Charlotte Pat McCoy, the executive director of Action NC, and I visited with a class of students at Charlotte School of Law who were trying to learn the often delicate dance required of partnering with community organizations, offering stories and advice, even if perhaps not helpfully in some cases. More fruitfully, we talked about campaigns and conferenced in the whole team to look at the prospects for nonprofit hospital accountability in North Carolina. We visited with Action NC leaders and organizers, telling old stories and hearing new tales. Young organizers from the ACORN days were now seasoned veterans with nearly a decade under their belts. It was all fun and friendly.
Nothing prepared me for the evening though. Somehow what I had noted on my calendar as a meeting with Hector Vaca, Action NC’s Charlotte director, and some local Latino journalists, sharing information on their immigrant organizing work and ACORN International’s work in Latin America, turned out to be something much, much different and very, very special. Brother McCoy may have neglected to fully brief me, but he was as tight on the details for this reception as he has been on the main thrust of his work in Carolina over the last half-dozen years. There were three kinds of tea, including the mandatory sweet tea so many required here, and probably as many different kinds of pizza, though I got to that late in the game. Before it was all said and done we were meeting with more than thirty Action NC leaders, members, and staff, many from the North Carolina ACORN days, and, even more, newly recruited from Action NC campaigns, but all raising their hands with questions about ACORN, ACORN International, citizen wealth, and all the work we were all doing or might even do together in the future. It all felt like a wonderful and warm homecoming, a rare, sweet slice of heaven in the struggle and still a standard measure of community in the South.
That was personal, but the business was even more special and serious. Faced with rebuilding after the attacks on ACORN, Pat and his team in the rebranded Action NC had hunkered down, concentrating in Charlotte, but maintaining important operations in Durham and Raleigh, the state capital. They had strategically repositioned themselves in campaigns that followed their base, especially in dealing with horrendous and exploitative tenant issues, and then listening to many of the tenants from the immigrant community and concentrating Hector’s work in building a base and campaign around immigration rights and the myriad issues of the undocumented. They joined numerous coalitions, whether as senior or junior partners, to build a stronger North Carolina base in the vacuum created by ACORN’s elimination as their national support center. They pushed on housing, education, healthcare, and other classic issues and made progress.
Interviewing Pat on KABF and WAMF’s Wade’s World one campaign stands out as typical. Many of their members from the immigrant rights campaign kept bringing up their forced detachment from their own children and their education because of local school regulations and bureaucracy. In Charlotte, to volunteer to help in a class or enter the school grounds required identification of course, but for some reason Charlotte demanded a Social Security number which for undocumented families was impossible. Ostensibly the schools wanted to do a criminal background check, but no manner of other assurances were acceptable. The campaign was on! School board members were met. Administration officials were buttonholed. Meetings with law enforcement officials showed progress for independent 24-hour records checks. Study committees were assembled as Action NC pressure increased.
Like so much of our work, the story is not quite finished yet and the fight continues. But like the continuum of members, leaders, and organizers that have tirelessly stayed the course in North Carolina from Carolina Action to North Carolina ACORN to Action NC, and just as ACORN International has continued to unwaveringly built ACORN over the last 45 years from Arkansas to Canada, India, Kenya, Honduras and a dozen other countries, standing with the gang in Charlotte, answering questions about ACORN and citizen wealth, signing books for companeros and companeras, laughing and taking pictures with people, there was not one doubt in my mind that as we always chanted, the People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Charlotte Is it just me or is the mainstream starting to discover precarious employment? Maybe it’s the “fight for $15” push that’s opening eyes? Maybe it’s a residue of the Occupy 1% theme? Maybe it’s the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us? I’m not sure, but I know two things. One, that, like spring, tales of the precarious are starting to sprout up everywhere, and, secondly, that it has to be a good thing, no matter how odd some of the pieces come out. None of this is George Orwell down and out in London and Paris, but most of it is more a long look through a telescope at Mars full of observations with very limited, well gloved participation at most.
The New York Times of course has the occasional story of a fast food worker trying to live and raise a family on barely minimum wage, but that’s hardly new. Recently though, The New Yorker ran a story by William Finnegan, their esteemed reporter on all things south of the US border, where he followed an informal mineworker – one of an estimated 400,000 — in the gold fields of Peru at 17,000 feet who tried to make a hardscrabble living as his fuse burned to an early death. Elsewhere in the magazine for the life of me it almost seemed that the reader was being encouraged towards at least a glimmer of empathy for Somalian pirates because of the dire economics and precarious prospects for making a living in that failed state. Interestingly, the business end of piracy seems to be small time, marginal workers hardly a half-step above precarious making “investments” in the success of the ransom demands. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not recommending this for marginally employed workers, but the New Yorker’s door opening for their readers into the other worlds of work outside Manhattan is truly fascinating!
The Economist recently expressed concern for the increasingly precarious situation for Japan’s working poor where even with almost full employment, defined at 4% or less, a record-level 16% of the population is now living on less than half the national median income. Bestsellers are being written in this orderly society on how to live on less than $16700 per year. American low-wage workers would love to read some books with valuable advice there! The bottom line is irregular employment. The Economist noted that “the number of irregular workers – often earning less than half the pay of their full-time counterparts with permanent employment contracts – has jumped to over 1.5 million. Casual and part-time employees number nearly 20 million, almost 40% of the Japanese workforce.”
Many reports are now wondering, “How are people living like this?”
In Japan, many, especially younger workers, are living at home with parents as their primary housing and welfare agency. That’s not unusual it seems. Precarious employment is forcing huge numbers of younger workers around the world into what is being called “Hotel Mama” in Eastern Europe. In the US 15% of adults 25 to 34 live with their parents. In Slovakia 74% between 18 and 34 and 57% between 25 and 34, in Bulgaria 51%, Romania 46%, Serbia 54%, and Croatia 59%.
As more and more observers discover the ubiquitous nature of informal employment as if this is a new exploration into a previously unknown world, it’s a good thing, though I have to wonder how they avoided it so long. Unfortunately, the observations decoupled from participation, still seem woefully short on solutions or even recommendations, even as the recognition of the growing crisis increases.
New Orleans Recently Dan Cantor, the long-time head of the Working Families Party of New York and now director of their multi-state efforts to create a progressive alternative party, co-authored a piece that ran in the publication, In These Times, about lessons we could learn from the electoral victories of Syriza in Greece and the upsurge of support for Podemos as an alternative, progressive party in Spain.
The eight lessons were:
Lesson 1: Clearly identify the enemy.
Lesson 2: Against the oligarchs and the “totalitarianism of the market” which serves as a cover for their interests, we, the forces of democracy, have to fight back.
Lesson 3. Inequality is objectionable, but more fundamental is people being denied the things that they need.
Lesson 4. Draw a link between what working people need and what society as a whole needs.
Lesson 5. Have a program. Say what you will do—don’t get dragged into debates about how you will do it.
Lesson 6. A program needs spokespeople, and it really helps when those spokespeople are or will be in government.
Lesson 7. Like Greeks, Americans think that their political system is broken—and they want an alternative.
Lesson 8. No mourning for golden days.
The easiest of the eight is probably not mourning for “golden days,” because goodness knows when that might have been, but let’s not get distracted. These lessons are not just valuable as a guide for what the Working Families Party might envision, but generally inform how progressive politicians even within the Democratic Party like Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts or New York City’s Mayor Bill DeBlasio might operate. Reportedly, even presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is in New Hampshire at least sounding like a progressive for a minute or two.
None of this is easy and Cantor points out how different the world is when he notes
“By way of comparison, the WFP in Connecticut and New York got about the same percentage of the vote in their 2014 legislative races that Podemos got in the European legislative elections that put them on the political map, but the U.S. system does not turn minor party votes into a percentage of a legislative body.”
Importantly, the Working Families Party is finally broadening its reach – and appeal – by abandoning its primary tactic of fusion and running on its own line, noting that the Connecticut branch of the WFP just elected their first state legislator anywhere on their own independent party line.
Talking recently to colleagues who were involved in the progressive challenge in Chicago to the newly re-elected Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, they also note that any realistic alternative challenge must find a way to weld together the black and brown voters and issues within the progressive forces, which failed to happen in Chicago.
The letter from the progressive wing of the US Senate including Warren, Minnesota’s Franken, Vermont’s Sanders, and several others to the FCC demanding the monopoly merger between Comcast and Times-Warner cable be rejected is another good example of the bounty of available planks we have for our program.
Ideas and initiatives abound. We need more “grit” and get in the organizing now to make it happen.
Yevgenia Chirikova (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel, file)
New Orleans The Organizers’ Forum has conducted an International Dialogue with community and labor organizers and activists in various movements around the world since 2002. In our first trip to Brazil we almost miraculously stumbled into the wild excitement in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro around the election campaign of Lula de Silva from the PT or Workers’ Party then. Subsequently, we have been to thirteen different countries including South Africa ten years after the fall of apartheid and Egypt right after the ill-fated revolution. This year we will go to Poland. Even after all of these years, some organizers will say, “Why Poland? What can organizers learn there?” My answer might be Yevgenia Chirikova.
In 2007 more than 15 of us visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. We were often asked, “Why Russia? What in the world can organizers learn about organizing in Russia?” You would be surprised. We met a rank-and-file autoworker who had sparked the organization of a Ford Plant some distance from St. Petersburg and was involved in another half-dozen organizing drives with other labor activists. We heard about the efforts to curtail and regulate nonprofits, which over the last eight years has been common in scores of countries, including the United States.
By happenstance we also met Yevgenia Chirikova who at that time was a soft-spoken, young woman of 30 years old who was taking her first tentative steps as a grassroots community activist concerned with the environment. I never tire of telling her story of being a young mother living in an outer ring suburb of Moscow and taking her daughters, one still in a stroller, walking near the apartment where she and her husband had moved, and almost stumbling on a sign indicating coming highway construction through what was supposedly the federally protected Khimki Forest. Subsequently, the Save the Khimki Forest Campaign focused on the $8 billion construction project that ignored other, less environmentally intrusive routes, and exposed dark dealings by Prime Minister Putin and his cronies involved in the project being built by a French construction company. We were moved by her organizing and have helped her campaign over the last eight years in small ways, while she has deepened her commitment and expanded her range.
One of the things we learn in our dialogues is the prices paid by organizers in other countries.The Khimki Forest fight has been marked by frequent arrests and brutal beatings including one that left a reporter brain damaged and terminal. Global Witness, an international campaigning organization recently issued a report noting that the killings of environmental activists has risen by 20% in the last year. Their report said there were 116 deaths worldwide in 2014, including 29 in Brazil, 25 in Colombia and 15 in the Philippines. Others were sometimes kidnapped, beaten, and abused.
In the eight years since we met Yevgenia her profile has risen, she has won awards and prizes for her activism, but all at a price. The police several years ago threatened to take her children from her, only dissuaded perhaps by an immediate video she did of her rage at the threats that pushed them back. The news now is that she has moved with her children to Estonia because of the constant repression of activists in Russia. She has no plans to change her citizenship so that she can continue to be active in organizing in Russia. She told The Guardian,
“As soon as a person starts to be efficient at what he does, they begin to threaten you with taking away your children, or slapping you with criminal charges,” She added that the only way to campaign in Russia now may be “leaderless resistance so that it’d be unclear who to target”.
Russia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Bolivia, India, wherever we go we meet organizers who wake up and work for change every day, just as we must do, and face the odds, whatever they may be. Everyone pays a price, which is the cost of admission in the fight for justice and change. It is good to look at the ledger and continue to make sure that the balances are being accounted in the solidarity of struggle throughout the world.
We’ll learn a lot in Poland, too.It is often a surprise for people in the United States, but actually it’s a big world and it takes a lot of people to change it for the better.
New Orleans After almost a year and a half of trying to pull the wool over federal regulators and the consumer public, the effort by Comcast to create a predatory monopoly over broadband internet and cable with its proposed merger with Times-Warner seems to finally be coming to a head. Reportedly, the FCC is now entertaining both parties for the first time in fourteen months on whether it will schedule a public hearing on the merger. Experts talking to the Wall Street Journal say that if Comcast is not able to stop a hearing, the FCC only schedules one as the kiss of death, which gives us all something to hope for now.
There is encouraging news. The feds seem to have seen through the Comcast flimflam argument that, “hey, fellas, this is just a simple cable deal,” realizing that the real issue is not cable, which all us techno-peasants know could be an outdated technology on its way to the dustbins of history like home telephones and desktop radio sets. The FCC realized that the merger would give the monopoly almost 60% of the market for broadband internet. Furthermore, there is nothing in Comcast’s history or recent record that indicates that they would play nice with a monopoly. No way, no how.
More good news has emerged from the Justice Department indicating they may be coming late to the game, but finally seem to be looking at the antitrust ramifications of this proposed merger. In recent weeks, reports have emerged that indicate that there is no determination, but the folks at Justice are not liking what they are seeing so far.
Reading the tea leaves, I would say that they are floating trial balloons to help stiffen the back of the FCC, just as the President had to do on the net neutrality issue. The FCC is charged with determining whether a merger like this is in the public interest, while Justice looks at antitrust. Sending a message through the newspapers across the wide Washington, DC boulevards that Justice is skeptical on the merger might be the last push towards the right decision by the FCC.
Supposedly, the FCC is also looking at whether or not the Comcast record on their merger with NBC/Universal indicates they can be trusted on this deal. The Journal says a deal with Hulu is an issue. I don’t know Hulu from Hawaii, but I do know their commitment to the FCC order about delivering low cost, accessible service to lower income families with children has been a travesty dressed in hypocrisy. We have already forced the company to pay fines and extend the years required to deliver on their commitment, and they are nowhere close to doing right. Giving an outfit like this majority control of broadband internet would guarantee that the digital divide for lower income families would be permanent and unbridgeable. Too much of the future is tied into the internet to allow a company like Comcast to made inequity a permanent condition dividing everyone forever.
If you haven’t already let the FCC know that this Comcast monopoly has to be stopped, then now is the time to do so.
New Orleans Opening a new location of our social enterprise Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans was a relief even if we’re still shaking out the kinks, installing the ice machine, this and that. How we get the word out for our soft opening and early weeks has been a constant conversation filled with many ideas. One will say how we need to update our social media on Facebook and our website. Ok, let’s do that. Another will say, let’s open up for events, a baby shower here, a violin recital there, and a local meeting here and there. Sounds good, Ok, let’s do that, too. But, you can’t take an organizer off the streets, so what I wanted was flyers and lots of them and bigger flyers that I could put up on telephone poles, bus stops, and wherever people might gather. Would it work? Who knows, but it’s what I know, and what I like, so….
A week of rain finally stopped and I had a commitment from my son, Chaco, to hit the streets with me, so he could take one side, and I could take the other. I wanted to hit the immediate neighborhood behind our offices and the coffeehouse that was still in the throes of change between a lower income – working African-American neighborhood and the first waves of urban pioneers and families grabbing something semi-affordable in one of our last slivers of a neighborhood in transition, but still close to the French Quarter and the red-hot Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. We had cloudy skies, bright pink flyers, and away we went.
Going block to block, door to door, and flyering is always an education, and it’s hard to get one better than street-side. You miss things from the windshield that are uncovered walking your dogs along the sidewalks and up and down the porches. The added benefit on a Saturday afternoon is that you also have some stoop sitters, mailbox checkers, and random walkers and workers on the street that can be engaged in conversation.
Until the rain drove us off the turf, Chaco and I managed to cover the grid for an hour. Almost half the houses are in transition, either “fixed and fine” or under construction in one way or another. I had not realized this corridor was going so fast.
On the street, neighbors were making the adjustment. An African-American couple sitting on their porch yelled out at a young 20’s something white couple with the young man uncomfortably wearing a tie, that they looked good dressed up, while the youngsters tried to laugh it off as they walked down the middle of the street.
We had conversations on both sides of the line. Old residents, some barbequing on their porches or sitting in the shade were uniformly friendly, usually asking if we served breakfast. They knew our location as next door to the beauty supply house. Newcomers knew us as next door to the hipster-punk bar, Sibera.
One bicycle rider reminded me that he was already a regular. Right on! A guy working on his house asked through the window if we were connected to ACORN and then said that he had been a midnight to 2 AM DJ with a woman named May in 2008 and 2009 at KABF in Little Rock, and I told him to get his act together to do the same thing on WAMF once we were on the air in New Orleans. A big guy bushwacking around the old, abandoned Annunciation church buildings told me it would be some years before they were returned into community service, but they were starting. He knew about the coffeehouse and returned the flyer so we would save money. The grandson of the Cuban tire dealer who sold us the building was on St. Rock behind the new food court that just opened, but said he would be by soon for a cup of coffee. Chaco found outstretched hands from all of the service workers behind the building who were desperate for a place to have a cup of coffee that was away from their workplace.
Raindrops as big a dimes started falling on us as we came back towards the coffeehouse where a baby shower was in progress behind the iron gates and pink ribbons were tied above the sign saying, “closed, open at 6 am.”
We had the flyers out and were really part of the neighborhood, both old and new, now.