Internet for All

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.26.18 AMNew Orleans    If we want to make a difference in income inequality, there are some easy and accessible first steps that we can take and one of them is to lower the digital divide.

ACORN Canada released a report based on a survey of 400 of our nearly 80,000 members across the country, and it was impossible to miss the point.

Looking at the facts in the report, the survey found that:

· 58 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less with home Internet access.
· 98 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $120,000 or more with home Internet access.
· 83.5 Percentage of ACORN survey respondents who find high-speed Internet “extremely expensive.”
· 59 Percentage of survey respondents who pay for Internet by forgoing other household necessities.
· 71 Percentage who used food money to pay for Internet services.
· 64 Percentage who used recreation money to pay for Internet services.
· 13 Percentage who used rent money to pay for Internet services.

ACORN had already prodded Rogers, one of the telecom monopolies in Canada to offer a $10 per month program but it was limited to public housing, largely in Toronto. Several other companies have come on board, but as the facts indicate, not enough has been done to reconcile the fact that access to the internet has now become a basic utility.

The ACORN report came out while the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC continues its review of Canada’s basic telecommunications services first begun in the spring of 2015.

The ACORN demands are straightforward:

Specifically, members are asking for:

$10/month product for high speed (15 megabits/second or equivalent to high speed in area);

Families and individuals below the Low Income Measure as eligible to qualify;

Subsidized computers for qualifying families and individuals.

The LIM or low income measure in 2013 was $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes. These are demands that resonant across North America.

One ACORN member told the story to the Toronto Star that might be repeated a million times,

Toronto single mother Kashima Wright had to give up her home Internet last fall when the bills began to top $100 a month. Now she and her 6-year-old daughter Nalise have to walk to the local library to go online.

“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Wright, 25, a personal support worker who earns about $1,700 a month after taxes and pays more than $1,200 a month in rent.

“I don’t want my daughter to fall behind in school,” Wright said. “But it’s not always easy to get to the library to help her with her homework.”

Facebook is flying drones over Africa. Google and Alphabet are reporting record profits. Cable and telecoms are making record profits. Canada, the USA, or wherever, this is a problem that can be solved, and if the divide is not closed, then the gaps show up everywhere and inequality spreads like a disease.

Labor’s Depressing Data and the Contradictions Lying in Our Huge Potential

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Coretta Scott King (center) with strikers, Charleston, South Carolina, 1969, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

New Orleans    Over the last week I found it hard and frustrating to come up with a coherent picture of the current predicament of the labor movement both here and yon.

Talking to a long tenured colleague at the Change to Win federation in the USA, my brother remarked soberly that private sector union density was now hovering around 6%, seemingly on its way to the 5% he and others have direly predicted for years now. The Supreme Court seems committed to give a butt kicking take-down of public sector support by eliminating fair share payments for nonmembers, and the daily papers continue to follow Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his anti-union crusade for big donors and business. His most recent proposal would dismantle civil service protections for workers there and allow hiring by resume rather than by non-discriminatory examinations.

Another colleague, an organizer in Canada, sent me a fairly recent piece to read from the London Review of Books that alternatively seemed to be poking fun at the long heralded British labor movement while indirectly chiding them for their lack of militancy, as if hoping for the United Kingdom version of a Custer’s Last Stand fight to oppose the current Conservative government’s new Trade Union Bill. The can’t be any question that the bill is draconian in its hollowing out of labor rights including implicit threats to discontinue all checkoff, but the data points were also depressing. Since 1979, density has decreased in the British labor movement to 54% in the public sector and 14% in the private sector, better than the USA, but going the same way. Membership has fallen from 13.2 million to 6.7 million in the same period. 38% of the members are over 50 years old compared to 28% in the general population.

The article talked about a small union outside of the mainstream of the labor movement that was trying some different methods and tactics to organize lower waged workers like cleaners and security workers. They claimed 600 members and some success using direct action. At the same time they claimed they were so overwhelmed with their membership growth that they had had to freeze any new membership from enrolling. Hardly a prescription for growth.

At the same time sharing the article with ACORN’s organizers in England with labor experience who scanned the piece, ACORN UK’s coordinator Stuart Melvin immediately responded in part, “…depressing for sure, though frankly I’m sick of being depressed by it. The opportunity for us is overwhelming…” He also added tellingly in discussing the proposed right wing Trade Union bill that the existing “… protection you gain by striking legally is pretty minimal anyway. As a worker, I’d rather be on a solid illegal strike than a shaky legal one.”

A conversation on Skye this week with an Marielle Roux, an organizer from ReAct, ACORN’s partner on a campaign to organize domestic workers in Rabat, Morocco combined the contradictions we face everywhere in a microcosm. In several months she was able to hire and train several women as dynamic organizers. Their success identifying support from both native and migrant domestic workers was exhilarating with workers pressing their phone numbers in the organizer’s hands even when they cold knocked at their employer’s residents in the suburbs. Meanwhile a local group is trying to divert the money away from the hard, but exciting and successful organizing program towards fancier offices and fluffing their own nests.

Some of the unemployed marching on their way to Brighton for the Trade Union Congress. 1933.

Some of the unemployed marching on their way to Brighton for the Trade Union Congress. 1933.

Nation wide strike called by Trade Unions in India on September 2, 2015

Nation wide strike called by Trade Unions in India on September 2, 2015

Informal Workers’ Unions Voices are Rising in Latin America and Elsewhere

mexicans-protestMexico City   Some recognition of the role of unions emerging among informal workers is easier to be seen in Latin America. It was unsurprising to read that one of the clearest voices expressing concern about the impact of the devaluation of the peso in Argentina by the new government and its impact on inflation and increase of precariousness for workers was from the Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy, which represents workers in Argentina’s gray economy, like recyclers and street hawkers. La Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (CTEP), as it is known in Spanish, describes itself on its website as an independent and professional organization of workers in the popular economy or informal employment sector, and, interestingly, their families as well.

The International Labor Organization more than a dozen years ago estimated that “Informal or precarious employment comprises between one-half and three-quarters of non-agricultural employment in developing countries: specifically 48 percent in northern Africa, 51 percent in Latin America, 65 percent in Asia, and 72 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (78 percent if South Africa is excluded). 60 percent or more of women workers in the developing world are in informal employment, rising to 84 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (non-agricultural).” That’s a lot of workers, and even in the developed world the ILO notes “that three categories of non-standard or atypical work – self-employment, part-time work, and temporary work – comprise 30 percent of overall employment in 15 European countries and 25 percent of total employment in the United States.”

In Mexico, the most notable union including informal workers is the Confederacion Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, known as CROC which in English would be the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The union began almost 65 years ago and now claims more than 4 million members and 15,000 collective agreements, though it is unclear how many contracts cover informal workers. The Union of Informal Workers’ Associations in Ghana is a widely recognized federation of informal workers in Africa. The Federacion Departmental de Vendedores Ambulantes de Lima or Federation of Street Vendors of Lima is also well known.

In a 2011 ILO paper another federated model was given attention, highlighting the Manual Labourers’ Association in Pune which united unions of informal workers including street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers, head-loaders, auto-rickshaw and other temporary and constructions workers. Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India in Mumbai and I visited with KKPKP, the Trade Union of Waste Pickers of Pune, one of the organizing unions of that federation. KKPKP has 6000 largely women members who have also formed a savings and credit cooperative, scrap shop cooperatives to broker their waste pickers recyclable materials for higher prices, and a solid waste doorstep collection cooperative which operates as a subcontractor for several neighborhoods with the municipal corporation.

Formal trade unions have been hesitant and in many cases resistant to taking on the task of organizing informal workers. The income and dues are difficult and erratic, making few of these efforts stand-alone and self-sufficient. As the economy becomes more precarious for workers, the fewer excuses unions will have for not embracing the challenge of organizing informal workers, whether they like it or not. Luckily emerging organizations in Latin America and elsewhere are increasingly providing models that point the direction for unions in the future.

Mobile Phone Remittances Increasing in Africa with Questions Unresolved

mobile-money1New Orleans   The constant risk in reading the business press, and, yes, I’m talking about Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, is picking a path between the facts, the news, and blatant sales and promotion. That’s especially dangerous because at ACORN we eat up almost any article that pretends to talk about lowering the costs of money transfer remittances for migrant workers and immigrants as if it were an ice cream sundae. Needless to say, I scooped up an article with the headline, “Turning African Phones Into Wallets,” particularly because days ago in a Canada to France to the USA skype conference we had been all over this topic!

First the news. The World Bank, years away from the G-8 commitment to lower all costs of remittances to 5%, is now saying that they believe the cost globally is 8% and in Africa 12%. The facts continue to be that they are hedging their bets on the figures by not including all of the charges, but I’ll get to that. They do offer that remittances to sub-Saharan Africa rose by 2.2% to $32.9 billion in 2014 compared to 2013, doubling the average growth rate globally and projected to hit even higher between 2015 and 2017.

Interestingly, a lot of the transfers are now cross-border transactions between migrant workers in other African countries led by Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya. Seeing that development elsewhere ACORN has been trying to change our strategy in Honduras and Ecuador. In Africa many of the transfers are being enabled by mobile phones, led by MFS Africa a 6 year old South Africa based company. Importantly, a smartphone is not required. 500 million users of cooperating communications companies allow access through a mobile payment account on the cell enabling transfers to the mobile phones of other enrolled customers who can essentially text something like a money order to the receiver’s phone and confirm completion with a PIN number. Pretty straightforward. MFS Africa makes its money, according to the Journal on a 30 cents per transaction charge with the average transfer being $80, which also resonates with ACORN International’s research.

There’s still a devil in Paradise though, which is where the story takes a bad turn into sales and promotion for the businesses and against the workers who are moving money home. There’s no discussion of the charges applied for currency exchange and pickup. The Journal obliquely mentions that MFS Africa gets a taste of the exchange from some communications companies, but it’s silent on how much rip-and-run is there. Same problem with the World Bank figuring.

In a conversation with an interesting startup called Wave.com that thus far was only transferring money from Kenya and trying to open soon in Ethiopia to channels in the USA and Canada, their representative told me they take no front end charge but make all of their money on the exchange rate, though assuring me they took less than the 5% cap ACORN has been fighting for globally. There are huge, deep-pocketed companies trying to get a slice of migrants’ hard earned wages going home, including MasterCard and other joint ventures, so having no money for marketing makes such small efforts like Wave imperiled, but it also signals that without strong rules and regulations the exchange and after-transfer charges will likely continue to be predatory.

For a change it would be nice if the G-8, the World Bank, and countries around the world, desperate to maximize the money for development and personal investment in communities represented by remittance receivers, actually got ahead of the dark-side of this market, rather than just sitting in the stands and waiting for businesses to flash an applause sign. ACORN Canada is hopeful that it can convert a platform commitment from the Liberals to remittance reforms and caps into reality, given their recent election success, which would break new ground.

In the meantime the best we can hope is that we’re at two steps forward and only one step back, but it’s hard to be certain.

Keeping Politics Weird

17keepaustinweirdtshirtLondon   Going to Austin, Texas from time to time, you still see bumper stickers and window signs in this huge, boomtown that still say, “Keep Austin Weird.” At least with politics there’s no need for a bumper sticker, because these days it seems all about making sure politics is weird.

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative ruling party is claiming there is a constitutional crisis because the largely honorific, unelected House of Lords rather than being content with their sinecures and titles actually straightened their backs for the first time in 100 years and refused to go along with tax credit cuts for the working poor which would have hit millions for a loss of about $1200 per year. Lords are not just to the manor borne but include Labor lords and Liberal-Democrat lords and they teamed up for a bit of pushback getting headlines for something other than spending their expense money at massage parlors and the like. The Conservatives may modify the cuts or delay them somewhat and also may just back the House of Lords with more Lords to fatten their majority and put off another faux crisis like this for another century.

Meanwhile on the other side of the pond we have Donald Trump reduced to begging the crowd in Iowa to push his polling numbers back to the top and pretending he went to public high school with the rest of us by shouting in the Republican debate that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio really don’t like each other. The one thing that Trump has contributed to the Republican primaries thus far is total admission that political primaries are in fact exactly the same as high school student council popularity contests. It was a surprise to find that Governor Chris Christie from New Jersey is still running for president. Same for Senator Rand Paul and Governor Bobby Jindal, but hey, let’s keep politics weird.

Meanwhile over here, I will fly out of Heathrow and leave the discussion of the splits in the Labour Party and its civil war over the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a harder left leader than many expected after a drubbing of the party’s former leader in the recent election that has left the party reeling. Somehow the former leader, Ed Milliband, turned up at a training of sorts offered by a UK community organizing group, and US-based Industrial Areas Foundation community organizer, Arnie Graf, was quoted in the New Statesman crowing about the fact that Milliband would have done better to have gone to the training before he was blown away in a curious exercise of kicking sand in his face after having claimed to help him previously. Arnie then took shots at Corbyn and his supporters, Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, and progressives in general proving mainly that he was either having a very bad day and was caught by a reporter in the middle of it or has suddenly become even older and crankier than Bernie himself.

And, then to make sure Hillary is anointed by Democrats rather than loved by them and isolating progressives’ hopes for the future even more, she made it clear she was still committed capital punishment come hell or high water, just wanted a kinder and gentler path to the electric chair. Soon there will be a bumper sticker on her car saying, Keep Politics Weird, as well.

Progress on “Living Rent” in Scotland

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Edinburgh       In the wake of the Scottish independence vote a bit more than a year ago, a coalition came together that included ACORN Scotland, EPTAG – the Edinburgh Private Tenants’ Action Group, an ACORN affiliate, the Scottish Student Union and others to form what we called the Living Rent Campaign.  The demands were not new, but the energy was high in the wake of the election with hopes that the prospects of some devolution of powers to Scotland might make long fought campaign goals around security of tenure and even rent control winnable.

It was fascinating to see how much progress had been made over the last year as I sat through the weekly Monday night planning meeting of the group with ACORN and EPTAG veteran warhorses Keir Lawson, Jon Black, Liz Ely and some other stalwarts as well as new found comrades from the student movement.   The discussions of petitions, post card campaigns, stalls, and doorknocking were part of a familiar song, but the new verses involved timelines and dates for submissions and testimony before various parliamentary committees, reports of meetings with yet more allies ready to sign up for the campaign, and briefings on meetings at the party congress of the current ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP).  This was heady stuff reflecting a hard and successful year of organizing.

Talking to the organizers, it was clear that for all the progress we were a long way from declaring victory and no matter the new momentum and kinder face of the government, the landlords continued to be well organized and a formidable opposition force on most of our points. The legislation was a long way from a done deal and like so many things in the legislative process, the devil was in the details.  We were focused on four main themes:  affordability, inclusivity for all tenants, flexibility in untenable situations, and security.

Security of tenure is a good case study of the push-and-shove that remains before we can say we have really won.  We believe the “no fault” language is still tenuous and under attack on evictions as well continuation of “hardship” defenses that have been in previous legislation dating back to 1988.  There are hard fights being waged on whether or not an initial six-month period would hold tenants in bad circumstances.  There is a constant tension in our “security” fight on wanting more security in terms of lease periods, but not being trapped in bad leases with recalcitrant landlords unwilling to maintain habitable apartments.

A similar fight is still at issue around rent controls.  Once again like with security “in principle” there is movement, but where our concern is affordability, landlords and some of their parliamentary allies are trying to reposition the controls as “predictability” of rent, even in these times of huge increases.  The compromise has been a discussion of limiting rent increases to the CPI, consumer price increase, plus 1% based on a factor of “N” with the “N” being a number establishing the fair market rate by local jurisdiction.  Our campaign believes that local circumstances are so varied between the red hot market in Aberdeen and even Edinburgh compared to elsewhere that local councils need to be able to set the floor, while others are pushing for a national rate which would make almost no one happy.

In a period of so-called devolution, most organizers are increasingly scoffing at the notion that much of any real power was devolved and in fact in some cases the counterattack on Scotland elsewhere in the United Kingdom may have England setting policies and forcing Scotland by default to have to adapt to them.  Ironically, a year after these concessions were made, in situations like the struggle over affordability embedded in our demands for rent controls, we are left still battling for more devolution into local jurisdictions more responsive to peoples’ needs and peoples’ organizational formations and pressure.

Living rent, like living wages, is not a fight with just one battle but a never ending war, so for ACORN we are in this for the long haul.