All Praise the Field Campaign, Few Practice It!

New Orleans   In recent years genuflecting in the direction of the “ground war” in politics has become almost routine. Sadly, much like other religions and church attendance, a whole lot more people praise field operations as critical to winning elections, than actually walk the talk and put the program in practice. As more and more of this activist moment is focused on electoral work, it’s worth reprising lessons learned and ignored.

We’ve talked before about the uphill push that Becky Bond and Zack Exley described in their book, Rules for Revolutionaries, as they tried to get support for their field-and-phone program within the Sanders Campaign. This issue of Social Policy in the mail features a piece by Peter Haberfeld called “The Sanders Campaign: Notes from Inside Out on a Local Campaign.” He also details the tensions between campaign directors and the experienced grassroots folks in the Berkeley and Oakland area that were trying to emphasize the ground game to deliver for Sanders. They often felt the web-attention was gobbling up their strategy. Both sets of campaigns describe having to virtually go rogue in order to get the job done. Bond and Exley saw much of the millions that was spent by the Sanders Campaign the same as pouring money down a rat hole. A close look at the Clinton-Trump contest certainly shows that Trump was all-media-all-the-time, but it was also clear that Clinton could not duplicate the Obama ground game of 2008 and 2012.

All of this came rushing back at me when I opened an email from Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada, sending a somewhat dated piece, two-and-a-half years old by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla who were then graduate students in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley writing in Vox. I read the piece with fresh eyes, partially because then ACORN was new to Scotland and late to the dance on the independence election, but Broockman and Kalla hit the nail on the head in pulling back the covers on the reality of the field program, where many of our leaders and organizers volunteered, and many other programs pointing out that the “arms” race to record “knocks” was obscuring the importance of non-scripted, quality conversations with voters by the doorknocking canvassers.

They cite the now famous study several decades ago by Alan Gerber and Don Green in 1998.

The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing. The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points). The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.

Of course this is not as simple as “add water and stir.” Green points that out himself:

But facilitating that breed of genuine personal outreach isn’t what many “field” campaigns actually do. Green has seen this in practice. He has found that many canvassing operations have effects “smaller than what we obtained from our initial study or in our follow-up experiments with seasoned groups such as ACORN.” But, Green went on to say, “When I’d inquire about the details of these sub-par canvassing efforts, I would often discover that the scripts were awkward or that there was limited attention to training and supervision.”

So, yes, as Bond and Exley argue, with the right kind of volunteer base and training, it is physically possible to get past micro-targeting and “hit every door,” if that is the campaign plan, but it will still require people who have been to the rodeo and know how to ride.

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Doorknocking Home Buyer Victims of Contract Buying Scams in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh   The more we researched the revival of contract for deed land purchases in places from Memphis to Chicago, Detroit to Philly, and the rapidly spreading, predatory scam involving rent-to-own agreements, the more it became obvious that we had to get on the doors and listen to what people were saying who were living in these houses and facing the daunting odds and brutal gauntlet to home ownership. ACORN assembled a team of veteran organizers from Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, and New Orleans to rendezvous in Pittsburgh to partner with our affiliate, ANEW, and its great leaders and staff, to begin a doorknocking blitz in three cities in an organizer’s version of a listening tour and an exploration on whether or not there was potential heat and traction for a Contract Buyers Campaign or whether or not families signing these agreements were happy campers.

Actually, camping did come up quickly in one of the first visits in the team I was with, but happy was never ever mentioned. When we got up the steps a gate blocked the porch that said “Do Not Enter,” but after I tapped on the window, a woman came out, and when I said we were talking to people who had experience with rent-to-own purchase agreements, she waved us all into the living room, sent the children scurrying so we could sit, and she had her partner start the conversation saying they had had nothing but trouble in buying the house, and then proceeded to detail years of trials and tribulations with Vision Properties, based in South Carolina and this scheme. From the day they signed the agreement and even before moving in, they discovered someone had kicked in the back door and stripped the electrical wiring and the plumbing. They called Vision, asking them to take responsibility, and Vision said they were on a triple net lease, and it was all on them, so in their words the first six months they “were camping in the house.”

That was four years ago so the situation has improved, but their relationship with Vision remains poisonous. They had paid $1000 down payment for a house Vision said they were selling on this basis for $20,000. The first five years though their monthly payments would be $300 per month with 30% supposedly going towards what they described as an additional down payment, which would add another $6000 to their down payment. They weren’t able to put their hands on the agreement to show us, but supposedly only then would they start really purchasing the house from their understanding. We didn’t bother them with the math, not wanting to be bad news bears, but the numbers were already shocking. In another year, they would have paid $7000 on something Vision was calling a down payment and another $12000 in rent to Vision, which clearly despite having an ostensible rent-to-own agreement was not adding up to any payments on the principal, even though at the end of their first lease term they would have paid $19,000 against the value of a $20,000 house. They had put another $5000 into the place, not counting their countless hours of labor, and felt fortunate that the borough inspector was working with them on a problem with the sewer line in the other half of their house which everyone involved knew was going to cost thousands to repair. Without any of us saying it, they knew and we knew, that Vision was likely going to be telling them after five years to keep paying this so-called rent with only a piece of it going towards a deed at the end of their rainbow. Oh, and don’t think for a second that Vision is smiling yet as they giggle while walking to the bank. While changing jobs as a housekeeper in a Pittsburgh motel this last December, they were late on one payment and Vision gave them a 7-day eviction notice which they only avoided with a phone shouting match and a double rent payment of $600.

When I asked if they were ready to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks, there was a quick yes from both of them. Were they prepared to bang on the table and shout their protests? Hell, yes, was the response. They had tried to post warnings to others on Facebook about these scams. They had been talking about running for the borough council to make them listen.

This was just one story from the doors.

It wasn’t exceptional though. It was typical. There was resignation and understanding from every family that they were caught in a scam, but in the common conflict of predatory transactions, all of them had been desperate for affordable housing and some way to make something their own, took the gamble with their eyes open, hoping for some good faith, and now were reaping the whirlwind with anger and frustration and looking for justice and ready to embrace and take action with an organization willing to allow them to fight.

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Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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Many Lessons from the Dutch Election

Dutch Freedom Party leader (Partij Voor De Vrijheid, PVV) Geert Wilders (L) holds a banner reading “Get out! This is our land” during a protest in front of the Turkish embassy at The Hague on March 8, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty)

Montreal   As I tried to make my way through the snowageddon between the US and Canada, I kept trying to get updates on the election results in the Netherlands. In some ways my interest was less about the populist hoopla revolving around the party-of-one for Wilders, the Trumpish anti-immigrant, hate spewing rightwing candidate, than the fate of the other parties on the list. Waking up, the headlines heralded that the right-center party and the current prime minister had out polled Wilders, but there were many, perhaps more important stories hidden beneath those headlines.

My interest was more than casual. I had visited the Netherlands for several weeks in the fall discussing strategies around a campaign to restore national health insurance in the country and advising on various field, phone, and GOTV programs with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, so I was very interested in how my friends and colleagues there had fared against the populist surge. The short answer, somewhat reassuring in these troubled times, though perhaps disappointing when compared to our hopes, was that they essentially held their own. Where they had 15 seats in the Parliament or 10% of the total, they polled enough to hold onto 14 seats. The Prime Minister’s party, while outpolling Wilders, still lost 8 seats or 20% of its total, while he added a third more seats or 5 to his total. There are 28 or so different parties in the Netherlands vying for their share of the national vote to apportion out accordingly the 150 total seats between each party, making it all something of a multi-party mess when it comes to governing.

The real loser was the center-left Labor Party, which was decimated in the election falling from the number two party with 38 seats to the Prime Minister’s party with 41 seats, in this election to only 9 seats, losing more than three-quarters of their seats. And, why? Because they had agreed to help form the governing coalition, and their members saw it as a sellout as the center-right governing party pushed more conservative programs and policies. The lesson for many parties was clear. Not only would they not be willing to join a government with Wilders and the populist rightwing, but they might also be committing political suicide by following Labor’s move and being whipsawed on program.

The SP/N base may not have grown, but the work and campaigns held country-strong for the most part giving them clear paths to build their future. The math seems to indicate that seventeen of Labor’s number might have gone to the Green Left Party which went up ten seats from four to fourteen, now tying SP/N, and the centrist party, Democrats 66, which went from twelve seats to nineteen. This is obviously a very fluid situation as parties try to construct a permanent home to house their new seats and to attract the almost dozen seats Labor lost that dissipated among parties both right and left.

The overriding problem might be how does Netherlands govern with so many fractions? The Prime Minister’s party won in some ways by going right to block Wilders, but that’s not a governing strategy, and that may leave it harder pressed to find a coalition with constructive values and policies that can construct a vision. Meanwhile the center and left parties have the opportunity to construct an alternate program and vision, and the SP/N’s work on healthcare reform may be a template worth modeling in the Netherlands and elsewhere, but it’s likely going to be an unsettling time for a while before bridges can be built towards the future.

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The Long Tail of Payback on Harvard’s Investment in Coal Fired Electricity Production

Students from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House at the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   What goes around, comes around, even if forty-five years later. Hearing that food activists from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House were interested in volunteering in New Orleans, triggered an immediate invitation from ACORN International for them to visit and help at the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. Seven showed up on a cool morning to weed, mow, and help in any way possible, having only arrived the night before, barely escaping the heralded snow-ageddon northeaster hitting their area.

But, before work began, the circle had to be closed with additional thanks for the help of Philip Brooks House years ago when ACORN embarked on our first campaign to gain national attention. Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, the parent of Arkansas Power & Light had announced that it wanted to build the world’s largest coal-fired plant at White Bluff near the town of Redfield on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come from the Fort Union deposit under the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, parts of Montana, and North Dakota. Their proposal to move the coal to the plant was to build a slurry line where water from the arid west would flush the coal all the way down to Arkansas.

ACORN had been fighting both gas and electric utilities over exorbitant rate increases and saw the plant as driving rates even higher, so on that score our members were already agitated. Quick research found that there increasing reports, particularly from Europe, on the adverse impact of sulfur pollution, especially on agriculture. ACORN dispatched an organizer to put together groups of farmers and others on both sides of the river, who were worried about diminishing crop yields, while the company was claiming it would lower their costs. There were actions a plenty in Arkansas to try and stop the plant, and I joined our farmers on a company-paid private plane flight to Kentucky to see the TVA’s Paradise plant, which we blew up in their faces with reports of pollution warnings caused by the plant.

All of that moved the needle forward, but the major paper at the time, The Arkansas Gazette, still saw ACORN and our efforts as rag-tag. As a public company, ACORN was able to determine its major investors were the pride of the Ivy League, with Harvard first and Princeton and Yale right behind. We reached out for an organizer we knew in the area, and he started making contacts at Harvard, launching a petition, getting students to join us in demanding the Board of Harvard join us in opposing the plant unless there were scrubbers to stop the pollution and other modifications. The Harvard Crimson did a piece by Nicholas Lemann, from New Orleans, and now with The New Yorker and other posts, all of which triggered the Gazette to run ACORN’s campaign on the front page for the first time in our young history.

We eventually won a good deal of that campaign when the company had to cut the size of the plant in half, drop the slurry line, also opposed by our allies in the Northern Plains Resource Council, and made pollution adjustments. Where did we get the most support at Harvard: the Philip Brooks House, where I also spoke and did recruitment, but that’s another story.

We thanked the Harvard students again as they worked with us in a different way, and gave them an ACORN flag from our Latin American affiliates to bring home to hang in the House, reviving the tale, and closing the circle once again.

PS. The researcher was Steve Kest, the organizer was John Beam, and the campus organizer was Bill Kitchen!

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Fighting to Save Political Parties Out of Sorts with the Base

Edinburgh  Eating curry last night with leaders and organizers of ACORN in Scotland, once the usual questions about Trump were quickly exhausted, one veteran activist asked what Senator Bernie Sanders, last year’s surprisingly successful Presidential candidate, was up to and whether he was gaining ground and credibility in the current chaos. It was a good question, and my answer was that the best I knew his people where focused more on positioning in the Democratic Party than the larger issues. I told the ridiculous story of some moderate Democrats trying to convince Sanders to call off the dogs and make sure that town hall protestors only attacked Republicans, as if Sanders was pulling any strings at all in the activist moment. I found that notion among conservative Democrats as bizarre as the Republican conservative claim that poor old George Soros is paying demonstrators these days to voice their outrage.

Turns out I was either lucky or timely in my observation. Almost as soon as I logged on to the news I stumbled into a story reporting that Sanders’ operatives had been scoring some significant wins in Democratic inner party elections.

In California, supporters of the 2016 presidential contender, Barry Sanders, packed the obscure party meetings that chose delegates to the state Democratic convention, with Sanders backers grabbing more than half the slots available. They swept to power in Washington State at the Democratic state central committee, ousting a party chairman and installing one of their own in his place. Sanders acolytes have seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and won posts throughout the party structure from coast to coast.

Presumably the agenda is to move the party in a more solidly progressive direction.

Observers in several papers noted that as miserable as the 2018 midterm elections look for the Democratic Party’s shot at control of the Senate, there’s an arguable path to pick up 24 seats in the House by targeting districts either won by Hillary Clinton by stout margins or where the demographics are heavily weighted with educated white and general Hispanic voters. Polls indicate that Trump’s slide steep has accelerated in both camps. There are fewer districts that Sanders won last year though, so that crossover is uncertain.

Others might argue that you have to be careful what you wish for though without a deeper strategy to engage the base. The Labour Party’s predicament in the United Kingdom is a case study here. Having moved in a more progressive direction as the left took control of internal elections without a program effectively responding to the working class base, right leaning pro-Brexit forces are cleaning their clock. By-elections in hard core Labour districts that they have held for more than 30 years are being watched closely to see if the party can even survive.

Sanders in some ways is well-positioned internally since Clinton is not part of the picture and a more moderate Democratic Party leader has not emerged.

Is it a winning strategy? That’s another question for sure. No lucky guesses will count on that one.

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