Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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Many Lessons from the Dutch Election

Dutch Freedom Party leader (Partij Voor De Vrijheid, PVV) Geert Wilders (L) holds a banner reading “Get out! This is our land” during a protest in front of the Turkish embassy at The Hague on March 8, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty)

Montreal   As I tried to make my way through the snowageddon between the US and Canada, I kept trying to get updates on the election results in the Netherlands. In some ways my interest was less about the populist hoopla revolving around the party-of-one for Wilders, the Trumpish anti-immigrant, hate spewing rightwing candidate, than the fate of the other parties on the list. Waking up, the headlines heralded that the right-center party and the current prime minister had out polled Wilders, but there were many, perhaps more important stories hidden beneath those headlines.

My interest was more than casual. I had visited the Netherlands for several weeks in the fall discussing strategies around a campaign to restore national health insurance in the country and advising on various field, phone, and GOTV programs with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, so I was very interested in how my friends and colleagues there had fared against the populist surge. The short answer, somewhat reassuring in these troubled times, though perhaps disappointing when compared to our hopes, was that they essentially held their own. Where they had 15 seats in the Parliament or 10% of the total, they polled enough to hold onto 14 seats. The Prime Minister’s party, while outpolling Wilders, still lost 8 seats or 20% of its total, while he added a third more seats or 5 to his total. There are 28 or so different parties in the Netherlands vying for their share of the national vote to apportion out accordingly the 150 total seats between each party, making it all something of a multi-party mess when it comes to governing.

The real loser was the center-left Labor Party, which was decimated in the election falling from the number two party with 38 seats to the Prime Minister’s party with 41 seats, in this election to only 9 seats, losing more than three-quarters of their seats. And, why? Because they had agreed to help form the governing coalition, and their members saw it as a sellout as the center-right governing party pushed more conservative programs and policies. The lesson for many parties was clear. Not only would they not be willing to join a government with Wilders and the populist rightwing, but they might also be committing political suicide by following Labor’s move and being whipsawed on program.

The SP/N base may not have grown, but the work and campaigns held country-strong for the most part giving them clear paths to build their future. The math seems to indicate that seventeen of Labor’s number might have gone to the Green Left Party which went up ten seats from four to fourteen, now tying SP/N, and the centrist party, Democrats 66, which went from twelve seats to nineteen. This is obviously a very fluid situation as parties try to construct a permanent home to house their new seats and to attract the almost dozen seats Labor lost that dissipated among parties both right and left.

The overriding problem might be how does Netherlands govern with so many fractions? The Prime Minister’s party won in some ways by going right to block Wilders, but that’s not a governing strategy, and that may leave it harder pressed to find a coalition with constructive values and policies that can construct a vision. Meanwhile the center and left parties have the opportunity to construct an alternate program and vision, and the SP/N’s work on healthcare reform may be a template worth modeling in the Netherlands and elsewhere, but it’s likely going to be an unsettling time for a while before bridges can be built towards the future.

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The Long Tail of Payback on Harvard’s Investment in Coal Fired Electricity Production

Students from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House at the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   What goes around, comes around, even if forty-five years later. Hearing that food activists from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House were interested in volunteering in New Orleans, triggered an immediate invitation from ACORN International for them to visit and help at the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. Seven showed up on a cool morning to weed, mow, and help in any way possible, having only arrived the night before, barely escaping the heralded snow-ageddon northeaster hitting their area.

But, before work began, the circle had to be closed with additional thanks for the help of Philip Brooks House years ago when ACORN embarked on our first campaign to gain national attention. Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, the parent of Arkansas Power & Light had announced that it wanted to build the world’s largest coal-fired plant at White Bluff near the town of Redfield on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come from the Fort Union deposit under the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, parts of Montana, and North Dakota. Their proposal to move the coal to the plant was to build a slurry line where water from the arid west would flush the coal all the way down to Arkansas.

ACORN had been fighting both gas and electric utilities over exorbitant rate increases and saw the plant as driving rates even higher, so on that score our members were already agitated. Quick research found that there increasing reports, particularly from Europe, on the adverse impact of sulfur pollution, especially on agriculture. ACORN dispatched an organizer to put together groups of farmers and others on both sides of the river, who were worried about diminishing crop yields, while the company was claiming it would lower their costs. There were actions a plenty in Arkansas to try and stop the plant, and I joined our farmers on a company-paid private plane flight to Kentucky to see the TVA’s Paradise plant, which we blew up in their faces with reports of pollution warnings caused by the plant.

All of that moved the needle forward, but the major paper at the time, The Arkansas Gazette, still saw ACORN and our efforts as rag-tag. As a public company, ACORN was able to determine its major investors were the pride of the Ivy League, with Harvard first and Princeton and Yale right behind. We reached out for an organizer we knew in the area, and he started making contacts at Harvard, launching a petition, getting students to join us in demanding the Board of Harvard join us in opposing the plant unless there were scrubbers to stop the pollution and other modifications. The Harvard Crimson did a piece by Nicholas Lemann, from New Orleans, and now with The New Yorker and other posts, all of which triggered the Gazette to run ACORN’s campaign on the front page for the first time in our young history.

We eventually won a good deal of that campaign when the company had to cut the size of the plant in half, drop the slurry line, also opposed by our allies in the Northern Plains Resource Council, and made pollution adjustments. Where did we get the most support at Harvard: the Philip Brooks House, where I also spoke and did recruitment, but that’s another story.

We thanked the Harvard students again as they worked with us in a different way, and gave them an ACORN flag from our Latin American affiliates to bring home to hang in the House, reviving the tale, and closing the circle once again.

PS. The researcher was Steve Kest, the organizer was John Beam, and the campus organizer was Bill Kitchen!

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Getting Congress to Move: Get on the Blower and Hold that Line!

Illustration by Oliver Munday / Source: Gary Ombler / Getty (phone)

Little Rock   Ever wondered what your representatives in Congress really listen to other than lobbyists, local business people, and of course their donors? Well, Kathryn Schulz in an informative piece in The New Yorker waded into the Washington swamp and came back with some interesting answers to that question.

A lot of people might think its mail. In the Senate 6.4 million letters were delivered last year, so that’s something. A 2015 survey she cites says that senior staffers say personalized emails, personal letters, and hometown editorials rank highest. Nonetheless when it comes to disruptive action it’s the old school telephone that gets the job done. In Schulz’ words:

“For mass protests…calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”

What doesn’t work according to her interviews are Facebook posts, random tweets, online petitions, comments through app, or mass e-mails from advocacy and websites. She also found that you are more likely to be successful on a small, specific item from your district as opposed partisan and polarized matters. This resonates with me as well. I can remember easily getting an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill years ago to retain hazardous duty pay for our workers at the National Hansen’s Disease Center, but having to work like the dickens to get ACORN’s Homesteading Bill passed, even in watered down form.

But in this moment the telephone seems to have become the citizen’s weapon de jour. Calls are flooding into Congressional offices in record volumes. Schulz notes one Democratic Senator from Washington got 31000 calls in 3 weeks, while a Republican Senator from Colorado got 3000 in one night. Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania got 1000 pieces of mail over two weeks in January of 2016, but got 45,000 in the same period this year. As Schulz reports:

“Members of Congress claim that, Senate-wide, the call volume for the week of January 30, 2017, more than doubled the previous record; on average, during that week, the Senate got 1.5 million calls a day. Three of those days January 31st, February 1st, and February 2nd – were the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard.”

They don’t like being on the hot seat either. They are frightened by the “spontaneity” and the fact that it seemed “organic: people saw something in the news, it made them angry, and they called their member of Congress.” Yes, Americans are acting like the President, but the average America is grabbing her telephone and letting her Congressperson have a piece of her mind, rather than the President fumbling for his Twitter account on his phone.

Of course this is not organizational and neither is it sustainable, but it speaks to an important moment and a potential movement, if it could be marshalled, though that won’t be easily done since the response, interestingly, seems to be on issues across the board from health to education to appointments to general misbehavior.

There is something so American in the naiveté all of this, but it offers hope for change as well. As Schulz closes, she writes:

“The telephone might not be a superior medium for participatory democracy, but it is an excellent metaphor for it, and it reminds us of the rights we are promised as citizens. When we get disconnected, we can try to get through. When we get no answer, we can keep trying. When we have to, for as long as we need to, we can hold the line.”

How dear is that? It won’t really work, as most of us know, but, very importantly, it’s something to build on.

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A Day Without Women Here is a Day About Women Everywhere

A rally at Washington Square Park in Manhattan to mark “A Day Without a Woman” on Wednesday. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Little Rock   The limits of action without organization are hard to escape, and in the United States the call for a strike and actions by women to show America how badly the country would suffer without the contribution of women and their economic power was bound to suffer from the “revolution of rising expectations” set in motion by the mammoth women’s marches earlier in the year. There were some school closings in Washington. Some businesses were impacted, and of course the impact of reduced purchases or, alternatively, purchases in women-owned businesses are impossible to measure except anecdotally. Ironically, there were many women who said they in fact couldn’t strike either because their work was vital in terms of caring for other women’s health for example or they couldn’t afford to lose the income or the job by acting alone, much of which proves even more emphatically how important women are in the workplace.

I’m reminded of one of ACORN’s less successful tactical actions 45 years ago against Arkla Gas to protest rising gas rates when we called for a Shutoff Arkla Day. Organizationally, it is impossible to prove the negative. But, no matter, the important thing is that women were standing up either physically, symbolically or sympathetically as a reminder that there will be prices to pay for the continued governmental assaults. It was also nice that American women didn’t flinch at joining in solidarity with women around the world who for years have now made March 8th their day.

The history of the day is momentous. The first Women’s Day was originally organized at the end of February 1909 by the Socialist Party of New York. Although some of this story is surrounded in myths of historic protests and strikes, none of that has been confirmed. Driving from Greenville to Little Rock yesterday, I heard the claim that the first Women’s Day was in reaction to the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 largely young immigrant women workers in New York City, but that tragedy was actually two years later in 1911. It was likely more a matter of the Socialist Party thinking it was the right thing to do, and though that doesn’t sound as epic, perhaps its very solemnity and morality, speak even more loudly. March 8th became important – and historic – when a century ago in commemoration of Women’s Day, women went on strike in St. Petersburg, Russia demanding an end to World War I, and end to food shortages, and an end to czarism, helping trigger the Russian Revolution. In 1965 the Russians made it an official holiday. China did so even earlier offering a half-day off for women in 1949.

Finally, the United Nations in 1975 adopted March 8th as International Women’s Day encouraging all countries to celebrate the date. What goes around, comes around, and now to their credit, March 8th became a day to remember in 2017 for women – and men – in the United States as well.

Now, if we could just make every day, women’s day in what still is too much of a man’s world.

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Flipping the Script on Panthers’ Bobbie Seale and AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumka

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale checks food bags. March 31, 1972.

New Orleans   It’s a topsy-turvy world out there. What was down, is up, and what was up seems down, and we’re all looking for solid ground.

Take Bobby Seale, the controversial political and cultural icon of the 1960s and former Chairmen of the Black Panther Party. Steve Early, labor representative and journalist (and regular contributor to Social Policy), noted these same ironies in a recent piece in Counterpunch on the way what goes around has come around for the 81-year old Seale in his homecoming in the Bay Area and the Panther’s work in Richmond, particularly.

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed up to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil. Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need. Although the BPP promoted black empowerment, Seale describes the Party today as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a multi-racial political formation, has gained municipal clout in recent years, Panther history has won official and unofficial recognition locally. The RPA operates out of downtown storefront office renamed the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center, in honor of a Richmond Panther leader now deceased.

As Seale noted during his visit, a city hall proclamation in 2009 thanked him personally and “his organization and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in the standing ovation Seale received after his hour-long speech, to a crowd of 350, at a second Black History Month event hosted by For Richmond last Friday. Chairman Bobby began his talk with the observation that, once again, it’s “time to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains key to gaining political power in Richmond or any place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.

Down comes up, it seems when the arc of history is long.

On the other hand, a message hit me from another friend and comrade calling attention to a visit by Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO to Fox Business News. He was red-hot mad that Trumka, seen as the voice of American workers, had called Trump’s speech before Congress his “finest moment” and expressed his willingness of labor to “partner” with Trump on trade and other issues. I listened to the clip, and, inarguably, Trumka said those things, but it wasn’t totally upside down, because he was also clear that Trump has promised, but hasn’t delivered, and has to balance the playing field, rather than toadying to the rich. It seemed clearer that President Trump has labor leaders like Trumka walking a tightrope without any net. They want him to deliver on jobs and trade, but know that they are going to get hammered almost everywhere else. This is a dangerous act though, since Trumka, like most union chiefs, have to understand that Trump can start and stop the merry-go-round any time he wants, either tossing them aside or making Trumka and his team, in the famous British expression of the relationship of George Bush and Tony Blair, his “toy poodle.”

Maybe Trumka has not totally flip flopped from up to down, but he – and the rest of us – have to be worried about whether we can survive with Trump anywhere near the middle.

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