Looking for the Kindness of Strangers – Think France!

business-aviation-operations-for-france-customs-immigration-agricultureNew Orleans   Over the last two years with an emerging affiliate in France, I’ve now been on the ground working in Grenoble or Paris there a bunch of times, well for me a bunch anyway, like five or six times over two years approximately. My comrades and colleagues there are wonderful people of course, but that’s true of all the people with whom I organize, but on the train the other night from Paris to Amsterdam to fly home, I found myself reflecting on the reputation the French have for being unfriendly to strangers. It’s a bum rap!

I’ll pass over the common courtesy and generosity of our organizers and their friends when I’m passing through who are constantly offering tea or coffee or in many cases surrendering their beds and bunks to an unexpected American squatter. Within the organizing culture that’s pretty standard and to the degree “birds of a feather flock together,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that it rubs off on their friends and supporters.

My brief for a new and friendlier France is not because this has been a big push from the tourism industry or the government, both of which are true, and both of which are undoubtedly totally ignored by the French people, but is based on my experience in the endlessly confusing Metro and train stations, particularly in Paris. On several trips, I’ve been flummoxed by the problems of getting Metro tickets from the machines. Several times I’ve been helped through a tough spot when someone employed by the metro system or the state railway came to save the day, but I started counting the times it was just random situations where I was bailed out by complete strangers passing by when it was obvious I was clueless who wordlessly stepped in to save me.

In the giant Paris Nord on this very trip, I had jumped off a bus and had gone in the first door to the station with the crowd to catch my train and somehow had ended up in the Metro complex rather than the city to city train station. I followed folks through the turnstiles, but then I was caught going through successfully, but not getting my bags through that were stuck on the other side. While wrestling with the situation a man coming through the other way saw me, and without saying a word, walked over and waved his pass across the scanner so the gates opened allowing me to go through. Having found out from an information officer how to get to the train station, the ticket from the bus, which should have worked, but didn’t, I was stranded in between another set of turnstiles unable to move forward or backwards. A woman, her baby in a carriage and a friend saved me there. I wish I could say these were isolated examples, but I’m afraid they weren’t. I could easily cite another three or four times when total strangers have stepped forward and gotten me on my way, as I thanked them profusely in English, as they politely waved me off and walked away.

The one common denominator in all of these situations has been that virtually every one of the folks. epitomizing the kindness of strangers, have almost all originally been strangers themselves at one time. They have almost all uniformly been Afro-Caribbean or Afro-French or possibly just Africans and presumably as foreign to all of this in the past as I often am now.

I don’t want to extrapolate past the point of all reason, but just maybe this kind of empathy with the lost, confused, and foreign by others who have been in the same boat will be one of the saving graces of not only French civility and manners, but also the same in the United States and other countries. Utah will invariably not end up in the Clinton column, but the fact that many citizens there thought about it because their foreign experience was such that they were unwilling to join the Trump anti-immigrant call, might offer us hope here as well. The French like the English, Americans, and other countries are all dealing with waves of anti-immigrant feeling, but it may be the empathy of those who choose our countries, rather than many of the natives who want to return to some foggy, archaic times in the past by forgetting about their own experience in order to adopt a bankrupt and false ideology, that end up saving all of us at the end of the day.

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The French Rein in Unions with Carrots and Sticks

french-protests-1024x432Amsterdam   Two very different meetings in Paris on my last day of this European organizing stint left me with an uneasy feeling about the power of the state in dealing with independent, autonomous organizations. One meeting was with the leader of a small national labor federation. The other was with a Green Party European Union parliamentarian and a friend and church-based organizing ally of ours in the Paris region. On reflection, the common theme that disturbed me was the role of state financing, but I’ll get to that.

Unions are complex organizational structures in all countries especially when they have the kind of rich history and tradition one finds in France. In meetings, I have had in the past with the larger confederations I have often wrong footed myself by assuming that the big federations wanted to increase their dues-paying membership. Often that was wrong as I later found out, and as I understood better after an early morning meeting with a smaller union federation. In regular elections held every third year, union workers vote on a sectoral and regional level. With an 8% vote tally, a union is in the winner’s circle with full representation rights in a company and a seat at the sectoral bargaining level as well. 8% also qualifies the federation for direct financial support from the national government. A 3% vote means that the union is recognized by the state to the degree it can send its leaders and staff to state-sponsored trainings and the like.

Dues tend to be relatively low for French unions compared to North American unions, often between 100 and 120 euros per year. Direct government funding for many unions, and certainly all of the larger federations, accounts in large part for the modest dues rates, as well as a major source of union financing that also comes from awards for representing their members through the labor courts. The labor court judges have wide discretion on the awards ranging from a couple of hundred euros to several thousand euros, providing a direct incentive to unions for pursuing a large number of individual member grievances to the labor court stage, as opposed to North American unions that are often bound to pay excessive arbitrator’s costs and never receive an award, even when members are reinstated and win back pay. Our friend in the small union handled an average of 65 cases per month on a membership of 2500!

Recent French labor law revisions also seek to eliminate the many smaller unions and federations and centralize institutional labor. Reaching below the 3% threshold now bars a union representative from handling a member’s case. A co-worker would be allowed to represent a grievant, but not someone from the union, unless they prove more support. With the low rate of union membership density in France, even though unions are seen as relatively strong still, low dues and lower enrollment means that many smaller unions will wither, weaken, and likely die, which is clearly the intention of the government. Given the weird “general” election system and the few workers that really vote on issues of such consequence, I’m almost surprised our doors aren’t being broken down to do get-out-the-vote campaigns for these representation elections, but maybe I’m missing something.

Our pastor friend in our meeting over lunch with the Green Party parliamentarian without warning began to lobby him for a 5% set aside of taxes to fund community organizing. I bit my tongue rather than jumping in with stories from Montreal, Kansas City, and Albuquerque where cities had directed to “recognize” certain neighborhood groups and give them small funding in order not to deal with the rude and unwashed membership-based groups like ACORN. When I asked him later in some horror why he thought this was a good idea, the answer was a roundabout one that had to do with the fact that the tax rate in France for workers was twice that of the rate for employees in the United States. That might be an argument for streets being paved with gold and housing for the poor being built rising to the heavens, but it was not an argument for asserting state dominion over independent and autonomous organizations. The carrot might be the money, but the stick is the permanent control at some level over community organizations, and of course banning them from politics. Simple rule: you pay for it, you own it. Can you imagine negotiating with the government for more expenditures for this or that demanded by the members, and being asked if we would trade state support of our organization for the money needed to win an issue?

Furthermore it would likely produce something very similar to the crisis looming over the French labor movement now facing the need to grow and organize, but without the membership base, membership dues structure, and a culture of membership support that could fuel such drives. The point is not just to be proud of a great history, but also to learn from it.

***

Please enjoy these songs from KABF.

Wilco’s Someone to Lose

Green Day’s Still Breathing

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The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

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In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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Making Big Plans for Expanding Organizing in Africa

Making Plans

Making Plans

Douala   After six straight days of meetings, almost nonstop, for the Organizers’ Forum in Cameroon, we spent the last two days in critically serious conversations with all of the ACORN-allied organizers and organizations in attendance including ACORN Kenya on Skype until there was a power outage in Nairobi. It was a historic meeting for all of us, and if we can hit the marks we’re setting, it would be indescribably exciting!

The first day we spent a lot of time sharing experiences, country to country. Our partner ReAct had implanted the organizing model developed by ACORN and used by the Alliance Citoyenne in France with great success. Membership had soared, particularly in Cameroon and Liberia as the organization transitioned from largely a campaign-oriented program to a deeply rooted, membership organization in each country in the villages surrounded by Bollore rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite all of the progress, the organizers and many of the local leaders who had participated in various meetings of the Forum felt that we needed some clear victories with the company and needed to accelerate our actions and activity to final force them to be accountable to their promises and agreements. We also needed move the campaign to other battlefields nationally and internationally. ACORN committed to helping with this expansion.

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Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct, in opening the last day of strategy, training, and planning meetings, framed the discussion of our expansion in Africa as adding “pillars” to hold up the foundation of our mass organizing strategy. The first pillar was already in place especially in Liberia, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast with our growing base in the plantations as well as the work in Nairobi over recent years. But, as Adrien laid out the summary of our discussions, we now needed to develop the other pillars that were critical in the ACORN experience in building community-based organizations in the larger cities where we were working and potentially organizing informal workers’ associations and unions as we had done in the USA and India.

More specifically that meant beginning to identify human and financial resources to dramatically expand our organizing in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, and also a chokepoint for the Bollore campaign. We set early 2017 as the launch date. We also targeted Abidjan, an even larger city in the Ivory Coast for early in 2017, using Cameroon as a training city for our Francophone organizers, and hoping to launch there between spring and summer, if we can put the pieces together. On the Anglophone side, we are integrating the ACORN Kenya operation more closely with the rest of our work in Africa, and exploring opportunities to develop a training capacity between there and South Africa potentially, but time will tell. In the planning meeting for Liberia, organizers there identified potential opportunities that might be available to organizer street vendors given the constant threats in Monrovia to a central market with 4000 sellers constantly under threat. Finishing the day, we also looked at the emerging prospects for our domestic workers’ union finally being resourced for launch in early 2017 in Morocco, which is also likely the site for the 2017 Organizers’ Forum, as well as training opportunities that could also develop more organizing prospects in Tunisia.

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When it was over we were spent. The one picture that we didn’t take was Adrien, Jill O’Reilly, ACORN Canada’s head organizer in Ottawa and Quebec, and myself sprawling out on the concourse of the Douala airport on the stools with our gear across the floor exhausted, but exhilarated as we continued making plans, looking up travel schedules for the next visits, and moving to the next steps to make all of this happen, exhausted, but exhilarated as we drug ourselves to the gates and flights back home.

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The Tentacles of Bollore-Socfin Stretch Far and Wide

DSCN1867Douala   We listened carefully to two more reports from our delegation at the Organizers’ Forum about the land grabbing of Bollore-Socfin, the Paris and Brussels-based conglomerate. One was from two organizers from the Ivory Coast and the other was from an organizer in Cambodia who was on his way to our meetings, but turned back arbitrarily at the airport. The company’s strategy and colonialism became crystal clear.

In the Ivory Coast, Bollore in fact blinked in the negotiations over its expropriation of land, but then it spit. They had promised to rebuild the villages and provide other development aid when they expanded to 38000 hectares, but they had not done so after decades. They finally settled and came to an agreement with the villages where on a per hectare basis they agreed to pay 75 million francs per year to the more than 30 villages impacted adversely. Fine so far, but then, outside of the terms of the agreement, they created a middle-man, an association ostensibly with representation from each of the villages, which would receive the annual payments and approve them for the villages once a development program was submitted. The association’s leaders were pretty much hand-picked though and fairly quickly there were charges of corruption where a school that would normally cost one-million francs to build was being set at thirty-million francs and awarded to a company run by relatives of the leadership. Elections were cancelled when opposition arose. Many members and villages complained. An alternative association was organized. Bollore claimed it would not deal with the second association because it wasn’t registered, but then neither was the original association until recently. Bollore, once it agreed to the settlement, seems to have shrewdly created a divide-and-conquer strategy to keep the villages jammed up.

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In Cambodia, Bollore has stalled but has finally agreed to tripartite negotiations after actions with the company, locals, and the state all at the table. There they agreed to even allow certain NGOs to monitor the negotiations, and after a lot of back-and-forth the UN Human Rights Commission was allowed a representative. The company has already agreed to not disturb sacred forests and cultural sites in its rubber plantations. Issues on the table include compensation. Are these negotiations for real? Our organizer wasn’t sure, but we’re going down that road.

Striking to me is the very determined way that Bollore has adopted a different strategy in each country, I now suspect it is based on what it believes its clout is place to place. In Liberia, the company simply shrugs off its agreement and promises. In Cameroon it does much the same, except that every time there is an action, it agrees to negotiate, but is dilatory in doing so, and bargains in exceptional bad faith on a strategy of containing the conflict in the villages far from the cities. In Ivory Coast, it is divide-and-conquer with a middle-man fabrication that allows them to claim innocence. In Cambodia, they seem to be negotiating in earnest. Clearly this is all a strategy cleared and implemented from Europe, but how outrageous.

During the last discussion I had internet for a fleeting minute. Hitting Bollore and Cameroon on the search, an article popped up that Chairmen Bollore had visited the President again for the first time in four years in May. The article asked if Bollore had replaced France as the colonial power in Cameroon? For good reason, it seemed. Bollore was reviewing its primary investments in Cameroon, and the plantations didn’t even make the top of the list. They own the largest trucking company in country. They have a concession to manage the Douala port. They just “won” a contract under controversial and suspicious terms to build and manage the first deep-water port in central-west Africa. They are building a train between Douala and the capital, Yaounde, to shorten travel time to three hours in another major concession. The list goes on.

Bollore seems to think all of these countries in central Africa are colonies there for its private exploitation and its own financial bottom line. Promises and agreements with the local people are just pieces of paper to them, a means to their ends, and nothing that they take very seriously or seem to be very worried that the governments will bother them about, since they, and not the government, are the big dogs barking here.

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Visiting the Villages in between the Socfin-Bollore Plantations

DSCN1814Douala    Visiting the members of our affiliates in the villages along the plantations where they lived in Koungue and Mbambou was always going to be a highlight of this Organizers’ Forum and ACORN International dialogue in Cameroon, but I had not realized as fully until we left the paved road and entered the water-filled potholes of the endless orange-clay dirt track how much our delegation was going to get a sense of being in the very footsteps of the daily experience of our organizers working with the chapters, village to village, trying to win justice from Scofin-Bollore and its palm oil plantation land grabbing.

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After we squeezed 16 people into the allegedly 19-person van about 45 minutes late from Douala, we were on our way, but of course that basically meant we puttered into the morning traffic jam of the city for more than an hour. As uncomfortable and close-quartered as the van was, it might still have been a step up from the normal way the organizers when to the field. Their trips involved a moto ride on the rear end of a motorcycle from the city to the river off-road, then a boat across the river before picking up a second moto ride to the villages. It was quicker that way than the way we were going, but it had a separate set of risks and challenges obviously.

We are in the rainy season. Everyone it seemed had heard the huge crack of thunder in the middle of the night and then the monsoon-level downpour for more than an hour. It rained intermittently throughout our day along the palm oil plantations and villages in-between, making the road slow going as we bounced along.

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Our first meetings in Koungue found a crowd waiting for us in the front room of our leader’s house there, even though we were an hour late. We waited for the chief to begin. Working with the local village chiefs, some of whom are elected, while others are hereditary, and some are in dispute, is one of the challenges, since the company tries to force the organization and any individual dispute through the local chief, some of whom they have played strong roles in electing. In the meeting we heard what is becoming the usual litany of complaints. More broken promises. More bad faith meetings and constant delays.

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Members and leaders were caught in a tactical bind. Socfin-Bollore only responded to direct action, but each action involved risks, and even when producing more negotiations, simply led to more broken promises. The original negotiations had come after hundreds of members blockaded the roads not allowing the company trucks to pass. Police had threatened leaders since then with arrest and endless jail sentences. This company was committed to exploitation, and seemed to believe as long as it could keep the disputes out in the countryside where it was just their iron fists against the villagers’ solidarity, they could continue to operate with impunity, including polluting the streams and rivers, promising to deliver potable water and fix water pumps, and not following through on these promises either.

Our day was destined to be one of stops-and-starts, anxious meetings filled with frustration, anger, and hope coupled with long drives between villages and visits. Lunch with one of the members became dinner, and as we left in a drizzling rain once again, it seemed our long day was ending, and our jobs had been done for another day.

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But, welcome to organizing and Africa, the trailing car suddenly lost power along the starlit road. Attempts at repair were futile. A moto driver found a rope up the road and after it broke several times, the van was able to pull it the 5 miles or so to the highway over the rough terrain. We couldn’t abandon the car, because all of the locals were convinced the driver would be robbed, beaten, and possibly killed, and the car stripped. After more disputes over pay, somehow miraculously on the highway, squeezed between passing 18-wheelers, the van was able to get the car to a service station he trusted another 5 miles down the road. The battery had now lost its charge in the car, so a makeshift set of cables was fashioned on the parking lot to enable the windows to be closed, and a bunch of our guys pushed the car to a hiding place.

After a day that began at 7am, we pulled into the hotel finally at 10:45 pm, after another amazing day of exhilaration, anger, hope, waiting, and traveling to meet our members near and far.

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