When Politics Becomes a Barrier, Rather than Leverage

Thessaloniki  I was lucky.  With little time and information, people we had met in Brussels with contacts back home in Greece were able to pull together ten or so activists of various stripes and persuasions agreed to come together to learn about ACORN and community organizing on a Saturday evening in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in the country with more than a million population.  We met on a main street, originally a Roman thoroughfare, in the city center, and after ashtrays were found and some got coffee, we launched right into discussions that turned into a vibrant give-and-take lasting for hours.

There’s some interesting things happening through pure pluck and sweat, since most of these efforts are spliced into the activists lives between work, family, the ongoing economic crisis, and their need to be engaged and part of the fight.

I heard about a self-managed workers’ factory that had been in business selling health and natural products for the last five or more years.  One of the leaders was there as well as a woman who was professionally a family therapist, but also organized assistance through a workers’ “clinic” there that included a doctor and others.  I asked if they were familiar with efforts after the crisis in Argentina, and it turned out that they had recently visited there as part of a conference that included others involved in similar, small worker-run enterprises.

I was taken by the stories of one man who was part of an organizing effort to resist foreclosures and stop evictions.  Others in the room gently joked with him about the number of court cases he had pending.  There was discussion of efforts to privatize water in Greece, which is a fight we know well from the US, Peru, and elsewhere.  There were labor activists, a radical journalist, a woman from a solidarity network, a radical professor at the local university, and several former or current trade union activists.

The one thing that seemed to unite them was politics in the sense that they were all alienated and angry at the way that the left party, SYRIZA, known by its abbreviation which stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, founded in 2004, that had won power in Greece in 2015 and through various crises, back and forth, continues as the governing party.  The left had come together to oppose austerity and the European Union’s conditions behind SYRIZA banner, and with SYRIZA’s eventual acceptance of the terms imposed by the EU, the left has splintered in opposition to the party, feeling betrayed.  The other thing that all of them had in common was their division, since though opposed to SYRIZA and more conservative parties, they are also divided among themselves.  Two women were there who had been in one case a former SYRIZA cabinet office who resigned when SYRIZA reneged on its pledges to fight austerity, and the other was a former parliamentarian.  Both are now active in Left Unity, one of the more active of the small parties of which there are fistful.

Some responded well to the ideas of ACORN and a different way of community and labor organizing.  Some were intrigued by the fights around housing, living wages, and banks.  Others, especially the politicos, seemed almost threatened by the notion that an independent, democratic, autonomous and mass-based organization could be built that was not aligned or attached to a party, and that confusion of politics versus power, and parties and politics as leverage rather than purpose was hard to reconcile.

Nonetheless, the dialogue and debate were scintillating.  It will be interesting to see what – if anything – develops among those who were most intrigued.

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Wanted: A Non-Commercial Company and Boss Guide for Workers

New Orleans  Talking to organizers in Europe in recent weeks, it was interesting to hear that prospects for new warehouse distribution center operations by Amazon have triggered waves of social media comment, protest, and, of course, interest in what the jobs mean, what they pay, and how to deal with the reputation of the company to its rank-and-file warehouse crew.  To organizers this is the scent in the air that could bring them running at the potential of organizing the workforce from the ground up.  Who knows.  Easier said and done, even across the pond.

After batting around various ideas about how to use social media in prospecting for organizing leads and identifying organizing targets, I ended up reading a long piece in The New Yorker that largely focused on a website and app operation called Glassdoor, based in the US but with a footprint in Europe as well.  Glassdoor and its different, but similar, competitors like Vault, JobVent, and F**kedCompany among others, allow people to comment on and evaluate their employers and bosses the same way that popular sites like Yelp allow restaurant customers to rate and rank restaurants and their dining experience.

The article and much about it praised the transparency that such sites allowed employees and in the spirit of the moment some advocates thought it could help expose situations involving sexual harassment and even abuse by offering such a forum.  The article wasn’t just a fan letter though, pointing out repeatedly the conflicts of interest commercial sites like Glassdoor have by essentially allowing companies for a pricey fee to take over their Glassdoor website and soften the critique.  The problem of company encouraged and sponsored reviews that poured sugar in the coffee to distort any criticism also poisoned the transparency and more high-minded mission statement of Glassdoor.  At same time they claimed that personnel departments paid attention to comments and often were asked to comment in job interviews about negative comments on Glassdoor.

All of which got me thinking that it would be wonderful if there were a “real” site that was noncommercial and worker-run and oriented, rather than commercial and corporate infected, so that workers could share information and find out the whole story on their companies, inside and out.  There’s still every evidence despite contradictory impacts that transparency in pay tends to resolve inequities.  The requirements for salary publications in the United Kingdom have certainly had impact, including the resignation of a noted BBC reporter when she found she was paid way less than her co-host.

We need something like a Wikipedia for Workers, if you follow my argument here.  Sure, this would help organizers, and I wish it would help unions, though I doubt that they would have the interest or capacity to alter their model sufficiently to take advantage of the information and interest.  The real beneficiaries would be workers gaining the information and the ability to use it to self-organize and stand up for themselves and each other in their workplaces and force competition and equity in their industries.

That’s my phone ringing.  Someone needs to answer the call!

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