Signs of Life :: Winter 2010

Small stories about big change
Portland Dry Cleaning Sign, photo by Igor Smirnoff

A Portland, Oregon, dry cleaning business helps out the unemployed, October 2009.

© Igor Smirnoff.


  • Seeds of a Movement for the Unemployed


  • Can Northeast States Grow Their Own Food?


  • Activists Wrangle Forest Victories from Corporations

Also ... Brazil proposes ban of new sugar cane plantations in the Amazon


  • White House Opens Visitor Log to the Public


  • River Restoration Ends Klamath

Water Wars

  • Philly Transforms Stormwater into Gardens
  • Homeland Security Addresses Rights Violations


  • In Argentina, Activists Celebrate Media Reform


Seeds of a Movement for the Unemployed

For decades, labor unions have ensured that workers have sufficient power to bargain for their rights and for a share of economic gains. But where do working Americans turn when they lose their jobs?

As the economy struggles to recover, groups in Maine, Pennsylvania, and Indiana are mobilizing the unemployed. Led by committed organizers, many of them laid-off union members, the groups’ work is reminiscent of unemployed activism that blossomed in the 1930s, and it could be an inspiration for a modern movement of the jobless.

In Indiana, the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers Initiative (UAEWI) emerged as a direct response to the 2008 financial meltdown, and is now lobbying for a seat at the bargaining table of the Northeast Indiana Regional Workforce Board. UAEWI says the Board has announced $16 million for job retraining programs, but unemployed workers currently have no say in how the money will be distributed. “We are establishing a kind of bargaining dynamic with the state … so we can actually be part of that discussion instead of objects in the discussion,” says UAEWI founder Tom Lewandowski.

The Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) has been championing the rights of the jobless since the mid-1970s OPEC recession, but their work has taken on new urgency in the last year. PUP educates the jobless on how to access state and federal unemployment compensation and pressures city, state, and federal governments to adopt policies like health care reform that will help those in financial stress.

PUP also represents homeowners facing foreclosure. In 2008, PUP organizers successfully pressured the city sheriff’s office to stop the sale of foreclosed homes. Their efforts led the Philadelphia courts to establish a program in April 2008 requiring lenders to participate in mediation with homeowners to seek new loan terms that will prevent foreclosure. The program prevented foreclosure among 80 percent of participating homeowners, according to an initial survey.

Another advocacy group, Maine’s Food AND Medicine (FAM) has emerged as a prominent voice for the state’s unemployed since its founding in 2002. FAM lobbies extensively for the unemployed and offers them classes on how to organize and take political leadership. FAM also runs a food bank.

This fall, FAM’s membership voted to focus on Solidarity Harvest, a program providing hundreds of unemployed workers with locally grown Thanksgiving meals. The campaign garnered substantial press coverage, giving FAM the chance to broadcast its messages about joblessness throughout greater Maine.

The project also helps unemployed people realize they aren’t alone. “If you’ve gotten laid off, it gives you a little bit of spirit knowing that people are trying to help you out,” says FAM member Phil Polk.

None of the three organizations has more than a few hundred members, but each relies less on formal membership than on organizing among the populations they serve.

Lewandowski hopes their efforts can spread across the country, perhaps with help from Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community outreach affiliate.

“Working America has been extremely encouraging for us and really engaged in the experimentation we are doing,” Lewandowski says. “We’ve been beginning to look around to see if there are other places in the country that might want to take up a version of this model.”

—Jake Blumgart is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Campus Progress and Publicola.


Alan Greenspan“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big …
In 1911, we broke up Standard Oil—so what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole.”

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, calls for a breakup of big financial institutions in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations.



Can Northeast States Grow Their Own Food?

Pennsylvania Farm, photo by Karen Rice

A farm in northern Wayne County, Pennsylvania.

Photo by Karen Rice.

How much of the food eaten in the northeastern United States could be produced regionally? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced $230,000 in funding to find out.

The grant was awarded as part of the USDA’s new initiative “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” which in its first week provided $65 million in support of local and regional food projects across the country through the 2008 Farm Bill.

Food in the United States travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to fridge, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Shipping food cross-country leaves a large carbon footprint and is becoming more expensive as transportation costs rise.

U.S. consumer demand for locally grown food is expected to rise from an estimated $4billion in 2002 to as much as $7billion by 2012, according to the USDA.

The Northeast food study will estimate potential crop production along the East Coast to determine where regional food production could meet current and projected demand.

—Laura Kaliebe is a freelance writer based in Seattle.



Activists Wrangle Forest Victories from Corporations

Kleercut t-shirt

T-shirt from the Greenpeace Kleercut campaign, which targeted Kleenex manufacturer Kimberly-Clark.

Fierce pressure from activists has led several major corporations to change purchasing practices linked to deforestation.

Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kleenex brand, now says it will manufacture all of its tissue products from “environmentally responsible sources,” such as recycled fiber or sustainably harvested wood.

The decision was a response to a five-year campaign led by Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other environmental activists.

As part of the campaign, students organized campus actions against Kimberly-Clark, and more than a dozen colleges and universities removed the company’s products from bookstore shelves and bathroom stalls.

The campaign prompted shareholders to introduce resolutions asking the company to make its fiber purchases more sustainable.

Greenpeace won a second series of victories after it released a report in June that linked rainforest destruction to cattle ranching. Just weeks after the report was published, the International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank Group, withdrew a loan to one of the world’s largest meat producers, Brazilian conglomerate Bertin.

In October, Bertin and three other major meat producers, JBS-Friboi, Marfrig, and Minerva, agreed to a ban on the purchase of cattle raised on newly deforested areas of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, on indigenous lands, on protected areas, or on farms that use slave labor.

Shoe manufacturers Adidas, Nike, and Timberland announced they would cancel contracts for leather products unless the producers guaranteed they have no role in Amazon deforestation and are not using slave labor.

—Laura Kaliebe



Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has proposed banning the development of new sugar cane plantations in the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands.

Sugar cane-based ethanol accounts for more than 20 percent of Brazil’s transport fuel market, but the expansion of ethanol production has resulted in deforestation and labor exploitation. Brazil’s Congress will vote on the proposal next year.



River Restoration Ends Klamath Water Wars

Klamath River Dams Protest

When the Klamath River dams came up for federal relicensing in 2005, the Karuk Tribe, Friends of the River, and International Rivers held a rally in Sacramento, California to "bring the salmon home" to the Klamath Basin. Participants marched to the steps of the state capitol, where they heard speakers from the tribes and the commercial fisheries industry.

Photo Courtesy of International Rivers.

More than two dozen environmental groups, state resource agencies, and tribes in Oregon and California recently reached a deal resolving more than a decade of water wars pitting farmers against conservationists and the fishing industry. The draft agreement, released September 30, would remove four Klamath River dams that affect more than 300 miles of salmon habitat along the Oregon-California coast.

The Klamath River once was the third most productive salmon habitat on the West Coast, but two of its original five salmon species are now extinct from the watershed, and one, the coho, is endangered.

In 2001 and 2002, farmers fought to overturn restrictions on withdrawing water from the Klamath for irrigation, but the move left too little water for salmon and contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of fish.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refused to renew hydropower licenses for PacifiCorp, the Portland, Oregon, power company that owns the dams, unless the company built fish ladders and other structures that allow salmon to migrate. Even with such improvements, estimated to cost $300 million, KIamath dams might have been denied California water quality certification. The stagnant water behind the dams frequently suffers from toxic algae blooms.

Steve Rothert of American Rivers, one of the groups to sign the new agreement, says fish populations should begin to rebound within a decade of dam removal.

—Susie Shutts

Philly Transforms Stormwater into Gardens

Philly Water Works, photo by Kristina Dymond

Philadelphia Water Works.

Photo by Kristina K. Dymond.

Philadelphia’s Water Department has proposed a plan to transform not only the city’s water system but the city itself. The plan would channel storm water through a system of porous pavement, rain gardens, green roofs, and trees.

Currently, Philadelphia’s water system is a conduit for both sewage and storm run-off. The new landscaping would absorb excess rainwater and help prevent the city sewer system from spewing untreated sewage and pollutants into Philadelphia’s surrounding rivers and streams.

The landscaping would cost $1.6 billion and take several years to build, but if the EPA approves the plan, Philadelphia could become an oasis of gardens and greenery, with cooler temperatures, better air quality, and more jobs created from the project.

The green ideas included in the plan are nothing new, but Philadelphia would be the first city in the United States to implement green stormwater engineering on such a massive scale.

—Margit Christenson is a freelance writer based in New York City.



Homeland Security Addresses Rights Violations

Immigration Detention Center Protest, photo by Tom Martinez

Members of The Rude Mechanical Marching Band livened up the protest outside an Immigration Detention Center on Varick Street in New York City. The protest was sponsored by The New Sanctuary Movement and other faith-based groups working on the issue of immigration reform.

Photo by Tom Martinez.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security announced reforms aimed at improving conditions for immigrants being held in detention centers.

On any given day, more than 32,000 immigrants—including children and refugees seeking asylum from political violence—are detained in facilities that resemble prisons.

For years, advocacy groups have conducted investigations, engaged in legal battles, and staged national vigils and protests to publicize human rights violations in detention centers.

In 2008, for example, a report by OneAmerica found that detainees at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Tacoma, Washington, suffered from overcrowding, food poisoning, inadequate food, and poor medical care.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union settled a series of lawsuits to obtain medical care and educational programming for 26 immigrant children held at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

The Homeland Security reforms will place nonviolent detainees in converted hotels and nursing homes instead of jails and detention centers, increase facility oversight, and provide better medical training for detention facility workers.

Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, says the reforms are encouraging, but “meaningful reform of the system must also focus on … why they are being detained in the first place.”

—Susie Shutts


National Equality March, photo by Samir Luther

Photo by Samir Luther.

“You have young activists and gay people from all walks of life converging on Washington, not because a national organization told them to, but because they feel the time is now.”

Corey Johnson, activist and blogger for, about the October 11th 2009 National Equality March in Washington, D.C., the largest demonstration for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered rights in over a decade. The march was organized from the grassroots in less than four months.



In Argentina, Activists Celebrate Media Reform

After years of campaigning by hundreds of the country’s civil society groups, Argentina is transforming its media regulations. As in the United States, the country’s media is controlled primarily by large corporations. A new law breaks up media ownership among commercial groups, non-governmental groups, and the government, putting two-thirds of broadcasting licenses into non-corporate hands.

Thousands gathered outside Argentina’s Congress to celebrate the law’s enactment. The bill has support from a number of prominent human rights activists, such as Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

Media giants have threatened to fight the new law in court. Critics say the law targets Grupo Clarin, a large media outlet that has openly criticized President Cristina Fernández.

—Margit Christenson



White House Opens Visitor Log to the Public

White House Visitor Log

White House visitor records available online.

“We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent … in history,” President Obama said in a speech announcing the change.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government calls the move “historic.” The government watchdog group has dropped four lawsuits against the Obama and Bush administrations under the Freedom of Information Act, and Obama has met the group’s demand for details of visits from coal industry and health insurance executives, and from religious leaders during the Bush era.

Judicial Watch, a group that challenged the secrecy of visitor logs under Bush, remains concerned that the log is not monitored by an outside group and that the policy change still allows the administration too much power to withold names deemed “sensitive.”

—Heather Purser


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