ACORN International Actions on Foreign Retail and on Small Retail in India

New Orleans I love my job!  Given the differences in international time zones there are surprises all hours of the day and night, because good organizing is happening 24 hours a day.   We are about to celebrate this with the publication by Social Policy Press of Global Grassroots:  International Perspectives on Organizing this week, but let me share a little flavor of it with you from India and Canada over the last day.

Nationwide protests of traders in Delhi against the renewed push by Wal-Mart, Carrefour, and other big box retailers to win modifications to the current policies affecting foreign direct investment  were met by hundreds of thousands with ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign and its director Dharmendra Kumar right in the thick of it.   Here are his quotes in Business-Standard in India (http://t.co/VZyMqji):

“Dharmendra Kumar, director, India FDI Watch, argued that the Indian manufacturing sector should be protected. But a rider on sourcing from the domestic market was not feasible, as “local sourcing needs to be properly defined”, Kumar said. It was a grey area that needs to be tackled, he added.  Kumar also called the proposed rider of investing 50 per cent in back-end infrastructure an ineffective step, as it was not required in non-food retail.”

At the other end of India in Mumbai, our friends with the Reality Tours among others have now joined in supporting the ACORN Foundation’s efforts to increase livelihoods in the Dharavi slums by collecting rags, doing simple production and sewing cotton bags to replace plastic bags.  Just as the outreach in Delhi moves one protest, the outreach by our members in Mumbai to small area retailers will ask that they abandon plastic bags for our cotton bags over the next 90 day campaign.  How great is that?

Spice that with a column in the Waterloo (ON), Canada paper (http://t.co/lUDo7Ww)  in support of ACORN International’s Remittance Justice Campaign and ACORN Canada’s release of our recent report on informal systems (www.acorninternational.org), a 100-person action in Ottawa against notoriously bad landlord, Transglobe, and interviews in British Columbia about the campaign as well, and I have to say, it’s a good day to remember how important and powerful this work really is.

Hasta la Victoria!

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Karla Lara, Valle de Angeles, and Informal Worker Unions

karla lara honduras(1) Tegucigalpa The highlight reel of this year’s annual meeting of ACORN International’s board and staff is rolling out now.  The Mexican and San Pedro Sula delegation were on a morning bus Saturday for the journeys home.  At 4 AM I saw off the first five from ACORN Canada heading for their 24 hour journey home.   A universal assessment from one and all was “bueno reunion!”

Saturday was the wind down day.  Dilica Zavala, ACORN International’s organizer in Tegucigalpa thought the folks might enjoy a short trip to an old colonial village 30 kilometers up the mountain, Valle de Angeles, where we ate pupusas in the rain and any interest in souvenirs could be easily handled.

Mildred Edmond, Local 100 United Labor Union’s president, sat next to me in the van and told me that “I couldn’t even imagine how much the meeting and the visit meant to her,” and I felt like she was speaking for me and probably everyone there!

I thought of this often the night before at Cinefilia, a mutli-purpose bar, restaurant, video rental, and meeting space popular with the resistance crowd.  For an hour I had enjoyed sitting on the window sill listening to the great Honduran singer, Karla Lara, sing South American protest songs and romantic ballads.  Her voice was full, robust and gorgeous as she swayed to her songs.  The power of the singing and music was fascinating because it transcended language itself.  I could fall bits and pieces of the verses, but eventually would almost not try and instead just connect to the power and passion of the singer, the singing, and the music itself.  Several times Karla Lara dedicated individual songs to me and to ACORN International’s staff and leaders, which was humbling.  Karla was a singer from the feminist wing of the popular resistance to the golpe de estado. I had googled her later and she had toured Europe and the USA to build support for the resistance through her song.  I was sorry so many of our team were outside chatting and missed some of the dedications.  I was proud of Dilcia for having been able to convince Karla to sing for us.  I could imagine some of these songs as background for the documentary that Toronto filmmaker Nick Taylor traveling with us this week for his “Citizen Wealth” film.  It was a great time.

The last session was a make up event at the end of the day where we discussed the essay I had written in Social Policy (www.socialpolicy.org) on the “Maharashtra Model of Informal Worker Organizing.”  For an hour and half we quietly talked about Local 100’s experience with these kinds of workers and organizations and how various initiatives and legal opportunities might evolve in Canada to allow us to pilot some of these programs.  It was hard not to feel excited at the prospects even as momentous as the obstacles to success seemed.

Every meeting is always defined by how the meeting is defined later, and this one has set the stage for great work in the future.  It was hard not to be both exhausted and hopeful!

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Death Threats, Web Attacks, and Organizing Reports

Dilcia Zevala giving the Tegucigalpa Report

Dilcia Zevala giving the Tegucigalpa Report

Tegucigalpa A critical feature to the annual international meeting of the ACORN International board and staff beginning last year in Lima and now with both excitement and trepidation is the reports from offices around the world on their progress.  All of this is well and good, but we use Skype and our life blood is the strength of the internet connection, which can and was shaky.  This year thanks to a better set of portable speakers and a borrowed projector, even with vexing connections, the process worked much better.  It was amazing to hear the report from Prague and to listen to the Czech being translated into English and then the English being translated in the meeting into Spanish as well  or to both listen and see our leaders in La Matanza outside of Buenos Aires talk about their progress.  Talk about international!

We interrupted the reports when our leader from Col. Ramon Amador, Maria Amalia, and one of our members from Manzanales, came into the meeting.  We quickly turned the attention from staff reports to their brave and quiet recitation of the events of the night before after we had all visited the community where our members homes had been bulldozed by golpistas during the coup.  It seemed that police accompanied by soldiers had arrived at 11 PM at night and gone site to site intimidatingly harassing people out of their sleep while shining flashlights in their face.  None of this surprised the members, but at 2 AM in the morning Maria Amalia received a call on her cell phone awakening her.  The caller asked if her husband was there.  She asked if who was calling.  The caller gruffly replied that he was “outside, and he would not think twice about killing her.”  She then turned off her phone quickly.  The message had been delivered and she had gotten it.  Our visit had given both hope, which meant that it had to be offset by force.  Kay Bisnah, ACORN International’s president spoke for everyone when she pledged that we would stand with them in whatever action they decided to undertake.  Everyone was shocked.  As tragic though was how inured our Honduran leaders and organizers had become inured to threat and reality of violence. Over the last several years this had become the “new normal” as political and community life was gripped in oppression.  What might have meant a huge change in the day’s agenda ended up being simply an episode, as life – and the meeting – went on.

Reports from Prague also seemed past the pale, when Michal Ulver, our organizer and colleague there, reported on the attempts to attack the organization from the right wing by launching an attack website with a similar name in order to try and discredit the organization and its program.  When we talked about our actions in Toronto, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires to support our friends in Russia trying to save the Khimki Forest, we also had to note the daily beatings and their constant courage which had become routine in their struggle.

For all of the growth and victories reported, including winning water after all of these years in Col. Ramon Amador, there was no way not to feel that we were also learning lessons that we wish were not being taught.  None of us there could have also missed the fact even as hard as we work and as grave the injustices our members face in their organizations, we cannot fail to remember how dear a price our sisters and brothers in many parts of the world pay every day as they struggle to find a voice and build power against repressive regimes and unchecked corporations.

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Do Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Deserve This?

cesar-chavezTegucigalpa The annual board meeting of ACORN International is being held next week and this year it will be held in Honduras to celebrate the two offices opened in this country last year.  While flying I read the paper and more than once a front page article entitled “Family Quarrel Imperils a Labor Hero’s Legacy.”

I found the article troubling, because it was hard for me to see what was supposed to be the “news” here?  What was of such weight that it found its way to the front page of the New York Times?

Was a family feud really that important?  Hardly.  The “news hook” was a lawsuit filed in March.  This is mid-May.  The allegations arise two years ago in 2009.  This is mid-2011!

Is there a sudden concern about Chavez’s “legacy?”  The article and its author, Jennifer Medina, belie that angle themselves in a later paragraph saying:  “Family members, without exception, talk about Cesar Chavez with deep reverence. They blanch at any criticism of the movement, as they refer to the broad work of the union under his watch.”

He’s been dead over 18 years since 1993 for goodness sakes, so exactly how his legacy might be “imperiled” as the headline blasts was also difficult to determine.

His role in modern culture is at this point secure and transcends the reality of his work and life, strengths, which were many, and weaknesses, which were also significant.  Like Martin Luther King, he speaks to the recognition and aspirations of a substantial people, the emerging Latin American majority, who have taken voice and dignity from his the way he lived and worked.  For Dr. King his speeches and position within the civil rights movement trump anything else.  With Chavez his humility, his fasts, and his dedication – not his success – in trying to give voice and organization to Latinos and the the invisible toilers of soil have secured his stature permanently, regardless of anything else.

All of this seems mean spirited.  Are we somehow to  believe that there is a sudden surge of care and concern for the plight of the farmer worker or the fact that the organization has lost membership in the last 35 to 40 years?  Certainly that his also not news, nor has anyone outside of the world of labor done much about this.  I found it ironic that Artie Rodriguez, the President of the UFW was not interviewed nor was their any commentary or reckoning with his struggles, small successes and failures over his tenure at the head of the union.  The revival of the farm workers union was a huge program under John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO, who directed millions and deployed great organizers like Stephen Lerner and Mark Splain for years to the task.

Frankly, I’m suspicious of the article for the quotes pulled in support of this strained slam at unions, farm workers, and their leaders.

This issue of Social Policy and an excerpt we are running on the front page of our website at www.socialpolicy.org covers perhaps the most controversial and devastating chapter in Miriam Pawel’s book, A Union of Their Dreams, which is the story of the purges of top leaders and organizers implemented by Chavez as he tried in misguided and sometimes bizarre ways to refocus the union on what he saw as its roots and values and retested loyalties and commitments to the union’s foundational principles.  Organizers may agree or disagree with Chavez’s ways and means, and these issues need to be surfaced and debated, but none of that imperils a legacy.   In corresponding with Pawel repeatedly I know how cautious she was in even allowing me permission to excerpt the piece because she did not want to be seen as defaming Chavez or that struggle.   Yet Medina has this quote in the piece justifying this curious story:

When Cesar Chavez was alive, he was a major force in California politics and agriculture. “The problem now is that the organization has simply drifted,” said Miriam Pawel, who has written a book about the union and is working on a biography of Mr. Chavez. “It has become a family-run organization that is sort of purposeless and does little or nothing to help farm workers.”

Normally, I would have believed that Pawel was misquoted, but since she personally forwarded the article to me, until I speak with her directly, I have to believe that she was not offended by the quote or she would have said so.

My friend the brilliant author of so many penetrating books, Mike Davis, who is also one of the most difficult guys in the world to track down, seems to have been right at hand for a call from the Times, and not surprisingly more reasonably hits the nail on the head at the end of this attack piece:

“In many ways, we’re back to square one for farm workers,” said Mike Davis, a California historian and a former union activist. “We have this wonderful myth and a model for kids to emulate in Cesar Chavez, but you could basically go to any field and rewrite ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ all over again.”

Now this is a story worth writing in America today.  In the 21st Century we have almost medieval conditions in the fields or certainly situations that hark back to the Great Depression and the stories of Steinbeck.  We have a union that has been beaten and broken since Chavez on time which cannot carry the weight and burden of solving these problems while we have an industry and government callous, indifferent, ineffectual, and uninterested in solving these issues.

As Davis and Pawel would surely agree, all men and women of history are as much myth as muscle, so when the job of defaming unions, workers, their families, their dreams, and their work is finished, the hard job still remains.

What about all of that?  When does the pissing start and the next parade begin?

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Dharavi Rocks and Other Partnerships

Mumbai The road to organizational sustainability seems marked sometimes by the s2881962776_b43d9d4aa0ignposts of successful partnerships saying “go” and difficult ones saying “danger – warning!”  Talking with Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India’s programs in Mumbai, which arguably has more experiences with partnerships of all varieties than any other ACORN International operation is always an exhilarating journey through the euphoria of possibilities ahead and the potholes of near misses behind us.

I’m wearing a t-shirt as I write this from one of our best partnerships, which has been the evolving relationship between ACORN India’s Dharavi Project among the ragpickers and – of all things – the Blue Frog jazz and supper club in Mumbai.  The t-shirt itself is good evidence of how such sharing works with Dharavi Rocks in big letters on the front with the Blue Frog symbol on the left and then on the back and the walking rag picker symbol on the back with ACORN India underneath.  Over the last year, every other month this has meant a “concert” or musical “workshop” in Dharavi and as frequently an invitation to the Blue Frog for some of our members where they also get to eat and sing.  Everybody’s interests are met.  The Blue Frog finds the visiting artists excited to participate and to get a better feeling of the “real” India and the notion of making a difference, and our members get a taste of the world outside of Dharavi and sometimes some real benefits in the mega-slum itself as well.  It’s easy to imagine this partnership growing.  Perhaps we could recycle all of the bottles and goods  they roll through at the Blue Frog, giving more work and better livelihood for some of our members?  Perhaps the Blue Frog starts making some contributions to our office and recycling center in Dharavi as well?  Who knows, but good things are coming here.

The American School has also been another success story in so many ways in another odd fellow pairing of this posh private school for Indian and foreign students.  Our rag pickers have done recycling programs for the students and invited them out to fairs in Dharavi where they have participated and volunteered.  Our members pick up recycling items from the school every week.  One of the teachers in a labor of love has now worked for almost two years to pull together a book on Dharavi with various writers whose sales will benefit ACORN India and the Dharavi Project (more on that in the future!).  The school has a director of volunteer programs (probably not the exact title) who is actually convening a coming meeting with all of the organizations like ourselves that the America School works with to make sure both parties are getting full value from the relationship.  We’ll be there!

Sometimes it’s simply harder.  I had traveled over with great hopes of finding that our waste pickers could collect carpet for InterfaceFLOR and this very “green” company’s work of making carpet  tiles from such recycled carpet.  This still might work, but given the heat and dust, tiles and terrazzo type flooring is common everywhere here that can be wiped down throughout the day rather than vacuumed.  Could we put enough volume together to make it work?  I will fly home with that as an open question.

And, sometimes it is lesson of ships moving in the night with good intentions going awry, which seems to have been the summary of our folks experience with Artefacturing, a project of artists, planners, and other, largely Americans, we worked with recently in Dharavi.   The visitors may have been happy, but our people had more fixed feelings.  Lack of care and security meant stuff was stolen, including school supplies from our recycling center that our members had been safeguarding.  Pictures in “art” mosaics made little sense to our members including them in some cases but also folks who had bitterly opposed the organization in the same tableau.  All of it became sort of a “rip and run” with less than a great taste remaining from the experience.  We never know, something good might still come of it all in the future.  We’re nothing if not cockeyed optimists, but when they didn’t even respect our hosting and good services enough to credit us in most of the press, even the ever charitable Vinod Shetty had trouble not admitting to being a bit miffed.

Would we do it again?  Sure, but differently!  We cannot achieve sustainability without partnerships and alliances, but we would be less than effective as organizers if we didn’t try to learn from all of these experiences how to model the good ones and modify the ones that left more scrapes and bruises than smiles and cheers.

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Americans are Liberals – Get Over It!

US MAP

New Orleans On ACORN International’s research projects over the last six months, I have often credited our “intern army” of young interns and older researchers.  I’m now “crowdsourcing” more research.  Today thanks go to Jesse Ginsburg, a hard luck Baltimore Orioles diehard fan (congrats on their hot opening this season!) who sent me a couple of Facebook links on recent reports by Cenk Uygur on MSNBC rapping out the facts on where Americans really stand on the issues and it turns out that real red-blooded Americans are pinker than a Little Kitty knapsack!   Oh, yeah, ask them if they are liberals or conservatives and only 25% will say liberal and the majority claim they drink nothing but tea, but ask them about the issues and they are sign waving, street stomping radicals compared to their Republican wannabe leaders.

Here is what the polls from Pew Research, Gallup, and several universities are revealing:

  • 69%           believe government should help the helpless
  • 42%           more than 2x the number (23%) believe that government should increase services.
  • 77%           believe Congress should increase the minimum wage!
  • 62%           believe that Roe vs. Wade, the abortion decision protecting women, should be sustained.
  • 60%           believe that guns should be controlled.
  • 75%           are willing to pay more for power from renewable sources
  • 52%           believe government should invest in renewable energy
  • 68%           demand more conservation of energy rather than production
  • 69%           want government to increase access to health care
  • 62%           want to increase taxes for health care
  • 77%           don’t want to cut social security
  • 81%           want to raise taxes on the rich

You get the drift.  We’re a bunch of raging revolutionaries!  Unfortunately the “branding” for progressive issues has become so  bad in the dominant political culture, that the same majority of Americans who want change also don’t want to be called liberals for god sake.

As a people most of us want the same things and the right things for each other, but we simply don’t have the institutions anymore or the leadership that are willing and able to fight to get us what we want.    The polls didn’t say that.  I said that.  Turns out we probably all believe that too.

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