Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.

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First Victory in Paris!

DSC1195-700x450New Orleans    Part of what sustains organizers is the almost irrational belief that each new group, may be the best community organization ever; each new action may be the most powerful action ever; each new victory could open the way to unimaginable victories; each new member could be a leader of a lifetime; and each new organizer could build the future.

The first meeting of our ACORN’s Parisian affiliate occurred recently, launching the Alliance Citoyenne d’Aubervilliers or the Citizens’ Alliance of d’Aubervilliers, a diverse lower income, working community on the outskirts of Paris. Good crowd and a large, exciting committee of leaders were elected. The first action was immediately set with another coming.

The report from the first action was exhilarating. The members who were tenants in a large complex had been required to pay a 20 euro fee at the car park as part of their monthly payments. But for two years there was no security there and the gate to the parking lot was broken, essentially meaning that the members were paying for nothing.

The action was feisty, and the outcome was total victory.

The housing managers agreed to refund 240 euros to each of the tenants, and of course immediately repair the car park and get security there.

These small victories are what starts the peoples’ avalanche rolling towards enough power to move everything out of the organization’s way. In d’Aubervilliers this will be the making of an instant legend, and the word will spread among tenants and others throughout Paris like wildfire.

This is why they join. This is why we do the work!

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UK’s Unite is Another Case Study of the Difficulty of Union Transformation

005-15-reasonsNew Orleans    Unite is the largest union in the United Kingdom with almost 1.4 million members launched a brave and exciting experiment four years ago to organize the unorganized. In this case it was not the unorganized who were workers, but the unorganized in communities. They established Unite Community with minimal dues (50 pence or about 75 cents per month), hired or assigned ten organizers, one to each region of the union, and set about building local chapters around a host of self-directed issues. Now, four years later, they have about 10,000 members, more or less, in over 100 branches around the country, so perhaps it’s time for a good look, and luckily they allowed University of Leeds professor, labor expert, and community activist, Jane Holgate, a front row seat and access to their process and people to evaluate, academically, their progress.

Professor Holgate’s analysis is tentative and still a work-in-progress that she is sharing with colleagues and graciously allowed me to also take a peek, having been an advocate and organizer of many of these union-community amalgamations. Even tip-toeing around her early conclusions, being a cheerleader for Unite’s efforts for better or worse, and not wanting to step on Professor Holgate’s toes, her work, when it is finished, is going to be something organizers, and, perhaps even more importantly, union leaders will want to read and study closely if they are serious not just about community organizing, but the duty of transforming unions to meet the difficult challenges for our organizations in the 21st century.

At a fundamental level a look at Unite’s experiment with Unite Community and community organizing is an example of the organizing principle I’ve often argued that “the beginnings prejudice the ends” in organizing. Professor Holgate makes the case, as she has in her past work that a union has to be clear about its purpose. She invokes earlier work that positions a union’s identity between market, class, and society that synthesizes its ideology accordingly and informs its internal and external practice. It seems simple and obvious to say, before a union – or any organization – can transform itself, it has to understand who and what it is and what it is trying to do, but that doesn’t understate the importance. Furthermore without an operating consensus on these issues that aligns leadership and staff, especially in the complex bureaucracy of large organizations, the success of any new project, particularly one that would be historically unique and potentially transformative, would be difficult to achieve.

Having met with Unite’s leadership and staff on this project, I would say that they have found real utility in Unite Community, but it has been grafted to the union as an appendage, rather than integrated fully, thereby lessening its value immensely and leaving its future somewhat confused and uncertain. Professor Holgate finds this separation of the community project from the basic worker organizing operation equally stunting, and makes a more important point from her closer perspective that the inability to fully integrate the membership of Unite Community with the larger Unite membership has been critical. Though she is not ready to say this yet, a reader would conclude that this problem could be terminal to the project, and at the least means that even if the community efforts were successful and continued robustly, they would not be transformative in terms of the union’s identify, practice, or future.

Normally, I would say, none of this is fatal, and that Unite – and other unions – might learn tons from this work and allow it to be another building block in the critical transformation that has to happen. Unfortunately, Holgate anticipates my Pollyannaish hope here by noting, too starkly for me to avoid, that the separation of Unite Community from the rest of the organization, means that there has also been little “learning,” as she calls it, throughout the union. Sadly, I’ve reflected similarly on how much we have learned as organizers from work we have done with Walmart, hotel workers, and labor-community alliances in the past, and how we have often failed to effectively communicate the lessons or have them stick sufficiently to influence leaders and organizers later, so, what can I say, but here’s hoping. We have no choice, but to try and try again, lest these organizations all die on our watch.

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The Human Cost of Globalism: New York Nannies and Georgetown Slaves

The grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to help keep what is now Georgetown University afloat. Source:thenewyorktimes

The grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to help keep what is now Georgetown University afloat. Source:The New York Times

New Orleans   The argument changes when the global economy acquires a human face. Rarely has that been clearer than in two recent stories, one about a Filipino nanny in New York City and the other tracing the descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown University to their graveyards and relatives in Louisiana.

We talk about the predatory nature of remittances frequently because they bleed immigrant families and migrant workers of critical financial resources that they are sending their families and communities in their home countries as well as the quality of living and employment conditions where they work. The New Yorker ran a long story about a woman they called “Emma” from the Philippines, college educated in accounting with nine daughters and a husband. At forty-four years old with her oldest two daughters in college she came to the realization that there was no way on the wages paid in the Philippines that they would be able to pay for seven more to also go to college. She then made the wrenching decision to join a migrant “mother’s march” of sorts, joining a sister, women from her church, and a former home economics teacher in illegally migrating to the US to work as a nanny and caregiver.

The article points out that more than half of the workers surveyed several years ago by the Domestic Workers Alliance were undocumented. It also makes clear that the new, 21st century migrant is more likely to be a women and someone employed in the service industry as a caregiver than in older migrations of construction and factory workers. A huge export from the Philippines is workers, known as OFW or Overseas Filipino Workers since “a tenth of the population now works abroad, supporting nearly half of the country’s households and leaving some nine million Filipino children missing a parent.” And, it’s usually the mothers now, since “in the past decade, three-quarters of OFWs have been women.” Emma has not seen her children or husband or been home in 16 years. She has missed her mother’s funeral, though she and her sister paid for it. She has gotten her daughters through college but the exchange has been living on $20 per week and afraid to go home because she could be prevented from returning and now doesn’t have enough money yet to retire in the Philippines either. Besides the predatory exchange rate on remittances, she now has lived the bad bargain of trading hoped for opportunity for her family with her own life and a list of payments in small tragedies of loss in her family.

The story of Georgetown University’s reckoning with the its actions as a slaveholder and slave seller is the same type of story except under a more coercive commerce when globalism was even more ruthless in finding labor for jobs few wanted at unconscionable pay rates. Prices were put on human life, families were ripped apart, children and adults were chattel. The New York Times detailed how the Catholic priests presiding over Georgetown sold 272 slaves from plantations no longer able to fully support the school to “save” the university and pull it out of debt. The records of the sale and the work of genealogists have allowed them to track down relatives of many of the families that ended up in Louisiana. A great-great granddaughter of one who was sold as a child was able to find his burial place, and she and others are demanding Georgetown do right in partial exchange for its historic wrong by offering scholarships to descendants of that horrid sale. It would seem to be the least they could do.

At the end of these articles, detailing the terrible costs of exploitation, forced or voluntary, it was almost impossible not to have tears in your eyes for them, for ourselves, and for the wretched waste of people ground up in the gears of our unfeeling global economy and the unequal price paid for the wealth of nations and the people who spend it so freely.

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Finally, Something We Can Agree on with Bill Gates!

Peruvian workers and activist protest against the 2015 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru, Oct 9, 2015.

Peruvian workers and activist protest against the 2015 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru, Oct 9, 2015.

New Orleans   There’s an old saying that the sun shines on an old dog’s, how shall I say this, hind quarters, eventually, and that’s about how often we agree wholeheartedly with mega-billionaire Bill Gates, but when it does shine on his rear end, we should all have the grace to acknowledge it.

While we’re just trying to make it to the weekend, Gates laid out his weekend plans to the Wall Street Journal where he is attending the spring meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. Yes, I know, I’d rather join you on a worm dig as well, and believe me, we’re definitely not invited. But, on this rare occasion Gates is publicly arguing a position that ACORN International and I have advocated for years, including in the Social Policy Press book I edited, Global Grassroots, so instead of having to cringe at Gates and his foundation’s unending efforts to break teacher unions, promote charter schools, and redirect all health aid to a few diseases rather than generally, we are totally on the same page.

The issue may seem narrow, but it actually involves whether or not billions of dollars in foreign aid can be given to countries that desperately need the money to advance health, education, and opportunity to poor families living in precarious positions. The problem is that the World Bank and the IMF, creatures from the last century, classify countries based on average income in determining whether they are poor or middle-income, and it matters. Several years ago in Gatineau, Canada we met with the well-respected Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) seeking support for the work ACORN was doing in mega-slums in various countries in Latin America. The program officers could not have been nicer or more supportive, but they were clear with us that the standards followed by the conservative government at the time mandated that any new allocations of CIDA support could only occur in countries that the IMF and World Bank classified as poor. In Latin America that mean that only Nicaragua and Bolivia were eligible. La Matanza outside of Buenos Aires, San Juan de Lurigancho in Lima, and the Neza outside of Mexico City were three of the ten largest slums in the world, but Argentina, Peru, and Mexico were all classified as middle-income countries, so we were out of luck.

Gates correctly makes the point that, “Today, more than 70% of the world’s poorest people – those living on less than $1.90 per day – live in countries defined as middle income, according to the World Bank.” How absurd! He also references another study that, “Countries with huge pockets of poverty like Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Ghana and Vietnam could lose as much as 40% of their development assistance in the next few years….,” all because of this out of date classification system and its deadly consequences.

Of course now that he’s more of a politician than a philanthropist, he throws out some red meat for the conservatives about how we can make these countries better at collecting taxes, which seems a little like trying to get water out of a stone, but, whatever, he’s right that the IMF and World Bank – and all of the countries griping the purse strings – need to get with the 21st century and get over their post-World War II thinking about countries and look at what is really has to be done to reduce poverty, rather than some bright light test that fails to help the poor. They may not have been willing to listen to us, but Gates’ voice needs to be heard, and they might just listen to him, and that would be a good thing for a change.

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Finally Remittances is a USA Political Issue, but for the Wrong Reasons

indexNew Orleans     For several years ACORN members have kicked at the doors of government officials and financial institutions around the world in our Remittance Justice Campaign seeking to stop the predatory cost structure of money transfers from immigrant families and migrant workers back to their families in their home countries. For all of the talk from the World Bank and the G-8 and its moralizing about reducing the cost of remittance transfers to 5%, it has missed its target dates and done actually nothing to achieve the goals, leaving the poorest workers in the world paying billions to transfer one or two hundred dollars to help their families, while corporations and the rich transfer millions through the same computer networks for fractions of a penny. Remittances exist in a regulatory wasteland of uncoordinated country rules and central banks allowing money transfer organizations and banks to charge pretty much whatever they can get away with to individual customers.

Now, suddenly remittances have their almost front page moment thanks to an unlikely advocate, the irrepressible and uninformed Donald Trump who has now stumbled onto remittances the way someone might run into another drunk while trying to make your way out of a bar while a fight is going on. Turns out his plan for paying for the preposterous border wall between the United States and Mexico that would supposedly stop illegal immigration is to somehow try to shakedown the Mexican government for “a one-time payment of $5-10 billion” to pay for the privilege. Mexico’s central bank estimates that $25 billion in remittances comes into their economy annually, so Trump’s bluff is that he would somehow use executive orders to threaten new amendments to the Patriot Act that would somehow stop the flow of remittances and Mexico would rush the money to pay for the wall to keep the cash flowing.

President Obama derided the notion by taunting Trump and saying essentially, “good luck” tracking every Western Union transaction. Sadly, his statement, though scoring points politically and rhetorically, also reveals the level of impotence and indifference the US government has shown in moving Western Union, MoneyGram or any of the other players, large or small, to deal seriously with the issue of any kind of regulations or control of the money transfer business. Basically, Trump’s plan targets the poor of Mexico overtly, rather than the current public policy on remittances which targets the poor indirectly by ignoring the issue. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has made noise about stepping into the issue of pricing and transfers since the Federal Reserve has abdicated any interest protecting the users from predatory practices so that their real concerns, the financial institutions, can keep milking this cash cow, but there has been no follow-up yet.

Competition and international ownership of the largest Mexican banks has forced the fees down in the Mexican market, even as they have remained exorbitant in many other remittance channels globally. Most reporters on this issue who are as oblivious about remittances as Trump and his campaign, and simply say there would be legal and political challenges. In reality after some momentary inconvenience and disruption the transfers would simply go black market and informal, like hawala systems. There would be thousands legally “muling” money across the border legally within days. The Mexican government would protest formally, but informally would simply yawn, while financial institutions on both sides of the border, desperate to keep the rip-offs running, would be screaming like stuck pigs at not being able to milk this cash cow.

Regardless, now that Trump has raised the issue, is there any chance we might finally get politicians, the press, policy makers, and the general public to really understand remittances and put a stop to the predatory feasting of financial institutions on immigrant families and migrant workers?

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