Hot Topics for International Organizers

Paris   Ok, perhaps the very first question on your list was not, “What do community organizers working around the world talk about when they first get together?” Too, bad, because it is actually a wild run of issues snatched from here to there.

First on the list was the demonstrations by tens of thousands in Hamburg, Germany who organized a greeting party for the G-20 meeting there called “Welcome to Hell.” Knowing, as we all do, the long meetings and back-and-forth correspondence that accompany the art of “titling” any big demonstration, we all had to admire how clear and specific the Germans made their intentions known for their demonstrations. Hamburg has a vibrant progressive movement and long tradition and clearly took the whole siting of the G-20 meeting as almost a personal affront. The footage shared around the table made the whole affair appear like a barely contained mini-riot, and the reports of arrests and police cars burning had a certain “hellish” flavor. The Times had mentioned that President Trump tried to establish some of rapport with Chancellor Merkel by sympathizing with her about the demonstrations, something he has learned about firsthand in the early days of this presidency with the flourish of the resistance.

And, then as our ACORN Kenya organizers call it, comes “sharing.”

There was a lot of interest in the work in the United Kingdom in reaction to the Grenfell fire massacre in London, and ACORN’s work in trying to make sure similar buildings are identified and tenants protected elsewhere in the country. Others reported that French organizers, in contact with British organizers working with McDonalds workers, were complimentary of the ACORN delegation representing well in a recent London march around these issues. One world, indeed, as the message was shared that plans for a strike at McDonalds in September sought ACORN’s support in the effort.

There will be much more of this when the full meeting convenes as other organizers arrive from Canada, France and elsewhere. One major topic of interest on the agenda was a discussion of what UK ACORN head organizer, Stuart Melvin, had referred to as the “political break” movements of the recent year, Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron, and how they would impact these countries, and of course, our own work and planning. Lieke Smits from the Netherlands will be joining us for that conversation as well, which will be exciting for everyone.

There were catch-ups and reports of organizers not able to make it to this year’s meeting. Eloise Maulet is still in Cameron working with the organizers to launch our ACORN-Alliance organization in Douala. Their first action last week at been exciting to see, and as we were meeting word was coming in that they had won a commitment that potable water will be coming to their neighborhood. A chapter meeting had just concluded in Aubervilliers, where we are organizing in Paris and they were celebrating news that they had won a reduction in water rates after their campaign.

The work is hard, but everyone was excited to hear that they were making progress, and it was good to come together.

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Hard Changes Coming to France?

Paris   The day began with an ominously when I woke up at 2:05 AM for my 2:45 AM ride to the 3:17 AM train to Budapest. After taking a shower, I realized that in the dark, I had misread the time, and it was now 12:20 AM, not 2:20 AM. It was going to be a long day!

The 3:17 AM to Budapest was a workers’ milk run to the city. Tired men and women would slump into their seats and then immediately doze off in a practiced part of their routine. The train hit Budapest 4 minutes late, and I knew I only had 8 minutes then to find the ticket machine, get a ticket, find bus 200E and make to the airport for my 6:25 AM flight, where I could doze off in my practiced routine.

And, then on to Paris. With the election of the Macron government and his new party, Marche, which has disrupted French politics, hard changes were projected with hard fights in the future to see whether he would succeed or would the resistance.

The first change I noticed though was the McDonalds in the guts of Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Of course it was huge. That was predicable, but it was also all automatic. Orders had to be placed on a eye-level robotron machine where you picked through your selection, to go or in-house, card or cash, and then went to a counter to pay and pickup, or not. Where you would think automation would mean less workers, I had never seen so many. There were people to help you learn the machine. If you were eating there, a worker brought you order to your table. Yes, to your table! Everywhere we looked there were staff people by the dozens. Our affiliates in France had been working on the McDonald’s organizing campaign and the fight for higher wages and workers’ voice there, as well as the opposing the use of GMOs, which are largely vilified in France. I noted all of this with interest, mentally tabulating the contradictions.

Meeting later in the afternoon with several union and community organizers, there seemed to be a feeling that the constant assault on long established labor rights that had endured in France for generations against almost constant attack were in real danger from the new government. Though Macron had run on a merging of left and right policy positions, and had formerly been a minister in the ruling Socialist Party before resigning to pave his own path, there seemed nothing moderate in his proposals for amending labor rights. The rigid and exacting labor rules that make it difficult to displace workers in an arbitrary fashion have long been targeted by business interests. Labor unions are girding for the fight of course, particularly the CGT, which has militantly drawn the line in the past even though a competing workers’ federation has been trying to play a more accommodating role with the new government. All other business, including new organizing, seems to have been pushed aside for the coming struggle.

Nonetheless, even if labor’s efforts were heroic, my friends seem to feel success would be defined in how much was saved compared to how much would be lost in measuring the level of the defeat, rather than optimistically predicting a victory.

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A Hungarian Training Space for Non-Profits

Kunbabony, Hungary   Almost as interesting as the various workshops at training at the Citizen Participation University was the facility itself and the special space it provided for this community of organizers, educators, community developers, and wizards of many varieties and skills. The history and mission embeds the facility as deeply into the community as the program itself.

I only know the backstory in bits and pieces. The administrator of the Collegium is the Civil College Foundation, directed by Mate Varga, but the property was originally a school building in the area that had fallen into disuse. Mate’s father had bought the property years ago for this purpose so it has had many lives and seen many changes and improvements over time.

The main building includes a couple of classrooms and something like a half-dozen sleeping rooms with single cots that would seem – and felt – the size of the bottom half of a bunk bed, somehow missing its natural second story. A new improvement was the opening of Le Mat, a cafe, and kitchen area, where people were served breakfast and could get an espresso or beer throughout the day. The building and the cafe are now run by a local cooperative, as is the farming operation behind the building, making the Collegium a community building project itself as well as a meeting and training center.

The business of the center though maximizes the location. This is a nice place and well made and presented, but it puts on no airs. Though there are sleeping rooms in the main building, the majority of the participants were literally camping on the grounds in tents of various shapes and sizes. A new addition since the last gathering was the installation of an improved shower, which some of the campers were still mastering when the topic came up in the opening session. A collection of hammocks also got heavy use for breaks, naps, and turning the pages on books in the afternoon.

The dining is under canopies and simple local soup and basic food is served. The meetings were held in various sized venues. One was a large geodesic dome of sorts. Another was under a yellow and orange patchwork of parachute material. A smaller covering was fit for only a half-dozen chairs. An area called the marketplace had tables under a corrugated roof. Benches popped up here and there on the grounds. The place was fun and functional for everyone.

meeting dome

The space itself seemed to accommodate easy discussion as people got to know each other and for veterans of these meetings, caught up and reacquainted. Without a lot of fanfare or fancy evaluation forms, it was obvious that the space itself had become a special place to everyone involved, giving a boost to the discussion and training.

morning exercises

shower area and tents

storage shed for the straw-filled bags used as seats

parachute meeting place

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Making Sense of Current Hungarian Politics

Mate Varga (w/ pony tail)

Kunbabony, Hungary  The opening session of the 8th meeting of the Citizen Participation University began with the traditional welcome by Mate Varga, the head of Civil College Foundation. Varga is an open-handed and open-hearted man with a ready ability to laugh, often seeming to be chuckling to himself, so his welcome would normally be met with open faces and wide smiles, but this year must have seemed more subdued and sober to CPU veterans.

Mate’s remarks were tempered by the times. He described the protests recently in Budapest around the government’s new restrictions on nonprofits. The crowds, the excitement, the anger, and the disappointment that their protests had been unsuccessful. Nongovernmental organizations that receive any foreign funding are now required to publicly label themselves as “foreign funded” on their literature, website, and so forth. Grants from the Norwegian government are being held up over the dispute. The Civil College has been mentioned in coverage newspapers and television stories along with others including George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire, who is currently the boogie man of Hungarian conservative politics. In fact Mate warned that the very location in Kunbabony where we were meeting had been the target of journalistic interlopers, who might be seeking unsolicited interviews.

Nick Thorpe, a veteran BBC reporter stationed in Budapest and reporting over the last 31-years on Eastern Europe, was partnered with me to provide the keynote to the opening session. He was going to provide context and analysis of the current scene in the region and in Hungary, and I was slated to provide some perspective on how organizations could respond and survive in these increasingly harsh climates. All I would offer on ACORN’s experience in my half-hour could be summarized as “dare to struggle, dare to win,” and never, never ever quit fighting, which was well enough received, but I was especially interested in hearing Nick’s on-the-ground, ringside perspective.

Nick Thorpe (BBC reporter)

He began with remarks about the huge dead-of-winter protests in Romania earlier in the year against corruption. He had spent weeks there trying to solve the puzzle of the protests and the organizers and organizing behind it after being initially skeptical that their efforts had any chance of success, yet the government had fallen to their efforts.

Thorpe warned the assembly that his view on the current condition of Hungarian politics might be seen as contrarian. Despite the foreboding of Mate’s introduction, he felt the government’s attacks might be ebbing, rather than rising. The heart of his argument was that the obsession of the existing government with the Central European University and its support by Soros had crossed a line and had lost support of other right parties and within the governing party itself. Though in the West the situation is seen as a stalemate with a year’s cooling off period, Thorpe’s analysis from his sources was more along the lines that the year was a face saver for the government, rather than the last gasp for the university.

Unfortunately for our comrades among Hungarian NGOs, Thorpe’s sources did not extend sufficiently, at least not yet, to give them comfort on their fight. The same tide had not gone out on nonprofits. On the other hand Thorpe speculated that despite the overwhelming odds stacking the deck for the existing government in the coming election that would require virtually all parties, right and left, to coalesce in order to defeat it, he believed there were signs in the wind that indicated that such a political tsunami might be building. He couldn’t be sure of course, and he could be wrong, but his finger was in the wind, and he could feel currents moving in surprising directions.

All of which made my following Thorpe easier. Where there is even a glimmer of hope, struggle is easier to imagine, and organizing a more obvious necessity.

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Cutting Corners on Building Codes Kills

New Orleans  The fire that has thus far counted 79 tenants in the Grenfell Tower, a low income housing project in the wealthy West London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been described as the “Katrina moment” for British Prime Minister Theresa May for her early ham-fisted handling of the tragedy. Katrina involved a lot of back and forth finger pointing for months with some issues still contentious, but in London the enablers of this tragedy are being quickly identified.

The fire is attributed to an apartment refrigerator provided by a company acquired in 2014 by American brand, Whirpool, that had a plastic backing. In the US refrigerators are sold with a metallic backing to provide more fire resistance. Too many think of refrigerators and “cold” at the same time, but the motors running them are hot obviously where the business machinery of refrigeration is happening. The related culprits identified by fire officials point to poor insulation and aluminum cladding on the outside of the building. The cladding was made by Arconic, an American company that is an outgrowth of the better known Alcoa, the iconic aluminum company. Their stock is down 21% and they have indicated they will no long sell the paneling for use in high-rise structures. Buildings over a certain height in the US are required to have two concrete encased fire exists and fire doors, but not so in Britain. Other cities and countries around the world are reportedly hurriedly reexamining their codes.

Developers and owners have been more successful in pushing back building codes in the UK than in the US, but don’t get the big head and start feeling all safe, because it’s just a matter of degree, and it’s still all about the money. Codes are routinely flaunted making them literally “dead letters” without sufficient enforcement. In dealing with “as is” contracts with the Home Savers Campaign we initially thought that the Toledo, Ohio ordinance that required a certificate of occupancy before a contract could be signed might protect families until we hit the doors in Detroit and found that the same ordinance prevailed there, but was simply not enforced. We met a woman in Pittsburgh who was injured in a Harbour Portfolio property when the stairs collapsed underneath her. A man in Akron in another Harbour property told about his sister, now disabled and unable to work, after a ceiling in the shower collapsed underneath her.

Even knowing the cause doesn’t remove all culpability, which is part of my point about the deadly collusion of the authorities, developers and owners, and lax regulators and enforcers. ACORN organizers have played a supportive role to tenants and tenant organizations in the wake of the Grenfell fire, and have noted similarities to ACORN’s work in New Orleans in post-Katrina. The dispersion and evacuation has made it difficult to reach Grenfell tenants now sheltered all over, just as was the case in Katrina, where ACORN was often the only point of contact for many as a membership organization. There will also be a long debate about unheeded concerns raised by tenants at Grenfell about fire safety before the tragedy just as residents of New Orleans 9th ward had voiced opposition to MR-GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and expansion of the Industrial Canal to hurricane safety.

As organizers, we constantly have to ask whether we should have done more. Building codes are boring, but despite the low value policy makers and politicians put on the purchase of the lives of low and moderate income families, these families, more than anything else, have to be our priority, and the devil is truly in those details, bringing hell and death, when attention is not paid.

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Local 100 Leaders Share Skills and Plot the Future

Congressman Al Green (D-Houston)

Houston   When local leaders get together in the annual leadership conferences for Local 100 the room is always buzzing with conversation when a speaker isn’t on the floor or a workshop isn’t scheduled. They are sharing stories about grievances, problems with bosses, membership concerns, and a million other issues, including the always vexing problems around fair wages and benefits. Another theme that has been recurred with added urgency at the 37th annual conference were the every accelerating threats to the very survival of labor unions.

the popular leader and steward panel with Stephanie Newtown (warren) and Robert Stahn (Arlington)

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was a brilliant workshop on leadership development, unit maintenance, and grievance handle moderated by Robert Stahn, chief steward of one of our newest units in Texas of bus drivers and attendants with the Arlington Independent School District, and Stephanie Newton, one of the team of stewards and activists at the Southeast Arkansas Human Development Center in Warren, Arkansas. There was a lot of back and forth and other key stewards weighted in on everything from how they recognized “union material” in new workers to the importance of handling grievances on the job site in the Dallas County ISD. Sister Newton, with very little warning that she was moderating the session, demonstrated why she is such a revered steward by the members in Warren and so feared by management by reeling off a list of almost a dozen “must-do” tips for handling grievances beginning with the importance of understanding the rules, procedures, and contract when members have one. Brother Stahn inspired members with the story of how Arlington drivers had won a 5% putting starting wages over $15.00 hour in the district and pulling up attendants as a priority as well.

Given that Local 100’s members are lower waged workers, there were both reports and discussions on how to move forward on “living” wage campaigns. The members voted to make a $10 per hour wage the absolute bottom line on our contracts and facilities, while hearing a report on the New Orleans fight to get cleaners the benefits of a $10.55 minimum which has thrown the union into court against the city. Plans were made for healthcare and community home workers to insert themselves into the legislative budget process in Louisiana to impact reimbursement rates and force some sharing to bring wages and benefits up. Arkansas state worker members are involved in a similar process and shared their efforts. Another workshop showcased our success since the last conference in getting lead tested in Houston and to some degree in Dallas and the need for constant followup.

workshops on lead raised a lot of questions

Congressman Al Green from Houston had opened up the session with a report on the struggles in Washington over consumer protection, healthcare and sundry other matters. Green is seeking to trigger impeachment proceeds for President Trump as well. State Representative Ron Reynolds detailed the fight to prevent a loss of payroll deductions for public employees in Texas which is part of the call for a special session there.

Texas State Representative Ron Reynolds from Houston

The union recommitted to fighting to keep affordable healthcare and protect Medicaid which is so critical in our workplaces and communities, while also discussing new initiatives and organizing models for the union that recognized the changing circumstances of workers and the service economy.

Everyone learns things at these conferences. I got instructions on how a “bus arm camera” works to photograph cars that go around school buses and ticket them for $300 in Texas, as well as device called a “zonar” that drivers are required to use in Arlington on bus maintenance, inspections, and attendance. I also asked how many members had checked the union’s website and Facebook pages in the last 30 days, and received a wake up call about our need to communicate more directly not only on worksites but also through robodialers and going old school on phonebanks between leaders, organizers, and members.

Merging the big picture and the constant details makes any leadership gathering of union leaders and stewards essential.

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