Hard Changes Coming to France?

Paris   The day began with an ominously when I woke up at 2:05 AM for my 2:45 AM ride to the 3:17 AM train to Budapest. After taking a shower, I realized that in the dark, I had misread the time, and it was now 12:20 AM, not 2:20 AM. It was going to be a long day!

The 3:17 AM to Budapest was a workers’ milk run to the city. Tired men and women would slump into their seats and then immediately doze off in a practiced part of their routine. The train hit Budapest 4 minutes late, and I knew I only had 8 minutes then to find the ticket machine, get a ticket, find bus 200E and make to the airport for my 6:25 AM flight, where I could doze off in my practiced routine.

And, then on to Paris. With the election of the Macron government and his new party, Marche, which has disrupted French politics, hard changes were projected with hard fights in the future to see whether he would succeed or would the resistance.

The first change I noticed though was the McDonalds in the guts of Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Of course it was huge. That was predicable, but it was also all automatic. Orders had to be placed on a eye-level robotron machine where you picked through your selection, to go or in-house, card or cash, and then went to a counter to pay and pickup, or not. Where you would think automation would mean less workers, I had never seen so many. There were people to help you learn the machine. If you were eating there, a worker brought you order to your table. Yes, to your table! Everywhere we looked there were staff people by the dozens. Our affiliates in France had been working on the McDonald’s organizing campaign and the fight for higher wages and workers’ voice there, as well as the opposing the use of GMOs, which are largely vilified in France. I noted all of this with interest, mentally tabulating the contradictions.

Meeting later in the afternoon with several union and community organizers, there seemed to be a feeling that the constant assault on long established labor rights that had endured in France for generations against almost constant attack were in real danger from the new government. Though Macron had run on a merging of left and right policy positions, and had formerly been a minister in the ruling Socialist Party before resigning to pave his own path, there seemed nothing moderate in his proposals for amending labor rights. The rigid and exacting labor rules that make it difficult to displace workers in an arbitrary fashion have long been targeted by business interests. Labor unions are girding for the fight of course, particularly the CGT, which has militantly drawn the line in the past even though a competing workers’ federation has been trying to play a more accommodating role with the new government. All other business, including new organizing, seems to have been pushed aside for the coming struggle.

Nonetheless, even if labor’s efforts were heroic, my friends seem to feel success would be defined in how much was saved compared to how much would be lost in measuring the level of the defeat, rather than optimistically predicting a victory.

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Looking for the Kindness of Strangers – Think France!

business-aviation-operations-for-france-customs-immigration-agricultureNew Orleans   Over the last two years with an emerging affiliate in France, I’ve now been on the ground working in Grenoble or Paris there a bunch of times, well for me a bunch anyway, like five or six times over two years approximately. My comrades and colleagues there are wonderful people of course, but that’s true of all the people with whom I organize, but on the train the other night from Paris to Amsterdam to fly home, I found myself reflecting on the reputation the French have for being unfriendly to strangers. It’s a bum rap!

I’ll pass over the common courtesy and generosity of our organizers and their friends when I’m passing through who are constantly offering tea or coffee or in many cases surrendering their beds and bunks to an unexpected American squatter. Within the organizing culture that’s pretty standard and to the degree “birds of a feather flock together,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that it rubs off on their friends and supporters.

My brief for a new and friendlier France is not because this has been a big push from the tourism industry or the government, both of which are true, and both of which are undoubtedly totally ignored by the French people, but is based on my experience in the endlessly confusing Metro and train stations, particularly in Paris. On several trips, I’ve been flummoxed by the problems of getting Metro tickets from the machines. Several times I’ve been helped through a tough spot when someone employed by the metro system or the state railway came to save the day, but I started counting the times it was just random situations where I was bailed out by complete strangers passing by when it was obvious I was clueless who wordlessly stepped in to save me.

In the giant Paris Nord on this very trip, I had jumped off a bus and had gone in the first door to the station with the crowd to catch my train and somehow had ended up in the Metro complex rather than the city to city train station. I followed folks through the turnstiles, but then I was caught going through successfully, but not getting my bags through that were stuck on the other side. While wrestling with the situation a man coming through the other way saw me, and without saying a word, walked over and waved his pass across the scanner so the gates opened allowing me to go through. Having found out from an information officer how to get to the train station, the ticket from the bus, which should have worked, but didn’t, I was stranded in between another set of turnstiles unable to move forward or backwards. A woman, her baby in a carriage and a friend saved me there. I wish I could say these were isolated examples, but I’m afraid they weren’t. I could easily cite another three or four times when total strangers have stepped forward and gotten me on my way, as I thanked them profusely in English, as they politely waved me off and walked away.

The one common denominator in all of these situations has been that virtually every one of the folks. epitomizing the kindness of strangers, have almost all originally been strangers themselves at one time. They have almost all uniformly been Afro-Caribbean or Afro-French or possibly just Africans and presumably as foreign to all of this in the past as I often am now.

I don’t want to extrapolate past the point of all reason, but just maybe this kind of empathy with the lost, confused, and foreign by others who have been in the same boat will be one of the saving graces of not only French civility and manners, but also the same in the United States and other countries. Utah will invariably not end up in the Clinton column, but the fact that many citizens there thought about it because their foreign experience was such that they were unwilling to join the Trump anti-immigrant call, might offer us hope here as well. The French like the English, Americans, and other countries are all dealing with waves of anti-immigrant feeling, but it may be the empathy of those who choose our countries, rather than many of the natives who want to return to some foggy, archaic times in the past by forgetting about their own experience in order to adopt a bankrupt and false ideology, that end up saving all of us at the end of the day.

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The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

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In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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Worrying with the Leaders of a New Organization

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the Grenoble chair brings people together to review

Grenoble   We had gotten a lot done in Grenoble during my visit. I had arrived on a weekend before a “bank holiday” for All Saints Day, meaning that many also took off what they call the “bridge” day here, the day before the holiday, leaving the office pretty much to our teams, the phones a little less busy, and fewer items on the list that had to be taken care of that minute. The highlight was going to be a workshop the leadership had requested on ACORN so they were clearer about both ACORN and their own work in building community organizations in Grenoble, Paris, and potentially all around France.

The workshop was the workshop I’ve often given. It consists of the highlight reel: the founding, the expansion, some victories, and now the work internationally. What is always interesting, especially with emerging leadership is the questions they ask and the answers they want. Every country is different of course, but many of the questions are the same with a tinge of local color, culture, and history.

leaders break to get organized after leadership's ACORN workshop

leaders break to get organized after leadership’s ACORN workshop

One of the first questions among this highly politically aware leadership was whether or not ACORN groups found the need to ally closely and identify with a political party. The fact that membership-based community organizations are political, but at the same time are nonpartisan is often a wide river to cross in the beginning. ACORN’s work in the United States on basic democratic practice like voter registration, get-out-the-vote, initiatives and referenda are not duplicated in many countries that have automatic registration of all citizens and multi-party politics forcing the organizations to walk tightropes through many political waters.

There rarely is a leadership meeting with an outsider where some leaders don’t take advantage of the opportunity to try and probe whether their situations are usual or abnormal. Are their local groups getting enough servicing by staff organizers? What is the true role of the organizers as opposed to the leadership? The questions sometimes run the gamut, between why do we need them, to how can we live without them? With a membership dues organization like ACORN and its affiliates it also includes where staff fits into the exchange of dues being paid to the organization versus work being done by the members. All of these questions came up in one way or another in Grenoble as well.

in small groups the exercise will be how to "present" the Alliance

in small groups the exercise will be how to “present” the Alliance

Even in another language it was easy to follow both the curiosity and the passion of many of the questions. It was even easier to take the temperature of the leadership’s struggle to come to consensus when various leaders would catch me to the side and lobby me.

One man wanted to gauge how much he should be concerned about the expansion of the organization to Paris as they tried to build and stabilize their base in Grenoble. I wasn’t sure whether I assuaged his fears or exacerbated them when I raised whether an expansion to Lyon, the huge, neighboring would be more comfortable. A woman wanted to lobby me about tactics. She was a veteran of struggles from the last century and she was frustrated by the tenor of neighborhood campaign tactics and wanted to know essentially when the actions would involve more pepper and less sugar. I assured her it was all bound to come, but it depended on the targets and the campaigns, but once the campaigns became citywide, “people get ready.” One woman showed me an article in English in a plastic encased, yellowed newspaper from Binghamton, New York with a picture of her father that wrote about how he and her brother had been killed in the Resistance. My English was inadequate to adequately express the right emotions to her for sharing something I will never forget.

one small group with Solene

one small group with Solene

It went like that. They broke into smaller groups after our two hours to discuss how best they wanted to present their organization to potential recruits. When they finished there was little doubt that we were in France. We then sat down to talk and, of course, ate cake.

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

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GMO Contradictory Claims and Tripping up McDonalds in Paris

14600870_935690983201659_1568748584969979036_nGrenoble   The counterclaims around genetically modified crops around the world are head spinning. Thousands march to protest their use in the US and Europe. Noted scientists take out ads in major papers claiming they represent no problems. Some argue they are necessary in the future to feed the world’s growing population. Back and forth it goes. Sometimes it seems we should just pick and side and hope for the best.

Some things are clear though, and disturbing. Whenever a conglomerate like Monsanto can make money on both sides of the deal, it is deeply worrisome, and hard not to believe something has gone terribly wrong. They – and others – sell both genetically modified seeds and plain seeds. They also sell the insecticides and herbicides to both kill weeds and to essentially avoid the weed killers like Roundup. The German-based conglomerate, Bayer, is now trying to buy Monsanto and a Chinese company is trying to buy their big competitor, so this could all get even harder to sort out.

An article in the New York Times by Danny Hakim, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” throws another powerful wrench into the works. Using United Nations crop yields data over a period of years since the introduction of GMOs in basic crops like corn, soybeans, and rapeseed in the United States and Canada with similar production in the European agricultural powerhouses of Germany and France, there was no evidence of superior yields. And, equally disturbing there was increased use of chemicals, rather than less. Monsanto claims the data was cherry picked, but unconvincingly answers the argument by cherry picking different data to try to make their case. Both parties understand that the house crumbles if the very foundation of the manufacturers’ arguments about increased production are not sustained after two decades of use. Monsanto sums up its case with something of shrug, saying if you don’t like it, we’ll sell it India and elsewhere that are wild for it.

All of this was on my mind in the wake of an excellent report issued by our partner, ReAct in Paris recently that extensively documented the reliance of the McDonalds’ fast food operations on genetic modifications throughout its supply chain in beef, potatoes, and chicken in the very anti-GMO and GMO-conscious French and European markets. The release of the report was big news throughout Paris partly because it was accompanied by a demonstration in a central Parisian Mickey-D’s by fifty or more folks including farmers, students, and members of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb that is the poorest district in France. The action featured a Ronald McDonald look alike that was “arrested” by the demonstrators for polluting the supply chain with GMOs that are banned expressly in France and the European Union.

Monsanto may be scurrying from the Times article in the US, but McDonalds is now ducking and weaving over GMOs in Europe, and no matter which side you come down on about GMOs, French consumers seem clear, and they are saying loudly and in no uncertain terms, they want no part of it.

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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