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.


The Dark Side of Works Councils in Germany

DSCN1461Aachen   In the morning and later in the evening, I got a short course on how unions worked in Germany from organizers, staff and leaders at Ver.di, who met with me at their regional headquarters in Dusseldorf. The television screen in their meeting complex might have been translated as if I was giving a training session, but at many times I was being schooled more than they in the basics of how unions worked and the challenges they face in Germany.


I’ve certainly heard about “works’ councils” for years and even met representatives of such councils from time to time in various delegations or when groups have visited New Orleans or so forth. The perspective from the ground floor where organizers’ work, repeatedly established that when there was a conflict between the theory of workers’ input at the council level within a firm and the reality of whether or not workers could make change or build power through a council, the theory was crushed and thrown out of the window by the crushing weight of the reality. At lunch without as many of the other folks listening, in somewhat of a silent sacrilege, two members of the key regional organizing team asked me what I might advise on how to deal with a work council when they were as much of an issue as the management.


Certainly in the USA, we can read op-eds and news stories from the corporate point of view that hold works councils as little more than a German artifice that got in the way of what company’s wanted to do. All of which, almost by default, led me to believe they were likely a good thing. Hearing from both organizers and works council members was an education. Councils are basically a meet-and-confer operation with elected leaders in the work place about non-economic terms and conditions of employment. In Germany every business of a certain size and employment is required to establish such a council. On the one hand organizers were finding them an obstacle in organizing because they were often entrenched with unaccountable leadership. In organizing they would initially begin by trying to convince the works council members that a union was a good thing and there should be cooperation and assistance, but often they would find the union had to either organize to take the council over, elect new members, or go around the council, none of which are easy tasks and all of which took time, energy and resources. Councils are elected to four year terms, so if a union is organized in a firm and comes in after the last election, if could be that many years before there’s a chance to deal with them accountably, and that’s a job hard to handle.


Talking to leaders at works councils at American Apparel retail stores and Home Depot stores, they were unhappy for other reasons. At Los Angeles-based American Apparel, they were hanging in and hanging tough despite the fact that the company was in Chapter 11 reorganization. They felt like they couldn’t get any information or analysis they needed from the company or their American manager. At Home Depot, they felt a union drive and campaign were needed, but troubled about what role they could play. Others were concerned about their powerlessness in dealing with subcontracting and joint employer situations in German law and were critical about whether the union was doing enough to get ahead of these problems either.

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

The Rhine-Ruhr valley is at the heartland of labor’s strength in Germany, where unions are still a key part of the economic order. Ver.di is attempting to innovate in organizing and in fact that’s part of how I got to Dusseldorf, because the leader of the newly created organizing team, Jeffrey Raffo, was interested in participating in a dialogue about how community organizing methodology melded with labor organizing technique to create a strong, amalgam of organization. Nonetheless, they all nodded that German unions were also getting weaker, even if not as weak as those in the USA, and works councils were clearly not enough to provide workers protections in the absence of strong unions.



Opportunity and Challenges in Hungary


planning with the Civil College team

Dusseldorf   I knew just by reading the papers and some quick looks at the internet news that people and their organizations were facing severe political challenges in Hungary at the hands of a rightwing populist government, but two days of meetings with organizers and activists in Budapest left me excited about the huge opportunity our friends also have at the moment.

Mate Varga comes from a long tradition of community development in Hungary. We could almost say it is in his genes since his parents began the Civil College Foundation and he now leads the program. In recent years, he has concluded with his colleagues that they needed to embrace and support building community organizing in their country. Exchange programs and joint trainings with organizations in the United States, most importantly perhaps Virginia Organizing and Joe Szakos, its director, where one of his staff, Bernadett Sebaly spent a full-year, have given them rich experiences not only in Hungary but in Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia as well. Now under his leadership, they have assembled sufficient resources to support twenty-seven staff members, potentially organizers, with local and other partners all around the country.

The first day I was in Budapest, Mate and Betti, introduced me to the some of the community organizers at the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network. We spent most of the time talking about the Hungarian workfare program currently employing, if we could call it that, 220,000 people in low level, in largely manual and menial public employment projects around the country. This is not workfare as a requirement to get welfare, but workfare is the welfare program of the state. The workfare workers are paid about $200 in USD monthly and once accepted can work up to a year and then reapply if still not able to find a job. It was unclear if it is an entitlement or there is a cap, but it seemed like an entitlement. The Network has won victories in this organizing including the payment in cash because drafts to bank accounts were forcing the workers into costly financial products. Monika Balint and I shared a number of experiences on how to handle “check” pickup days, direct actions, and benefit campaigns. The government is very proud of this program so they have widely publicized how many people are working where, so a lot of mass contact work and mobilization is elbow grease and shoe leather working the cash collection sites and job centers to meet the workers and talk to them about issues. Exciting opportunities for an organizational movement for change seemed everywhere in this workfare mess. It brought me back!

with the organizers of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network

with the organizers of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network

Speaking of movements, I also met a delightful teacher who was one of the leaders of the teachers’ movements that had put 50,000 people – a huge percentage of that workforce almost 30% – on the street in protest to government action changing curriculum, job security and about everything else in the schools. They were widely supported by parents and students. The government wisely agreed to negotiate with teachers, but they were muscled off the table by brokering groups including the unions, collected a lot of promises, and very little action. They now face the need to call for more this fall, while also trying to pull their key activists together in fifty different areas of the country where they could built local circles or chapters. Wow!

As exciting, and fraught, as both of those opportunities were, the Civil College itself was the focus of much of my time, meeting with their core team of organizers and Mate, to evaluate the best way forward in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they face to have the resources and potential staffing in place to assemble the pieces of a national community organization in Hungary. There was a lot of discussion of the ACORN model, because one of key pieces missing for the College team is a replicable model with the promise of sustainability since most of their external capacity is embedded in the 27 different organizations. I argued with some assistance from Chuck Hirt of the European Community Organizing Network, who had driven over from Slovakia for the meeting, that they needed to calf off a team of three to five organizers and try some pilot programs to prove what would work and share it with the others, as well as beginning now to have the conversations with groups and leaders about potential mutual campaigns and how to structure a national organization.

Heady stuff, but there is huge opportunity in Hungary, and the demand for change at the grassroots level of low-and-moderate income people with 40% of the population living in poverty is immense.

the outside of the building that has been their home

the outside of the building that has been their home