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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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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Emails, Internet, and Lost History

storageMadison    Huma Abedin, the confidant and deputy chief of staff for Hillary Clinton, now working on her Presidential campaign, in her deposition released recently in commenting on the server controversy said, “Mrs. Clinton…wanted to protect her personal information, ‘just like anybody who has personal email would want to keep their personal email private.” It’s an interesting quote, not because of the controversy, but because in fact it so easily expresses and assumes a near unanimous consensus that exists in much of modern society that holds that there is a dividing line between personal and professional correspondence. In Clinton’s case, the argument of course has to do with matters of state, while for the rest of us everything is often totally blurred.

I thought of this as I continued rummaging through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society. There would be few files these days called “Correspondence,” given the dominance of email. In the files, I read letters to me from Ralph Nader, Paul Wellstone, and Bill Clinton among others that I had long forgotten existed. And, trust me on this my files – our files – were none too perfect, but such correspondence would largely be lost in the mess and mayhem of unfathomable, untraceable email these days, as Abedin notes about Hillary Clinton wouldn’t they?

Working with the Wisconsin archivists they came to our union hall in Baton Rouge some months ago and in three days sorted through more than one-hundred boxes stored there in order to ship back 38 of them to the archives. Dealing with paper is no treat. Looking at the ACORN archives, nothing has been sorted and available really since 2008. Of more than 300 linear feet or boxes of material only three were of photographs and half of those were more random than anything else, yet we all have thousands of photos on our computers in some willy-nilly fashion. I looked at various internal communications tools we used, Vamonos for leaders, the ACORNizer for organizers, the Motley Cow reports from the research department. I saw a note about our purchasing computers in 1984 and then of course by 1990 email ubiquitous, so over the last 20 or 25 years so many of these kinds of communication would be electronic. How can those be accessed? Who is retaining such records? And, what about the way we all communicate using websites, Facebook, and other tools?

All of our footprints are in sand, but modern communication potentially puts much of it literally in the clouds. Is this the end of history when there are few and increasingly eliminated records available for review except from the highest and mightiest?

What about the rest of us? Are we destined to live in a Trump-type world where we invent ourselves every day and there are no facts or solid ground where we stand?

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Lost in the Archives

Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison   Somehow I thought a week would be more than enough to go through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Now at the midpoint I feel like I’m trapped somewhere between 1970 and 1985 and can’t get out for the life of me. It’s all a unique, interesting, somewhat unsettling, and bizarre experience.

Going into the archive waiting and working area is a little like being a visitor in a jail. You sign in and show your ID, logging your time of entry. You have to lock up your belongings in a locker or closet. They don’t exactly frisk you for sharp objects, but they definitely require you to stow your pens and issue you a pencil if you must write something down. In a funny way it makes sense of course. They don’t want folks to walk away with historical documents that they are storing for safekeeping obviously, nor do they want them defaced or marked. To keep the prison analogy going you also have to put in a request to see a specific box, which they then disappear into the bottom floors of the building and return later and issue to you.

Around 1990 when I had a brief stay as the “activist in residence” for almost a month at the University of Wisconsin, and my friend and comrade, Professor Joel Rogers, introduced me to the people at the society because they had a renowned “Social Change Collection.” Many of the civil rights organizations had their records here. I knew the National Welfare Rights Organization, where I had once worked, had their records here. The famous Highlander Center in Tennessee had all of their records here. I had also had no success in reaching out to the University of Arkansas or their branch in Little Rock to get them to agree to take ACORN’s records with any interest and the same story had been repeated at the University of New Orleans. The final deciding point had been that the historical society was funded directly by the state legislature and in 1990 that sealed the deal because it seemed in the pre-Walker era to mean that they would always receive adequate support to maintain the records, which is a must for archives.

Once the deal was made, we would start shipping records up to them via UPS, but I had never actually been back to see what was happening or how the whole thing was set up. I was here now thinking I could go through them somewhat quickly and gather material for a book of “readings” collected from old memoranda and reports that would give an original source look at how ACORN had been built and operated. It’s turning out to be a much harder task than I had imagined. The records are kept based on when they are received, so I’m trapped in boxes and boxes from the first 15 years. The database doesn’t even acknowledge any records from 2008 on, because they still have not been accessed into the system. Of course since the records came from many different locations and the idiosyncratic filing or non-filing system of many field offices, organizers, researchers, lawyers, and others, there are duplications galore and trails that dead end quickly.

None of that is the fault of the collection or the archivist here, but for my task it’s all somewhat frustrating. Finding something interesting means walking over to the scanner and putting the document through page by page so that it emerges as a PDF on a thumbdrive. Then a record of the file needs to be typed in the computer with a title, the file needs to be labeled accordingly on the drive, and transferred to a larger hard drive. You get the picture?

So, I have two days left now, and I’m already reassessing and doing triage to see whether there’s a way to move more quickly or stay the course, box by box. At some point just like reading the newspaper, I’ll just have to look for the pictures to tell another story.

Making history is one thing, but leaving records so that the history can be assembled at some point is quite another I’m finding.

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Celebrating ACORN’s 46th Birthday

DSCN1298Quito    At the annual Americas’ meeting of many of ACORN’s organizers in Quito, after a lengthy conversation about implementing our plans for an internet radio station to kick off in mid-August with shows from all of the offices interspersed with music replayed from our existing stations, a cake came out and by popular request we did our best trying to sing a recent organizing song along the lines of Drake’s “Hot Line Bling.” The meeting had been good, spirits were high, plans were in place, but at the same time the discussions had been serious and sober, and we were humble to the task.

The challenge for senior staff, including myself, can be the wide view from the front windshield of opportunity, compared to the vast and expansive accomplishments in the rear view mirror. ACORN Canada has become a powerhouse with huge victories and campaigns protecting and advancing the interests of tenants and consumers. Work in France, the United Kingdom, and India is encouraging and exciting, and opportunities seem to increasingly abound for ACORN in Europe, if we can get our arms around them. We may have our first meeting ever of all of our organizers in Africa this fall, which would allow us to potentially turn a corner there for the future. Consolidating and tightening our program in Latin America may allow us to finally solidify the work and victories there over the last dozen years. Reports are starting to emerge that auger for real impact and deep alliances around rural electric cooperatives in the southern United States and accountability for charity care in nonprofit hospitals, lending and financial discrimination in the United Kingdom, and threats to remittances globally. Partnerships with colleges and universities are extending the organization’s reach and resources. Plans for upgrading training tools with better technology and investment could be significant. It was exciting to sit around this table!

At the same time it was a small table, compared to the giant halls where ACORN annual organizers’ meetings were held in the past. 150,000 members globally is not the same as almost a half-million concentrated in one country, like the United States. Frequently, we’re involved in throwback situations to the early and mid-1970s where we’re trying to put twenty pounds to work into a one-pound bag and a stuff a thousand people into a clown car.

But, the key is to keep moving and moving forward, which is part of what emerges at every birthday celebration. The alternatives are devastating, embracing the next day, and the opportunities of life and work are everything.

At 46 years the main celebration is the excitement that the organization and the work continues, and is important and winning. It’s a milestone, but just another day. Next year on the 47th anniversary, we will be at the biennial convention of ACORN Canada in Ottawa.

There’s a lot to be done. Time to think about where we will be when we gather for the 50th!

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