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Talking Trash at the Statehouse; For the Underpaid and Overworked, a Workers Center; Not Your Mother’s, or Father’s, Dorm Room; and more.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Talking Trash at the Statehouse

More than 30 years after the hotly opposed passage of the Massachusetts Bottle Bill, advocates on both sides of the issue are still arguing about its proper application amid a changing beverage market. The existing bill, geared toward decreasing litter and increasing recycling across the state via monetary incentive, allows for a 5-cent return on all bottles and cans of beer, carbonated beverages and mineral water that are recycled at designated locations.

Though voters have previously signaled widespread support for an updated and expanded bottle bill, it has been stalled in the Legislature. Environmental activists earlier this month filed a ballot initiative for a more inclusive bottle bill. If the state Attorney General approves the petition, they will collect signatures to put the measure on the ballot in 2014 so as to give voters the chance to break their legislators’ deadlock on the question.

Since its passage, the Bottle Bill has seen more than 35 billion containers returned for recycling. But, environmental activists argue, the bill no longer fully satisfies modern consumer needs.

In 1983, the vast majority of beverages consumed were beer and soda. In 2013, however, the rise of non-carbonated beverages—in particular water, iced tea, juice, and sport drinks—is evident in consumers’ habits, with such drinks making up more than one-third of all beverages consumed in the state each year. The 1.3 billion bottles and cans used annually to contain these increasingly popular beverages are not redeemable for money. Thus, advocates argue, these beverages are not nearly as widely recycled as their carbonated counterparts.

For more than 10 years, advocates of an updated Bottle Bill have been pushing for an expansion of the list of containers covered under the law, citing changes in beverage consumption and increased quantities of litter in the state. Meanwhile, opponents of the update argue that it will burden small businesses and do little to effect the changes it seeks.•

 

For the Underpaid and Overworked, a Workers Center

In an effort to help low-wage workers cope with an evolving labor landscape in which many new jobs don’t pay well, local labor activists are organizing a Workers Center, with the backing of Western Massachusetts Jobs for Justice, the Northampton Living Wage Coalition, Western New England University Law School and other organizations.

“We are hearing about lack of benefits and living wages. Too many hours—that’s really common, especially with workers who are undocumented, and workers in construction and landscaping,” said Rose Bookbinder, who is leading the effort. The attractive retail and restaurant scene in Northampton, she said, has been “built on the backs” of people doing demanding work for low pay.

Bookbinder explained that the goal of the Workers Center would not just be to deal with individual cases, but to work with employers and industries to see that fair labor practices prevail in the Valley. “We want to make long-term changes,” she said, “so we wouldn’t be seeing the same types of violations all the time.”

At the moment, the Workers Center is looking for people to help organize it and secure funding, Bookbinder told the Advocate. Interested people have been meeting since early August; the next meeting is Tuesday, August 27 at 12 noon at the Potpourri Plaza Conference Room, 241 King Street, Northampton (for more information, call 413-320-2028 or e-mail workerscenterwm@gmail.com).

Workers Centers are organizations that advocate for workers who are not unionized, though the centers may get support from unions. In this case, the plan is to base the center in Northampton, where the City Council last year passed a resolution calling on employers not to interfere with workers’ efforts to unionize. Workers who experience such interference are entitled to complain to the city’s Human Rights Commission.•

 

Not Your Mother’s, or Father’s, Dorm Room

Boston University recently became the latest college to offer gender neutral housing, continuing the progress seen both here in the Commonwealth as well as nationwide, as institutions of higher education provide more inclusive rooming options for all students.

“Too often,” Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst tells the Advocate, “trans students are forced to live in a situation where they do not feel welcomed or where they are at risk for harassment and violence.”

But, adds Beemyn, “As more students have come out openly as trans, more colleges have recognized the importance of this housing option.”

The University Council at BU made the recommendation for gender neutral housing after its student government penned the proposal, BU Today reports. University president Robert A. Brown then signed the policy, adding BU to a long list of Massachusetts colleges that already offer gender-inclusive housing, including Harvard University, Northeastern University and Clark University, as well as several schools here in the Valley.

According to CampusPride.org, an organization advocating for safer university environments for LGBT students, at least 120 colleges have added gender inclusive housing to their rooming options in the past decade alone. These include both Hampshire College and Amherst College, here in the Valley, as well as the Nutmeg State’s University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University. Bennington College in Vermont is on the list as well.

“[Mount Holyoke College] and Smith are trickier as women’s colleges,” continues Beemyn. “From a legal perspective, all of their students are/have been female, so students who identify as trans or as men do not face restrictions on living with self-identified women.”•

 

Lottery Revenues Beat Out Casino Slot Take in Connecticut

As Massachusetts moves toward casino licensing and legislative proposals to establish a casino continue to surface in New Hampshire, something has happened in Connecticut that both opponents and proponents of casinos should notice.

For the first time in 15 years, Connecticut has gotten more money from its state lottery than from the slot machines at the state’s two casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort. The lottery, which took in $1 billion in 2012, has been booming, partly because Connecticut has introduced multistate games, like Powerball, that give large payoffs.

In the meantime, slot receipts have been slipping steadily downward for years. The hit their high in 2007, just before the financial crash, when the slots brought the state almost $430.5 million. But in fiscal year 2012-2013, the slots brought the state $312 million, and in 2014, they are expected to yield only $285 million. State officials predict that they’ll continue to slip after that.

Not helping Connecticut’s future take from the slots is the prospect of a casino in Western Massachusetts, particularly in Springfield. The siting of a casino in Springfield or Worcester would eliminate two-thirds or more of the Connecticut casinos’ market share in Massachusetts and north, and even cut into their customer base in the Hartford area, Clyde Barrow, director for the Center for Policy Analysis at UMass-Dartmouth, told Hartford Business.com.• —SK

Food For Thought Bookstore Wants You!

As any bibliophile knows, brick and mortar bookstores have been struggling to find financial footing within an economic marketplace of increasing Internet sales and superfluous screen reading. The Valley is fortunate to have a plethora of independent, local bookstores. Despite this ingrained communal love of reading, however, the worker’s collective Food For Thought Bookstore, a mainstay in Amherst for close to 40 years, is concerned that this year may be its last.

“We recently opened up our finances and found that text books sales have been dropping for several years,” staff note on their website (FoodForThoughtBooks.com). “We are implementing a system for used book buying, planning more events than ever, and transitioning to a sustainable model that does not rely on the textbook industry. We have plans for becoming a sustainable bookstore, but we are in immediate dire straights.”

This Thursday, August 22, Food For Thought is holding a “B is for Bookstore” fundraising event, featuring the music of Rusty Belle and the words of Jedediah Berry and Mira Bartók, all of whom will be presenting live at Food For Thought’s brick-and-mortar location on Pleasant Street in downtown Amherst. • —PR

 

New Koch Documentary Funded Through Kickstarter

“Please fight censorship from the Koch brothers and air Citizen Koch.” That was the plea Massachusetts resident Christine Scherer raised earlier this summer in a petition to the Public Broadcasting Service after funding was cut off for a developing PBS documentary about conservative industrialist David Koch. Koch, until recently a trustee of PBS station WNET-New York and still a trustee of WGBH-Boston, has donated more than $20 million to public television.

Independent Television Services, which produces Independent Lens and other PBS programs, had originally agreed to fund Citizen Koch, which was to be made by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. The film was about the support of Koch Industries for conservative governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. But after Koch took issue with another documentary, Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, that aired last November with content critical of Koch and other wealthy New Yorkers, ITVS’s offer to underwrite the new documentary was withdrawn. ITVS said it was because the show, as it developed, was not true to the description of it that was part of the original funding agreement.

But the withdrawal of funding for the documentary was an irritant to many PBS viewers and others, who agreed with a comment made by Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way: “Money can not only buy action in our democracy, it can also buy silence.” Deal and Lessin organized a campaign on Kickstarter, a Web fundraising platform for creative projects, to replace the lost funding. They received $169,522—the amount they hoped for from ITVS—from 3,400 people who gave online to get the program going again. At press time, the next problem was distribution, since it was far from certain that ITVS would pick up where it left off before the flap over Park Avenue.• —SK

 

NRC to Probe Nuclear Plants’ Finances

In 2009, Louisiana-based Entergy, the owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, proposed to spin off five of its nuclear plants by creating a new company that would start life with a $3.5 billion deficit. The company gave up the idea, but it led Vermont Yankee’s critics to wonder about the financial underpinnings of Entergy’s nuclear holdings, which include not only Vermont Yankee but the Pilgrim reactor in Plymouth and the FitzPatrick plant on Lake Ontario in Scriba, N.Y.

Early this year, worries about the company’s capitalization of Vermont Yankee were reinforced by predictions from UBS, a financial services company, that Entergy would sustain substantial losses with the continued operation of Vermont Yankee. And in 2012, the company disclosed in an SEC finiling that it had written the value of Vermont Yankee down from $517 million to $162 million.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets financial standards for the capitalization of nuclear power plants; nuclear plant watchers in the Northeast suspect that Entergy doesn’t meet them. In March, the Shelburne, Mass.-based Citizens Awareness Network, the Vermont Citizens Action Network, Pilgrim Watch and the New York state-based Alliance for a Green Economy petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to examine the financial structures of Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim and the FitzPatrick plant.

“Entergy’s economic strain compromises safe operation of its reactors, forcing the company to delay maintaining and replacing equipment and putting pressure on plant staff to avoid shutting down the plants for repairs. In a sign of its financial distress, Entergy has announced layoffs throughout its nuclear fleet in recent days, another symptom of economic trouble that could harm reactor safety,” the petitioners claim in a public statement. (Entergy announced in July that it would lay off 800 workers company-wide, including 30 of 650 workers at Vermont Yankee.)

The NRC rejected the petition then, but the groups refiled in April, adding new information. The NRC wrote CAN on August 7 that its Petition Review Board had recommended that the petition be accepted, which means that the investigation of NRC’s finances will go forward.

The groups are now calling on the NRC to enforce its financial regulations if it finds that Entergy doesn’t meet the agency’s standards. In that case, said CAN president Tim Judson, “now is the time for NRC to step in and take away the keys.” Entergy has said that the petition has no merit.•

 

Advocate Q&A with Steve Herrell

Valley resident and famed ice cream innovator Steve Herrell recently chatted with Advocate correspondent Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser about the art and business of making ice cream.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser: Was your initial motivation ice cream or the desire to run a business?

Steve Herrell: I wanted to run my own business. My family made ice cream on the porch with a hand-cranked machine, so I figured I knew ice cream. I thought it’d be fun to run an ice cream store. I had no idea what running a business meant. Ignorance was bliss. It’s also true that I loved ice cream. I used to eat a hot fudge sundae for lunch at Brigham’s every single day. I knew I could make better ice cream than that.

SWB: Few people get labeled as ice cream innovators.

SH: Of course, there are the standard flavors. Each flavor I make has a reason. Something like malted vanilla? That seemed so obvious to me. It wasn’t obvious to everyone. Or mixing in Heath Bars or candies—no one had done it. Burnt Sugar and Butter was the beginning of a caramel sort of thing, but more penuche-like.

SWB: My sister’s favorite; she visits every time she’s in town.

SH: It turns out to be our third most popular flavor. With some flavors, the name comes first. When our daughter was small, her friend complained about how so many things automatically use the word “boys” instead of “girls”—and so she inspired Girlsenberry. Another time, when we were on vacation, my daughter asked for ice cream, something ooey and gooey. I had to figure out that flavor. It’s vanilla ice cream with lots of chocolate fudge and caramel sauce.

SWB: Flavor invention and quality control must necessitate a great deal of tasting

SH: We make over 240 flavors. Delicious as my ice cream is, I must exert willpower. For new flavor testing, the staff brings me a kiddie cup of each batch. I test rotating flavors with a taste on the end of a Popsicle stick.

SWB: The best part of owning an ice cream store is—?

SH: The most fun thing is to see customers be happy. A lot of people love to come to Herrell’s, and express that. The happiness ice cream gives may not be deep, philosophical joy. Still, it’s rewarding to provide joy. I also really enjoy the people aspect of the whole thing: not only the customers, but also the staff. I’ve employed over seven hundred great young people over the years. They are responsible and dedicated. It’s stressful when there’s a long line. You have to work fast; you’re on your feet; you need to think about what you’re doing. My staff works hard. They enjoy being here. It’s not an easy job, but it’s a fun job.

SWB: I have to ask what your favorite flavor is, don’t I?

SH: (Grins). Hot fudge. I like High Definition Vanilla, which blends well with hot fudge. And peppermint. I worked with the flavorist to get him to make peppermint oil that met my standards. That peppermint oil became one of his best sellers.

SWB: Ben and Jerry, you know them?

SH: We’ve become friends over time. They say that they came and queried me about ice cream before they went into business. I don’t remember this. I’m glad I was helpful and friendly. I do know they’ve spent years attempting to figure out the difference between their strawberry ice cream and mine. There is a secret reason my ice cream stands apart.

SWB: You’re not telling, huh?

SH: Never.•

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