Looking for the Kindness of Strangers – Think France!

business-aviation-operations-for-france-customs-immigration-agricultureNew Orleans   Over the last two years with an emerging affiliate in France, I’ve now been on the ground working in Grenoble or Paris there a bunch of times, well for me a bunch anyway, like five or six times over two years approximately. My comrades and colleagues there are wonderful people of course, but that’s true of all the people with whom I organize, but on the train the other night from Paris to Amsterdam to fly home, I found myself reflecting on the reputation the French have for being unfriendly to strangers. It’s a bum rap!

I’ll pass over the common courtesy and generosity of our organizers and their friends when I’m passing through who are constantly offering tea or coffee or in many cases surrendering their beds and bunks to an unexpected American squatter. Within the organizing culture that’s pretty standard and to the degree “birds of a feather flock together,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that it rubs off on their friends and supporters.

My brief for a new and friendlier France is not because this has been a big push from the tourism industry or the government, both of which are true, and both of which are undoubtedly totally ignored by the French people, but is based on my experience in the endlessly confusing Metro and train stations, particularly in Paris. On several trips, I’ve been flummoxed by the problems of getting Metro tickets from the machines. Several times I’ve been helped through a tough spot when someone employed by the metro system or the state railway came to save the day, but I started counting the times it was just random situations where I was bailed out by complete strangers passing by when it was obvious I was clueless who wordlessly stepped in to save me.

In the giant Paris Nord on this very trip, I had jumped off a bus and had gone in the first door to the station with the crowd to catch my train and somehow had ended up in the Metro complex rather than the city to city train station. I followed folks through the turnstiles, but then I was caught going through successfully, but not getting my bags through that were stuck on the other side. While wrestling with the situation a man coming through the other way saw me, and without saying a word, walked over and waved his pass across the scanner so the gates opened allowing me to go through. Having found out from an information officer how to get to the train station, the ticket from the bus, which should have worked, but didn’t, I was stranded in between another set of turnstiles unable to move forward or backwards. A woman, her baby in a carriage and a friend saved me there. I wish I could say these were isolated examples, but I’m afraid they weren’t. I could easily cite another three or four times when total strangers have stepped forward and gotten me on my way, as I thanked them profusely in English, as they politely waved me off and walked away.

The one common denominator in all of these situations has been that virtually every one of the folks. epitomizing the kindness of strangers, have almost all originally been strangers themselves at one time. They have almost all uniformly been Afro-Caribbean or Afro-French or possibly just Africans and presumably as foreign to all of this in the past as I often am now.

I don’t want to extrapolate past the point of all reason, but just maybe this kind of empathy with the lost, confused, and foreign by others who have been in the same boat will be one of the saving graces of not only French civility and manners, but also the same in the United States and other countries. Utah will invariably not end up in the Clinton column, but the fact that many citizens there thought about it because their foreign experience was such that they were unwilling to join the Trump anti-immigrant call, might offer us hope here as well. The French like the English, Americans, and other countries are all dealing with waves of anti-immigrant feeling, but it may be the empathy of those who choose our countries, rather than many of the natives who want to return to some foggy, archaic times in the past by forgetting about their own experience in order to adopt a bankrupt and false ideology, that end up saving all of us at the end of the day.

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The French Rein in Unions with Carrots and Sticks

french-protests-1024x432Amsterdam   Two very different meetings in Paris on my last day of this European organizing stint left me with an uneasy feeling about the power of the state in dealing with independent, autonomous organizations. One meeting was with the leader of a small national labor federation. The other was with a Green Party European Union parliamentarian and a friend and church-based organizing ally of ours in the Paris region. On reflection, the common theme that disturbed me was the role of state financing, but I’ll get to that.

Unions are complex organizational structures in all countries especially when they have the kind of rich history and tradition one finds in France. In meetings, I have had in the past with the larger confederations I have often wrong footed myself by assuming that the big federations wanted to increase their dues-paying membership. Often that was wrong as I later found out, and as I understood better after an early morning meeting with a smaller union federation. In regular elections held every third year, union workers vote on a sectoral and regional level. With an 8% vote tally, a union is in the winner’s circle with full representation rights in a company and a seat at the sectoral bargaining level as well. 8% also qualifies the federation for direct financial support from the national government. A 3% vote means that the union is recognized by the state to the degree it can send its leaders and staff to state-sponsored trainings and the like.

Dues tend to be relatively low for French unions compared to North American unions, often between 100 and 120 euros per year. Direct government funding for many unions, and certainly all of the larger federations, accounts in large part for the modest dues rates, as well as a major source of union financing that also comes from awards for representing their members through the labor courts. The labor court judges have wide discretion on the awards ranging from a couple of hundred euros to several thousand euros, providing a direct incentive to unions for pursuing a large number of individual member grievances to the labor court stage, as opposed to North American unions that are often bound to pay excessive arbitrator’s costs and never receive an award, even when members are reinstated and win back pay. Our friend in the small union handled an average of 65 cases per month on a membership of 2500!

Recent French labor law revisions also seek to eliminate the many smaller unions and federations and centralize institutional labor. Reaching below the 3% threshold now bars a union representative from handling a member’s case. A co-worker would be allowed to represent a grievant, but not someone from the union, unless they prove more support. With the low rate of union membership density in France, even though unions are seen as relatively strong still, low dues and lower enrollment means that many smaller unions will wither, weaken, and likely die, which is clearly the intention of the government. Given the weird “general” election system and the few workers that really vote on issues of such consequence, I’m almost surprised our doors aren’t being broken down to do get-out-the-vote campaigns for these representation elections, but maybe I’m missing something.

Our pastor friend in our meeting over lunch with the Green Party parliamentarian without warning began to lobby him for a 5% set aside of taxes to fund community organizing. I bit my tongue rather than jumping in with stories from Montreal, Kansas City, and Albuquerque where cities had directed to “recognize” certain neighborhood groups and give them small funding in order not to deal with the rude and unwashed membership-based groups like ACORN. When I asked him later in some horror why he thought this was a good idea, the answer was a roundabout one that had to do with the fact that the tax rate in France for workers was twice that of the rate for employees in the United States. That might be an argument for streets being paved with gold and housing for the poor being built rising to the heavens, but it was not an argument for asserting state dominion over independent and autonomous organizations. The carrot might be the money, but the stick is the permanent control at some level over community organizations, and of course banning them from politics. Simple rule: you pay for it, you own it. Can you imagine negotiating with the government for more expenditures for this or that demanded by the members, and being asked if we would trade state support of our organization for the money needed to win an issue?

Furthermore it would likely produce something very similar to the crisis looming over the French labor movement now facing the need to grow and organize, but without the membership base, membership dues structure, and a culture of membership support that could fuel such drives. The point is not just to be proud of a great history, but also to learn from it.

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Please enjoy these songs from KABF.

Wilco’s Someone to Lose

Green Day’s Still Breathing

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The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

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In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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Worrying with the Leaders of a New Organization

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the Grenoble chair brings people together to review

Grenoble   We had gotten a lot done in Grenoble during my visit. I had arrived on a weekend before a “bank holiday” for All Saints Day, meaning that many also took off what they call the “bridge” day here, the day before the holiday, leaving the office pretty much to our teams, the phones a little less busy, and fewer items on the list that had to be taken care of that minute. The highlight was going to be a workshop the leadership had requested on ACORN so they were clearer about both ACORN and their own work in building community organizations in Grenoble, Paris, and potentially all around France.

The workshop was the workshop I’ve often given. It consists of the highlight reel: the founding, the expansion, some victories, and now the work internationally. What is always interesting, especially with emerging leadership is the questions they ask and the answers they want. Every country is different of course, but many of the questions are the same with a tinge of local color, culture, and history.

leaders break to get organized after leadership's ACORN workshop

leaders break to get organized after leadership’s ACORN workshop

One of the first questions among this highly politically aware leadership was whether or not ACORN groups found the need to ally closely and identify with a political party. The fact that membership-based community organizations are political, but at the same time are nonpartisan is often a wide river to cross in the beginning. ACORN’s work in the United States on basic democratic practice like voter registration, get-out-the-vote, initiatives and referenda are not duplicated in many countries that have automatic registration of all citizens and multi-party politics forcing the organizations to walk tightropes through many political waters.

There rarely is a leadership meeting with an outsider where some leaders don’t take advantage of the opportunity to try and probe whether their situations are usual or abnormal. Are their local groups getting enough servicing by staff organizers? What is the true role of the organizers as opposed to the leadership? The questions sometimes run the gamut, between why do we need them, to how can we live without them? With a membership dues organization like ACORN and its affiliates it also includes where staff fits into the exchange of dues being paid to the organization versus work being done by the members. All of these questions came up in one way or another in Grenoble as well.

in small groups the exercise will be how to "present" the Alliance

in small groups the exercise will be how to “present” the Alliance

Even in another language it was easy to follow both the curiosity and the passion of many of the questions. It was even easier to take the temperature of the leadership’s struggle to come to consensus when various leaders would catch me to the side and lobby me.

One man wanted to gauge how much he should be concerned about the expansion of the organization to Paris as they tried to build and stabilize their base in Grenoble. I wasn’t sure whether I assuaged his fears or exacerbated them when I raised whether an expansion to Lyon, the huge, neighboring would be more comfortable. A woman wanted to lobby me about tactics. She was a veteran of struggles from the last century and she was frustrated by the tenor of neighborhood campaign tactics and wanted to know essentially when the actions would involve more pepper and less sugar. I assured her it was all bound to come, but it depended on the targets and the campaigns, but once the campaigns became citywide, “people get ready.” One woman showed me an article in English in a plastic encased, yellowed newspaper from Binghamton, New York with a picture of her father that wrote about how he and her brother had been killed in the Resistance. My English was inadequate to adequately express the right emotions to her for sharing something I will never forget.

one small group with Solene

one small group with Solene

It went like that. They broke into smaller groups after our two hours to discuss how best they wanted to present their organization to potential recruits. When they finished there was little doubt that we were in France. We then sat down to talk and, of course, ate cake.

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

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GMO Contradictory Claims and Tripping up McDonalds in Paris

14600870_935690983201659_1568748584969979036_nGrenoble   The counterclaims around genetically modified crops around the world are head spinning. Thousands march to protest their use in the US and Europe. Noted scientists take out ads in major papers claiming they represent no problems. Some argue they are necessary in the future to feed the world’s growing population. Back and forth it goes. Sometimes it seems we should just pick and side and hope for the best.

Some things are clear though, and disturbing. Whenever a conglomerate like Monsanto can make money on both sides of the deal, it is deeply worrisome, and hard not to believe something has gone terribly wrong. They – and others – sell both genetically modified seeds and plain seeds. They also sell the insecticides and herbicides to both kill weeds and to essentially avoid the weed killers like Roundup. The German-based conglomerate, Bayer, is now trying to buy Monsanto and a Chinese company is trying to buy their big competitor, so this could all get even harder to sort out.

An article in the New York Times by Danny Hakim, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” throws another powerful wrench into the works. Using United Nations crop yields data over a period of years since the introduction of GMOs in basic crops like corn, soybeans, and rapeseed in the United States and Canada with similar production in the European agricultural powerhouses of Germany and France, there was no evidence of superior yields. And, equally disturbing there was increased use of chemicals, rather than less. Monsanto claims the data was cherry picked, but unconvincingly answers the argument by cherry picking different data to try to make their case. Both parties understand that the house crumbles if the very foundation of the manufacturers’ arguments about increased production are not sustained after two decades of use. Monsanto sums up its case with something of shrug, saying if you don’t like it, we’ll sell it India and elsewhere that are wild for it.

All of this was on my mind in the wake of an excellent report issued by our partner, ReAct in Paris recently that extensively documented the reliance of the McDonalds’ fast food operations on genetic modifications throughout its supply chain in beef, potatoes, and chicken in the very anti-GMO and GMO-conscious French and European markets. The release of the report was big news throughout Paris partly because it was accompanied by a demonstration in a central Parisian Mickey-D’s by fifty or more folks including farmers, students, and members of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb that is the poorest district in France. The action featured a Ronald McDonald look alike that was “arrested” by the demonstrators for polluting the supply chain with GMOs that are banned expressly in France and the European Union.

Monsanto may be scurrying from the Times article in the US, but McDonalds is now ducking and weaving over GMOs in Europe, and no matter which side you come down on about GMOs, French consumers seem clear, and they are saying loudly and in no uncertain terms, they want no part of it.

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Good Political Parties are Good Community Organizations

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volunteers making calls at night for the health care campaign

Amersfoort   Being embedded in the offices of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands for several days to help on the field programs involving their campaign to reform the private insurance-based health care system in their country, I have been able to sit in on a number of meetings with local chapter activists, leaders, and volunteers. After all of these days a lesson emerges that is surprising, but should not be: good political parties are good community organizations, and good community organizations create strong local parties. It seems simple to say that, but the task of getting it right is very difficult and complex.

There are forty different political parties in the Holland of all shapes and sizes. The Liberals are not liberal, but conservative. Labor is not all of labor. There is a Green Left Party which is building itself around social media. There is an Animal Party which is largely environmental. You get the picture. Interestingly, the health care reform effort initiated by the Socialists as a nonpartisan, national campaign has the support of many of these parties, even if not total agreement on each plank of the reform platform, along with a number of labor unions as well. 200,000 people have responded to the campaign at this point, and 75000 have asked for toolkits allowing them to take action and recruit more supporters. Just like any good, national organization, this is good, solid basic organizing where they have constructed a campaign around an issue with deep, broad-based support in order to win reform certainly, but also assuredly to build their party organization. That turns out to not be a simple task because of various privacy and database sharing restrictions in the Netherlands, but increasingly the glow from a popular and aggressive campaign is lighting the path to building a stronger party as well.

As interestingly to me have been the stories that lie at the infrastructure of strong local party chapters, because they are almost invariably stories of strong local campaigns. Chapter leaders from Utrecht, one of the largest Dutch cities, met the field and educational team for several hours. They told of having identified a particular neighborhood where they had little organization historically, but usually a solid vote. They wanted to build an organizing committee and door knock the area to build support. They even created a rudimentary application for smartphones with or without internet as a tool to use on the doors with pre-loaded addresses and a way to upload in the field or on a home computer the results of the visits as well as a ranking system from “a to e” to classify interest and support of their organization. The committee and the door knocking process turned up an issue around housing improvements that was compelling for many people. All of this is good, solid, basic community organizing. They had built a pool of 30 people who were willing to door knock and could reliably pull out 15 or so to do the work. This committee was largely from outside of the community and they did not ask people to join, so there were differences, but when they told of winning a housing issue that delivered a victory for about 240 families, it wasn’t so different from the best stories ACORN community groups would tell. When they did get around to asking for support in the form of selling a local newspaper, 90% of the folks were glad to pitch in a euro to do so.

They weren’t alone. Another chapter in a smaller city in the south won a local, neighborhood issue in a area with many elderly families. In a small suburb of Amsterdam, attendance at a local meeting soared to 200 on a national program where even the largest chapters were only pulling 80 to 120. The secret was no secret to any community organizer. They had knocked on the doors.

Historically, political parties were built like grassroots, community organizations. Where party members who are volunteers are still willing and motivated to do the work, that’s how strong local organizations are still built. The result is infectious and leads to things like a national healthcare reform campaign. It’s nice to be reminded that this is how politics can still work from the bottom up, since we witness too many campaigns, like the current one in the United States where everything is from the top down and local organization is mostly rumor and rarely fact.

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