Encounter Knowledge

passportWashington   Hopping on a plane to Dulles and then over the water to London for various meetings with ACORN United Kingdom organizers and others, you find yourself dragging over to the airport and running through the pros and cons in your mind.

Believe me they may be almost giving away gas at the pump in the United States, but flying is still very pricey. The exotic and romantic nature of travel on planes has changed over my years of travel in remarkable ways. Planes are now buses with wings that assemble and take off from shopping malls. You still had best bring your snacks with you, but you don’t have to wave a plane down by the side of the road and usually the bathrooms work better than the grey-dogs and mega-buses do, but otherwise it’s what and what.

Going from country to country there are unfathomable barriers. Subcontracted, on-line application procedures for visas are different country to country, for example easy to Kenya, impossible to India. This trip was supposed to be a cheap stop in London for business in route to my annual trip to India where we had exciting opportunities in Bengaluru with partners to fashion video recruitment tools and were working to identify organizing opportunities with prospective French trade union federations, but instead after two mysterious and inexplicable visa application rejections from India, that part of the trip was scuttled forcing the by station stop to swallow the cost of the fare.

I read a piece recently that argued that tech might increasingly replace travel. In the age of the internet, the meetings via conference call, video presentations, and other devices which put you “in the room” almost, many businesses are asking why take the time, trouble, and expense to carry the same weight.

God knows it’s tempting, but is it really the same? Is the same information and exchange really available in such meetings or through endless research on websites and YouTube? The author introduced a counterpoint. He argued that there might be such a thing as “encounter” knowledge. Intelligence only gained by being on the ground, seeing with your own eyes, experiencing the random events, and visiting with the people in unscripted and natural settings.

Helping make an organizing plan for a union of domestic workers in Morocco, I felt crippled by not being able to be on the ground where I could test theory to reality. Sitting in a worker center in Los Angeles, I could see from there to the future in a way that wouldn’t have been available from armchair or screen.

It’s a relief to be allowed to believe that dragging my wagon on and off a plane, moving from couch to subway to meeting to train to meeting to plane is not just old school, but continues to be a way to gain deeper and superior knowledge, not just a force of habit.

Internet for All

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.26.18 AMNew Orleans    If we want to make a difference in income inequality, there are some easy and accessible first steps that we can take and one of them is to lower the digital divide.

ACORN Canada released a report based on a survey of 400 of our nearly 80,000 members across the country, and it was impossible to miss the point.

Looking at the facts in the report, the survey found that:

· 58 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less with home Internet access.
· 98 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $120,000 or more with home Internet access.
· 83.5 Percentage of ACORN survey respondents who find high-speed Internet “extremely expensive.”
· 59 Percentage of survey respondents who pay for Internet by forgoing other household necessities.
· 71 Percentage who used food money to pay for Internet services.
· 64 Percentage who used recreation money to pay for Internet services.
· 13 Percentage who used rent money to pay for Internet services.

ACORN had already prodded Rogers, one of the telecom monopolies in Canada to offer a $10 per month program but it was limited to public housing, largely in Toronto. Several other companies have come on board, but as the facts indicate, not enough has been done to reconcile the fact that access to the internet has now become a basic utility.

The ACORN report came out while the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC continues its review of Canada’s basic telecommunications services first begun in the spring of 2015.

The ACORN demands are straightforward:

Specifically, members are asking for:

$10/month product for high speed (15 megabits/second or equivalent to high speed in area);

Families and individuals below the Low Income Measure as eligible to qualify;

Subsidized computers for qualifying families and individuals.

The LIM or low income measure in 2013 was $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes. These are demands that resonant across North America.

One ACORN member told the story to the Toronto Star that might be repeated a million times,

Toronto single mother Kashima Wright had to give up her home Internet last fall when the bills began to top $100 a month. Now she and her 6-year-old daughter Nalise have to walk to the local library to go online.

“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Wright, 25, a personal support worker who earns about $1,700 a month after taxes and pays more than $1,200 a month in rent.

“I don’t want my daughter to fall behind in school,” Wright said. “But it’s not always easy to get to the library to help her with her homework.”

Facebook is flying drones over Africa. Google and Alphabet are reporting record profits. Cable and telecoms are making record profits. Canada, the USA, or wherever, this is a problem that can be solved, and if the divide is not closed, then the gaps show up everywhere and inequality spreads like a disease.

ACORN in Delhi Offers Alternatives to the “Sleep Mafia”

WP_20151204_10_56_12_ProNew Orleans   It is not every day when the work of ACORN and its affiliates is written between the lines of major stories in The New York Times, but recently that was the case in a glaring, tragic story about the so-called “sleep mafia” in Delhi.

The story of privatized sleep follows a familiar pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city government’s inability to provide services like health care, water, transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries, efficient enough to fulfill the needs of those who can pay. But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold, is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal choices to homeless laborers, who have no place to protect blankets from thieves in the daytime hours. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.

In this overview, that’s a statement of the problem and the city’s response is somewhat explained by an Indian Supreme Court decision.

A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must provide shelter for 0.1 percent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless is vast — likely more than 100,000….

As always it’s more complicated than simply some poor people taking advantage of even poorer people, as sleep wallas rent blankets for 20 or 30 rupees a night to the homeless. Many of this number are migrant workers in from the vast, imperiled rural countryside of India, trying to find a way to make a living, rather than how many might read the story and equate the situation in a kneejerk fashion to homelessness in the US. It’s as bad, but it is also somewhat different.

Furthermore there is worse story of Delhi’s efforts to privatize the problem of shelter. ACORN for several years was one of a number of nonprofits that ran several sleeping shelters for migrant workers in various districts of the city, including a large facility in a Delhi Municipal Corporation building in Old Delhi. In 2015 most of the nonprofits, including ACORN’s affiliates were pushed out when the city tried to outsource the problem in a bidding scheme that divided the city into huge regions allowing larger private enterprises to capitalize on the process and squeeze experienced nonprofits out of more effective support for the workers. After the failure of that system the city now has had to revert in many cases back to better operators. Recently I heard from Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN’s director in Delhi, that we had been awarded several new contracts and had a number of the ones we had lost in 2015 returned to us.

What do we do? As Dharmendra reports:

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counselling and sanitary napkins. Free tuitions are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-deaddiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and have created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from christmas to New year.

When I shared the Times article with Dharmendra he also sent along a picture of a “rescue” vehicle that we are using that combs the streets of Delhi between 10 PM and 4 AM in the morning locating homeless who are sleeping rough and bring them to the nearest shelter.

None of this is enough, but bringing organizations and advocates back into the picture this year restores a voice for the poor and dispossessed that offers hope for expansion of services rather than the ill-fated mega-privatization schemes.

More needs to be done, but organizations like ACORN and its affiliates are leading the way in pushing for a solution and offering help and support in the meantime.

****

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counseling and sanitary napkins. Free tuition are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on Sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-addiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and has created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from Christmas to New Year.

Poster of film festival Local Legislator playing santa and distributing gifts to homeless kids on christmas Homeless Kids with their Christmas gifts Homeless kids enjoying movie Fresh and hot food being served to homeless Feeding Homeless Kids Feeding Homeless Kid Creative corner by Homeless

Labor’s Depressing Data and the Contradictions Lying in Our Huge Potential

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Coretta Scott King (center) with strikers, Charleston, South Carolina, 1969, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

New Orleans    Over the last week I found it hard and frustrating to come up with a coherent picture of the current predicament of the labor movement both here and yon.

Talking to a long tenured colleague at the Change to Win federation in the USA, my brother remarked soberly that private sector union density was now hovering around 6%, seemingly on its way to the 5% he and others have direly predicted for years now. The Supreme Court seems committed to give a butt kicking take-down of public sector support by eliminating fair share payments for nonmembers, and the daily papers continue to follow Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his anti-union crusade for big donors and business. His most recent proposal would dismantle civil service protections for workers there and allow hiring by resume rather than by non-discriminatory examinations.

Another colleague, an organizer in Canada, sent me a fairly recent piece to read from the London Review of Books that alternatively seemed to be poking fun at the long heralded British labor movement while indirectly chiding them for their lack of militancy, as if hoping for the United Kingdom version of a Custer’s Last Stand fight to oppose the current Conservative government’s new Trade Union Bill. The can’t be any question that the bill is draconian in its hollowing out of labor rights including implicit threats to discontinue all checkoff, but the data points were also depressing. Since 1979, density has decreased in the British labor movement to 54% in the public sector and 14% in the private sector, better than the USA, but going the same way. Membership has fallen from 13.2 million to 6.7 million in the same period. 38% of the members are over 50 years old compared to 28% in the general population.

The article talked about a small union outside of the mainstream of the labor movement that was trying some different methods and tactics to organize lower waged workers like cleaners and security workers. They claimed 600 members and some success using direct action. At the same time they claimed they were so overwhelmed with their membership growth that they had had to freeze any new membership from enrolling. Hardly a prescription for growth.

At the same time sharing the article with ACORN’s organizers in England with labor experience who scanned the piece, ACORN UK’s coordinator Stuart Melvin immediately responded in part, “…depressing for sure, though frankly I’m sick of being depressed by it. The opportunity for us is overwhelming…” He also added tellingly in discussing the proposed right wing Trade Union bill that the existing “… protection you gain by striking legally is pretty minimal anyway. As a worker, I’d rather be on a solid illegal strike than a shaky legal one.”

A conversation on Skye this week with an Marielle Roux, an organizer from ReAct, ACORN’s partner on a campaign to organize domestic workers in Rabat, Morocco combined the contradictions we face everywhere in a microcosm. In several months she was able to hire and train several women as dynamic organizers. Their success identifying support from both native and migrant domestic workers was exhilarating with workers pressing their phone numbers in the organizer’s hands even when they cold knocked at their employer’s residents in the suburbs. Meanwhile a local group is trying to divert the money away from the hard, but exciting and successful organizing program towards fancier offices and fluffing their own nests.

Some of the unemployed marching on their way to Brighton for the Trade Union Congress. 1933.

Some of the unemployed marching on their way to Brighton for the Trade Union Congress. 1933.

Nation wide strike called by Trade Unions in India on September 2, 2015

Nation wide strike called by Trade Unions in India on September 2, 2015

Informal Workers’ Unions Voices are Rising in Latin America and Elsewhere

mexicans-protestMexico City   Some recognition of the role of unions emerging among informal workers is easier to be seen in Latin America. It was unsurprising to read that one of the clearest voices expressing concern about the impact of the devaluation of the peso in Argentina by the new government and its impact on inflation and increase of precariousness for workers was from the Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy, which represents workers in Argentina’s gray economy, like recyclers and street hawkers. La Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (CTEP), as it is known in Spanish, describes itself on its website as an independent and professional organization of workers in the popular economy or informal employment sector, and, interestingly, their families as well.

The International Labor Organization more than a dozen years ago estimated that “Informal or precarious employment comprises between one-half and three-quarters of non-agricultural employment in developing countries: specifically 48 percent in northern Africa, 51 percent in Latin America, 65 percent in Asia, and 72 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (78 percent if South Africa is excluded). 60 percent or more of women workers in the developing world are in informal employment, rising to 84 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (non-agricultural).” That’s a lot of workers, and even in the developed world the ILO notes “that three categories of non-standard or atypical work – self-employment, part-time work, and temporary work – comprise 30 percent of overall employment in 15 European countries and 25 percent of total employment in the United States.”

In Mexico, the most notable union including informal workers is the Confederacion Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, known as CROC which in English would be the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The union began almost 65 years ago and now claims more than 4 million members and 15,000 collective agreements, though it is unclear how many contracts cover informal workers. The Union of Informal Workers’ Associations in Ghana is a widely recognized federation of informal workers in Africa. The Federacion Departmental de Vendedores Ambulantes de Lima or Federation of Street Vendors of Lima is also well known.

In a 2011 ILO paper another federated model was given attention, highlighting the Manual Labourers’ Association in Pune which united unions of informal workers including street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers, head-loaders, auto-rickshaw and other temporary and constructions workers. Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India in Mumbai and I visited with KKPKP, the Trade Union of Waste Pickers of Pune, one of the organizing unions of that federation. KKPKP has 6000 largely women members who have also formed a savings and credit cooperative, scrap shop cooperatives to broker their waste pickers recyclable materials for higher prices, and a solid waste doorstep collection cooperative which operates as a subcontractor for several neighborhoods with the municipal corporation.

Formal trade unions have been hesitant and in many cases resistant to taking on the task of organizing informal workers. The income and dues are difficult and erratic, making few of these efforts stand-alone and self-sufficient. As the economy becomes more precarious for workers, the fewer excuses unions will have for not embracing the challenge of organizing informal workers, whether they like it or not. Luckily emerging organizations in Latin America and elsewhere are increasingly providing models that point the direction for unions in the future.

Continued Global Oppression of Non-Profits

people-holding-hands-standing-around-globeMexico City     This was another rough year for nonprofits in many countries around the world. 

Ever since the Organizers’ Forum visited Egypt, after the revolution, and we visited with the outstanding Center for Trade Union and Worker Services that is the central nonprofit supporting the development of an independent labor movement in that country, I have received regular emailed updates and status reports from them, and it’s often a trail of tears.  Their leader was jailed for some time, and they continue to push back against constant government harassment and false accusations.

Reports from Russia indicate that the closures of nonprofits there continues unabated.  Even very straight-laced, mainline outfits like the Carnegie Institute for Peace, active for decades in Russia, where the Organizers’ Forum also visited some years ago, has pulled up stakes.  Environmental and other groups continued to be hammered.  Some activists with whom we visited have relocated to operate from other countries for fear of jailing and losing their children. 

Under the Modi BJP government in India numerous nonprofits have been targeted, once again largely on fabricated financial issues and often about foreign money.  Greenpeace which had been very effective in advocating around the environmental crises and air pollution issues has been starved of funding and support.  Even the Ford Foundation has found itself under glare of governmental criticism, which must have been shocking to them, but is undoubtedly chilling as they look at the profile of their grant making in the country. 

In China, nonprofit organizations have been required to have a governmental partner in order to operate, rendering any notion of independence moot.  There is the possibility of change though since a draft law has been published in the fall which would offer some definition and protection for charities and promises to allow them to begin to register directly rather than coupled with a governmental partner. 

Observers are watching the results of the election in Myanmar closely.  Under military rule, nonprofits and others were closely watched for any potential criticism of the military and financial support.  Maybe there’s hope here as well.

I have to wonder in the rage for randomized trials of effectiveness and measurement of all manner of metrics for nonprofit performance how much credit nonprofits are getting in some of these countries just for surviving against state power.  Too often politics falls off the list of deliverables, yet political threats and tensions have made many nonprofits and their work around the world essential.  Others make compromises to be able to operate in countries with reactionary or repressive regimes, leaving nonprofits involved in social change and advocacy to sink or swim on their own.  There is no simple formula for change around the world or one size fits all way to measure the obstacles that must be overcome, and they are legion.