer, singer and actress who has won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and Tony award

Seiji Ozawa, Japanese-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who served for 29 years in that role

Carole King, a Jew from Brooklyn whose iconic hits like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Up on the Roof” have been recorded by African American singers like the Drifters and singers like Ben E King; and whose song “Natural Woman” was stunningly performed by Aretha Franklin on the Kennedy Center Stage before an audience that included America’s first African American President and first lady.  

We miss the wisdom and presence of the great leaders, like Dr. King, but his legacy is with us every day.

Workplace safety standards highlighted in Labor Day accident – National Consumers League

Why is it important to enforce workplace safety standards ? This weekend – ironically, when we were all celebrating Labor Day – a young immigrant from Ecuador named Fernando Vanegas was killed when the retaining wall designed to hold back soil on the base of a building collapsed on him. He was only 19 years old and had previously told his mother about many dangerous conditions at his workplace. “He would always tell me about how he had close calls,” she recounted.

There’s been a surge of fatal workplace incidents in New York City this year, according to the New York Times. The inspectors who investigated the fatality said that basic safety protections were not implemented, including providing adequate building support, compromising the whole structure. Several complaints about this worksite had landed at city offices and the cases were closed once the builder provided paperwork saying problems were being addressed. Inspectors had also cited the building in May and again in July for violations, but apparently the fines and penalties didn’t deter this contractor from exposing workers to dangerous conditions. Clearly the enforcement system isn’t working very well.

When enforcement is lax, employers and builders cut corners. This is the oldest story in the book, and this young man’s parents are mourning the loss of their son, whose only goal was to contribute to the family finances. Going to work shouldn’t mean taking your life into your hands. City inspectors across the country need to shut down construction sites that continually violate the law. It’s so sad for Mr. Vanegas and his family that he had to pay the price with his life. 

Labor Day thoughts: Minimum wage and the Presidential election – National Consumers League

With the celebration of Labor Day this weekend, it’s a good time to ask what role the minimum wage will play in the Presidential campaign. This is right up our alley; NCL’s great leader Florence Kelley originally wrote and helped to pass the first minimum wage laws in the states. And this remains an issue near and dear to NCL.

Hillary Clinton is calling for a wage of $12 an hour by the year 2020. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, the two other declared Democratic presidential candidates, are pushing for $15 by 2020. They are both too low if you look at what is needed to pay basic costs of living – for only one person – in 14 states and Washington DC. Right now it’s $12 an hour!

Among Republican candidates, the views are all across the board. Some want to raise it, some want to keep it at the current $7.25 and Carly Fiorina says the federal minimum wage law should be abolished. Uh huh – we’ve been there before. Florence Kelley is rolling over in her grave I’m sure! None of the following states have any minimum wage laws: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. In Georgia and Wyoming, the minimum wage is $5.15. So without a federal floor for minimum wage, employers in those states would be free to – and would – pay poverty wages. Kelley and her allies saw the pennies paid to the poorest most exploitable in the workforce and worked for a minimum.

Rising profits should mean rising wages but unfortunately the market doesn’t work that way. Goldman Sachs chief economist Jan Hatzius, told Bloomberg news that in 2013 after-tax corporate earnings grew by as much as 11 percent per share. Hatzius went on to say that U.S. workers didn’t get much of a raise in 2013, leaving more profits left over for shareholders. Overall, hourly wages grew by just 2 percent in 2013, five times slower than corporate profits. So much for the market regulating wages.

We think the candidates, especially the democrats, need to recalibrate their numbers and raise substantially the minimum wages they are calling for in the years to come. That would be a great Labor Day gift, especially to the lowest paid of America’s workers.

The Greatest American Heroine You’ve Never Heard of: Why Florence Kelley Should Be the Woman on the Next $10 Bill – National Consumers League

This post appeared on the Huffington Post on July 6, 2015

The Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Jack Lew, recently announced that the newly re-designed $10 bill, slated for 2020, would feature the face of a woman to honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The announcement set the Internet ablaze with suggestions for which historical U.S. woman would adorn the new bill.

It’s about time! While this will not be the first time a woman has graced U.S. currency – Martha Washington was featured on the dollar bill in the 19th Century and Pocahontas was in a group photo that appeared on the $20 bill from 1865 to 1869 – it’s been way too long since we had an American heroine appear on paper money. Queen Elizabeth’s likeness is on bills in 15 Commonwealth countries. Frida Kahlo is featured on Mexico’s 500-peso note. Eva Peron has been celebrated on Argentina’s 100-peso note since 2012. Opera star Dame Nellie Melba appears on the Australian 100-dollar note.

Lew has said that he will be choosing a woman who “has played a major role in our history who represents the theme of democracy.” One of the National Consumers League’s founders, Florence Kelley, was a champion for equal rights and consumer protections who fought her whole life for democracy and would be an ideal candidate – a true unsung female American hero.

Though her actions are not as popularized as other women in U.S. history, she has indeed played a major role in the creation of modern America and worked tirelessly to raise awareness and influence public policy to fight the oppressive working conditions for women, children, and all workers. She may not be as well recognized in popular culture, but we all take for granted the 8-hour workday that she helped to establish and the other groundbreaking reforms in labor and consumer products for which she was responsible. Her work left a very visible mark on our nation’s history, and we now have a chance for her legacy in social justice to be acknowledged.

Here are the top ten reasons we should put #KelleyOn10.

1. Influence. Justice Felix Frankfurter said about Florence Kelley: she “had probably the largest single share in shaping the social history of the United States during the first 30 years of the 20th Century.”
2. Workers rights. The daughter of William D. Kelley, a co-founder of the Republican Party in 1859 and a U.S. Congressman from Philadelphia, 1860-1890, she was a charismatic speaker who convinced her contemporaries that women and children needed labor protections at a time when unions would not represent their interests.
3. Pioneer. After graduating from Cornell University in 1882, and obtaining a law degree from Northwestern University in 1893, she co-founded in 1898 a leading progressive era organization – the National Consumers League (NCL)– and headed the NCL until her death in 1932.
4. Progressive leadership. She fostered the creation of 64 local consumers’ leagues throughout the United States, and traveled extensively to orchestrate connections between local leagues and the national league, promoting a social justice agenda that was widely adopted by the women’s suffrage movement and other progressive movements nationwide. She inspired and mentored future Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins; Eleanor Roosevelt followed in Kelley’s footsteps.
5. Ending child labor. She was the leading champion of eradicating child labor in the United States from 1898-1932.
6. 40-hour work week. She promoted the enactment of state wage and hours laws for women, which created the foundation for the 40-hour week and minimum wage law incorporated within the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938.
7. Universal health care. She led the campaign for enactment of the first federal health care bill, the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act, more commonly known as the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921
8. NAACP leadership. In 1909 she was one of the original organizers, with W.E.B. DuBois and others, of the NAACP and served on the association’s board for 20 years. Kelley fully supported racial equality, writing in a 1926 letter, “I think there should be a written pledge from every hotel that there will be no race discrimination. Certainly I should not dream of staying in any hotel which refused to my fellow members either bed or board.”
9. Women’s suffrage. She was a prominent leader in the battle for women’s suffrage, served a Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1902, and in 1920 co-founded the League of Women Voters.
10. Consumer safety. She advocated for the Pure Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906, pioneering consumer protection laws that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Honey bees our canaries in the coal mine? – National Consumers League

For the past five or more years I’ve read with sadness and trepidation about the reduction in pollinating bee populations. This startling news seemed like the ultimate canary in the coal mine warning. Bees are dying out because of something awful we are doing to our environment, but what is it that we are doing?

Recently, I was reading a newsletter by Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment company whose board I once served on. Through this newsletter, I learned about the hardware and home improvement store, Lowe’s, phasing out neonicotinoids  (or otherwise known as “neonics”) to help preserve the bee population. Ever heard of them? I hadn’t either. But apparently, neonics are a pesticide that has sped up the decline of bees. Neonics are used in pesticides and affect the central nervous system of insects, which results in paralysis or death. Past studies have identified the neonicotinic residues from these pesticides can accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants and may pose as a risk to pollinators, including bees.

Trillium says they are a leading contributor to the global decline of bees. To its enormous credit, Trillium forced Lowe’s hand by introducing a shareholder resolution and having discussions with the company starting in 2013. Trillium withdrew the resolution when Lowe’s came to the table to talk about eliminating neonics from its retail stores.

Lowes agreed to a six-point plan of action, including educating consumers through in-store distribution of EPA and Pollinator Partnership pesticide brochures and the placement of product tags, which explain the importance of bee populations to our ecosystem.

We all owe Trillium Asset Management and Domini Social Investments for their exceptional work and ability to leverage investor concerns and passions about the environment in order to help maintain the balance of our ecosystem to protect all creatures.

Equal Pay Day – National Consumers League

Sally GreenbergWhat does Equal Pay Day mean in America? It’s a time for reflecting on why women still less than their male counterparts. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women earned 59 Cents for every dollar earned by men. That number in 2013 has inched up but still lingers at 78 cents. That’s too bad, because women are the sole bread earners in millions of families and the lack of parity in pay hurts them and their children.

What does Equal Pay Day mean in America? It’s a time for reflecting on why women still less than their male counterparts. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women earned 59 Cents for every dollar earned by men. That number in 2013 has inched up but still lingers at 78 cents. That’s too bad, because women are the sole bread earners in millions of families and the lack of parity in pay hurts them and their children. As the House Minority Leader says, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

The Economic Policy Institute reports that the higher up the economic ladder, the greater the disparity. In 2014 women in the 95th percentile of female earners made 79% of the wages earned by men, while women in the lowest 10th percentile made 91 cents for each $1 earned by men. Not surprising that 2/3 of minimum wage workers are women. What surprised me is that women with college degrees earn 78% of their male counterparts and women with advanced degrees earn 74% of what men make. And in traditionally female occupations, men even make more there! Male registered nurses out-earn female nurses by an average of $5,100 per year. This seems like rank sexism to me, and we could begin to change it with new laws in place.

And yet, in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the leadership in Congress blocked consideration of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which President Obama supported, and NCL and many other groups have campaigned for. That legislation would extend pay-equity rules to federal contractors and update the Equal Pay Act.

Women’s pay equity shouldn’t be a partisan issue. All families, whether Democratic, Republican, Independent or unaffiliated, will benefit when women earn more. This week’s Equal Pay Day is a fine time to raise these issues again – increasing the minimum wage has strong support in red as well as blue states. Equal pay for women should be right behind it. 

Breast milk for sale? – National Consumers League

The New York Times reported recently (“Breast Milk Becomes a Commodity, With Mothers Caught Up in Debate”) that companies are buying breast milk from mothers, condensing it down and selling it to hospitals for treatment for extremely premature infants in intensive care. The milk is tested for viral infections, nicotine, drugs of abuse, dilution, and adulteration. The women supplying the milk must take blood tests for infectious disease, provide notes from the doctor saying they and their baby are healthy, and must furnish DNA samples, which helps to ensure that the milk is theirs. All of which is good public policy and makes sense.

Breastfeeding is good for babies and good for mothers. Kids who are breastfed have much lower incidence of allergies and a recent Brazilian study found that they have higher IQs and are more likely to earn more. For moms, breastfeeding seems to reduce the incidence of cancer.

There’s been a lot of chatter after the Times article about selling breast milk. Another mother weighed in as well, in a piece called “Give Breast Milk,” noting that Prolacta Bioscience and Medolac are two companies that buy the milk, fortify it, concentrate it, and sell it to hospitals.  While they pay very little for the milk  – apparently $1 an ounce, compared to what they sell it to hospitals for, $180 an ounce. Sounds like an awful big mark up, even for what they do to make it effective for treating preemies.  I have no problem with women selling their breast milk, but they should just get paid decently for it. 

Which brings me back to the original issue. Anything that gets more women to breastfeed is – in my view – a good thing. So paying for breast milk, especially from healthy women of limited means, seems like a fine idea. Men are paid for their sperm; why shouldn’t women sell their breast milk?  And as the obesity epidemic grows, breastfeeding can burn up to 900 calories a day and help women take off their pregnancy weight very fast. All of which seems like a win-win: Mom breastfeeds her own baby, that’s good, and then make a little extra money by pumping and selling the milk, which eventually gets used by premature infants struggling to get bigger and healthier.

I realize that not everyone agrees. The Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association is quoted in the article saying, “We are very concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies.”  Fair enough, but what if paying women for their milk increased the number who breastfeed significantly? I think that is worth the relatively benign downside the critics have cited. We just need to ensure that women are getting a fair price for their breast milk contributions.

The meningitis B vaccine must be added to the routine vaccine schedule – National Consumers League

Meningitus B (MenB) is a frightening illness. It can overtake and kill in 24 hours. College-age students who live in close quarters are the usual victims.  If it doesn’t kill, it often causes grievous injury—especially to the extremities—including loss of fingers, toes, feet, or parts of the face. While vaccines against other strains of meningitis have long been available, those for MenB have only been approved in the U.S. for a few months. Thanks to Pfizer and Novartis, we now have two effective FDA approved vaccine choices to protect against this terrible MenB strain. Unfortunately, neither is required on the routine schedule of vaccinations. 

In February, I joined with a group of advocates at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) in Atlanta to change that. At the top of ACIP’s agenda was a vote on MenB’s inclusion on the routine vaccine schedule for persons at increased risk. While the ACIP discussed various topics such as the, “Economic evaluation of vaccinating US adolescents and college students against serogroup B meningococcal disease” or “Considerations for routine use of MenB vaccines in adolescents,” ACIP wasn’t scheduled to vote on including MenB vaccines on routine schedule for adolescents. That was unfortunate, as those who came to Atlanta with personal experience about the horrors with MenB told the committee – many in graphic terms. 

Dr. Mary Ferris, student health director at the University of California Santa Barbara, a campus of 30,000 students, faculty and staff led off. In November 2013, her campus experienced an outbreak of four cases of the MenB disease. A 19-year-old lacrosse team member suffered amputations of both legs and extensive skin grafts and scarring to his arms and face. Every word she said resonated. I have excerpted her comments here:

 “I know you’re well aware of the devastating consequences of this terrible disease, but you may not know the impact it has on a university when an outbreak occurs. National news outlets camped out on the campus. There was widespread fear and even panic among students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding city. The local school district initially prohibited our student teachers from their sites, and parents drove in to remove their children from the campus. Our campus childcare center asked student volunteers to stay away. Parents demanded that we close the campus, and others did not want their students to come home for Thanksgiving holidays. Our local public health department and CDC had to establish special phone lines to handle the large volume of incoming distress calls. We greatly appreciate all the help they gave us, including handling even international media attention, but we would have much rather avoided this disaster completely by protecting our students in advance with a vaccine that covers MenB. Outbreaks WILL happen again at other colleges, and in fact is happening right now at the University of Oregon, where they are struggling to find a source to pay for the vaccines. Even ONE CASE in a college setting has major repercussions on the institution, and most colleges will not have the resources to pay for vaccines when the outbreaks occur.

We need the ACIP to establish MenB vaccine as part of routine adolescent immunizations, so that our entering students can be protected before they arrive on campus and are exposed to meningococcus, not just after an outbreak occurs. We also need your recommendation for vaccination before college entry so that we can enforce it as an entrance requirement along with MCV4 coverage. The majority of our students are the first generation in their families to attend college, and they come from low income families that will not be able to afford this vaccine unless it is included in their health insurance coverage.” 

That is exactly NCL’s position.

The father of a young boy who tragically died of MenB last year spoke of his grief at this terrible event and asked the ACIP why MenB is not on the routine schedule. Andy Marzo, who contracted MenB as a college student in Kansas, described what it felt like to spend weeks in intensive care, his family not knowing whether he would live. And how it felt to lose all of his fingers—he has one remaining thumb—and portions of both feet. His care cost $2 million. Andy has no idea how he contracted MenB. That’s a universal theme among patients. Most are healthy and active. Andy had never spent a day in the hospital and was a healthy and happy journalism student when the infection struck. He gave me a signed copy of his book ,which is a riveting account of his ordeal. 

Frankie Milley lost her only child, Ryan, 18 years old, to MenB. She turned tragedy into action by forming the Meningitis Angels. Their mission: Meningitis Angels educates the public, health professionals, child care facilities, schools and universities on not only meningitis but other vaccine preventable diseases and the preventions including vaccines, through personal stories, our educational brochures, posters and videos.

The Angels’ video details the tragedy of menB. She implored the Committee to include the MenB vaccine on the routine schedule. 

NCL applauds the Meningitis Angels for their advocacy on vaccines and for mobilizing their members to lobby state legislatures and Congress, to educate consumers on the importance of vaccines and to attend meetings at the CDC and advocate for widespread vaccination.

Adding a vaccine to the recommended schedule is not without controversy. All vaccines cost money—MenB is around $130 a dose. Novartis’ vaccine is two doses spread out over a few months. Pfizer’s is three.  Requiring these on the routine schedule means health plans have to cover them. 

CDC, like other government agencies, does a cost benefit analysis to determine whether the expense is justified. But after I listened to the director of health in Santa Barbara, to patients, and to parents of deceased children talk about the ravages of this terrible disease, the cost of vaccinations is tiny compared to the cost of treatment, which in many cases exceeded $2 million per patient.

Frankie told me that she has been accused of being in the “pocket of industry” by the very destructive anti-vaccination groups that—in my view—traffic ignorance and fear.

Supporting the efforts by companies that develop these critical vaccines to get these lifesaving products out into the community makes sense. How someone could say to a mother who lost a child to a very preventable disease is to be faulted as too close to industry is beyond me. 

Dr. Ferris from Santa Barbara notes that other outbreaks will and have happened at other schools and that is critical to know. I worked with my own son’s health office at Oberlin College to order the vaccine for him. He lives in a dorm and plays on a sports team. He’s in the demographic that is susceptible to this disease. I’d like the see his college inoculate every student on campus and have encouraged them to do so. Until that happens, I’m going to make sure he is protected.

Vaccines have all but wiped out diseases like polio, German measles, diphtheria, influenza, mumps, small pox, measles, and many others that in previous generations caused the death and disability of millions of children and adults. They are safe and they are very effective. We join with the Meningitis Angels in asking ACIP to include MenB on the routine schedule. NCL’s letter and statement at the ACIP meeting are attached.


Why maintaining 529 tax benefits was the right decision – National Consumers League

Sometimes, even people you respect do stupid things. I’m talking about the Obama Administration’s proposal for taxing families that put money into 529 college savings plants. Right now, parents can set aside funds for their kids’ college education which gets invested in mutual funds and any growth in investment is tax free. In other words, when your son or daughter is ready for college, if you put $20,000 away and it’s now worth $30,000, that $10,000 gain goes untaxed. 

So according to Ron Lieber, financial columnist for the NYT, the proposal would have the IRS hitting families with capital gains tax on the increases from the investment going forward, but also grandfathering the proposal to tax past gains. I admit to having a direct stake in this. We’ve been saving for my son’s college tuition since he came into the world. He’s now a sophomore in college and that 529 fund has paid his tuition. There’s no way we could have paid the hefty cost of college without those savings.  Don’t we want to reward families who put away money for their kids’ college education? Why would we ever take away those tax advantages?

According to Lieber, it was an idea that was never going to happen but it was floated. The idea is that people who have enough money to put away for college savings could part with some of it and pay higher taxes. But Lieber also noted that

money from affluent families have helped lower administrative costs in the 529 plans, which used to be much too high. Everyone benefits from that, including families with less money. There was also the fear that if there’s little or no tax advantage, wealthier families wouldn’t invest in 529s, forcing many states to close down their plans. That would discourage people with less from saving what they can.

The Administration didn’t press forward with the plan. “I think what they failed to recognize is how proud parents are of their decision to set aside money for college,” said Joe Hurley, the founder of a “It isn’t money for a fishing boat. It’s money that they are sacrificing. Anything that threatens that is essentially telling them that they did the wrong thing when they felt like they did the right thing.” That’s right. And that’s why this idea of taxing growth on 529s made no sense and was a sure fire way to get people riled up and angry.  Glad the story has a happy ending and they scratched the plan.


Wage stagnation may threaten democracy itself – National Consumers League

Why have wages stagnated so badly in the US compared to Australia and Canada? The report notes that while US wages have stagnated and not gone up, since 2000, Canadian wages have risen 10 percent and wages in Australia by 30 percent. A group of eminent economists has taken on that question and developed a detailed analysis—to be issued imminently—of this vexing problem in a project underwritten by the Center for American Progress. 

Their report includes this statement: “Today, the ability of free market democracies to deliver widely shared increases in prosperity is in question as never before. This is an economic problem that threatens to become a problem for the political systems of these nations and for the idea of democracy itself.”

These statements were not written by followers of Karl Marx or Frederick Engels (Engels, by the way, was a socialist whose work was translated first by Florence Kelley, NCL’s indomitable first leader). The report’s authors include Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin and former White House economic adviser Larry Summers.

What does the report recommend? Among other things, helping to ensure that more people attend and finish college, more intervention in the free market on behalf of the poor and working class. For example, Canada and Australia have more generous childcare and family leave, they impose higher taxes on the affluent, and they impose stronger regulations on banks and financial institutions. But of greatest impact is that workers have more power and there is higher union concentration.

Some believe this report will be an important document for Democratic and Republican candidates as we go into the 2016 presidential campaign. Its premise is that democracy and freedom are threatened when not everyone shares in prosperity and when income disparities get so out of whack that the top 5 percent earn as much as the bottom 95 percent. If Australian and Canadian citizens can enjoy a 10-30 percent increase in wages, certainly the richest country in the world can afford to share our affluence across the economic spectrum. The health of our democracy depends on it.