Organizations and Unions Looking for New Methods in Belgium

Role playing negotiations

Brussels   Language is a funny thing.  Even when we think we are totally in synch, we are easily sidetracked.  Examples abound.  This morning the directions to the airport train took me to the Metro station which I only sorted out once I had paid two euros ten for a subway ticket.  500 meters and nine euros later I was on the way, no problem.  Directions thanks to a Starbucks barista, since English is required at the counter!

Yesterday, was even funnier.  In spare minutes in-between our second day of training we were doing for organizations that wanted to expand their notions of what might be possible by learning some of the techniques of community organization, I asked my colleague, Adrien Roux, about the meeting we had with some union folks scheduled for later in that day.  Wasn’t it at 5pm?  No, a little later, he would answer.  But, on their Facebook page they seem to have an action scheduled for 7pm, I would say.  How can they have enough time to really meet with us?  He would shrug and say, no problem, and away we would go.  I explained how one could construct a campaign, using Facebook as an example.  He led role playing on negotiations to the great excitement of the folks.  Merrily, we went along.

Finally, we met our two union friends near 630 at a small restaurant near the center of town.  They keep looking at the clock, and they started saying the word that in Belgium may end up being my new trigger word: “debate.”  As Adrien and I had passed like the proverbial two ships in the night, it turned out that within minutes we were due at a union meeting hall nearby for a “debate” or panel discussion, as I’ll call it, about how community organizing might offer new methods for union organizing.  The posting that I thought was for an action because it had a picture of flying flags at a demonstration was the advertisement for our debate.  Wow!  How exciting would that be?  And, how prepared was I? Whoops!

Luckily, this was a subject I know as well as my name, so the crowd of almost one-hundred union staff and activists and representatives of other organizations was, hopefully, none the wiser.  I shared information on ACORN and its work, especially with unions, and the principles that guided it.  Adrien threw in some examples from France and other campaigns in Africa, and then the questions began.  This was a serious crowd, and the questions reflected real concerns that many had about the state of the labor movement in Belgium.

the debate

Unions are huge there.  The one that organized the panel has 1.7 million members.  The second largest had way, way over 1 million.  Interestingly, a huge number of those members were unemployed and the union was the paymaster for their social benefits.  I need to understand more about all of that.  At the same time, the last year was the first in which the largest union had actually lost members, about 3%.  This was a wakeup call and the stimulus for the interest in our panel.

Great people.  Great opportunity.  A great discussion.  Time to head back home, but I’ll look forward to the next time I get to work with the Belgians!  I have a lot to learn, and we all have a lot to share.

the crowd ready for the debate

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VioMe

mural

Athens      Perhaps nothing so epitomizes the “crisis” in Greece, as it is universally called, than the VioMe, a former metallurgical factory in the industrial district not far from the airport.  In 2011, when the full brunt of the economic collapse hit the country and the Greek owner of the plant suddenly shut the factory down, the workers took over and occupied the factory to protect their jobs and in outrage that they were left holding the bag and owed back wages.  At the time of the occupation, the fact that the workers were the primary creditor made it impossible to evict them, though in the “new” Greece seven years later that issue has now become contentious.

health clinic

While I was in Thessaloniki my visit overlapped a festival being held on the grounds of the factory.  I toured the location and visited with many participants along with my newfound friends. Banners commemorating the occupation had been hung for the festival.  Murals had been completed or were in progress.  Space had been set aside in the cavernous vastness of the factory for large and small workshops and discussions about any number of topics from the political situation currently to the promises and potential of cooperatives, like VioMe.  There were booths and stalls assembled along the runway between buildings where local producers and some other cooperatives and artisans were displaying their goods from jewelry to wine to potatoes.   There was of course a coffee and tea stand.  The fire was lit for barbecuing skewers of meat and sausage.  Stages and sound systems were being set up for a final concert later in the evening of my visit on the last night of the festival.  People milled around, taking it all in.  There was a good spirit.

workshop

I visited a workshop run by Omnia.tv, an investigative journalism organization based in Athens and Thessaloniki.  They had dug deep into police attacks on youth.  Like similar web-based news sites in the US and elsewhere, they were stepping into issues where larger papers had deserted the field.  I talked to reporters with the public television station who were covering the festival.  I was impressed with their commitment to keeping the story alive.

 

The workforce had gone as low as eight, but had now somewhat rebounded to twenty.  Unable to repeat the prior production regime, now the factory produced high quality soaps, dish washing liquid and other bio-hygiene cleaning products sold throughout Greece and in some neighboring countries.  I had heard of this operation originally in Sofia, Bulgaria earlier in the year.  Talking to various people around the event, enthusiasm for the project was mixed with concern.  The crowds were not as large as they had been in the past.  There was no defeatism, but the continuing crisis had worn down both activists and workers who worried about next steps and sustainability.

Part of the objective of the festival turned out to be to raise some funds to support worker defense in coming court cases where the previous owner and the banks were now challenging VioMe.  Banks in the new political economy of Greece had now displaced workers as the primary debt holders, endangering the future of VioMe.  They were accused of taking equipment illegally.

Workers have responded similarly in other crises.  Factory takeovers were common around Buenos Aires during the financial issues there also triggered by debt.  These are valiant struggles to align priorities with people rather than profits, but the very nature of these fights makes the odds long without a rethinking of people as the first order of every business.

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