Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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Grassroots Democracy is Scary, but Essential as Grenoble Paves the Way

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble   The highlight of my last full day in Grenoble before beginning the multi-city trek back home was getting to sit in and observe the city board meeting of ACORN’s affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble. The board is still new and in transition from the “old” Alliance governance structure composed of various people in the larger community and the emerging governance structure composed of elected representatives of the membership coming from each of the five existing local groups. In some ways, the leaders have been invested with the responsibility of writing on a blank slate how they will work in the future, and given the fact that Grenoble is the largest of the emerging organizations in France, there will likely be precedents set by almost every single decision these new leaders make. This is grassroots democracy at its best and to build a strong and powerful organization, it is essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also scary at times watching leaders navigate the future.

Grenoble is a lovely town in the valley dominated by the Chartreuse Mountains. The evenings are pleasant, but the days heat up considerably and fans and air conditioners are not common. Not embracing the heat, the board was meeting on tables and chairs outside of the cooperative office complex where they share space, mixing the seriousness of the meeting with some of the atmosphere of a picnic, as people sat around drinking juice and eating chips as they held their agendas.

 a leader makes a report on a recent victory

a leader makes a report on a recent victory

The reports from the local groups were a litany of victories in the wave of success the members are having in winning improvements from local housing authorities. This group had gotten a commitment for more than 30 doors and locks to be replaced. Another was winning a timetable for replacing windows, long in disrepair. Everyone had a good story to tell of actions and negotiations. One group was fresh from an exhilarating meeting where the Mayor had attended to formally sign the agreement was, according to her report, credited the Alliance with their work over and over again. Big smiles all around!

There were some thorns on the roses that inspired more debate. Transitions are hard, and one board member had resigned in a bit of passion at the last meeting and then several days later retracted her resignation, so the board had to puzzle out how to deal with that situation at several junctures in the meeting. Should it go back to the local group to sort out? Should there be a “grace” period for reconsideration? Conflict isn’t easy and the leaders searched for common ground to work out relationships that could make hard decisions in the future without much concern for the precedents it might create or experience with principles and practice they could rely on for guidance.

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

The most critical decision they faced was on whether or not to continue to expand and organize new groups. There is no issue like the continual tension in a membership organization between maintenance of the existing membership and expanding to add more groups and membership among the unorganized. If an organization doesn’t decide to grow, it dies. Without growth, the organization would be unable to empower the membership sufficiently to achieve their aspirations. At the same time nothing is ever perfect, there are never enough staff and resources, more can always be done, so there’s always a temptation to slow down, wait, and take a more cautious route. I watched nervously, realizing the proposition they were debating was way more serious than they likely reckoned. Without knowing French, I was relying on body language and words here and there and the passion that pushed them along with an occasional aside in English from the organizers, listening just as I was. They decided unanimously to expand, which was exciting – and a relief — and also moved affirmatively on investing responsibility and accountability in the staff for evaluating which areas should be next and how to add the next organizer.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

At the end I couldn’t help feeling, as we all shook hands and expressed good wishes for the work done, that the board had come out of a thick forest and it was in the clearing now. There would be many hard decisions to come, but having made these tough calls tonight, they had a new confidence and solidarity with each other, an emerging trust and confidence in the staff, and were ready to face the future.

Democracy works, but it’s a constant struggle.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

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Best to Remember the South is a Violent Place

Police in Baton Rouge after blocking protestors

Police in Baton Rouge after blocking protestors

Grenoble   As I mark the calendar closer to the finish on my euro-hella-road-trip, reading the news and seeing the videos on-line first from Dallas, where of course we have an office and members, and then over and over again from Baton Rouge last weekend and now more recently, where we also have a union hall and lot of union members, I have to admit, it’s unsettling. It was also unnerving to be in Brussels the night of the truck massacre in Nice, France, but Texas and Louisiana are home, so I understand the fear and fury there much better.

The killing of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge is tragic, chilling, inexcusable, and insane. The fact that the law-and-order message is likely to finally give the Republican Convention in Cleveland some coherence is both unsurprising and scary in its own right. If the public is angry, confused, uncertain and scared, that sets the table for authoritarian platforms and candidates. I’m currently reading a book about Germany and five generations by a lake near Berlin and reliving the rise of Hitler against this backdrop and just finished the Nobel Prize winning book of interviews ten years after the Chernobyl disaster in Belarus, so the impacts and aftermaths of such tendencies are perhaps too much on my mind, and I apologize for that.

The killings by the police of African-Americans and Latinos is also tragic, chilling, inexcusable, and insane though. Last weekend, my daughter shared several videos with us of the police riot and sweep up of demonstrators in Baton Rouge protesting the killing there. I’m a veteran organizer and have been on the other side of police lined up in a phalanx, marching forward on crowds. I’ve steered marches away from mounted police and the power of their horses. Nonetheless, I can hardly ever remember a more foreboding and intimidating situation than watching the videos of the police forming up in line in Baton Rouge and then advancing on the protestors there, while police runners moved from the main body of the formation to chase down the slow footed, beat them down and arrest them over fences and behind trees and bushes. This was not police work, but armed and dangerous mayhem. Two hundred were arrested, including friends of my daughters and other well-intentioned people exercising their right to protest. Many ended up stranded and staying with friends of friends and their families. Charges against one hundred of them have now been dropped. If reports have touted the Dallas police chief and its force as clamming and effective in that city’s recovery, the same cannot be said in Baton Rouge.

Peaceful protests, even ones that are a bit sparky, and police killings are apples and oranges and completely unrelated. Most public figures have been on message both defending the police against death by public service as well as the fundamental right to protest, but wisely spokespeople for Black Lives Matter and others are saying that no matter they are afraid to protest right now given the events that this is all triggering.

“Rap” Brown was from Baton Rouge and famously said decades ago that “violence was as American as apple pie.” For all of the gun happy crowd that refuses to countenance any restraint in purchase or use, it’s worth remembering Brown’s words and adding the fact that if there is any area of the country more violent than another, as Dallas and Baton Rouge are proving again, it’s the South. When global observers wonder in the words of a Times’ headline how to sort out the difference between a “terrorist and the deranged,” they are talking about France, but they could as easily be talking about Baton Rouge and Dallas.

We’re playing with fire if we don’t move to fix these problems on all sides of the debate and do so immediately.

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Figuring Out How to Grow Globally, One Country at a Time, One after Another

action-mie-4Grenoble   Finally with the last of our meetings over in Paris, we headed for Grenoble to focus on our own business, the internal and external work of ACORN International and its affiliates, most importantly, the Alliance Citoyenne and our joint work through ReAct globally. Where do we begin? Well of course everywhere, but we continue such conversations in captive audience meetings on trains from Brussels to Paris and then into the night along the three hour journey between Paris and Grenoble. The conversations were wide ranging, charts and diagrams emerged, maps were drawn, boxes were ticked off, pros and cons debated, and endless lists emerged for follow up and implementation. It’s trite to say that it’s a big world, but true nonetheless, and the opportunities are boundless, but how are organizing models built except through similar processes of selection and rejection.

In France, progress seemed to have been made after our recent staff meeting to expand significantly in an area close by to Aubervilliers, where we are now organizing, in the lower income and immigrant suburbs. The devil is in the details, but there seems to be some blessing emerging for such a plan that could be a rocket boost for the work in Paris. Vision drives the timelines and trying to build a national organization, would find us still fledgling in 2017 at the next national election, but more realistically would allow us to concentrate multi-city growth and development by 2022. Lyon is the third largest city in France and only a bit more than an hour away from our powerhouse in Grenoble, so it’s an obvious choice to develop perhaps within the next year. St. Etienne is also in this cluster and about the same size as Grenoble, so would seem inevitable within coming years. We have an ally in Rennes, which takes that off the list for now, while discussions continue, but what else is possible? Marseilles is the second largest city. Lille has been mentioned in the north. Nantes is worth thought for size and location. Without some strategic thinking Paris and “greater Grenoble” could take us years, so this will be interesting to cobble together.

With a meeting of all of our Africa-based staff, thinking about France seems easy compared to trying to determine where we can build a showcase operation to root the model and the work in Africa. On the Anglophone side, we have a deep and lasting commitment in Kenya, but have had trouble breaking out of the Korogocho slum, given its size (450000) and complexity, and certainly can’t pretend that we are contending for power anywhere else. Meetings in Germany and earlier in London, put South Africa on the list based on the prospects of developing a training program for community organizers there, but who is to know. ReAct has done extensive campaign work and direct organizing in several countries in Francophone Africa so their experience drives this conversation importantly. Cameroon has shown the most promising success and our work in organizing more than 1000 plantation workers in several areas of the country also proves that the base and campaigns can be built in more rural areas as well. Our meeting in the fall is going to be held in Douala, so that city, one of the largest in central-west Africa, immediately becomes a primary candidate, so we’ll have a chance to take a good look. Another argument was made for an even larger city, Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast and West Africa. The political climate is slightly less stable, but the potential there is huge.

The one certainty is that to organize effectively in countries throughout Africa, we have to build a showcase operation in several places just as did in the United States starting in Little Rock, in Canada starting in Toronto, in Honduras now for Latin America, Bristol in the United Kingdom, and Grenoble in France in order to drive the growth. These conversations are always heady and exciting, but the decisions that follow and the commitments they entail are permanent, so care and caution must match vision and dreaming in such planning.

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Encouraging Updates on Organizing Informal Workers Globally

Global Index of Workers Rights from ITUC 1 – Irregular violations of rights: 18 countries including Denmark and Uruguay 2 – Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Japan and Switzerland 3 – Regular violations of rights: 33 countries including Chile and Ghana 4 – Systematic violations of rights: 30 countries including Kenya and the USA 5 – No guarantee of rights: 24 countries including Belarus, Bangladesh and Qatar 5+ - No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 8 countries including Central African Republic and Somalia.

Global Index of Workers Rights from ITUC 1 – Irregular violations of rights: 18 countries including Denmark and Uruguay
2 – Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Japan and Switzerland
3 – Regular violations of rights: 33 countries including Chile and Ghana
4 – Systematic violations of rights: 30 countries including Kenya and the USA
5 – No guarantee of rights: 24 countries including Belarus, Bangladesh and Qatar
5+ – No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 8 countries including Central African Republic and Somalia.

Paris  Alison Tate, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) director of economic and social policy and Sharan Burrow, the president of the ITUC, had just flown in from China earlier in the day before Adrien Roux and I met them in a plaza, enjoying the reportedly rare Brussels sunshine safely under an umbrella while pounding espresso. The subject at hand was discussing our progress and projects in organizing unions of informal workers in India, Africa, and elsewhere and getting a sense from them where the work was progressing globally.

As it happened, the ITUC had recently completed a piece in Equal Times that was a special report on the informal economy with case studies of sorts from fourteen different countries, which Alison handed over at the beginning of the meeting. Taking a look later on the train to Paris, much of it focused on fleshing out the work following what they termed the “historic” adoption of Recommendation 204 from the International Labour Organization establishing a standard of “guiding principles” to assist “half of the world’s labour force transition from the informal to the formal economy.” Admittedly, a standard of guiding principles is a pretty thin rope to grab while drowning in high seas, but given the continued acceleration of lower wage, precarious informal work and the stubbornness with which the work and workers are exploited and governments pretend it doesn’t exist, any step forward, no matter how fledgling is progress indeed. Some of the report’s graphics made these points starkly: 66% of non-agricultural employment in sub-Saharan Africa is informal with 82.7% in Mali and 76.3% in Zambia; 46.8% of all Latin American workers are informal; 85% of the working population in South Asia is said to be informal and 65% in Southeast Asia, and so on – you get the picture.

When it comes to organizing, President Burrow was more certain of the ITUC’s progress. They had launched an organizing “academy” to develop “lead” organizers to run organizing programs in various continents. Burrow’s goal was to get to 100 crackerjack organizers through the program and then match them with the same skilled organizers in the formal sector, and see if the combination couldn’t create an explosion of organizing. She felt she already had seen 70 to 80 reach that level, so felt increasingly close to where the ITUC hoped to be.

It was encouraging to hear their reports of national labor federations that had embraced the organizing and affiliation of informal workers unions, rather than marginalizing or ignoring them. It was also encouraging to read the report and see how high the bar had been raised by organizations like the 80,000 member Waste Picker Movement of Brazil. Given our work in helping organize domestic workers in Morocco, seeing that there were 500 members of the Domestic Workers’ Union nearby in Lebanon also gave us another kind of benchmark on organizing progress.

Unionization in this sector is not easy as we know. Many of the reports’ case studies were less about formalization, where informal workers’ unions had been able to leverage the creation of something like an employer, and more about stabilization of work and improvement of workers by developing cooperatives similar to ACORN India’s efforts in Mumbai or access to social security schemes like ACORN’s hawkers’ union in Bengaluru.

Sharan Burrow made an interesting point as we began our conversation about the exciting “energy” of organizing and organizers in this huge, but hidden, sector of the real labor movement among lower income workers, and I think she’s right. Where we generate enough heat, there will be light, and workers will follow those paths to building unions and collective action to victories both small and increasingly large.

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Dutch Fight to Take Health Care Away from Private Insurers

Holland-plus-medicalBrussels   What is the old saying? Something like, I’ve seen the future and it is in the Netherlands at least when we are talking about the inevitable fight to come someday in the United States to seize control of our national health care programs from big health care insurers. On the way between Germany and Belgium, I had the opportunity to meet with several organizers and campaigners who have built a powerful effort in Holland on this issue and are finding the response amazing with the potential to dominate the campaigns in the country’s elections in the spring of 2017.

If you were paying close attention during the health care debates in recent years over the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, as it is known popularly, you often heard about the health care insurance scheme in the Netherlands which was better in its broad coverage of the population but, unlike many other countries, was provided by private, rather than public, insurers. Meeting with the organizers, I came to understand the situation a bit better. Everyone pays the equivalent of about one-hundred euros or $112 per month to private companies for insurance. I was fuzzy on exactly how this part works but the fact that they mentioned that much of the Dutch public’s opposition was rooted in disgust at the millions and millions spent by the insurers in advertising and promotion leads me to believe that a family chooses an insurer for their coverage.

There’s also a hammer to the head in this program along the lines of the deductibles that come under Obamacare. Everyone has coverage and everyone pays, but when they actually use the insurance, they have to come up with another 385 euros or $429. For some reason it is called an “own risk” payment, since if you don’t need to buy medicine or go to the doctor, your monthly payments are more like a healthcare tax or donation, so that when you do utilize the system, this is more like an admissions fee. Similar to the US experience with high deductibles blocking utilization under Obamacare, estimates are that 20% of the Dutch people are avoiding accessing the healthcare system, even when they need it, because they cannot afford the additional payment.

So the campaign is seeking to get rid of that payment of course, but also to move to a national healthcare fund more along the lines of the national healthcare program enjoyed by other countries. The support for their campaign has surpassed all expectations, and that’s part of what brought us together in this exciting conversation. In less than two months about 60,000 people have signed up to support the campaign either online or directly, and, amazingly, almost half of them are taking the additional step of asking for an “action” package on steps they can take in their communities to build the campaign.

With elections happening in mid-March of next year, this campaign couldn’t have been timed any better, so if it continues to build momentum in the summer, this could be the issue that dominates progressive debate at every level during the election. Meanwhile, regional meetings throughout the country are also pulling in crowds double, triple, and quadruple of organizers’ expectations, more are set coming off the summer with big demonstrations and other actions planned in the fall. They are riding the whirlwind here, and while they are doing so, as I said earlier, they are running the pilot program that organizers in the United States and elsewhere will need to be studying and copying in order to deal with many of the same issues involving national – and better – healthcare in our countries.

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