Sanders Wants Leverage on the Democratic Party for What?

Revolution-FistNew Orleans   There are five more primaries this week, and Senator Bernie Sanders is favored to lose almost all of them, extending Hillary Clinton’s lead and her inevitable nomination by the Democratic Party. Sanders is will-bringing it hard every day and trying for every vote, as he should. The simple political calculus is usually that more votes, equals more delegates, equals more leverage. In Sanders case, at this point we have to ask more pointedly what he hopes to accomplish with increased leverage.

Reports from within his campaign indicate he is focusing increasingly on having impact on the Democratic Party platform. Despite the compelling evidence that the Chair of the Party is already stacking all of the major committees with Clintonistas, including one report that of over forty appointments less than a handful went to Sanderites, the Senator is still saying that he expects to get a fair shake at the convention, blah, blah, blah.

Really? Is this what it’s all worth?

Reports from the Clinton camp over the weekend were unusually frank about how she and the campaign were viewing potential choices to fill out her ticket with a vice-presidential nominee. They characterized her as unconcerned about needing to make any concession to the left or the rabid Sanders supporters, because, as we have continually predicted, in the general election, they have nowhere else to go and will have to vote for her given the Republican field or no one at all. It’s hard not to get the sense that Sanders is already negotiating with himself and that Clinton has left the room and moved on, while continuing to make the motions and show up when scheduled.

A founder and former grand poobah of Politico took to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal of all places to argue that what we needed was a third-party. He laid out what he felt were the preconditions for a successful candidate in what I would argue is a want-ad for the political class. Meanwhile Sanders is angling for a better platform for the Democratic Party. He seems to be reminding us that he is a “coincidental” Democrat, likely never having lived through a Democratic convention from start to finish and certainly not familiar with the fact that a Democratic nominee is held to absolutely no accountability to any stack of paper produced by the delegates.

I’m not saying Sanders should go rogue and go third party. It’s too late for that, and the wrong strategy for him now, but why not use his leverage so that it means something. Ignore the platform and focus on candidates and races where elections of progressive candidates could make a difference. Take the “revolution” he’s calling for and bring it home. Help the Working Family Party get more votes on its party line in November. Turn time and fundraising to Congressional races where candidates are willing to embrace the arguments for change that Sanders has articulated. Go local on some legislative and gubernatorial races with the same fire. Jump out of the box and join with Rev. Barber in North Carolina and anyone who can be found in Mississippi to stand against hate laws. Pull out the stops to join with Planned Parenthood where they are attacked. Carry a sign with Black Lives Matter. Walk the line with unions.

Platform, splatform. Don’t play the game. Be true to your voters and supporters and change the game right now, while you have the chance, and your voice can still be heard clearly and have weight. There’s no next year. Seize the time and make it matter.

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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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Hard to Win Back Hijacked Schools

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source:theneworleansadvocate.com

New Orleans    One of the ongoing crises of the 21st century thus far has been the struggle to control schools with all sides of this massive political and cultural war pretending and presuming that they are best capable of speaking for children. Schools have been batted about like ping pongs. Some school districts have been taken over by city mayors, Chicago being the best example, and others by the state in Michigan, Arkansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, and elsewhere empowered by the Bush passage of No Child Left Behind. The so-called “charter school” movement has controversially allowed public schools to be run by private companies, some for-profit and some nonprofit, in many districts around the country with various degrees of accountability and a contentious argument over the results. Foundations from Gates to Walmart to Eli Broad and others have put their beaks deeply into the mess funding pilots, lawsuits, and various initiatives to unwind the role of teacher unions. The short conclusion of years of these struggles is undoubtedly that no one has really won, few are happy, and it’s still “god save the child.”

One thing that should be clear though is that two things speak to the foundation blocks of almost everyone’s view of America: free public education and direct election of local officials. The “privatization” of many public schools through the charter “movement” challenges the guarantee of education and the accountability of elections of public officials empowered to hold charters accountable, since they create in often mysterious and opaque ways, a separate governance structure at arms’ length from the voters and taxpayers, more often than not populated by the appointment of friends and family of principals and charter operators. Even more unsettling is the loss of local democratic control of schools when the state takes over a system. Lawsuits are still raging in Little Rock after the state was prodded to take over their system despite the fact that only a couple of schools were failing. Detroit school parents and the district are suing the State of Michigan for mismanaging the system and starving it of resources under its management. The Supreme Court in Kansas has been at loggerheads with the state legislature and governor there for starving the school system of resources.

Then there’s New Orleans, the largest charter pilot in the country in the wake of the state seizure of schools after Katrina from the local school board. Now ten years later with a new Democratic governor in office supported by the teachers’ union, married to a teacher, and not a fan of charter schools and appalled by the poor success rate of the voucher program, there have finally be a flurry of different bills that would return all the schools to the taxpayers and voters of New Orleans. That should be good news, but in these days and times, it’s not so easy to claw back schools once they have been hijacked and pirated away. Close inspection of many of the bills, supposedly returning the schools, finds numerous escape clauses and buried mechanisms seeking to allow many of the charters to ostensibly be part of the school district and under the fiscal and political control of the elected school board, while continuing to be totally unaccountable. The bill being reported as closest to passage trickles the schools back almost on a trial basis with ten the first year and then more over several years until they are all returned to local control.

At the hearing a spokesperson for one of the larger charters, Firstline, wanted to make sure they could go back to state control if somehow “things didn’t work out.” The unbridled arrogance of entitlement and contempt for the democratic process of local school control and the property tax dollars of local citizens that pay the bills won’t be so quickly ended given the fact that the tug of war on even our most basic principles is still raging. Where people simply ought to be ashamed of themselves, they have ridden the high horse so far and long over the last ten years that they have lost sight of any solid ground where they might have stood. Meanwhile politicians, currying contributions and favor, join in the conspiracy to coopt the process without a shed of embarrassment either.

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Reading a Gene Sharp Book is a Go to Jail Card in Angola

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the book club members at sentencing

New Orleans   Many complain that people just don’t read much anymore. Or, at least they don’t read books much. Monitoring devices that people use to read electronic books indicate that men read about 50 to 80 pages of books that they buy and begin to read and women read about 100 pages before abandoning the pursuit for whatever reason.

Other folks might not be reading as much because they lack access, either digitally (geez, am I beating this drum again, and again, and again) or through libraries and the like. And, then there are places like Angola in southwestern Africa along the Atlantic Ocean where reading could be a “Go to Jail” free card. Recently, a group of 17 political activists known as the Luanda Book Club received prison sentences in Angola accusing them of trying to overthrow the government because they were reading and discussing Gene Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, about nonviolence resistance to repressive regimes.

Were they really trying to overthrow the government? I doubt it. Were they trying to make change in Angola? I would bet on it. Was this a danger to the government? Well, that’s an interesting question, but the answer is only if you believe – and many conservatives do for example – that any organization of people involved in – or even thinking about — nonviolent, direct action is a danger to governments, and, if that’s what you believe, then, yes, certainly all organizers and all peoples’ organizations inherently put governments at risk through their thoughts and deeds.

Gene Sharp was a guest a decade ago at an Organizers’ Forum dialogue on tactics and strategy. He later honored me by sending me a half-dozen of his books, and I was grateful to receive them. Sharp, based in Boston is 88 years old now, and in his books, articles, and lectures as well as through his Albert Einstein Institute, he has made a fundamental argument that no government can exist, no matter how allegedly democratic or determinedly autocratic, without a high level of consensus from its subjects. The lesson for organizers, activists, and readers like our friends in Angola, is that if you organize and act collectively to reshape or withdraw that consensus, then you have the opportunity to create change. In some situations this change could be revolutionary.

For Sharp a key criteria for such change is founded on nonviolent civil disobedience. In ACORN advanced training sessions we sometimes would distribute and discuss a list that Sharp developed some years ago of one-hundred possible nonviolent tactics. We would ask organizers after reading and discussing the list to see what they might add. The list would quickly lengthen. Were we looking at Sharp’s list today in the current rage of social media, the list would be longer yet.

Undoubtedly, an injustice is being done to the seventeen activists preparing for their prison sentences in Angola, but a simple protest in solidarity might be as easy as reading one of Gene’s books or even taking a minute and making your own list of nonviolent actions that might make sense and work in these days and times.

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Luaty Beirão aka Ikonoklasta was one of those sentenced.  Video of Ikonklasta’s Nós e os Outros

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More Boycotts? Why Not?

boycott-grapesNew Orleans     Nick Jones was an organizer and boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers from 1966 to 1976, and then spent another 30-odd years as a union organizer, largely with Service Employees locals around the Bay Area, finishing his career with the National Union of Healthcare Workers. His time with the UFW ended in the divisive meltdown of the farmworkers led by the purges orchestrated by Cesar Chavez as he tightened his control on the union, in one of the more regrettable organizing tragedies of the last 50 years in the work. Nick was interviewed in Social Policy in the recent issue, and I talked to him in more detail on Wade’s World as well. What interested me most though is Nick’s argument that boycotts are an underutilized tactical tool for progressive organizations now.

First the backstory. The farmworkers’ boycott was massive. A staffing model that welcomed – and trained – volunteers was key, paying them $5 per week in 1966 which would be about $40 per week in 2016, along with room-and-board, was critical. The struggle combined a lot of elements in the equation: a popular underdog cause, a charismatic leader, a set of simple “asks,” and using consumer and public facing companies, brands, and products as targets. It was interesting to hear Nick, and read elsewhere, about cities like Boston that produced more in donations on the street for the boycott than they were spending, making the boycott essentially a self-sufficient operation. The ability and willingness for unions, churches, and others to donate living spaces and food were also key. The ask was donate por la causa – for the cause and don’t buy grapes, or a particular wine or lettuce.

There were also some critical exceptionalities that are hard to reproduce. Chavez was, unarguably, a special organizer and leader, carrying contradictions as complex as the human condition. Having a window when particular damage would be telling because of the seasonality of the crops was also an advantage that you wouldn’t find in many targets. Finally, the exclusion of agricultural workers from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act meant that there were no bars on secondary boycotts by the union, meaning stopping the grocers handling the grapes as well as the grape farmers was possible.

Nonetheless, Nick has a point. He raised Walmart as an example. That’s a hard one. Many have been boycotting Walmart for years even without a union calling for such action, and it’s unclear that there has been much impact. McDonalds might be interesting and more vulnerable, but the current strategy of advocacy for the workers, rather than organizing the workers, makes it a harder match to conditions 50 years ago in the fields.

Still, smaller targets in more defined markets would seem especially vulnerable. The vast number of contingent workers in the informal or so-called gig economy are largely outside of the NLRA jurisdiction, and would seem to have the ability to both strike collectively and encourage boycotts with impunity. Social media and the internet are clear advantages in cost and access now, that didn’t exist then. Nick pointed out that the nascent strength indicated by Black Lives Matter and Occupy of several years ago indicate that there is a likely base for the right issue at the right time for a revitalization of the boycott tactic.

My bet is that he is exactly right, and it’s worth putting together the insights that would make such a tactic work while there are so many veterans still alive and well who could share the lessons of past successes and challenges.

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ACORN’s Indian Hawkers’ Union Tries Video Recruitment

Suresh organizing hawkers.

Suresh organizing hawkers.

New Orleans    In organizing you never know what might work, and every once in a while we get the opportunity to try something new, and it’s exciting to hold our breath to see what might happen next. This minute the back story is the whole story, but soon a special video recruitment tool will be debuting throughout Bengaluru and the south Indian state of Karnataka for ACORN’s hawkers and street vendors union, and we can hardly wait to see whether it will work.

Certainly we’re not alone in trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

A Washington Post article forwarded to me by a colleague was an “oh, wow!” piece about Indian university students who were arrested for giving seditious speeches that have gained new life and a huge audience once repurposed as “foot-tapping musical numbers” that have become “a surprise online hit with the Indian youth.” On a small scale we want to see if we can create a recruitment vehicle for ACORN with enough pizzazz that hawkers will pass it back and forth in the same way, and flock to the union. Our normal recruitment method is going market by market, stall by stall, and organizing meetings for workers sitting on pieces of tarps on dusty roadways to talk about organizing when there is a lull in business. But, what the heck, let’s try this, too.

The idea developed after several large doses of serendipity.

I stumbled onto a brilliant book called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Tomayo that I encouraged everyone everywhere to read. I tracked down Tomayo, currently a professor in Michigan, and interviewed him on Wade’s World (www.kabf.org) which went spectacularly. We both agreed we should continue the conversation and did so the following Monday before the podcast was even up on the KABF website. As we talked about his work and ours, there was an intersection in the time we had both spent in Bengaluru, where he had helped set up a Microsoft lab and we had organized communities and lower waged workers for years. He asked if I was familiar with the Indian phenomenon of sharing videos from mobile phone to mobile phone with or without internet and smartphone capability. Of course I was clueless, but I knew change was coming because our Bengaluru organizer, Suresh Kadashan, finally had a smartphone during my visit with him last year. When Kentaro asked if we would be interested in trying to see if we could create a video recruitment tool to see what impact it might have on enrolling new members for our hawkers’ union, he had me from hello.

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One thing led to another and with Kentaro we linked up with another professor, Jay Chen, at NYU’s outpost in Abu Dhabi on skype, and he recruited a student, Koh Terai, with film experience who was game to make it happen, who also recruited another student to help who had ties to India, and then with Suresh’s help the pieces were falling together. Skype calls between New Orleans, Michigan, Abu Dhabi, Berlin where Koh was studying temporarily, and Bengaluru were – to my mind – a technical miracle as well!

Through four drafts of a script by Koh and three days on the ground in the markets of Bengaluru with Suresh which included recruiting some of our members to dance, Bollywood style, in the video, the rough cuts were made and the “stills” alone made me ready to join yesterday. It’ll be another couple of weeks until we have the video ready for prime time in the markets of Bengaluru, but 21st century organizing, thanks to our new friends, Kentaro, Jay, and Koh, here we come!

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Dub Sharma – Azadi [Audio] | Featuring Kanhaiya and Friends– One of the remixes of the student’s speech to music.

Visit ACORN International for more video stills of our hawkers film.

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