Swiss and NWRO Have Right Ideas for Ending Poverty in Income Guarantees

tnmRy24New Orleans    In an assessment of the “war on poverty” almost 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson sounded the battle cry, Eduardo Porter in the Times noted that the real progress has only been to move the enemy lines from 19% of the American people to 16% of the population.   Part of the problem is that too many of the USA’s poverty reduction programs are ideologically welded to jobs and increased support of workers with any kind of jobs whatsoever.  As the structure of the labor market has changed dramatically, such programs can’t catch up to the real problems of poverty or inequality, assuming that the country and its politicians wanted to do something real in this area.

            In short we either have to have a different labor market, and good luck with that, or a new wage structure for the labor market we have, which is no small bit of what the $15/hr drive for fast food and other lower waged workers is all about, or perhaps the most extreme is that we actually guarantee people a basic income that provides a bottom level of citizen wealth or income security for everyone.

            Right now the Swiss are leading the way in this direct.   An election is likely next year that could establish just such a basic income in that country.  Recently…

A grassroots committee is calling for all adults in Switzerland to receive an unconditional income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800) per month from the state, with the aim of providing a financial safety net for the population.  Organizers submitted more than the 100,000 signatures needed to call a referendum on Friday and tipped a truckload of 8 million five-rappen coins outside the parliament building in Berne, one for each person living in Switzerland.

            Organizing with the National Welfare Rights Organization 45 years ago, we used to call for a guaranteed annual income, which unfortunately got ground up in songs about welfare Cadillacs and whatever, but even President Richard Nixon and his brain trust led by then Professor Moynihan were in favor of $1800 per year then for a family of four.  Yeah, that’s small potatoes, but now it would be $12,191.20 per year, and that figure is very scarily close to what fulltime minimum wage workers bring home to try to carry the same weight at $15,600 per year.   Think about it.  Of course if NWRO had won our demand of $5500 for a family of four then, that would mean these families would be making $37,250.89 now, and we would all be living in as much, much different world.  And, a better one!

            It’s also not as radical a concept as some might claim.  Tom Paine, one of our revolutionary heroes called for it, so take that Tea people, and citizens of the great state of Alaska, thanks to their oil revenue, have enjoyed a basic income for decades.  

            This is the kind of strategy it takes to significantly reduce poverty, if we had the will and whatever to be willing to do something besides talk about poverty and inequality.  Until then, here’s a hip, hip, hooray and a lot of hope for a victory for the Swiss!


Weapons of the Weak

978-0-300-03641-1-frontcoverRock Creek   Reading a short book on revisiting the practice of anarchism by James C. Scott during the last year I became aware of his earlier work, Weapons of the Weak:  Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, which I was sure was even more up my alley.   The book, published in 1985, is based on anthropological observation and field work undertaken by Scott in a rural, farming community in Malaysia where he and his family lived for more than a year.

            Scott was in Malaysia as the so-called green revolution took hold so was able to see the impact of the transition of the farming community as tractors became dominant and “double-paddy” production took hold under larger landlords altering the work relationships that had been common in peasant society for centuries.  I’ll save the theoretical arguments for another day, but Scott fascinatingly documents the myriad ways, not easily visible to many, that the poor resisted with what tools they had, which was often their labor, cooperation, and consent.  The “weapons” were not mass actions, strikes, or new organizations so much as seemingly passive resistance including foot dragging, tardiness, unpredictability, lack of communication, and so forth to refuse to submit to power and even change.  The examples included the concerted lowering of a landlord’s reputation in the community and access to labor when finally needed based on the constant “grading” of the rumor mill from the workers to avoid labor on power’s paddy or rice crops. 

            One of my favorite was the way a community erected a toll gate of sorts on a village road to keep trucks from rutting the road especially during the monsoon season and making travel difficult, if not impossible.  With a simple log and a lock attached, a truck was required to pay a fee to travel the road at these times and to stop and be unloaded by the peasants so that the trucker’s load could be transported by their bicycles or motorcycles, allowing many to make needed income.  Another was the subtle, skilled negotiations between tenants and landlords, during the period when many landlords in the area where trying to wrest higher rents and advance payments from tenants. 

            Part of why this is so interesting to me is what it says about the prospects for new tactics for workers in this period of diminishing union power.  Certainly, during the wave of concession demands in the 80’s the use of “work to rule” particularly in some industrial settings was often effective.  More commonly, I have argued to our union organizers that no matter what the work setting there is always a history of worker action and resistance to their employers way before the union emerged on the scene, if we are only willing to ask often and listen deeply for what the history of “organization” has been, so that we can build on it.  This is not to say that the history will always have been a situation where workers won and in fact it is as likely that the response to the resistance was harsh and the leaders may have been fired or disciplined.   A critical organizing tool in any work situation is realizing that you are just another stage in an endless battle so that you have to take the time as an organizer to find out what has gone before you in terms of direct active or passive resistance and build from that history and culture of struggle to find success.  It’s always there, but it has to be found in the conversations with workers on these job-sites.

Management often bends this history over time to their purposes.  Sometimes it is anything but subtle.   At the large Avondale Shipyards outside of New Orleans on the yard’s water tower in the late 1960’s, the results of the last union election and how badly the steelworkers were defeated were painted in giant numbers looming over the workforce.  In hotels in New Orleans like the Hilton, the boss-legend of our organizing there in the early 1980’s was so twisted twenty years later that there were supposedly scores of Hilton workers fired for organizing a union, which was a total fiction.   

A secondary rule of organizing might be that when we are arrogant and don’t search out the history of struggle we may find that our ignorance of the ancient history of workers in these workplaces may also doom our contemporary efforts to failure, lacking an antidote to the fear that has been deeply embedded.   As Scott argues that the weak have weapons in peasant society, we have to find and build those weapons in contemporary society to have a shot a winning.


Learning from the Protests in Brazil

Toronto  The work of the Free Fare Movement in Brazil has triggered mass movements and mobilizations for change in Brazil.  The simplest of their demands, reducing what is reportedly a somewhat modest fare increase, has already been met in the major cities of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, but as the numbers have increased, the demands for change have escalated to focus more on the mismatch of priorities in governmental infrastructure spending on too many circuses and not enough bread.  

Several months ago I asked a Brazilian friend and filmmaker traveling to visit family in Rio if she would write something for Social Policy on whether or not there were organizations challenging the preparations for the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil and their expenditures on that as well as the police actions in the favelas.   She came back with apologies.   She couldn’t piece it together.   Mayara Vivian, one of the founding organizers of the Free Fare Movement when it began at a small conference of 200 people in Porto Alegre in 2005, was as surprised, as she and others started organizing protests against the fare increase.   According to an informative piece in the Times by Simon Romero and William Neuman,

Ms. Vivian, now a waitress and geography student who was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep after days of continuous protests, laughed when she thought about her early days as an organizer: “In 2005 we were a bunch of kids who had never organized any kind of demonstration.”  Without the organizing grunt work over the years, she and others said, the stage for the current wave of protests would not have been set. Still, Ms. Vivian and her fellow activists could not explain the change that had suddenly brought huge crowds into the streets all around the country.

            But that’s what makes a movement different than normal organizing.  In Brazil, people are coming out in huge numbers.  Something like Occupy had broad range throughout the US, but small participation largely because of the tactical limitation of encampments which couldn’t engage a mass base. The India, anti-corruption turnout numbers were massive, but were less about the rage of inequality than an emerging middle class upset about the clash between their rising sense of entitlement and their issues with the public bureaucracy and its lack of political action against corruption.   In Greece, the protests have been prompted by external demands for austerity.  Every one of these movements has been different, but in each case they have tapped deep wells of anger, and in Egypt and Brazil may lead to change.

            Also typical of a movement, other formations with longstanding grievances are seizing the opportunity to coalesce around larger movements for change and attach their demands to the new energy and mass base.

One group of protesters from Complexo do Alemão — a patchwork of slums in Rio once seen as an epicenter of crime and drug trafficking — belonged to an organization called Occupy Alemão, created to demonstrate against police abuses. “We want a public security strategy that is made in dialogue with society,” said Raul Santiago, 24, a community organizer. “We have a high cost of living and precarious services. This is for basic rights. Look at how much is being spent on the Olympics.”

            Finally, as we look for other lessons in Brazil we can even find some resonance with our work in seeking to create “citizen journalism” projects at KABF and in our organizing ACORN International.   When confronted with the problem of mainstream media (or “lamestream” as Sarah Palin calls it), activists in Brazil are creating their own ways to get the real news out through websites and social media:

As an alternative, some protesters have begun covering the demonstrations themselves, distributing their reports though social media. One group, called N.I.N.J.A., a Portuguese acronym for Independent Journalism and Action Narratives, has been circulating through the streets with smartphones, cameras and a generator held in a supermarket cart — a makeshift, roving production studio.

                Parts of that production are much older school than our friends in Brazil would realize.  Every major ACORN demonstration used to have a supermarket cart and a couple of heavy duty batteries to run the loudspeakers for the chant leaders.  Here they are using small generators but the idea is the same thanks to technology I learned from welfare rights more than 40 years ago.


Walmart Watch: Occupy Reunion, Bangladesh Fire, and Spreading Retail Chaos

after the fire at Bangladesh factory

New Orleans   The protests of Black Friday may be over but that’s about all that’s over on either Black Friday or the woeful Walmart watch.

Occupy’s Role in Protests

One interesting side note of the protests is the critical, though largely unrecognized, role of the remnants of last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement and its widespread activist base around the country.  Looking at stories about the OUR Walmart protests around the country it was interesting and ironic that in place after place, picture after picture, that many of the protests seemed more of an Occupy reunion than a labor-based or union led event.  Certainly, the efforts I shared from Baton Rouge and Tupelo, Mississippi were 100% Occupy actions, regardless of the pale green OUR Walmart t-shirts they were provided by the campaign, and the local reporters, long familiar with the Occupy activists made that point clearly.  A number of the wire photos from the AP and even the centerpiece California action featured signs identifying protestors as Occupy adherents.  Maybe the internet initiated Black Friday protests were a fall offensive in the Occupy reunion tour?

Walmart Bangladesh Supplier Responsible in “Horrific” Fatal Fire for 120 Workers

            Though this was unmentioned in the wire story or the Wall Street Journal story on the terrible textile plant fire in Bangladesh, thanks are due for the excellent reporting by Vikas Jajaj from the Times for categorically nailing the Walmart connection to the fire right down to the Faded Glory Walmart jeans and clothing brand in the debris and ashes in the fire’s remains.  Jajau cites work on the scene by the International Labor Rights Forum as corroboration for this information, but also found clear evidence on the supplier’s own website.

A document posted on Tazreen Fashions’ Web site indicated that an “ethical sourcing” official for Walmart had flagged “violations and/or conditions which were deemed to be high risk” at the factory in May 2011, though it did not specify the nature of the infractions. The notice said that the factory had been given an “orange” grade and that any factories given three such assessments in two years from their last audit would not receive any Walmart orders for a year.

A spokesman for Walmart, Kevin Gardner, said the company was “so far unable to confirm that Tazreen is a supplier to Walmart nor if the document referenced in the article is in fact from Walmart.”

I’m sure it would have crossed the line from reporting to editorializing for Jajau to simply call Walmart and its spokesperson, Kevin Gardner, a liar, but clearly there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, he was lying like a rug!

There is blood on the hands of Walmart and other big name companies like Gap and Tommy Hilfiger.

Activists say that global clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap and those sold by Walmart need to take responsibility for the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes.  “These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps,” Ineke Zeldenrust, the international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement. “Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence.”

Criminal negligence almost seems too legalistic for allowing these conditions to exist, especially when your own inspectors have already identified the risks, and you stand by waiting for disaster to strike, as it has now so tragically.

Endless Black Friday Push

Some folks chafed at Black Friday morphing into Thanksgiving Day, but the last paragraph in a Times article reminds us that it’s all about the buck and that’s the real tradition driving these holidays.

“…Thanksgiving falls when it does in part because of the efforts of the retailer Fred R. Lazarus Jr., head of Federated Department Stores. He lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week — and thus extend the holiday shopping season.”

This might be a faceoff  between two giants, the NFL and the Walmarts of the world, but it’s all about the money, honey!



Turning Up the Heat on FDI and Remittances

New Orleans   This report almost writes itself, especially since the pictures virtually tell the story as various organizations in the ACORN International global federation step up to turn on the heat.

Ottawa ACORN opens another year of our Remittance Justice Campaign picketing Western Union for predatory pricing of transfers from working, immigrant families back to their relatives back home.  As we posted our demands on the front door of the Western Union office, a spokesperson for Western Union in a Denver suburb was talking to the Ottawa Citizen and conceding that they are not necessarily “the lowest priced service provider.”  Sorry, Daniel, that just isn’t good enough for ACORN International and ACORN Canada!

This weekend the report from ACORN India’s Bangalore organizer, Suresh showed the same spirits when he included the pictures of the hawkers we organized who were protesting the attempt to modify foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail which could threaten millions and millions of informal jobs in that sector currently employing 20 million workers.  The hawkers hit the streets wearing gunny sacks as part of the protest march.  ACORN International and our affiliates ACORN India and the India FDI Watch Campaign are pretty clear that unilateral action by the government had to be stopped and a mere suspension isn’t enough to make us happy until there are real protections for workers and communities.

2012 is off to a fast start!