Clean up the Mississippi

Folks, it's time to move beyond the last election and look towards the future! I have something along those lines:

From Science, the AAAS weekly, Oct 18, 1996, page 331 (Science Scope):

Gulf 'Dead Zone' Worries Agencies

... what may be one of the country's biggest ecological problems -- a vast area of oxygen-depleted, nearly lifeless bottom waters in the Gulf of Mexico. ... The problem, called hypoxia ... occurs when nutrients from sewage and fertilizer runoff in rivers stimulates algal blooms. The algae then sink and decompose, draining oxygen from bottom waters. [during the floods of '93, the dead zone] doubled to 18,000 square kilometers. One result may be "significant effects" on Gulf fisheries ... Researchers have traced the nutirant source to fertilizer runoff from Midwest states.

The news clip goes on to state that the EPA and NOAA are actively monitoring the Gulf dead zone, and it includes a map of the zone, which runs along the larger part of the Louisana coast, from the mouth of the Mississippi 250 miles west to Lake Charles, and about 50 miles wide for a good part of its length.

The finger of blame appears to point to Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, and Indiana, and the problem we face is how to make something good come of it.

The worst case scenario I can imagine is that various knee jerk anti-environmentalists will react with denial when this story starts to get more widespread press coverage, pushing Republican controlledstates like Iowa into a stonewall position not terribly different from the tobacco industry's position with regard to health risks of tobacco.

Such stonewall tactics can delay any productive reaction to the story almost indefinitely, allowing the damage to be compounded without limit before anything gets done about it.

We faced a very similar situation a few decades back, when Lake Erie was seriously threatened by phosphate discharges, mostly of urban origin.

Back then, we as a nation were willing to put up with Federal regulation, forcing the abandonment of phosphate detergents in the Great Lakes basin in order to stop the eutrophication (oxygen depletion) of Lake Erie.

Today, thanks to prompt Federal and Canadian action, Lake Erie has almost completely recovered from that particular human attack, making it a remarkable example of environmental success!

Unfortunately, today, I would expect a very different reaction to attempts to solve the problem by that kind of regulatory approach. So, what to do?

Lou Licht's young company, Ecolotree, may have its hands on part of the solution: He is selling sterile hybrid poplar trees and a planting technique that allows a 30 foot wide buffer of trees to extract something over 90 percent of the nitrates from field runoff that flows through the buffer into a stream, and he proposes that planting such buffers on about 6 percent of the state's most productive farmland would solve the nitrate runoff problem while producing an attractive alternative crop -- a variety of poplar that can harvested on a 7-year cycle and can be used for structural timber, pulpwood and fuel.

I am sure that there are other alternative crops that can be planted in buffer strips to extract nitrates and convert them to something useful. ...

The point is, let's make sure someone does the research we need in the next 5 years or so to find a mix of potentially profitable ways to remove the nitrates so we don't just end up imposing the kind of regulations that turn yet more people into converts to Rush Limbaugh's know-nothing, do-nothing approach to environmental problems. We need a lot more than just one poplar plantation in Amana (the basis of Lou Licht's work) to do this!
Doug Jones
email: jones@cs.uiowa.edu
(No Street Address available)
Iowa City, Iowa

Private meter readers

I would like to ask other readers of The Progressive Populist if they have any knowledge of a company named TruChek. They are a contract utility meter reading firm. I don't know their history but I know they have arrived in Durham, N.C., to read our gas meters and we believe it is only a matter of time until they make a pitch for city utilities threatening our city worker jobs.

If anyone knows of this company, has had experience fighting them or is aware of any struggles around contracting these services I would appreciate the info.
Mark Nielson
3014 Buckingham Rd.
Durham NC 27707

Campaign reform --
a modest proposal

After contemplating the $800 million spent on the presidential campaign and the proportionate amounts spent on every campaign down to county commissioner, it occurred to me that perhaps the voters would be better served if the money were used to try and influence them more directly. I'm talking open bribery here.

For example, Bill Clinton could have spent his money sending as many as four big macs to every family in America. Locally, here on Whidbey Island, the golfer-fisherman Dave Anderson might have sent each of us a golf ball wrapped in a slab of smoked salmon. The banker Barney Beeksma could have sent each of us a small check from his bank. The beautician Mary Margaret Haugen could have sent a bottle of shampoo to each family in her district, and the septic installer, Mike Shelton, could have sent out rolls of unbleached, biodegradable toilet tissue to voters.

In any case, you get my idea. No longer would we get the visual pollution of thousands of yard signs or the dubious informative pamplets sent out by the candidates. Instead, each voter could look forward to Christmas in November as the candidates vied with each other in the race to send the bigger, the more useful or the more entertaining gift to constituents.
Michael Seraphinoff
3830 S. 530 E.
Greenbank, WA 98253

Ballots remain closed

Your September 1996 Progressive Populist says on page two (editorial "Don't hope; organize") that if Ralph Nader gets 5% of the vote for president, the Green Party will enjoy automatic ballot status in the next election.

This is not true. Each state has its own laws on how many votes a party must poll, to be on the ballot in the next election. They range from less than one-half of 1% in Michigan, to 20% in Alabama. The median vote test of the 50 states is 3%. ... In Iowa, the vote test is 2% for president or governor.

There are even a few states with no vote test. In Florida, it doesn't matter how many votes a third party polls; it can't be on the ballot in the next election unless 5% of all the registered voters in the state join the party (as indicated on voter registation forms). This is a terrible law that no third party has ever complied with. No third party in any state has managed to persuade 5% of the voters to register as members of it, since the 1910s decade.

[Also] in your September 1996 issue, letter-writer Otto Mullinax says "I would like proportional representation instead of the two-party system but not at the expense of a Republican House of Representatives".

Ironically, at the November 5, 1996 election, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives received more popular votes than Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives! Yet we still would up with a Republican majority in the House. If we had proportional representation, there would be more Democrats in the House today instead of Republicans.
Richard Winger, Editor
Ballot Access News
PO Box 470296
San Francisco, CA 94147
email ban@igc.apc.org

An abusive marriage indeed

When trouble first started brewing in the hen house (the growers first started figuring out they were being used without much compensation), the poultry companies started playing with words as a psychological method of dealing with the developing adversarial confrontations. The Tysons, ConAgras, Hudsons, OK Foods, Pilgrims, etc. said to consider our business with them as a marriage. I guess we were supposed to believe we shared a business bed and must accept anything they bothered to dish out. When one grower stated, if he was married, he wanted a divorce, the "interpretation" was promptly changed.

They said we really had only a relationship -- a business relationship. Then it was partners -- business partners. Growers asked, if in fact they were partners, would it be possible to get their 50%? We have also been told we are independent contractors when in reality we are the most dependent people there are. The contract poultry farmer is told what, where, when and how high. But, by far, the most accurate thing we have been called by our company bosses is a franchisee. Now doesn't that sound nice? It does, until you discover what franchising really is and the unfairness inherent in this business setup.

"Franchising is the new American dream. If you've been downsized or shoved aside, or if you"re just tired of making money for someone else, you can take your nest egg and buy your own golden arch," says Michael Betzold, in the National News Reporter, 11/20/96. Except in our case it was a golden chicken ranch. We took our life savings, our retirement nest egg, if you will, borrowed the remainder of the money and pursued the American dream. It was even more alluring to us because Bill, my husband, had become partially disabled. His hands had worn out from so many years in the sheet metal trade. Two carpal tunnel operations had left him without a job. We were led to believe the chicken barns were automated and you could take care of them with about an hour per house per day. We believed good money and the 'Green Acres' farm life was ahead.

The companies promised that hard work and attention to little details -- any farmer's wife could handle it -- would bring ample rewards. But as the expenses rose and the pay remained the same or sometimes even dropped and as inflation took its tole on our leftover net return, we became entangled in the web of THE FRANCHISED CHICKEN TRAP. Like many other Americans who bought into the franchise dream, we had spent our life saving to purchase a minimum wage job that buried us under a mountain of debt.

According to Betzold, "Investors take the risks while franchisors reap voyalties, commonly eight percent, on gross revenues." Sure sounds like the chicken business. Many investors, whether in chicken farming or chicken selling (such as McDonalds) have found they haven't bought freedom. They have really chased an elusive dream. Belzold correctly surmises, "In many cases profit margins are so slim that franchisees work other jobs just to meet their store's royalty payments." Unhuh.

"But franchisors insist that most store owners turn good profits and only a few disgruntled investors are complaining." Unhuh #2. "A true picture is impossible to obtain, since franchisors have no reporting requirements on any aspect of their operations. Those who have studied franchising say abuses are the result of an industry unencumbered by modern labor laws." Boy, does this Betzold have their number!

In the National News article Betzold quotes Dean Sagar, a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. John LaFalce (D-NY), who worked on a six-year investigation into franchising. "Franchising is a way for business to turn back the clock. As a franchisor, you provide nothing -- no benefits, no protections -- but you control franchisees more than any employee could ever have been controlled. Franchisees are today's equivalent of indentured servants. The only difference is that we're very sophisticated today; the trapping of people is all done financially."

"Too many franchisees sign away their rights in one-sided contracts that leave them at the mercy of large corporations," is another Betzold quote. Sound familiar? "Franchisors can get rich by 'churning' businesses--signing up new franchisees, undercutting them with new locations, closing down operators who get in financial trouble, then bringing in a new victim." Unlike Betzold, I call it recruiting new meat when the chicken companies over build in some areas to oversupply the market and thus create false competition which allows them to pay their growers less. Overbuilt complexes allow them to bring about longer layouts which helps to avoid excess disease challenges in the barns but it sure hurts the farmers bottom line. The companies also use this tactic of over expansion as leverage to make contract growers "update" their barns with "new technological" equipment changes that will provide higher profits for the companies at a direct cost to the grower. A contract grower that is kept in debt is not as likely to express his disgruntlement. Often he is given the choise to either update or take a permanent hike. Other times he is given no choises--just take a hike. What cutting off a grower accomplishes for the companies is a reduction of their labor force which leaves room for more updated barns to be built. It also makes the neighbors of the cut off grower think twice before they give them any back talk.

"It's the big guy plucking the little guy," said David Duree, a St. Louis attorney, who represents franchisees. "The little guy has no rights under a franchise agreement and few rights under the law. It's not a fair method of doing business."

"Once you get into a franchise, it's very, very difficult and expensive to get out," said Samuel Crawford, an official with the American Franchisee Assocation and advocacy group founded in 1993.

Betzold also tells us in his article, that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires franchisors to provide disclosure documents to the franchisee--a blizzard of paperwork which Sagar says is legally meaningless and "a form of indemnity for the franchisor." Franchisees typically believe the disclosure documents protect them. But a 1993 government report found that the FTC took legal action in only 2% of franchise complaints.

Betzold notes that franchisees are often treated like political orphans. According to Dean Sagar, Democrats tend to view entrepreneurs as in the business class and not part of their traditionallabor-force constituency. Republicans, who often speak in defense of small business owners, are quick to abandon their interests if they clash with big business. "This is the new labor. They're not organized or classified and they're completely unprotected. It's a work force that's not defined and not represented, confronting some of the largest corporate conglomerates."

Just like the contract poultry growers who have organized these franchisees often face reprisals from companies trying to stop them from organizing. Betzold's article states that franchisors threaten inspections and audits. Yet another--unhuh. The contract growers call it harassment and intimidation. The franchisors are so hostile that chairman Crawford of the American Franchisee Assocation estimates about 1,000 of his group's 7,500 members are anonymous.

The Betzold article says that the American Association of Franchisees and Dealers, has set up standards for the franchising industry. Additionally, AAFD chapters are trying to bargain contracts collectively. The correlations between what has happened to franchisees and contract farmers is very revealing.

Through education, many organizations, the National Contract Poultry Growers Association included, are trying to supply educational material to potential agricultural franchisees, but the bright light of opportunity seems to blind these budding entrepreneurs. The lure of the American dream of independence or the illusion of good wholesome country living is just too compelling. It's very difficult to get the perspective new contract industrialists to believe that these well known successful companies would knowingly lure them into a business deal which has the potential of financial slavery.

They yearn for their dream. They see folks who have prospered in these businesses. What they don't see is at what cost, nor do they see those who have failed. These first-time investors often do not research nor analyze enough. They have no idea that many fail through no fault of their own. After entering the franchising business many will look back and ask, "How did I get into this?"

The farmer can withstand the challenges of unpredictable weather, he can stand the ups and downs of a fickle but fair marketplace, but the one thing neither he nor the small businessman can withstand is the calculated corruption of these gargantuan multinational corporations. When the multinationals have been exposed as the scheming greedy giants that they are, it's going to be interesting to see how long Americans will put up with allowing them to financially rape unsuspecting citizens.
Marinell Strain
Public Relations
Oklahoma Contract Poultry
Growers Association

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