A Lot to Celebrate at ACORN Canada’s Year End Meeting

ACORN Canada Team

ACORN Canada Team

Pittsburgh   Twenty organizers from ACORN Canada gathered in the cold of Pittsburgh’s South Side for their annual Year End / Year Begin meeting, surprised to note that the first snow most of them were seeing for the season was coming in the United States rather than in the great north. What was not a surprise were many of the reports of progress from the offices and the serious, ambitious plans for the coming year.

Overall, after a successful biannual convention this year in Montreal, where ACORN also opened a new office in 2015, its fifth over the last dozen years, head organizer, Judy Duncan, reported that ACORN Canada had passed the 84,000 member mark with a budget and expenditures at the million mark for 2015 with $222,000 coming in direct dues income. As the great country and western song says, “that’s something to be proud of!”

High and low tech at ACORN Canada YE/YB

Serious Business on Future Plans

More importantly the members had fought — and won — on a number of fronts over the year as one office after another reported. British Columbia’s victory in overturning the claw-backs for welfare recipients in the province, forcing reductions in their meager checks whenever they received overdue child support had triggered similar campaigns in Ottawa and Nova Scotia. Payday lending zoning restrictions in Burnaby in 2015 had also encouraged other offices to launch municipal regulation campaigns, since the reality of the victory in British Columbia froze the number of payday outlets to only those already opened, and all of this influenced the direction of serious discussions on national campaigns and plans for the coming years. The national banking act is due for renewal in 2017 opening opportunities to try to turn the tables on installment loans, payday lending, and other so-called alternative financial products that tend to be predatory for our members.

Canada's Annual performance awards are a highlight

Canada’s Annual Performance Awards are a Highlight


Housing continues to be a flash point throughout the country. Hard work in Toronto has moved the Mayor and much of the council from almost studied disinterest in the housing crisis to support of the landlord licensing regime that has been a signature of ACORN’s work for over a decade in the city. Significantly, resources for outreach and enforcement of housing standards are on the verge of increases that can finally make a real difference in the quality of housing for Toronto tenants. There have been many milestones in this campaign, but Toronto head organizer, John Anderson, senses the opportunity for a capstone looming in coming years.

High and low tech at ACORN Canada YE/YB

High and low tech at ACORN Canada YE/YB

Political discussions were fascinating. A dialogue with the political director of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party helped set the stage in framing the discussion. The recent federal elections in Canada bringing the Liberals back to power after many years of Conservative Party government throughout most of ACORN Canada’s history offers the prospects of some openings on critical national campaigns that have long been stalled in addition to financial justice efforts. The Liberals serious consideration and positive responses to ACORN’s Remittance Justice Campaign proposals improved the prospects for real change in this area. Hearings being held by the Canadian radio and television regulators, that also govern the internet, open the door for us and the larger consumer coalition to look at capping the prices for internet access for lower income families and broadening the availability.

Nova Scotia ACORN steps up its game with a powerpoint

Nova Scotia ACORN steps up its game with a powerpoint

Internally, Scott Nunn from Vancouver was planning to hold the number of tax returns from our service center to about 4000 and Jill O’Reilly, Ottawa’s head organizer, was looking to break 2000 returns in 2016, but the real topics of the discussion were sustainability as the program navigates the critical transition from largely free to fee-for-service. Suggestions ranged from asking for a donation of one dollar for every thousand to any number of other hybrid mixes and matches, but whatever the pilots and decisions that evolve in the coming year, the program will progress and increase its status as a benefit for our members and a firm foundation of the organization’s long term sustainability.

No year of organizing is easy, but there were many milestones for ACORN in Canada in 2015.


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:


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.


A Victory for the Poor is Still Possible At Least in British Columbia

clawback2 (1)New Orleans        There are no good times to be poor, but these are especially hard times given persistent inequality and distorted public policies that throw a couple of nickels towards lower income families while opening the gateway to millions for those with big money.  All of which makes the ACORN victory in what might have seemed a hopeless campaign in British Columbia all the sweeter.

The issue centered on clawbacks, the inelegant, but totally accurate, term for the government forcing a refund from the poor.  In this case, we are talking about single mothers on benefit support in British Columbia, Canada.  When lightning struck and they received any child support, and throughout the world we know how spotty these collections always are, especially during the recent economic downturn, the government would then clawback an amount of money equal to the child support.  All of which insured that the single mom and her children would be frozen in place without much hope of breaking loose from their circumstances.  The rank injustice of this hard-hearted austerity measure by the Liberal (which means Conservative) government there became a huge and ongoing campaign by ACORN British Columbia over recent years.

Now with almost a billion dollar surplus ACORN’s tireless campaign and constant actions paid off and stopped the clawbacks, although as always it seems a small refund for us. means a bigger giveaway for upper income families.

The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, reported on the victory this way:

After sharp and emotional criticism from advocacy groups such as ACORN B.C. over the past year, some of the province’s poorest parents – single mothers on welfare – will now be able to keep the child-support payments from their former partners starting Sept. 1.   Each month a single parent with one child is eligible for $945 in income assistance or $1,242 in disability payments. Under the old policy, those cheques are reduced by the amount of any child support received by a former partner….The policy change will return about $13-million over the next year to about 5,400 children in 3,200 families, Finance Ministry officials said.  The budget also lets people earn several hundred dollars more before they pay tax on any income more than roughly $19,000.

Vancouver 24 Hours filled in some other blanks in the story quoting Carole James, the opposition critic of the ruling government:

…the NDP applauded government’s elimination of the child support “clawback” that sees amounts deducted if parents also receive income assistance, saying that policy “never should have been there in the first place.”  “The credit for that goes entirely to the families who stepped forward and shared their stories. Some of them are here today, and we thank them for their courage for coming forward,” James said.   ACORN B.C., which has held demonstrations repeatedly to eliminate the clawback, called it a “huge victory.”

Of course the worm in the apple James also pointed out is what the government did with most of the surplus.

Carole James, New Democrat finance critic, said government gave more to the rich and neglected the poor and middle class. “Government put only $5 million towards tax relief for the very lowest earners in British Columbia, but the wealthiest 2% saw an astounding $230 million in a tax break,” she told the legislature.

ACORN won against all odds by keeping the issue front-and-center, and essentially making it too hard for the government to give more to the rich while literally taking food out of the mouths of single mothers and their children.  $13 million to stop the clawbacks, $5 million for low wage workers, and $230 million goes to the richest of the rich in British Columbia, but this is what it takes to win for the poor in these times of expanding inequality, and as every coach – and many an organizer – says, it might not be pretty, but a win is a win, and we’re glad to get it.


Enjoy this live version of Bruce Springsteen singing “Factory”


The Perils and Promise of Organizational Sustainability: The ADP Story

ADP protests at Bank of America

Boston   We had an interesting session with Caroline Murray, former executive director of ADP, Alliance to Develop Power, based in Springfield, Massachusetts about organizational financing and sustainability.  In her 18-year tenure with ADP as a community organizer focused on housing issues initially in a campaign to convert rental units being flipped over after 20-years of tax credits had expired, they organized cooperatives of tenants to purchase the properties and in the process stumbled onto ways that they could subcontract competitively to their own subsidiaries, save money for the cooperatives, build jobs, and, as importantly, create an income flow of $1 million per year providing 75% of ADP’s annual budget.  That’s quite an accomplishment and was right on point within the theme of our discussions at the ACORN Canada YE/YB!

As remarkable as that unique success, because believe me we spent a lot of time trying to figure out if it could be replicated which doesn’t seem possible currently in the exact same way, though privileging the base would come up with similar strategies, were some of the lessons Caroline shared from other projects.  We were all interested, as was she, in whether or not there was a way to produce similar results by coming up with a competitive and cost efficient way to assist our members in handling their remittance transfers.  Certainly we had looked at some options and a number of companies had pitched us, but nothing had ever seemed attractive.

There was then a lengthy “sharing” about the pitfalls of debit-type cards that had to be cash loaded for lower income workers and families.  We talked about Russell Simmons and his Rush card, and our inability to embrace its more predatory features.  We both had experiences with the pilot, elaborately funded by foundations through the Center for Community Change and directed by Janice Fine, to develop a card for worker centers.  We had several conversations during that period with Janice and some of her people while ACORN had been close to developing a similar product with H&R Block and the Block Bank.  Caroline and ADP had managed some of the pilots on the cards they had tried on the pilots.  At ADP they had achieved 700 users with pretty regular uploading, which seemed key, and were taking in perhaps $2000 per month on the program, but the servicing costs in staffing time and constant education, as well as the procedures, ended up not making it practical for ADP or profitable enough for the card company to continue with the pilot.

At different times we’ve tried to develop a product with VanCity, our credit union partner in British Columbia, particularly around the Philippines, where our other friends with TIGRE and Francis Calpotura, have also spent a lot of time.  We are still not close enough to a real program here by a long shot.  It’s the right idea but we don’t have enough horses to ride in the kingdom of migrant workers and immigrant families to really make it across the long, dry plains.


You Say Pushback, We Say Fightback: Michigan and Greater Miami

Victoria   After endless hours in planes, crossing the international dateline, and airports from Seoul to Tokyo to Seattle and then finally to the small airfield in Victoria, British Columbia, it felt good to be among friends last night again with the brothers and sisters of the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) at their regional leadership conference here.   As exciting was to catch a whiff of resistance from the combined forces of unions and community organizations, which are exactly the linkages being explored at this labor conference in Canada, in Michigan a traditional labor stronghold, and the Miami area which has traditionally not been.

The other presenter I’m tag teaming with in Victoria is Jason Sidener, the membership mobilization coordinator in Wisconsin for AFSCME District Council 40,  which has been ground zero in contending with the conservative assault against labor and collective bargaining rights, who fortunately will no doubt be advising the BCGEU on how to hold on to what they have in British Columbia, which has not been easy either.  All of which makes the news from Michigan exiting where labor has moved preemptively to shore up its strengths on the offense rather than waiting for attack and playing defense.  There are a number of ballot initiatives before the voters in coming weeks which would in fact shore up unions and bargaining rights.  If successful, collective bargaining protections would be enshrined in the state constitution making draconian politics like Wisconsin much, much harder to implement.  Other initiatives would restore collective bargaining rights for home health care workers lost in a Michigan gubernatorial transfer and prevent collective bargaining contracts from being voided by city managers when facing financial difficulties that have been the rage from Detroit to smaller cities.  Will we win? Maybe yes, maybe no?   I’ve been in these kinds of votes on living wage matters, and the last minute pushes by business to create fear among the voters about jobs are sometimes enough to turn the tide against us, as was the case in Houston and Denver 15 years ago.  Regardless, as we found repeatedly with living wages – this is the right strategy, and it’s about time!

In Broward County outside Miami this week, they joined Miami-Dade in a Wage Recovery Ordinance thanks to the leadership of the Interfaith Workers Justice coalition which has been instrumental over recent years in raising the issue of “wage theft” for unprotected workers.  The ordinance in Miami-Dade allows a conciliation process to cut the red tape and aid collection of back pay while protecting both workers’ rights and honest businesses.  IWJ says that over $500,000 in back wages have been restored, which is a good start.   Having Broward County come into the program helps this along.  IWJ says that Grand Rapids, Michigan is looking at the same thing thanks to the work done by the Gamaliel Foundation’s affiliate, the Micah Center, in that area.  Yes, the Department of Labor should be doing their job better.  Yes, unions and community organizations should be willing to unite and deal directly with scofflaw businesses exploiting workers.  But, yes, this is also a good solid, new front that helps us open a new front again to fightback.

It’s time for more living wage campaigns, too.    No sense being a sitting duck.  We need to be on the move again!


A Break in the Remittance Campaign Comes from the Somalian Hawala Crisis!

Hawala in Minneapolis, St. Paul

New Orleans   ACORN International’s Remittance Justice Campaign has begun to pick up steam.  A private member’s bill to cap rates has now been introduced in Queen’s Park for the Ontario provincial government.  Similar efforts are being pushed in British Columbia and later this year legislators have committed to introducing measures in Honduras and perhaps even Mexico once the election fever settles down today.   The hardest nut to crack has been in the United States, but we may have a break from an unexpected quarter:  32,000 Somalians in Minnesota.

The failed state of Somalia in the wake of its civil war sent refugees around the world, including the United States, and particularly the Twin Cities area.  There is currently no banking system in Somalia which makes transmitting remittances from relatives in the USA back to desperate relatives in Somalia very difficult.  Somalians have been using the largely informal hawala system which is a critical piece of the money transfer system especially in India (where it is illegal), other south Asian countries, and some parts of Africa.  According to an excellent story by Miriam Jordan and Erica E. Phillips in the Wall Street Journal, about $100 million is moving through federally licensed US-based Somali hawalas.  ACORN International had done a report recommending the expansion of hawalas because their cost is usually less than 1.5% rather than the more predatory pricing of Western Union, MoneyGram, and of course the banks.  Most money transfer organizations (MTOs) are licensed at the state and provincial level, so it was a revelation to us to find that hawalas were under federal jurisdiction and licensing in the USA, contrary to our earlier research.

The crisis is that mainline US-based banks in the wake of the banking regulations implemented post-9/11 ostensibly in the name of homeland security, have increasingly been refusing to handle transactions for hawalas.   “U.S. banks are permitted to deal with hawals, typically small businesses that have anti-money laundering, reporting, and record keeping obligations in the U.S.”  This is unique since many hawalas have operated for centuries on the basis of trust and personal handling with no records.  U.S. banks are bridling now because of concerns that the money might be funneled to terrorist groups.  Families are demonstrating, especially in Minnesota because their families are “starving” without being able to receive the remittances.

Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) is drafting legislation to deal with this crisis.  Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has attempted to deal with this issue in the past.   Scott Rembrandt of the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes has argued that the hawalas should not be shunned, which raises hopes as well.  According to the Journal he says that the Treasury “doesn’t assume money transmitters present a uniform or unacceptably high risk of money laundering, terrorist financing or sanctions violations.”  Such a position would seem to point, not surprisingly, at the larger banks like Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp as being overly cautious and therefore squeezing Somalians and others desperate for reasonable relief for high costs and for workable solutions.

Deborah Bortner, a regulator in Washington state, correctly notes that without a system that works legally to transmit money, “it’s going to go underground,” which is exactly what is happening with many hawalas around the world and precisely one of the arguments that ACORN International has made about the need for regulations in this area.   We can only hope that this crisis will finally force all of our voices to be heard and allow progress for immigrants families and migrant workers who are desperate for remittance justice.

Ad from Western Union steering folks away from hawalas