Special Multinational Court in Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

1439533698362New Orleans     President Obama sees the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as a legacy marker. News reports refer to the announcement of an agreement with the Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Canada, Peru, Mexico and many others as a “capstone” agreement for the president. The White House says that there are labor and environmental protections that are unprecedented for a trade agreement. Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries had to agree to protect labor rights in a major announcement. Many big national environmental organizations are touting the agreement as a breakthrough including the World Wildlife Federation. Australia supposedly pushed hard enough that big Pharma can’t run roughshod over generics and cheaper access to drugs in developing countries.

Sounds good, huh, but what do we have here?

The Organizers’ Forum delegation met with a researcher and campaigner in Warsaw recently named Roland Zarzycki working with the Institute for Global Responsibility. In the course of the dialogue we touched on the troubling elements in the likely TTP agreement. One that was especially worrisome had to do with the special court provisions that would allow transnational companies to sue countries over restrictions on trade in their products, but would not allow countries to sue the multinationals nor provide access to any other parties to adjudicate their concerns. Such special provisions for multinational companies paint a picture of a world of particular privilege and provision for globalization that is worrisome.

Is this some imagined problem for the paranoid? Hardly. The proof seems to be in the last minute jostling that indicated that there would be special provisions in the TPP to prevent tobacco companies from being able to sue countries that are trying to put in place health protections for the many diseases advanced by tobacco. Under some agreements Big Tobacco has already tried to take countries like India and others to such international courts. So, this door was reportedly locked for tobacco in the TPP, and that’s good, but what about other ugly, unhealthy multinational products and practices that will continue to be able to access these special courts in order to try to circumvent country by country provisions and protections?

We really don’t know of course. The negotiations are conducted in secret and the agreements reached will not be public until such time that President Obama starts the 90-day clock for Congressional review and an up or down vote to approve or disprove the trade treaty as negotiated. It’s hard to dispute the need for some quiet and confidentiality in negotiations, but the lack of information about vital pieces of the agreement privileges insiders and multinationals as well, compared to all of us biscuit-cookers out there trying to figure out what’s up.

Maybe this is as good as they are spinning, but until we know the whole story, it’s worth a lot of worry, and in the wake of countless agreements like this in the past, it’s hard to be optimistic that this is going to be as good for all of us as it is for big companies and special interests who clearly already have the inside track.

North Carolina is Showing the Way in Fighting for Rural Hospitals

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

New Orleans   For all of the continuing polarization in Congress over Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the “last stand in the hospital door” strategy of one Republican governor after another, there are realities in the heartland of the Republican base that some of the politicians are continuing to miss from their sky high perches as they survey the battleground. A fight in North Carolina by a Republican mayor, Adam O’Neal, in small town Bellhaven in the eastern part of the state, to save his town’s rural hospital should be sending a message about the political price the resistors will pay with their base voters, even if they are missing the life-and-death message that adequate and accessible health care represents. As the Mayor has made clear, health care is an issue that defines bipartisanship because both Republicans and Democrats get sick.

The private healthcare corporation Vident closed the local hospital, Pungo that served Bellhaven. Since the viability of so many hospitals was based on expanding health care coverage not restricting it, Pungo is just one of many early warning signs of what could become a widespread calamity. As noted in the Daily Kos, the Rural Health Association counts 283 rural hospitals as on their own kind of deathwatch to survive.

To save the hospital, Mayor O’Neal pulled pages from the history of the civil rights struggle and joined hands with contemporary activists. They hit the streets and marched to the state capitol in Raleigh to ask for a modification of the certification to allow the hospital to reopen. They also marched to Washington totaling hundreds of miles. They were joined by Rev. William Barber and his Moral Majority who have been central in recent struggles in North Carolina and beyond. They were also joined by former civil rights activists, like the legendary Bob Zellner from early SNCC and Freedom Rides fame. I can remember reaching out for Zellner in 1976 when we opened ACORN’s office in New Orleans and asking for help then. He was “retired” he said and working for an industrial plant, Godcheaux’s sugar refinery, while living in New Orleans and trying to find some calm after his years of activism. I doubt if he had really retired then, but there’s no doubt that he is back in action now. It was good to read that Zellner had joined this fight in North Carolina and walked with Mayor O’Neal every step of the 238-mile trek to Washington.

Does this kind of bipartisanship work even in the rock-ribbed rural communities of the South that have become the bastion of the Republican voting strength? Can these dusted off tactics still make a difference?

It seems so as Mayor O’Neal tweeted at the end of September:

Great news!!! NC Legislature changes Cert. Of Need law to allow our hospital to reopen. Votes..House 102-8 and Senate 44-0. #savepungo

Seems like part of the message from North Carolina is that we may need to build a movement on health care access for all to finally get the job done here.

Dream Pilots and Scarf Turbans

Dream-InterpretationNew Orleans   There are two other fascinating things that I learned in France that particularly stand out in a life of education and adventure.

At dinner one evening the aunt of one of the ReAct crew started telling me about her work over the years as a “storyteller.” That led to her sharing a reverie about how much she enjoyed flying in her dreams. Now we all know that dreaming in black-and-white is meager life experience compared to dreaming in Technicolor, but flying in your dreams, I had no idea. She told me she flies often while dreaming and over the years has even developed a signature way of taking off with giant running steps until she is in the air. How cool is that?

She told me she was doing a series of shows with her company in the mountain communities around the Alps for four or five nights in a row. She was constructing stories out of the pieces of dreams that the audience would share with her. As a whim she decided to ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they flew in their dreams. The first night there was one dream pilot, the second there were two or three, and then four in the third night. Her company thought she should stop asking and she promised she would but on the last night, everyone raised their hands that they were flying in their dreams.

I couldn’t help myself. The next day I found myself asking organizers in the office whether they flew in their dreams or not. Some did. Some did not. More women were dream pilots than men, but some men also were determined dream flyers. I was amazed, and, frankly, I felt left out. I couldn’t remember ever hearing people talk about flying in their dreams, and not being a dream pilot myself, I never thought to ask, but it turns out that there is secret society of dream pilots all around us. Now that I know so many are flying, I have a simpler question: where do they go?

That life lesson seems more universal than French, but during the weekend training in the mountains way above Grenoble, only a couple of hundred meters I was told from where Jean Paul Killy, the famous French skier won his gold medal in the Winter Olympics held there, the crew would move in the mid-afternoon, as the sun warmed, to the porch of the local utility company’s chalet, accessible to its workers for holidays and arranged by one of the Alliance members. After a half-hour or so I noticed that the majority of the staff had wrapped sweaters, scarfs, and t-shirts over the top of their heads, turban-style, though the sun was still hitting them full in the face. The session was about structure or some such, but after they had exhausted all of their questions, I said that I had one that I would like to ask though it wasn’t exactly about organizing: why were they piling all of this stuff on the top of their heads while they were getting burned to a crisp by the sun at this altitude? Being a red head who can get a sun burn crossing the street and a consumer of the constant skin cancer warnings that come with my breed, I just didn’t get it. Adrien Roux, one of the coordinators, simply answered in English – “insulation.” The rest of the crew nodded in agreement. Sunburn, who cared, for the French it was all about not being a hot head.

France, what a country! For the rest of us hotheads, we’ll just have to dream the best way we can, and leave the flying for the fortunate few.

Notes for My Father from France

last dinner in Grenoble

last dinner in Grenoble

Paris     I brought coffee and chicory from New Orleans so that I was never stranded too far from home even while in Poland and France. In France there was curiosity about my concoction, but a certainty about chicory because though we source ours in Nebraska in order to wave the local banner, chicory is grown widely here, and drunk straight by some, including one of the Grenoble organizers. Like the way the Civil War blockade gave New Orleans natives – and interlopers like me – a taste for it that couldn’t spit out of their mouths, I gathered the inability to get access to any coffee beans in the 20th century conflagrations had led some grandchildren to still brew a cup of chicory having acquired the taste at their grandparents table.

There are little signs that are distinct in France like the five-foot tall pencil on the street signals that a school is nearby in Grenoble. The kiss of greeting on each cheek for everyone being met is a nice, dear touch, though even when I thought I was mastering the task I was told not to forget to make the sound of lips pursing in an air-kiss as the cheeks were touched lightly.

Food is an obsession and bread finds its way to every meal and table. Cheese is almost as constant along with the claims for various regional varieties. It is amazing that people are not gargantuan and obese. My best guess is that practice of continual cultural communal eating meal after meal has decreased the dependence on unhealthy fast food diets fueled by sugar-saturated drinks. Add walking and cycling to work here and there and even though gyms also don’t proliferate in France as they do in the States, people seem pretty trim in the main.

On most organizing staffs lunch is as widely forgotten as remembered, but in France lunch breaks are almost ritualistic, even among the organizers. Often people brought in snacks or croissants and broke to enjoy them as well. The women organizers always in the ReAct office seemed to share a giant chocolate bar on a daily basis that they would walk over and break off a small piece to enjoy off and on throughout the day. At one day’s break that some of the organizers shared with me, the discussion noted with some concern that other organizers down the hall had only shared one lunch during the week with their comrades. I didn’t want to add that the reason was likely that the others were on a community organizing regime modeled after ACORN in Canada and working different hours. Early in the week after I moved from one meeting to another, an organizer asked me if I wasn’t ready for a “statutory break,” referring to the French labor code requirements. I think I made it a joke the rest of my time in France, but I suspect everyone took it very seriously.

Certainly, the rigidity of the French workweek at 35 hours was well respected. The negotiations allowed under the code to move the hours with premiums paid to 39 was reportedly specific and intense. During the weekend training session in the mountains for leaders and organizers, I had to ask what happened to some of the more junior staff when they didn’t stay for Sunday and in some cases took off on Monday. Saturday worked means a weekday off. All of this takes soft paws to a whole new place.

But, what a great culture. There was little doubt when some there was a chance for organizers to watch some film clips on the work, that pizza would be coming, too. It would have also been a giant faux pas if my last evening meal before returning to the USA before dawn would not have brought as many organizers and staff as available out to a community meal somewhere. We ended up in a neighborhood bar not far from where one of the staff lived, and he managed to convinced the bar owner to go into the kitchen and within thirty minutes produce a great meal with a number of local Grenoble and regional dishes “to show the American.”

What a great community and what great fun! Hard not to respect such a culture and what it builds in social capital, and notice that in our capital driven work ethic we are so chained to the wheel, we don’t even give our schedules a second thought. One of the coordinators, Adrien Roux, having spent a month with me in New Orleans reportedly had come back to France and made the comment that for all he had learned about organizing in his visit, he still found it a mystery whether or not organizers ever ate in the US.

Organizing Palm Oil Plantation Workers to Hold Bollore-Scofin to Account

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 10.40.24 AMGrenoble   Working with our ACORN’s partner, ReAct, yesterday we tackled tightening down and scaling up their accountability campaign on the giant French palm oil company, Bollore’ owned by Scofin, headquartered in Brussels. The plantations are broadly distributed around the world with locations as far afield as Cambodia and Indonesia but most concentrated in Africa with the largest number at seven plantations in Cameroon and additional significant operations in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Congo, San Tome, and Sierra Leone.

ReAct and its organizers in France and on the ground in these countries had built organizations of plantation workers in five of the nine countries. The issues were acute. Some workers were employed directly by the plantations and their conditions were anything but optimal. Others were subcontractors or suppliers of sorts with plots of land allowing them to supply to Bollore-Scofin their product directly for distribution. The issue here was often land-grabbing as the company tried to expand and often ran roughshod over existing small producers in the area.

After hard work and many petitions, actions, and marches on plantation offices the associations organized by ReAct had exerted enough pressure that they won a breakthrough meeting to negotiate with Bollore at its headquarters in Paris in September 2014. The meeting had cleared the air with representatives from the associations around the world in attendance, Bollore’ seemed to get the message and some tentative agreements were reached and it seemed some progress was made. Over the last year those early signs of progress have degenerated into stalling and stonewalling with Bollore’ insisting that its corporate owner, Scofin, has the authority to make agreements and implement any affirmative commitments and that Scofin is not responding.

The ReAct supported plantation associations haven’t taken this slowdown passively, and have launched a steady campaign of actions, rallies, marches, and demonstrations since the spring. In Cameroon, the pressure was intense with each plantation taking a turn one week after another until the managers agreed to meet and try to get the negotiations on track again. ReAct allies joined them in demonstrations at the annual corporate board meetings of Bollore’ in Paris several months ago and at Scofin in Brussels as well, demanding an end to land-grabbing and a return to the progress and promises of the earlier meeting. There are signs that the company may be yielding. We are preparing a plantation committee now for a meeting suddenly called by Bollore’ in Liberia where we have more recently turned up the heat since meetings are again legal with the receding of the Ebola crisis and the labor shortages that arose in its wake.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is the transnational business model for both profit and exploitation. For our organization the model is doubling down. We spent hours tightening down the organizing plan on the ground and discussing how ACORN could assist in bringing in Nigerian and Indonesian workers into the campaign and strengthening the program in Liberia where English, rather than French, is the more common language.

Palm oil is becoming more and more popular with consumers, but that doesn’t mean that companies on the production side from fields to market can continue to expect that they can ignore the demands of their workers and the communities where they operate. Bollore’ and Scofin had seemed to understand that the best course was to meet their workers half-way, but if they are now deciding to the take the harder road, ReAct and the associations on the ground are digging in to make them the poster child for how not to operate.

This is one fight that is not going to go away.

Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?