Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?

Studies Find Microfinance Does Not Reduce Poverty, Assets Do

Mega-MicrofinanceHamburg  Several years ago ACORN International did a research report that seemed heresy to many, but started from the simple proposition that since microfinance is debt, debt does not reduce poverty, therefore the value of microfinance was the same as buying a job through an employment agency: work at a steep price. For many the myth of microfinance will endure and millions of dollars will continue to support what are essentially public and philanthropic investments in banking startups, not for the poor, but for the managers of the debt fueled lending agencies themselves, many of which start as nonprofits and if able to prove out their finances at high interest, convert to for-profits.

Standing out on the ledge of prevailing economic development opinion, I took note of an article in the October 2015 Scientific American that looked at the work of a Yale University based nonprofit called Innovations for Poverty Action and its founder Dean Karlan, an economics professor there. He had become suspicious of microloans while working in South Africa decades ago and seeing people constantly returning to renew loans and understanding that it didn’t add up to getting out of poverty, but instead was little more than a debt treadmill.

At some length he says:

“Over the years microloans kept nagging at my colleagues and me. Fifteen years after my first study attempt in South Africa, we now have seven randomized trials completed on traditional microloans and one on consumer lending back in South Africa…These studies found some benefits of microloans, such as helping families weather hard times, pay off goods over time and make small investments in businesses. But there was no average impact on the main financial well-being indicators – income and household and food expenditures.”

In short maybe the loans didn’t hurt them, but neither did they help them, at least enough to get out of poverty. Furthermore, Karlan noted that these microloan programs were not reaching the poorest of the poor or what they term “ultra-poor,” people living on the purchasing power of $1.25 per day.

Not to just be a Debbie Downer, IPA’s experience argues for providing the poor with a “productive asset” to make a living, giving them training on asset utilization, providing them a direct stipend for daily living or what we used to call in welfare rights – More Money Now!, giving them health support and savings tools, and regular coaching like CEOs get.

It would cost money, but at least it would be money well spent, because monitoring has already established that health and hunger were greatly improved and the very poor were making real progress in areas as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Peru.

Sounds like that could be a way to go if we were really trying to get somewhere.

Zoning Payday Lenders Out of the City

1297704824352_ORIGINALNew Orleans    Payday lenders are weeds that crack the sidewalk. Payday lenders are “broken window” signposts advertising lower income neighborhoods and tending to push communities and families over the edge. There may not be an area in North America that has been more effective in using city zoning policies to aggressively root out payday lenders and their practices that cities in British Columbia where ACORN Canada has made this a signature issue. Meeting with the staff over recent days, one thing is crystal clear: we’re winning!

We’ve discussed the city bylaw or ordinance in the fast growing Vancouver suburb of Surrey in the past. There is a 400 meter restriction on opening a new payday lending storefront based on the distance from other financial institutions or other payday shops or check cashing stores. There also has to be a 400 meter distance between schools. ACORN organizers believe that it will nearly impossible for another outlet to be opened.

And, then there is Burnaby, another Vancouver suburb, where we are organizing, that responded to ACORN’s demands by doing an extensive study over the last more than six months on payday lenders and their value and placement in the community. The Planning Department’s report was a model of comprehensive, straight talk. They didn’t hedge their words. They made it clear that ACORN had asked them to do the study, and they were going to ask ACORN and other groups to help implement the results. I’m not going to lie: I loved that part!

Reading the report, the Planning Department puts one nail after another in the payday lending coffin. They reviewed the Surrey work and the steps taken by other cities in British Columbia. They offered an extensive review of surveys done by various groups including an ACORN/Stratcom survey establishing how small the client base for payday lending was – about 3% of the population – despite its predatory nature, and this 3% became a cornerstone for their recommendations arguing against proliferation of payday lending sites compared to customer base. They didn’t mince words on the relative interest rates allowed by law for payday lending which, despite many hard won ACORN reforms, are still usurious and confiscatory ranging between 500 and 600% if they were applied on an annual basis.

The recommendations almost seemed anticlimactic. Payday lenders and gold exchanges, a close cousin, would require a special zoning classification rather than being seen as “banking.” Existing stores outside of these currently fixed zoning districts would be seen as nonconforming uses, meaning they could neither be duplicated nor could a new store come in if an old one abandoned the site. The writing wasn’t on the wall, it was in the report. It would be next to impossible in Burnaby to open another payday lending outlet in the city, and the ones there now are on borrowed time.

In community organizing this is what we call a big win. Now the task is to duplicate this victory and the good work of the Burnaby Planning Department throughout British Columbia, Ontario, the rest of Canada, and, heck, maybe the world.

Cap Comcast

pittsburgh_comcast_cartoonToronto     After setbacks in its efforts to monopolize the cable and internet business, let’s take a look at how Comcast is faring. Their NBC/Universal subsidiary seems to be at the top of the pack, even as some, including our friends from Fox, are doing poorly. Blockbusters, it seems. In Philadelphia location of their world headquarters, they seem have learned little and continue to stub their toes though.

Sometimes from the thin air of the executive suites it is probably easy to forget that way down there are the little people who have to buy the service and pay their bills to keep you in your perch. In Philadelphia, Comcast is up for renewal on its 15-year cable franchise, and consumers are clear that they are not happy with the shoddy service from the company, and many continue to raise their voices about the half-hearted, lackadaisical way the company has extended internet service to the community and ignored the FCC order to do so as a condition of merging with NBC/Universal. Hollywood may be happy, but Philadelphia is not feeling the brotherly love for Comcast.

As the fight heats up, Action United, a partner in our efforts to push Comcast to actually deliver on its so-called “internet essentials” program of providing service to lower income families for about $10 per month and access to inexpensive refurbished computer. In a campaign called “Cap Comcast” the organization has been rallying support and calling on the City Council to use all of the powers in its disposal to require Comcast as a condition of any franchise renewal to have to finally hear what its customers are demanding.

A wider coalition including Action United has also found that Comcast once again is using dirty tricks to try and get its way. Earlier in the summer they uncovered and exposed a “push poll,” common in politics to try and sway voters, was being pawned off as an objective “survey” of 1000 people to influence the council. The demands have been that Comcast make real contributions to the community and donate to schools and city services some of the millions it is saving in tax abatements that its balance sheet proves are chump change for them, but are blockbusting the city itself. Comcast escaped some of the damage of this snafu once activists let out a holler, but it seems to be part of the standard pattern of the corporate arrogance by its management that rather than listening to its critics, as they continue to try and bully and posture.

Comcast is unlikely to lose its cable franchise, but its poor record on providing internet and its horrible customer service ratings undid its merger efforts with Times-Warner. Activists and organizations in Philadelphia are in good position and swinging hard to force the company to make concessions that build the community for a change, and not just the company and its executive’s ambitions.

I’m betting on the community against Comcast in Philly.

New School Methods for Old School Tricks for Disappearing People

11942334_10153577638946575_8114869526653973585_oNew Orleans    In the age of “big data” we are led to believe that eyes are everywhere on all of us. All is known by the all-knowing. NSA is up our nose. It goes on and on.

Yet, somehow we are losing people.

We lost more than 400,000 people on certifications under the Affordable Care Act that was four times the number we lost last year. Ostensibly these are re-verifications of citizenship status, but of course the fine print indicates that people only had 10-days to reply and, trust me on this, many found the forms and requests mystifying, and so it is more likely that people simply dropped through the crack. One immigration health expert essentially said, “Really? who in their right mind would have risked being deported by filing for health insurance? Duh.”

You know who else is disappearing? The elderly it turns out. A group called HelpAge International says old people are slipping through the cracks by the millions. In fact they put out an annual Global AgeWatch Index, and report that almost half the countries in the world – 93 of them — have zero data to offer on their elderly. Worst, unsurprisingly, many of these are the poorest countries in the world where many of us would most like to have some information, including the United Nations which has made raising living standards a huge priority over the next fifteen years. In a Times’ article they mention that “Of 54 countries in Africa…there was enough data available to include only 11 in the index.” Even for the data available of course there’s bad news in that the “gap in life expectancy at age 60 between the countries at the top and bottom has increased to 7.3 years, compared to 5.7 years in 1990.” Talk about “aging out” once you get long in the tooth you just flat out disappear it turns out.  Who knew that was so easily accomplished in the age of big data.

Speaking about being invisible and besides the elderly we’re back to migrants and refugees. Running errands from the ACORN Farm someone on public radio was going on and on about whether the waves of people coming into European countries from Syria and the Middle East these days are refugees from the civil war or economic migrants. The reporter was arguing that this was a political issue, which it is, but fortunately by the end of the piece they admitted it didn’t change the fact that we had to do the right thing no matter what label was placed on it. Another commentator reminded the American listener that we needed to be careful tut-tuting since during the heart of the depression in 1930 we had forcibly removed an estimated one-million Mexicans, 60% of whom were American citizens, in a so-called “repatriation” to Mexico. These same pictures of people on trains would have been of US trains from Los Angeles and other cities to the Mexican border. This atrocity is news to many, if not most, of us.

The real solution to this invisibility problem for the elderly, poor, immigrants and others is not big data in all likelihood, but being willing to look around us in the first place.


Community Organizations and Unions are Key to Upward Mobility

ACORNNew Orleans    Sometimes at ACORN’s annual legislative conferences in Washington, DC, I would be just in and out, but one time I overlapped a contentious session between Harvard’s Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame and ACORN leaders and members. The members were arguing that their experience with ACORN and their local community organizations in their neighborhoods contradicted his claims about the increasing weakness of community and organizational ties. Everyone ended up politely in a standoff of sorts.

All of which made my eyes stick to a piece in the Times that talked about a study that “finds greater economic mobility in areas with more union membership.” Their formula though was reductionist, essentially that in urban areas where there is more union density there are higher wages paid to both members and non-members and these wage increases waterfall down to children and the combined impact helps increase economic mobility on an inter-generational level. All of that is good news and hardly a surprise but nice to hear that Raj Chetty of Stanford now and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard are putting the pieces together to provide more proof. The Times reported that the “size of the effect is small….”

But, what are the other “effects” that are larger according to the mega-domes? They say there are five factors that impact a low-income child’s chances of fighting their way up to the middle class in our increasingly stratified and unequal America: single motherhood (not good), high school dropout rate (bad), residential segregation (terrible), and, big drum roll, hear this – “the amount of social capital as measured by indicators like voter turnout and participation in community organizations.” And, according to the authors that’s not just good, but great! Or as Chetty writes elsewhere: “some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital….”

The members were not just arguing for the heck of it back a decade ago with Putnam, they were right, because they were speaking from their experience, and Putnam rather than poo-pooing their points because of falling membership in churches, garden clubs, scouting, and, yes, bowling leagues, should have been applauding them as the way up and out in the future. Add a community organization that also does voter registration, as ACORN did, and we were mixing the secret sauce in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods that could have powered Popeye, Superman, and the whole hall of heroes.

We’ve talked and advocated community-labor coalitions for years. Now we have a new argument. Add community organizations and our whole range of activities to build social capital and combine that participation with participation in unions to raise income, and, wham-bam, we’re moving on up!