The Trials and Tribulations of a Local Group Organizer

Mayor of Grenoble, head of social housing, and other bureaucrats and pols "doing the time"

Mayor of Grenoble, head of social housing, and other bureaucrats
and pols “doing the time”

Grenoble I had spent most of the day in meetings about organizing a domestic workers union in Morocco and expanding the Alliance to Paris, Lyon, and beyond, but there was a chance to watch a mini-action in one of the newer groups involving a meeting organized by the Mayor of Grenoble. The head organizer of Alliance Citoyenne, Solene Compingt, and I literally ran for the bus from the office across town to the school auditorium where the public meeting was being held.

Ostensibly the meeting was designed to get the neighborhoods input or reaction to a redevelopment plan on a specific social housing or public housing project that was on the block for demolition and rebuilding. The Mayor arrived as did the head of the Grenoble office of social housing. City workers were scurrying around in preparation and readiness. A PowerPoint was projected onto the wall at the bottom of the banked auditorium. People kept trickling in until there were perhaps one hundred in attendance at least a quarter of whom were from the Alliance local chapter. The organizer, Emerick Champagnon, was moving from clump to clump to talk to members after they held a short preparation meeting on the sidewalk outside before coming into the auditorium.

head of social housing pretending to listen

head of social housing pretending to listen

The PowerPoint was brief with only two or three slides, spelling out the goals, objectives, timeline and promises of the redevelopment. Quickly, the questions started flying for over an hour as various residents tried to cross the moat and throw themselves against the wall of the city’s strangely constructed fort around the project. The state was funding the project in a partnership of sorts, it was clear, but nothing was clear about what the Mayor really hoped would come from the meeting. On the city’s part there seemed no clear agenda other than to check the box off that said “public meeting,” live through it, and get to dinner by 8pm. After they gave a brief explanation of the project whenever asked a question they pushed the decision over to the state and to every exhortation from numerous speakers in the crowd they resisted any involvement in the meeting with the state by the residents, insisting that they were best able to negotiate in their various interests: a classic “no win” strategy. And, no-win for anyone. The Mayor or his aides had constructed a dead end canyon and for the organizers and members there were few options other than to keep riding around in circles in the ravine.

some of the members trying to get a grip on the debate

some of the members trying to get a grip on the debate

What to do? There was no choice but to organize the members to attend since it was a public meeting on an important issue to the group organized by what should have been a decision maker. Members would have attended individually, if there had not been a collective action to do so. The Alliance questions were organized, but as the information was presented it was impossible to fabricate democratic demands that would resonate with all of the members on the spot, so the organizer in the after meeting wrap up briefing is left trying to offer options for the frustration to be channeled to the next steps the group could take. Not sure that’s what the Mayor had in mind by organizing the meeting in the first place or stonewalling when it happened. They were a classic picture of public officials absorbing the punches in boredom as they resolutely resisted either moving to respond or making a plan to move forward. They were just marking time it seemed. I would bet the group will now leapfrog the Mayor and go straight to the state, complicating the matters even further. While the Mayor has attempted to strengthen his bargaining position, he has likely eroded it.

Solene commented to me as we walked into the night that she “hates these kinds of actions.” How could it be otherwise? A public meeting that makes a mockery of public participation while pretending to be designed for public input is a rat maze, not a merry-go-round, pleasing no one, and adding to the trials and tribulations of life and work of local group organizers everywhere.

briefing after meeting

briefing after meeting

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.

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.

Community Organizations and Unions are Key to Upward Mobility

ACORNNew Orleans    Sometimes at ACORN’s annual legislative conferences in Washington, DC, I would be just in and out, but one time I overlapped a contentious session between Harvard’s Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame and ACORN leaders and members. The members were arguing that their experience with ACORN and their local community organizations in their neighborhoods contradicted his claims about the increasing weakness of community and organizational ties. Everyone ended up politely in a standoff of sorts.

All of which made my eyes stick to a piece in the Times that talked about a study that “finds greater economic mobility in areas with more union membership.” Their formula though was reductionist, essentially that in urban areas where there is more union density there are higher wages paid to both members and non-members and these wage increases waterfall down to children and the combined impact helps increase economic mobility on an inter-generational level. All of that is good news and hardly a surprise but nice to hear that Raj Chetty of Stanford now and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard are putting the pieces together to provide more proof. The Times reported that the “size of the effect is small….”

But, what are the other “effects” that are larger according to the mega-domes? They say there are five factors that impact a low-income child’s chances of fighting their way up to the middle class in our increasingly stratified and unequal America: single motherhood (not good), high school dropout rate (bad), residential segregation (terrible), and, big drum roll, hear this – “the amount of social capital as measured by indicators like voter turnout and participation in community organizations.” And, according to the authors that’s not just good, but great! Or as Chetty writes elsewhere: “some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital….”

The members were not just arguing for the heck of it back a decade ago with Putnam, they were right, because they were speaking from their experience, and Putnam rather than poo-pooing their points because of falling membership in churches, garden clubs, scouting, and, yes, bowling leagues, should have been applauding them as the way up and out in the future. Add a community organization that also does voter registration, as ACORN did, and we were mixing the secret sauce in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods that could have powered Popeye, Superman, and the whole hall of heroes.

We’ve talked and advocated community-labor coalitions for years. Now we have a new argument. Add community organizations and our whole range of activities to build social capital and combine that participation with participation in unions to raise income, and, wham-bam, we’re moving on up!

Looking More Closely at the NLRB’s New Joint Employer Standard

10666801h1290937*750xx900-507-0-0Kiln, Mississippi    Lawyers on all sides of the issue will have millions of words and make millions of dollars parsing, arguing, advocating, and appealing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision to establish a new standard to determine what constitutes joint employer status, but for many workers and, to modify an old expression, the organizers that love them, let’s take a closer look at the actual decision and see what it offers in plain and simple instructions about how to determine whether or not joint employer status exists. Luckily, the decision is written very carefully in the expectation of appeals, so it rewards closer review.

I enjoyed the fact that the NLRB broke through the legal mumbo-jumbo to clearly state in so many words that this was an 800-pound gorilla of a problem too large to continue to ignore. Embedded in the decision is the reality of the modern evisceration of a stable workplace. The Board notes that contingent work now represents 4.1% of total employment in the USA or 5.7 million workers. Temporary employment is 2% of total employment and another 2.87 million workers. On the coasts they can prattle about the new so-called “gig” economy, but the NLRB makes it clear with these numbers that such workers are working without any net of protection or in most situations representation. Without expressly saying so, the NLRB essentially is refusing to continue to support a fiction that unions have any practical or proportionate power at the bargaining table, despite there being a long standing standard for how unions can organize temporary workers that determines the bargaining unit based on an average of hours worked over succeeding 13 week periods averaging the required minimum hours in that period to not be considered casual, but to be determined as employees, albeit temporary.

As we have frequently noted, the new standard elevates indirect control and authority, even if not explicitly exercised, to the status of joint employment. In determining under the new standard whether or not a company is a joint employer with their subcontractors of course setting wages and hours is the brightest line. The NLRB adds to those potential tests the question of whether or not the company establishes the number of workers on the job, has input or authority around scheduling, seniority, overtime, or assigning work and standards. The examples in the decision not only from the Browning-Ferris case under review but also others that are mentioned are very helpful, and include, not surprisingly, examples of how building owners effectively control the janitors working for cleaning companies.

These examples add other “tests” worth listening for including when a contractor recommends discipline or termination of individual workers, rules mandating that a subcontractor worker cannot be paid more than the contractor’s own employees doing similar work, determining when the machines operated by the subcontractor workers turn on or off, and drug, professional, and other testing requirements for subcontract workers. All of these conditions were evident in this BFI recycling case, but many organizers will also recognize many of them as common in representative situations. I can’t even count the number of grievances we have handled in buildings, on garbage trucks, in university cafeterias, school yards, and elsewhere where Local 100 is opposing a termination in the final step and being greeted by a shrug from an employer that the property owner had demanded the action for one reason or another so what choice did they have other than to do what the real boss said or lose the contract. Where there are multiple locations, it often has meant that we agree to reassign the worker away from a problematic worksite or supervisor. I will never forget winning a case for a worker years ago at Tulane University where a Tulane administrator wanted a young woman fired because she didn’t smile enough on the cafeteria line. On that one Tulane had to eat it, so to speak, and she became an outstanding steward for us and a union organizer who had great success in organizing California home care workers for several years.

Franchisee operators can sweat this new decision, but they are not mentioned anywhere. The real beneficiaries immediately are these millions of workers in contingent and temporary employment who are little more than working scams where someone bigger wanted to sweat the same work down to lower wages, less liability and workman’s compensation. The decision changes the game allowing the union, if and when there is one, to force the real employer to the table to bargain on those issues where they have or are exercising control.

As long as it lasts, we’re catching a major break for millions of workers here, if we’re willing and able to do the work to get them organized.

Rewriting the Rules

Rewriting-rulesNew Orleans              The AFL-CIO has already begun the process of vetting potential Presidential candidates, offering the opportunity to any of the score that has an interest in coming by, which so far means all the Democrats and Republican ex-Arkansas Governor and current TV commentator Mike Huckabee. Interestingly, Rich Trumka has indicated that the AFL’s key benchmark flows from a new report spearheaded by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Roosevelt University with the input of a host of others. The report is called “Rewriting the Rules,” so let’s take a look at its proposals.

Not surprisingly, Trumka and the house of labor are no doubt pleased to see the ringing endorsement of expanded labor rights and promotion of collective bargaining as important principles to re-establish in the economy. The clearest proposal in this area recommended that the federal government add clear conditions not only to governmental subcontracts but to development grants to protect and advance union protections and bargaining. The rest was predictable.

The point of the report is that the rules matter. No rules, which is what the long desert of deregulation in so many sectors produced, tilted the economy to the 1% and allowed Wall Street and other cowboys to herd us into the Great Recession. Remember it wasn’t just “no rules,” but “bad rules,” which is the point here, too. “Rewriting the Rules” is an argument that in order to re-balance the economy and its myriad winners-and-losers, our politicians and the government need to put new regulations in place that would allow us to prosper and to do so more equitably.

Perhaps most interesting were the recommendation for reforming the financial sector, because this is right in the wheelhouse for Stiglitz and many of his helpers:


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnd “too big to fail” by imposing additional capital surcharges on systemically risky financial institutions and breaking up firms that cannot produce credible living wills.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMBetter regulate the shadow banking sector.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMBring greater transparency to all financial markets by requiring all alternative asset managers to publicly disclose holdings, returns, and fee structures.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMReduce credit and debit card fees through improved regulation of card providers and enhanced competition.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnforce existing rules with stricter penalties for companies and corporate officials that break the law.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMReform Federal Reserve governance to reduce conflicts of interest and institute more open and accountable elections.


Some of those recommendations would make a difference, particularly impacting on banking and credit access and affordability. The report also takes some clear shots at what is needed to rein in the quick buck artists of business for the protection of the economy and the public.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMRestructure CEO pay by closing the performance-pay tax loophole and increasing transparency on the size of compensation packages relative to performance and median worker pay and on the dilution as a result of grants of stock options.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnact a financial transaction tax to reduce short-term trading and encourage more productive long-term investment.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEmpower long-term stakeholders through the tax code, the use of so-called “loyalty shares,” and greater accountability for managers of retirement funds.


I wouldn’t hold my breath about any of this, but it is reassuring that labor at least is asking the right questions and pointing the way to some hard decisions and clear policies.


Please enjoy Rickie Lee Jones’ J’ai Connais Pas (I Don’t Know).

Thanks to KABF.