Is History Important in Organizing and Social Change?

362New Orleans        An axiom of organizing in whatever form or fashion it occurs has always been that what matters is what you do tomorrow, not yesterday.  This is particularly true for membership organizations where any accomplishment exponentially increases the expectation that the organization needs to produce even more today and tomorrow to meet the rising demands of its members.   Given the constant sense of immediacy and even urgency in the work, it should be no surprise that history seems a fragile, ephemeral luxury for many, sometimes masking a paint job and a new sign out front as if it were a reinvention.  Nonetheless to the degree the work is important, practitioners are obligated to feel the weight in order to extend current practice and potential farther and deeper than its been.

In Scotland recently, I was surprised to hear a talented, whip smart, and experienced ACORN organizer ask, “Who was Saul Alinsky?”  I was taken back for a minute.  I recalled a similar experience some years ago when an even more experienced union organizer for Local 880 in a joint training and planning meeting with Local 100, asked “Who was Cesear Chavez?,” which was even more surprising given that there was an emerging movement in many parts of the country to create a holiday in his name.  For every Martin Luther King or Gandhi, there are hundreds of George Wiley’s, Arthur C. Townley’s, and Wyndham Mortimer’s who are unknown to all.  All that is on us, and we do the best job we can.  In our training programs people read Chavez on dues, Warren Haggstrom on leadership styles, Nicholas von Hoffman on power, and any number of other critical, foundational pieces that guide and influence the work.

Does it matter?  Frankly, I’m not sure that it does in the day to day of the work.  But for me and others who believe that organizing is part of a continuous historical tradition of struggle for social change, justice, and empowerment, it’s fundamental not only for how history shapes the very meaning and practice of the work, but also just because it’s important to carry the flame forward.

Of course there has been a continuous stream of books recounting or revising the Chavez work, but the last major treatment of Wiley was 1981.  Thanks to rightwing usurpation, Alinsky has had a slight revival, although the last serious work on him was in 1992.  I was surprised to see that a poetic treatment of Alinsky (Be Thou a Man) and a play (The Love Song of Saul Alinksy) had been produced in recent years and of course Von Hoffman himself produced a recent memoir to try to ride the wave of hateration.  Mike Miller, a longtime community organizer based in San Francisco, and Aaron Schurtz, a UW-Milwaukee professor, are editing a “readings” volume coming out this fall called, People Power:  The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky that Social Policy (www.socialpolicy.orgis excerpting in our fall issue, which seeks to address this question by assembling various pieces following a number of community organizing strains over the last 40 years.

Decades ago ACORN working with Seth Borgos and Madeline Adamson produced a series of displays on organizing history with support from the National Endowment of the Humanities, but who knows where that might be now or if it even exists anymore.  In Little Rock, ACORN International, Local 100 United Labor Unions, and KABF are working to start a small, amateur “ACORN Museum” in our building there to do our part.

Reading UALR political scientist and historian, John A. Kirk’s, history of the work of SNCC in Arkansas, I asked him how many people he thought had read the book or cared anymore.  His answer was quick and firm.  In essence he replied, it didn’t matter.  The important thing was making sure there was a clear and accurate record of the history.

There will be people who will look, and they will need to find the answers, and for them history and tradition will have value and instruct and the rewards will multiply in future sweat and struggle.  In the meantime the rest of us who care about the work, about change, and about people, have to keep the flame flickering, so that others can find it through the dark of the future.

French Fudging May Point to Coming Business Loopholes in US on Employer Mandates

WO-AJ727_FRJOBS_G_20120510184252New Orleans     The headline in the Times spoke of “the 49ers of France,” conjuring up images of the 49ers of California Gold Rush fame, drawing me in completely. These 49ers though were small business owners who moved heaven and earth to not allow their businesses to reach 50 employees which would in the Times’ words, “unleash nearly three dozen French labor regulations.” As ominous as the language makes them sound these regulations are undoubtedly something that those wild and crazy French are doing in order to provide workers with protections on the job.  Oh, no! Furthermore they trumpet the tactic and advertise the legal sleight of hand with enthusiasm:

So in a tactic used by hundreds of other employers in a country with some of the European Union’s most extensive labor requirements, he has sought to conquer by dividing.  Rather than expand his company, he set up a second, and then a third, all capping the work force at fewer than 49 employees.  Like-minded business owners are the reason France holds the curious distinction of having more than twice as many companies with exactly 49 employees, as it does those with 50 or more.

Gearing up for the second enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, small businesses with 50 or more employees will finally face the mandate where they will be required to offer coverage for all of their workers.   It makes me wonder whether or not in the United States of America, “Land of the Loophole,” we are about to see small businesses saying, “Oui, oui!” Yes, yes!  We’re with the French all of the way, anything to keep from providing our workers healthcare. And, if there were any chance that anyone was missing the point in this ideological narrative of the plight of these virtuous small business David’s against the evil of the brutish Goliath’s of labor, the Times’ Liz Alderman spells it out even more clearly:

Economists say France’s 50-plus labor rules, which require employers to enact stringent and costly job protections – including a workers’ council with labor union delegates, a health and safety committee, and annual collective bargaining – are one reason that France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy, runs an unemployment rate more than twice Germany’s.

So despite the fact that the Times’ business page seems to want to compete now with the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed, rightwing diatribes, my real point is simply that if this is another loophole swinging wide open to deny workers coverage under Obamacare, then we need to close it.


PSA from ACORN Canada

Wholesale Bank Retreat from Lending to Lower Income and Minority Borrowers

cra1New Orleans      The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) passed in 1978, more than 35 years ago, was straightforward. Banks could no longer redline, meaning they could not use the deposits from lower income and minority neighborhoods to finance mansions for the rich in the sprawling suburbs. More plainly stated, they could not discriminate in their lending. As importantly, under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), they couldn’t hide their lending records, but had to make them transparent enough for regulators and the rest of us to know that they were doing right. Fair enough, and this worked not perfectly, but pretty well, for almost 30 years until the Great Recession by meeting the huge demands in our communities for homeownership.

Without being willing to come right out and say so, banks have gone to war against the CRA and lending to low-and-moderate income and minority communities without formally revealing that they have agreed to a declaration. They don’t want to say they don’t want to loan anymore to lower income working families and minorities, but they just don’t want to do so.

The war is being led by the biggest of the banks, especially JP Morgan and Bank of America. JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, indicated that the bank has reduced its exposure in the market for FHA insured loans that are targeted to first-time homeowners with “little wealth, especially minorities, because it allows borrowers to make down payments of just 3.5%.” A year ago Morgan accounted for 12.7% of these loans, but most recently it revealed that its share is down to 2.3%, which is to say, knocking on the door to doing nothing. Bank of America has also retreated, claiming it will focus primarily on servicing his existing customers with accounts at the bank.

And, what is their rationale for the retreat? Well, this is interesting, because it goes to the issue of transparency and accountability for lending, which was at the heart of HMDA as well.  First and foremost is the fact that they don’t want to hold the loans on their books. For right now this is why 80% of their loans are pushed into programs with various federal guarantees. A new accounting rule proposed for 2018 could make this even dicier, because they will be required to write off a portion of the loan at the same time they are making the loan, which you just know will scare the heck of them. Here’s the rub. Dimon is whining because his bank and a pack of the others are now paying fines, $614 million for Chase, because they defrauded FHA by claiming that some loans they packaged met the FHA requirements that didn’t, and even after an internal audit discovered this, they tried to continue the cover-up and not inform the FHA that they had swindled them until an internal whistleblower spilled the beans.

So, let’s all understand, Morgan got caught cheating the government, so now the big whine from CEO Dimon is that they lost money on the scam, because they are having to pay a penalty for doing wrong. They essentially want some kind of do-over rule that allows them to cheat, say I’m sorry without a fine, and keep doing whatever they feel like doing.

And, one thing Morgan, Bank of America, and others don’t feel like doing anymore is lending to first timers, working families, and minorities it seems. Unfortunately the way the CRA has had its teeth pulled over the years makes this possible, along with the fact that the Federal Reserve is the police watching over the banks and their CRA obligations, and they have tended to play patty cake on these lending obligations for years.

We need to look at the coming CRA numbers more and more rigorously, because whether we know it or not, we’re in a fight to keep money in our communities, and we’ve got a huge body count already and no sign of any cavalry coming to save us.

Trolling on Craigslist, A New 419 Internet Scam

craigslistNew Orleans       In many cities Craigslist is the modern go-to site for buying and selling, having decimated its competition years ago in what’s left of the print industry. It’s a clunky site with nothing fancy to it, but, hey, it’s free, and it’s popular, and stuff moves, so many of us are all over it whenever we have to buy or sell, you know, stuff. Which is not to say that Craigslist hasn’t had its problems as an open forum in the modern world. There’s all of this nastiness about predators. There are the shrewd operators that took prostitution off the streets and onto the web until Craig had to finally police some of that stuff. The point is that Craigslist is a wonderful tool, but so is a hammer and that doesn’t mean you can’t still smash your fingers if you’re not careful.

All of which brings me to internet scams.

There are of course the spam scams powered by bots in Russia and around the world that offer a bit of everything, plus $100 million euros, if you are willing to double click your way to trouble. If they have an attachment, you might as well just about throw your computer away. Most of us know to be careful about this stuff, and there are programs that weed out some of this.

Then there are the 419 scams from Nigeria, referring to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code forbidding mail fraud. A couple of years ago there were very interesting adaptations to the standard inheritance scams. You got an urgent email from an email that looked like it was from a friend. They were desperate and trying to get back home, usually from some foreign country, but their wallet or purse had been stolen, and they needed you to wire money to them to save the day. I can remember my first time, calling a friend in Helena, Montana at 6am to see if they were alive and well. Those were great, but they always broke down when you emailed back for a hotel name so you could call them directly, got the runaround, and ended up being asked to send a grand or so to a Western Union in London or somewhere far from anywhere.

There’s a new twist which seems more “bot” than person, which is disappointing, given how interactive the robbed-in-a-strange-land scam worked. Several of my friends have tried to offer their rooms during the Jazz Fest or rent the other side of their double or whatever, and are getting these great emails almost immediately when they post to Craigslist. It’s almost invariably a young woman who is moving to the city from England (what is it about England and these scams, eh?) and wants to rent for a year for top dollar, seemingly solving all problems the ad placer might have. Reading a couple of these, the money always looks great. I was suspicious because the young woman always looks too “good” in a stereotypical way to be true. You know, devout Christian, no smoking, no drugs, no drinking, clean freak. I mean really, how many of them are left? And, why are leaving London? That and the grammar is a little off with some misspellings, making me think more machine than scam artist here. Once they get a response – and that’s your mistake here – then there’s not much engagement, but a couple of days later there’s this problem wiring you the money, and they have a complicated ask where you would make an extra hundred for writing them back to Western Union the excess amount they tried to send you. Huh?

Well, you get it now. They pick up your listings by trolling on Craigslist. They want you to provide your name and address, which is sketchy. They send you a picture and try to get the same back from you, I guess so that they can pretend to be you to someone else next time around.

I read today that the judge wouldn’t release the names of the people scammed by the Wolf of Wall Street, the true character behind the Leonardo de Caprio movie. Turns out according to AARP and others that scammers like to buy lists of suckers wherever they can find them, because once burned is not necessarily twice learned.

Just saying. We all use Craigslist and no reason not to do so, but there’s mischief around some of these corners. Caveat emptor!

Taking the Affordable Out of the Affordable Care Act

Screen-Shot-2014-07-22-at-11.40.12-AMShreveport          Two different federal appeals courts, one in the notoriously Republican-dominated, 2nd Circuit in Washington, DC, and the other a bit more mainstream in Richmond, Virginia came down with contradictory decisions on whether or not the Affordable Care Act allows subsidies to be given in the 36 states where Governors and state legislators have stood in the hospital door and the feds have run the marketplaces. Without the subsidies administered by the IRS, the mandate for health care coverage would remain, but the “affordable” would be taken out of the Affordable Care Act. There will be no change for now, but this means that Obamacare will be on tender hooks throughout the coming mid-term elections and its fate will rest with the deeply divided Supreme Court next year. I’m not sure there’s enough prayer to protect the American people from the fear all of us now must feel.

Sadly, this seems part of a pattern of pointed and specific attacks on the poorest Americans even while the editorialists try to summon up platitudes about the importance of dealing with the deepening inequality of American society.

Reports have gotten wide publicity that perhaps as many as 2 million of the 10 million applicants for Obamacare may have had defects of one kind or another in their applications. Government Accounting Office investigators reported to a Congressional committee as well that they were able to trick their way into successful applications with fake IDs and income information in 11 of 12 cases when they went undercover.

All of these are tentative indications of problems, so they may or may not indicate deeper issues. Furthermore, there is a mechanism to fix early certifications, so it is unclear whether this is really an issue at all. Any change of income or inaccurate filing is all settled up later with the IRS at tax time where additional charges and adjustments will occur. The back-end corrects any front-end problems.

Nonetheless there can’t be any doubt that Obamacare opponents are pointing their fingers again to paint a picture of an “undeserving” poor ripping off healthcare. The subsidies now at risk, thanks to Congressional polarization that left language in the Act vague without a conference committee to clean it up, also are of course only paid to make the care affordable for the poorest working families who qualified.

Add this to the failure to adopt the Massachusetts-style $2000 cap on deductibles which will penalize millions of lower wage workers once the mandates go into effect in larger companies, and it appears the war on the poor is being waged on all fronts.

Unfortunately without some breaks or a fix, this is a cage match to the death, and the betting odds will be heavily against us.

US Border Crisis is Personal to ACORN Honduras Members

acornhondurasNew Orleans      President Obama has asked for $4 billion to secure the border, speed up deportation hearings, and house some of the more than 50,000 children that have crossed the border from Mexico to the United States having survived a journey on “The Beast,” as the train from Central America is called. The Republicans are hooting and hollering. Texas Governor Rick Perry says he has now activated 1000 National Guard members to do god only knows what at the border. Most of the children are coming from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with Honduras far in the lead with half of the top 50 cities sending children coming from that country and San Pedro Sula, the 2nd largest city in the country, accounting for 2200 children identified, leading the list. President Obama has summoned the three country’s presidents to Washington to discuss the crisis.

All of this is sound and fury unless you are an ACORN organizer working in the barrios and colonias of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula like Erlyn Perez and Suyapa Amador and dealing with the families on a daily basis. To ACORN International this is not just policy. It’s personal.

One of ACORN’s members, Luisa Almazan of San Pedro Sula, told us of her 14-year old son, Ermelindo, having been forced to flee to the United States despite the risks when gang recruiters gave him a choice of joining the gang or being killed. ACORN members and mothers, Candida Hernandez of Villa Nueva Cortes in San Pedro Sula, and Maria Antonia Callejas of Barrio Cabanas, told of the dangers to their sons, 18 and 16 respectively, and the fact that to save their lives they had been forced to pay $3000 to $5000 USD – money they didn’t have — to help them flee to the United States from the violence and poverty. Their children made it to the United States safely, but now they are detained by the immigration authorities in Texas. With no resources and already deeply in debt they are being asked to raise more money to transmit documents and get representation in order to secure their children’s release and return. These stories are repeated in every barrio where ACORN organizes, over and over.

In demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa and the First Lady’s office in San Pedro Sula this week, ACORN members are asking, “What next?” They are demanding the Honduran President take steps to finally provide security in lower income communities not simply to secure the boundaries from other areas, but to protect families from the gangs and narco-traffickers. They are demanding more support as well for jobs and educational opportunities. ACORN members and mothers don’t want to lose their teenage children to America. They are also demanding that the US spend some of its money to help the children relocate and resettle in Honduras and to actually assist them in getting their children home.

What ACORN understands is that this crisis is all about Honduras and its neighboring countries, and not about the United States. The US needs to get over its internal bickering and politicking and finally come to grips with the truth and the facts on the ground on the dirt streets where ACORN members are living and working in Honduras and stop militarizing the border and forcing the drug addictions of the US population to be paid in blood in our communities in central America. ACORN will demand change this week, but we fear, just as these mothers fear, as they summon the courage to speak out, that we will simply hear more of the same blaming the victims.