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Trumping Global Capital with Local Action: New Era Tenants Victory

downloadNew Orleans    In London, in recent months, there has been quite the hubbub over the planned force out of 93 tenants in the New Era complex in the Hackney area through the actions of Westbrook Partners, an $11 billion United States based hedge fund. Westbrook, in a standard maneuver, was planning to move the sub-market rents running 600 to 800 pounds, hardly chickenfeed, to triple that level.  In the soaring rental and real estate market in London, just like San Francisco, New York, and tens of other global markets, this is just standard operating procedure, business as usual.


Suddenly over recent months, the New Era tenants became a cause attracting support of the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Hackney, and comedian/actor Russell Brand,   And as precipitously, Westbrook threw in the towel, announced it was dropping the investment after holding the property for less than a year and almost immediately something called Dolphin Square Foundation, a UK Foundation that specializes in providing housing for low and moderate income residents, took the property off their hands.  Dolphin pledged not to increase the rents this Christmas or the next Christmas as they figure out how to handle the property.

There has been a buzz about the New Era tenants in both of my recent visits. Organizers whom I had met at a Hackney Unites workshop in the fall asked me to sign a letter in behalf of ACORN International, which I gladly did, so I had kept an eye on the campaign.  Is this a turning point?  What are the lessons to be learned?

Hard to tell.  The celebrity factor may have gotten them some attention, but Brand is a bit of a loose cannon so there was a lot of wild firing.  Timing was certainly in favor of the New Era tenants, since the disparity of rents and the force outs have increasingly become a political issue, prompting even the Labour Party to declare for some form of rent controls.  Even the fact that this was a US-based outfit doesn’t tell the whole story, since housing coalitions have been trying to target real estate associations traditionally meeting in France when they met in London over rising rents without great success.

The decisive factor seems to be the classic David and Goliath narrative mixing the stew of tenants symbolizing the personal dilemma of millions of Londoners against the spice of avaricious, global heartless capital from the heart of predation in the USA.  We had an epic rich versus poor fight where the moral imperatives trumped.

Past that the key seems to me to have been the ability, much as we were discussing recently in the partnership of ACORN International and the French-based ReAct to link local capacity and a deeply rooted base as the counterpoint to foreign corporations and capital.  Being able to pit local strength against rootless outfits has popular and political traction when combined with good strategy and tactics and real faces of affected families.  We need to duplicate that in many countries and campaigns.

As for the New Era tenants, it’s a merry couple of Christmases, but reading between the lines from the charity, it is also clear that rent increases are coming, just in smaller doses, and that’s a campaign that will be hard to win for them or others without bigger change coming around security and rent controls.

Progress on Payday Lending and the Digital Divide in Canada

10872772_10205576017666745_904929552335494071_oChicago     Like clockwork the ACORN Canada staff continues the tradition of mid-December YE/YB or Year End / Year Begin meetings.  Getting snowbound in Montreal one year and caught again another year in Niagara Falls, convinced them that perhaps meeting in the USA made sense, given that plane fares was actually cheaper.  Several years ago we managed to meet in Miami on the coldest day ever for that time of year.  The other advantage of such locations has been the opportunity to meet with organizations on the US-side and compare notes, pick up tips, and generally keep current in the work.  This year found the crew in mid-20 degree temps in Chicago.  Meetings with Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Workers’ Justice, Lawrence Benito, the ED of Illinois Refugee and Immigrant Rights Coalition, one of the leaders in the fight for immigration reform, and Ed Shurna, executive director of the unique and activist Chicago Coalition of the Homeless should add spice to the meetings as well.

Listening throughout the day to the reports from the offices, it was clear 2014 had been another banner year for ACORN Canada.  Almost 7000 members of their 70,000 were full payers on bank drafts giving the organization almost $200,000 of steady dues income to power the program.  The likelihood of a federal election next year also provided a fertile field for discussion about how ACORN can bundle our issues and leverage the campaign.  I may not have been in the United Kingdom but it sounded like the same discussion!

Perhaps the most interesting measures of progress were found in listening to the reports from the offices where solid work on both local and national issues was yielding big wins.

Scott Nunn, reporting from British Columbia, detailed a breakthrough in a new, locally-based strategy to stem the advance of predatory payday lending operations.  After preliminary discussions the city council in Surrey passed a zoning restriction pushing such stores away and limiting the numbers possible in our neighborhoods almost preempting our campaign.  We are also engaged heavily in this fight in neighboring Burnaby, so they could be the next city to fall.

Shay Enxuga surprised everyone with a report from Nova Scotia, the newest ACORN Canada outpost, with details on discussions and negotiations with cable internet provider, Eastlink, who seem ready to not only implement our $10 internet access plan, but to extend the program outside of public housing to the general neighborhoods.

The likely April consideration of the internet access by the federal commission could find itself under real pressure by the Rogers telecom plan for access we had won earlier in Toronto and now the Eastlink breakthrough.  Telus had seemed to be moving in British Columbia, but has stalled.  ACORN Canada may see an opportunity to expand the fight for the internet to be regulated as a public utility in the north as well?

Ottawa continued to win the staff awards for activity and took the prize after spirited competition.  Toronto is leading with more work on an exciting initiative to increase the living wage.  The coming convention in June in Montreal should see ACORN Canada expanding the organization there in 2014 and meeting hundreds coming to make decisions for the organization.

I hated to have to leave the meeting early.  There’s great work happening in the north!

Emerging Tenants’ Charter

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This is ACORN France, which has nothing to do with this blog, but we welcome them to the ACORN Family

London     The ACORN United Kingdom organizing staff did me a favor and moved the second meeting to a university in far western London about a 40-minute bus ride from Heathrow, since I was finally heading to the ACORN Canada Year End / Year Begin Meeting, and then home.  ACORN Scotland couldn’t make it because of the giant rent control and security of tenure action and all of the last minute details, but where we had boots hard set on the ground in Bristol, Newcastle, and London it was a mini-UK YE/YB in its own right.

In such a short time,  the reports going around the room made it clear we were making huge progress. There were good solid reports on street-level issues in the new neighborhood groups around street crossings, traffic signals, and rubbish collection, but perhaps the most significant breakthroughs continued to be in the escalating campaigns around the broad range of tenants’ issues that are exploding in the cities where we are organizing in the UK.

Besides the Living Rent effort, the campaign originally begun with the founding of ACORN in Easton in Bristol to win improvements of conditions of private tenants and security of tenure form letting agencies has attracted wide support and expanded across the whole range of tenant issues and services. At one level organizers reported they have been surprised to get caught in a servicing and mediation role between some landlords and tenants with some leasing agencies, surprisingly, referring disputes to ACORN to mediate and resolve. Nick Ballard, the organizer at the point in the campaign, noted importantly that no tenant whom we have met in that capacity or to handle issues with their landlords have not joined ACORN, which was spot on! He also said that some tenants are reporting that just saying they are with ACORN and showing the button is winning them some fights.

The campaign has expanded to create a Tenants’ Charter of Rights in Bristol including longer leases, inspections, reasonable rents and other issues. Groups are not only joining us in supporting this newly emerging charter in Bristol but some city councilors are also coming on board. Winning compliance with the demands unfortunately is going to be a slog from target to target since the Council has no authority with all the powers in such matters residing in Westminster with the national government. We will be forced to win voluntary compliance, but we’re on our way.

Meeting earlier in the week with Professor Jane Wills who directs a masters’ program at Queen Mary University in community organization as part of their geography department, she speculated that perhaps the biggest contribution ACORN might be able to make in the UK was in organizing tenants and estates. She may be right. Furthermore, we may be already doing so from all of the reports at the organizers’ meeting and listening to their plans for the coming year.

Leveraging Elections for Change

IMG_2661London      The ACORN London organizers working in East Brixton thought they would try to see what might happen with a combination training workshop and fundraiser. The topic they settled on, given that elections are on people’s minds for both 2015 and 2016, were how community-based groups could use the opportunities they present for accountability to advance the agendas of their constituency or make progress on their issue campaigns. All of which found fifteen of us in an upstairs room of the Apple Tree pub in central London ready to tackle the topic.

The diversity of the groups represented was wide. A union activist from Unison involved in trying to organize Polish members of the union, two organizers from the National Students Union representing seven million UK students, two organizers from the national autism association with branches throughout the country, the director of Generation Rent, a UK tenants campaigning organization, an organizer for the 37000 member Action for Happiness, and several other independent community activists and organizers. With such a mish-mash of diverse interests you might think the meeting should have been moved downstairs in the pub closer to the hard spirits so that we might be able to all make it through, but in fact it was fascinating how deeply engaged people were in figuring out the opportunities in the two hours we spent together.

After introductions and a half-hour of presentation of some of the key history, principles, and ACORN’s own experience in using elections to “prove” the base and win on everything from living wage elections in the US and Canada to huge slum improvements in Lima and potable water in Mexico City, we broke the group into three to discuss the questions more intimately. Central to those discussions was determining the strengths of each organization’s base, actions that could be taken on specific campaigns and the follow-up necessary to convert the issues and opportunities into power.

It felt like the floodgates had been opened. A buzz of discussion and animated back and forth poured from every one of the small groups. Everyone wanted to share their experiences, good, bad, and ugly. One group in looking at their base ended up with an interesting discussion on leadership and staff relationships that clearly had been much on their minds and looking for a forum. Another ventured more deeply into tactics and actions. Another vented frustration with the new “gagging” limits on their activity ridiculous situation that they now found themselves confronting in so much of their organizing.

In reporting back the discussion was as high-pitched. Whatever this cultural rumor is about the much vaunted “British reserve,” it turns out when the topic is related to community organizing, it’s “no holds barred,” and ready to go fifteen rounds. There’s a hunger here, and we might just be stumbling into something big.

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Hiring Preferences

Person Holding Hire Me Sign in CrowdLondon     Talking with organizers in France and England about hiring and recruiting organizers exposes some interesting paradoxes and time lapses.

In France,  the preferred field to plow was often the university and post-university demographic. The recruits, when identified, would usually be asked to start as volunteers with perhaps just expenses paid. They used a similar system even with their sister organization in their global work. In both cases, sometimes the first stints could lead to paid staff positions. With the French tradition of labor laws and multi-year contracts, the organization with great frankness and transparency about its own situation, offered what they somewhat euphemistically referred to as a “moral” contract, guaranteeing one full-year of pay and a second year of work through eligibility and provision of the public benefit and unemployment payment system.

So much of this was reminiscent of the early years of ACORN, where at one time we had staff positions dedicated to combing the campuses for potential hires and in newer projects like our expansions into labor organizing, staff would often go on-and-off unemployment regularly while we struggled to stabilize the work and the resources. In France,  I often have to pull myself back from over identifying my old days with their “new” days, since so many of the problems, situations, and decisions are so similar.

In England, where a large number of the staff has experience in the Big Society community organizing program, of course new recruits are regularly solicited from that pool. In Birmingham,  where are moving in a different direction the referrals are coming from what labor economists call “job networks,” people who know people.

When asked at one point about where I preferred to hire, I found myself answering that my choices tended towards men and women with life and work experience, whether political or not, rather than students. No doubt this comes from my own experience and perhaps increased bias towards hiring diverse, constituency organizers with strengths and skills that will endure over the long term rather than hoping to convert talented high flyers into marathon runners. I remember being told a rule of thumb when starting in the work that people could easily hire five years older or younger, but not outside that range usually. Sometimes that’s true, I suppose, but in some ways that’s another way of saying that people tend to hire people like themselves. It actually takes some discipline and distance to be open to hiring in a way that looks for gold in all of the hills, but we likely have to work harder to do just that if we want to sustain our organizations over generations. It keeps the work more exciting and innovative at the same time, which is a nice dividend.

Creating Global Capacity for Organizing and Campaigns

Wade, Eloise and Adrien from ReAct

Wade, Eloise and Adrien from ReAct

Grenoble       Walking through the center of Grenoble my friends pointed out the statute in the plaza that heralded the French revolution. They reminded me that Grenoble took the pride of place in France that Boston, Concord, and Lexington claim in the American Revolution. Citizens began holding protest meetings and detailing their grievances with the regime and therefore the King. Troops were dispatched to quell the unruly masses of Grenoble, but were met with courage in the so-called “Battle of the Tiles,” when roof tiles were ripped off and hurled below at the troops. Other cities began meetings and protests as well, the King agreed finally to hear the complaints, and one thing led to another, and heads and governments feel.

A helpful reminder for the handful of us spending another day in meetings under the broken skies that would reveal the peekaboo mountains all around us, that changing the world isn’t easy, but it happens, and it has to start somewhere, whether New Orleans, Little Rock, Grenoble or beyond. For our part we were engaged in exciting speculation and planning about what might be possible if we examined the twenty to twenty-five countries where ACORN International has deep roots, relationships, and capacity and joined them with the five to ten countries where the Alliance Citoyenne and its sister organization operating outside of France, ReAct, had experience, some staffing, and capacity. Certainly, it’s not the whole wide world, but it’s not a bad swath of people and ground, and a great deal more than simply a good beginning.

Part of the conversation was a catchup from my earlier visit. ReAct had been able to put sufficient pressure on a French-based, global palm oil company with plantations in Cameroon, Cambodia, Liberia, Gabon, and Morocco, to get them to agree to negotiations around the issues, workers’ conditions, land utilization and distribution, and other concerns in Paris in recent months. The negotiations were not conclusive but they produced a path forward with further meetings scheduled and prospects for accomplishments. Additionally, the experience allowed ReAct to link its people together and bind their skills so that there was an appreciation of what might be possible.

Some of the debates were around orientation. Is it best to build a base, staffing, and capacity with organization so that people an act on issues or could one target companies, as ReAct did in palm oil and work backwards to organize the communities and workers around the company issues. Should the work be campaign based or organizationally driven? How could the efforts be sustained? How supervised? How would organizers be trained and recruited? Was there a model around volunteers? How could scare resources be deployed? What were geographical priorities? Were there corporate targets? All of this was heady stuff!

And, if we could build it, as the Field of Dreams line goes, “would people come?” How could such capacity be linked to other organizations, campaigns, unions, allies to add our two plus two so that exponentially more impact and power could be built and shared?

What a great way to spend a Sunday!

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