Pushing up the Provincial Payments for Disability Recipients

Vancouver  What a treat spending time with the ACORN Canada staff in the Vancouver area in our New Westminster office!  The organizers in the morning and the leaders in the evening wanted to brainstorm about current campaigns they were conducting to great effect.  Roll up the sleeves and let’s get to work!

Over the weekend the topic was enforcement of penalties assessed to landlords for failing to maintain tenant properties and creating slumlord conditions.  Recently ACORN had almost a $150000 penalty against a notoriously bad landlord and shockingly the provincial government of British Columbia had held the penalty in abeyance for up to 2-years to see if repairs were made trying to delay on the jaws of our victory.   Leaders were mad and coming to a reckoning with the inability of the government to protect them and assure safe and decent housing.

The ACORN Disability Rights group has been pushing against the province in recent months to try and win an increase in benefits and some equity in the standards.  Meetings with top ministers have been held, but no action seems imminent.

The standards also seem subjective.  If they think there are “multi-barriers” to employment then your payment is some $600 per month as opposed to if they think your condition is worse, then $900 per month.  Do doctors determine the level of disability?  Unclear?  If you have more training and education, then you might actually be paid less, even if your level of medical disability was the same as someone in the exact same condition with less training?  Huh?  Yes, you understand, almost arbitrary and capricious, isn’t it?

With the staff I found myself describing the old welfare rights “special needs” campaigns that pressured welfare offices into shifting money into increased payments and ratcheted the pressure on state systems.  May have been over 40 years ago in a different world with welfare as we used to know it, but the same basic system is in play.  There may not be “equal protection” here to assure equivalent benefits, but there is Article 15, the Equality Amendment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which should work as well.  There may not be emergency payments, as we used to know them, but there are “crisis” payments, which seem the same to me.  Furthermore there is wide discretion, and that means subjective standards, and it is time to make up the forms so that all recipients are handled equally.

With the leaders and staff we had conversations about how to train members and leaders to be “stewards” handling these “grievance committees” to assure eligibility standards are met and that people know their rights.  Maybe it’s another situation where the “more things change, the more they stay the same!”


Just the Facts and Watching our Backs on Wikipedia

Vancouver   There is little argument anymore that Wikipedia, the on-line, crowd built “encyclopedia,” is the first source in the 21st century for innumerable high school and college term papers and much of the information random people get about most of the rest of us.   I can’t count the number of gnarly introductions I’ve gotten in different places around the world that were directly attributable to some mash-up of fact and faction on Wikipedia.  No matter how much all of us use and love it, there can’t be any doubt that no small amount of it continues in computer-speak to be “garbage in, garbage out.”

Derek Blackadder the “Webwork” columnist for the quarterly Canadian labor journal, Our Times, in their fall issue called for a “labor wikipedia initiative” along just these lines.  Not only did he correctly nail the issue that many community and labor organizations are almost constantly under attack from conservatives and corporate shills and web-workers who “manage” their social media presence, but he also pointed out that invariably if you poke around a bit on Wikipedia it’s hard not to stumble over some better rough and pointed edges of bias in the portrayal of progressive institutions.  As Blackadder says in talking about labor:

Sometimes it may be clear, at least to someone in the know, that an entry, or part of an entry, is ideologically anti-union.  Sometimes it is not so clear.  Sometimes the ‘analyses’ look to be genuine, sometimes they look very much like something that is part of an organized effort.

Blackadder for his part calls for a “Wikipedia Labor Initiative” where a dedicated band of volunteers would team-up to scour the Wiki-world to right wrongs and correct inaccuracies.  For labor unions in Canada and perhaps the United States, this might work if they drafted folks from the communications departments of various national and international unions for the project so it was something more than a one-off, when-I-have-a-minute exercise.  The capacity exists for the fix there.  For the rest of the progressive forces less well resourced and staffed, it is likely a harder slog to find some flat ground where only the facts can stand.

Fixing these wiki-problems is not easy, but it’s possible.  Over the last year I with the head organizer of ACORN Canada, Judy Duncan’s help, was able to draft some time from James Wardlaw on the ACORN staff to try and at least deal with our family of organizations and its wiki-footprints.  James had to go through quite a process to get enlisted in the “club” that becomes the “crowd” doing the sourcing for the Wikipedia entries, but at least he prevailed.  Earlier when I had tried to go through the “correction” process for inaccuracies that was a totally fruitless maze.  I even reached out to a colleague who worked for the Wikipedia Foundation looking for a clue or a guide to getting a handle on the process.  He acknowledged that this was a problem, but pretty much could only advise me to “keep trying” and let him know if I had made any progress.  Oh, gee, thanks!  Nonetheless, James kept at it and gradually we were able to clean a good bit of it up, but, wow, what an experience.

The harder job of not just restoring some entries to reality but pushing some of the slants so they are able to stand straight is critical.  I hope our folks have the endurance and take this notion seriously before the fiction becomes so settled in the Wiki-world that there is no longer the prospect for facts or truths in that world.


Transformation, not Transactions: Preaching Community-Union Linkages to the Choir!

Victoria    When the topic of the leadership conference is “Building the Links:  Connecting Unions and Community,” and my 90-minute slot has the same title, it’s already a slow pitch to the plate looking for a big swing.  After weeks of singing for my supper on the road with translators in Spanish, Japanese, or Korean, it was nice to be able to get straight to the point in English without a filter.  When I told about my flights to Victoria from Seoul to Tokyo to Seattle to Victoria and that I was sustained by two things the whole way, one was how much I enjoyed meeting with the brothers and sisters of the BCGEU, and the other was the fact that I would be able to get a nap on Friday, the laugh was quick and immediate.

In some ways, this was the same message that my friends at Tokyo’s Meiji University had wanted to hear.  They had seen it as how to apply community organizing methodology to labor unions and in British Columbia they wanted to see how “linkages” might do the same thing:  make the union stronger.

In Victoria, we had some common experiences.  They had come to know ACORN already and worked with ACORN Canada.  When I reminded them of our first living wage ordinance victory in New Westminster outside of Vancouver, many of them knew the story.  One woman came up later and told me that they were close to passing an ordinance in a couple of weeks in Parksville up the coast on Vancouver Island.  I could mention talking to Mike Eso, one of the BCGEU staff and head of the Victoria Trades and Labor Council, and our disappointment that we had not won here after our hopes were higher when we had last discussed this in Hanoi.  Given the hard fight and job actions to get their last contract and prevent their provincial liquor warehouse from going private, a fair number of them had been on the doors in their community, so when I told them real partnerships had to be built before a crisis not after one, they knew what I was saying from recent, hard experience.

The core of my message was that the connections had to be real and mutual between unions and community organizations.  The relationship could not be transactional but had to be transformative.  Transactional relationships involved calling to each other only when you needed something, like strike support or help on a campaign or election.  Those were not the kind of transformative partnerships based on mutual interests that would build a new organizing model that incorporated labor and community interests in a formation designed to organize “majority unionism.”  Add politics to the mix as well, and I told the coming story of Ecuador and recommended reading Victory Lab for an endorsement of ACORN’s style of door-to-door political action as most effective.  I talked to them about the opportunities to lead with the Remittance Justice Campaign and the emerging infrastructure campaigns around water and sewerage, since I had heard the federal MP candidate mentioning fecal matter in drinking water in the Victoria district.  I was singing my usual song and belting out verse after verse.

What was nice was having people come up after each session and tell me, as one brother did, that he had been thinking the same thing, but figured he was just crazy, so it was good to hear me say that he was on the right track.  Others, recently “off the doors” buttonholed me about how much easier it would have been to have a real partnership.  During the questions & answers, some wanted to go right to the issue of how to structure such an amalgamated organization, which might have been putting the horse before the cart.  Others thought unions and others should all merge, which was way past my scope.  One woman wanted to see the union build housing developments, which I wisely held my tongue about, though I would have told her housing counseling, yes, housing development, no.  Another thought the union needed to lead a campaign to stop inflation throughout North America.  We were off and running.

It was nice to get a shot of supportive adrenaline on the road, and if there’s any union that could help lead such a transformation of community and labor unionism, the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union, might just be the one.  Eventually it will be “ready or not,” but at the crossroads it is always a hard decision about whether to keep on the way you’ve been travelling to go a different direction at the fork in the road.


Remittances Increase from USA, Progress on Disclosures, and Pushback from MTOs

New Orleans  I badly want to say that there is finally progress in the United States on remittances, which are financial transfers from immigrant families, migrant workers, and others to their families and communities back in their home countries.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the volume of money being remitted has in fact gone up based on the numbers available for 2010.  Our colleague, Manuel Orozco, the foremost US expert on remittances, even predicts an increase of 7% to 8% to Latin America and the Caribbean this year, which is also good news for developing countries.  The toothless World Bank says that the 215 million migrants it estimates around the world are moving $372 billion to developing countries in 2011 and they expect it to hit $399 in 2012 and $467 billion in 2013.  These are huge numbers, especially when one country after another continues to look the other way as migrants and immigrants are gouged by the costs of sending the money through the various money transfer organizations (MTOs).

The much heralded Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that was the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts took up the matter this year and has promulgated regulations.  Unfortunately, they gummed the problem as well, possibly because of the limits on their authority.  Rather than addressing the predatory nature of the pricing, the final rule which takes effect in February 2013 simply puts forward the standard liberal palliative of better disclosure.  I’ve often shared the limited value of the disclosures in the tax preparation industry for predatory refund anticipation loans (RALs), where the companies (H&R Block, Liberty, Jackson-Hewitt) were all too willing to flaunt their 250% on computer screens and big posters, knowing that the marks (clients?) were so desperate for their money they had no choice but to suck down the charges.  This is the same song now with remittances, simply another verse.

To quote their own website summary, the CFPB rule says the following:

The rules require companies to give a disclosure to a consumer before the consumer pays for a remittance transfer. The disclosure must list:

  • The exchange rate,
  • Fees, and taxes,
  • The amount of money to be delivered abroad.

Companies must also provide a receipt or proof of payment that repeats the information in the first disclosure. The receipt must also tell consumers the date when the money will arrive.

Companies must provide the disclosures in English. Sometimes companies must also provide the disclosures in other languages.

I’ll read the whole 113 pages of the rule in coming days in hopes of finding something more helpful, but I’m afraid that’s the deal.

Outrageously, Miriam Jordan of the Journal reports this new rule “could raise costs for consumers…some experts said.”  She then quotes someone from Wells Fargo, which is an embarrassment of a bank on almost every count,

Daniel Ayala, head of global remittance services at Wells Fargo, praised the rule for creating a level playing field.  But he cautioned that, ‘there are details that could…ultimately result in limiting access, higher costs and confusion.’

Are you kidding me?!?  Finally having a wee bit of transparency (in English which doesn’t necessarily help!) and a receipt is going to raise costs.   Wells Fargo and their banking and MTO buddies simply have no shame.  I hope these hypocrites made a big fat contribution to Clinton’s Global Initiative, because they certainly don’t mind exploiting the living bejesus out of these immigrant and migrant families.

In Canada the bill to cap costs at 5% (remember that is the World Bank and G-8 goal!) is making progress.  More endorsements have come forward from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the University of Toronto Student Union.  There are also encouraging discussions with the Liberals, who may actually join with the NDP in a joint bill.  I’m holding my breath.  Somewhere developing countries and the workers trying to help their families have to get a real break on costs, not just a piece of paper with some numbers on it.


Editorial Support Lines up for Remittance Cap in Key Ontario Papers

ACORN Canada fighting for Justice in Remittances

Delhi   With the introduction of a member’s bill in the provincial parliament of Ontario by New Democratic Party MPP Jagmeet Singh from Toronto to amend the Consumer Act to put a 5% hard cap ceiling on remittances as requested by ACORN International and ACORN Canada as part of the Remittance Justice Campaign, support is lining up for the bill.  The influential Toronto Sun editorialized in favor and the Ottawa Citizen joined in the call for support for the measure.

The Ottawa Citizen had an interesting take with a conservative twist:

The best way to drive costs down is to encourage competition. For some recipient countries, new players and technologies have led to better prices. For others, there’s an oligopoly and high prices. It seems unlikely that the most punitive fees will come down without regulation.

In 2009, the G8 vowed to bring global costs for remittances down to five per cent by 2014. Market-based approaches, such as greater transparency in fee structures, are crucial to this effort. But they haven’t brought fees down very far.

The Citizen got it.  The standard business ideology may make predatory practices and glib assurances standard operating procedure, but when such rapaciousness cannot be impacted by fairness, it is time for legislation and regulation.

The Toronto Star started perhaps in a better place of understanding the importance of remittances and the cost structure, but they also made a powerful point:  all parties needed to support the legislation.  In other words this is too important to allow narrow partisanship to stand in the way and allow Money Gram and Western Union to fleece the pockets of migrant and immigrant workers.

No other province caps remittance fees, but the idea is no different in principle from limiting the interest charged on payday loans to prevent low-income earners from being gouged. Ontario did that in 2008.

All parties at Queen’s Park should back Singh’s bill. It would be an excellent step toward helping out some of the hardest working and most deserving people among us.

The same arguments could be made throughout the world, but for now the momentum is building in Canada where the leadership is, and the quick editorial support puts the pressure on for change!

Check out ACORN International for more information on remittance campaigns and how you can help.


Biblioteca, Center for Global Justice, and Via Organico in San Miguel de Allende

Ronnie from Via Organico

San Miguel    San Miguel de Allende is a picturesque 500 year old colonial town in the central highlands that played a major role in the Mexican Revolution against Spain and more recently is known as an artistic and ex-patriot center for North America.  I first visited at the founding meeting of Enlace a dozen years ago and always enjoyed my time here.  On our last visit in January 2010, close to 50 folks had packed the patio of the offices of the Center for Global Justice to hear about ACORN International’s work, so we were excited to be able to return to the Biblioteca, a nonprofit library touted as the largest such institution in Mexico and perhaps North America, where Judy Duncan of ACORN Canada and Dilcia Zavala of  ACORN Honduras would join me in updating folks here on ACORN International’s progress.

After Cliff Durand of the Center introduced the discussion and our presentations the questions were interesting and focused on everything from what we had learned from the ACORN experience in the USA to Occupy San Miguel to whether or not it was practical to organize effectively around economic development in rural areas of the developing world.  It was great to have some of our friends ask for updates on the Remittance Justice Campaign who had been with us in San Miguel in 2010.  Before the end of May, we will post the session on ACORN International’s YouTube channel upon our return.

After a last look at the Biblioteca and a wave towards Juan of our favorite San Miguel coffeehouse, Juan’s Café, complete with a can of Café du Monde coffee & chicory commemorating his own visit to New Orleans, we joined Ronnie Cummins for a fantastic lunch and deeply educational tour of the Via Organico café and sundry operations.  Ronnie is a fellow traveler on the activist path who originally hails from the homeland around Port Arthur, Texas, and after a stint at Rice in Houston jumped into the maelstrom as many of us did to oppose the Vietnam War and, as they say, the rest is history.  He ended up making a career of advocating around food and other environmental issues and now heads a 850,000 strong Organic Consumers Association based in Minneapolis where he lives part of the year and Via Organico, the Mexican counterpart, where he is based in San Miguel.  The Via Organico nonprofit is in many ways a demonstration project for an all-organic operation as well as a combination store, café, brewery, classroom, storage facility, and rooftop farm operation.

And, a heckuva operation at that!  Lunch was fantastic and some of our number felt it their duty to try the beer brewed by Via Organico from cactus among other things while others had a dessert to die for that included homemade ice cream and later lime popsicles.  Ronnie gave us a full tour of the entire operation along with the warehouse and brewery.  He did such a great job, he made it feel like it might be possible to duplicate it, but as organizers, we all knew how difficult bringing projects like this to fruition really are.

Alex McDonald of Ottawa ACORN trying a cactus beer

Among the more interesting things Cummins showed us is was the rooftop growing area where the old ways that Mexican farmers used gourds were in use for growing produce in this dry, high, arid land by conserving the water they had collected.  They would plant large gourds at intervals among the vegetables and refill the gourds with water through small caps on the gourd.  Because the gourds were fired from the more porous clay, as the ground dried, the soil would literally suck the water out of the gourd and into the dirt nearby in order to water the plants to good health and yield.  Amazing!

Anytime you can have a great dialogue with people, share what you’ve learned, join others successes and experiences, and learn something as well, it has to count as a great trip all around.  As we hugged our old companera, Ercilia Sahores, who had organized all of these events for us, we said hasta luego, but in our hearts we could hardly wait to return for more.

All Organic Operation

Gourd Watering System