Seasonal Dilemma: Piling on the Work and Building Momentum

Torino, Italy  Bastille Day is a big celebration in France. Heck, President Trump even came over for the party, because he heard there were going to be tanks, troops, and tricolors everywhere. He also reportedly wanted to practice his handshakes, and see if he could get his grip on.

In Grenoble, it was business as usual. We had seen a stage being erected in a city center park the night before, but the streets and passersby seemed the same as always. For our part we were meeting right until we had to shuffle off to catch the train to Torino, the million-person industrial city in northern Italy.

Summer in the United States for a rural membership-based organization is difficult, because farmers and ranchers are working from dawn to dusk, but for an urban organization, it’s “hot times in the city,” and an opportunity to pour it on and make things happen. Looking back on ACORN’s history, I often thought that August was the month when we pulled off some of our largest actions and won some of our biggest victories. Momentum would build throughout the summer as new organizing drives were underway, offices were swelled with staff, interns, and volunteers, and major campaigns were launched before Labor Day in early September. Days were long, so doorknocking could go past 9 PM. Weather was good. Tempers were short. We planted and reaped the organizational harvest in summer.

Planning is hard this time of year for our French affiliate. From almost the middle of July until early September, and certainly most of August, many people take vacations, including our organizing staff, so the month almost becomes an entitled holiday and the organization and its offices virtually shut down as well. That means a flurry of planning and meetings before the end of July, and then the difficult task of reestablishing consensus and rebuilding momentum for a furious September through November, before work comes almost to a stop in December in order to rekindle in January. Organizing prime time is vacation time. Leadership and organizing directors have to puzzle through how to come out of the blocks running in September as everyone drifts back from the holidays. That’s not easy!

We found ourselves in a similar flurry. Timelines had to be established so work could begin on the Organizers’ Forum the last week of September in Casablanca, if not the work would not begin before the August shutdown. The community-labor training outside of Paris at the end of November also had to be sequenced and tasked. Campaign negotiations on both sides of the Atlantic had to be factored in and scheduled. Memos organized, training sites identified for next year, and on and on. Hiring and filling in for staff leaves and transitions had to be factored.

The list seemed endless. Trump caught the fireworks. We caught the train.

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Workers’ Hours and Productivity in US, UK, and France

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/bulletins/internationalcomparisonsofproductivityfinalestimates/2014

Grenoble  There was an interesting aside to the conversation about political “break” movements in Europe and the United States at the ACORN International meeting. When the discussion turned to what the election of Macron as President of France would mean to the renewed efforts to dilute the famous French labor code, Antoine Gonthier, one of the senior organizers for ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble, pointed out what he saw as ironic that for all of the corporate bashing of the labor code in France, French workers were more productive than those of other countries including the United States and United Kingdom. I replied that I had also seen numbers that indicated that the US workforce was more productive, but it was a minor point, and we moved on with the discussion. Nonetheless, it seemed important, so it kept nagging at me until I could look it all up.

It turns out that Antoine and I were both right, but even where we were wrong it illustrates the point, and, unfortunately, why the corporatist movement is gaining ground in France. A fairly recent report on the latest 2014 statistics by the Office for National Statistics in Great Britain comparing productivity across several measures for the G-7, the most highly industrialized countries in the world, went through the numbers pretty closely.

So, the ledge Antoine was gripping firmly for the French working class was productivity per hour worked. There German workers kicked everyone’s south side hard with a significant lead. French and American workers were pretty much what-and-what, but the French were very narrowly ahead, making Antoine and I more in agreement than either one of us might have realized at the time. Luckily our Canadian and British organizers had stayed out of the conversation because they took up the rearguard on these issues with Japan getting the worst mark, then Britain and then Canada with even the much maligned Italian workers more productive per hour.

When the GDP or Gross Domestic Product was measured, the American workers were more than one-third higher per worker than the French, and the French led other G7 countries in 2nd place with Italy right behind them and Germany farther back. Once again Canada was only ahead of the UK and Japan.

But where it really got dicey was looking at the hours worked per week over the 20-year period between 1993 and 2014. In 1993, workers in the G7 were relatively close together. The average was slightly over 33 per week with the US at a tad over 35 hours per week and Japan over 36 with France close to 32 hours per week and Germany just below 30 hours per week. Sweat forward 20 years and France’s hours worked per week per worker was down a full 5 hours, while the US worker had only dropped a smidgen to a little under 35 hours per week. Italy, Japan, the UK, and Canada were all around 33 hours, and Germany was around 26 hours per week and France was around 28 hours per week. These may not reflect victories that French grandfathers won, as much as what their fathers delivered.

The weaknesses of the US labor movement and the strength of US business and their political allies have forced American workers to continue to keep their shoulders to the wheel. Take the lack of family and sick leave in the US as a prime example of this. French corporations pushing for labor law reform and perhaps even UK interests trying to keep British workers farther away from European standards, clearly have their hearts set on holding the line on productivity, increasing automation, and fighting hammer and tong to get more hours worked every week, and are committed to chaining Macron to that wheel until he delivers.

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Please enjoy these new releases, Thanks to KABF.

Emily Saliers – Long Haul

Billy Bragg – The Sleep of Reason

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Hard Changes Coming to France?

Paris   The day began with an ominously when I woke up at 2:05 AM for my 2:45 AM ride to the 3:17 AM train to Budapest. After taking a shower, I realized that in the dark, I had misread the time, and it was now 12:20 AM, not 2:20 AM. It was going to be a long day!

The 3:17 AM to Budapest was a workers’ milk run to the city. Tired men and women would slump into their seats and then immediately doze off in a practiced part of their routine. The train hit Budapest 4 minutes late, and I knew I only had 8 minutes then to find the ticket machine, get a ticket, find bus 200E and make to the airport for my 6:25 AM flight, where I could doze off in my practiced routine.

And, then on to Paris. With the election of the Macron government and his new party, Marche, which has disrupted French politics, hard changes were projected with hard fights in the future to see whether he would succeed or would the resistance.

The first change I noticed though was the McDonalds in the guts of Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Of course it was huge. That was predicable, but it was also all automatic. Orders had to be placed on a eye-level robotron machine where you picked through your selection, to go or in-house, card or cash, and then went to a counter to pay and pickup, or not. Where you would think automation would mean less workers, I had never seen so many. There were people to help you learn the machine. If you were eating there, a worker brought you order to your table. Yes, to your table! Everywhere we looked there were staff people by the dozens. Our affiliates in France had been working on the McDonald’s organizing campaign and the fight for higher wages and workers’ voice there, as well as the opposing the use of GMOs, which are largely vilified in France. I noted all of this with interest, mentally tabulating the contradictions.

Meeting later in the afternoon with several union and community organizers, there seemed to be a feeling that the constant assault on long established labor rights that had endured in France for generations against almost constant attack were in real danger from the new government. Though Macron had run on a merging of left and right policy positions, and had formerly been a minister in the ruling Socialist Party before resigning to pave his own path, there seemed nothing moderate in his proposals for amending labor rights. The rigid and exacting labor rules that make it difficult to displace workers in an arbitrary fashion have long been targeted by business interests. Labor unions are girding for the fight of course, particularly the CGT, which has militantly drawn the line in the past even though a competing workers’ federation has been trying to play a more accommodating role with the new government. All other business, including new organizing, seems to have been pushed aside for the coming struggle.

Nonetheless, even if labor’s efforts were heroic, my friends seem to feel success would be defined in how much was saved compared to how much would be lost in measuring the level of the defeat, rather than optimistically predicting a victory.

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Local 100 Leaders Share Skills and Plot the Future

Congressman Al Green (D-Houston)

Houston   When local leaders get together in the annual leadership conferences for Local 100 the room is always buzzing with conversation when a speaker isn’t on the floor or a workshop isn’t scheduled. They are sharing stories about grievances, problems with bosses, membership concerns, and a million other issues, including the always vexing problems around fair wages and benefits. Another theme that has been recurred with added urgency at the 37th annual conference were the every accelerating threats to the very survival of labor unions.

the popular leader and steward panel with Stephanie Newtown (warren) and Robert Stahn (Arlington)

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was a brilliant workshop on leadership development, unit maintenance, and grievance handle moderated by Robert Stahn, chief steward of one of our newest units in Texas of bus drivers and attendants with the Arlington Independent School District, and Stephanie Newton, one of the team of stewards and activists at the Southeast Arkansas Human Development Center in Warren, Arkansas. There was a lot of back and forth and other key stewards weighted in on everything from how they recognized “union material” in new workers to the importance of handling grievances on the job site in the Dallas County ISD. Sister Newton, with very little warning that she was moderating the session, demonstrated why she is such a revered steward by the members in Warren and so feared by management by reeling off a list of almost a dozen “must-do” tips for handling grievances beginning with the importance of understanding the rules, procedures, and contract when members have one. Brother Stahn inspired members with the story of how Arlington drivers had won a 5% putting starting wages over $15.00 hour in the district and pulling up attendants as a priority as well.

Given that Local 100’s members are lower waged workers, there were both reports and discussions on how to move forward on “living” wage campaigns. The members voted to make a $10 per hour wage the absolute bottom line on our contracts and facilities, while hearing a report on the New Orleans fight to get cleaners the benefits of a $10.55 minimum which has thrown the union into court against the city. Plans were made for healthcare and community home workers to insert themselves into the legislative budget process in Louisiana to impact reimbursement rates and force some sharing to bring wages and benefits up. Arkansas state worker members are involved in a similar process and shared their efforts. Another workshop showcased our success since the last conference in getting lead tested in Houston and to some degree in Dallas and the need for constant followup.

workshops on lead raised a lot of questions

Congressman Al Green from Houston had opened up the session with a report on the struggles in Washington over consumer protection, healthcare and sundry other matters. Green is seeking to trigger impeachment proceeds for President Trump as well. State Representative Ron Reynolds detailed the fight to prevent a loss of payroll deductions for public employees in Texas which is part of the call for a special session there.

Texas State Representative Ron Reynolds from Houston

The union recommitted to fighting to keep affordable healthcare and protect Medicaid which is so critical in our workplaces and communities, while also discussing new initiatives and organizing models for the union that recognized the changing circumstances of workers and the service economy.

Everyone learns things at these conferences. I got instructions on how a “bus arm camera” works to photograph cars that go around school buses and ticket them for $300 in Texas, as well as device called a “zonar” that drivers are required to use in Arlington on bus maintenance, inspections, and attendance. I also asked how many members had checked the union’s website and Facebook pages in the last 30 days, and received a wake up call about our need to communicate more directly not only on worksites but also through robodialers and going old school on phonebanks between leaders, organizers, and members.

Merging the big picture and the constant details makes any leadership gathering of union leaders and stewards essential.

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Depressing Reports on the State of Union Organizing

USW campaign to organize at Pitt

New Orleans   Just by the luck of the draw in a 48-hour period I happened to have a chance at some “state of the unions” shoptalk with three former high ranking union officials with deep backgrounds in organizing as well as a younger former organizer whose current work forces him to try to find the pulse of union organizing around the country from the rank-and-file forward. Spoiler alert: it was really depressing, especially in these times that cry for a revival of a workers’ movement demanding change.

Let’s have some good news first.

There’s been progress in organizing adjunct professors, graduate students, and other university employees by several unions. These kinds of workers may not be at the heartbeat of the labor movement in some peoples’ estimation, but more pink and white collar workers in unions is always good news for the future and a hope that more trickles down. The shifting emphasis by unions like the Service Employees towards airport-based workers and subcontractors is achieving some successes, especially along Atlantic Coast cities. A unit here and there of hospital workers breaking through to win elections on the West Coast still holds hope as well. There was some hints that some workers’ centers are migrating from service provision, job training and referral to assisting immigrant workers in organizing unions.

And, now for the rest of the news.

The McDonalds’ initiative and much of the Fight for Fifteen which propelled some cities and states to raise their minimum wages, seems virtually all over but the shouting. The encouraging efforts supported by large unions and federations to develop what I have called “majority union” strategies among Walmart workers nationally and warehouse workers in the Imperial Valley of California have now seen their support wither so substantially, as their sponsors have pulled the plug, that they are trying to subsist at some level almost like advocacy organizations hoping to score foundation and various philanthropic funding.

In fact several conversations veered dangerously into the “grasping for straws” area of how to shore up declining organizing prospects and membership dues support for worker organizing with private monies. A social media action network that seemed to be growing rapidly to support organizing and union work was trying to figure out how to appeal to foundations. Workers’ centers who were debating helping organize unions, shop to shop, were asking for advice in mapping the borderline between their tax exempt, nonprofit status, and the more direct work entailed in actually union organizing, which is not exempt.

Several former officials speculated that membership figures of various unions were being propped up by “creative accounting” of associate members and various affiliations of worker associations in order to maintain the public claims of membership strengths even as actual full-fledged dues payers were dropping precipitously. Such moves might be politically tactical and even defensible in a more expansive view of worker organization, similar to what I have advocated, especially in these trying times, but are certainly not strategic as organizing strategies, and, needless to say, are not sustainable. Meanwhile published reports indicate that a lawyer being vetted for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board is a certified and registered union-buster or “persuader” as they call themselves, currently involved in trying to take away recognition for over 20,000 home health care workers in Minnesota in the ongoing efforts to push back on the area of greatest organizing success for organized labor in the last generation of organizers.

What’s the old saying, “if it weren’t for bad news, there wouldn’t be any news at all?”

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Mike Garcia Stood Strong for Low Waged Workers

Mike Garcia

New Orleans   We used to kid a long time and excellent organizer who worked for our sister union, Local 880. In an early session as a newly hired organizer being handed a standard training document extracted from remarks that Cesar Chavez had made about the importance of the dues system in building the farmworkers’ union, he had innocently asked, “Who was Cesar Chavez?” The story was both shocking and unsettling. On one hand those of us only a decade or so older wondered, how could anyone not know something about the legendary Chavez, the grape boycott, and the struggle to organize the California fields? On the other hand, it hit us all like bricks how quickly working peoples’ history is smothered in silence.

The State of California has declared a Cesar Chavez Day, and that’s well and good, but it’s Mike Garcia who is on my mind. Mike passed away this week. He was a great labor leader and an excellent organizer. He was a comrade and friend. His song should be sung. His work and memory needs to be raised to the sun, because his shadow will be long.

I first Mike in the late 1980s in the mountains outside of Denver. He had come over to Colorado from California as a trustee and then president of SEIU Local 105 to try and build a presence and power for janitors in Denver and Kaiser healthcare workers. Jon Barton, who had worked for several years as an organizer with Local 100 until his homesickness for California had pulled him back west, was Mike’s lead organizer, and they had invited me out to a staff retreat, training, strategy, and planning session for the local somewhere near Evergreen. As Jon had suspected, Mike and I were kindred spirits and hit it off, beginning a permanent friendship and alliance both within the SEIU and with ACORN.

Until he was forced to retire several years ago to deal with health issues, Mike ended up leading a 40,000 member amalgamated service workers’ union of janitors, security workers, landscapers, and other lower waged workers built out of sweat, struggle and steel over decades. Before Jon had come to Louisiana, he had done a stint with a small, craft union trying its hand at organizing Silicon Valley, and it was exciting to be in regular touch with him and Mike when they reunited in California to systematically, and largely successfully, organized janitors in major companies in the Valley. I still can’t read about Apple and other mega-rich tech companies talking about their generous employee benefit programs without remembering how hard – and corruptly – they fought against fair pay and decent standards for their janitorial and service subcontractors.

These campaigns made Mike’s reputation as an organizer and his leadership of Justice for Janitors with his organizing team around the state including the decisive strike in Los Angeles at the turn of the century marked his stature as a unique, unbending labor leader in California. For years Los Angeles was part of my regular route, and there weren’t many times that I didn’t reach out for Mike to catch up, if our schedules intersected, or spend time with him when we were on the board of SEIU together, catch as, catch can.

I had heard his health was getting worse. I wish I had seen him in recent years. For a last laugh. For old times’ sake. For his advice and counsel. And, just to thank him for his friendship and his life’s work that allowed all of us to stand strong with him and be steadfast to the cause.

For organizers and leaders like Mike, there won’t be any special day, but every day was special in solidarity and struggle.

Si se puede!

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