Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Volunteers of America or Latter Day Serfs?

Wages are stagnating, corporations are sitting on record profits and still not hiring, income disparity is at its most extreme ever, and governments  are crying poverty after giving huge tax breaks to those same money-hoarding corporations.
So what is a jobless person to do?  There is an alternative to wallowing in despair, people. Relieve your boredom and boost your self-esteem by working for free!  Call it what you want – volunteering, unpaid internship, being on the giving or receiving end of mentoring – unpaid labor is here to stay.  Wealthy business owners love it, and it seems there is an unending supply of willing slaves out there, eager for some real-life work experience and on the job training. And just think of your noble, selfless contribution to somebody else’s bank account!  It’s called vicarious satisfaction. And if you’re a conservative, it’s called patriotism, because you do not belong to a union, and the FICA Social Security contribution never raises its ugly socialist head.

Today’s New York Times has an article about a financially strapped California town using volunteers to perform routine police work, since it can no longer afford to pay a full department of trained cops. Unpaid workers range from retirees working the phones to young millennials learning the ropes in hopes of getting some remunerated gig sometime in the future.  This is taking the “neighborhood watch” program to a whole new level. As a volunteer, you can now dust for fingerprints and even use the law enforcement computer data base to track down DMV records (and spy on your neighbors).  The more I think about it, though, the more this whole set-up sounds a little creepy.  I don’t think I would want some unemployed Law and Order SVU junkie showing up at my house to investigate a burglary. Police work by its very nature attracts a lot of psychos and control freaks too, which is why big departments like the NYPD so rigorously screen applicants   You have to be psychologically squeaky clean before  they let you anywhere near a uniform and a badge. (and a gun).
And then there’s the huge world of unpaid bloggers, who used to be called free-lance writers. This category of unremunerated work got a lot of press recently when The Huffington Post was sold to AOL for mega-bucks.  The site, which relies heavily on recycled news and the aforementioned bloggers, did and still does get its revenue from computer-generated ads. Arianna Huffington, the founder, has been called upon to share her windfall with all her poor contributors by way of back pay and salaried positions. So far, that is not happening. Perhaps the most egregious example of a Huffington Post journalist who never got paid is Mayhill Fowler, who broke the story of Obama’s infamous “they cling to their guns and religion” remarks at a presidential campaign fund-raiser.  She didn’t get paid for that story, nor was she ever paid for the two years she continued to slog and blog for the millionairess Arianna, author of the best-seller “Third World America”.  I hadn’t known that Fowler was a “volunteer” or that Arianna apparently had kept her stringer stringing along all that time. I used to think Huffington was a witty, charming, albeit publicity-hungry progressive. I no longer think that way. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, I will avoid her like the plague.  The last time I checked in at the HuffPo, Arianna was blogging about (and paying herself for)  a tweetfest she had with Bill Maher at the Vanity Fair Oscar party.  The woman is a name-dropper as well as  a phony liberal. A few weeks ago, she let slip that  she was reporting from Davos, in between hobnobbing with other members of the rich and famous set, and waxing rhapsodic about the Egyptian demonstrators. So, byebye Huffy, you who hang out with Muffy, Buffy and Biff, and the whole hip, limousine liberal crowd.
Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I am also something of a willing-victim type, in that I frequently “comment” for free  on New York Times op-eds. As much as the powers that be at the Times don’t admit it, the comments threads are at least as popular as the paid columnists’ contributions, if not more so.  Hits generate mucho ad revenue - for them.  We get paid with “readers’ recommendations” though…. The more “Rs”, the closer to the top of the pile we climb. And then there is the coveted Big Blue Box  (“highlight”) that the 20-something J-School grad moderators award the most “interesting and thoughtful” contributions.  The highlights, in my humble opinion, are about equally divided among truly fine comments, truly off the wall ones (usually the lone right-wing viewpoint out of a hundred by the choir of liberals), and the inane.  One recent comment which the moderators deemed highlight- worthy simply said “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”
But I digress. Let’s get back to volunteerism.  I recently wrote a post titled “Jackboots for Obama” which told of a recruitment effort by “Organizing for America”. This thinly disguised Obama reelection campaign arm of the Democratic National Committee is seeking “interns” for a summer training program that aims to put “boots on the ground” to get some sort of message out to the neighborhoods of America. It sounds a lot like the Christian right’s movement conservatisim, just with a neo-liberal twist, or fascism-light.  I did some more investigating, and it turns out that in order to be accepted as an intern trainee, you must commit to 40 hours a week with no pay, no transportation costs, and no compensation of any kind. OFA will, however, attempt to find you housing in whatever outpost to which you are assigned, but there’s no guarantee.  Then, once you "graduate" you will continue your unpaid work by recruiting even more unpaid volunteers to knock on the doors of America.
Here’s where it gets dicey. The Department of Labor has very strict rules about unpaid internships. Rule Number One states that in order to qualify, the program must provide a greater benefit to the intern than it does to the employer. In other words, the employer must be able to demonstrate, among other things, that the training/internship will qualify participants for future employment. And that is exactly what OFA is claiming. “Be a community organizer!” the email enthuses. We’ll show you how! Opportunity beckons.
Actually, opportunity does not beckon, not be a long shot. Obama himself just cut funds for such initiatives in his own budget proposal (to show his  conservative street cred) and House Republicans this week eliminated the Corporation for National and Community Service and  an additional $1.4 billion for community organization programs such as Habitat for Humanity, City Year and Americorps.  Talk about job-killing!
Since it is doubtful that Hilda Solis, Obama’s labor secretary, will ever investigate the OFA “internship” program, volunteers who feel they are being, or have been, taken advantage of can always sue for back pay. At least that’s what labor attorneys are saying about similar cases. AOL (new owner of HuffPo) had to settle with its unpaid news blog moderators recently after being sued under federal Wage and Hour statutes. The ball, so to speak, is in the workers’ court.  And there is precedent, incidentally, for presidential campaigns paying its workers.  The John Kerry campaign paid some students $300 a week to work the phones and distribute literature. Of course, that was during the boom years of high employment and before Wall Street crooks tanked the economy.  And Obama did say we must all tighten our belts and share the sacrifice.  That presumably also entails working for him just for the sheer joy of it.  See you in court, Mr. Prez, and I don't mean the basketball court!  Maybe you and Arianna can have a tweetfest while the jury is out.


Anne Lavoie said...

Your previous post about Jackboots for Obama with their military undertones, in addition to this one, has me speculating.

I wonder if Obama isn't also using the military troops in his re-election campaign. While freezing wages for 'all' federal employees, he gave the troops a raise. He and Michelle have gone the extra mile to praise and show extraordinary support for the military while all but neglecting the plight of the poor.

Having worked for a time as a civilian nurse on an Air Force base, I can tell you there is a lot going on in terms of organizing on those bases. At the time, it was the Christian groups and they were using gmail and government facilities. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if there wasn't an active branch of OFA in the military too, and not exactly a spontaneous one. Why leave any stone unturned.

Draft Spitzer said...

Wow, that was an eye-opener - especially the last part about OFA.
But I have to say, the highlighted "Ha ha ha" (ad naus.) comment was brilliant. Wasn't it in response to Brooks' puffery on Lieberman? Words had failed that commenter, understandably. He (or she) "felt" our exasperation.
Usually when I comment, I find it difficult not to type: "Winning. Progressive. Is. Neither." But I don't, in part because I assume someone already has, and I just missed it.Beside Karen and Marie's most recent knockout comments, there was one truly funny comment made in response to the whole ponderous "what year is it?" in Egypt thread. Was it 1989? 1938? And so on. One guy wrote in that, No, it was 1958, the day Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper went down... The day the music died.

cassandra vert said...

Karen, I just discovered this blog, love your writing, and wonder why I haven't run into you before.

I'd like to talk to you more, but I don't see contact info. I am cassandra at buythebookcv dot com. I am also with, which is a brand new progressive group--our web site is still under construction.

Draft Spitzer said...

Sorry,1959, not '58.
PS:Karen, I've always wished you'd run an open contest for commenters, judged in conjunction with Marie, to write the best mock David Brooks column. It would be funny to release the entries at the exact same time the Times releases the Brooks column - I wonder how close to the mark readers could anticipate Brooks' exact schtick-du-jour.

Karen Garcia said...


My email is

And Anne, interesting about the military connection. Michelle is really into those military families - and note that the 2012 DNC Convention is right near Fort Bragg. (Not many protesters in military enclaves).FLOTUS herself pointed out the desirability of the location when she sent me an exclusive email announcing it - "she" wanted me to be the first to know, can you imagine that?

I have nothing against the military families per se, but I do agree that FLOTUS seems to be lauding their "sacrifices" more than is seemly, given the unpopularity of the war and the suffering among the civilians at home. I mean, suffering should be an equal opportunity employer.

Remember, too, that the National Guard will be there when the peasants take to the streets. And probably Blackwater/XE too.

Karen Garcia said...

Dear Draft Spitzer/Eva:

Great idea! I hereby solicit mock columns for Brooks, Douthat, Fried-man, as well as Winning Progressive parodies. The winners will receive publication of their posts. Email em to me and I'll cut and paste, just like the astroturfers do on the comments boards!

cassandra vert said...

I always thought that the Obamas were making a point of appreciating our military:

1. Because they are volunteers, not that there are a lot of alternatives out there
2. Because they are being asked to do more than they expected, more tours of duty, etc.
3. To distinguish the soldiers, whom we like, from the wars, which we don't.
4. To counteract the hard right Christian recruiting
5. Because when the corporate private armies like Xe rise up to subdue the rest of us--and I do think that includes Obama--we want to be able to fight back with more than books.

Draft Spitzer said...

I think Michelle's military family thing is good politics, and good sense. I spent a year on an Army base as a kid, tho I can't claim there was any love between my folks (there's that 'vord' again, Karen!) and the Army. My urban, ethnic parents were the only mixed race couple on the base at the time, and they considered that year of service to be something akin to "cracker hell", which was unfortunately not at all fair to the community.
The military is now one of the most integrated institutions in the US. Now if we could just get them all home to their families!
Tho, sorry, I can't say Obama is one of us when he does ZERO for the teachers, and routinely disses Paul Volcker. He's on the side of the malefactor banks.
Separately, I propose a topic for the Brooks contest: "King Lear and the Estate Tax."

Anne Lavoie said...

To cassandra vert:

Or just as likely, the 'appreciation' is due to Obama's guilt over sending troops into profit-making wars to die, be physically and mentally maimed and crippled, and permanently brain damaged; for the endless mental suffering and anguish of their families; and for all the grieving children who have lost their fathers or mothers, the young wives who have lost their husbands, the sisters and brothers who have lost their best friends. I assume he feels some guilt. He should.

Draft Spitzer said...

Spock doesn't comprehend guilt.
I'm kidding.
Seriously, though, you got to the heart of it. It shouldn't be about Michelle, or politics. It should be a rational conclusion for us to get the hell oit of those 2.5 wars.

turnipseed said...

I never thought Arianna Huffington was anything but a rich, spoiled, name-dropping opportunist.

I am, consequently, very happy to have found Reality Chex and now, Sardoniky, as much better representatives of the political left. Both are ad free and I would be happy to go to a subscription model rather than start seeing, "get a flat stomach...." off to the side. I don't feel good that the Ms's Burns and Garcia are writing brilliantly for free, so if the NY Times won't at least give them a guest spot on the ed page, I'm willing to subscribe to keep reading them.

Janet Camp
Milwaukee, WI

Anonymous said...

I work as a volunteer in CA obtaining clinical training to become a therapist. The non profit I work for forces me to answer phones, clean the kitchen (1 month per yr) turn in spreadsheets, attend training on specific hours which are mandatory, and recently told me that they are requiring me to attend an additional meeting. I think 75% of the time I actually do therapy work (write progress notes, lead group therapy, research, and do individual therapy). I feel exploited because even though I agreed to working 15 hrs I am now working 20 hrs and only 10-15 of those are therapy related. If I don't attend a 'mandatory training' I get the cold shoulder and feel like it's a repercussion. I want to sue for backpay but I'm scared and don't know how.

Anonymous said...

Dear Karen Garcia:

I am here on your blogpost as a result of following your link from one of your NYTimes comments. I always wondered why you were not a PAID contributor due to your persistence and quality of resonse comments to the NYTimes articles.

I tried to open your "profile" but it was a blank page. I'm not sure if that's your attempt to be ironic but I am interested in your '360' and whether you also write for publications.