Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:

TO: MINIMUM WAGE WORKING GROUP

As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.

Progress on Payday Lending and the Digital Divide in Canada

10872772_10205576017666745_904929552335494071_oChicago     Like clockwork the ACORN Canada staff continues the tradition of mid-December YE/YB or Year End / Year Begin meetings.  Getting snowbound in Montreal one year and caught again another year in Niagara Falls, convinced them that perhaps meeting in the USA made sense, given that plane fares was actually cheaper.  Several years ago we managed to meet in Miami on the coldest day ever for that time of year.  The other advantage of such locations has been the opportunity to meet with organizations on the US-side and compare notes, pick up tips, and generally keep current in the work.  This year found the crew in mid-20 degree temps in Chicago.  Meetings with Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Workers’ Justice, Lawrence Benito, the ED of Illinois Refugee and Immigrant Rights Coalition, one of the leaders in the fight for immigration reform, and Ed Shurna, executive director of the unique and activist Chicago Coalition of the Homeless should add spice to the meetings as well.

Listening throughout the day to the reports from the offices, it was clear 2014 had been another banner year for ACORN Canada.  Almost 7000 members of their 70,000 were full payers on bank drafts giving the organization almost $200,000 of steady dues income to power the program.  The likelihood of a federal election next year also provided a fertile field for discussion about how ACORN can bundle our issues and leverage the campaign.  I may not have been in the United Kingdom but it sounded like the same discussion!

Perhaps the most interesting measures of progress were found in listening to the reports from the offices where solid work on both local and national issues was yielding big wins.

Scott Nunn, reporting from British Columbia, detailed a breakthrough in a new, locally-based strategy to stem the advance of predatory payday lending operations.  After preliminary discussions the city council in Surrey passed a zoning restriction pushing such stores away and limiting the numbers possible in our neighborhoods almost preempting our campaign.  We are also engaged heavily in this fight in neighboring Burnaby, so they could be the next city to fall.

Shay Enxuga surprised everyone with a report from Nova Scotia, the newest ACORN Canada outpost, with details on discussions and negotiations with cable internet provider, Eastlink, who seem ready to not only implement our $10 internet access plan, but to extend the program outside of public housing to the general neighborhoods.

The likely April consideration of the internet access by the federal commission could find itself under real pressure by the Rogers telecom plan for access we had won earlier in Toronto and now the Eastlink breakthrough.  Telus had seemed to be moving in British Columbia, but has stalled.  ACORN Canada may see an opportunity to expand the fight for the internet to be regulated as a public utility in the north as well?

Ottawa continued to win the staff awards for activity and took the prize after spirited competition.  Toronto is leading with more work on an exciting initiative to increase the living wage.  The coming convention in June in Montreal should see ACORN Canada expanding the organization there in 2014 and meeting hundreds coming to make decisions for the organization.

I hated to have to leave the meeting early.  There’s great work happening in the north!

Canada’s New Supergroup, Unifor, and Community Chapters

phillipmurrayaveOshawa   I was actually excited about the senior ACORN Canada organizer’s meeting in Oshawa, Ontario, an hour supposedly but much more in steady traffic from Toronto.   This town of more than 100,000 now was the site of the famous auto strike by the UAW with General Motors that was so critical almost 75 years ago in organizing industrial unions in Canada.   ACORN Canada is working on a joint project with the Durham Region Labor Council to build community organizations with sufficient power to act on their issues aggressively and serve as a partner to the more established, but beleaguered labor movement in the area.   Where Oshawa had been ground zero in Ontario for a different deal breeding Ed Broadbent, the federal leader of the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP) and industrial unions, meeting with Graham Mitchell from the Institute and Jim Freeman, head of the labor council, it was clear that there was recognition we were looking up at a harder road now, rather than looking down from those mountaintops.

            Jim mentioned having gone to work at the plant 30 years before when 22,000 workers were under the roof.  Three years ago there were still more than 12,000, now there were 3500 with 800 jobs on the Camaro line moving within the year to the US.  We drove by the plant along Philip Murray Road, named after the legendary CIO aide to John Lewis, and first president of the Steelworkers’ Union.  Windsheilding various neighborhoods in this working class city with the affluence of past pay packets competing with the uncertainty of current unemployment was fascinating.   We would turn a corner past trimly kept bungalows and find ourselves gawking at a beautiful, but empty palace of a plant with a Pittsburgh, Plate, & Glass sign still gleaming over empty parking lots and abandoned buildings.

            The talk everywhere was the recent merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP) only weeks ago forming the newly  named 300,000 member supergroup, Unifor, which would be Canada’s largest private sector labor union.  There was a new leader, Jerry Dias, and a new program.  There was talk of going on the offensive with an organizing budget of $10 million that Dias was saying was 10% of its annual budget.  That’s encouraging news, though it is worth remembering that SEIU in facing organizing challenges in the US had led the way first with a 30% organizing budget under John Sweeney and then a 50% organizing budget under Andy Stern. 

            Interestingly, Dias had also called for an additional part of his program, similar to the AFL-CIO’s recent advocacy by Rich Trumka, of reaching out to amalgamate somehow with community groups.   According to Unifor official Fred Wilson heading the membership expansion committee in remarks he made to the Globe and Mail:

“We will have three categories of membership in the new union, one category will be members in bargaining units, the second are retired members and a third category will be members without collective units,” said Wilson. According to Wilson, the organization of groups of people without collective units will be done by new community chapters.

The notion of “community chapters” of unorganized workers is interesting and speaks to a lot of work we have done around labor/community partnerships and geographical unionism.  Other reports and discussions though indicate that Unifor is moving very tentatively in this area.   They don’t seek to really organize such chapters from what they have said, but are more treating the project like phone calls from “hot shops” and waiting for community chapters to self-organize and then call for help and affiliation.   Clearly this is still a work in progress, since that’s certainly not the way workers are organized, and it is absolutely not the way community organizations are built.

But, Unifor and others like the project with ACORN Canada and the Durham Region Labour Council, are on the ground and trying to move in the right direction, and that’s good news for Oshawa, Canada, and low-and-moderate income working families everywhere.

Jim Freeman

Jim Freeman

 

GM Plant

GM Plant

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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Hitting the Doors in Ecuador

organizer role plays

Quito  Every country is different, every city is different, and every community is different.  We start from there, and then we adapt what we have seen work in so many places and modify it to fit the circumstances and objectives of our organizing program.  No matter how many times I have done this, it still seems like a glorious miracle when we re-engineer the model, gas it up, put it on the streets, and once again see it work, which is exactly what I have been doing with Marcos Gomez from ACORN Canada over the last week.

In collaboration with Ruptura 25, we have fashioned the ACORN program we call “puerta a puerta y calle” – the “door-to-door and street” program for building contacts and commitments of support throughout the community.  Yesterday we put the organizers who are going to be our potential field managers in Carcelen, an area that our friends thought might be hostile.  Even on their rookie trip, the organizers did very well, so we’re on our way!  “Count-on-me’s” or “Cuenta Conmigo!” as we call them were signed by 10% of the visits almost.  Another 10% agreed to host house meetings (reunions en casa), and we had 25% of the visits rank as #1’s which is too high, but they will get more accurate as we go along.  It’s exhilarating!

In Quito “seguridad” or safety is a constant concern.  We have to navigate the visits through gates, bells, windows, and iron doors.  Multi-story buildings lead us to the house meeting program to build our organizing committees in buildings, much as we learned to do in Buenos Aires and Toronto.  We are pulling the organizers off the streets at 6PM as darkness closes in, so the schedule involves training, then street work among business and high traffic areas in the neighborhood to accelerate contacts on our 10-week timeline, and then four (4) hours puerta a puerta followed by the debriefing.

Some things change, but some things stay the same.  We may be posting the daily results on butcher paper with all the organizers names in our “territorio oficina,” as they call it here, but we’re also posting the daily totals on Google Drive, so other folks can see the results in a timely fashion.  We text back and forth to determine locations on the streets, which in much of our areas are letters and numbers (C-45 for example), rather than having names, particularly where the barrios began as informal squatting settlements.

Today we put out twenty (20) organizers to start the program, ready-or-not, in earnest in Quito Norte.  We made plans for expanding to Guayaquil yesterday.  Plans are moving for next week in Santo Domingo, the 4th largest city.  A trip to Manabi on the coast, will open another front.

Adelante!

Marcos Gomez going over the field plan

Governments and Housing: Mortgage Reform in the US and Formalization in Quito Norte

housing in Quito Norte

Quito     Housing was on my mind.

I spent hours yesterday in a pickup riding the steep roads and byways of Quito Norte with our team and local barrio leaders in the area, four up front and three in the back.  We traveled more than a dozen kilometers up, down and around the mountain sides, often with breathtaking views of the rest of the city or the airport or forested areas too steep still for squatting.  No matter what my colleague, Marcos Gomez from ACORN Canada, and I had been told about the roughness of the area, the fear of crime that led to constant questioning of our insistent advocacy of a door-to-door (puerta a puerta) program here, within a half hour I found myself whispering an aside in English to Marcos, that this had to be the best constructed – and serviced – major low-income barrio that I might have ever seen in Latin America.

Certainly, rebar stood everywhere reaching to the sky with its usual plaintive hopes for the future of the family struggling underneath, but these were sturdy, concrete and brick houses.  Some of the side streets were unpaved and we had to abandon one steep dirt road stretch even with 4-WD, but in the main, the streets were nicely cobbled with pavement bricks and even curbs.  As always in the slums, the higher reaches with more recent arrivals, squatting as they built, were rougher than those below, and, interestingly, in Quito Norte these areas seemed disproportionately populated with Afro-Ecuadorians than other areas, but they were still a long way removed from cardboard and plywood castoff structures I had seen in so much of the world.

Talking more to the local leaders and later to an interesting membership based organization, Banco Comunitario Atucucho, with block leaders in 174 blocks paying $1 per month, who had reacted to a cutback in municipal funding by creating a self-sustaining revenue source that sold several crops of maize per year, it became clear that the real differences emerged when they kept mentioning that the settlements on the mountain tops were “still informal.”  The City of Quito and it’s Mayor had finally concluded that the way forward in Quito Norte was to finally formalize almost all of the squatted areas, so we were in something of a construction boom and area-wide normalization led by soon-to-be home-and-landowners and a city finally not fighting, but actually moving in to accelerate the support and building of a public works infrastructure.  There were areas without sewerage still, but these were at the top.  Electricity was common.  Potable water was either there or around the corner with water trucks delivering only at the highest ground.  Government was making a difference by helping these tens of thousands of lower income and working families to become homeowners and build some citizen wealth rather than continuing in the gray area of informal and precarious status.

All of which made me read in full the Times editorial today which correctly identifies the bank toadying and inaction of the Treasury Department and other government outfit as the single largest failure of the domestic program of the Obama Administration.  We now have millions of Americans who are living in an “informal” status as well.  Twelve million as the Times cites, that owe $600 Billion more than their homes are worth.  Three million still awaiting foreclosure.  These are big numbers.  They should be able, just as in Quito Norte, to finally get their government to not just help, but do its job.

So much is undone for US homeowners still mired in the housing mess, fashioned on Wall Street and Orange County, and now aided and abetted by a president who knows better and needs to finally at least work his own administration to his and the peoples’ will, that we have to demand that, finally, we see real action, rather than empty rhetoric about foreclosures and homeowners.   The Times is right:

“…the foreclosure crisis, and its damage to homeowners and the economy, is still paramount. In the next term, the focus should be on debt reduction, refinancing, enforcement and true consumer protection.”

talking with folks of Banco Comunitario Atucucho

sign that says essentially that anyone caught burglarizing a home will be burned