Action Day for ACORN in Ottawa Conventions

Arriving for the dawn briefing

Ottawa  The last day of an ACORN Convention is action day. It starts early because it’s also going home day for the members, as they pack out their gear on the buses so they are ready to roll once the work is done. There were already members sitting on the steps outside of the dorm room at 630 am when I hit the street.

Briefing from the leaders before the action

There were speakers in the morning, local and federal politicians and labor leaders came by, but the real preparation was practicing the chants for the day, so that Fair Banking and Affordable Internet substituted on some of the lines where normally a cry for Justice arose. Everyone was in good form by the time the briefing was finished, the speeches over, and it was time to roll downtown.

assembling for the march and asking drivers to honk their support!

After off loading on Queen Street, the march assembled near the War Memorial on Elgin, picking up some supporters along the way, and pressing cars driving by to honk their support as they sang and chanted. Humid days and sprinkling rain had been substituted for a bright day with a steady breeze breaking the heat, so everything seemed in order as the march set off down Elgin towards the building housing the Ministry of Finance, picking up some bicycle cops along the way as our de facto escorts.

coming down Elgin Avenue towards the Ministry of Finance

At the corner of the Ministry building, Ottawa moved along the side door to the formal entrance, while Toronto went towards the Elgin Street entrance, and Nova Scotia and British Columbia took the other side door. Quickly and efficiently everyone was in the large foyer of the building. Some held banners in front of the building with our demands so that all could see. Banking of any sort in the modern day specializes in security, so there was never any notion that the crowd would get past the foyer, so the chants demanded the Minister come down and meet. After some time when the police threatened to call the paddy wagons and begin arrests, all the members responded by sitting down and continuing signing and shouting their chants for action on fair banking and an end to predatory lending.

Come meet with us Minister

We’re Not Going Anywhere!

A demand letter was sent up as the members moved across the business district to rally in the shadow of the federal Parliament building and in front of the creepily named, Ministry of Innovation. The ministry had acceded to our demands for a meeting and held up announcements on internet access they had privately negotiated with telecoms after we protested our exclusion. This was a “warning” rally, that we were watching and waiting, but would be back in force if we didn’t get satisfaction.

marching to the Ministry of Innovation

Marva Burnett, ACORN’s president, addressed the crowd ending the action, and the convention, as everyone roared and then settled in for the trip home and the fights to come.

Marva Burnett, ACORN Canada and ACORN International President addresses the end of the convention

marching home

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ACORN Canada Was Revving Up and Reaching Out on ACORN’s 47th Anniversary

Ottawa ACORN leads the crowd at the meeting

Ottawa  Rolling out of breakfast, ACORN Canada members found themselves under a huge assembly tent, reminiscent of the Denver airport in my mind. Large delegations from Ottawa and Toronto practiced their chants, cheers, and songs they had devised for the march into the meeting hall. Toronto’s highlighted their expansion from the city into the GTA or Greater Toronto Area as its known locally, but christened Greater Toronto ACORN by the members from now on. They did so to the tune of the “Saints Go Marching In,” which was a nice touch as well. Ottawa of course gave their chant a French twist shouting “Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montreal” with the proper accents.

members coming through the doors

An array of power-speakers addressed the assembly once everyone was in place. The Housing Minister for Ontario was respectful and thorough in listing ways that he felt the existing government had stepped up to the plate on issues that ACORN had fought over. They were preparing to invest half-a-billion Canadian dollars in affordable house and what they called “purpose-built” housing for lower income families. He also professed his government’s commitment to continuing to build social housing as well. He got big applause when he mentioned that he had extended the rent control protection to an additional 250,000 families in significant areas. Landlords are allowed increases limited by the inflation index prepared by Statistics Canada.

Max FineDay of Canadian Roots Exchange drew a standing ovation

Max FineDay from the Canadian Roots was the most popular with the members. He gave a lively and impassioned speech focusing on reconciliation between Native Canadians and the rest of the population. He won people over with both well-timed personal anecdotes and moving descriptions of conditions on the reserved lands. Another favorite speaker was the head of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, known as CUPW, here. He was a familiar friend who had also spoken in Montreal at the last convention. The union’s proposal for a postal bank has been supported by ACORN as a way around predatory lending, as well as a way for the union to fight privatization. The crowd laughed when he told of a government committee claiming that such a bank wouldn’t make money, asking the members who knew of a bank that didn’t make money!

Chris Ballard MPP and Ontario Minister of Housing told us they had expanded rent control

Mike Palechek, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, spoke for a 2nd convention to cheers

In the afternoon, the members paired up in teams and hit the neighborhoods of Ottawa to gain support for the campaign for Fair Banking and an end to Predatory Lending. The winning petition teams filled 39 and 40 petitions in their two hours, including some new members from Hamilton which was exciting to everyone.

role plays before the doorknocking outreach

Marva Burnett, the chair of both ACORN Canada and ACORN International, gave some remarks over dinner that challenged the members about whether they were prepared to lead in building organization globally. She underlined the success on tenant issues and the demands by tenants for ACORN to build a tenants’ union in various countries.

Burnett also mentioned that June 18th was the 47th Anniversary of ACORN’s founding and led the members in singing Happy Birthday to ACORN.

What a great day!

more fun, food and speeches at the banquet

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ACORN Canada Leadership Plans Its Next Moves

Ottawa’s Ashley and Jill are ready to make the registration work for the convention

Ottawa   The annual general meeting and board gathering for ACORN Canada’s leadership convened on the eve of the organization’s biennial convention in Ottawa at the University of Ottawa this year. While ticking off the legal requirements, signing minutes, audit reports, and other requirements of the Canadian Societies Act, the board found much to celebrate. The membership had now crossed 100,000, and the organization’s aggregate expenditures had broken $1 million in 2016, both huge accomplishments after fourteen years of organizing. Campaigns, some of them stretching back more than a decade, like the Toronto fight for landlord licensing, had been victorious. ACORN was now part of the conversation and a vital part of the coalition in any progressive campaign in Ottawa, Toronto, and greater Vancouver, from the fight for $15 per hour to hydro rates to blocking privatization and more.

This could have been a time for a bit of chest thumping and back slapping. A bit of gloating might have been in order. The leadership never drew a breath. Instead they focused in almost every conversation – and I know because I was keeping the minutes – on what they needed to do next, what issues might be on the horizon, and what had to be done to win.

Board Meeting

The multi-year “Internet for All” campaign had seen ACORN become a stakeholder at the table, so one of the most interesting questions, still unresolved at the end of the meeting was whether or not the weirdly named, Ministry of Innovation, would be a federal target for agitation during the convention. The process of expanding internet access had been fraught and ACORN’s role had been key in pushing the regulatory body and its hearings into a serious examination of what was needed to bridge the digital divide for lower income families. Many of the monopolistic telecoms had bent to ACORN’s demands over the years, but always in piecemeal fashion, beginning with Rogers concession in lowering fees to provide access to all public housing residents in Toronto. Others had carved out similar small slices to answer the call as well, but none were moving to the need, and likely wouldn’t without the government playing a stronger role. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had indicated they were preparing a major announcement in this area recently that they had worked out with the telecoms, but ACORN and others protested that they were excluded from the consultation and having none of it. The government had backed off of its plans in order to re-position because they had left us out of the mix, promising that we would be allowed to impact the plans before they were finalized. So, the leadership debated with that concession, should they be left off the action list because they were now moving towards us or should they still be front and center because of their arrogance and lack of action?

Convention Swag

The debates now had high stakes. How would ACORN position its demands with a possible new minority government in British Columbia led by the NDP (New Democratic Party) in coalition with the Greens? With the federal Liberal government’s coming review of the Banking Act this year would we finally be able to advance our predatory lending campaign? Would the municipal elections in Ottawa finally allow ACORN with our labor partners and others to advance our municipal agenda on housing and living wages where we had been so close to winning in the past? Would be be able to force affordable housing construction in Burnaby and Surrey, the huge satellite cities around Vancouver and block demolition/evictions?

A measure of the organization’s weight was a special address to the board by the Secretary-Treasurer of the huge NUPGE, the National Union of Provincial Government Employees, representing a wide variety of public employees at the provincial or state level. NUPGE was concerned that the government’s move to create an Infrastructure Bank could mean a wave of privatization of public services, and of course public workers, that displace thousands, cost more, and render worse service to citizens. Meeting with ACORN, the Canadian organization that demands better public services for low and moderate families, somehow seemed a natural first step in any campaign.

ACORN Canada has much to celebrate, but they may not have time to pause to do so, because the next moves and one campaign after another demands the leadership’s attention and meets the membership’s demands.

Answering member questions at the registration table

 

 

 

 

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ACORN Demands the Bank of Montreal Stop Predatory Practices

DSCN0088Montreal       As the ACORN members lined up in Victoria Square in the downtown business district of historic Montreal, you could hear their chants for blocks as they cried: “predatory lender, criminal offender.” First, they stopped briefly to deliver a letter demanding that the telcom, Videotron, owned by Quebecor, provide “internet for all” through a low cost plan similar to an agreement that ACORN has with Rogers in Toronto. The members were just getting warmed up though, as they turned and began marching and chanting along Rue Saint-Jacques, daring passerbys with the chant, “Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, and we tell them, we are ACORN, mighty, mighty, ACORN.”

The march took a short jog to the right going to Rue Notre Dame and moved within a block of the Place d’Armes and suddenly the march quieted as they entered the plaza in front of the Basilica de Notre Dame. Slowly we strolled across the plaza, meandering right and left, as if we were a 250 person tourist group on a first time visit. A delegation of leaders had already proceeded the march and were now in the lobby of the Bank of Montreal.  Another delegation of more than a score had split off from the ranks of the marchers and were moving unseen behind another bank that fronted the Place d’Armes.

When the march line reached the street in from of BMO, as the light changed, the members followed the banner quickly across the street up the front steps and through the doors being held by designated members and organizers to ease their entry. Simultaneously, another group went through the other door so that could pass the bank’s own museum and meet the leaders and other marches entering the lobby.

We had observed the security several days earlier and though in evidence, the BMO security team was both lighter and older than we expected on each door. We had hoped to get perhaps fifty of the members inside and rally with the rest outside. If we were quick, well-organized, and executed perfectly, perhaps we could get half of the crowd in. This was the 21st century after all, no one could do better than that. The days of being able to get more than 1000 in the Citibank headquarters on Park Avenue in New York City as we had done in a memorable convention years before were long gone.

Security met the first protestors with waves of “No, no, no” and then moved out of the way as ACORN members passed by them without hesitation, now taking up their chants with fervor and carrying a dozen sharks over their heads, symbolizing predatory lending at BMO. The police outside came bounding up the steps but were left standing helplessly behind members crowding through the circular door. Other marchers were rerouted to the second door around the police, and when the police entered the building the rest of the marchers were hustled through the main door behind them. Within minutes all the members found themselves chanting as they looked at the marble counters and columns, so shiny they could be used as mirrors, and the forests of dark work soaring to almost forty feet to what appeared to be a gold leaf ceiling throughout.

Once the police were inside with us and officers from the bank agreed to take the letter from the leaders to stop their predatory lending and their extensive investments in payday lenders, long a target of ACORN Canada, the ACORN members found themselves back in the plaza chanting and smiling, high-fiving and hugging, knowing they had delivered their message powerfully, and they had all been part of an action they would never forget.

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ACORN Canada Kicks Off Convention in Montreal

DSCN0012Montreal       Close to 250 people from all over Canada had rolled into McGill University on the rise of Mount Royal overlooking the city. Three school buses came from Ottawa, vans and cars from Nova Scotia 14 hours away, a coach bus from Toronto, and flyers from British Columbia. There was even a delegation from ACORN International in the USA and a team from Local 100 that drove up from Dallas and Little Rock. Members were camped out in the lobby in their red t-shirts and on the sidewalks outside of the residence hall like it was a summer action camp.

They were all ready and chanting their local slogans as they entered the ballroom on Sunday morning ready to roar. They were met with welcome and exhortations by one speaker after another, beginning with Adrian Profitos, an ACORN member from Ottawa now living in Montreal and helping organize ACORN’s newest chapter there. A delegation from our longtime allies, the Immigrant Workers Center, brought cries of “shame, shame” from the members as they detailed the exploitation of workers by temporary employment agencies that now number 5000 in the Montreal area. A machinist leader from the FTQ, the Quebec labor union council,  had the crowd laughing when he told the members that he had apologized to his young children when he had left this morning that he would not be watching cartoons with them because he had to give greetings to some “corporate crowd.” The punch line was that “I could not have been more wrong,” as the ACORN members hooted and hollered.

Aside from ACORN Canada leaders, the most riveting speaker, setting the tone for the convention was Mike Palecek, the National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers or CUP-W, as it is called. The union has been our staunchest ally on the remittance justice campaign and has joined us enthusiastically in fighting predatory lending by banks and payday lenders. The postal union envisions an expansion of the post office capacity as a postal bank, common in some other countries as well as adding the ability to handle money transfers as not only good for low and moderate income families as ACORN does, but a way to protect and keep postal members working by offering more services. There is a lot of excitement in Canada now about the startling upset by the New Democratic Party in the western province of Alberta after 40 years of rule by the Conservative Party and whether or not that signals change in the election coming in four months nationally. Palecek sensed that this was a crowd hungry for change and he stoked the fires.

In the afternoon, buses of members fanned out across the city to a huge response in neighborhoods regardless of our faltering French to talk to people about supporting ACORN’s “Internet for All” campaign to bridge the digital divide. Members reported enthusiastic support and real anger over cost, quality, and access. With hearings pending in Ottawa on this issue, the support in Montreal opens up an important front.

ACORN’s convention is not about parties and parades, but outreach and action, and it is moving and inspiring to see the members join together to get the job done.

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Bell Flaunts Corporate Commitment to Monopoly Profits and Damn the Divide

Toronto   The initiIMG_5558al response from Rogers, one of the big three telecommunications giants in Canada controlling internet and cable, was not all we needed or wanted, but it showed progress and a path forward for future discussions.  ACORN’s similar letters to Bell Canada and Telus were met with opposing corporate strategies.  Telus dug its head in the sand, didn’t answer at all, and has obviously adopted a strategy of pretending this is not happening, and praying that it will all go away.  Bell Canada elected to go on the offensive and strike a pose both arrogant and hostile, replying that if we thought internet access was unaffordable to lower income families, then we should get the government to make them do something.  Meet with ACORN, oh, hell, no, they seemed to be saying.

            After marching from Ryerson University to the Bell headquarters in downtown Toronto across from City Hall, and asking for a meeting with the company on the issue of internet access and reasonable pricing, no ACORN members who were part of the delegation now have any doubt about Bell’s response, since they adamantly refused all requests we made to meet with 150 people in their atrium.   A separate ACORN leadership delegation entered the building and sought to make the request for a meeting to CEO Cope, but found the elevators turned off to the 9th floor executive suites and all stairway entrances blocked by burly security guards.  Seeking to have a letter delivered concerning the meeting, one guard outside replied only that they would be with us all day and night until the police came.

            Bell has a reputation for this kind of robber baron mentality, ignoring the softer profiles that many huge companies, especially publicly regulated monopolies have tended to endorse.  The ACORN crowd found themselves outside with the elevator constructors union who had been on the streets on strike for 8 weeks, not trying for a raise, but simply trying to retain seniority in the face of Bell union busting.   Calls to several television stations before the action, led one of the stations to remind the ACORN organizer that they were actually owned by Bell Canada, so what did she think were the chances of them covering the rally and action?

            In campaigns like this ACORN doesn’t pick the issues, since they are so large we stumble over them every time we are talking to our members and hearing their endless complaints about these company rip-offs, nor do we really get to pick the targets.  Sometime companies like Bell are just itching for a fight, no matter how hard we try to be reasonable.  We’re in it to win it though, and the first round with Bell makes it obvious that this is going to be another one of those campaigns for our members where they have to win in order to have access to jobs, education, and the communications required by modern society, but it’s going to be a long, hard struggle to victory.

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