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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India Puts a Halt to Facebook’s Arrogance and Colonialism

FacebookNew Orleans   The old saying is that “pride cometh before a fall,” and sometimes pure arrogance continues to be glaringly obvious even after a fall. It will be interesting to see if Facebook learns anything from its disastrous mishandling of internet access and politics in India or the whipping that India just gave them. The bottom line is that the Indian government was able to see through the Trojan horse strategy around Facebook’s claims for its expansion in the country that would advance their commercial interests and provide them control over internet access. Methinks the company doth protest too much, but it’s busted, so hopefully they will cop a plea and walk the line in the future.

Here’s the backstory though. Facebook over the last year rolled out a service, shrewdly named and packaged as Facebook Free Basics in India, just as they have been doing in Africa. Their claim is free access to a limited number of websites that channel internet through Facebook’s servers for technical reasons. They marketed the service through the huge India-based conglomerate Reliance. They claim that they brought 1 million people onto the internet for the first time, which sounds like a lot at first blush, but not so much when you realize that 100 million Indians came online for the first time in 2015, making Facebook a small drop in a big bucket.

The Indian regulator brought Facebook down to size and, importantly, protected “net neutrality,” which Facebook claims to support at least in the United States, by ruling that free services are illegal when they favor any content by waiving mobile fees. In doing so they joined other countries that have banned “zero rating” of content including the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Chile. The slippery way Facebook was back-dooring their business and claiming they were do-gooders while doing the opposite lies in the fact that they would have had the sole decision making ability on any additional services gaining access through Free Basics and its slower bandwidth.

Who did they think they were fooling? As the Software Freedom Law Center told The Wall Street Journal, “Once you create walled gardens that raise barriers of entry, anybody capable of getting into agreements like Free Basics are in a competitive sense the only companies that can be online.” A self-interested Facebook board member seemed to argue that maybe colonialism would be better in India than allowing the country to make these kind of bonehead decisions, prompting outrage from Indians, and forcing Facebook to disavow his comments and muscle him into making an apology.

An apology is simply something coming from the moving parts of the mouth, not a change in mindset, and that is clearly the problem with Facebook’s arrogance. Mark Zuckerberg is developing a happen of claiming something is charity, while making sure he and/or his company grip everything with an iron fist.

The only place the charge of colonialism sticks is on Facebook itself and the way it has handled and set up this program and its sly efforts at global dominance of the internet in developing countries in the guise of charity. India has called them out, and other countries need to follow. Facebook needs to change its tune or hear the chants of protest not only in developing countries but throughout the world.

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Finally Some Steps to Stop Seafood Slavery

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This photo released on April 8 by Indonesia’s Ministry of Fishery show hundreds of rescued foreign fishermen, who were gathered during an operation at Pusaka Benjina Resources. (Ugeng Nugroho/Ministry of Fishery/AFP)

New Orleans   When we’re shopping for dog and cat food, most of us think we are ahead of the game if we make sure we’re not buying something that fills up the bowl, but is really mostly pelleted grain of one sort or another. We read the labels and make sure there’s real protein in the bowl with perhaps some seafood or meat. I’m not a cat person, but I’ve passed many a cat’s bowl containing a pungent whiff of the sea. Once we’ve passed the sniff test, the contents test, and figured out if we could afford the food, then we ticked the box off and felt like we had done the right thing for our pets. It turns out that walking through the pet store or supermarket aisles we might have overlooked the fact that 90% of the seafood in the pet food mix is imported, much of it from Southeast Asia, and, oh, by the way, might have involved slavery. Yes, slavery!

The good news, if we want to call the 11th hour action on such horror for workers good news, is that the United States has finally moved to close a loophole that allowed slave-produced seafood in the United States. Say what? Well, yes, it turns out that if Americans and their pets were short on seafood, then we were willing to look the other way at the labor practices that might be involved in filling that gap, including slavery.

Here’s what an official of our government said was the situation:

Kenneth J. Kennedy, an adviser at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is partly responsible for preventing slave-made goods from entering the United States, said the loophole in the antislavery rule had been a frustrating problem for him and his agency. “Once we found out, for example, that Lang Long or the Cambodian boys were being used as slaves to catch seafood being imported into the U.S., we still have difficulty intervening or blocking the fish from entering the U.S. if it could be shown that enough of this seafood cannot be caught domestically to meet American demand,” said Mr. Kennedy, whose agency has been looking into the case of the Cambodian migrants working on Thai ships.

Seems a 1930 law created that loophole, and now more than 85 years later we’re getting around to closing it. The United States is also becoming the 20th country to sign a treaty that would not allow us to support or service ships that are involved in illegal fishing or despicable labor practices, so hear, hear for that as well!

Props also go to two giant labor organizations, because…

“…two of the largest labor unions, the International Transport Workers’ Federation and International Trade Union Confederation, filed a complaint at the International Labor Organization, which is part of the United Nations, about the use of forced labor to produce Thai seafood. “The Thai government has shown a willingness to react, but there are still big gaps in their laws, and even more so in how they enforce them,” said Steve Cotton, the general secretary of the transport union, which represents 4.7 million rail, trucking and maritime workers worldwide. Mr. Cotton said the next step would be for the United Nations labor organization to send a team to investigate the allegations. The complaint carries more weight because it was sponsored by the trade union confederation, which includes the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and is the world’s largest union, representing 176 million workers.

Of course the devil is in the details and whether or not governments really get on the stick and stop the poaching ships and put their feet down finally to stop labor oppression, but all those involved in trying to close this gap deserve some thanks.

It’s past time!

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For Two for Tuesday

New Release by Death by Unga Bunga’s Lady Fondue.  Thanks to KABF.

Please enjoy Alabama Shakes Don’t Wanna Fight

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