Special Multinational Court in Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

1439533698362New Orleans     President Obama sees the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as a legacy marker. News reports refer to the announcement of an agreement with the Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Canada, Peru, Mexico and many others as a “capstone” agreement for the president. The White House says that there are labor and environmental protections that are unprecedented for a trade agreement. Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries had to agree to protect labor rights in a major announcement. Many big national environmental organizations are touting the agreement as a breakthrough including the World Wildlife Federation. Australia supposedly pushed hard enough that big Pharma can’t run roughshod over generics and cheaper access to drugs in developing countries.

Sounds good, huh, but what do we have here?

The Organizers’ Forum delegation met with a researcher and campaigner in Warsaw recently named Roland Zarzycki working with the Institute for Global Responsibility. In the course of the dialogue we touched on the troubling elements in the likely TTP agreement. One that was especially worrisome had to do with the special court provisions that would allow transnational companies to sue countries over restrictions on trade in their products, but would not allow countries to sue the multinationals nor provide access to any other parties to adjudicate their concerns. Such special provisions for multinational companies paint a picture of a world of particular privilege and provision for globalization that is worrisome.

Is this some imagined problem for the paranoid? Hardly. The proof seems to be in the last minute jostling that indicated that there would be special provisions in the TPP to prevent tobacco companies from being able to sue countries that are trying to put in place health protections for the many diseases advanced by tobacco. Under some agreements Big Tobacco has already tried to take countries like India and others to such international courts. So, this door was reportedly locked for tobacco in the TPP, and that’s good, but what about other ugly, unhealthy multinational products and practices that will continue to be able to access these special courts in order to try to circumvent country by country provisions and protections?

We really don’t know of course. The negotiations are conducted in secret and the agreements reached will not be public until such time that President Obama starts the 90-day clock for Congressional review and an up or down vote to approve or disprove the trade treaty as negotiated. It’s hard to dispute the need for some quiet and confidentiality in negotiations, but the lack of information about vital pieces of the agreement privileges insiders and multinationals as well, compared to all of us biscuit-cookers out there trying to figure out what’s up.

Maybe this is as good as they are spinning, but until we know the whole story, it’s worth a lot of worry, and in the wake of countless agreements like this in the past, it’s hard to be optimistic that this is going to be as good for all of us as it is for big companies and special interests who clearly already have the inside track.


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.


Europe Going South and East

indexWarsaw   The Organizers’ Forum delegation began our meetings at the Warsaw School of Economics with Dr. Jan Czarzasty who is a specialist in labor markets and provided us with a helpful context for understanding the major issues of Poland’s political economy. It was an education!

He noted early in his presentation to us, while responding to questions, that there had been a sea change in expectations and understanding of the whole European proposition. Coming into the European Union, there had been a notion that the eastern countries of Europe, like Poland, as well as the southern countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain would essentially move north and west in adopting classic European standards around social security, general welfare, workers’ rights, and other citizen-centered policies, but after more than a dozen years, it now seemed that Europe was moving towards the lower standards of the southern and eastern countries.

Poland has seen an out-migration of two million workers as economic itinerants booming out in construction and service industries with more than 800,000 workers in the United Kingdom, almost 200000 in Ireland, and 100000 in Norway and Sweden for example. Many continue to bounce back and forth, and remittances have become a substantial part of the economy, even after the global recession.

Meanwhile, the economy of Poland has improved, but everything is relative. Unemployment for example is a record low – 10% — which sounds awful, but is great when you consider it was 20%.

The social safety net continues to be frayed. Contributions to the state system are not matched by the government, except for the political astute and powerful farmers who have a separate pension system which is 95% paid for by the state. There was a second system, based loosely on the Chilean private IRA-type investment scheme, but the state recently unilaterally transferred all of that fund to the state system. Polish citizens who had put money in the privatization scheme refer to that move simply as “robbery.” Meanwhile the eligibility for retirement has been gender neutralized, but that meant raising everyone’s retirement age to 67 years.

The housing market, especially in Warsaw, is very tight. Part of the problem we learned from the professor came from the adoption of the British-system biased towards home ownership rather than doing more to protect and privilege renters. This has led to young people packing four and five in 500 square feet of space or so in order to afford the rents. Additionally, the more family friendly policies of other countries, especially around parental leave and child care have also driven many young families west as well. Jan described his students at the School of Economics as mainly middle-class and well-educated, but the combination of rental and labor markets leads to about half of every class migrating somewhere else in Europe for employment and opportunity.

Even while reporting all of this less than rosy picture, nothing about Warsaw fits with the image in our memory bank. The visual impression in Warsaw is still European and more modern than not. I can vividly recall when we attached an ACORN colleague to a trip for organizers sponsored by some foundation to Poland not long after the Solidarnosc movement in the 1980s. The descriptions were dire, calling up images of smokestacks, pollution, heavy industry, and almost a grim pre-industrial vision. Now, the names on the taller buildings include MetLife, Kia, and others. Auto manufacturers have flocked to the relatively lower wages here to locate their plants. People tell us, all evidence to the contrary, that things are better, there are more things to buy, and people are happier with the economy.

Poland is advancing on Europe and Europe is coming down to Polish standards in a great leveling of sorts where it is hard to predict either the bottom or the top these days.