Taranto, Italy After flying from New Orleans to Houston to Newark to Munich to Bari, Italy over an 18-hour period, there’s no sense in lying, I was beat up a bit when we coasted into the small airport at Bari along the Adriatic Sea. Nonetheless, I was intrigued with the sense of place and whimsy that led the city worthies to build the airport terminal as an architectural replica of a cruise ship. We walked from the plane to the main building looking through portholes. I kind of liked this whole scene, but maybe I was delirious.
Somehow the plans had been unclear about how I was getting from Bari to Taranto where the workshops were scheduled, so when I broke through the customs door, I was looking for a driver with a sign in his hand with my name on it. Instead, I was met by Roberto Covolo, who had organized La Scuola di Bollenti Spiriti, the School of Hot Spirits, where I would be doing the training, along with a teacher from the school and a fascinating friend who had been dragooned into translating. They were so upbeat, that the day immediately took a turn from “dragging wagon” to “ready for whatever.” It might have been their “hot spirits!”
They asked me if I wanted to go by a town called San Vito dei Normanni where they had been developing a bunch of social enterprises. I said, sure! They also mentioned stopping for lunch somewhere before Taranto, and I said sure to that as well, and that would work before I probably had to have a nap.
An hour later, I was in for a series of surprises, and real treats. We stopped at an old brick winery Roberto was managing that had been owned by a former general with Fadda in his name, hence the name for the operation was, very straightforwardly, ExFadda. Roberto was quite the impresario. First we had a cup of coffee at a little coffee bar that was in one of the out buildings. Make my espresso a double!
Center Hall at ExFadda
Then he asked if I wanted to see the space inside. I imagined a beat down warehouse, but this was a well-done warren of spaces built out by various groups of young people. We saw something on the way to being an internet radio. We went into XFoto, a photography co-op. We looked at the Dance and yoga cooperative space as well. The head of the World Music Academy posed for me re-enacting a picture of him helping build the practice rooms and other spaces in their area. Later we also saw the top-of-the-line kitchen and, you know where this is going by now, had a 3 hour plus million course Italian family meal with the wonderful Spera clan at Xfood, also not surprisingly, is what they call the restaurant, which also hires the disabled. Outside there was a big garden and yet more grounds for a farm in the making which already had a couple of ducks and a goose there too.
Roberto Covolo and others in the XFoto space
The head of the World Music Academy reenacting a picture of himself building the space
Is it all sustainable? Who knows at this point? It’s all too new to know, and it represents a huge investment of capital and vision by the state. Most of the front end cost was provided by the pretty progressive state government in Puglia which is desperately trying to fashion some real programs to hold on to and motivate youth between 18-30, and has embraced Roberto’s work since 2007 enthusiastically and is proud of the recognition and awards the effort is garnering from various observers in the European Union.
As always, whenever I go to help people learn more about community organizing, if I can keep my eyes – and my mind – open, I am always rewarded by getting to learn more than I might ever hope to be able to teach.
New Orleans The window has now opened for new signups under the Affordable Care Act. This time around there won’t be any do-overs or make-ups, I’ll bet. The Administration is already soft selling the numbers and predicting less than 10 million enrollees by the end of 2015, dampening expectations, either tactically or determinedly.
This is also the renewal time for last year’s enrollees. The earlier guidance from DC had been to just let your plan automatically renew, and you would be OK. Now the new message is that everyone needs to start shopping on the marketplace website to try and find the best deal. Generally the average of national insurance increases is relatively modest, but some renewals are as high as 20%. Furthermore there are some new companies entering in different states and reducing prices to catch up with some market share, so there may be bargains if you take the time and go on.
Cross your fingers and hope it all works this year! There will be fewer navigators, so in many places you will be on your own. Less money for the program this year, and what programs that were funded are beating the bush in the nooks and crannies of the country for new enrollees.
Interviewing Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Center on Wade’s World on KABF/FM 88.3, she was recalling the old tradition in some large cities in the USA where churches and synagogue basements once housed worker centers that were designed to give people advice on these kinds of programs. There’s not much of that now. Kim’s network of 200 worker centers are focusing, appropriately on wage theft and basic rights, but this Obamacare is complicated and not easy to add to the menu. Local 100 United Labor Unions is using our experience as navigators during the first year to establish Citizen Wealth Centers in Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Little Rock to support our members and their communities, but there’s no question the demand is going to outstrip capacity everywhere.
And, confusion reigns. There are some questions where no amount of research or direct calls to CMS and other experts have yet given us confident answers, so this is a call for a bit of crowdsourcing help. The employers over 50 workers are coming under the mandate this year, and these high deductible plans are spreading, as are so-called “skinny” plans and other offerings that may not even meet the basic requirements, yet are likely to dominate lower waged work and the service sector. There’s a penalty for employers of $2000 per worker if they offer nothing or an unqualified plan. That much is clear. There’s a higher penalty of $3000 per worker though if that worker goes to the marketplace, buys insurance there and gets a subsidy. At the same time corporate consultants are telling bosses to audit their workforce to establish that they covered 70% of the workers and offered plans to everyone. Makes it seem like they have to hit 70% or over, doesn’t it? We need to know for certain.
Here is where we’ve suddenly gotten bogged down as we look at some crummy plans and whether or not there is an organizing campaign that might be possible by having workers desert the company’s bad plan for the marketplace where they might get both a better plan and a better deal. We really need to know, yay or nay, whether or not workers might have some leverage in pushing for a better plan if they deserted the company’s pretend plan and triggered penalties individually? And, if workers were able to organize more than 30% out of the plans, does the whole crummy corporate plan fall like the house of cards it is?
Like I said, it’s muy complicado, but vitally important and important now. If anyone out there is confident they know the answer, let us know ASAP!
New Orleans More than 15 years ago during the HOTROC organizing campaign for hotel workers in New Orleans, I worked with an organizer named David Keiffer. Dave had been around a number of organizations before partnering with me and flying an AFL-CIO banner at the time with stints going back to the AM/FM canvass program in Tampa when we built the WMNF radio station there, then years with ACTWU organizing textile workers in the South, and a breakthrough campaign organizing asbestos workers with the Laborers in New York City. Dave had a mythical turn of phrase that cushioned his constant tinkering with his spreadsheets, and would refer to organizers and organizing drives as belonging to the historic, heroic era of this or that.
The phrase comes to mind as I think about the passing of John Beam, another veteran of ACORN’s first dozen years of organizing in Arkansas and beyond, clearly in Dave’s sense and every sense I can image, a key organizer in the heroic, founding days of the organization in the United States. John’s passing follows other veterans of that era now in recent years including Dewey Armstrong earlier in this year and Jon Kest almost two years ago now. These were great organizers in their day and we won’t see their like again or benefit from the kinds of contributions they made very soon in the future.
For many years John and I would joke about the coincidence that we had a multi-year streak of always sharing my birthday in August together. He was from Dallas and had driven up to be interviewed on a Saturday in the early 1970’s on my birthday. He hadn’t been long out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois outside of Chicago. Later he’d actually took that trip we children of the West always talk about and in fact traveled one way and another deep into Latin America. He was always ready to go. Another one of my birthdays in 1974, we spent driving to the Missouri Bootheel, that small piece of delta land that juts along the Mississippi River into Arkansas and is more south than anything else. We had tried our first baby steps at expanding ACORN by answering the call from a group there called MDEM, the Missouri Delta Ecumenical Ministry and recruited an organizer from Chicago who John trained on a quick drive in Mabelvale in Pulaski County outside of Little Rock. He had done all right, but clearly it wasn’t working out in the Bootheel for any of us, so we had drawn the short straw of going up, closing down this brief trail balloon called the American Community Organizations for Reform Now, and sending him on his way as well. That was just the way John and I celebrated the passing of another year!
John spent years working for ACORN. He opened up one of our earliest expansion offices in the 20/80 push in Memphis, Tennessee. Heck, maybe that was on my birthday, too, but I may be making that up! He worked later as one of the early ACORN Regional Directors, based in New Orleans after 1978. He was part of the mix and mayhem of the New Orleans jobs action that led to arrests and mess as we pushed Mayor Dutch Morial for summer job for youth.
But, if I tried to remember perhaps John’s most epic piece of organizing for ACORN during those heroic days, it was in the delta of the Arkansas River organizing the Protect Our Land Association (POLA) and SHAP, ACORN, standing for Save Health and Property. Arkansas Power & Light, then part of Mid-South Utilities, and now Entergy, submitted a proposal to the Public Service Commission to build what they called “the world’s largest coal-fired power plant” at White Bluff on west side of the Arkansas River midway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. We were already fighting AP&L and other utilities on inflation-driven rate hikes for our members, right and left, and initially jumped into this fight because we were convinced that it would raise our members’ electric rates yet again. We operated the campaign on every level, researching the stock ownership and opening a front of the campaign at Harvard and with other Ivies that were big holders. Steve Kest, our research director, was reading reports of damage to cows under the lines in Europe and studies about sulfur emission damage to crops in Sweden. We were outsmarting and out hustling the company at every turn. The company for its part was intent on constructing a “slurry” line eventually and until then running 100-car trains that would move coal from the Powder River basin and the giant Fort Union coal deposit in eastern Wyoming. North Dakota, and Montana, where we also engaged allied groups of farmers and ranchers in the fight.
ACORN was never an advocacy group though, it was always a membership-based, membership-driven organization, so no matter how many bells and whistles we might develop for the campaign, the organizing would rise or fall on whether or not we could get farmers and rural residents downwind of the proposed White Bluff plant to organize with ACORN and lead the fight. That was just the kind of job and challenge for John Beam, and he delivered big time, driving miles and walking the long distances up country roads to farmhouse doors and talking to families about what White Bluff would bring down on them, how it would affect their crops, and the impact on the health of their livestock and families. I will never forget the shock on the face of the local AP&L office director in their small office in Stuttgart in the middle of the eastern Arkansas rice growing region when John and I along with others followed about 25 farmers into his office demanding more information on the plans and no movement until we were satisfied.
They wanted to fly some of the farmers to see the Paradise plant in Kentucky, and not only did we blast them on the plant’s environmental record, but packed the small planes with our farmers and just tore them up. The campaign brought us our first front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette. We won huge reductions in size and increased protections from the plant, and were able to counter AP&L at every turn.
John left ACORN in 1982 some years later. He married Polly Chase, another former organizer, and later a nurse, who was from Rhode Island. They ended up in New York City. Our paths didn’t cross as much over the last few decades. I ran into him a couple of times in ACORN’s Brooklyn office. He wrote some proposals for New York ACORN. He even ended up directing a joint project based at Fordham University on education for some years with us.
Nonetheless in my mind, jumping out of our old cars onto the shoulder of eastern Arkansas highways to talk to a couple of more farmers or walking into the cafes where they were having coffee early in the morning and talking about White Bluff and finally beating that company like a drum thanks to John’s great work in the fields and farmhouses, will always feel like his finest hour with ACORN.
New Orleans The actual announcement of the new employee relations rules for the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was actually even more interesting than the early leaks and advertisements from the United Automobile Workers (UAW). What the company really did, very expressly, is initiate a huge private sector program of “meet and confer” bargaining with organizations based on their level of worker support in the plant. If this works it might, as many of us have argued over the years in advocating “majority” unionism, point to a path where we can make progress with giant employers that have eluded any kind of worker organization for decades.
Admittedly, one of the things that I found attractive about the policy, was the fact that the company called it their Policy on Community Organization, recognizing perhaps more subtly than they even realized how much the weight of the potential new dawn for labor could rest on a better understanding of the potential and promise of deep, patient community organization methodology to achieve its purposes. The policy provides different levels of access and frequency of meetings based on levels of worker support at 15, 30, or 45%. The UAW at the point has indicated that it has majority support in its newly founded Local 42, while one of the anti-union groups claims to be nearing 15% support.
The company is also very clear that this new policy will not be a path to exclusive representation. I had wondered in an earlier report how they would navigate the political and community perils in Chattanooga had they provided voluntary recognition based on a majority showing by the UAW. They seem to be very aware of this as well, leading me to guess than if, and when, exclusive representation comes, there will be an election before it happens. Even picking the 45% level of support indicates recognition of the NLRB and labor law issues that surround this policy. If a company verifies and agrees that a union has more than 50% support of the workforce, a union can file an 8(a)5 charge for the company’s failure to bargain and failure to recognize the union as the exclusive representative of the employees. Clearly, VW does not want to be caught in that trap, and the UAW has also undoubtedly agreed privately with the company that they will not push them into that position either.
As importantly the UAW and its officers are embracing “members only” representation which is also widely practiced in labor relations around the world where multi-union bargaining is the norm. Gary Casteel, the UAW Secretary-Treasurer issued a statement saying that their only concern with the new rules is making sure they were now going to be able to represent their members.
As importantly the UAW and its officers are embracing “members only” representation which is also widely practiced in labor relations around the world where multi-union bargaining is the norm. Gary Casteel, the UAW Secretary-Treasurer issued a statement saying that there only concern with the new rules is making sure they were now going to be able to represent their members.
Both “meet and confer” and “members’ only” representation have been common in United States public sector unionization and are actually prevalent still in Southern right-to-work states where exclusive representation is still rare for teachers, state, and local public workers. “Meet and confer” bargaining has also been a frequent way station for unions in developing their base, as it was for many home health care workers over the last number of decades.
For the UAW this is still a breakthrough in organizing foreign carmakers, and if it works in Chattanooga, could finally provide them with a path forward in organizing this sector, which they badly need. But, for all workers in the United States, this could also point the way to many more breakthroughs for private sector workers where union density is still heading to only 5% of total private sector employment. Embracing these strategies could finally rebuild the labor movement through aggressive organizing, effective member representation, and patient bargaining, if we can make this work.
The old days are gone, and it’s time to get past them and embrace the future, and we may be seeing it now in Chattanooga.
New Orleans The Chattanooga Choo-Choo is whistling for a big stop at the Detroit headquarters of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). When Glen Miller and his band recorded that song, it was the first million selling record ever and got the first gold record for its popularity. There will soon be a similar celebration at UAW Solidarity House for their first successful organization of a foreign automaker after years of organizing, once Volkswagen honors a previously confidential agreement to recognize the union.
That’s the spoiler alert and a warning that there’s going to be some yahooing on my part of the “I told you so…” and “You heard it first here!” type from yours truly.
In recent days I read a Politico “Morning Shift” bulletin revealing the following:
Volkswagen is expected to change a company policy this week that the United Autoworkers believes will lead to recognition of its local union at a company plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. according to a UAW letter to members of the local. ‘We await details from the company on this policy and will share more thoughts after the announcement,’ the letter said. According to the UAW, the union told the company last spring that it would take certain actions that would help VW bring production of a new SUV to the plant. The UAW also said it would drop a National Labor Relations Board challenge to last February’s failed union vote. According to the UAW letter, VW agreed that if the UAW would take the specified actions, VW would recognize the union.
In earlier reports, we have discussed all of this when the UAW leadership first chartered a local union, Local 42, at the plant and began enrolling members directly in the local in an exciting experiment. More recently the UAW had announced that they had signed up more than 50% of the workforce. The importance of that announcement now becomes clear because the company would not have been able to voluntarily recognize the union unless it could verify a majority expression of support.
We always have to beware of “premature certainty,” but the UAW headquarters would not have authorized the local’s release of a letter to its members without being 100% sure that this deal was done and without a wink-and-a-nod of understanding from VW that they were going to start leaking out the good news so that the members were ready.
And, now for the “I told you so” reward for faithful readers and listeners of the Chief Organizer’s Report. The cognoscenti among you may remember a short six months ago, April 22nd, 2014 to be exact, a report on the UAW’s withdrawal of election objections and my contrarian position that this step indicated a deeper commitment and a likely understanding the company and their union allies in Germany. Here’s what I said then:
Politicians and the in-plant anti-union committee at Volkswagen in Chattanooga were both chortling and celebrating the announcement that the UAW had withdrawn its election objections before the NLRB hearing on the issues raised in its recent, narrow defeat. They are laughing too soon. They are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession, rather than the more accurate understanding that this is a huge signal from the UAW that they are in fact deepening their commitment to keeping the campaign alive….
I added more fuel to the fire by speculating that the UAW had no doubt been in discussion with the company and their union allies on the board of the German company:
You can also bet that UAW leaders have had extensive discussions with Volkswagen union leaders in Germany, who have board seats in the company, about how a second election would work and how the company would react….
I may have been a little off the mark in believing part of the setup was for a second election, thinking that tactically the union and the company would in fact want one to poke their community opposition politically and in Chattanooga in the eye, but I can understand why they would also want to grab the bird in the hand without taking the risk, even if the rewards might have been greater.
Where I was right on the numbers though was on the quid pro quo with the company, strategically:
The other reason it is easy to read the UAW’s intentions can be found in their statements upon the withdrawal. Shrewdly, they withdrew by laying down the gauntlet to the Tennessee governor and local business establishment to hurry up and restore the $300 million in incentives for VW to locate a new SUV line in Chattanooga which would add another 1000 workers to the mix. This is a win-win for the UAW. It gets them back into the framework of being a job creator rather than a job threat, which had sunk their first vote. If the Governor and the union baiters can’t convince VW to add the line, they are losers, bullies, and blowhards, and the UAW doesn’t have that problem on its shoes. Moving the campaign right now to restore the commitments to add the line also turns the bargaining power from the politicians back to the company and its allies. The UAW is no company union, but any Tennessee politicians have to know that VW is not going to add 1000 workers in Chattanooga without a behind the scenes commitment that the pols and the local chamber will keep out of its employee relations in the plant.
Enough said! The haters and the baiters and the politicians are going to have to grin and bear it, and shut their pie holes this time, because the union is now going to be there to stay in the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The South and the Union will rise again!
New Orleans Well, another country heard from! President Obama seems to be shaking off the midterms by stepping up his game. He came out forcefully for “net neutrality.” That’s not really news, he’s always said that he was for net neutrality, but this time he finally came out foursquare for the internet being classified as a public utility. Furthermore, he was against the fast and slow lanes for the internet that has been proposed by big cable and internet companies to further monopolize their cash machine, while denying net neutrality.
Of course all of this was the President joining the rest of us in heaving a rock at the windows of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Admittedly, four million people have now weighed in on this question of the FCC holding hearings and determining the future status of the internet, the vast majority arguing decidedly for net neutrality and for full utility classification like electricity, telephones, and the like, but still his rock has a lot of weight. Unfortunately, the FCC is more beholding to Congress than the President once they are appointed for both their budget and legal implementation, and more than just me are still scratching our heads at why he named a corporate communications lobbyist and trade association executive as chair of the FCC, so it’s not like they are jumping to attention at his call.
But, let’s celebrate the good news where we find it, even as we acknowledge that the struggle is still fierce. The stock market understood the message well enough and pulled down the stocks and value of Comcast and the like by 4% in the wake of the President’s remarks, because they get the fact that big, bad, bully Comcast is not going to be happy with even a compromise on this issue since they want it all, all of the time. Comcast likely overstepped again and over-estimated the buddy-buddy relationship they were claiming for their executive vice-president David Cohen with the President and thinking that his living room fundraisers with Obama allowed them to stake a quiet claim to his silence on this issue, which he has maintained over recent years. The President’s remarks made it clear they may have made some down payments, but they don’t own his farm.
No matter how many times Comcast and others want to claim that they need a monopoly machine to keep the tech wave rolling, their loud roar can’t seem to drown out the voices of Netflix and others saying, “nay!” Reports of a meeting between Vimeo, Kickstarter, and other internet upstart darlings begging the White House and Obama advisers to ride hard with the rest of us against the bullies and earlier meetings with Facebook, Google, and others, make it impossible for Comcast and the like to claim that they speak for Silicon Valley and innovation.
These days we have to be honest with ourselves. We’re never going to win this hands’ down. Whatever emerges will be a sloppy compromise with dreams dragging and lawyers rushing into court, but at least the Comcast con has been called, and more and more of our allies are stepping into the fight so we’re not going to get bulldozed.
Now if we could just get the same support in bridging the digital divide….