Italian Tenants Withstand Landlord Pushback with Court Victory

ACORN Italy's David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt)

ACORN Italy’s David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt and glasses)

Grenoble    Ever since 2011 when ACORN Italy launched our campaign to take advantage of a unique handle passed by the national legislature allowing tenants to reduce their rent if their landlords were renting to them on the black market without paying taxes, we have been fighting back against the landlord counterattack. The victories for tenants exploiting the law were huge since by triggering registration of the landlord’s property their bounty was a reduction of their rent by 85 to 90% for the four-year term of a standard lease with a four-year option of renewal. The math is clear. If a tenant were paying 1000 euros in rent, they would then only be paying 150 euros saving more than 10000 euros a year, 40000 for four years, 80000 for eight years. Needless to say, the landlords had been happy to avoid paying taxes to the government, and were wild with rage about now having to both pay taxes and receive less revenue from their tenants.

Lawyers were a cheaper alternative for the landlords and they have yo-yoed back and forth to court with us since 2012. We took a hit from the Supreme Court in late 2013 ruling that there was a technical problem with the law. We managed to get legislation through the Senate that prevented the tenants who had seized the law’s opportunity with us from having to pay back the landlords for their lost revenues. We have introduced other legislation to correct the technical flaw and restore the original intent of the law.

Meanwhile another suit had ended up in the second high court of Italy which interprets laws and is called the La Corte Surprema di Cassazione or Supreme Court of Cassation. The decision of the Court which is final at the highest level has reopened provision – and the opportunity – for tens of thousands of tenants throughout Italy.

The Court ruled that if the landlord and the tenant had a verbal, oral contract rather than a written lease contract as required, then they had the ability to push the property to be registered and register the rent at the lower level as allowed by the original legislation. Part of the tenant’s claim and defense would be allowable based on the “moral” or “psychological” pain suffered by the tenant from not having a written lease and having been forced to find housing in the informal, black market so prevalent throughout Italy. The Court’s decision does not reopen the door for tenants with a written, but unregistered lease, but settles the matter for those who were forced to agree to an okey-dokey lease involving tax evasion.

The tide hasn’t completely turned for ACORN Italy’s work. We still have much to be done with our allies in the Senate to both nail down tenant protections and restore the comprehensive opportunity to all tenants, but in the meantime we’re gearing up to get the word out throughout Italy to tenants with wink-and-nod verbal leases that their opportunity is knocking and the door is wide open again. Needless to say, head organizer David Tozzo is drawing up major national recruitment plans to scale up ACORN Italy’s work to take advantage of the opportunity and the membership is soaring.

Structure is a Challenge Everywhere for Community Organizations

Training in Grenoble 2015

Training in Grenoble 2015

Grenoble    Working with the leaders and staff of both the Alliance Citoyenne in Grenoble as well as Bona Fides in Poland and other associations in Rennes and Paris, France in recent days, it was interesting how frequently structure comes up as a central theme and challenge in organizing. The discussions are fascinating when leaders and organizers consider their relationships with each other on a specific case by case basis, but also raise debates in how members are absorbed in governing boards.

The organizers in Katowice, Poland with the Bona Fides organization had put together almost a half-dozen local groups in the city, mostly of middle income families in the beginning, but mentioned that over four years they had not yet brought the groups or the leaders, we gathered, into any kind of joint participation or governance structure in the city. Even as Dagmara Kubik, the talented and energetic organizer in recent years for this group began to embark on a more expanded organizing project, there was also no mention of any structural connection between the Bona Fides local groups and this new organizational formation either. Part of the challenge may be that the local groups are an organizing “project” of the larger Bona Fides agency. There may have been an operating assumption both by organizers and local group members that they were simply a passive component of the agency itself, and therefore not entitled or interested in issues of governance or amalgamating themselves directly on common issues. The accountability of the organizers was likely individualized to the local groups and more structurally to the agency employer at this point. The organizers were committed to seeing the groups build power in Katowice, but frank with us that they were still debating how to link the groups together structurally.

The Alliance has both a simpler and more complex path for growth. As a dynamic community organization in Grenoble they have attracted interest and imitators around France and now in order to both support those associations and expand more aggressively in other areas, they are trying to find a structure that allows them to centralize some costs and consolidate some operations, while maintaining the autonomy of their allied projects and creating more structural participation and direction for their growth. What makes sense doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Moving to a membership based structure and dues system also means integrating an existing leadership board or “commission,” as they call it with a structure that also opens up participation and governance from the members and leaders coming from the local groups being organized directly around Grenoble.

Some of the most interesting discussions over the weekend as we met in the mountains over Grenoble involved the role of the board and the organizers for the Alliance. Does the staff work for the head organizer or directly for the board that has been signing their employment contracts? If there is a problem, is it legitimate to go “around” the staff director to individual board members? How are performance issues handled? The questions and cases came quickly. The discussions on all of these issues were exciting and the importance of their resolution was fundamental in easing their way forward. Structure can allow an organization to grow or kill its future, and leaders and organizers were grappling with how to do it best and do it right.

Most of the weekend we could see the massive mountain tops of this part of the Alps clearly in the sun, but they rose like the tip of icebergs over a sea of fog and clouds. Perhaps this was a metaphor for the weekend’s work of the Alliance. We could see where we were going, but we couldn’t quite see clearly all the ground below us. Luckily as we drove back down in the evening the fog had passed and city around us was bright and clear. Perhaps that is also an omen for the future of the Alliance Citoyenne.


The Polish Rising and Arbeit Macht Frei

Polish Raising

Polish Raising

Grenoble    It was important for the Organizers’ Forum delegation to try and get a grip on the Polish experience, and visiting the country that experience is both inescapable and illusive.  Illusive, especially in Warsaw, because much of what you see in this very old city is new, brand new like the gleaming high rise office towers in the centrum, but also relatively new down to the Soviet-Cold War era apartment blocks along the wide avenues.  The city is old by hundreds and hundreds of years and deceptive in the old city, the Stare Miasto, when you find yourself admiring the castle, churches, and historic buildings and realize you are in a real time Disneyland, because all of it was rebuilt from almost total rubble after the Nazi victory when they dynamited all the buildings in a scorched earth policy to teach the Polish people a lesson about resistance.

There are statues of generals and soldiers everywhere but perhaps the most moving was a dramatic, heroic grouping of figures in several places next to the justice buildings that memorialized the Polish Rising, the valiant, last gasp resistance effort of 30,000 Polish soldiers and Warsaw residents who rose to try to repel the Nazis from Warsaw after their occupation.  This is a courageous tale without a happy ending.  The Soviet army did not follow their lead, despite a promise to do so, and after two months of resistance, the death toll was over 250,000, displacement was almost total, and the city was laid to waste.  We visited a modern, seemingly new, museum built in recent years dedicated to the Polish Rising which was dark, dramatic, and devastatingly detailed in its presentation of the rising and its defeat.

personal belongs at Auschwitz

personal belongs at Auschwitz

We had beautiful weather in Poland, but appropriately on our last day we drove to see Auschwitz and Birkenau in a steady, overcast of intermittent rain.  From the moment you walk under the entry gate of the concentration camp with its lying exhortation “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work Makes Freedom past the barbwire and electrified fences to the rows upon rows of orderly brick buildings you are lost in a fog of oppression.  I couldn’t get Hannah Arendt’s famous line about the “banality of evil” out of my head.  Entering building after building that documented the horror of over 6.28 million Polish people killed during the war ravages and atrocities, many of them here as well as Dutch, German, and Hungarian Jews, Roma, and thousands of others.

The crowds lined up and the tours marching one after another in lockstep and headsets were frighteningly alive, but there was nothing but death here.  Even entering Auschwitz in a long line, where any bags had to be left behind, and you emptied your pockets and went through airport-like screening made you wonder if you were being asked to relive being there.  Our group peeled off on our own, thankfully, because moving through the buildings and along the graveled walkways by the shuffling steps of the tours and tourists, bodies bundled against the chill and heads covered in the rain, eerily made me feel as if I was being marched to the end as well.  One building in fact had a running moving of people being marched along and the bottom was a mirror with your feet approaching in the same manner down the hallway.

The experience is powerful and necessary, but deeply depressing.  These are monuments to monstrosity that literally boggle the imagination and at least in my case found me sorting through the horrors since World War II and cataloging the cases that though different have repeated the horror with odd twists different perhaps only in degree.



Community Organizing in Poland

Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha and Mary Rowles

Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha and Mary Rowles

Geneva  In Krakow, the Organizers’ Forum got a chance to meet community organizers, activists, and campaigners in a unique setting in space provided by a pilot in the municipal soccer stadium, attempting to get more use of the facility than a fourteen-game schedule would normally allow. Once we realized we were found, not lost, we enjoyed our one-and-only time in a skybox of sorts overlooking the green fields of the stadium,

We had been prepared for this visit through a Skype call earlier in the week with Chuck Hirt, a veteran trainer and adviser of organizers and organizations largely in Eastern Europe through ECON, the European Community Organizing Network. Chuck is based in Slovakia, and along with Paul Cromwell in Berlin, has been spreading the gospel of organizing for close to two decades. (See their essays in Global Grassroots!) Chuck felt there was great progress as he looked over his time, particularly in the way more and more organizers were willing to embrace doorknocking. He warned us that community development was still the dominant ideology, though sometimes it was misnamed community organizing and that scarce resources and a tentativeness about asking for money, like membership dues, was still a barrier for organizational autonomy and sustainability. In fact he advised us that in the historical shadow of state control and communism in some of the Eastern European countries where ECON specialized, it was more common for activists to embrace the notion that they were organizing “initiatives,” rather than ongoing organizations. In his view the work had advanced the farthest in Hungary, where it was spreading, and more recently in Poland.

Fortunately, we were meeting with one of ECON’s star groups and its staff, Dagmara Kubik, who until recently was the lead organizer for Bona Fides in Katowice, a medium-sized city and the regional capital of Silesia, about an hour away from Krakow and her replacement and colleague Iowna Nowak. In four years, Dagmara and her team had organized a half-dozen largely autonomous associations through home visits and using the local issues that are the staple of hundreds of community organizing drives. Loose dogs and their mess had all of our delegation nodding their heads with empathy.  We all had been there and done that. They could see more head scratching on the issue of parking lots, so they quickly explained the issue of older block apartment buildings constructed before cars had more recently become ubiquitous. An association can be registered with as little as fifteen people, and some are trying to lower it to five we heard, but their groups met monthly, had some elected leaders and a working group or committee structure and occasionally were involved in some accountability actions. Iowna and Dagmara frankly shared long conversations with us that they had been having about leadership development and structure, which were engaging. Dagmara’s next project, besides stepping into a larger leadership role in ECON itself, is organizing something she called Common Thing that she hopes will expand the work.

Dagmara had also invited several other activists to meet with us. One was also from Katowice and DIY Fix Your City, Agatha Janko, a young student organizer who told us a captivating story that illuminated the issue of trying to revitalize abandoned properties into community, art, and cultural space with some success. A unique challenge they face is re-purposing the 500 city-managed properties they have identified, as many have been unused for seventy-five years to the war displacements, and in Poland, the former owners or their heirs have the right to reclaim the properties. This is not your usual urban abandonment situation, given the fraught history in the region. Agatha’s enthusiasm was contagious and her small volunteer army have already had some success with what they called an “air brick” race of more than thirty teams of three which “raced” around the city finding the vacant properties proving not only their enthusiasm, but also that imagination is the DIY strong suit.

We also met Magdalena Koztasto of the Polish Smog Alarm group that began in Krakow where it turns out in this beautiful, old city there is often severe air pollution. Their efforts, initially driven largely by volunteers and fueled by social media, has put more than one-thousand people on the streets of Krakow. Their demand has been curtailing the use of coal and wood fires in boilers on an accelerated basis and required immediate replacement of older boilers. They have also won a subsidy program for lower income families. Five percent of the Polish populations still heats in this way leading to severe health problems. We were almost embarrassed when she excused herself because she had to prepare for a meeting with the President of Poland the next day where they hoped he would sign an order reducing pollution, though they feared he would instead assign the issue for more policy study. Their success has allowed them to expand their staff and is leading to similar, associated groups forming in other cities throughout Poland.

In our week in Poland, many people had told us about the weakness of civil society and the organizing community, but the work of Chuck, Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha, and Magdalena certainly gave us reason for hope.

Magdalena speaking

Magdalena speaking

The Exciting Opportunity to Organize Precarious Workers in Poland


Professor Jan Czarzasty Warsaw School of Economics

Krakow   Towards the end of the Organizers’ Forum delegations’ meeting with Professor Jan Czarzasty at the Warsaw School of Economics, he mentioned something almost offhandedly about a recent Supreme Court decision in Poland. It seems that the Polish constitution has always been crystal clear that all workers, barring none, have the right to organize and form unions. Given the history leading to this current constitution and the role of workers and unions in making it happen that is hardly surprising.

What was surprising was to hear that in fact despite the unambiguous language, there were in fact numerous workers – he estimated that the number could be as high as 40% of the workforce – that were routinely denied the right to organize because they were self-employed or subcontractors or working on what they call “civil contracts” which are common for temporary and contingent workers, rather than giving full employment contracts. Finally, a case had proceeded to the Supreme Constitutional Court on this matter, and the court in recent months had ruled decisively that, yes, indeed, all such workers had the right to organize unions.

In Poland, when some existing practice is found unconstitutional by the court then the government has one year in order to create regulations that comply with the decisions, so there has not been a rush to organize such precarious workers, and many, including most of the union organizers we visited with in Warsaw, were doubtful that there would be significant organizing in this sector even when the rules are clarified.  One commented that he had been told when organizing cleaners and security workers that the “fees were too low,” which was so unbelievable to me that I had to stop and ask the translator to repeat his comments for me because I thought I had heard that the problem was that their “feet were too long!”

Of course the problem that they will have to wrestle with, as we have had to confront in the US, Canada, India and other countries is as much the question of “who is the employer” as “how to organize the workers. ” How does a union force the employers to consolidate sufficiently into some body, association, or legal regime to allow bargaining or some improvement on the questions of hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment? A public regulatory regime that at least works on paper in India for domestic workers, hawkers, dockworkers, and others would be a step forward.

The simple union registration formula where ten members can constitute an organization and begin enrollment and action would seem made for mass organizing of such workers. The taxi drivers early morning strike in Warsaw this week as our delegation jumped on buses to make our train to Krakow is a good indication that supposedly “self-employed” workers are interested in organizing and ready to make something happen.

What an amazing organizing opportunity, if unions will seize it, it looks like workers might be ready.

Union Organizing in Poland

20150117_eup502-aKrakow   We talked to a number of union organizers and academic experts on unions and labor markets while the Organizers’ Forum was visiting Warsaw. The simple conclusion was that there is not much of it going on. There are two primary labor federations, one the famous thirty-five year old Solidarnosc, relatively speaking a shadow of its former self with over 600,000 members compared to the twenty million during its heyday as a movement that brought down the government. The other federation, OPZZ, born of a spinoff of Solidarnosc when the government seized its assets is about the same size. The last, the Forum, is much smaller. The two primary federations are all related to various political parties.

We got a sense of the “rules of the road” for organizing unions from two organizers we met, one from UNI Global involved in organizing a packaging and printing company of about 500 workers near Warsaw, and the other with ITF, the transportation based global union federation, involved in organizing a union of dockworkers in Gdansk in a unit that might reach 5000 workers once it was finished. Both were experienced mid-30 year old organizers. One having worked for Unite in Scotland and the other a veteran organizer in Poland. Though they were clear that organizing was not a priority for the Polish labor movement, they were enthusiastic about their projects and hopeful of playing a part in the revitalization of an organizing culture in Polish unions over the coming decades.

A union can be chartered with as little ten members. They can also demand bargaining rights for all the workers with their union, though of course their strength would be minimal, so most do not. There is a lengthy process of allowable bargaining that can end in labor courts. A union in an unorganized plant bargains for all of the workers exclusively, not just for members, but, interestingly, since multiple unions are allowed in a workplace – any formation registering the ten minimal members – there is a requirement that all of the unions have to come to consensus on their demands. The professors told of a record of 74 unions in one company and frequently unions numbering in the double digits. The organizers described a preference for quiet, secret organizing and home visits in order to prevent employers from gumming up the process by organizing a union of supervisors for example that would dilute demands and attempt to block consensus on bargaining. There is protection for workers who are fired but it is a lengthy, bittersweet process.

Tactically, a union has the right to call a two-hour “warning” strike of sorts to put pressure on the employer. In the dockworkers case they were calling such an action soon and recruiting other allies to block the entrances for workers and truck deliveries to both send a message and protect their members at this early stage when they only had about 250 members. Interestingly, companies have to inform the unions when there is discipline of workers, and a union is required to report to the company its membership on a regular basis. Where the union has most of its membership on direct deposit dues rather than payroll deduction, the company is caught having to report on all workers to the union. Something more than a warning strike requires a majority vote of all of the workers, so that is the election that might be more widely contested.

Most of the organizing supported by global union federations, like those employing our friends was concentrated on multinationals, where there was felt to be some potential leverage on the employer. Talking to other union leaders and former organizing directors for large federations, their perspective on future organizing initiatives in Poland targeting domestic companies was grimmer, characterizing a lot of existing programs as service-based and politically oriented, rather than seeking to expand union density.

Both opportunities and challenges seem huge for Polish labor organizing.