New Orleans Talking to my friends and hosts in the United Kingdom over the last ten days one of the things that was the most fun was the cross cultural English-to-English translation we had to do. This is the kind of thing my dad would have found fascinating on my return from any trip overseas.
Here’s my favorite thanks to Paulette Singer, who works as an organizer in the Barnet Borough of London. While walking me through the West Hendon estates which is in the middle of a massive fight with developers, she gave me the derivation of the expression “daylight robbery.” Of course from decades of experience working on the streets of the USA, I was sure as most of my compatriots would be, that a “daylight robbery” is simply the fact that you are being robbed during the day as opposed to the night, but that’s not the story. It turns out that when a tenant was consistently late paying their rent in council or public housing that the council, acting as landlord, would board up the windows. Tenants therefore called it “daylight robbery.” Isn’t that great!
The week I was in London was unseasonably hot and the news kept calling it an “Indian summer.” My friends always assumed that an Indian summer referred to the British colonial experience in the Indian subcontinent. Had more of them travelled to India, they probably would have suspected there was a problem since arguably from the northern climes, it’s almost always summer and sweltering in India. I disabused them of that notion, pointing out that “Indian Summer” referred to the Native Americans. Of course they all immediately consulted Ms. Google to see if I was pulling their legs, and without so much as a “thank you,” confirmed the insight.
It was like that. Another time someone talked about a “bricky” and that turned out to be a bricklayer and then chippy for carpenter, sparky for electrician, and so forth in sort of a weird infantilizing of these proud tradespeople of the working class, which surprised me. I wasn’t sure what they might have called a plumber, but I knew better than to ask.
I’ve mentioned before how easy it is to be confused. When offered warm versus cold beer in Kenya, I had jumped to the conclusion that had to do with electrical power outages, rather than realizing it washed down from the UK. In India urinal was pronounced ur-I-nal which I thought was an Indian adaptation until being informed on my first trip to Scotland that ur-I-nal was the accepted, common pronunciation. Every once in a while the language translations are surprisingly simple. I knew better than to ask for a bathroom, but even when trying the Canadian “water closet,” a funny look would point the way to the toilet for a thankful change, calling a spade a spade.
English may have become lingua franca in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean that coming from the United States we don’t need constant translation. It’s kicks!
London Hackney is one of those classic neighborhood names that invariably calls to mind London, so it was a treat to get to walk around the neighborhood a little bit, sit in the CLR James Library, which turned out to be a story in itself, and then to meet with fifty members and activists that make up Hackney Unites, an effective and somewhat unique community organization in the city.
It started out simply enough. Visiting with Jane Holgate and John Page on an earlier trip and hearing about their work with Hackney Unites, I asked if I might be able to meet with some people organizing in London. They couldn’t have been more accommodating. We put it on the calendar, and several weeks go by and Bob Fisher, a careful and astute observer of the community organizing scene on the academic side forwards me an email he had received from a colleague announcing that the “legendary” Wade Rathke is going to be giving a “master class” to those interested at a meeting of Hackney Unites, room is limited, and they had best get their names in the pot asap. Whoa, Nellie! What had we gotten ourselves into here on the last event for this 10-day jornada de morte of a trip!
Of course it turned out that it was a great event and undoubtedly I got the best part of the trade because of the unique way the meeting was organized and the questions and conversations that followed from it. Meeting in the Trinity Centre complex abutting a social housing complex, the tables were organized sort of likes the stripes on a chevron allowing people to see both each other and the speaker at the front of the room. Each table had a piece of paper saying Hackney or Non-Hackney, since Jane, John, and the other leaders wanted to segregate people in helping build Hackney Unites in the conversations. The tables were jumbled up, so it wasn’t a matter of Hackney Unites on one side and other folks coming to hear, wander, and wonder on the other. I was wondering how this would work.
After some remarks about Hackney Unites campaigns and internal affairs, as well as my remarks and a shout out to Lee Baker and Jonny Butcher from ACORN London who were there helping as well, they then had the groups discuss and come to some consensus on a single question for me in sort of a freewheeling “stump the stars” format, which was actually fun for all of us, and fascinating for me because rather than the usual random Q&A, invariably dominated by a small handful, this was different. There were actually written guides at every table for how to make the process work, which might be anathema to most community organizers as too academic but in this very mixed crowd seemed to work reasonably well and be appreciated. The format allowed everyone to be part of “participating” in the question and I would bet money it substantially raised the quality of the questions. The answers of course would be a different matter, but you would have had to have been there.
John had told me that that they had tried this format before, so I’m not sure if it’s part of their usual meeting routine or another pilot project, but on my continued quest to see how we can improve and refresh our work, you can bet I’ll not only be taking my better understanding of this community’s concerns about tactics, coordination, and gentrification with me on one hand and on the other a different notion of how to organize these kinds of interactive meetings.
Bristol There’s no organizer that doesn’t want things faster, bigger, and better, which is usually why we are both gloriously happy for every day we are allowed to be part of the work and are worrying about the details the rest of the time. Having now visited our quickly developing ACORN Bristol operation for the third time in the last nine months, there’s still a big grin on my face, because pure and simply, there’s great stuff happening. Besides the work on the streets and the progress on the nuts and bolts organizing, ACORN Bristol has also fully embraced the evangelical mission of spreading the ACORN gospel throughout England, and it’s catching fire!
I could take a breath and watch more closely on what seemed almost my easiest day on this tour. A bracing wind and rain in our face hiking briskly to the office from our Easton neighborhood by mid-morning had turned into a cooler, but beautiful day. If there are farmer’s days, there are organizer’s days: rain in the morning, sunshine in the afternoon when we are on the doors! And after helping kick off an all-day training that ACORN Bristol was hosting for 15 community organizers from all over England, I was able to catch up on all of the work that was trailing behind me from various time zones and broken internet connections. I would zip in every once in and while, and see the organizers circling the tables in a campaign planning exercise one time, practicing doorknocking raps another, and finally debriefing excitedly on their experience on the doors in Easton as well with the shock and awe of finding that the pieces really do come together and by god, it works!
By the final debriefing on the organizers’ return from the neighborhood, the ACORN Bristol circus was in full swing with more than a dozen members from Easton snugly around the table in our small, but practical office excitedly planning an upcoming action with a Halloween theme targeting real estate leasing or “letting” agents that have been part of the major campaign thrust since the group was founded. I snuck my head in to take a picture as one of the members happened to jump up to demonstrate how a vampire letting agent might dance, and it was a hilarious treat, one of those spontaneous moments that define not just the special beauty of the work, but the joys of life itself.
The trainees in the other room in the final question and answer period were grilling the ACORN Bristol organizer about how they could manage to make this their work too. How could they raise some money, find a space, and build ACORN in their cities or other cities throughout England? What could ACORN Bristol do to help? What could ACORN International add to the mix? How were they doing the work in London and Edinburgh? When was Reading starting to build to launch? Were their plans for Birmingham? If I could work anywhere, where would I be needed most?
It might not seem like a song to anyone else, but hours later when we walked into the night, a full moon over our shoulder, I thought I could still hear the choir in humming behind me.
Bristol Meetings with the Alliance Citoyenne organizers broke for a couple of hours of sleep, and then plowed on against the clock. The morning was gray in Paris and cooler after an amazingly warm and clear Indian summer afternoon the previous day, so there was no temptation not to hue to the plan. The conversation was a contradiction in some ways, amazingly nuts and bolts on one hand and global on the other.
Although it was a first for me, it worked out surprisingly effectively when the four organizers role played a standard staff meeting so that I could understand and comment on their process. The uninitiated might wonder how this could be productive, but it actually reveals quite a lot about organizational interactions and process, and, normally, an outsider, like myself in this situation, would only observe such a meeting by happenstance, and in this case had I been in Grenoble with them, rather than Paris, it also would have been in French. So, I learned quite a lot watching them in this brief exercise, and it showed ingenuity that they were willing to put it together and real openness about their “search” for feedback that they also understand why such meetings were critical. Later, we did a role play on supervising an organizer in training, and I wished I had prepared for that so I could have been even more helpful.
In part of the exchange that is at the heart of organizing, they shared with me some of their “tools,” as they called them, specifically some diagrams they used in various meetings with groups and members to explain their organizing. The “Four Steps to Power” was a marvelous graphic that pictured unorganized members coming together almost as Lilliputians facing off at the bottom step against a giant as they organized. In the next step, the organization then articulated issues and demands, getting closer. In the third step, they took action to force change, until they were at the fourth step, eye to eye with their target, and won negotiations. Very creative!
At the other extreme this ambitious group had recognized almost immediately that some of their members, especially more recent immigrants with deep ties to communities and countries in Western Africa’s Francophone countries, were pushing them on issues and conditions back home after their earlier success in Grenoble. They organized something called Project React as a sister organization to the Alliance to support and advance that work. Direct organizing on palm oil and similar plantations, owned and managed by a French multinational company, to improve working and living conditions ended with actions in Cameroon and Sierra Leone led to an agreement for negotiations that are now scheduled in coming weeks. Having this capacity has also led to work with unions as far afield as Cambodia where French companies like their US-counterparts are running call centers with cheaper French speakers, in the same way India and the Philippines have been popular in English.
There are amazing challenges and a list of questions and concerns about this work that could run off the page, but one immediate problem they face is the unexpected issue of the Ebola virus, and the ability to successfully get their people to Paris for the meeting. No amount of planning would have been able to predict the epidemic, all of which made my two days of marathon meetings with the Alliance organizers seem like the walk in the park that none of us chose rather than continuing to use every minute making the most of our time together with the hope of what an effective organization could mean to France. And, it turned out the world.
Alliance organizers still planning on the Paris Metro
Paris There’s nothing short about a day where you are standing in the train station waiting for the Eurostar to Paris at 630 AM and break the door of the loaned 7th floor walkup crash pad at 11 PM, but in between organizers and researchers with Alliance Citoyennes, the Citizens’ Alliance, and I poured over questions and organizing problems almost nonstop. Fueled by espresso and some food, moving between two languages, there was a hunger for talking about the nuts and bolts of community organizing, and we were all excitedly trying to fill it.
The backstory, as it emerged over the day, was fascinating. Four years ago seven, younger men and women had decided that something needed to happen in France and stumbled onto community organizing as the bridge to building a path to get there. One of them was from Grenoble, which I only know from its connection with the Winter Olympics years ago, but is a medium-sized city of 350,000 or so with some diversity. The city was small enough that the team felt that they could get their arms around their “experiments,” which is to say their efforts to build an organization from scratch, but in the way of these things, as much as anything one of the team was from there, wanted to go back, and the others were game. They spent months getting their feet on the ground and trying to put some resources together, but with luck and skill managed to be ready to roll in 2011. They read what they could about community organizing in French, which was mainly the Alinsky classics, ruing how much didn’t exist at all and only in English, and one of their team boomed out to England for some months to try and get some time on the ground with some organizing projects there, tightened down the seat belt, grabbed the wheel and started talking to organizations and individuals about coming on board.
Their first assembly pulled together almost 200 people and decided on five campaigns, constructing committees and working groups to start moving forward. At one level there were no surprises with housing, schools, and the like on the menu. Looking at that hat campaign more closely though shows their spirit and ingenuity. Schools ended up being a way in which they were activating their migrant membership from the Congo and Francophone Africa to get rights and services at the local university as students. One critical action had 30 of them taking advantage of a big school welcome concert and hijacking the space that would have entered the banquet room and with great chutzpah and props galore, making people register to get into the hall in the same time consuming, ridiculous way that migrant students were having to do in order to access classes and services. Needless to say they won quick negotiations, extended hours and staffing at the foreign students service office, and a new head set there. What interested me as well was the clarity of what they had heard from their members and affiliated organizations and willingness to aggressively take the fight to what for most community organizers is unfamiliar and alien turf on a school campus. An organization and organizing team with that kind of spark and imagination is going to get somewhere.
Two things seemed to have happen though as they furiously organized. One is that other areas in France heard the buzz and wanted to build something like it or with them, and they were strained to support those efforts or sustain them in a systematic way, as they still tried to hammer out their own Grenoble “model” of sorts. The other was that they hit the wall and ran out of money, grinding almost to a halt and having to reorganize on unemployment and social benefits in 2013 to try and learn the lessons of their success and failures to move forward next. All of which added up to one of those amazing and unstoppable multi-national exchanges of “been there, done that” and how we – and they – got through and managed to take the next steps up the mountain and how far we might get.
Another day of such conversations looms forward for Sunday, but the organization and organizers that have survived this four year process with Alliance Citoyennes are my betting favor for being able to build something very, very special and very, very powerful in France in the coming years.
Employees of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. sign up to be the first members of a new, local UAW union at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa. (Stephen Dethrage | AL.com)
Paris I spent hours in London in very interesting discussions about how community organizing and worker organizing could more effectively blend together to produce growth and power in both areas. This is exciting stuff. Large unions in the United Kingdom are gradually embracing the potential of community organizing though not quite sure what to make of it, or how to fully utilize its tools and strength. Despite this huge innovative push in the community they face a constant temptation – and pressure — to fall into the established patterns and protocols of the institutional labor experience, even as they try to sort out how to build something new and different. In the workplace they are still looking at how to meld the programs together. This is hard and important work, and it was exciting to be part of the conversation.
When we talked about other bold, new organizing, invariably the $15 per hour, Fast Food Forward push, is a topic of conversation and the buzz is loud and lingering. Activists in unions in the UK would like to see similar initiatives, whether they fully understand the situation in the states or not. Talking about the problem of “zero” contracts can produce instant depression.
When asked where else I thought they should look, I suggested they follow more closely what the UAW was doing in Chattanooga in moving forward with “members-only” representation for their newly chartered local at the Volkswagen plant there, where they have now crossed the majority in membership and are pressing for negotiations on work conditions in the plant. Later I caught up with the news that the UAW has chartered another local union with the same “majority unionism” strategy, but this time in Alabama at the giant Daimler Mercedes-Benz plant there, which I’ve driven by many times between New Orleans and Atlanta, and has been a UAW organizing target for more than 15 years. They announced that they were moving to sign up a majority of the workforce and in fact would ask for recognition at the time they reached that level.
A labor member of the Daimler board was at the announcement and was encouraging, adding that the Alabama plant was the only company facility in the world without some form of worker representation. The Mercedes situation seems like a sure deal with the additional news that must have crushed the souls of some of the old school Alabamans if they also saw that the UAW Secretary-Treasurer was also elected vice-president of “Daimler’s global works council, a committee consisting of both labor and company leaders. His presence marks the first time an American union leader has ever served on the council.”
These are giant breakthroughs not just in organizing transplants or in the South, but in embracing the ability to organize patiently to victory without being bogged down in one set of tactics or concerns about “exclusivity” or the final agreement. Importantly,
Kristin Dziczek, a labor expert with the Center for Automotive Research, said the local chapter in Tuscaloosa will help give the UAW more visibility on the ground with its members engaging in local activities and building support from within the community. “It’s a patient strategy,” she said. “This kind of knits them into the community.”
This is what can be built by a community-labor organizing model that looks at the future of the labor movement, rather than remembering how the work was done in the past. Everyone, not just my friends in London, should watch all of this carefully.