Bits Along the Road

Manchester     Two words heard regularly in the UK are “sorted” and “bits.”  Sorted makes sense in a way.  Get organized, straighten out, arrange in place, whatever, to sort something is to put it right, and the term is ubiquitous.  Almost as common is a reference to “bits” with is a catchall for a miscellaneous everything from a to-do list to random things that of course need to be sorted.  On the trains in the United Kingdom there is an announcement along with posters in every station about keeping your eyes open for things that are out of sort with the slogan “see it, say it, sort it” as a promise that that the authorities will take care of the matter.

One thing that is no longer sorted in the UK is the notion of being able to count on the trains running on time. Our crew left wildly early for airports back to the US, Canada, and France on the assumption that the trains would be late, not timely.  Going from Heathrow through Reading a train scheduled on our itinerary simply disappeared and remains, what can I say, but unsorted.  A larger surprise was showing up to buy train tickets in advance in Cardiff and being told to get to the station for the first train and hope for the best, they were unsure on that Sunday when or if trains would be running at all.  That was disconcerting!

Talking to information we learned about both the continued power of the railway unions on the Great Western line as well as the wild popularity of the World Cup.  We were advised on the down-low that the real problem was that some 75% of the train conductors had called off for that Sunday in expectation that England would prevail against Croatia and be in the Cup final.  The GWR was unclear if they would have enough trainmen to run more than a quarter of their routes, so for anyone trying to get a plane out of London or go anywhere else, that might just be too bad, but nothing management could do about it.  As it developed, England lost to Croatia and then again on Saturday to Belgium, though everyone was measured in their disappointment, not having believed they would get so deep in the tournament, for soccer-clueless travelers with no horse in the race, we got there early and waited to be rewarded with trains running both to London and Manchester.

In Manchester finally, I learned that unions have hunkered down to organize home health care workers which sounds about time.  Another organizer told me about the Wisconsin-style rules that force the public workers union to have to climb a huge mountain to poll 50% of the eligible workers in favor of a strike vote.  Failing to do so has stuck such workers with a 1% increase annually for almost a decade of austerity.  In cities like London the minimum wage guaranteed would only leave 20% left over to live after paying the average rent of over 800 pounds.  Meanwhile the government in a private-public partnership is spending billions on a high-speed train proposed from Manchester to London which would save perhaps 15-minutes of travel time.

There are a lot of bits that need to get sorted.


Plotting the Future, Drowning in Opportunity

Cardiff     Whether the leadership of ACORN International, led by President Marva Burnett from Canada, meeting under the shade, appropriately of an oak tree, or the organizers from around the world, joining the leaders, in talking about our directions for the future sitting in a circle on floor-seats in a yurt, it was clear we had grown by leaps and bounds during the past year.  Membership and dues were up everywhere.  Campaigns and victories were stirring and significant from Delhi to Tegucigalpa, from Lima to Newcastle, from Toronto to Paris to Bristol to Glasgow to even Detroit and Cleveland.  It was exciting to be part of the discussion.

We were not only growing in the cities where we had staff, but everywhere we were facing a challenge:  we were drowning in opportunity.  On one hand we had new cities where we had committed to building organization like Montreal in Canada and Montpelier in France, but we also had three new groups in Tunis where we needed to tighten down our supply lines.  We had affiliated our partners in Liberia but were trying to see if we could expand by uniting noncommercial radio and direct organizing in Kampala and other cities in Uganda.  We had added new groups in Manchester and Brighton successfully and seen our chapters in Birmingham begin a revival, but had twenty or more invitations from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and throughout cities large and small in England and Scotland asking for assistance and wanting to join ACORN.  We were training and developing initial plans to expand in Belgium and Bulgaria and trying to figure out how to support our allies in Greece and Slovakia, but everywhere we faced critical need and urgent requests, but we’re stretched to breaking in our ability to respond robustly.

Over and over again the discussions would hit ceilings and walls.  Common themes continued to emerge.  Every project, large and small, needed more staff and more money.  The leadership had discussed how to start to create a procedure for evaluation affiliations and facilitating expansion.  The staff started to grab the bull by the horns to discuss not only how each national affiliate could train staff and resource its program by how we could develop training centers and pool our more limited resources to raise the money to expand and answer the demands from so many other communities and countries.

Nothing sounded simple.  We had to smooth out the structure.  We had to keep the doors open.  We needed to figure out how to standardize our training programs in Canada, France, and England for new organizers and operations.  We were unsure how we could finance even the efforts to bootstrap to hire a development person to raise more money.

Nonetheless by the end of the meeting there was an emerging consensus on what needed to be done to stop the “moaning” and embrace the future.


Please enjoy Kinky Friedman’s Autographs in the Rain.

Thanks to KABF.