West Virginia Teachers and English University Workers

banners for the ACORN Brighton branch

Brighton    One of the undercurrents of my long slough across Europe and the United Kingdom has been the close attention and excitement roused by the West Virginia teachers and their dramatic, and ultimately successful, strike.  In Bulgaria, one of our number was from West Virginia and first called the plan to my attention as the first of a kind in his state where teachers without even a collective bargaining agreement had decided to take action after being offered an insulting one-percent raise for each of five consecutive years along with an increase in health insurance benefits that would decimate any of those proposed legislative increases.  Given that West Virginia teachers and school workers are always in the race for lowest paid in the country with states in the deep South, the fact that they were saying “enough is enough” was inspiration in and of itself.

Originally, we had heard the plan was for a two-day strike, then more days began to be added on, and I began to follow the whole affair more and more closely, as the teachers’ conviction seemed to be deepening.  When they rejected a negotiated deal between the governor and union leaders that would have given them more money – as well as all state employees – because both houses of the legislature had not agreed and the insurance mess was still not resolved, then I could tell we were watching some real freedom fighters that would change the state of West Virginia and perhaps more.  Finally, they won a 5% increase and the package they needed from the Governor and legislative leaders.  Mossbacks that threatened that they would balance the state budget for the wage increases by taking it out of Medicaid, essentially trying to punish the poor to upbraid their own workers, the Governor had to assure the teachers that this would never happen.

screening and meeting in Brighton Friends’ Meeting House

Part of the reason the strike was being followed so closely in recent days was because many university employees have started a rolling strike in England.  Several of our members in Sheffield had to leave as soon as the screening ended because they had picket line duty the next day.  In Brighton last night ACORN leaders were buzzing and running out to make calls and catch the news since several worked as administrative staff at Sussex and other area universities.  The issue here has been a proposal to change the pension from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme, which many have no doubt accurately calculated would cost them thousands of pounds now and even more in lost benefits in the future.  61 of more than 100 universities are participating, and the tactic thus far has been one day out the first week, two the second, three the third, and so on, and now preparation for a week-long strike in coming days.

people filing in

Will they win?  Hard to say, but they want to be West Virginians now, and many are hoping that these pushbacks by labor at the grassroots rank-and-file are a sign of change in the labor movement and a message to employers and politicians everywhere that working families are now drawing the line.

briefing after the Q&A on upcoming ACORN meetings and events

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Co-Working Space as a Social Enterprise

Jonny Butcher, head organizer of Sheffield ACORN in England welcomes members

Sheffield    Another day, more train cancellations, colder temperatures and snow flurries as the train moved north.  We had stood up from Bristol to Birmingham as all of us crowded into every nook and cranny in order to fit into the train, so it was almost a relief to finally sit and look out the window, even though we hardly got to Sheffield in time for another meeting, screening, and Q&A with ACORN members and supporters there.

We were there at the right time to talk about issues with housing, a mainstay of ACORN’s tenant union organizing in the city.  Reports indicated that housing prices had risen more rapidly in Sheffield than any other city in England, even though cities of the north have reputations of lower housing costs than elsewhere in the country.  The same reports indicated that of the new housing built in Sheffield less than 2% were affordable housing units:  97 units.  If they don’t recognize a housing crisis yet, it won’t be long before it smacks them up the side of the head.

The screening was held in an interesting venue, the Union Street Co-Working Space, a social enterprise nonprofit that has been the brainchild and labor of love of Matt Hill, who was also in the audience and has become not only ACORN’s “landlord” in Sheffield, so to speak, but a key ACORN ally and supporter.  The space was impressive.  Downstairs was a café with a coffee bar, and upstairs were conference areas, built in counters and islands for “hot” desks and regular co-workers, high speed internet, and other facilities on each floor.  Functional, not fancy.

answering questions after The Organizer screening

I talked to Matt as we all put the place back together after screening “The Organizer.”  He had been the driving force in putting Union Street together.  It was organized as a nonprofit.  I asked him how it was financed, and, having just seen the movie, he replied, “Like ACORN, through memberships.”  That was fascinating, because clearly, it had taken a small pile of pounds to bring this vision into reality.  For him to have put in the work to make it happen as a nonprofit, compared to so many of these similar spaces around the world which are big, blaring commercial enterprises taking advantage of young people and embryonic dreams and startups, was very exciting.

Were there hopes and dreams of expanding, I asked.  Matt, said, yes, indeed.  Look for something like this in your city in the UK if you lucky, and elsewhere if people want to see a real model that is working for lots of people.  I left him with a promise to help, if we could, signed a copy of Nuts & Bolts for him, recognizing another kindred spirit in Sheffield.

Union Street co-working space

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