Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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The Long Tail of Payback on Harvard’s Investment in Coal Fired Electricity Production

Students from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House at the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   What goes around, comes around, even if forty-five years later. Hearing that food activists from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House were interested in volunteering in New Orleans, triggered an immediate invitation from ACORN International for them to visit and help at the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. Seven showed up on a cool morning to weed, mow, and help in any way possible, having only arrived the night before, barely escaping the heralded snow-ageddon northeaster hitting their area.

But, before work began, the circle had to be closed with additional thanks for the help of Philip Brooks House years ago when ACORN embarked on our first campaign to gain national attention. Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, the parent of Arkansas Power & Light had announced that it wanted to build the world’s largest coal-fired plant at White Bluff near the town of Redfield on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come from the Fort Union deposit under the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, parts of Montana, and North Dakota. Their proposal to move the coal to the plant was to build a slurry line where water from the arid west would flush the coal all the way down to Arkansas.

ACORN had been fighting both gas and electric utilities over exorbitant rate increases and saw the plant as driving rates even higher, so on that score our members were already agitated. Quick research found that there increasing reports, particularly from Europe, on the adverse impact of sulfur pollution, especially on agriculture. ACORN dispatched an organizer to put together groups of farmers and others on both sides of the river, who were worried about diminishing crop yields, while the company was claiming it would lower their costs. There were actions a plenty in Arkansas to try and stop the plant, and I joined our farmers on a company-paid private plane flight to Kentucky to see the TVA’s Paradise plant, which we blew up in their faces with reports of pollution warnings caused by the plant.

All of that moved the needle forward, but the major paper at the time, The Arkansas Gazette, still saw ACORN and our efforts as rag-tag. As a public company, ACORN was able to determine its major investors were the pride of the Ivy League, with Harvard first and Princeton and Yale right behind. We reached out for an organizer we knew in the area, and he started making contacts at Harvard, launching a petition, getting students to join us in demanding the Board of Harvard join us in opposing the plant unless there were scrubbers to stop the pollution and other modifications. The Harvard Crimson did a piece by Nicholas Lemann, from New Orleans, and now with The New Yorker and other posts, all of which triggered the Gazette to run ACORN’s campaign on the front page for the first time in our young history.

We eventually won a good deal of that campaign when the company had to cut the size of the plant in half, drop the slurry line, also opposed by our allies in the Northern Plains Resource Council, and made pollution adjustments. Where did we get the most support at Harvard: the Philip Brooks House, where I also spoke and did recruitment, but that’s another story.

We thanked the Harvard students again as they worked with us in a different way, and gave them an ACORN flag from our Latin American affiliates to bring home to hang in the House, reviving the tale, and closing the circle once again.

PS. The researcher was Steve Kest, the organizer was John Beam, and the campus organizer was Bill Kitchen!

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A Day Without Women Here is a Day About Women Everywhere

A rally at Washington Square Park in Manhattan to mark “A Day Without a Woman” on Wednesday. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Little Rock   The limits of action without organization are hard to escape, and in the United States the call for a strike and actions by women to show America how badly the country would suffer without the contribution of women and their economic power was bound to suffer from the “revolution of rising expectations” set in motion by the mammoth women’s marches earlier in the year. There were some school closings in Washington. Some businesses were impacted, and of course the impact of reduced purchases or, alternatively, purchases in women-owned businesses are impossible to measure except anecdotally. Ironically, there were many women who said they in fact couldn’t strike either because their work was vital in terms of caring for other women’s health for example or they couldn’t afford to lose the income or the job by acting alone, much of which proves even more emphatically how important women are in the workplace.

I’m reminded of one of ACORN’s less successful tactical actions 45 years ago against Arkla Gas to protest rising gas rates when we called for a Shutoff Arkla Day. Organizationally, it is impossible to prove the negative. But, no matter, the important thing is that women were standing up either physically, symbolically or sympathetically as a reminder that there will be prices to pay for the continued governmental assaults. It was also nice that American women didn’t flinch at joining in solidarity with women around the world who for years have now made March 8th their day.

The history of the day is momentous. The first Women’s Day was originally organized at the end of February 1909 by the Socialist Party of New York. Although some of this story is surrounded in myths of historic protests and strikes, none of that has been confirmed. Driving from Greenville to Little Rock yesterday, I heard the claim that the first Women’s Day was in reaction to the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 largely young immigrant women workers in New York City, but that tragedy was actually two years later in 1911. It was likely more a matter of the Socialist Party thinking it was the right thing to do, and though that doesn’t sound as epic, perhaps its very solemnity and morality, speak even more loudly. March 8th became important – and historic – when a century ago in commemoration of Women’s Day, women went on strike in St. Petersburg, Russia demanding an end to World War I, and end to food shortages, and an end to czarism, helping trigger the Russian Revolution. In 1965 the Russians made it an official holiday. China did so even earlier offering a half-day off for women in 1949.

Finally, the United Nations in 1975 adopted March 8th as International Women’s Day encouraging all countries to celebrate the date. What goes around, comes around, and now to their credit, March 8th became a day to remember in 2017 for women – and men – in the United States as well.

Now, if we could just make every day, women’s day in what still is too much of a man’s world.

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Is Direct Membership Organizing “Old School?”

ACORN doorknocking in Toronto

Sheffield   In a meeting in London, I was briefly taken aback when one of the participants said that they had heard a critique of ACORN that we were “old school.” The quizzical, surprised look on my face from another person at the meeting prompted him to say, essentially, no problem, Wade, I believe in the old school.

Admittedly, I was testy about the issue during the meeting, saying things like, hey, when their school builds a half-million member organization or even a 150,000 member organization, I’ll go for lessons. You know stupid stuff like that. Luckily, I said stuff that was slightly smarter like, yo, we bolt new social media tools on the old school feet on the street, bottoms in the bus seats to build power. No harm was done.

I get it though. It’s a natural evolutionary tension within the work. It was long ago that mass texting and the Orange Revolution were the “new” school, while the rest of us had to catch up and learn the new steps. Flash mobs had their time in the sun as well. Then Twitter had its moment in Iran when change was coming through a “twitter” revolution, even though it became quickly evident that only a miniscule number of Iranians were actually on Twitter. Tahir Square for an equally brief moment was marketed as a Facebook revolution before the story of systematic, long term organizational efforts that triggered the protests became widely known. Now whether Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March on Washington, the tools and platforms that assemble protests are undoubtedly touted as the future of organizing.

It’s easy to understand why Alinsky, who forged his organizing methodology in the 1950s, was dismissive and threatened by the mass movements of the 1960s. This old school warrior won’t make that mistake. For power to be built, for change to occur, for organizations to survive and thrive, they have to grow or die, and that means constant adaptation to whatever moves and has meaning to people. At ACORN, we embrace the new social media tools and methods of mass communications, but of course taking the new courses doesn’t mean that we abandon identifiable membership, internal democracy and accountability, and the importance of having a mass base which can take action, respond to attack, vote when needed, speak loudly when necessary, and fight to win.

An experiment is not an organizing model. Trust me on this, if a better model of building mass organization is developed anywhere by anybody in the world, ACORN will be among the first adapters.

But, there are lessons in some of the new school experiments too. Lessons in Egypt and Iran, and the change that didn’t happen once the rallies ended. Lessons about whether change can be won or power built without an organization. There’s still just no substitute for people, no matter how slick and fancy the new tools. And, that means going through the time and trouble of building real organization even while we are able to mobilize differently in this magic moment.

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Chaos in the White House Can’t Stop Progress in the Streets

Bristol ACORN

Bristol   Maybe President Trump needs to get out more? Perhaps there’s something in the air in the White House that is clogging up his so-called “fine-tuned machine” and bringing out the crazy? Maybe from the outside looking in, it would be easier for him to understand better why the rest of us are scared sillier every day?

Who knows, but for me it was relief to jump off the merry-go-round of the Trump-Watch and back onto a plane again. And, though sleepless and a walking-zombie imitation, sure enough it was possible to find signs of continuing progress away from the maddening vortex of chaos in Washington.

Visiting with the ACORN organizers in Bristol, the big problem of the day was one every organization likes to have. On the eve of ACORN’s first all-offices, national action scheduled only days away from Edinburgh to Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, and beyond against the giant multi-national bank, Santander, they threw in the towel and caved in. The issue was a requirement that Santander attaches on any loans in housing that tenant leases mandate rent increases. ACORN was demanding the provision be dropped from all leases, and Santander announced that it was doing so, and in a bit of dissembling claimed that they had never really enforced it anyway. Hmmm. I wonder if they had told any of their landlords, “hey, ignore that part, we don’t really want you to raise the rents, we’re just kidding, it’s only money.” Hard to believe isn’t it? And, we don’t, but a win is a win, and the action will now become a celebration and a demand that all other banks in the United Kingdom also scrub out any such language.

Back home, ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, was front page news as they laid the gauntlet down once again around an expansion of the Industrial Canal that divides the upper and lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The expansion would dislocate homes and further bisect this iconic and beleaguered community.

Meanwhile, as we get closer and closer to being able to target big real estate operations and private equity that are exploiting lower income home seekers in the Midwest and South through contract for deed land purchasers, there was progress in the courts. A federal judge ruled that Harbour Portfolio, a Dallas-based bottom-fishing private equity operation with a big 7000-home play in FNMA, would have to abide by a subpoena from the much embattled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and disclose information on its use high-interest, predatory contract-for-deed instruments in its home flipping. As we get closer and closer to having our arms around not only terms and conditions of these exploitative contracts, but also lists of potential victims in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, this is good news, even though far from the relief and victory families will be seeking.

All of which proves that if we can keep our focus away from the chaos created in Washington and our feet on the streets, there are fights galore and victories aplenty to reward the work and struggle.

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Foreclosure Bonds

decline of some foreclosed homes in Detroit

New Orleans   This is such a short limb, I don’t mind crawling out on it: every community needs a foreclosure bond. OK, I’ve said it, now what am I talking about?

I interviewed Gary Davenport on Wade’s World who now works for the Mahoning County Land Bank, which is an interesting operation itself, based in Youngstown, Ohio, one of the many ground zeros in the deindustrialization in the Rust Belt. Gary and I had met briefly four years ago when I was visiting the Youngstown State University and its Center for Working Class Studies and met with community organizers there. When we were talking recently, he had told me about some interesting campaigns that the MVOC, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, had won when he was working as a community organizer there.

Here’s what it says in the city codes now:

Foreclosure Bond Requirement. Any owner of a property which files a foreclosure action against such property, or for which a foreclosure action is pending, or a judgment of foreclosure has been issued shall, in addition to all other requirements of this Section, provide a cash bond to the Deputy Director of Public Works or his or her designee, in the sum of ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00), to secure the continued maintenance of the property throughout its vacancy and remunerate the City for any expenses incurred in inspecting, securing, repairing and/ or making such building safe by any legal means including, but not limited to, demolition. A portion of said bond to be determined by the Deputy Director of Public Works shall be retained by the City as an administrative fee to fund an account for expenses incurred in inspecting, securing, repairing and/ or marking said building and other buildings which are involved in the foreclosure process or vacant.

Yes, it’s a city ordinance and that’s how city lawyers write, but you get the point. Past the problem of foreclosures themselves and the tragedy they bring to families is the attendant devastation they bring to communities, often because the bank and its servicers have limited incentives to take care of the property and the upkeep while they are trying to get it off their books. This is a problem is all communities. In neighborhoods where there is already depopulation due to deindustrialization, natural disaster, or changing demographics, houses can sit vacant for long periods, pulling down values throughout the neighborhood and posing safety hazards and attractive nuisances. Budget strapped cities are forced to step in to cut grass, trim trees, and sometimes to demolish the structure, and left footing the bills. The bond simply forces the mortgage holding institution driving the foreclosure to put their cash down, and do the job, so they can get their money back, and if not, the requirements of the full code give the city a way to deduct the money from the bond to cover their costs of doing the job for the bank and its servicers. Other than the fact that maybe the bond should be higher, this should be standard in every city of any shape and size!

Gary said they had picked up the idea from another community organization, ADT, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and it had now been enacted in several other Ohio cities as well.

Here’s a shout out to community organizers and, what the heck, to city officials: let’s get a foreclosure bond campaign in gear!

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