Continuing Struggle and Solidarity after Assassination of Berta Caceres

Olivia Zuniga Caceres in center in flowered top with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Olivia Zuniga Caceres in center in flowered top with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Quito   A highlight of the Americas meeting of ACORN International organizers in Quito was a visit with Olivia Zuniga Caceres, the oldest daughter of Berta Caceres, the indigenous, land protection and environmental activist assassinated in Honduras hardly three months ago. Olivia was in Quito to give a talk about the ongoing struggle and accept an award in her mother’s name from a human rights organization in Ecuador. We were fortunate that she was able to sneak away for a bit to visit with us about the fight, express solidarity with ACORN’s organizing in Honduras, and receive the same from ACORN International in this difficult, deadly and continuing campaign.

In many ways Berta Caceres’ story is too common in Latin America still and almost routine in Honduras. As the New York Times noted:

Since a 2009 coup in Honduras, journalists, judges, labor leaders, human rights defenders and environmental activists have been assassinated in targeted killings, with their murders often going unsolved. Twelve environmental defenders were killed in Honduras in 2014, according to research by Global Witness, which makes it the most dangerous country in the world, relative to its size, for activists protecting forests and rivers.

In fact another leader of Berta’s organization, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, had also been killed by a Honduran solider during a peaceful protest in 2013. Various international commission’s and human rights organizations had demanded protection for Berta and in receiving the prestigious Goldman Environmental award in 2015 she had talked about the constant hiding and harassment she was experiencing.

The outline of the backstory for those unfamiliar was in her obituary:

Ms. Cáceres, 44, had led a decade-long fight against a project to build the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people. The campaign involved filing legal complaints against the project, organizing community meetings and bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

That description is inadequate to describe the intensity of the struggle fought to prevent construction of the dam, which included blocking access to construction crews for over a year, sufficient to force out the Chinese partner in the project. Unfortunately, the Honduran business interests were adamant and shifted their work to the other side of the river, less accessible to the protestors, and work continues on the dam.

Olivia Caceres was clear that she and other members of the organization have not relented in the fight. International law requires indigenous interests be consulted before such construction. That was not done and is still being resisted. We discussed where we could assist on an upcoming visit to publicize the fight in the United States that she is making in July as well as where other ACORN affiliates around the world might intersect with her. Her remarks about ACORN and the work and support in Honduras were humbling and inspiring.

Our work is hard, but rarely in our daily labor to we have to assess the risk of life and death faced by this organization, its members and leaders in a seemingly lawless situation with government posturing and inaction, proving once again why we all so desperately need to support and stand with each other.

Olivia Zuniga Caceres with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Olivia Zuniga Caceres with ACORN Organizers in Quito



The Hard Nuts and Bolts of Organizing in Honduras

10293579_812218472164492_6052867961713463478_oQuito   Erlyn Perez, the head organizer in Tegucigalpa, Suyapa Amador, the head organizer and sparkplug of San Pedro Sula, Marcos Gomez, ACORN Canada’s campaign director, and I spent 3 hours trying to get our arms around the great progress of ACORN Honduras in the last several years, as well as the difficult question of whether or not the organization could survive long term in what might be a gold standard definition in organizing of a bittersweet conversation. The work is critical, the membership is now over 3500 in both cities, the victories are local and concrete, but the nuts and bolts of building sustainable membership-based community organizations means that even with great success, we are forced to constantly evaluate whether we can survive.

Looking at San Pedro Sula is almost a case study. We have seven community organizations in the city and the communities that abut the city, especially Choloma where we have worked the longest. Recently we have won some commitments from the Mayor of San Pedro Sula to make repairs on Street 27 there which has been almost impassable in some areas. More needs to be done and 300 homeowners along the street have organized with us to withhold their tax payments and pay them simultaneously when the Mayor agrees to finish the work. An interesting tactic! In some cases there’s just no money, no matter how hard we press. In Choloma where we have been in one campaign after another around potable water, we are now working with our members to put together the pieces to change the water collection system by building three cistern-style rainwater collection depots that will benefit 850 families. In San Manual, we have finally gotten support from the mayor and city officials around a public education campaign to stop the forced migration of children and gang recruitment. It’s good work with clear progress.

But even with 2400 members in San Pedro Sula, Suyapa reports only 380 are paying dues regularly on a monthly basis, and that’s at 20 lempiras monthly which is hardly 10 cents US or $334.00 roughly per month. Another $100 to $120 per month comes into support the office by selling coffee to allies, universities, and labor unions in the area for a cooperative in Marcala, which is affiliated to ACORN Honduras. $450 in US dollars per month goes farther in Honduras, but not quite far enough. ACORN International chips in $800 per month, split between the two organizers to keep things going from its own efforts, which aren’t easy either. It’s hard to raise the dues because membership projects like the water system in Choloma mean more business and family donations. In Tegucigalpa the story is much the same with the addition of a youth group that we’ve organized to stop migration chipping in more for the office there and free workspace in a community center we won in a neighborhood. The Mennonites recently decided to provide a grant to Honduras ACORN for the work that impacts migration, but that $10,000 has to get us closer to sustainability as well as almost an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, all good this minute, but our conversation in Quito was where would we be in 2 years, in 5, in 10? When would ACORN in Honduras be able to completely stand on the shoulders of its members in Honduras? What would happen if ACORN International couldn’t subsidize the organizers, where would we be and how would the members respond?

This is hard work done by great organizers with amazingly deep commitments from them and from leaders and members, but hard discussions even over pinchos, can’t be escaped, and require clear eyes about the future even as we twist the nuts and bolts into shape.


Oil Companies Rallying the Troops Against Activists on Fracking and Water Quality

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.12.06 AMNew Orleans   I was raised in the oil fields of the West, as my family moved from company towns in Wyoming and Colorado to old fields in Kentucky and finally to the motherlode in New Orleans near the huge Gulf of Mexico and False River strikes. My father punched their clock for 38 years beginning with the California Company and ending under the Chevron banner. I worked in other oil fields in Oklahoma and offshore in the Gulf during summers until finding my future as an organizer. My mother depends on the company for her care and at 92, she depends on me to open her mail, pay her bills, and make sure her time is safe and secure.

Recently, part of this package meant reading a breathless warning note from the local head of the retirees’ association saying,

At the recent CRA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, we heard about activism against our industry and what Chevron is doing in response. In the last few years, activists have made progress in their efforts to convince the public and policy makers that our industry is dangerous, villainous and needs to be shut down. This has resulted in some high-profile decisions like the blocking of the Keystone Pipeline, the blocking of offshore leasing in the Atlantic and a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York State.

Whoa, Nellie! “Dangerous, villainous and needs to be shut down” must be euphemisms for closely regulated for the public good independent of the company’s self-interest. This was a call to action and an invitation to join the Chevron Advocacy Network or CAN so that Chevron employees and retirees, friends and neighbors, could get the “truth” from their horses’ mouths. In the presentation from Chevron they started listing 2200 actions by “activists” against their industry, broadly conceived. To beat the drums further they led with quotes against fracking by Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben, offset by wet kisses from the current and former heads of the Energy Department, Interior, and even the EPA, saying that fracking was actually OK under some circumstances involving steel casing, distance from water sources and so on. And, true enough when they say fracking has been done for decades, because I remember fracking being done in old wells in the late 60’s in the Oklahoma fields during my season there. Of course there’s no mention of the impact fracking has had on Oklahoma over time like the consensus agreement now about the increase of earthquakes, but no matter, that wasn’t covered in the presentations.

This was all about fracking and water quality where I assume the company finds themselves most vulnerable, but they understand Congress enough that they know they have a potential army of former employees, current employees, and retirees ready to be activated in a straight up “us against them” fight. Same day I got an email from the Nobel Prize winning Inside Climate News leading with an article about the “clean air” fight decades ago being a warm up for the current campaigns around climate change and these other nuisances being raised by activists. They had a Smoke and Fumes Committee within the industry for a smoke-and-mirrors campaign.

Reading all of the news from Chevron and its call to action for the Chevron Advocacy Network, I felt like the proverbial fly on the wall, buzzing around someplace I didn’t belong. They’re hoping to sign up 20% of the retirees in their 70 chapters around the US and Canada. My mother asks me regularly if there’s anything she “needs to worry about,” and I tell her “nothing whatsoever,” and I think I’ll include Chevron’s hysterics about fracking and water in her “don’t bother” list, but for the rest of us, seeing oil companies continue to unabashedly mobilize against us certainly says they haven’t learned any lessons yet. While their goal might be 20% in CAN, perhaps ours should be getting that number of activists’ actions up a couple of thousand more.


First Victory in Paris!

DSC1195-700x450New Orleans    Part of what sustains organizers is the almost irrational belief that each new group, may be the best community organization ever; each new action may be the most powerful action ever; each new victory could open the way to unimaginable victories; each new member could be a leader of a lifetime; and each new organizer could build the future.

The first meeting of our ACORN’s Parisian affiliate occurred recently, launching the Alliance Citoyenne d’Aubervilliers or the Citizens’ Alliance of d’Aubervilliers, a diverse lower income, working community on the outskirts of Paris. Good crowd and a large, exciting committee of leaders were elected. The first action was immediately set with another coming.

The report from the first action was exhilarating. The members who were tenants in a large complex had been required to pay a 20 euro fee at the car park as part of their monthly payments. But for two years there was no security there and the gate to the parking lot was broken, essentially meaning that the members were paying for nothing.

The action was feisty, and the outcome was total victory.

The housing managers agreed to refund 240 euros to each of the tenants, and of course immediately repair the car park and get security there.

These small victories are what starts the peoples’ avalanche rolling towards enough power to move everything out of the organization’s way. In d’Aubervilliers this will be the making of an instant legend, and the word will spread among tenants and others throughout Paris like wildfire.

This is why they join. This is why we do the work!


Union-backed Walmart and McDonalds’ Campaigns Face Uncertain Futures

DSC_6745New Orleans    The emperor with no clothes is not a pretty sight, and it’s almost as bad when the finger pointing at him is Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “Labor Groups are Taking on Walmart and McDonalds. But Who Will Fund the Fight?” I don’t have anything against him or the Huff Post, but this was a story we knew would be coming, the only surprise might be that it took so long to get here, and it still seems to catch us unprepared with our pants around our ankles.

The trigger for this tale is the annual meeting of Walmart gearing up in Bentonville, which has also become an annual action by organizations trying to force one of the world’s largest retailers to more accountability and better practices and standards for its workers. This year OUR Walmart is once again on the scene, but now divorced from its supporter and financier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and trying to go on its own. A decade ago, UFCW did much the same thing with a competing effort called WakeUp Walmart not so much as to organize but to keep their brand and jurisdictional claims alive and compete with the SEIU-backed WalmartWatch and the multi-union effort we ran to prove that Walmart workers could be organized in Florida and to establish that we could stop their expansion with aggressive work and community allies both in the US and India. New leadership at UFCW jettisoned the program support for OUR Walmart leaving them trying to keep the flame alive, all of which seems terribly reminiscent of our earlier efforts.

Jamieson asks the simple question no one likes to hear in public about the viability of OUR Walmart and the sustainability of its effort without a deep-pocketed sponsor. He raises the same question about the multi-year expenditure that SEIU has made to organize McDonalds in companion with its support of the Fight for $15 campaign. SEIU has been resolute in its commitment to these efforts. Both campaigns can claim significant victories. Walmart did move on wages at the bottom. Not to $15 per hour but up to $10 across the board at a cost of billions. SEIU has seen dividends from its Fight for $15 in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and in states like California and New York where it has significant membership, so they can claim some success from their advocacy. McDonalds does not seem to have moved any closer to the union than Walmart has moved towards UFCW, though closer observers with better information than I have claim that SEIU’s strategy is global, is sound, and may still yield significant organizational victories as well.

And, that’s the rub. Unions are not foundations. They have to eventually see members and dues or some direct benefit from the expenditure of dues or the reaction will be predictable, just as is was with UFCW’s leadership change. And, when it comes to funding, foundations are not a substitute for workers and their dues or workers and their unions. Foundations will shine a bright penny for a minute, but they will never double down to the level needed to get to scale in fighting giant enterprises like either of these companies.

Can OUR Walmart create a real workers’ movement at the giant retailer with a strategy that produces sufficient organization and membership that will finance a long struggle? It’s possible, we proved that in Florida, but that’s a 10, 20 or 30 year project, and would represent the life work and sacrifice of many to survive, and, even surviving, would, having proven the concept, still need support at some point to get to scale. The same transition will need to occur in the McDonalds’ campaign, but hopefully with the continuity of SEIU’s support and assistance.

No one else is going to finance these struggles without workers carrying a huge part of the weight. The publicity is great, but smoke and mirrors is not organizing. David Rolf of SEIU’s big Washington State local, was quoted as saying, “The old model has failed several generations … We should encourage these experiments, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. We still haven’t figured this out.” Certainly, he’s right, but his remarks must seem gratuitous to organizers and workers deep in the struggle. OUR Walmart has proven that the day of reckoning for such experiments comes quickly, so the time for figuring it all out for all of these organizing projects remains now, before it’s too late.


Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.


Pine Bluff’s Maxine Nelson and Susie Thomas, Great ACORN Leaders

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Pine Bluff   Often I get gas on my way from Little Rock to New Orleans at an exit off ramping on the same highway that the Watson Chapel School District administrative office calls home. I realized this coincidence when I had the excuse to visit there. A documentary film crew wanted to talk about how the first organizing committee meeting of an ACORN group in Pine Bluff was disrupted by representatives of the Klu Klux Klan. I wanted to talk about the great ACORN leader, Maxine Nelson, so here’s how they were connected.

The group meeting that was disrupted in 1971 was being organized by an early ACORN organizer from the area, Herman Davenport, in a mixed area, of low and moderate income homes in the Watson Chapel area. The first drive was troubled by these episodes, but eventually ACORN took hold and developed deep roots in the area. Maxine Nelson merged as one of the leaders of the Pine Bluff chapters. She was an African-American RN at the Pine Bluff hospital and ready to make change. She was also fearless when it came to politics. She ran and won a seat in 1989 on the Watson Chapel School Board, and held the seat until her untimely death in November 2013, serving several terms as President of the School Board as well. Maxine was also the chair of the ACORN Political Action Committee (APAC) and the elected secretary of the ACORN Association Board nationally for many consecutive terms. For that matter, she was also on the KABF board as well and even while leaving that board was prodding me in 2011 and 2012 to do something to help stabilize the station.

I thought it was a great ACORN story from the KKK to Maxine Nelson and her leadership of ACORN, but there was more. Rechecking the date of her service before driving down to Pine Bluff, I stumbled on an article in the Pine Bluff Commercial Appeal reporting on a meeting of the Watson Chapel board in late 2014, and they were talking about naming the administrative building after Maxine. Walking in there to alert the clerical staff that I was outside with a film crew, they quickly – and enthusiastically – walked me into the board room to see a picture of Maxine with a plaque over the board dais.

I also visited Susie Thomas, who joined ACORN in Pine Bluff at the very beginning, 45 years ago, and stayed as a member and leader throughout those years. Sister Thomas attended every ACORN convention, and when visiting her, I asked about her favorites. She liked lobbying in Washington, DC she said, and remembered telling off one of Arkansas’ US Senators about cutting back food stamps. She remembered a squatting action in Chicago at the 20th anniversary convention in 1990, when they all ran for it. I gave her a Los Angeles convention t-shirt, and that got her talking about the LA convention. She pushed me on getting ACORN rolling again in the US. We remembered Maxine and their years together. She remembered that I had last seen her when she came to a book signing with Maxine in 2009 at Little Rock’s Community Bakery, and that I had called her on her birthday two years ago. Did I mention that she is now 102 years old!

I called Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, as I pulled away from Susie’s house. He mentioned that they were getting some letters and a petition together to help show community support for naming the administration building after Maxine. It will be fun to get the word out and easy to find support for that in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and for that matter around the country.

It seems the right thing to do.


Please enjoy Paul Simon’s The Riverbank.  Thanks to KABF.