Action Day for ACORN in Ottawa Conventions

Arriving for the dawn briefing

Ottawa  The last day of an ACORN Convention is action day. It starts early because it’s also going home day for the members, as they pack out their gear on the buses so they are ready to roll once the work is done. There were already members sitting on the steps outside of the dorm room at 630 am when I hit the street.

Briefing from the leaders before the action

There were speakers in the morning, local and federal politicians and labor leaders came by, but the real preparation was practicing the chants for the day, so that Fair Banking and Affordable Internet substituted on some of the lines where normally a cry for Justice arose. Everyone was in good form by the time the briefing was finished, the speeches over, and it was time to roll downtown.

assembling for the march and asking drivers to honk their support!

After off loading on Queen Street, the march assembled near the War Memorial on Elgin, picking up some supporters along the way, and pressing cars driving by to honk their support as they sang and chanted. Humid days and sprinkling rain had been substituted for a bright day with a steady breeze breaking the heat, so everything seemed in order as the march set off down Elgin towards the building housing the Ministry of Finance, picking up some bicycle cops along the way as our de facto escorts.

coming down Elgin Avenue towards the Ministry of Finance

At the corner of the Ministry building, Ottawa moved along the side door to the formal entrance, while Toronto went towards the Elgin Street entrance, and Nova Scotia and British Columbia took the other side door. Quickly and efficiently everyone was in the large foyer of the building. Some held banners in front of the building with our demands so that all could see. Banking of any sort in the modern day specializes in security, so there was never any notion that the crowd would get past the foyer, so the chants demanded the Minister come down and meet. After some time when the police threatened to call the paddy wagons and begin arrests, all the members responded by sitting down and continuing signing and shouting their chants for action on fair banking and an end to predatory lending.

Come meet with us Minister

We’re Not Going Anywhere!

A demand letter was sent up as the members moved across the business district to rally in the shadow of the federal Parliament building and in front of the creepily named, Ministry of Innovation. The ministry had acceded to our demands for a meeting and held up announcements on internet access they had privately negotiated with telecoms after we protested our exclusion. This was a “warning” rally, that we were watching and waiting, but would be back in force if we didn’t get satisfaction.

marching to the Ministry of Innovation

Marva Burnett, ACORN’s president, addressed the crowd ending the action, and the convention, as everyone roared and then settled in for the trip home and the fights to come.

Marva Burnett, ACORN Canada and ACORN International President addresses the end of the convention

marching home

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ACORN Canada Was Revving Up and Reaching Out on ACORN’s 47th Anniversary

Ottawa ACORN leads the crowd at the meeting

Ottawa  Rolling out of breakfast, ACORN Canada members found themselves under a huge assembly tent, reminiscent of the Denver airport in my mind. Large delegations from Ottawa and Toronto practiced their chants, cheers, and songs they had devised for the march into the meeting hall. Toronto’s highlighted their expansion from the city into the GTA or Greater Toronto Area as its known locally, but christened Greater Toronto ACORN by the members from now on. They did so to the tune of the “Saints Go Marching In,” which was a nice touch as well. Ottawa of course gave their chant a French twist shouting “Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montreal” with the proper accents.

members coming through the doors

An array of power-speakers addressed the assembly once everyone was in place. The Housing Minister for Ontario was respectful and thorough in listing ways that he felt the existing government had stepped up to the plate on issues that ACORN had fought over. They were preparing to invest half-a-billion Canadian dollars in affordable house and what they called “purpose-built” housing for lower income families. He also professed his government’s commitment to continuing to build social housing as well. He got big applause when he mentioned that he had extended the rent control protection to an additional 250,000 families in significant areas. Landlords are allowed increases limited by the inflation index prepared by Statistics Canada.

Max FineDay of Canadian Roots Exchange drew a standing ovation

Max FineDay from the Canadian Roots was the most popular with the members. He gave a lively and impassioned speech focusing on reconciliation between Native Canadians and the rest of the population. He won people over with both well-timed personal anecdotes and moving descriptions of conditions on the reserved lands. Another favorite speaker was the head of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, known as CUPW, here. He was a familiar friend who had also spoken in Montreal at the last convention. The union’s proposal for a postal bank has been supported by ACORN as a way around predatory lending, as well as a way for the union to fight privatization. The crowd laughed when he told of a government committee claiming that such a bank wouldn’t make money, asking the members who knew of a bank that didn’t make money!

Chris Ballard MPP and Ontario Minister of Housing told us they had expanded rent control

Mike Palechek, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, spoke for a 2nd convention to cheers

In the afternoon, the members paired up in teams and hit the neighborhoods of Ottawa to gain support for the campaign for Fair Banking and an end to Predatory Lending. The winning petition teams filled 39 and 40 petitions in their two hours, including some new members from Hamilton which was exciting to everyone.

role plays before the doorknocking outreach

Marva Burnett, the chair of both ACORN Canada and ACORN International, gave some remarks over dinner that challenged the members about whether they were prepared to lead in building organization globally. She underlined the success on tenant issues and the demands by tenants for ACORN to build a tenants’ union in various countries.

Burnett also mentioned that June 18th was the 47th Anniversary of ACORN’s founding and led the members in singing Happy Birthday to ACORN.

What a great day!

more fun, food and speeches at the banquet

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Working on Skills and Listening to Promises at the Convention

Members from Toronto arriving to Convention

Ottawa  We could find members of the ACORN Canada convention delegation wandering lost around the University campus pretty easily, thanks to their bright red t-shirts. There were nicely designed ACORN “arrows” on the sidewalks and signs aplenty, but the campus construction and the different buildings could easily confuse so a small army of volunteers and staff shepherded people from place to place from the time people got off the buses on arrival.

Meet & greet before the work begins

An ACORN convention is about serious business, so the members had hardly said, “hello,” before they were on their way to workshops. Some attracting crowds were Disability-Social Assistance: Rights & Benefits, Big Turnout/Planning Chapter Meetings, and Affordable & Livable Housing run by leaders from British Columbia, Ottawa, and Toronto. There were smaller sessions that dove deep, like one I listened to for a while and run efficiently by an Ottawa member on Social Media and Action. Participation was key in all of the workshops. In that one they broke into two groups to figure out what they would “post” on Facebook and tweet on Twitter three weeks, two weeks, one week, and the day of a coming action to help communicate and move members to attend. Thanking the workshop leader later for the excellent job she did, she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, saying it was her first time doing such a thing, and she had been so nervous.

heading to the workshops

These workshops help move consensus for the members for actions after the convention is over as well. A workshop on “energy essentials,” were dealing with fights against privatization of public services, especially electricity. Pay Equity/Childcare was a workshop preparing for a future campaign direction to try and win better income support for lower income families for childcare and achieve pay equity for women. Fair Banking/Internet for All was a large workshop on the two largest national campaigns for ACORN in Canada and was seeking to hone positions for future actions and negotiations.

Head Organizer, Judy Duncan, keeping it rolling

Nothing like a university cafeteria to make people happy though, no matter how hard they work. Buffet style with choices of desert? Wow! Is this what life could be like! Members had to be pried out of their seats, but they were ready for the first evening plenary to get ready to rock.

an Ottawa member speaks up at the disability and social assistance workshop

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, was the guest speaker, after the ACORN national board was introduced to chants, whoops, and hollers. Ontario is the California of Canada in terms of its size and reach in the country so would be a huge prize for progressives. Leader Horwath loved finding a friendly crowd that roared “Shame!” again and again as she listed the issues and roared with delight every time she committed that the NDP would join ACORN in the fight.

a Toronto leader runs the workshop on big actions

The real applause was saved for the reports from leaders from city to city throughout the country on their victories over the last year. Chants greeted the reports crying, The People United, Shall Never Be Defeated, and Who are We, Mighty, Mighty ACORN.

members listening intently to another Ottawa member tell them how to use twitter

the evening plenary is reading and rocking in their seats

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, commits to ACORN’s issues in her speech

no one was getting lost on the way to the dorms to prepare for the next day

 

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ACORN Canada Leadership Plans Its Next Moves

Ottawa’s Ashley and Jill are ready to make the registration work for the convention

Ottawa   The annual general meeting and board gathering for ACORN Canada’s leadership convened on the eve of the organization’s biennial convention in Ottawa at the University of Ottawa this year. While ticking off the legal requirements, signing minutes, audit reports, and other requirements of the Canadian Societies Act, the board found much to celebrate. The membership had now crossed 100,000, and the organization’s aggregate expenditures had broken $1 million in 2016, both huge accomplishments after fourteen years of organizing. Campaigns, some of them stretching back more than a decade, like the Toronto fight for landlord licensing, had been victorious. ACORN was now part of the conversation and a vital part of the coalition in any progressive campaign in Ottawa, Toronto, and greater Vancouver, from the fight for $15 per hour to hydro rates to blocking privatization and more.

This could have been a time for a bit of chest thumping and back slapping. A bit of gloating might have been in order. The leadership never drew a breath. Instead they focused in almost every conversation – and I know because I was keeping the minutes – on what they needed to do next, what issues might be on the horizon, and what had to be done to win.

Board Meeting

The multi-year “Internet for All” campaign had seen ACORN become a stakeholder at the table, so one of the most interesting questions, still unresolved at the end of the meeting was whether or not the weirdly named, Ministry of Innovation, would be a federal target for agitation during the convention. The process of expanding internet access had been fraught and ACORN’s role had been key in pushing the regulatory body and its hearings into a serious examination of what was needed to bridge the digital divide for lower income families. Many of the monopolistic telecoms had bent to ACORN’s demands over the years, but always in piecemeal fashion, beginning with Rogers concession in lowering fees to provide access to all public housing residents in Toronto. Others had carved out similar small slices to answer the call as well, but none were moving to the need, and likely wouldn’t without the government playing a stronger role. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had indicated they were preparing a major announcement in this area recently that they had worked out with the telecoms, but ACORN and others protested that they were excluded from the consultation and having none of it. The government had backed off of its plans in order to re-position because they had left us out of the mix, promising that we would be allowed to impact the plans before they were finalized. So, the leadership debated with that concession, should they be left off the action list because they were now moving towards us or should they still be front and center because of their arrogance and lack of action?

Convention Swag

The debates now had high stakes. How would ACORN position its demands with a possible new minority government in British Columbia led by the NDP (New Democratic Party) in coalition with the Greens? With the federal Liberal government’s coming review of the Banking Act this year would we finally be able to advance our predatory lending campaign? Would the municipal elections in Ottawa finally allow ACORN with our labor partners and others to advance our municipal agenda on housing and living wages where we had been so close to winning in the past? Would be be able to force affordable housing construction in Burnaby and Surrey, the huge satellite cities around Vancouver and block demolition/evictions?

A measure of the organization’s weight was a special address to the board by the Secretary-Treasurer of the huge NUPGE, the National Union of Provincial Government Employees, representing a wide variety of public employees at the provincial or state level. NUPGE was concerned that the government’s move to create an Infrastructure Bank could mean a wave of privatization of public services, and of course public workers, that displace thousands, cost more, and render worse service to citizens. Meeting with ACORN, the Canadian organization that demands better public services for low and moderate families, somehow seemed a natural first step in any campaign.

ACORN Canada has much to celebrate, but they may not have time to pause to do so, because the next moves and one campaign after another demands the leadership’s attention and meets the membership’s demands.

Answering member questions at the registration table

 

 

 

 

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Alternative Mortgage Lending Tiptoeing Around a Broker-based Implosion – Again!

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

New Orleans   In the 2008 Great Recession, fingers pointed wildly in all directions and in some cases in little Taliban caves around the country they are still doing so, and trying to play the blame game at the expense of the victims. One of the more troubling terms to emerge from those terrible days for borrowers trying to stay in their homes was the notion of “liar’s loans,” as the subprime industry called some of these mortgages. The haters tried to claim the borrowers were the liars, though our work repeatedly found that the culprits – the big liars in the affair – were almost invariably mortgage brokers channeling huge volumes of paper to subprime lenders and blowing up the numbers on “stated” income mortgages.

ACORN understood the value of stated income mortgages because many of our lower income families worked in contingent employment that was impossible to verify because of cash transactions without social security statements. Tipped employees were just one of the examples. As we met with subprime company after subprime company (four in one wild day in Orange County, California, the subprime ground zero!), we raised our concerns about the supervision of brokerage networks accounting for much of the loan volume in the portfolios they were assembling and the incredibly high percentage of stated loans, often approaching or exceeding 50% of the lending they were making and packaging. They would then flannel-mouth something about a risk algorithm that was protecting them and assure us they were on top of it all, when in fact as it developed, they were doing the happy dance to bankruptcy and blindsiding our members, many of them whom had no idea what numbers brokers had claimed to be their income, often without so much as a wink-and-a-nod, and were shocked to find in some cases that their social security income had now been converted to six figures.

All of ACORN’s fights against predatory practices by subprimes came roaring back to mind when ACORN Canada shared an article with me about the cash-crunch and turmoil that ousted the top officials and plummeted the share price of Home Capital Group, a leading company in what the Financial Post called the “alternative mortgage lending” space, which is just another name for subprime loans. The problem was simply described:

Home Capital’s current crisis began on April 19, when the Ontario Securities Commission accused the company and some of its officials of misleading disclosure. The OSC alleges that the company misled shareholders because it knew there was fraud in its broker channels before July 2015, when it announced the findings of its internal investigations and disclosed it had cut ties with 45 brokers as a result.

The Post commentators were aghast that regulators were investigating Home Capital for what they viewed as dated and minor problems with the company’s brokerage channels and accused the OSC of what Republicans in the US would now call “regulatory overreach.”

How quickly people forget! The Ontario Securities Commission fortunately had some memory cells left from watching the real estate American meltdown a decade ago, and recognized what US regulators have still failed to grasp in the patchwork quilt that regulates and licenses brokers in this country on a state by state basis. Broker fraud is inevitable in the mortgage supply chain whenever brokers are substantially paid by commissions based on closings, rather than standards that include buyer affordability. We always demanded, and often won, though sometimes too late, agreements that US-subprimes not allow mortgage brokers in their networks to be paid that way. Given the hammering of stock prices for all the companies in the Canadian subprime industry, smarter investors must suspect that all of them are only loosely supervising brokerage networks, and that’s scary.

Low-and-moderate income families need a subprime market so that they can access mortgages for houses and apartments, but they also have to demand that the companies not be predatory and that they work as hard to keep their acts together as families do who are busting their butts to pay their bills and their house notes. Let’s hope Canadians are coming to grips with these companies and have learned the lessons that Americans are living in denial and still trying to forget.

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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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