Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?

Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!


Nonprofit Deductions, DREAMing, Facts, Live-In Wages, Tax Justice, and Twitter Access

Quito     With 80% of the United States households earning, and therefore paying, taxes on incomes of less than $100,000 per year, that means that the vast majority of us are filing “short forms” on IRS 1040A.  Independent studies regularly establish that the most generous Americans, when measured as a percentage of income, are those making the least money, which means the vast 80%.  For most of us there is no real tax break and therefore reason to file a “long form” and itemize deductions, because there are not enough loopholes for us.  A lot of the generosity of the vast majority of American families is simply not driven by the chance of a tax break but by the size of their heart, the needs of their neighbors, family, and community.

All of which is somewhat depressing, if not downright pathetic, to read of the efforts of big-time so-called charities lining up with oil companies and others to make sure that their tax loopholes are protected in the current negotiations on creating a more equitable tax system in the United States.  These charities and their lobbyists seem to be lining up mainly as tools of the rich, rather than servants of the public interest, which is actually the basis of their 501c3 exemptions anyway.

It seems clear many of them are indeed playing “Chicken Little,” regardless of Diane Aviv’s statements below to the contrary, even when the impact on most of them is relatively minor.  Why can nonprofits defend standing in the way of a more equitable tax system, including one that eliminates at least some of the huge number of breaks for the 20%, when the 80% are getting so few?  Seems unconscionable.

“Charities Maneuver to Keep Tax Breaks on Donations,” 11/30/12, Wall Street Journal

There is no specific plan to eliminate deductions for charitable giving in current talks. Instead, proposals that have been floated focus on capping overall deductions.  The White House in the past has proposed limiting deductions to no more than 28% of income for families making $250,000 or more. Republicans including former presidential nominee Mitt Romney have suggested limiting deductions to a specific dollar amount. Others have suggesting a “haircut” option, letting taxpayers claim, for example, 80% of their current deductions.

Nonprofit leaders say that if deductions are limited, taxpayers will cut back their giving. Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofits, cited studies suggesting Mr. Obama’s plan would lead to $1.7 billion to $7 billion less a year in charity giving. The impact of a dollar cap on deductions, she said, would be even greater.

That is a small part of the roughly $300 billion Americans donate yearly, but Ms. Aviv said certain charities would be hit disproportionately. “This is not a Chicken Little situation,” she said. “Something is going to happen unless we are able to persuade lawmakers that the charitable deduction is different from other deductions.”

Activists are descending on Capitol Hill next week. They have written letters to the president and congressional leaders. They are urging their supporters to contact congressional offices.

Under the tax code, a person can claim a charitable deduction that matches his tax rate. A taxpayer in the 18% bracket who donates $1,000, for example, would have tax savings of $180.

For some more uplifting news, here is a quote from the article in today’s Times from the critical United We Dream conference of young immigrants in Kansas City over the weekend:

On Sunday, six immigrant parents, also here illegally, joined a “coming out” ceremony where they spoke in public for the first time, as many youths have done in recent protests.  One father, Juan Jose Zorrilla, 45, who is from Mexico, recounted how he had entered the United States several times by swimming across the Rio Grande. “For parents, there is no sacrifice so large that we won’t make it for our children,” Mr. Zorrilla said. A mass of youths jumped up from their chairs to embrace Mr. Zorrilla and the other parents.

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight Blog, New York Times continues to try to administer bitter information by sharing “just the facts, ma’am” with the rest of us though:

“…the seeming inaccuracy of Mr. Romney’s internal polls ought to present a warning to future campaigns. The problems with internal polls may run deeper than the tendency for campaigns to report them to the public in a selective or manipulative way. The campaigns may also be fooling themselves.  Our self-perceptions are very often more optimistic than the reality; 80 percent of people think they are above-average drivers, for example.These problems can be worse when we join together to form businesses or organizations.”

Speaking of the facts, Editorial on Domestic Workers, Times

The study, by Nik Theodore, an associate professor of urban policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Linda Burnham, research director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, surveyed 2,086 workers in 14 cities. It found that 23 percent of workers made less than their state’s minimum wage, which must be at least $7.25 an hour. Live-in workers had it worse: 67 percent of them earned less than the minimum, 65 percent had no health insurance and about 82 percent had no paid sick days.”

Live-in workers are still not covered by the minimum wage in the Fair Labor Standards Act the last time I checked.  Why is that so hard to correct?  Seems like an easy fix?  Is it because most of them work for the rich or richer?

Will creating a more equitable tax system be the end of the US economy as we know it?  – Not So Much Really – Times

While data on the tax status of all stockholders is hard to come by, many economists agree than an increasing proportion of the entire equities market is now held by retirement investors whose holdings are not subject to current tax law; by foreign investors who don’t pay American taxes, or by institutional investors like insurance companies and pension funds that are exempt from taxes.  Among the stocks that are held in the United States, 48 percent are held directly by households, down from 65 percent in 1988, according to Federal Reserve figures. And 40.7 percent of households have mutual funds in tax-exempt accounts.   But only some of these have income over $250,000 a year, and a portion of those people have their money in accounts protected from taxes. Eric Toder, a co-director of the Tax Policy Center, said as a result market prices should have little to do with the taxes paid on gains because prices are largely “being determined by tax-exempt investors and by foreign investors.”

For a humorous – and more realistic – perspective from someone who clearly makes enough to use the “long form,” David Carr, Media Columnist for NTY on John Huey leaving Time, Inc. as Editor-in-Chief:

Now Mr. Huey is packing his stuff to prepare for a fellowship at Harvard. “I’m looking forward to getting back closer to the keyboard than I have been,” he said. Before he goes, he will probably slip Merle Haggard’s “Big City” into the CD player, an album whose title track frequently kept him company in his corner office.

I’m tired of this dirty old city.

Entirely too much work and never enough play.

And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks.

Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.

Gesturing at the magazines on the table, Mr. Huey said: “We still make a great deal of money because consumers pay us money for the products that we give them.”

“But I can’t look anybody in the eye who is coming into the business and tell them that they are going to end up in an office like this,” he added, with a wave at its expanse. “But who is to say that anybody should live like this anyway?”

Finally, we are going to leave all of this in the hands of Congress, which sounds fine, until you remember there are big time crazies among us.  Here’s a quote in NYT from Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe:

“We freeze terrorist organizations’ bank accounts, and we ought to freeze their Twitter accounts, too,” he said.

Dude, censor this!


Yes Ma’am, The Help, and Housekeeping

New Orleans        I haven’t been able to bring myselfYes Ma'am to see, The Help, a movie ostensibly set in the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi where a young, white writer gives voice to her African-American maid friends during the Civil Rights era.  Fantasy has little appeal for me.  I did go to see the Gary L. Goldman documentary, Yes Ma’am, about housekeepers in New Orleans that was filmed around 1979 and released more than 30 years ago in 1981.  I had moved back to New Orleans in 1978 to direct a pilot project for ACORN to organize domestic workers under the auspices of the Household Workers Organizing Committee so was organizing exactly those workers while Yes Ma’am was being filmed, so could test what was on screen with the reality of my own experience.
Thirty years on the film is embarrassing and somewhat enraging to watch, but nonetheless an invaluable reminder of the elaborate artifice that was constructed in the social fabric that wove race and class together unevenly in the best of times, and particularly poorly in the aftermath of both civil and women’s rights movements with left both sides confused and without a language to explain themselves.  The elaborate pretense that the mistress and master of the house, their children, and the maid were all family was the most perverse and revealing, but having watched it close at hand and done hundreds of home visits with some of those same housekeepers, I can only comment how lucky both sides got off in Yes Ma’am.

Outside of the family dramas that were likely bridged for Goldman by Bethany Bultman, an old family name in New Orleans uptown society, who is now head of the New Orleans Musicians’ Assistance Foundation and a cultural anthropologist, the interviews that hang truest were with a housekeeping “technician,” as she called herself who was part of a small organization begun in 1973.  We had tracked them down in 1978 as well and their finest hour was past them when we met with them.  She looked no more than in her 30’s and talked about the tensions in the job.  Her children were even more articulate as they both acknowledged the relationship their mother had with her employer’s children and the contradictions presented in their own lives by her work.

We heard these stories by the hundreds.  We had assembled a list from early morning leafleting and contact at streetcar and bus stops dropping off domestic workers Uptown and along the Lakefront.  We had also mined Polk’s and the crisscross directory for names of women who self-identified as maids or domestics.  We had a simple issue that triggered the organizing because for the first time domestic workers had gained coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) and had to be paid the minimum wage.  January 1, 1979 was the trigger, and it was obvious that a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was being imposed on many of the estimated 5000 domestic workers employed in New Orleans at the time.  Early on the bus stops the workers were doubtful that employers would pay what many of them called the “top wage” which was really the minimum wage.  Talking to the workers we found many were hardly making $1 per hour even if one credited lunch and transportation which were allowable offsets commonly paid and expected.

[It was painful for me to watch one segment of Yes Ma’am where a maid and her “friend” employer started the day with coffee au lait, knowing that it might have been effectively deducted from her wages!  It was disappointing that Yes Ma’am missed the almost the entire boat on wages and livelihood as they focused on the relationships almost exclusively so the fights about social security payments and minimum wages were not part of their shoot, which I obviously regret, even while appreciating what was revealed.]

We were careful to always frame the HWOC as an organizing committee and an association or co-op for household workers and decidedly not a union, since we were so often asked if in fact that is what people were building.  At the first meeting of some 50 domestics the women on the organizing committee elaborately drew the distinction.  The HWOC organized a march in the center of the Lake Terrace neighborhood that attracted more than a 100 people, starting at a park space in the middle of the upper middle class suburb, while every door was leafleted with information demanding compliance with the newly instituted minimum wage of $1.65 per hour.  We ended up suing the IRS for not forcing compliance with the minimum wage and not informing the DOL Wage and Hour Division of tax returns where domestics as having been provided social security payments (also a legal requirement), and settled that well.  There were other highlights that had to do with calling out employers like the Gambino’s of the well known bakery family for paying peonage wages in violation of the FLSA.

Behind the forced cultural conformity there was fire though.  I will never forget a march we did from our office at the time at 628 Baronne Street a couple of blocks away to the DOL’s office in the old post office federal building in Lafayette Square with about 40 or so of the household workers to present the HWOC demands for enforcement of the minimum wage in New Orleans.  In the pre-meeting the ladies had practiced what they would say to the DOL and how they would describe the organization and its aims as an improvement association for housekeepers and so forth.  They marched through the door and demanded to meet whoever was in charge.  The director emerged finally.  I was at the front so could hear the whole exchange.  He asked the spokeswoman who they were and what was going on?
She looked him in the eye and in a loud voice for all assembled to hear announced that, “We are a UNION of domestic workers and we want to be paid what the law requires!”
I learned an organizing lesson that moment that I would never forget, and which all of these movies remind me of vividly, if bizarrely.