Turkey for all in South LA

imageE.J. Jackson knew how desperately people would need him this year.

Before dawn he was up, lighting bonfires for the people already in line for his turkey giveaway.

He’s been doing this for 23 years, but this year the need was the worst he’s ever seen.

His volunteers have been working nonstop for the last few days.

“…We had to make up 20,000 boxes, 20,000 turkeys…And it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Jodie Fallon’s a volunteer with the Jackson Limousine Dinner Giveaway.

She said last year it pulled in ten thousand people, tops.

Last week, Jackson was worried the donations would fall far short of the need.

But corporate and private donors stepped up to help.

Now he’s emptying two mac-trucks full of frozen turkey.

Since four in the morning, Fallon’s been…

“…Packing and packing and we’re still packing right now…I just had to get a break. I snuck out….but it’s a really good event and it helps a lot of people. See how many people out here?”

One of these people is Dee Brown. I met her when she was getting her friend to help her cut in front of people who’d been waiting in line since last night.

“Are people going to be okay with that? I hope so, I’m just going to slide in and pretend like I was part of the picture”

If you can’t tell by the lack of line etiquette, she’s new here.

She used to work in a hospital but got laid off. Her income’s all dried up.

And finding herself in line for food? It’s…

“Humbling, very humbling.”

She says her unemployment check hardly covers the rent. And everywhere, prices are rising.

“Well times are hard. You know, inflation goes up… Everything went up. You know, just a bag of potato chips is five dollars…But I didn’t notice that until I got laid off. And so when they offer things out here for the community, you know at the time I didn’t need it, but now since I’m laid off, I’m out here just like everybody else.”

Which is exactly why Jackson feels he has to return every year, Turkeys and groceries in hand, the Santa of Thanksgiving.

Protest for workers’ rights at South L.A. Wal-Mart

Religious leaders and workers’ rights advocates gathered in front of a South Los Angeles Wal-Mart on Monday morning to voice their support for the Employee Free Choice Act.

The pending legislation, which was introduced in the U.S. Congress on March 10, would “amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an easier system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations” and “provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts.”

The protest was organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), an organization of more than 600 religious leaders from across Los Angeles County that advocates for the working poor.Protestors in front of Wal-Mart show their support for workers' rights.

The current law intended to protect workers’ right to unionize is the National Labor Relations Act, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law in 1935. But workers’ rights advocacy groups like CLUE argue that the penalties are not severe enough to prevent employers from using harassment or intimidation to prevent workers from joining unions. In addition, CLUE said that even if workers are able to form a union, they are frequently unable to negotiate a contract with employers.

“We really believe that the Employee Free Choice Act is the best legislative option right now for lifting the working poor out of poverty,” said Pastor Bridie Roberts, Program Director for CLUE. “When workers’ right to organize is protected, when they can form a union, they make 20 to 30 percent more an hour almost immediately, and they almost always have access to family health insurance.”

Robert Branch, a security officer for a private security firm near LAX, spoke at the protest in support of the new legislation. Branch said that during a six-year battle between his union and his employer over a contract, three of his co-workers died because they did not have health insurance.

Under the Employee Free Choice Act, an employer would be legally required to recognize a union after a majority vote by employees, and contracts would be settled by a neutral third party if a union and an employer cannot reach an agreement within 120 days.

“The Employee Free Choice Act is so vital to working people,” Branch said. “If it passes, it’s going to be a benefit to working people, taking the stick of power out of the employer’s hand and putting it in the hand of working people, where it belongs.”

The location for the protest was chosen because “Wal-Mart is one of the most infamous and well-documented anti-union companies,” Roberts said.

Despite the location of the protest, no Wal-Mart employees appeared to be present. “I believe that they would be chastised or harassed or fired or just mistreated because of the way the company deals with its employees,” Branch said.

Professor Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California Santa Barbara is the editor of “Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism” and author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.” He spoke about the tactics Wal-Mart uses to “deprive workers of free choice.”UCSB History Professor Nelson Lichtenstein speaks about Wal-Mart's anti-union policies.

“The way that Wal-Mart is structured internally is that managers of stores, their bonus is dependent upon keeping labor costs down,” Lichtenstein said. Therefore, managers feel the need to “squeeze workers in every way they can.” According to Lichtenstein, the Wal-Mart system “can only be broken by the unionization of Wal-Mart workers.”

Lichtenstein also said that some politicians, including Dianne Feinstein, have argued that this is the wrong time for new labor laws because wages should not be raised during an economic recession. However, Lichtenstein said that the National Labor Relations Act, which was passed during the Great Depression, helped stimulate the economy by giving people greater purchasing power, and the Employee Free Choice Act would do the same.

Roberts agreed that now is the wrong time to neglect workers. “We’re in an economic crisis, and it’s really easy to forget the people at the bottom,” she said. “But unless you invest in the working people, which is the largest group of people in our country, we are going to spiral farther down this path.”

Roberts also pointed out that what she and fellow protesters are really asking for is the enforcement of rights that workers are already supposed to have. “The right to organize is granted to workers already, and there are so many things standing in the way,” she said. “It needs some correction. And it’s the people’s right to ask for a transformation of the law to make sure that it represents the people.”

Bank of America donates $50,000 to L.A. Regional Foodbank

Bank of America presented a check for $50,000 to the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank Saturday as 150 of its employees gathered at the facility to assemble about 1,000 packages of food for low-income senior citizens.

The Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, a 96,000-square-foot facility in South Los Angeles, disburses 34 million pounds of food each year through a network of 875 distribution centers across Los Angeles County.L.A. Regional Foodbank President and CEO Michael Flood receives a check for $50,000 from Bank of America.

The seniors who will receive the bags of food are part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Many of them live only on Social Security, which on its own often does not provide enough money for a nutritious diet. Other seniors in the program are able to work but have lost jobs due to the economic recession. “The program is designed to provide them with a pretty substantial amount of food on a monthly basis, so it can prevent them from going hungry,” Los Angeles Regional Foodbank President and CEO Michael Flood said.

Bank of America has donated a total of $1 million to organizations that fight hunger in several cities across the nation. “It’s something that Bank of America wanted to do because they’ve heard that the demand for food assistance has increased so markedly throughout the United States,” Flood said.

According to the Department of Labor, California has fared particularly badly in the economic recession. The state’s unemployment rate of 11.2 percent is one of the worst in the nation, and the number of people out of work for a year has doubled in the last 12 months. These numbers are reflected in the 36 percent increase in demand for food assistance in Los Angeles.Bank of America employees assemble bags of food for low-income seniors.

“Although the Foodbank has increased its volume as far as what we can distribute, it’s still not enough to meet the demand that’s out there,” said Foodbank Communications Director Darren Hoffman.

In 2008, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation donated $200 million to charities, a record for a financial institution. This year the bank pledged to donate $2 billion over the next 10 years to nonprofit organizations “engaged in improving the health and vitality of their neighborhoods.”

Bank of America National Program Manager Dannille Campos said that even though banks are struggling through the economic crisis, “This is a time when the needs are so great, so there’s no way we can cut out philanthropic dollars when the community is so in need right now.”

In addition to assembling food packages at the Foodbank, Bank of America employees also volunteer at food distribution sites in El Monte, Van Nuys, Pacoima and Inglewood, which serve over 1,000 senior citizens. At the distribution sites, Bank of America teaches financial education courses that focus on budgeting and savings.

Organizers of Saturday’s event said it was easy recruit the 150 Bank of America employees needed to assemble the food packages. “The Bank of America associates are very much involved in the community events that we do, so they’re constantly looking to see what we have,” said Marketing Program Development Specialist Angela Molina. “It’s a good feeling to know that the associates are so involved.”


Art in Leimert Park hit by recession

"The recession has taken a toll on everybody in this area. People don’t come here the way they used to. At times I make just $10 the whole week. I might soon have to close this shop down if I can’t make the rent," said owner Kwame Sarpong.

Leimert Park Village, once known as the best place to pick up authentic African objets d’ art, is reeling under recession. A few years back, rising rents forced many local artists to move their studios elsewhere, and now the bad economy promises to change a little more of the character of this art hub. With fewer buyers willing to invest in artworks, memorabilia stores are resorting to discounts and other creative means to lure customers. Similarly, artists in the area are looking to diversify their trade to keep the orders from drying up. 

When Sarpong set up shop here six years ago, people would come in droves to buy clothes, jewelry and home décor items. "Now, they come, they see, they like it but they don’t have the money to buy," he said. Many of his customers have lost their jobs and art is the last thing they want to buy, said Sarpong, who started the sale as a desperate effort to reduce his inventory. "I want to get rid of these things. I was doing this because I loved it. But now there is no hope in this. I don’t think I will get into retail again. People just don’t have the money to spend," he said.

That probably explains why shoppers are scarce, even on a Saturday afternoon. A few steps away from Kumasi, a group of elderly men enjoy a leisurely smoke under a tree. Among them is Bilal, manager at the store, Sika, which sells African sculptures, handcrafted jewelry and clothes. "Sales have fallen by 75 percent over the past year," he said, adding, "If we get 10 buyers a day, we’re almost doing well."

In an effort to stay afloat, Sika introduced a small corner for hair braiding about a year back. It also added Obama memorabilia to its wares, exactly like the neighboring store, Gallery Plus. Laura Hendrix, co-owner of Gallery Plus, said Obama memorabilia did well during election, but that could not help boost sales at the store, which fell by 40 percent in the last two years. These days Hendrix brings in just one or two high-priced items if at all, and offers more discounts. "I sometimes get stuck with the more expensive items and have to reduce prices to sell them," she said. Besides actively emailing her customers about the best deals in her store, she plans to generate interest by having speakers come in and talk about collecting art. "We used to have these talks earlier and then we stopped. But now I would like to start again, to get more people inside the door," she said.

Like art stores in Leimert, artists in the area are innovating to keep the bills from piling up. Aziz Diagne, an artist from West Africa, who once owned a studio in Leimert Park Village and still has many of his paintings displayed at restaurants in the area, said his income has dropped by more than 70 percent. A professional painter for the past 20 years, Diagne occasionally dabbles with carpentry. In the past, he also made a business out of buying used items like computers, shoes, clothes and furniture from garage sales, and selling them for a profit in Africa. "That’s the business I may have to depend on now. I did it for pleasure back then, but now the need is desperate," he said.

Diagne also planned to start a career as an art teacher in Leimert Park, but the steep rents in the area were a deterrent. "Before you make a commitment of paying $2,400 as rent, you need 40 students, but even that is difficult these days," he said. The economy has taken a toll on his art shows too and he finds it difficult to gather money for advance payments for exhibitions. "If artwork was selling, I could make more money than a drug dealer. But now people have other priorities," he said.

Like Diagne, Crenshaw-based painter Kenneth Gatewood has cut down on travelling to art shows outside California. "It’s too big a risk to incur travelling and shipping expenses and not make any money. I don’t do shows at new places these days. Only if I’ve had success at a place before, do I consider going there again," he said. Though he specializes in watercolors, Gatewood has diversified into ceramic painting to generate more sales.

The recession has hit not just artists like Diagne and Gatewood, but musicians as well. Leimert-Park based jazz musician Cornell Fauler, who used to play at restaurants in Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, is now facing a foreclosure on his home. Even the freelance work that occasionally came his way has dried up. Some of his musician friends have taken to teaching music in schools and others are doing business in real estate. But Fauler does not want to give up yet. "I am thinking of starting a band. That will increase my chances of finding work," he said.

Passionate artists like him are keeping the faith even in these tough times. Bilal sums up the mood well. "This (Leimert Park) is the center of black art–painting, music, design, philosophy–it’s a very vibrant neighborhood for the arts, and if it dies, we’ll lose something very valuable. We’d hate to see this go away," he said.

Economic Recession has Quinceañera boutiques in unfamiliar predicament

But the economic downturn is forcing families to cut back on expenses, putting a damper on the excitement and – for these establishments – on the big profits.

The quinceañera is the traditional Hispanic rite of passage celebration for young women. Basic expenditures include the dress and accessories, cakes, invitations, party-room rentals and decorations, and music and entertainment. Many quinceañeras also rent limousine services for the night – all of which adds up to thousands of dollars. According to Hearst Digital Media, which in 2007 launched its own quinceañera Web site, misquincemag, as many as 400,000 young women have quinceañeras in the United States every year. In 2006, on-line, party-planning Web site Partyspot reported the average cost of the celebration at $8,000.

But recently, those figures have dropped. Quinceañera specialty boutiques, such as Precious Bride, are not only feeling the pinch from families spending less, they’re also seeing less customers overall.

"During the weekdays, no one comes in anymore," said Carolina Osorio, sales associate at Precious Bride.

"On weekends, we were packed, but now, we only get a few customers. There’s not much to do," she said.

The shop has been in business on Whittier Boulevard for more than 12 years but has never faced such a grim sales period. Management has been forced to cut back prices and reduce staff in efforts to stay in business.

Dresses, for example, range in price from $200 to upwards of $1,500. Those that cost $800 two years ago are now $400. Still, people are being frugal.

"She wanted a $700 dress, but we can only afford a $200 one – same for the shoes. We’ve had to cut down on expenses," said Alfonso Mendoza, who’s preparing for his daughter’s quinceañera.

As recently as 2007, there were five sales associates on staff at Precious Bride. Now, it’s down to Osorio and another worker. She said she used to work a 40-hour week, but her hours gradually fell to the point she was asked to work Sundays only.

"We’re thinking about shutting down once our contract expires," she said.

Just a few blocks up the street at Casa Gastelum, the situation is just as bleak.

"We would sell merchandise everyday, but now, we’ll go an entire week without selling anything," said Carmen Gonzalez, a sales associate at Casa Gastelum.

Like Precious Bride, it’s failing to break even or make enough money to pay rent, and it’s the duration of the economic downturn that has management desperate and concerned.

"When someone walks in here, we’re not letting go of them until they buy something," said Gonzalez.

One of the few customers to stop by, Irene Dominguez, said she is organizing a very simple party for her daughter.

"My husband can’t find a job," she said. "Sometimes he works only three days a week so there’s no budget to throw anything too expensive."

Gonzalez said they want to keep the establishment open but may not have a choice.

"We can wait it out until our contract is over and close, or we can move to another location," she said.

But across town in West Los Angeles, things aren’t much better. Alba Sandoval, manager at Elizabeth’s Bridal, has seen her profit cut in half over the last year.

Her boutique specializes in bridal and quinceañera accessories such as mementos, invitations, rosaries, and silverware.

Sandoval said customers walk into her store asking for "the simplest of everything."

"I see fewer customers coming in, and those that do buy are buying less," she said.

The extent and severity of the economic bust is seen not only in the way in which families are being forced to cut back expenses on an often lavish, centuries-old, semi-religious tradition, but also in how a highly-profitable specialized business is subsequently being driven into bankruptcy.

"It’s never been this bad," said Gonzalez. "I just don’t know what we’re going to do.

"For many of these businesses on Whittier Boulevard, the party may indeed – if only temporarily – soon be over.