Richard Kirsch

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by Richard Kirsch

  • President's Insurance Announcement Keeps Eyes on the Prize

    Nov 14, 2013Richard Kirsch

    By allowing people to keep their current plans for another year, even if those plans are not compliant with the Affordable Care Act, the President has retained a focus on the most important thing: insuring more Americans.

    By allowing people to keep their current plans for another year, even if those plans are not compliant with the Affordable Care Act, the President has retained a focus on the most important thing: insuring more Americans.

    President Obama’s move today to allow people to keep their current insurance plans for a year, as long as they are told that they may be able to get better coverage at a lower cost from the new exchanges, is smart politics with little likely policy damage. It keeps the eye on the prize: getting people enrolled. That is exactly why Republicans are likely to balk.

    For years the GOP has been throwing bombs at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) based on groundless talking points (a government takeover) or pure lies (death panels). I have always had confidence that as the law was actually implemented, and those charges demonstrated to be just hot air, that they would lose any punch beyond the hard-right base. My worries have always been about those who would see themselves as being hurt  (mostly by having to pay more than they can afford for coverage) when the law began to be implemented. Those are real people with real stories. The “if you like it you can keep it” firestorm is the first explosion of that fear.

    While the fact is that most people in the individual market will do better under the ACA’s new exchanges – once they are able to get into the enrollment system and apply for subsidies – there will be some people, mostly young, healthy, with good incomes, who would prefer to keep the coverage they have. And, as I wrote last week, since bad news is both more prevalent and more powerful than good news, their stories could threaten to define the law. By discrediting the ACA, it could also suppress enrollment, particularly given the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov.

    Democrats on the Hill are a panicky lot, driven to over-react to many issues that Americans outside of the Beltway ignore. But in this case, they were right to be concerned about not responding to what people most fear about health reform, that change will threaten what they now have. It was the power of that fear which led to the “if you like it you can keep it” promise in the first place.

    While the President’s credibility has sunk, he will not be on the ballot in 2014, but Democrats in Congress will. One of those Democrats, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, hit on a solution quickly. Landrieu has always been a consistent supporter of health reform and, despite representing a Red state, was never someone we were very concerned about losing in the legislative fight over the ACA. She deeply believes that people in her state should have health coverage. She stepped up last week with a bill that would allow people who are already covered to keep their insurance, but requires their insurance companies to tell them what ACA guaranteed benefits they won’t get with their current coverage and how to apply for coverage in the exchanges. Her proposal will make up for the misleading cancellation announcements sent out by insurance companies, which often have not told their policy holders that better, subsidized coverage might be available.

    Today Obama implemented Sen. Landrieu’s proposal with one major change: his rule would only extend the coverage until the end of 2014, consistent with other delays in implementation, such as the employer mandate. His goal is to get over this current hurdle and then continue to move as many people into the exchanges as possible.

    The President’s new rule is likely to be where the policy settles, but it is not likely to end the Congressional debate. The Republicans will seek to keep the issue alive by voting to approve a bill sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton, which would not just grandfather existing policies – the President’s promise – but open them up to more people. And that bill would leave out the information about the better, more affordable exchange policies in the Landrieu legislation and Obama rule.

    Democrats may decide they need to offer a legislative alternative to the Upton bill, which could be the Landrieu proposal. The policy concern with the Landrieu proposal is that premiums will rise and the exchanges will be harmed, if the healthiest people stay out, which is why Obama wants to limit the extension to one year. While that is certainly better policy, if Democrats go the Landrieu route it won’t be cataclysmic. Fairly quickly, the number of people left with their original policies will shrink as they get older and sicker and their insurance premiums rise. And as the exchanges grow and policies outside the exchanges dwindle, more insurers will drop coverage outside the exchanges all together.

    Will Republicans accept this compromise? Of course not. Everything they’ve done for the last five years demonstrates that they would rather try to keep the issue alive politically than address people’s problems.

    The President’s move allows him and Democrats to take the high ground. The most important task – to build a solid political foundation for the Affordable Care Act and realize its purpose – is getting people more people enrolled. The experience in Massachusetts demonstrated that low initial enrollment numbers are to be expected. There is every reason to expect a huge acceleration in enrollment as the web problems get fixed and we get closer to the deadlines. Including Medicaid, there are already more than half a million Americans who will be newly-covered next year. There will be millions more by early in 2014.  And as the opponents of Obamacare and government as a positive force in people’s lives know and fear, in the end, those are the people who will count.  

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • Story Wars: Why Personal Stories Are Shaping the Health Care Battleground

    Nov 8, 2013Richard Kirsch

    It's natural for negative stories about the Affordable Care Act to have the biggest impact, but media bias is obscuring the facts.

    More than any other public policy issue, health care is very personal. So it is not surprising that personal stories are a central battleground for the public perception of the Affordable Care Act. And it is increasingly clear that this battle will be fought through the prisms of class and race.

    It's natural for negative stories about the Affordable Care Act to have the biggest impact, but media bias is obscuring the facts.

    More than any other public policy issue, health care is very personal. So it is not surprising that personal stories are a central battleground for the public perception of the Affordable Care Act. And it is increasingly clear that this battle will be fought through the prisms of class and race.

    The Affordable Care Act (ACA) would not have become law if it were not for the willingness of survivors of the nation’s health care mess – people who had lost loved ones, fought to get care after an insurance company denial, faced crippling medical costs – to tell their stories to members of Congress and the press. Many members of Congress voted for the bill, despite the political risk, because they were moved by personal encounters with constituents with compelling stories. Many of the most effective spokespeople during the legislative battle over the law were people whose lives and livelihoods had been threatened by our defective health coverage system.

    Now that the central part of the Affordable Care Act is finally being implemented, however painfully and slowly, personal stories are again becoming the focus of debate. The stories that the press has focused on recently have been mostly negative, largely because of three press biases. The first is that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Negative news gets people’s attention, raising people’s fears, a phenomenon with strong physiological and psychological roots that extends well beyond the news. Advocates for passage of the law used that to our advantage when we were chronicling insurance company abuses, but in the new terrain of the law’s implementation, it’s a handicap. Coverage of people successfully getting affordable coverage is not as compelling as that of someone who says she is being forced to pay higher premiums after being told she is losing her existing coverage.

    The second press bias is to take people at their word and not actually investigate them, particularly when they make good news. We have seen a lot of this in the coverage of people who have received letters from insurance companies telling them they are being forced into higher-priced plans.

    Take Deborah Cavallaro, a real-estate agent in suburban Los Angeles, who’s been on NBC Nightly News and Fox. Ms. Cavallaro is losing her current plan, which only covers two doctors visits a year and has a $5,000 deductible. She complained, “I’d be paying more for the exchange plans than I am currently paying,” after an insurance broker told her she would have to pay $478 a month compared to the $293 she now pays. But with a little research, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times found that after her income-based subsidy, Cavallaro would pay only $33 a month more for a plan which covers all her doctors visits and has a $2,000 deductible.

    Cavallaro is typical of many of the people represented in the negative stories being run, in that she is white, suburban, and has a middle-class job. Reporters like Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic have explored the shoddy media coverage of other stories whose subjects are similar to Cavallaro.

    Which brings us to the third media bias, focusing on the white middle class. This is a general bias when it comes to the press, particularly when not reporting on government services or crime. In this case, it is a bias that will accentuate the problems with the Affordable Care Act and downplay its benefits to millions. As Cohn points out in another piece, there are some people who will pay more for comparable insurance plans under the new law. This is the small minority of people in the individual insurance market who, because they have been in good health and have enough income to buy insurance, have been able to find decent coverage at a price they can afford. Their good health has shielded them from big premium hikes or losing their coverage altogether, which will happen when they have a serious illness.

    One of the few good news stories I found that focused on someone who will benefit from losing her coverage was about Gail Roach, an African-American woman from Pittsburgh. Ms. Roach is a retired school district employee who will save $500 a month after receiving her subsidy. A diabetes sufferer, she’s been forced to pay a big premium because of her health condition.

    The ACA’s biggest beneficiaries are low- and moderate-income people, including poor people who have been denied Medicaid and people who work at low-wage jobs that don’t provide health coverage, who will now get big enough subsidies in the exchanges to afford coverage.  

    In fact, the biggest group benefiting from enrolling in coverage under the Affordable Care Act are people who are eligible for Medicaid. In Washington State, for example, where the exchanges are working well, there have been 42,605 Medicaid enrollees, compared to 6,390 who have signed up for the exchanges.  A New York Times article on how navigators are helping people to enroll in Kentucky tells the story of several people thrilled to be enrolled in Medicaid.

    The Times article also reveals the bias against people who are on public programs like Medicaid by recounting the story of one "well-dressed woman" in Kentucky:

    She had learned that she would be eligible for Medicaid under the new law, but she was unwilling to enroll because of what she saw as a stigma attached to the program. A substitute teacher, she wanted to know whether she could afford full-priced private exchange plans. “I don’t want to be a freeloader,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, Kay, because she said she was embarrassed about qualifying for Medicaid. “I believe in paying our way in life.”

    There may be a promising ending to Kay’s story. Kay did sign up for Medicaid, saying that she would pay for routine doctor visits herself but have Medicaid as a fall-back if she really got sick. Will the experience of finally getting health coverage change Kay’s views? Will she now be more secure, freed finally from the worries of huge medical debt if she gets seriously ill?

    This gets us back to the personal politics of health care and how they will impact the political debate. Kay’s U.S. senator, Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election, has already dismissed the success of Kentucky’s launch of the ACA by saying, “Well, 85 percent of the people who’ve signed up in Kentucky have signed up for Medicaid. That’s free health care.” Will Kay want to vote for a guy who will take away her newly found health security?

    The next big political test for Obamacare will be whether it is a defining issue in the 2014 elections. That will depend both on the reality of people’s experiences and what people learn about the law from the media, which will largely be shaped by personal stories. Since the law will have no noticeable impact on the coverage of 85 percent of Americans, Obamacare should not be a big election issue. But we know that opponents will use every negative story to keep the issue alive.

    The most important task for supporters of the law will be to make sure that it does realize its promise of better coverage for millions of people. The more people who get enrolled and find, like Kay, Gail Roach, and even Deborah Cavallaro, that it is good for their health and their pocketbook, the better. Then supporters must forcefully fight to tell the personal stories of their success, even if it is boring, good news, often about struggling working families. 

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • The Origins of "If You Like Your Health Insurance, You Can Keep It"

    Nov 1, 2013Richard Kirsch

    President Obama used a slight exaggeration to counteract Republican fear-mongering and provide more and better health coverage to all Americans.

    There are good reasons why President Obama’s leading message on health care during the 2008 campaign, often repeated since, was “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” That message was created to overcome the fear-mongering that had blocked legislative efforts to make health care a government-guaranteed right in the United States for a century.

    President Obama used a slight exaggeration to counteract Republican fear-mongering and provide more and better health coverage to all Americans.

    There are good reasons why President Obama’s leading message on health care during the 2008 campaign, often repeated since, was “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” That message was created to overcome the fear-mongering that had blocked legislative efforts to make health care a government-guaranteed right in the United States for a century.

    Our health is of central importance to our lives, deeply personal to our well-being and those of our loved ones. That concern has translated politically; for decades, people have told pollsters that health care is a top concern. It is why every 15 to 20 years – from 1912 to 2008 – the nation has returned to a discussion about whether and how the government should guarantee health coverage, the debate rising phoenix-like from one spectacular defeat after another. A big reason for those defeats has been that opponents have exploited those deep feelings to scare the public about proposed reforms.

    As one of the people who engaged early on in building the effort that led to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I am keenly aware of this history. I wrote in 2003 that debates over health care turn dramatically when they move from the problem to the solution. Almost everyone agrees there’s a problem, but when a solution is proposed, people’s first question will be, “how will it impact me?”

    The extensive public opinion research we conducted from 2006 to 2008 emphasized that same point: people would look closely at how any proposed reforms impacted their lives. Yes, Americans are worried about high health care costs and alarmed at the prospect of losing coverage. Yes, they may be unhappy with the quality and security of the coverage they have. But at the same time, they are desperate to hold on to it, because at least it’s something.   

    We also knew that those who wanted to block health care reform would play on people’s fears, a lesson learned most recently in the 1993-1994 fight over the Clinton health plan, in which opponents made wild claims about government bureaucrats coming between you and your doctor and denying you coverage.

    In that context, it was essential to assure the 85 percent of Americans with health coverage that reform would not be a threat. Hence, “If you like your health care, you can keep it.” That message reassured people and let them be open to the rest of the message: proposed reforms would guarantee quality, affordable coverage to everyone and fix the real problems people were facing. After all, the first part of that sentence, "if you like it," implies that lots of people would love to improve their coverage by making it more affordable and secure and by ending insurance company abuses.

    Hillary Clinton’s campaign understood this early on, and she used the message consistently when she talked about health care reform during the Democratic primaries. Soon after she dropped out, Obama made it a key part of his health care message. But the promise that you could keep your health care was more than just a message; for almost everyone, it was an accurate description of the almost identical reform policies proposed by Clinton and Obama, which became the foundation for the Affordable Care Act.

    The ACA preserves (with small but important improvements) the current system of health care financing for the vast majority of Americans: employer-based coverage, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those are the 94 percent of people with coverage for whom the “if you like it, you can keep it” promise is true.

    For the 6 percent of insured who buy coverage on their own, the more accurate message would have been, “If you have good insurance and you like it, you can keep it.” The ACA reforms a corrupt individual insurance market. No longer can insurers turn people down due to a pre-existing condition or raise rates and drop people because they get sick. The ACA bans the sale of plans with such skimpy benefits and high-out-of-pockets costs that they are worthless if someone gets seriously ill.

    As we predicted, the opponents of reform used fear-mongering – death panels, government takeover of health care, and on and on – to try to kill the Affordable Care Act. They are still at it, including cynically jumping on the website’s enrollment problems and now insurance companies sending letters to customers which hide the fact that companies are being forced for the first time to sell a good, reliable product.

    The opponents of reform have used reckless, baseless charges to try to kill reform. I’m glad that President Obama used a slight exaggeration to finally provide secure health coverage for all Americans.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • Block a Grand Bargain with Bold Progressive Solutions to Social Security and Medicare

    Oct 21, 2013Richard Kirsch

    Going into the post-shutdown budget discussions, progressives should take the offensive with proposals that would fix problems with Social Security and Medicare without any cuts.

    Going into the post-shutdown budget discussions, progressives should take the offensive with proposals that would fix problems with Social Security and Medicare without any cuts.

    Republicans may not have succeeded in defunding the nations’ newest social insurance program, ObamaCare, but they now are aiming at the foundational programs, Social Security and Medicare. And this time, they’ll have the President on their side. It would be a mistake for progressives to assume that a grand budget bargain will fall apart once again, even if that remains likely. Instead, we need to turn the debate from cutting social insurance to strengthening both the finances and benefits of both big retiree programs. The best way to do that is by championing simple, bold solutions.

    In his post shutdown press conference, President Obama repeated his call for changes in Social Security and Medicare. His 2014 budget included cuts to benefits for both.  That aligns him with House Speaker John Boehner, who called for savings in Social Security and Medicare during the shutdown battle. Senators from both parties have shown their willingness to support benefit cuts as part of a big budget deal.

    Yes, it is likely that the next attempt to reach an overall budget deal will also collapse, as the last ones have, particularly in the beginning of an election year. The biggest barrier to a bad deal up to now has been Democratic insistence, repeated on the same day as the President’s press conference by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that tax hikes – with revenue coming from big corporations and the wealthy –be part of the deal. But if Republicans were willing to close some corporate tax loopholes – which some of their tea party members see correctly as examples of crony capitalism – Democrats would be under tremendous pressure from the President and others in their party to go along.

    Progressives must rely on more than saying “hands off Social Security and Medicare,” although that should remain central to our message. We need a strong offense, to go with that potent defense. By putting forward simple, broadly popular, progressive proposals that actually enhance benefits and add money to Social Security and Medicare, we enable Democratic allies in Congress to set the agenda and counter claims that they are not taking action to address the real solvency problems. And we also help set the agenda for the inevitable future deal to address both programs’ financing.

    Here are two simple, popular, powerful proposals. On Social Security, make the richest 5% people pay into Social Security on all their earnings, just like 95% of workers now do. Use the new revenue to both boost Social Security benefits – which are too low – and extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust fund. On Medicare, slash the cost of prescription drug prices just like the Veterans Administration and all our global competitors do, saving hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade.

    The Social Security proposal has been introduced in both houses of Congress, with legislation by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa (S.567) and Rep. Linda Sanchez of California (H.R.3118), which would boost benefits in two ways: changing the way benefits are calculated (designed to particularly help low-and-moderate income seniors) and changing the inflation adjuster Social Security uses to the CPI-E, which more accurately captures what seniors pay. This is exactly the opposite of the chained CPI proposed by President Obama, which undercounts what seniors typically purchase. The legislation raises the money to pay for the benefits and extends the Trust Fund by gradually removing the cap on earnings taxed by Social Security, which is $113,700 in 2013. Doing so would extend the period during which the Trust Fund has enough money to pay all benefits from 2033 to 2049.

    Progressives have long talked about Medicare using its enormous purchasing power to get the same kind of low drug prices paid by the Veterans Administration or every other country on the globe. While estimates of the savings vary, they clearly would be substantial, tens of billions each year, much more than the cuts to Medicare included in the President’s budget. There are two bills in Congress that aim to do this, one sponsored by Vermont Rep. Peter Welch and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and the other introduced by Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Senator Dick Durbin. While neither is designed to get the maximum savings – a combination of the approaches taken in each is needed – either would work to make the point that we can strengthen Medicare by stopping the drug companies from ripping off the country.

    But having legislation is really window dressing to the strategy here: offering bold, popular solutions that deal with both sides of the problems facing Social Security and Medicare: benefits that are too small for the retirement security of seniors and the shortfalls in financing of both programs. While elites want to focus on the “entitlement crisis,” the public is well aware of the financial pressures most seniors now face and the looming retirement crisis, and is adamantly opposed to cuts in both programs.

    It is up to progressives, inside and outside of Congress, to seize the moment. It’s a simple message: instead of making painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare we can boost benefits for seniors and make sure that the programs are there for the long term by having millionaires pay into Social Security like everyone else and stopping drug companies from ripping off Americans. 

    Driving this message will turn the grand bargain debate on its head, and will start setting the terms for progressive solutions when Congress does take action on both programs in the next few years. 

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

     

    Social Security cards banner image via Shutterstock.com

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  • How to Fight for "Freedom from Want" and Win: A Q&A with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

    Oct 10, 2013Richard Kirsch
    On Wednesday, October 16, the Roosevelt Institute will present the 2013 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards, honoring individuals and organizations whose work exemplifies FDR's vision of democracy. Click here to RSVP for the free public ceremony.

    On Wednesday, October 16, the Roosevelt Institute will present the 2013 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards, honoring individuals and organizations whose work exemplifies FDR's vision of democracy. Click here to RSVP for the free public ceremony. Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch spoke to Greg Asbed, Gerardo Reyes, and Nely Rodriguez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the recipient of this year's Freedom from Want Medal, about their group's unique organizing model.

    Richard Kirsch: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is receiving the Freedom from Want Medal at the Roosevelt Institute's Four Freedoms Awards next week. What does "freedom from want" mean for your members? 

    Coalition of Immokalee Workers: For as long as anyone can remember, farmworkers have been this country's worst paid, least protected workers, facing abject poverty, physical abuse, and daily humiliations in the fields. "Freedom from want" for us means not only earning a fair wage for the hard and essential work we do, but being treated with the respect and dignity we have earned through the vital contribution we make to our society every day. A world cannot be considered truly just as long as those who put food on our tables cannot afford to feed their own families.

    RK: Can you tell me a little more about the working and living conditions your members faced? 

    CIW: For generations, the farmworkers who pick our country’s fruits and vegetables have suffered almost unimaginable human rights violations, from systematic wage theft to sexual harassment and humiliating verbal and physical abuse. These injustices are as well-documented as they are widespread. In the extreme, farmworkers face situations of modern-day slavery – held against their will, under the threat or actual use of violence (beatings, pistol whippings, shootings), and forced to work for little to no pay.

    The good news is that the Fair Food Program, through its human rights-based, market-enforced Code of Conduct -- which includes worker-to-worker labor rights education, independent workplace monitoring, and a worker-triggered complaint resolution process – is changing those conditions in the tomato fields of Florida.

    RK: "Freedom from want" is more than being free from deprivation. What do your members hope for in their lives? 

    CIW: Our members want nothing more, and nothing less, than to lead what most people would consider a "normal" life. Our members want to be able to provide their families with good food, a decent home, and a life they can enjoy together. Today, even though conditions are improving, farm labor remains a job that not only impoverishes workers economically, but socially as well, by demanding that workers be available from before dawn to after dusk.

    Farm work steals the hours of the day when families spend time together. Mornings preparing breakfast for your children before school, weekends relaxing around the house or on family outings, those are the moments of which a family life is made. Having to pull up stakes and move the family to follow the harvest, children missing crucial weeks of school and living in a constant state of uncertainty, makes family life more difficult. Stability, dignity, and a measure of economic security are the things we want, not just for ourselves, but more than anything else, for our children. 

    RK: FDR railed against the "economic royalists," the corporations, banks, and wealthy individuals of the day who thought they should rule the economy. Who are the economic royalists that CIW is taking on? 

    CIW: In today's food system, the kings who would rule our world are the multi-billion dollar retail food companies, from fast-food chains with tens of thousands of restaurants to supermarkets like Walmart, which has food sales greater than its three closest competitors combined. These companies have come to dominate the U.S. produce market, leveraging their unprecedented volume purchasing power to command unsustainably low prices from their suppliers. At the farm level, those ever-lower prices are translated into sub-poverty wages for the workers who harvest the fruits and vegetables sold to these massive chain stores, because labor costs are essentially the only flexible input in raising a crop.

    RK: CIW has been remarkably successful in standing up to the economic royalists of the food business, fast food chains, and supermakets. What has been your strategy?

    CIW: Our Campaign for Fair Food seeks to harness the volume purchasing power of the food giants and reverse its impact. Where before, their market power created an inexorable downward pressure on farmworker wages and working conditions, that same power, if redirected by consumer demand, can be used to improve wages and require their suppliers to comply with more modern, more humane labor standards. This is not just a theory. It is working today in Florida's tomato fields.

    Our Fair Food Program, with its penny-per-pound premium paid by participating retailers going to fund a bonus in workers' weekly paychecks, is designed, in part, to help farmworkers earn a just wage that can support a family. And it is making a dent in farmworker poverty, with over $11 million paid in premiums in since January 2011. But it is also addressing the broader definition of want that we are discussing here by bringing workers increased dignity and the respect that comes from partnering with growers to create a fairer and better industry.

    RK: What does it take to get corporations to agree to join the Fair Food Program?

    CIW: The Fair Food Program depends on the support of multi-billion dollar fast-food, foodservice, and supermarket chains to work. Without their penny-per-pound premium fueling improved wages, and without their purchasing power buttressing the human rights standards in the Fair Food Code of Conduct, none of the progress we are seeing today in the fight against sexual harassment, wage theft, and even modern-day slavery would be possible. But, unfortunately, it has been our experience that corporations don’t jump to support these changes on their own.

    And so it has been necessary to travel across the country educating consumers about what they can do to help. We mobilize major actions -- everything from two-week long marches to week-long fasts -- and local protests where consumers and farmworkers take action, shoulder to shoulder, calling on companies like Publix, Kroger, and Wendy's to join the Fair Food Program and make a real investment in human rights. That consumer demand and public pressure has resulted in11 multi-billion dollar companies signing on to the program and the transformation of the Florida tomato industry from one of the most abusive to one of the most progressive sectors in the U.S. agricultural industry today.

    RK: What has been the key to your success?

    CIW: The single most important factor in our success is that the Fair Food Program is truly a worker-designed, worker-driven social responsibility program. The vast majority of corporate social responsibility programs are created and controlled by corporations themselves, and so, quite simply, they are designed to protect the corporations' interests. The Fair Food Program, with its principal architect being a workers' organization, has a unique design and structure, all constructed with one goal in mind: to protect farmworkers' rights.

    In doing that, the Fair Food Program also improves the agricultural industry as a whole, through direct economic benefits such as lower turnover and increased productivity, and through the marketing advantages created when an otherwise indistinguishable commodity becomes a product that can be differentiated on the supermarket shelf as having been produced under humane conditions. That makes the Fair Food Program uniquely effective as a means for protecting human rights and simultaneously uniquely attractive as a business model for growers and buyers looking to succeed in the 21st century marketplace.

    RK: What leadership role do members play in your work?

    CIW: When we began organizing in the early 1990s, we had a motto: Todos somos lideres (We are all leaders). That has always been one of our guiding principles, and that is why we have organized -- from day one to this day -- on a foundation of broad-based, grassroots leadership, not around an individual leader. Our leadership comes from the community itself -- young, mostly immigrant leaders whose experience in the fields and on the front lines of our organizing battles are the keys to their ability to assume a leadership role in the CIW.

    Our members travel across the country representing the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food in conferences, churches, universities, and before the press, they lead community meetings and debate strategies, run our community radio station, negotiate with multi-billion dollar corporations, investigate and resolve labor complaints, go undercover to identify modern-day slavery operations, and educate their fellow workers in the fields about their rights under the Fair Food Program. Without a broad and ever-changing base of community leadership, none of this would be possible. 

    RK: What can progressives learn from CIW in the struggle to create an economy that is based on people being able to live with dignity? 

    CIW: What has worked for us is an unflagging commitment to our vision of a fair food system. We have been fighting for nearly 20 years, and during that time our vision has never changed. We fight for work with dignity, respect in the fields, a just wage that can support a family, and freedom from forced labor. Our organizing has gone through many phases, shifting as our strategies changed, but our goals have remained fixed.

    Today, we are making the concrete, measurable, and sustainable changes that we visualized 20 years ago, and that is because we never gave up, never gave in, and never compromised on our core principles. Believe in whatever it is you are fighting for, be steadfast but flexible in how you fight for it, and be willing to walk away from the table when necessary. If your vision is sound and you refuse to give in, you will, ultimately, win.

    RK: You started in Florida. What’s next?

    CIW: The Fair Food Program was born in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the state. Florida provides 90 percent of the domestically grown tomatoes consumed in the U.S. from the months of November to May. But the model for worker-led, market-based social responsibility taking root today in Florida's tomato fields is already expanding beyond Florida up the East Coast, and its unique principles and mechanisms are being studied in other crops and other industries.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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