More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits


Mental Health Clients are Organizing in Alaska

Michael Penn | Juneau Empire Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Rock Creek, Montana   Since Tocqueville’s journeys in America in the 18th century, people have talked about the America affinity for associations and organizations of all shapes and sizes to the degree that their diminishment in recent decades is news itself for scholars and others. Membership has fallen like a rock in churches, unions, scouting, and other voluntary organizations. All of which makes it worth noting when groups that have never organized begin to do so, which brings me to an exceptional effort stirring now in Alaska where mental health clients are coming together to build a statewide organization to advocate and represent their interests.

MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers Action Network, is a fledgling organization getting on its feet over recent months in Alaska of all places. The spark-plug for this exciting development is a former ACORN organizer who worked in New Orleans more than twenty-five years ago named Greg Fitch. His most exciting memories of his years with ACORN involved the organizing around the savings-and-loan crisis and the Resolution Trust Corporation, remember that outfit, which managed their “bailout” of sorts. Greg had bounced around the country working with several organizations after leaving ACORN, and over the last 15 years or so ended up with his own personal experiences with the mental health system before being able to get the treatment and help he required, and in the process he found himself in Alaska.

As Fitch described it to me, he wanted to apply the lessons he had learned as an ACORN organizer and using the ACORN model and methodology and apply them to community of mental health clients. His early work has been encouraging with immediate and enthusiastic support from mental health consumers, and as the organization gets on its feet a pretty supportive response from policy makers and politicians as well. Early press in the Juneau Empire has been fair and positive which hasn’t hurt his efforts either.  I’ve signed on to help him build the organization and the board as they already begin to think about building a statewide organization and reach out for resources to support their work.

At first glance all of this might seem unusual, but it reminds me of many similar organizing projects, and none more than my time with the National Welfare Rights Organization. There, we were organizing and working for a constituency that was maligned to assist them in building an organization where they could assert their rights within a densely bureaucratic system, develop their own voice and demands, and the power to advocate and change the system where many had felt victimized as often as they felt they benefited. Furthermore, though controversial, the process of welfare recipients organizing could also impact the general public’s view of their circumstances. In the health care area the dramatic contribution made by ACT-UP in changing the way that AIDS patients received treatment and altering the priorities and policies that saved many lives is the golden standard for such client advocacy. There are also incidents of mental health consumers organizing in places like Massachusetts. The new mental health legislation passed by Congress recently also reportedly protects and advances the role of patient advocacy organizations.

It would seem past time for such organizations to build, so why not now and why not Alaska, and in fact why not everywhere across America?


Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest


Figuring Out How to Grow Globally, One Country at a Time, One after Another

action-mie-4Grenoble   Finally with the last of our meetings over in Paris, we headed for Grenoble to focus on our own business, the internal and external work of ACORN International and its affiliates, most importantly, the Alliance Citoyenne and our joint work through ReAct globally. Where do we begin? Well of course everywhere, but we continue such conversations in captive audience meetings on trains from Brussels to Paris and then into the night along the three hour journey between Paris and Grenoble. The conversations were wide ranging, charts and diagrams emerged, maps were drawn, boxes were ticked off, pros and cons debated, and endless lists emerged for follow up and implementation. It’s trite to say that it’s a big world, but true nonetheless, and the opportunities are boundless, but how are organizing models built except through similar processes of selection and rejection.

In France, progress seemed to have been made after our recent staff meeting to expand significantly in an area close by to Aubervilliers, where we are now organizing, in the lower income and immigrant suburbs. The devil is in the details, but there seems to be some blessing emerging for such a plan that could be a rocket boost for the work in Paris. Vision drives the timelines and trying to build a national organization, would find us still fledgling in 2017 at the next national election, but more realistically would allow us to concentrate multi-city growth and development by 2022. Lyon is the third largest city in France and only a bit more than an hour away from our powerhouse in Grenoble, so it’s an obvious choice to develop perhaps within the next year. St. Etienne is also in this cluster and about the same size as Grenoble, so would seem inevitable within coming years. We have an ally in Rennes, which takes that off the list for now, while discussions continue, but what else is possible? Marseilles is the second largest city. Lille has been mentioned in the north. Nantes is worth thought for size and location. Without some strategic thinking Paris and “greater Grenoble” could take us years, so this will be interesting to cobble together.

With a meeting of all of our Africa-based staff, thinking about France seems easy compared to trying to determine where we can build a showcase operation to root the model and the work in Africa. On the Anglophone side, we have a deep and lasting commitment in Kenya, but have had trouble breaking out of the Korogocho slum, given its size (450000) and complexity, and certainly can’t pretend that we are contending for power anywhere else. Meetings in Germany and earlier in London, put South Africa on the list based on the prospects of developing a training program for community organizers there, but who is to know. ReAct has done extensive campaign work and direct organizing in several countries in Francophone Africa so their experience drives this conversation importantly. Cameroon has shown the most promising success and our work in organizing more than 1000 plantation workers in several areas of the country also proves that the base and campaigns can be built in more rural areas as well. Our meeting in the fall is going to be held in Douala, so that city, one of the largest in central-west Africa, immediately becomes a primary candidate, so we’ll have a chance to take a good look. Another argument was made for an even larger city, Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast and West Africa. The political climate is slightly less stable, but the potential there is huge.

The one certainty is that to organize effectively in countries throughout Africa, we have to build a showcase operation in several places just as did in the United States starting in Little Rock, in Canada starting in Toronto, in Honduras now for Latin America, Bristol in the United Kingdom, and Grenoble in France in order to drive the growth. These conversations are always heady and exciting, but the decisions that follow and the commitments they entail are permanent, so care and caution must match vision and dreaming in such planning.


Encouraging Updates on Organizing Informal Workers Globally

Global Index of Workers Rights from ITUC 1 – Irregular violations of rights: 18 countries including Denmark and Uruguay 2 – Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Japan and Switzerland 3 – Regular violations of rights: 33 countries including Chile and Ghana 4 – Systematic violations of rights: 30 countries including Kenya and the USA 5 – No guarantee of rights: 24 countries including Belarus, Bangladesh and Qatar 5+ - No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 8 countries including Central African Republic and Somalia.

Global Index of Workers Rights from ITUC 1 – Irregular violations of rights: 18 countries including Denmark and Uruguay
2 – Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Japan and Switzerland
3 – Regular violations of rights: 33 countries including Chile and Ghana
4 – Systematic violations of rights: 30 countries including Kenya and the USA
5 – No guarantee of rights: 24 countries including Belarus, Bangladesh and Qatar
5+ – No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 8 countries including Central African Republic and Somalia.

Paris  Alison Tate, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) director of economic and social policy and Sharan Burrow, the president of the ITUC, had just flown in from China earlier in the day before Adrien Roux and I met them in a plaza, enjoying the reportedly rare Brussels sunshine safely under an umbrella while pounding espresso. The subject at hand was discussing our progress and projects in organizing unions of informal workers in India, Africa, and elsewhere and getting a sense from them where the work was progressing globally.

As it happened, the ITUC had recently completed a piece in Equal Times that was a special report on the informal economy with case studies of sorts from fourteen different countries, which Alison handed over at the beginning of the meeting. Taking a look later on the train to Paris, much of it focused on fleshing out the work following what they termed the “historic” adoption of Recommendation 204 from the International Labour Organization establishing a standard of “guiding principles” to assist “half of the world’s labour force transition from the informal to the formal economy.” Admittedly, a standard of guiding principles is a pretty thin rope to grab while drowning in high seas, but given the continued acceleration of lower wage, precarious informal work and the stubbornness with which the work and workers are exploited and governments pretend it doesn’t exist, any step forward, no matter how fledgling is progress indeed. Some of the report’s graphics made these points starkly: 66% of non-agricultural employment in sub-Saharan Africa is informal with 82.7% in Mali and 76.3% in Zambia; 46.8% of all Latin American workers are informal; 85% of the working population in South Asia is said to be informal and 65% in Southeast Asia, and so on – you get the picture.

When it comes to organizing, President Burrow was more certain of the ITUC’s progress. They had launched an organizing “academy” to develop “lead” organizers to run organizing programs in various continents. Burrow’s goal was to get to 100 crackerjack organizers through the program and then match them with the same skilled organizers in the formal sector, and see if the combination couldn’t create an explosion of organizing. She felt she already had seen 70 to 80 reach that level, so felt increasingly close to where the ITUC hoped to be.

It was encouraging to hear their reports of national labor federations that had embraced the organizing and affiliation of informal workers unions, rather than marginalizing or ignoring them. It was also encouraging to read the report and see how high the bar had been raised by organizations like the 80,000 member Waste Picker Movement of Brazil. Given our work in helping organize domestic workers in Morocco, seeing that there were 500 members of the Domestic Workers’ Union nearby in Lebanon also gave us another kind of benchmark on organizing progress.

Unionization in this sector is not easy as we know. Many of the reports’ case studies were less about formalization, where informal workers’ unions had been able to leverage the creation of something like an employer, and more about stabilization of work and improvement of workers by developing cooperatives similar to ACORN India’s efforts in Mumbai or access to social security schemes like ACORN’s hawkers’ union in Bengaluru.

Sharan Burrow made an interesting point as we began our conversation about the exciting “energy” of organizing and organizers in this huge, but hidden, sector of the real labor movement among lower income workers, and I think she’s right. Where we generate enough heat, there will be light, and workers will follow those paths to building unions and collective action to victories both small and increasingly large.


Dutch Fight to Take Health Care Away from Private Insurers

Holland-plus-medicalBrussels   What is the old saying? Something like, I’ve seen the future and it is in the Netherlands at least when we are talking about the inevitable fight to come someday in the United States to seize control of our national health care programs from big health care insurers. On the way between Germany and Belgium, I had the opportunity to meet with several organizers and campaigners who have built a powerful effort in Holland on this issue and are finding the response amazing with the potential to dominate the campaigns in the country’s elections in the spring of 2017.

If you were paying close attention during the health care debates in recent years over the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, as it is known popularly, you often heard about the health care insurance scheme in the Netherlands which was better in its broad coverage of the population but, unlike many other countries, was provided by private, rather than public, insurers. Meeting with the organizers, I came to understand the situation a bit better. Everyone pays the equivalent of about one-hundred euros or $112 per month to private companies for insurance. I was fuzzy on exactly how this part works but the fact that they mentioned that much of the Dutch public’s opposition was rooted in disgust at the millions and millions spent by the insurers in advertising and promotion leads me to believe that a family chooses an insurer for their coverage.

There’s also a hammer to the head in this program along the lines of the deductibles that come under Obamacare. Everyone has coverage and everyone pays, but when they actually use the insurance, they have to come up with another 385 euros or $429. For some reason it is called an “own risk” payment, since if you don’t need to buy medicine or go to the doctor, your monthly payments are more like a healthcare tax or donation, so that when you do utilize the system, this is more like an admissions fee. Similar to the US experience with high deductibles blocking utilization under Obamacare, estimates are that 20% of the Dutch people are avoiding accessing the healthcare system, even when they need it, because they cannot afford the additional payment.

So the campaign is seeking to get rid of that payment of course, but also to move to a national healthcare fund more along the lines of the national healthcare program enjoyed by other countries. The support for their campaign has surpassed all expectations, and that’s part of what brought us together in this exciting conversation. In less than two months about 60,000 people have signed up to support the campaign either online or directly, and, amazingly, almost half of them are taking the additional step of asking for an “action” package on steps they can take in their communities to build the campaign.

With elections happening in mid-March of next year, this campaign couldn’t have been timed any better, so if it continues to build momentum in the summer, this could be the issue that dominates progressive debate at every level during the election. Meanwhile, regional meetings throughout the country are also pulling in crowds double, triple, and quadruple of organizers’ expectations, more are set coming off the summer with big demonstrations and other actions planned in the fall. They are riding the whirlwind here, and while they are doing so, as I said earlier, they are running the pilot program that organizers in the United States and elsewhere will need to be studying and copying in order to deal with many of the same issues involving national – and better – healthcare in our countries.