Coupon Power! Is The Right To Sue More Important Than Jobs?

Why can the American public not save jobs, stop the sell-off of public property at bargain rates to private interests, protect our private records, halt the sale of Uzies for recreational purposes, or have traffic laws enforced?

We did win one fight. We managed to make General Mills, with its nearly $18 billion in annual sales, back down after it changed its coupon policies, so let’s find a way to use the power of public opinion for greater good. Please use the reply box at the bottom of this blog to provide suggestions – you won’t forego any rights if you do.

A bit of background, if necessary: General Mills established a new requirement that disputes from those using its “benefits,” including coupons, would have to be submitted to binding arbitration rather than the courts, but after four days of backlash, the company behind brands like Cheerios, Wheaties and Pillsbury, was so scared that it will allow us to sue it again, as Stephanie Strom of the N.Y. Times reported.

If the public is able to weigh in with such force to maintain its right to be litigious — a right most of us will never use — how can we use the weight of public opinion to persuade corporations, and even our problematic local, state and federal governments, to take measures more likely to be of greater worth to us, like promoting job growth and a reliable banking system?

Could we use our power to persuade Sallie Mae, the student loan firm, to bring ALL its jobs back to the U.S. and hire the students and parents who are its customers and wealth source? Could consumers target a corporation that announces job layoffs at the same time it increases executive salaries exponentially? Would our politicians and the interests that own them take note that the natives are finally restless?

Surely part of the reason why we do not recognize and claim our public clout for greater good is a lack of focus – unemployment is a more complex issue than the right to sue, and the corporate-government alliance that has decimated U.S. manufacturing is murkier and more diffuse than one corporation, even the mega-sized General Mills. As is the case with General Mills, it would have to be one corporation at a time and we would have to protest layoffs that don’t involve ourselves.

To be fair to processed food companies, they are struggling in the courts. Strom pointed out in her earlier story that General Mills has been plagued by suits – like the one it settled in late 2012 when it had to take the world “strawberry” off the label for its Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups because the product did not contain strawberries.

Even now the Supreme Court is considering arguments over whether Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand misled consumers when it put only traces of pomegranate and blueberry in its pomegranate-blueberry blend. Coke’s lawyer said the public was too sophisticated to be misled by its label. After Justice Anthony Kennedy told her that he himself had thought it was pomegranate juice, Justice Antonin Scalia opined that Justice Kennedy “sometimes doesn’t read closely enough.” It sounded like a rare day of fun for the justices.

Would Americans be galvanized to action if what sophisticated writers call “the hallowing out of the middle class” involved saving fifty cents off a box of cereal or provoking some laughs? As it is, thanks to General Mills’ capitulation we should be able to sue processed food companies for some time and the good will generated by Poppin’ Fresh, better known as the Pillsbury Doughboy, has been restored.

Confessions of A Poll Worker

I volunteered to work the polls to improve voting in New York City. Instead I became part of the challenge. If you meet me Nov. 5 I will do my best, but now we are using optical-scanning machines. I have not so much as seen one since I was trained on August 19 when 12 hours of training were crammed into six because we had to learn the scanner as well as the lever machine for the primary. My section never discussed write-in voting, but no matter. That wasn’t on the test.
Don’t despair. Assisting the first few voters on Election Day might enable me to get the hang of it, and I may have the guidance of a more experienced poll worker. I myself voted on a scanner last year when the confusion at my polling place during the presidential election inspired me to volunteer with the Board of Elections so I can help you this year.
You might remember me from the primary election, if you are one of the 22 percent of registered Democrats and 13 percent of registered Republicans who bothered to vote. Less likely, you encountered me at the Public Advocate run-off when only 6.7 percent of registered Democrats appeared. On that day to break the afternoon lull we poll workers broke into spontaneous applause when voters showed up. They must have known they were special because when they departed, they waved good-by in the grand manner of the British royal family.
Do you wonder what motivates us poll workers? Some believe in civic duty. Most are in it for the pay, which works out to about $13 an hour for a sixteen-hour day with two hours of breaks that are not always honored. We start at 5 a.m., sometimes far from home. One colleague, a social worker, told me that he volunteered after receiving a notice to tell his clients to sign up to be poll workers and earn extra cash.
Meanwhile, here’s a peek at a few things we’d rather you did not know: on primary day, one of the two coordinators at my election site whom we will call Susie told us to forget what we had learned in training. She observed that everything we were doing was irrelevant because “things are being decided at a very high level.” Whether her problem was corruption or medication levels, I will never know. However, detecting certain mood swings and her lack of interest my colleagues and I turned to the other coordinator, whom we’ll call Mary, who had conducted trainings and insisted on doing everything “by the book.” When the polls closed, Mary announced that as a result of working with Susie, she would never work the polls again. She may have meant it because when we returned a few weeks later for the runoff for Public Advocate, Susie was the only coordinator on site and she managed alone.
Also, the closing of the polls, when tallies and back-ups are recorded, gets a bit slapdash because we are all eager to leave. On primary night I ended up as chairman of my election district because no one else wanted to sign the time sheets and tallies. After hurried hubbub or retrieving forms, I signed and sealed support materials and gave them to a police officer who signed a receipt. But then Susie discovered I had left out something important. No matter. I snatched the package away from the surprised officer, peeled off the seals, inserted the missing item, and sealed it up again. Work done! A few weeks later on the night of the runoff Susie hurried me even more, herself pressured by the menacing woman collecting our blunt-end scissors who was ready to go.
If you don’t like our methods, you could demand that the New York City Board of Elections do a better job of training and recruitment, possibly calling for volunteers at places of worship, libraries and through public service announcements. Possibly outreach should be less about a payday for good people who need money and more about voting. However, what matters most is better training and improved management. You could write officials to demand a more organized process and back that up by actually turning out to vote yourself.
I swear it does matter. When I was a teenager in the segregated South people died fighting to claim the right to vote. Partly because of them, I saw candidates elected throughout the country who expanded possibilities for millions of Americans and for the mandate for peace. Then officials were elected who put the brake on those expansions. So that’s why I get a little serious about voting. Often I don’t like the candidates, so I write one in, which reminds me to check my manual to learn how you can do that too.

But whatever happens, I don’t think you have to worry about the accuracy of the vote unless it’s really close. Poll watchers from both parties and from all candidates check on us through the day and each writes down the final count at night. Checks and balances for an accurate count are in place, but they are above my level, which is not the level where I deal with you.

Your Identity or Your Life, Jobseekers, Submit to Abuse

Target Corp. just announced that it would stop running criminal background checks on potential employees. Good, because among other things the practice discriminated against needy, capable senior citizens who committed minor infractions during the Summer of Love. Worse yet, job applicants must supply their Social Security numbers and birth dates to people who may expose them, however unwittingly, to identity thieves.  No one could quibble if responsible Human Resources personnel checked into those in the final stages of the hiring process on any level, but today a job application form with a low wage employer — or even a classy one — is like something one should fill out before being approved for a U.S. ambassadorship. This has disturbing implications for all of us.

Some (not Angela Merkel or Edward J. Snowden) would say we are paranoid to protect our little-people identity and guard the on-ramp to all our financial information, so let us monetize this issue. The Internal Revenue Service says it mistakenly pays as much as $5.2 billion annually in tax refunds to criminals filing false returns using Society Security numbers they have stolen. The IRS estimates that known identify fraud cases have grown by 650 percent since 2008. I suspect that is due in part to exposure of personal data on the Internet. I myself was amazed to obtain the foreign passport number of my pesky neighbor when I entered his distinctive name alone into a Google search. I, of course, will use this power for good, but protecting my own information from faceless or over-eager strangers has worked against me.

Three years ago I was dumbstruck when two sympathetic, responsible women at the New York Botanical Garden asked for my Social Security number and birthdate the first (and only) time they interviewed me for a position in their public relations department. Not having looked for a job in a while, I said I knew they would need that information if I became a finalist for the job. I never heard from them again. The request shocked me and felt like a horrible violation. Common sense indicated it was a terrible risk.

Yesterday to prove my point I applied for entry sales jobs at New York City stores. Target’s on-line application required my Social Security Number. When I did not supply it, I could not proceed. CVS asked for my date of birth explaining that it wanted to send age-appropriate ads (mascara and condoms vs. adult diapers and Medicare spam). Then CVS “proposed” that I take an optional survey. When I tried to take advantage of my proffered right to decline, pop-up boxes insisted that CVS really wanted me to take it. Then I had to agree to a privacy policy that would have permitted robocallers to “contact” me and would have allowed CVS to disclose my information to “third parties.”  I declined other CVS opportunities (I don’t know how many jobs they have anyway because they use check-out machines instead of cashiers).  Macy’s wanted me to take a tax survey. I declined, but after more coaxing pop-ups, I agreed because this was clearly the only way to apply. The first question on the survey was my Social Security number and my age — literally whether I was over or under 40. Then we proceeded to the question about the year I graduated from high school. I would hate to be a 41 year old single mother, unless I had a job in a human resources department. What do these people do nowadays or have they all been laid off? We might not be getting jobs, but we sure are getting ads and robocalls.

The Grim Reaper Is Watching You

I was reading news on my computer when the image of a charming little building caught my eye. Clicking on the irresistible piece of architecture in the corner of my screen led to a true experience of what targets we have all become and why the Internet is “free.” It made me wonder if the National Security Agency could think I am dying. Here’s what happened:

When the weather turned pleasant I decided to make a pilgrimage to Woodlawn Cemetery and the graves of Herman Melville and Nellie Bly. Having visited Père-Lachaise, Novodevichy, Forest Lawn, and Greenwood in Brooklyn, I expected Internet searches to produce tourist-friendly information about public transportation, the visitors’ entrance gate (Jerome Avenue or Webster Avenue?) and a map of notable resting places. Since I would lead a friend through the 400 acres of this National Historic Landmark in the Bronx, and I had the energy for only a few relevant ones, I kept going back to the website, checking the directions, and studying the MTA trip planner. I googled Woodlawn Cemetery many times.

At the last minute, I went alone to the Bronx. While I did not have a map, I did have one particular experience – the sight of a miniature Parthenon set in the middle of an oval of velvet green lawn maybe 60 feet in diameter. It was the resting place of none other than Jay Gould. I was brooding over his robber baron ways, his capture of 19th century railroads and corner of the gold market, when I stumbled badly. I found that my foot was buried in a rare hole on that smooth expanse of lawn. I limped away, a wounded sophisticate unwilling to believe that the wily Gould had reached out to a disapproving mortal.

Hole is obscured to the far right

Hole is obscured to the far right

Woodlawn Cemetery fascinated me and inspired more research into various mausoleums and their contents and architects while I iced my ankle back at home.

Soon thereafter the charming image appeared in the corner of my computer screen. My click detonated it into an ad exhorting me to “Prepare for Eternity.” The charming dwelling, a cross between a folly and an arboreous weekend retreat, was in fact a little house of death. For weeks a mausoleum border appeared on every site I visited. It was on the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph. Whatever site I visited, I was greeted by the same call to “Prepare for Eternity.” Swimoutlet.com had been insistent too, but I had bought their goggles. Turns out that mausoleums are products too. One even erupted into my face on a pop-up ad.

I can live with mortality, but I don’t like being stalked. Death haunts us all, but algorithms hunt us down. Research “Woodlawn Cemetery” and “mauseolum” fifteen times in three days and see what happens. You’ll be preparing for something too.

Democratization in Action at the New York Public Library

I brought my camera to the New York Public Library to take pictures of tourists taking pictures of me. They seemed annoyed about it. Maybe I distracted them from shooting door jambs, windows, and people who were actually using books – books that arrive as many as five days after we request them. Welcome to the Rose Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, once better known as The New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

Good thing no patron needed these books

Good thing no patron needed these books

Library trustees and administrators have proposed a controversial $300 million-and-counting renovation involving starchitect Norman Foster, and the proposed sale of two major branches at prices attractive to developers, in part to “democratize” the library. One can infer that they want to rescue the library from overuse by those elitists known as Researchers who have hogged the place for years for their own narrow purposes. The library board and trustees might disdain academic scholarship, but they should know that Researchers using the New York Public Library include DeWitt Wallace who co-founded The Reader’s Digest; Robert Caro whose magisterial biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson have corralled multiple prizes and illuminated significant aspects of our history; and Betty Friedan, author of the world-rocking Feminine Mystique.
Although there are rooms dedicated for researchers who qualify for them, through its century of history, scholars and the public have used the library side by side, not as a carnival boardwalk but as a place to learn and grow. Alfred Kazin wrote in New York Jew of tracing the development of American literature as he delighted in the Americans he found there: “Street philosophers, fanatics, advertising agents, the homeless – passing faces in the crowd. I liked reading and working out my ideas in the minds of that endless crowd walking in an out of [Room] 315 looking for something – that Depression crowd so pent up, searching for puzzle contests, beauty contests, clues to buried treasure off Sandy Hook…” Kazin felt himself “entangled” in their hunger and was glad of it.
As I read Kazin’s words in the North Hall, that half of the Reading Room that is designated a “quiet zone,” two howling children surged past crowded tables of readers. Their mother caught up to them at the door of the Rare Book and Manuscript and Archives Division at the far end of the room and hauled them back past us all the while continuing to drown us in a river of noise. The harried guard who finally caught up to her was clear: “You brought them into the wrong room.” So she carried them into the South Hall of the Reading Room that is not a Quiet Zone where their sounds proceeded to build.
Is the success or value of a hospital measure by how many patients have visitors and how many screaming children fill their cafeterias? Would it help the trustees and administrators, who clearly don’t use the library, to know that the library is sufficiently democratized so that it is hard to find a seat in the Reading Room if one arrives after noon Monday through Saturday or after the Library opens Sunday at 1 p.m.?
Meanwhile, tables and chairs are virtually unused in The Edna Barnes Solomon Room on the third floor, formerly for special exhibitions. It has been repurposed for wi-fi, with no book deliveries allowed. What a pity that this near empty cavern, which the library rents it out for parties, could not have been used for the Asian, Middle Eastern and/or Slavic divisions that have been closed. Many other less specialized research collection books have been moved off-site to New Jersey and the Bronx, which is why it takes several days to get a book. One might not complain if archaic texts on obscure topics (the kind undemocratic Researchers would want) had been exiled, but books in demand are out of ready reach as well. “Childhood and Society,” Erik H. Ericson’s classic study that won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been seminal to Researchers (those creeps!) seeking to foster human development and to thousands of college students through the years, is kept off-site. After I requested it from my home computer, it took three days to arrive at the Reading Room. I read my long-awaited book as far as page 219 when I discovered that the next 18 pages had been cut out. The librarian I brought it to advised me to buy a copy at The Strand Bookstore “for very little money,” because he solemnly said, “This library is not about books anymore.”
Another librarian checked the computer to learn that two other off-site copies of “Childhood and Society” were also in use, one at the Science Industry Business Library, which library trustees seek to sell off at an attractive price to a developer, and the other at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I had waited longer than I intended and I needed to finish that book by nightfall, so I used more of the day travelling. “Childhood and Society” was sold out at the Strand, where I hoped to find a discounted used copy, so I went to Barnes & Noble where for $18.95 plus tax I bought a copy of the book that my tax dollars had purchased for the public library patrons. Even as an author myself with my own books to sell, I want New York library patrons to be able to use the books that their tax dollars pay for. However, Mr. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a private equity and financial advisory firm, a man whose name is on the building, might approve that I had been forced to spend my Researcher finances instead of using up his library. Could it be that someone could consider a member of the public who uses public resources a deadbeat? Maybe that is the whole mindset behind “democratization” of a library that was once maintained as a resource to be used by the people and not just photographed by them as it turns from a temple of democracy into event space.