Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

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Seasonal Dilemma: Piling on the Work and Building Momentum

Torino, Italy  Bastille Day is a big celebration in France. Heck, President Trump even came over for the party, because he heard there were going to be tanks, troops, and tricolors everywhere. He also reportedly wanted to practice his handshakes, and see if he could get his grip on.

In Grenoble, it was business as usual. We had seen a stage being erected in a city center park the night before, but the streets and passersby seemed the same as always. For our part we were meeting right until we had to shuffle off to catch the train to Torino, the million-person industrial city in northern Italy.

Summer in the United States for a rural membership-based organization is difficult, because farmers and ranchers are working from dawn to dusk, but for an urban organization, it’s “hot times in the city,” and an opportunity to pour it on and make things happen. Looking back on ACORN’s history, I often thought that August was the month when we pulled off some of our largest actions and won some of our biggest victories. Momentum would build throughout the summer as new organizing drives were underway, offices were swelled with staff, interns, and volunteers, and major campaigns were launched before Labor Day in early September. Days were long, so doorknocking could go past 9 PM. Weather was good. Tempers were short. We planted and reaped the organizational harvest in summer.

Planning is hard this time of year for our French affiliate. From almost the middle of July until early September, and certainly most of August, many people take vacations, including our organizing staff, so the month almost becomes an entitled holiday and the organization and its offices virtually shut down as well. That means a flurry of planning and meetings before the end of July, and then the difficult task of reestablishing consensus and rebuilding momentum for a furious September through November, before work comes almost to a stop in December in order to rekindle in January. Organizing prime time is vacation time. Leadership and organizing directors have to puzzle through how to come out of the blocks running in September as everyone drifts back from the holidays. That’s not easy!

We found ourselves in a similar flurry. Timelines had to be established so work could begin on the Organizers’ Forum the last week of September in Casablanca, if not the work would not begin before the August shutdown. The community-labor training outside of Paris at the end of November also had to be sequenced and tasked. Campaign negotiations on both sides of the Atlantic had to be factored in and scheduled. Memos organized, training sites identified for next year, and on and on. Hiring and filling in for staff leaves and transitions had to be factored.

The list seemed endless. Trump caught the fireworks. We caught the train.

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Workers’ Hours and Productivity in US, UK, and France

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/bulletins/internationalcomparisonsofproductivityfinalestimates/2014

Grenoble  There was an interesting aside to the conversation about political “break” movements in Europe and the United States at the ACORN International meeting. When the discussion turned to what the election of Macron as President of France would mean to the renewed efforts to dilute the famous French labor code, Antoine Gonthier, one of the senior organizers for ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble, pointed out what he saw as ironic that for all of the corporate bashing of the labor code in France, French workers were more productive than those of other countries including the United States and United Kingdom. I replied that I had also seen numbers that indicated that the US workforce was more productive, but it was a minor point, and we moved on with the discussion. Nonetheless, it seemed important, so it kept nagging at me until I could look it all up.

It turns out that Antoine and I were both right, but even where we were wrong it illustrates the point, and, unfortunately, why the corporatist movement is gaining ground in France. A fairly recent report on the latest 2014 statistics by the Office for National Statistics in Great Britain comparing productivity across several measures for the G-7, the most highly industrialized countries in the world, went through the numbers pretty closely.

So, the ledge Antoine was gripping firmly for the French working class was productivity per hour worked. There German workers kicked everyone’s south side hard with a significant lead. French and American workers were pretty much what-and-what, but the French were very narrowly ahead, making Antoine and I more in agreement than either one of us might have realized at the time. Luckily our Canadian and British organizers had stayed out of the conversation because they took up the rearguard on these issues with Japan getting the worst mark, then Britain and then Canada with even the much maligned Italian workers more productive per hour.

When the GDP or Gross Domestic Product was measured, the American workers were more than one-third higher per worker than the French, and the French led other G7 countries in 2nd place with Italy right behind them and Germany farther back. Once again Canada was only ahead of the UK and Japan.

But where it really got dicey was looking at the hours worked per week over the 20-year period between 1993 and 2014. In 1993, workers in the G7 were relatively close together. The average was slightly over 33 per week with the US at a tad over 35 hours per week and Japan over 36 with France close to 32 hours per week and Germany just below 30 hours per week. Sweat forward 20 years and France’s hours worked per week per worker was down a full 5 hours, while the US worker had only dropped a smidgen to a little under 35 hours per week. Italy, Japan, the UK, and Canada were all around 33 hours, and Germany was around 26 hours per week and France was around 28 hours per week. These may not reflect victories that French grandfathers won, as much as what their fathers delivered.

The weaknesses of the US labor movement and the strength of US business and their political allies have forced American workers to continue to keep their shoulders to the wheel. Take the lack of family and sick leave in the US as a prime example of this. French corporations pushing for labor law reform and perhaps even UK interests trying to keep British workers farther away from European standards, clearly have their hearts set on holding the line on productivity, increasing automation, and fighting hammer and tong to get more hours worked every week, and are committed to chaining Macron to that wheel until he delivers.

***

Please enjoy these new releases, Thanks to KABF.

Emily Saliers – Long Haul

Billy Bragg – The Sleep of Reason

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The Congolese Diaspora

Meeting with representatives of the Congolese community in Paris

Paris   Several times in the meeting of the ACORN International staff and leadership in Paris, Mathieu Ilunga Kankonde, a member of the national board of the ACORN/Alliance Citoyenne in France and locally in Grenoble, had raised the question of how we might expand to help develop organizing in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had always answered briefly about the level of resources required and the long term commitment necessary, but mainly we had postponed the question until we attended a meeting he was organizing with leaders of the Congolese community in Paris before we were to leave the city.

The meeting took a while to come together, but before it was over, there were ten men who came to hear about ACORN and discuss their issues and interests for work both in the Congo as well as efforts to connect Congolese in what they called diaspora. I was interested in these connections. Recently, I had met several of our members from Ottawa at the ACORN Canada convention who were from the Congo as well as Gabon, on the western coast of Africa. They had been willing to tape videos for our members and leaders in France and Cameroon of their great experiences with ACORN Canada. Even before the meeting began, Mathieu texted a close friend who was now in Chicago for additional ACORN information. A quick Google search indicated there were over 200,000 Congolese in France now.

Mathieu Kandonde, an ACORN/Alliance leader from Grenoble prepares to start the meetiing

Several of the men had come by at various times during the weekend meeting for several hours to listen and get a better idea of ACORN. Others were interested in learning more for the first time. After Mathieu gave an opening introduction based on his experience over recent years, and I briefly outlined where we worked and some intersections of interest to the diaspora, like our campaign to lower the cost of remittances or money transfers, I solicited questions and comments from the group.

There were a range of opinions. Some were concerned about the political situation in the Congo and erosion of what they saw as democratic principles, including the fact that the President was still in office though his term had ended. Many were bothered by the level of self-interest and corruption in public life that had alienated so many people from participation. Some thought there needed to be new political parties or that existing parties needed to be reformed. I wondered if these men saw themselves as Lenins at the Finland Station at this room on top of a cafe along a Paris boulevard.

pictures at the end of the meeting

Others commented with anger over the exploitation by transnational companies from the France, Britain, and the United States of the Congo’s wealth and natural resources. They felt there was a trail of blood and bodies on their history that also clouded their future. They seemed more desperate to find a megaphone that could channel their voices and speak to their grievances than an organization that could empower them, but the dialogue was frank and open.

No decisions were made, and none were expected. There are probably a lot of names for conversations like this, but in organizing, we have always called it “testing.” These meetings open some doors, and close others, but under any circumstances they are necessary, and they point directions to the future, even if not taken.

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Political Break Movements

Lieke Smits of SP/N leads conversation on new political developments

Paris  One of the more intriguing discussions at the ACORN International leaders and staff meetings over these several days at the offices of the Confederation Paysanne in Paris looked at the changing political climate for our work in various countries. There was special interest in what ACORN UK head organizer, Stuart Melvin, referred to as the “political break movements” in so many countries, especially the UK, France, and the US, when one examined Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron.

In a lucky, last minute invitation, I had reached out to Lieke Smits, the campaign director of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, who I worked with closely last fall in devising a field program for the election there where they had also faced a populist disruption. Lieke began her remarks by noting that many of these break movements were reactions to forces long building after decades of difficult policies for working people in the wake of neoliberalism. The impact of globalism, trade, job loss, displacement and the movement of millions had been unsettling, and despite wide recognition, these changes had been inadequately and ineffectively addressed. Voters were moving to the fringes of the right and left to find effective voice and protest to force policies to address their concerns. Families were torn over the fact that their children were not going to have the security and well-being that they had. Parties, particularly professional politicians, had not done enough to address these changes, opening space for new movements and other voices to emerge and gain support.

Stuart Melvin and Jonny Butcher of ACORN United Kingdom talk about politics there

Lieke described their current program in the language of community organizing, making me feel like I was with them once again in their discussions in Amersfoort! One-hundred of their chapters were embarking on an outreach program to listen for local issues where they could organize and take action. The party had pushed dramatically on changes in the national healthcare program in the Netherlands which have left almost one-million people without coverage. Now they were taking the same kind of organizing and campaign insights and drilling down more deeply to reinvigorate their base and expand the lessons from the campaign where home visits and phone banking to new people had opened up new opportunities.

Beth from ACV details fundraising principles

In the UK, the surprise performance of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the recent election demonstrated that there is both class and generational appeal for progressives as part of the movement. Bernie Sanders was an equally unlikely surfer dude on the wave of change being demanded, particularly by the young. It is unlikely that it was a coincidence that both had tuition-free programs for students among other appealing platform positions.

Leaders and staff from Grenoble and Aubervilliers listen carefully

Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, argued that times of political upheaval in France that were demonstrated in the Macron and Marche upheaval that crippled established parties, usually meant great organizing opportunities at the local level and around institutions. There were clear opportunities now in France.

The same could be said in the United States. The challenge is whether or not we have the capacity to convert the opportunities to enable our constituency to build power.

ACORN International Board Meeting

leaders and staff at ACORN International meeting

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Maximizing the Expanding Organizational Footprint

Making a point, Jill O’reilly from Ottawa ACORN

Paris   Listening to the reports from the head organizers in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and operations in the United States was so exciting. There had been real progress in one campaign after another.

Questions were fired back-and-forth on the details of various campaigns. Exactly what was involved in the landlord licensing victory won in Toronto? How had the Sheffield organizer used Google keywords to find a mention of the codicil in the giant Spanish bank’s Santander’s lending agreement to UK landlords that forced a rent increase annually – that a quick campaign was able to upset. It was exciting to hear about our new organization in Aubervilliers beating back Veolia’s efforts to raise water prices and privatize their system, especially since Local 100 had long experience with the same company where we represent clerical and accounting staff for the New Orleans regional transit authority.

Beth from A Community Voice

Raising the hood on the nuts and bolts of the organization in report after report, it was impossible to ignore the impact of social networking recruitment efforts that were being bolted on the basic organizing model. Where we had begun counting “provisional” members in ACORN over the last dozen years who had expressed a threshold interest in ACORN and were in a targeting process to move up the ladder to full membership, the advent to so many other measures of social network indicating support were also being measured more intently. Petition signers and other overt expressions of support were being databased and integrated into meeting and turnout calculations, assembled into phone and autodialer programs, and counted reliably in the same way as regulars and full-pay members.

The numbers add up. With ACORN Canada at 110,000 members, 80,000 are associates and provisionals. ACORN in England has utilized social media in their basic organizing more aggressively than many other operations given their extensive base building among private tenants. Provisional and associate members now number 15,000 in the less than three years of the organization’s work. In Scotland, there are 3000 in the provisional-associate category. The organizing in France has been more traditionally based in social housing but still counts more than 800 supporters in Aubervilliers after only a year of organizing for example.

Stuart Melvin, head organizer ACORN UK

The high level of internet access and smartphone proliferation in our English tenant base has led to an exciting level of experimentation by ACORN in Bristol, Sheffield, and Newcastle. Tools by Action Network have been valuable. They have had more experience in using Slack than many of the other organizing operations who are more reserved in their utilization. They are using Facebook creatively to set up recruitment meetings that result in an extremely high sign-up success rate. I had heard something similar in Hungary from some organizers that were still able to use Facebook events on turnout, which we had largely discounted in the USA. They felt they were able to reliably count on one-of-three to attend.

As always there are changes and new technology, so the organizer were eagerly soaking up skills and techniques to see what might make their organizing more effective.

Melva Burnett, president ACORN International and ACORN Canada

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