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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    



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Working for Justice: Beginning with Inspiration


Written by Emily Miron, Policy Intern

In the beginning of the summer, my mother gave me a beautifully framed poem about justice and finding one’s passion by author and artist, Mary Ann Radmacher.  The opening stanzas pose important questions: “What is a voice if it does not raise against injustice?  What is a voice if it does not sing for change?”  I hung the poem on the far wall of my bedroom so that before I go to bed and when I wake up I can read it and be reminded of what I believe in.  The questions Radmacher raises have been reverberating in my mind since I took a college course titled “History of Justice and Equality” my first semester freshman year at the University of Rochester.

     



The course, without exaggeration, has influenced the rest of my education and outlook on the world in general.  Throughout the small seminar-based course we read works by Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, to try and answer broad questions like: What is justice?  What is equality?  How are they intertwined and are they universal?  Throughout the class I became more aware of my own privileges and the ways that society is deliberately organized to favor some groups over others.  Additionally, the course brought into focus how the lack of justice and equality has manifested in the contemporary world through segregation, systematic racism, racial profiling and socioeconomic inequality.  I was taken aback by the severity of these issues and their implications.

My major at the University of Rochester is in public health, and more specifically, “Health, Behavior and Society.”  I chose this major to learn how social determinants of health, like poverty and access to resources, impact one’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime.  I want to combine my passion for public health and advocacy in a proactive and meaningful way, and I feel very fortunate to be able to intern at Empire Justice Center this summer with the policy team to be able to engage in the political process to make important changes for New Yorkers.

During my second week with Empire Justice Center, I was able to see the impact of grassroots activism during the SWEAT lobby day.  SWEAT stands for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft.  The purpose of the proposed SWEAT legislation is to help workers and New York State collect the wages they are rightfully owed from unscrupulous employers.  Wage theft is a problem across all of New York State that predominantly affects low-wage industries, resulting in over one billion dollars in stolen wages per year.  These lost wages impact their housing, food, lifestyle and, ultimately, their health.  The lobby day was a day for all members of the SWEAT coalition to come together, as activists, workers, policy makers and legal representatives alike to advocate for the SWEAT legislation and educate various Senators and Assembly Members on the merits of the proposed bill.  It was quite remarkable to witness activism in action and see what can be accomplished.

   



I continued to work on SWEAT through the end of the legislative session by passing out memos of support to members of the legislature and participating in meetings with the Senate and Assembly legislative staff with the rest of the Empire Justice Center policy team.  We shared high hopes for the passage of the SWEAT bill, and even though neither house ultimately passed it, I could tell that momentum was building in both houses.  The groundwork has been laid for success in the next session.

I have learned so much this summer about the political process, the hard work that goes into legislative advocacy, and most importantly, that all the efforts by Empire Justice Center, the SWEAT coalition, and workers themselves is extremely beneficial.  Even though the SWEAT bill did not pass and become law, important strides were made in spreading awareness about how extensive this problem is in New York State.  Overall, working on the SWEAT bill during the legislative session surrounding has confirmed my passion for social justice and how I can be a voice in the world to fight against injustice and for vital change.

Emily Miron is a senior at the University of Rochester pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health with a minor in History. She hopes to get a Master’s in Public Health with a focus in health equity following graduation. 



Tags: wage justice | intern | justice | sweat





Bravo to AG Schneiderman

Issue Area: Consumer

There has been much discussion about the lawsuit recently filed by New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, against JP Morgan for fraudulent activities committed by Bear Stearns before JP Morgan acquired it in March 2008.  For the record, Empire Justice Center is very supportive of these efforts and appreciative of the leadership role Attorney General Schneiderman has taken in pursuing accountability in the face of opposition.  It’s a matter of justice – those that do wrong should be held accountable for the harms they caused to both investors and homeowners.

It is absolutely critical that as a society we ensure that the predatory practices of the last decade are never repeated again.  Today, many of the failed predatory lenders have been acquired by the “Too Big to Fail Banks,” like Bank of America.  The price paid by the acquiring banks factored in the need to provide justice to those harmed by the predatory lenders and the litigation risks involved with the purchase. 

These failed companies were not bought by mom and pop banks.  Acquiring institutions bought them at fire sale prices.  The 52 week high for Bear Stearns’ stock before the crisis occurred was $133 a share.  JP Morgan ultimately purchased Bear Stearns for only $10 a share.  Having paid the fire sale rate, the acquiring banks must live by the rules of the free market.  Armies of well-paid lawyers and investment bankers reviewed the bank mergers.  Therefore, it is completely disingenuous for the banks to complain about being held accountable for the very bad practices that drove down the price they paid for the predatory lenders.  The litigation they now face was entirely predictable and was precisely why the predatory lenders were sold at the dramatically lower prices.  Again, the cost of losing litigation and having to make whole those harmed by the illegal conduct of the predatory lenders was factored into the sale price.

Many of those who now advocate giving the acquiring banks a free pass, have in the past actually opposed the need to provide financial relief to the victims of predatory lending.  They cited the risk of “moral hazard.”  While we don’t see any moral hazard in making the victims of predatory lending whole, we are a bit surprised by the inconsistency of those who fail to see the moral hazard in letting the acquiring backs off the hook.  To the contrary, there is a clear moral hazard in not holding predatory lenders and their acquiring institutions responsible for illegal acts that were wide-spread in the industry.  Litigation such as the NY Attorney General’s against these predatory practices will play an important role in ensuring these practices are not repeated in the future because those in the industry will know that a lender's sins will not be washed away with a sale.

Furthermore, the after effects of the financial crisis these perpetrators caused have directly resulted in hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers facing the loss of their homes.  Millions of families have seen a lifetime of savings wiped out.  Entire neighborhoods have seen price declines of 20- 40%.  Millions of homeowners have had to help bear the cost of the financial meltdown – shouldn't those harmed by illegal conduct be provided with compensation?

Despite the real suffering families are experiencing, our analysis of foreclosure data shows that the worst may still be ahead of us.  Foreclosures are still making their way through the courts.  The full impact of completed foreclosures and the consequences on hundreds of neighborhoods is still to be experienced.  Tens of thousands families who are unable to receive significant loan modifications will start facing eviction and potential homelessness.  Many minority communities will be impacted more than others.

Homeowners and their advocates have long been pushing State and Federal regulators to take legal action against these abusive practices.  We are proud of the New York Attorney General’s long history of protecting the rights of consumers and we applaud our Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his leadership and for continuing with the tradition.



Tags: foreclosure | predatory lending | Bear Sterns | too big to fail | JP Morgan





Welcome!


Welcome to Just Thoughts, Empire Justice Center’s new blog.  For the next several months, this blog will be a work in progress as Empire Justice staff and guest authors periodically blog about a variety of issues that matter to us.  Among other things, bloggers will be sharing their expertise and perspectives on timely issues, pointing out interesting news stories or events and, via client stories, putting a face on the work we do.

In addition to getting our voice out to our supporters and new audiences in a less formal way, we hope Just Thoughts will initiate conversations and build community.  Empire Justice is excited to see your comments, feedback and opinions about the various topics and about ways to improve our blog.  And don’t forget to subscribe to our blog and have our new posts delivered to you via RSS feed!