Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:


As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.

Citizen Wealth for the Rural Global Poor

ScreenHunter_120_Aug._26_15.38New Orleans     About the only global response to rural poverty, where millions are living on less than $1.25 per day, has been where the poor have voted with their feet and migrated to urban areas, often finding themselves in similar impoverishment. Some small hope is breaking through the hardscrabble though in a study by the much touted Poverty Lab researchers and authors, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their finding is that if you transfer assets to poor families and, importantly, also train them in asset management, along with other basic citizen wealth skills like money management, basic health maintenance, and similar foundational tools, and monitor the process regularly with outreach workers in a people-centered program, then, not surprisingly, it makes a difference.

With this number of “if’s,” it is already obvious that we’re climbing almost as many mountains as we are trying to level in order to impact abject rural poverty. Nonetheless, Duflo and Banerjee studied similar programs piloted by a number of NGO’s including Oxfam, Heifer International, World Vision, and BRAC in Bangladesh that ran projects that transferred ownership of livestock or chickens to low-income rural families. The programs they studied were run by local nonprofits in Ghana, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Pakistan, and Peru. Since ACORN International organizes in cities in three of those countries, this item quickly caught my eye.

According to The Economist the program in each country allowed 10,000 families in the half-dozen countries to select an asset gift. The families received full support along with a one-year allowance of money sufficient to purchase a kilo of rice on a daily basis.   After two years the family consumption of food had risen by 5% and the value of family citizen wealth had increased by 15%, both significantly higher improvements when measured against a control group not in the programs. The researchers report that each person in the program worked an additional 17.5 more minutes a day.

Yes, these are very, very modest results, but hope – and sometimes effective projects – rests of such slender reeds. The costs are not inconsiderable ranging from $414 per person in India and $3122 in Peru. If the average per participant across all six countries was only $1000, the investment would have been $10 million, if $2000, then $20 million – a lot of money, but not outrageous.

The Economist columnist speculated that India could just move 1% of their GNP in this direction to replace 0.3% of their GNP being spent currently on a popular, but controversial, rural workfare program designed to keep population in the villages. That’s unlikely. He also wants to argue that the justification of the costs would be the fact that this program in his view would be a magic bullet – a one-off solution, rather than a continuing investment. Sad to say, and the evidence is everywhere, but there is no one-off expenditure solution to poverty, particularly when we are holding onto marginal improvements as little as 5% in nutrition and 15% in “value,” which is hard wealth to retain.

The same columnist also believes that you can eliminate the most expensive part of the program, not surprisingly the family-to-family organizing program where outreach workers are part of the support, instruction, and encouragement network. He bases this on an apple-and-oranges interjection of something from Uganda, which undermines the rigor of the report, which is the whole point of the Poverty Lab and its claim to fame. Nonetheless eliminating the people driving the change likely undermines this narrow progress on a whim.

I’m not quibbling though. Whether abject rural poverty or low-and-moderate income families in cities around the world, creating real citizen wealth is the ticket, and this progress, no matter how slight, warrants serious attention, even if a real celebration is still many years in the future.

Philanthropy for the 96% — Part I

giving-usa-8-5-x-11-infographicMissoula     Giving USA recently issued a report on philanthropic giving accompanied by numerous back pats that giving is once again up and has finally exceeded the pre-recession levels. This giving aggregates individuals, foundations, and corporations. No doubt the absolute sum ponied up by the 1% is a pile of this, but 72% of the giving was by individuals, and historically it is well documented that the rich give a smaller percentage to charity than those with considerably less.

Sadly, as a New York Times columnist, Ron Lieber, noted, the darkest cloud in what was intended to be a feel-good press release on the increased generosity of the American people is in the area of international giving, where people are inarguably poorer and in more desperate need. Such giving was down by 3% and of the $358 billion given, only 4% when to international work and projects. The Princeton philosopher, Paul Singer, was quoted as disappointed since he has argued “the case that individuals have a moral obligation to do much more for people in faraway places” and has challenged us all to “tilt our charitable allocations heavily toward the global and less toward the local.”

Directing ACORN International and working in many of these areas, I know too well how true this can be. For months an item will come and go on my “to do” list about sending out an e-blast or some kind of appeal for support, but the marginal success of such efforts has pushed it off the list for several years running. So why is this? What is this antipathy or inability to empathize globally all about? Is it something people around the world have done to make our grips tighten on our dollars or is it something undone on the part of those working globally?

Most compellingly, and most understandably I think, it is natural that people want to give to outfits they can see and where they might even personally benefit, even if indirectly, through community favor, praise, or participation, and given the limited language facility and the expense and narrow structure of most people’s travel in the warp of industrial tourism, malls, cruises, and manufactured authenticity, how can anyone be surprised at the limited range of international philanthropy. I also think many Americans, partially because of the steady roar from the rightwing, believe they have already given through their tax dollars and foreign aid, despite the facts on how little we really give as a percentage of our budget and how limited the gifts really are in terms of eligible countries and in ways that might be constructed as truly philanthropic nationally as opposed to in our national, ideological or commercial interests. None of that benefits the poorest populations of the world or perhaps more importantly the poorest populations of countries that are now ranked as “middle income” even though continuing to contain shocking levels of deprivation for hundreds of millions.

We also see huge philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and many others give to the big ticket world health problems like malaria, AIDS, and so forth, rather than overall prevention or poverty alleviation, which is confusing to smaller donors wanting to make a difference and maintain a voice. The frequent embrace of disaster philanthropy by too many of the world’s largest charities is also confounding, like the scandals at the Red Cross and recent reports on how few houses were built compared to promises in places like Haiti. Many of the world’s largest NGOs are also publicly funded sending a message once again that failure means a waste of tax money rather than an urgent call for more personal donations.

The largest gifts internationally continue to be remittances from migrant workers and immigrant families back to their home countries, communities, and relatives, yet, tragically, there are few policy initiatives helping magnify such lifeline contributions that exceed the $16 billion given internationally as charity, but do not even count as philanthropy in such totals or even as tax deductions, allowing these small, regular contributions and their givers to be prey for financial institutions and money transfer organizations rather than honored guests at any community’s annual charity ball.

Greatest Country, Leading Some, Trailing Many

482-4th-of-julyNew Orleans        The conservative weekly news magazine from the United Kingdom, The Economist, publishes a “Pocket World in Figures,” ranking countries across the globe in areas large and small. Celebrating the US Declaration of Independence and our oft repeated claim by politicians that the United States is the “greatest country on earth,” it seemed like a good day to take a look at how we shape up in the world.

We are world shakers it seems, but much of that has to do with business.  We are number one in “global competitiveness” and number seven in “business environment” for example.  We are number two after Japan in the number of new patents at last count.  The top eight largest non-financial companies are our domestic giants including Exxon, Apple, Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and Chevron.  The two largest banks in the world are the US-based Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase.  We have the longest highways, the most railroad miles, and the most air miles travelled, and therefore the most tourism.  I can tell we’re all swelling up with pride.  At least for business.

We don’t rank so high in other areas though, particularly ones that impact all of our people.  We are 45th for example in life expectancy.  What kind of slogan is that:  live free, die early?  We have the 3rd highest rate of obesity, even though we are at the top of health spending.  We also rank 3rdin cannabis usage.

We are first in the number of our people in prison.  We are 18th in our cost of living and first in the percentage of our people involved in giving.  We are second in the level of our emissions.

We are mighty and armed to the teeth.   We are 15th in defense spending as a percentage of our GDP.  Our armed forces are second only to China in size, but we lead in actual defense spending with five times the amount of the number two China.  We are second as an arms exporter, trailing only Russia.

How about tech where we have the big head?  We are sixth in the number of computers per 100 people, but only 28th in availability and subscribers to broadband and 9th in mobile broadband.  We are 22nd in telephones but not even in the top 34 for mobile telephones.  We are tied with Austria at 24th in terms of internet users per 100 people, but we are number one in Facebook users, internet hosts, and music including downloads.

Energy?  We produce more than anyone other than China, and we use more than anyone other than China, while our consumption per person is 11th in the world, and they don’t make the top 22 listed by The Economist. 

We won’t starve though.  We are first in agricultural output and tied for 11th with Japan and Denmark for the least dependent on agriculture in our economy.

Our government debt is 11th and our government spending is 27th.

We rank 15th in our level of democracy trailing Canada and the United Kingdom right above us, God Save the Queen.

America, what a country!   But, this is just the facts, ma’am.

Skype Magic and Mayhem on International Reports

DSCN0090Montreal     Every year, as the ACORN International has its annual staff and leaders meeting for all who can make it, we come to a point we both welcome and fear: video Skype reports from our organizers around the world. In some ways, this annual trial by fire was the best. Only our team in Nairobi, Kenya had a complete meltdown of their Skype program refusing to upload and their internet connection going down, so they were badly missed. Though some schedules flip-flopped with difficult connections and restarts in Delhi and Quito, only Lima was missing in action and unable to be found. Video worked well in Edinburgh, Mumbai, San Pedro Sula, Bengaluru, Grenoble, Prague, and Bristol which provided highlights and hope for the future. Delhi, Buenos Aires, Tegucigalpa, and Quito could see us, even if we could not see them, but that’s the way of the Skype world.  As we often say, the “best thing about Skype is that it’s free!”

The reports themselves were a treat. Local 100 United Labor Unions had representatives present from Dallas and Little Rock, easily winning the long distance driving award, and they may still be on the road trying to find home now. Separate meetings of the union including New Orleans were valuable, too! A Community Voice from Louisiana, ACORN International’s newest affiliate in the United States was a welcome addition, making many contributions. ANEW Institute from Pittsburgh intrigued everyone with some of their initiatives. Oh, and did I forget that we also had a Skype report with good video from Maryland from CROP.

Even getting monthly written reports, there’s no substitute for face-to-face even if it is on Skype. A road was paved in Tegucigalpa in one community. In La Matanza, in the province of Buenos Aires, we have now won a regular program of cleaning in the river which often functions like more of a sewerage and drainage canal. In Quito, neighbors have finally been able to come together to agree to formalize the squatting settlement and win recognition and title for the area. Thousands joined the petition to stop evictions in Bristol. More than one-hundred have joined in one of the community organizing drives in Grenoble and another hundred came to a first action. The “living rent” campaign initiated in Edinburgh seems well positioned to win security of tenure or longer rental leases from the Scottish parliament once it resumes session. Delhi reported on meetings with the Chief Minister and the Labor Minister to advance our hawkers protections there. We have built some kind of unlikely partnership with police in one of our groups in San Pedro Sula. Doorknocking to build community chapters may be finally beginning in Prague. In one week, we will know how the Italian Supreme Court rules on our landlord-tenant bounty program. And, these were just the reports outside of Canada which we had already heard for days during the ACORN Canada Convention and had advanced with great actions.

On remittances, we talked about moving the demand forward in upcoming Canadian elections and how to move the campaign internationally using mobile transfer devices. We went back and forth on strategy around bridging the digital divide. We debated tactics on living wage and tenant campaigns.

We also spent a lot of time discussing training, especially in the wake of some of the upcoming visits of two of our new French affiliated organizers to Ottawa and New Orleans this summer. We went back and forth on how to provide such support for our Latin American operations to advance the regular training calls and phone conferences.

Whether Skype works well or not, it is hard not to always feel we have taken important steps forward when we force ourselves to sit and think about how to improve our work every year.




Make No Mistake, India’s Modi is Not a Progressive on Any Score


Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project

New Orleans    In one of those rare and marvelous coincidences, I had foregone my annual trip to Mumbai, because Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project was amazingly going to be in New Orleans when I returned, giving us days to catchup on events there and elsewhere in India.

Invariably at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Dialogue and elsewhere, the subject would come around to Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office and the prospects for the country in the years to come.  Shetty could not have been more pessimistic or clearer in his continued warning of the dangers to come under Modi as his increasingly rightwing, conservative BJP party continues to consolidate power.

As a lawyer or advocate who practices still before the Bombay Labor Court, Shetty said that in meetings he had attended to discuss the Modi proposed labor law clawbacks of union and worker rights, even HMS, now the country’s largest union, and the union traditionally allied with the BJP as their patron, has been strident in arguing its case in opposition
to the changes.  Shetty was convinced that not all of the package will be approved, but also believed that Modi and the government will be relentless in trying to erode these rights.The primary example is the state of Rajasthan, where many of these so-called reforms have already been implemented in modified ways where the state could act in areas not preempted by the central government.  There, in order to allow layoffs in enterprises with 100 workers or more, Rajasthan had extended the severance payments from 30 to 45 days in exchange for eliminating the state approval of the layoff.   The Modi proposal is to eviscerate protections for workers from redundancy below 300 in a workplace.

The message being sent by the attack on NGOs from the Modi government is essentially, shut up or starve.The clear objective of the government is to silence opposition to development and business wherever possible.  The exceptional inclusion of action against the Ford Foundation is a signal in Shetty’s view to one and all that the government will only approve grants that are pristinely free of anything remotely like advocacy.  Toe the government line or else!

Shetty predicts that underlying some of the government initiatives will be special emphasis on curtailing NGOs and other efforts by religious organizations of all stripes other than Hindu. The Modi record from Gujarat is frightening, and Shetty believes more is coming.

Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal accuses Modi of not moving quickly enough to force the coal industry to be more productive and efficient, citing numerous business interests throughout India, contrary to the hopes of environmentalists around the world who had thought they were seeing something different in the early signs from Modi.  Others are
clamoring for a change in tax rules, a cutback in subsidies to the poor, and other radical changes.

Modi probably thinks that opening a front against NGOs and labor will be enough red meat to quiet his business backers demanding more radical changes, but for the Indian people none of this seems like good news to come.