Dutch Fight to Take Health Care Away from Private Insurers

Holland-plus-medicalBrussels   What is the old saying? Something like, I’ve seen the future and it is in the Netherlands at least when we are talking about the inevitable fight to come someday in the United States to seize control of our national health care programs from big health care insurers. On the way between Germany and Belgium, I had the opportunity to meet with several organizers and campaigners who have built a powerful effort in Holland on this issue and are finding the response amazing with the potential to dominate the campaigns in the country’s elections in the spring of 2017.

If you were paying close attention during the health care debates in recent years over the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, as it is known popularly, you often heard about the health care insurance scheme in the Netherlands which was better in its broad coverage of the population but, unlike many other countries, was provided by private, rather than public, insurers. Meeting with the organizers, I came to understand the situation a bit better. Everyone pays the equivalent of about one-hundred euros or $112 per month to private companies for insurance. I was fuzzy on exactly how this part works but the fact that they mentioned that much of the Dutch public’s opposition was rooted in disgust at the millions and millions spent by the insurers in advertising and promotion leads me to believe that a family chooses an insurer for their coverage.

There’s also a hammer to the head in this program along the lines of the deductibles that come under Obamacare. Everyone has coverage and everyone pays, but when they actually use the insurance, they have to come up with another 385 euros or $429. For some reason it is called an “own risk” payment, since if you don’t need to buy medicine or go to the doctor, your monthly payments are more like a healthcare tax or donation, so that when you do utilize the system, this is more like an admissions fee. Similar to the US experience with high deductibles blocking utilization under Obamacare, estimates are that 20% of the Dutch people are avoiding accessing the healthcare system, even when they need it, because they cannot afford the additional payment.

So the campaign is seeking to get rid of that payment of course, but also to move to a national healthcare fund more along the lines of the national healthcare program enjoyed by other countries. The support for their campaign has surpassed all expectations, and that’s part of what brought us together in this exciting conversation. In less than two months about 60,000 people have signed up to support the campaign either online or directly, and, amazingly, almost half of them are taking the additional step of asking for an “action” package on steps they can take in their communities to build the campaign.

With elections happening in mid-March of next year, this campaign couldn’t have been timed any better, so if it continues to build momentum in the summer, this could be the issue that dominates progressive debate at every level during the election. Meanwhile, regional meetings throughout the country are also pulling in crowds double, triple, and quadruple of organizers’ expectations, more are set coming off the summer with big demonstrations and other actions planned in the fall. They are riding the whirlwind here, and while they are doing so, as I said earlier, they are running the pilot program that organizers in the United States and elsewhere will need to be studying and copying in order to deal with many of the same issues involving national – and better – healthcare in our countries.


The Dark Side of Works Councils in Germany

DSCN1461Aachen   In the morning and later in the evening, I got a short course on how unions worked in Germany from organizers, staff and leaders at Ver.di, who met with me at their regional headquarters in Dusseldorf. The television screen in their meeting complex might have been translated as if I was giving a training session, but at many times I was being schooled more than they in the basics of how unions worked and the challenges they face in Germany.


I’ve certainly heard about “works’ councils” for years and even met representatives of such councils from time to time in various delegations or when groups have visited New Orleans or so forth. The perspective from the ground floor where organizers’ work, repeatedly established that when there was a conflict between the theory of workers’ input at the council level within a firm and the reality of whether or not workers could make change or build power through a council, the theory was crushed and thrown out of the window by the crushing weight of the reality. At lunch without as many of the other folks listening, in somewhat of a silent sacrilege, two members of the key regional organizing team asked me what I might advise on how to deal with a work council when they were as much of an issue as the management.


Certainly in the USA, we can read op-eds and news stories from the corporate point of view that hold works councils as little more than a German artifice that got in the way of what company’s wanted to do. All of which, almost by default, led me to believe they were likely a good thing. Hearing from both organizers and works council members was an education. Councils are basically a meet-and-confer operation with elected leaders in the work place about non-economic terms and conditions of employment. In Germany every business of a certain size and employment is required to establish such a council. On the one hand organizers were finding them an obstacle in organizing because they were often entrenched with unaccountable leadership. In organizing they would initially begin by trying to convince the works council members that a union was a good thing and there should be cooperation and assistance, but often they would find the union had to either organize to take the council over, elect new members, or go around the council, none of which are easy tasks and all of which took time, energy and resources. Councils are elected to four year terms, so if a union is organized in a firm and comes in after the last election, if could be that many years before there’s a chance to deal with them accountably, and that’s a job hard to handle.


Talking to leaders at works councils at American Apparel retail stores and Home Depot stores, they were unhappy for other reasons. At Los Angeles-based American Apparel, they were hanging in and hanging tough despite the fact that the company was in Chapter 11 reorganization. They felt like they couldn’t get any information or analysis they needed from the company or their American manager. At Home Depot, they felt a union drive and campaign were needed, but troubled about what role they could play. Others were concerned about their powerlessness in dealing with subcontracting and joint employer situations in German law and were critical about whether the union was doing enough to get ahead of these problems either.

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

The Rhine-Ruhr valley is at the heartland of labor’s strength in Germany, where unions are still a key part of the economic order. Ver.di is attempting to innovate in organizing and in fact that’s part of how I got to Dusseldorf, because the leader of the newly created organizing team, Jeffrey Raffo, was interested in participating in a dialogue about how community organizing methodology melded with labor organizing technique to create a strong, amalgam of organization. Nonetheless, they all nodded that German unions were also getting weaker, even if not as weak as those in the USA, and works councils were clearly not enough to provide workers protections in the absence of strong unions.



Opportunity and Challenges in Hungary


planning with the Civil College team

Dusseldorf   I knew just by reading the papers and some quick looks at the internet news that people and their organizations were facing severe political challenges in Hungary at the hands of a rightwing populist government, but two days of meetings with organizers and activists in Budapest left me excited about the huge opportunity our friends also have at the moment.

Mate Varga comes from a long tradition of community development in Hungary. We could almost say it is in his genes since his parents began the Civil College Foundation and he now leads the program. In recent years, he has concluded with his colleagues that they needed to embrace and support building community organizing in their country. Exchange programs and joint trainings with organizations in the United States, most importantly perhaps Virginia Organizing and Joe Szakos, its director, where one of his staff, Bernadett Sebaly spent a full-year, have given them rich experiences not only in Hungary but in Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia as well. Now under his leadership, they have assembled sufficient resources to support twenty-seven staff members, potentially organizers, with local and other partners all around the country.

The first day I was in Budapest, Mate and Betti, introduced me to the some of the community organizers at the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network. We spent most of the time talking about the Hungarian workfare program currently employing, if we could call it that, 220,000 people in low level, in largely manual and menial public employment projects around the country. This is not workfare as a requirement to get welfare, but workfare is the welfare program of the state. The workfare workers are paid about $200 in USD monthly and once accepted can work up to a year and then reapply if still not able to find a job. It was unclear if it is an entitlement or there is a cap, but it seemed like an entitlement. The Network has won victories in this organizing including the payment in cash because drafts to bank accounts were forcing the workers into costly financial products. Monika Balint and I shared a number of experiences on how to handle “check” pickup days, direct actions, and benefit campaigns. The government is very proud of this program so they have widely publicized how many people are working where, so a lot of mass contact work and mobilization is elbow grease and shoe leather working the cash collection sites and job centers to meet the workers and talk to them about issues. Exciting opportunities for an organizational movement for change seemed everywhere in this workfare mess. It brought me back!

with the organizers of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network

with the organizers of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network

Speaking of movements, I also met a delightful teacher who was one of the leaders of the teachers’ movements that had put 50,000 people – a huge percentage of that workforce almost 30% – on the street in protest to government action changing curriculum, job security and about everything else in the schools. They were widely supported by parents and students. The government wisely agreed to negotiate with teachers, but they were muscled off the table by brokering groups including the unions, collected a lot of promises, and very little action. They now face the need to call for more this fall, while also trying to pull their key activists together in fifty different areas of the country where they could built local circles or chapters. Wow!

As exciting, and fraught, as both of those opportunities were, the Civil College itself was the focus of much of my time, meeting with their core team of organizers and Mate, to evaluate the best way forward in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they face to have the resources and potential staffing in place to assemble the pieces of a national community organization in Hungary. There was a lot of discussion of the ACORN model, because one of key pieces missing for the College team is a replicable model with the promise of sustainability since most of their external capacity is embedded in the 27 different organizations. I argued with some assistance from Chuck Hirt of the European Community Organizing Network, who had driven over from Slovakia for the meeting, that they needed to calf off a team of three to five organizers and try some pilot programs to prove what would work and share it with the others, as well as beginning now to have the conversations with groups and leaders about potential mutual campaigns and how to structure a national organization.

Heady stuff, but there is huge opportunity in Hungary, and the demand for change at the grassroots level of low-and-moderate income people with 40% of the population living in poverty is immense.

the outside of the building that has been their home

the outside of the building that has been their home


Making Decisions “On the River”

ReAct makes decisions "on the river"

ReAct makes decisions “on the river”

Budapest    Back to the category of “new tricks for old dogs,” before I forget I wanted to share a method the French organizers used in order to try to resolve difficult decisions and see if they could achieve consensus before abandoning all hope. We were meeting on the board of ReAct, the transnational organization partnered with ACORN internationally, with the Alliance in France, and the main vehicle they have used for anti-corporate and global work, especially in Francophone Africa. As part of the partnership, I had joined the board of ReAct, so this was my first meeting.

There was a debate on whether or not ReAct should enter into a contract with a small, sectarian and perhaps anarchist local union in Lyon, France to assist them in increasing their membership in the hotel sector. The proposed contract was relatively short term at perhaps six months, but there were concerns by many board members on many issues ranging from whether or not there were reputational issues in working with this local union that might endanger other union relationships to whether or not there was “mission drift” from ReAct in moving from a more global orientation to one that focused on France. There were also issues that concerned me about the impact on the Alliance Citoyenne, ACORN’s affiliate in France, and whether it would impact any expansion of the Alliance to Lyon, a significant city in our French expansion plans in close proximity to our powerhouse in Grenoble.

After lengthy debate, suddenly the chair called for everyone to stand up and move to another part of the room to try to resolve this “on the river,” as they called it. The river was a dividing line, and everyone started on one “bank” of the river, a division of sides obviously, and then after more discussion was asked whether they had already determined which side of the river they stood on. Those already in favor of the proposition moved over to the other bank. Some, and I was one, were on one bank with one foot, so to speak, still in the water. The chair would then ask people on the other side if there were specific conditions that they could articulate, that if met, would allow them to comfortably cross the river. Different people articulated different concerns. One attached a condition, easily met, that the work would align with the Alliance, so once assured, she moved over, and I got my feet out of the water as well. Another offered the condition that the work with this union only occur in hotels where there were not members of other unions. They agreed to that readily as well, though I think that condition may be impossible to meet, and another one crossed the river, and so on.

Our organizer from Rome, watching the proceeding, was aghast. He found it to be gross “manipulation” and a forced consensus. The head organizer from Canada was intrigued and thought she might try it in certain situations where nothing else might work.

There was no doubt that it was a directed decision, but at the same time it was somewhat ingenious in not allowing consensus to be blocked and moving to a decision one way or another. It would be an interesting tool to try on harder questions where management, or in this case the chair of the meeting, was not so invested in the outcome of the decision, but this is a good technique worth trying.




Big Win for School Workers and Children in Houston


Houston Press

Budapest   I may have drug my gear across two Metro lines and two trains and one airport in Paris to end up in Budapest meeting with Mate Varga, the head of the Civic College in Hungary, along the Danube last night with everyone watching Euro 2016, a soccer match, but my mind was also on Houston and the huge victory won by Local 100 for school workers and children. Perhaps it’s not the kind of victory many would expect, like a twenty-five cent raise or an extra break or holiday, but it was the kind of victory that highlights the kind of community-and-worker-based union that we try to build at Local 100. Simply put: we want to get the lead out!

I’m not going to pretend we were early to this fight. For yearsI have heard about the dangers of lead for children. ACORN went after Sherwin-Williams to try to force them to bear up to the responsibility for decades of lead poisoning. We fought in Argentina and Peru to keep lead from continuing to be produced in paint plants over the last decade, years after such production had been banned in the United States and Europe. Furthermore, Louisiana ACORN and then A Community Voice, was constantly involved in lead testing right under my nose in New Orleans day after day. Nonetheless, Flint, Michigan was a wakeup call for us as organizers, just as it was for the whole country. And, following up on Flint, when school districts like Newark started shutting down water fountains and bringing in bottled water for children, we finally got the message. Our union represents school workers and they, and the children they serve, may be in danger, so it was time for action.

Our members in the Houston Independent School District led the way, demanding testing in all of the schools. Orell Fitzsimmons, the office director for the union in Houston went with some of our stewards and met with some of the school trustees and raised the issue, after we got what would have to be described as a brushoff from the district on our initial requests. They had obviously decided to play ostrich on this issue, even after we independently began collecting dirt samples around the schools in Houston and Dallas.

The Houston Press and the daily Houston Chronicle finally jumped on the story with us, so I’ll let the Press tell the rest of the story:

In interviews Wednesday, before the changed policy was announced, School Board Trustee Harvin Moore and United Labor Unions Local 100 Field Director Orell Fitzsimmons said HISD officials had previously told them they planned to test only nine schools for lead each year. When asked about this plan, HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said Wednesday, “As far as how many and which ones, that hasn’t been decided yet.”

At a rate of only nine schools per year, with 283 schools to test, the district wouldn’t have finished its tests for more than 30 years.

Yet around 6 p.m. Wednesday, after the Press spoke with Hollin and called numerous HISD employees that day with questions about the district’s lead testing policy, Board of Education trustees received a one-paragraph email from HISD Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. That email said something very different.

“While we have tested a number of our schools in HISD, we have decided to take a much more proactive and aggressive approach,” Huewitt wrote in the email. “I have asked the facilities team to test all elementary schools this year. All middle schools will be tested in the 2017-2018 school year. Finally, any remaining high schools that have not been completed with the bond program will be tested in the 2018-2019 school year.”

“Results for each facility will be posted on the HISD website as well as a schedule outlining when testing will occur,” Huewitt added.

Fitzsimmons first took an interest in HISD’s lead testing policies after watching the water crisis unfold in Flint, Mich. He submitted multiple public information requests asking about HISD’s records and practices regarding testing for lead contamination, and spoke at the June 9 Board of Education meeting about the district’s need to test all of its schools for lead, starting with elementary schools – the age group most at risk for lead poisoning.

As Houston has proven, finally, on lead, you can run, but you can’t hide. Dallas is next on our target list, but, frankly, now that one district after another is getting the message that they need to do their job of protecting children in school buildings, none of us should allow any schools to not do the same.


Nothing Like A Dues Standards Debate

Group PictureParis   There was a “sustainability” workshop where we discussed at length how to achieve the Alliance’s goals of achieving self-sufficiency with half of their income coming from membership dues. The dues “gap” was about 3000 euros, so there was a way to go on that one, but in the first workshop we spent a lot of time talking with some enthusiasm about the wide variety of fundraising tools that members can manage and that organizers can support.  A lot of the conversation on that day while meeting in Paris had been fun, because we were talking about new ideas that many had not considered as well as simply projects that everyone understood but had not thought about how important they might be in building an organizational culture of sustainability and membership support.

There was a decision to add a second workshop that more extensively focused on dues and developing a dues standard that would move them forward.  It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a much more challenging adventure for many of the organizers. Quickly, it became clear that for many this was not a welcome conversation as they tried to embrace more responsibility for additional groups or didn’t feel the pressure and immediacy of needing to make the efforts that might be required to elevate the dues and internal income standards. In that sense it was a very frank and honest conversation. Board members who were sitting in on the workshop wanted to be able to say, “it’s the policy, make it happen,” and were frustrated that organizers were mouthing agreement, but walking a different direction. Organizers debated incremental progress that wouldn’t unsettle already established routines versus high goals unlikely to be met.

Trying to turn the conversation among the organizers to what advice they would give the field director in managing these different views was difficult, because so many saw the most easily available alternatives as negative, either putting the organizer’s job or wages in jeopardy. The alternatives that I suggested were also difficult to embrace, because though they were not negative, they involved a climate that created more direct and indirect competition to push the standards up, than many were comfortable in imagining. Other suggestions like raising the level of dues from five euros per month to something more realistic or a “dues-plus” program of having leaders and others go to existing members and ask them to donate more than their dues or increase their bank drafts were also not going to easy decisions for the board from the look on some of their faces.

Raising dues standards and achieving higher levels of self-sufficiency is hard, every day work. An organizer supporting the work in Cameroon commented that they were already at 50%, but near panic because they needed to get to a higher level within six months in order to assure the organization’s survival.  Making the decision voluntarily in order to avoid such organizational life-and-death decisions might seem easy intellectually, but that doesn’t make it easier to put on the street day after day.

There was no decision after the debate, but there was no question about its importance either.