Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?

Italian Tenants Withstand Landlord Pushback with Court Victory

ACORN Italy's David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt)

ACORN Italy’s David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt and glasses)

Grenoble    Ever since 2011 when ACORN Italy launched our campaign to take advantage of a unique handle passed by the national legislature allowing tenants to reduce their rent if their landlords were renting to them on the black market without paying taxes, we have been fighting back against the landlord counterattack. The victories for tenants exploiting the law were huge since by triggering registration of the landlord’s property their bounty was a reduction of their rent by 85 to 90% for the four-year term of a standard lease with a four-year option of renewal. The math is clear. If a tenant were paying 1000 euros in rent, they would then only be paying 150 euros saving more than 10000 euros a year, 40000 for four years, 80000 for eight years. Needless to say, the landlords had been happy to avoid paying taxes to the government, and were wild with rage about now having to both pay taxes and receive less revenue from their tenants.

Lawyers were a cheaper alternative for the landlords and they have yo-yoed back and forth to court with us since 2012. We took a hit from the Supreme Court in late 2013 ruling that there was a technical problem with the law. We managed to get legislation through the Senate that prevented the tenants who had seized the law’s opportunity with us from having to pay back the landlords for their lost revenues. We have introduced other legislation to correct the technical flaw and restore the original intent of the law.

Meanwhile another suit had ended up in the second high court of Italy which interprets laws and is called the La Corte Surprema di Cassazione or Supreme Court of Cassation. The decision of the Court which is final at the highest level has reopened provision – and the opportunity – for tens of thousands of tenants throughout Italy.

The Court ruled that if the landlord and the tenant had a verbal, oral contract rather than a written lease contract as required, then they had the ability to push the property to be registered and register the rent at the lower level as allowed by the original legislation. Part of the tenant’s claim and defense would be allowable based on the “moral” or “psychological” pain suffered by the tenant from not having a written lease and having been forced to find housing in the informal, black market so prevalent throughout Italy. The Court’s decision does not reopen the door for tenants with a written, but unregistered lease, but settles the matter for those who were forced to agree to an okey-dokey lease involving tax evasion.

The tide hasn’t completely turned for ACORN Italy’s work. We still have much to be done with our allies in the Senate to both nail down tenant protections and restore the comprehensive opportunity to all tenants, but in the meantime we’re gearing up to get the word out throughout Italy to tenants with wink-and-nod verbal leases that their opportunity is knocking and the door is wide open again. Needless to say, head organizer David Tozzo is drawing up major national recruitment plans to scale up ACORN Italy’s work to take advantage of the opportunity and the membership is soaring.

Community Organizing in Poland

Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha and Mary Rowles

Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha and Mary Rowles

Geneva  In Krakow, the Organizers’ Forum got a chance to meet community organizers, activists, and campaigners in a unique setting in space provided by a pilot in the municipal soccer stadium, attempting to get more use of the facility than a fourteen-game schedule would normally allow. Once we realized we were found, not lost, we enjoyed our one-and-only time in a skybox of sorts overlooking the green fields of the stadium,

We had been prepared for this visit through a Skype call earlier in the week with Chuck Hirt, a veteran trainer and adviser of organizers and organizations largely in Eastern Europe through ECON, the European Community Organizing Network. Chuck is based in Slovakia, and along with Paul Cromwell in Berlin, has been spreading the gospel of organizing for close to two decades. (See their essays in Global Grassroots!) Chuck felt there was great progress as he looked over his time, particularly in the way more and more organizers were willing to embrace doorknocking. He warned us that community development was still the dominant ideology, though sometimes it was misnamed community organizing and that scarce resources and a tentativeness about asking for money, like membership dues, was still a barrier for organizational autonomy and sustainability. In fact he advised us that in the historical shadow of state control and communism in some of the Eastern European countries where ECON specialized, it was more common for activists to embrace the notion that they were organizing “initiatives,” rather than ongoing organizations. In his view the work had advanced the farthest in Hungary, where it was spreading, and more recently in Poland.

Fortunately, we were meeting with one of ECON’s star groups and its staff, Dagmara Kubik, who until recently was the lead organizer for Bona Fides in Katowice, a medium-sized city and the regional capital of Silesia, about an hour away from Krakow and her replacement and colleague Iowna Nowak. In four years, Dagmara and her team had organized a half-dozen largely autonomous associations through home visits and using the local issues that are the staple of hundreds of community organizing drives. Loose dogs and their mess had all of our delegation nodding their heads with empathy.  We all had been there and done that. They could see more head scratching on the issue of parking lots, so they quickly explained the issue of older block apartment buildings constructed before cars had more recently become ubiquitous. An association can be registered with as little as fifteen people, and some are trying to lower it to five we heard, but their groups met monthly, had some elected leaders and a working group or committee structure and occasionally were involved in some accountability actions. Iowna and Dagmara frankly shared long conversations with us that they had been having about leadership development and structure, which were engaging. Dagmara’s next project, besides stepping into a larger leadership role in ECON itself, is organizing something she called Common Thing that she hopes will expand the work.

Dagmara had also invited several other activists to meet with us. One was also from Katowice and DIY Fix Your City, Agatha Janko, a young student organizer who told us a captivating story that illuminated the issue of trying to revitalize abandoned properties into community, art, and cultural space with some success. A unique challenge they face is re-purposing the 500 city-managed properties they have identified, as many have been unused for seventy-five years to the war displacements, and in Poland, the former owners or their heirs have the right to reclaim the properties. This is not your usual urban abandonment situation, given the fraught history in the region. Agatha’s enthusiasm was contagious and her small volunteer army have already had some success with what they called an “air brick” race of more than thirty teams of three which “raced” around the city finding the vacant properties proving not only their enthusiasm, but also that imagination is the DIY strong suit.

We also met Magdalena Koztasto of the Polish Smog Alarm group that began in Krakow where it turns out in this beautiful, old city there is often severe air pollution. Their efforts, initially driven largely by volunteers and fueled by social media, has put more than one-thousand people on the streets of Krakow. Their demand has been curtailing the use of coal and wood fires in boilers on an accelerated basis and required immediate replacement of older boilers. They have also won a subsidy program for lower income families. Five percent of the Polish populations still heats in this way leading to severe health problems. We were almost embarrassed when she excused herself because she had to prepare for a meeting with the President of Poland the next day where they hoped he would sign an order reducing pollution, though they feared he would instead assign the issue for more policy study. Their success has allowed them to expand their staff and is leading to similar, associated groups forming in other cities throughout Poland.

In our week in Poland, many people had told us about the weakness of civil society and the organizing community, but the work of Chuck, Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha, and Magdalena certainly gave us reason for hope.

Magdalena speaking

Magdalena speaking

The Exciting Opportunity to Organize Precarious Workers in Poland


Professor Jan Czarzasty Warsaw School of Economics

Krakow   Towards the end of the Organizers’ Forum delegations’ meeting with Professor Jan Czarzasty at the Warsaw School of Economics, he mentioned something almost offhandedly about a recent Supreme Court decision in Poland. It seems that the Polish constitution has always been crystal clear that all workers, barring none, have the right to organize and form unions. Given the history leading to this current constitution and the role of workers and unions in making it happen that is hardly surprising.

What was surprising was to hear that in fact despite the unambiguous language, there were in fact numerous workers – he estimated that the number could be as high as 40% of the workforce – that were routinely denied the right to organize because they were self-employed or subcontractors or working on what they call “civil contracts” which are common for temporary and contingent workers, rather than giving full employment contracts. Finally, a case had proceeded to the Supreme Constitutional Court on this matter, and the court in recent months had ruled decisively that, yes, indeed, all such workers had the right to organize unions.

In Poland, when some existing practice is found unconstitutional by the court then the government has one year in order to create regulations that comply with the decisions, so there has not been a rush to organize such precarious workers, and many, including most of the union organizers we visited with in Warsaw, were doubtful that there would be significant organizing in this sector even when the rules are clarified.  One commented that he had been told when organizing cleaners and security workers that the “fees were too low,” which was so unbelievable to me that I had to stop and ask the translator to repeat his comments for me because I thought I had heard that the problem was that their “feet were too long!”

Of course the problem that they will have to wrestle with, as we have had to confront in the US, Canada, India and other countries is as much the question of “who is the employer” as “how to organize the workers. ” How does a union force the employers to consolidate sufficiently into some body, association, or legal regime to allow bargaining or some improvement on the questions of hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment? A public regulatory regime that at least works on paper in India for domestic workers, hawkers, dockworkers, and others would be a step forward.

The simple union registration formula where ten members can constitute an organization and begin enrollment and action would seem made for mass organizing of such workers. The taxi drivers early morning strike in Warsaw this week as our delegation jumped on buses to make our train to Krakow is a good indication that supposedly “self-employed” workers are interested in organizing and ready to make something happen.

What an amazing organizing opportunity, if unions will seize it, it looks like workers might be ready.

Union Organizing in Poland

20150117_eup502-aKrakow   We talked to a number of union organizers and academic experts on unions and labor markets while the Organizers’ Forum was visiting Warsaw. The simple conclusion was that there is not much of it going on. There are two primary labor federations, one the famous thirty-five year old Solidarnosc, relatively speaking a shadow of its former self with over 600,000 members compared to the twenty million during its heyday as a movement that brought down the government. The other federation, OPZZ, born of a spinoff of Solidarnosc when the government seized its assets is about the same size. The last, the Forum, is much smaller. The two primary federations are all related to various political parties.

We got a sense of the “rules of the road” for organizing unions from two organizers we met, one from UNI Global involved in organizing a packaging and printing company of about 500 workers near Warsaw, and the other with ITF, the transportation based global union federation, involved in organizing a union of dockworkers in Gdansk in a unit that might reach 5000 workers once it was finished. Both were experienced mid-30 year old organizers. One having worked for Unite in Scotland and the other a veteran organizer in Poland. Though they were clear that organizing was not a priority for the Polish labor movement, they were enthusiastic about their projects and hopeful of playing a part in the revitalization of an organizing culture in Polish unions over the coming decades.

A union can be chartered with as little ten members. They can also demand bargaining rights for all the workers with their union, though of course their strength would be minimal, so most do not. There is a lengthy process of allowable bargaining that can end in labor courts. A union in an unorganized plant bargains for all of the workers exclusively, not just for members, but, interestingly, since multiple unions are allowed in a workplace – any formation registering the ten minimal members – there is a requirement that all of the unions have to come to consensus on their demands. The professors told of a record of 74 unions in one company and frequently unions numbering in the double digits. The organizers described a preference for quiet, secret organizing and home visits in order to prevent employers from gumming up the process by organizing a union of supervisors for example that would dilute demands and attempt to block consensus on bargaining. There is protection for workers who are fired but it is a lengthy, bittersweet process.

Tactically, a union has the right to call a two-hour “warning” strike of sorts to put pressure on the employer. In the dockworkers case they were calling such an action soon and recruiting other allies to block the entrances for workers and truck deliveries to both send a message and protect their members at this early stage when they only had about 250 members. Interestingly, companies have to inform the unions when there is discipline of workers, and a union is required to report to the company its membership on a regular basis. Where the union has most of its membership on direct deposit dues rather than payroll deduction, the company is caught having to report on all workers to the union. Something more than a warning strike requires a majority vote of all of the workers, so that is the election that might be more widely contested.

Most of the organizing supported by global union federations, like those employing our friends was concentrated on multinationals, where there was felt to be some potential leverage on the employer. Talking to other union leaders and former organizing directors for large federations, their perspective on future organizing initiatives in Poland targeting domestic companies was grimmer, characterizing a lot of existing programs as service-based and politically oriented, rather than seeking to expand union density.

Both opportunities and challenges seem huge for Polish labor organizing.

The Labor Leader’s Last Shout of the Swan Song

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.57.27 AMWarsaw    Once the mess was out in the open and Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan spilled the beans on his Facebook page about all of the sharp elbowed, behind the scenes jostling that makes up 95% of all of labor’s internal politics, virtually any and all union members knew it was all over except for the shouting. The smell of death was in the air. I shared a note with a colleague in Toronto that clearly Ryan was drowning. This morning I woke up to a message in reply from the same comrade saying, “No, he’s dead” including a web link to an op-ed piece written by Ryan as an announcement that he was no longer standing for reelection.

Union politics can be hard to follow because a lot of people make the mistake of thinking there’s some kind of democracy at work, and that’s accurate but only at the most local level and usually less so the higher one goes up the ranks. This is a “representative” system where delegates, so named or elected by their unions, go to central, state or provincial, or national and international bodies to represent their unions. Their votes are often “instructed” by boards and executive committees and bigger dogs with louder barks than their own. They do not vote as individuals.

When Ryan in recent days was bandying about words like “blackmail” and the questions of whether or not federations like the OFL were “independent” or autonomous labor bodies, and seeming to appeal to individual delegates and other union activists to rise up and oppose the larger unions, any observer with a modicum of knowledge about how unions worked knew he was in a desperate situation and likely was just taking a last “Hail, Mary!” shot at re-election. The bigger the union, particularly national unions with discipline as opposed to public employee unions that sometimes allow locals some autonomy, the more numerous the delegates and the greater weight their voting strength, therefore the narrower their odds that any unlikely coalition of the little unions could prevail. In the case of the OFL with disaffiliations and what Ryan termed “dues’ strikes,” they were starving the federation and Ryan into submission. He was already toast, so it was just a matter of time before he stepped away.

The Toronto Star gave him a last hurrah, and by my lights, he handled it with some grace even as he patted himself heartily on the back:

It is no mystery that, along the way, I have accumulated some critics (you may have heard from a few in the pages of the Toronto Star), but union members are unmistakably united. I have been elected unanimously three times as OFL president and union members have repeatedly given me a mandate to put equity, community and action at the heart of everything we do. Together, we put 10,000 people on the streets of Hamilton in support of steelworkers, 15,000 in London in support of autoworkers, 30,000 in Toronto in support of school teachers and support staff and we rallied for workplace rights in every region of Ontario. We have built an unprecedented labour-community alliance of over 90 groups that began the pushback against Rob Ford’s privatization agenda, challenged McGuinty’s austerity cuts, and catapulted inequality into the media.

The enthusiastic response that I have received from union members, precarious workers and equity seekers across the province has been a powerful validation of the unity and solidarity at the core of our movement. It gives me hope that the labour movement is as vibrant and relevant as ever and, with the rise of precarious work, migrant labour and governments who put corporate interests ahead of the public interest, the need has never been greater.

However, any movement is bigger than any one person.

Some of the labour leaders who have opposed me have said that they share my working class values but they can’t unite behind my leadership.

There’s an old union negotiator’s saying that I’ve had to use many times at the bargaining table myself to a company at bad points which is that “you may beat me, but you’re going to have to whip me first.” Ryan didn’t go out with a whine, but a roar. I’m not sure that helped the unity of the labor movement, but he proved he could still count the votes and went stage left before any more damage could be done, and the challenge he left with the labor movement is the same one that is almost always on all of our lips, so it seems a fair enough way to say farewell.