Hot Topics for International Organizers

Paris   Ok, perhaps the very first question on your list was not, “What do community organizers working around the world talk about when they first get together?” Too, bad, because it is actually a wild run of issues snatched from here to there.

First on the list was the demonstrations by tens of thousands in Hamburg, Germany who organized a greeting party for the G-20 meeting there called “Welcome to Hell.” Knowing, as we all do, the long meetings and back-and-forth correspondence that accompany the art of “titling” any big demonstration, we all had to admire how clear and specific the Germans made their intentions known for their demonstrations. Hamburg has a vibrant progressive movement and long tradition and clearly took the whole siting of the G-20 meeting as almost a personal affront. The footage shared around the table made the whole affair appear like a barely contained mini-riot, and the reports of arrests and police cars burning had a certain “hellish” flavor. The Times had mentioned that President Trump tried to establish some of rapport with Chancellor Merkel by sympathizing with her about the demonstrations, something he has learned about firsthand in the early days of this presidency with the flourish of the resistance.

And, then as our ACORN Kenya organizers call it, comes “sharing.”

There was a lot of interest in the work in the United Kingdom in reaction to the Grenfell fire massacre in London, and ACORN’s work in trying to make sure similar buildings are identified and tenants protected elsewhere in the country. Others reported that French organizers, in contact with British organizers working with McDonalds workers, were complimentary of the ACORN delegation representing well in a recent London march around these issues. One world, indeed, as the message was shared that plans for a strike at McDonalds in September sought ACORN’s support in the effort.

There will be much more of this when the full meeting convenes as other organizers arrive from Canada, France and elsewhere. One major topic of interest on the agenda was a discussion of what UK ACORN head organizer, Stuart Melvin, had referred to as the “political break” movements of the recent year, Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron, and how they would impact these countries, and of course, our own work and planning. Lieke Smits from the Netherlands will be joining us for that conversation as well, which will be exciting for everyone.

There were catch-ups and reports of organizers not able to make it to this year’s meeting. Eloise Maulet is still in Cameron working with the organizers to launch our ACORN-Alliance organization in Douala. Their first action last week at been exciting to see, and as we were meeting word was coming in that they had won a commitment that potable water will be coming to their neighborhood. A chapter meeting had just concluded in Aubervilliers, where we are organizing in Paris and they were celebrating news that they had won a reduction in water rates after their campaign.

The work is hard, but everyone was excited to hear that they were making progress, and it was good to come together.

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The Interesting Transition from Ideological Argument to Personal Contact

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg - www.lichtbild.org, Nutzung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Belegexemplar]

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg – www.lichtbild.org, Nutzung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Belegexemplar]

Berlin   Visiting with political and labor organizers and activists of all stripes in Germany was fascinating and for me, an education. It was impressive to see the deep, lifelong commitments that so many have made individually to progressive work that permeates down to their living conditions. Similar to France and the United Kingdom, people often worked at minimum wage for years in support of their political and community projects, and then went home to cooperative housing arrangements, often erasing any lines between the personal and the political, or so it seemed to an interested observer.

Unions are still strong. But, these are times of transition. Unions are not as strong as they were. I heard that the massively impressive building of Ver.di, the second largest union in Germany, where we met with a group of people one evening, was now seeking tenants for space they no longer occupy. At the same time there is new energy in some organizing projects. In our meeting at Ver.di were three or four organizers and activists preparing for a strike for a first contract at a huge hospital where they had won bargaining rights while still trying to organize a secondary unit of 2300 workers.

On the other hand, talking the next day to students from the Global Labor College, a small elite program to train future union staff and policy people, it was somewhat surprising to hear how little attention and training was focused on organizing, as if somehow everything would remain locked in place. Asking students about to graduate if they were being placed either in their countries or elsewhere, it seemed they were offered internships, but in many cases they laughed and told us that this was largely an exercise in them providing free labor in exchange for future contacts, and it was unclear if they would be able to find a place in the labor movement in the future at all.

Party life is carefully articulated and dissected into large slabs and small slivers. People often have more voice, than they have power. Meeting with top education, strategic planning, and campaign staff of Germany’s Die Linke, perhaps the largest left-progressive parliamentary party in Europe, was fascinating. A more talented and thoughtful team of people would be hard to find anywhere in the world. Yet, as the meeting went on, it became clear there was a transition at work here as well. Where once parties could communicate easily to a large base of ideologically compatible people, modern times and issues were intruding and confusing the base of working class voters everywhere. Participation in voting was falling election after election. Wedge issues like immigration were toxic, but there was also a sense from some sectors of the base that there was satisfaction in assuming a fixed level of support was possible without aggressively trying to adapt to modern political campaigning, communication, data, and field operations.

Just as I had found in the Netherlands, people are pushing forward and making plans, while listening and learning on the run. There is good cause for hope in the future, but like everywhere, we are running against the clock and change – and sometimes the calendar – are not always kind to us.

***

Please enjoy Holy Communion by The Pretenders.  Thanks to KABF.

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Activist Cooperatives are Building in Hamburg

Sight of Squatting Campaign

Sight of Squatting Campaign

Hamburg   It had rained all night and most of the morning in this large, northern port city in Germany where I was scheduled to talk to activists and organizers later in the evening. More depressingly, I had spent the morning finishing the second report on rural electric cooperatives in the South where the data seemed to establish a connection between financial self-interest of the directors and their resistance to democracy and diversity in their cooperatives, when Christoph Twickel, a local journalist and activist, showed up to give me a walking tour around the St. Pauli neighborhood of the work accomplished by activist campaigns and, thankfully, cooperatives of different shapes and sizes.

Not far away and close by the River Elbe and the port, we came upon a colorful array of buildings that had been the site of a multi-year squatting campaign commemorated by a giant mural. After a long struggle to evict, the city finally retreated, and the units are still affordable to a largely migrant population. Several blocks away we met Christoph Schaffer, a local artist and activist, who had been a central part of the community fight to preserve a small park along the river opposite the port to prevent city-supported developers from taking over the waterfront for high income housing and condominiums. This has been a three-year struggle more than a decade ago. Schaffer pulled out his key to a small shed along the park which he called the archives, and inside in a silver case marked “action kit,” were some of the old drawings of the park used to get input from other residents along with an old Polaroid camera, and other tools. A steady stream of people were walking by during this break in the clouds. Young people, he told us, are starting to call the park “plastic palm” after some of the colorful plastic palm trees along the walkways. Sure enough, Twickel pointed out a modern, sweeping gray building across the street by Twickel as the most expensive housing in Hamburg.

park won by community in fight against developers along river and port

park won by community in fight against developers along river and port

Christoph Schaeffer and Christoph Twickel talking about the community benefit campaign - Plan Buda -- at the Esso Hausen

Christoph Schaeffer and Christoph Twickel talking about the community benefit campaign – Plan Buda — at the Esso Hausen

We then walked over to the container box for Planbude, which Schaffer had referred to as a “reckless” project a cooperative of eight people had spearheaded along Reeperbahn, the main avenue of St. Pauli. An Esso gas station had been sold to a developer consortium along the street and it had looked like 6000 square meters of affordable housing and shops were going to be lost to high-end development and gentrification. Planbude was an effort over several years to force the developer and leverage the city into a community benefit agreement to push the space in different directions. If perhaps a 1000 people had had input on the park, this effort involved more than 2500 complete with sketches, architectural competitions, and constant agitation. The results will include a hotel to make the developers happy, but three times the housing space, including some social and affordable housing, room for artists and others, a skate park, small business area and more. While we were looking, a passerby saw the door ajar and poked his head in for an update. By 2020, the full project should be complete.

Esso to come

Esso to come

 Armory building being converted to community space by the cooperative

Armory building being converted to community space by the cooperative

Twickel and I then walked over to look at the last mega-project being undertaken by a cooperative of 200 people. They had bought an old armory that had also been a former jail, police station, and SS operation on multiple floors with over 10,000 square meters of space. They had bought it from the city for 1.5 million euros. Walking with Twickel from floor to floor was a tour through their field of dreams. To keep their eyes on the prize there were pictures on some floors of what had been there, so a visitor could see the progress. Guest housing for up to thirty was rushing to completion, a dance space, work space after work space, and on and on, including the meeting space where I would talk later. The financing is complex involving various city requirements since the space is historical, as well as what we would call “tax credit” financing in some parts. Some of the building construction is contracted and some is sweat equity by coop members.

Cooperative slogan

Cooperative slogan

Walking through the space I couldn’t help imagining where an ACORN office might fit nicely in some of the rooms, and where we might hold and house a future meeting of all of our ACORN Europe organizers, but like all of this building that’s something to contemplate for the future. This was my first trip to Hamburg to lay the foundation for a different kind of building, organization building, so who knew where that path might wander.

bunks coming

bunks coming

offices

offices

ready to talk about ACORN to Hamburg organizers and activists

ready to talk about ACORN to Hamburg organizers and activists

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Dutch Fight to Take Health Care Away from Private Insurers

Holland-plus-medicalBrussels   What is the old saying? Something like, I’ve seen the future and it is in the Netherlands at least when we are talking about the inevitable fight to come someday in the United States to seize control of our national health care programs from big health care insurers. On the way between Germany and Belgium, I had the opportunity to meet with several organizers and campaigners who have built a powerful effort in Holland on this issue and are finding the response amazing with the potential to dominate the campaigns in the country’s elections in the spring of 2017.

If you were paying close attention during the health care debates in recent years over the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, as it is known popularly, you often heard about the health care insurance scheme in the Netherlands which was better in its broad coverage of the population but, unlike many other countries, was provided by private, rather than public, insurers. Meeting with the organizers, I came to understand the situation a bit better. Everyone pays the equivalent of about one-hundred euros or $112 per month to private companies for insurance. I was fuzzy on exactly how this part works but the fact that they mentioned that much of the Dutch public’s opposition was rooted in disgust at the millions and millions spent by the insurers in advertising and promotion leads me to believe that a family chooses an insurer for their coverage.

There’s also a hammer to the head in this program along the lines of the deductibles that come under Obamacare. Everyone has coverage and everyone pays, but when they actually use the insurance, they have to come up with another 385 euros or $429. For some reason it is called an “own risk” payment, since if you don’t need to buy medicine or go to the doctor, your monthly payments are more like a healthcare tax or donation, so that when you do utilize the system, this is more like an admissions fee. Similar to the US experience with high deductibles blocking utilization under Obamacare, estimates are that 20% of the Dutch people are avoiding accessing the healthcare system, even when they need it, because they cannot afford the additional payment.

So the campaign is seeking to get rid of that payment of course, but also to move to a national healthcare fund more along the lines of the national healthcare program enjoyed by other countries. The support for their campaign has surpassed all expectations, and that’s part of what brought us together in this exciting conversation. In less than two months about 60,000 people have signed up to support the campaign either online or directly, and, amazingly, almost half of them are taking the additional step of asking for an “action” package on steps they can take in their communities to build the campaign.

With elections happening in mid-March of next year, this campaign couldn’t have been timed any better, so if it continues to build momentum in the summer, this could be the issue that dominates progressive debate at every level during the election. Meanwhile, regional meetings throughout the country are also pulling in crowds double, triple, and quadruple of organizers’ expectations, more are set coming off the summer with big demonstrations and other actions planned in the fall. They are riding the whirlwind here, and while they are doing so, as I said earlier, they are running the pilot program that organizers in the United States and elsewhere will need to be studying and copying in order to deal with many of the same issues involving national – and better – healthcare in our countries.

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Not by Bread Alone: Art and Water in Bolivia

Ivan Nogales, director of Teatro Trono telling us about the cultural truck they drove to Rio

Cochabamba  Our days in La Paz were never complete without a trip to or from El Alto, the city of a million on the top of the mountain, which made us acutely aware of the importance of this strategic location in the future of social movements and the very country.  Meeting with Ivan Nogales, the director and 23-year veteran of Teatro Trono, he made the same point by beginning our visit with a sweeping historical look at the rebellion in 1789 where the poor at the top of the hill were able to encircle for a while the rich at the bottom of the mountain, and nearly starve them out.  By analogy he felt that El Alto and his mutli-cultural centers headquartered in here with branches in a half-dozen other cities in Bolivia and one in Germany had created an artistic culture that was unique and powerful.

Ivan in many ways was arguing for a role for the artist in creating change by laying a foundation away from the rational mind, as he phrased it that could unite people and offer support to struggle in Bolivia, but also around South America.  He was encouraged by meetings of cultural workers in several countries that were coming together to collaborate.

He told a story of several years ago taking a bunch of his team in an art truck of sorts and he showed us the model.  They were headed for Rio on a trip of over 4000 kilometers with a truck that could not go over 70 kph or 50 mph or so.  At the same time he tried to share the powerful welcomes they received from the mayor of Rio who met them when they arrived and gave them a key to the city.  Clearly it had given Ivan hope for his operation.  At the same time when asked about sources of support, he indicated that most of it came from Denmark and Finland, aid money on 2-year grants, and that he was going to have to lay off 80% of his staff next year.  He said that was why he was down-scaling by trying to build a small compound in the countryside and hour and a half away.  The operation was unique in its own way, and Ivan was inspired, but there were hurdles in the way of his vision.

Arriving in Cochabamba, we realized how sui generis La Paz and El Alto were in some ways.  Cochabamba seemed more like other large Latin American cities.  Indigenous people were less ubiquitous.  There were trees.  We could breathe the air.

hot water solar shower on top of the Teatro building

Marcela Olivera, the Latin American coordinator of Red Vida (the Water Network) and a staff member for Food and Water Watch in Washington, DC, a long time ally of ACORN’s, gave us a briefing on the growth of the city, essentially having doubled to a million people over the last 25 years due to in-migration of miners and others from the countryside.  At the core of the city’s challenges has been the inability of the infrastructure to keep up with that growth, leaving one set of services in the northern, richer part of the city, and a very rough world lacking even basic services like water in the southern part of Cochabamba.   Marcela was candid about tensions in the city around some of the new governmental requirements, which might seem well meaning, but were alienating both traditional peoples and practices and middle class citizens with other concerns.  At the same time Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, had been one of those migrants into Cochabamba, leaving many with a feeling of pride at a native son, even as they were skeptical about some of the current directions of the government.

Marcela Olivera, Latin American coordinator of Red Vita for Food & Water Watch, flanked on one side by Alex MacDonald (ACORN Ottawa) and Dine' Butler (ULU Local 100) and on the other by Davin Cardenas (Gameliel, North Bay, Santa Rosa)

Inevitably the conversation drifted to the unique vibrancy that social movements have had in Bolivia at different times.  Marcela compared it to a year or two she lived in Washington, D.C., and her surprise that when an increase in the subway fares was announced she had gone underground gingerly, sure that there was bound to be a massive protest, “just like in her country,” and was still incredulous that there had been nothing of note.  She worried that social movements were atrophying now under the Morales administration, either co-opted or confused that their friend could have changed so much.

Those of us living in the United States understood exactly what she was talking about!

a mural in El Alto nearby the Teatro

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Technology and Democracy: Wired Magazine Elitism versus Pirate Party Openness

Logo of the Pirate Party in Germany

New Orleans  My son subscribes to Wired magazine, the glossy, tech and computer boosting publication.  I like it and read it regularly once he’s finished.  Yesterday, it was in the pile of publications I toted to the basement of the Criminal Court jury rooms to pass the time in my required biannual service as a citizen of this fair city.

An article by Wired contributing editor, Joshua Davis, called “Fewer Voters, Better Elections,” was breathtaking in its elitism and implicit attack on democracy.  Citing two current research studies, one disappointingly from Stanford, Davis argues for a random “statistically valid” sample of 100,000 of our 313 million citizens who would be polled on the questions and candidates of the day.  Davis deftly avoids the gaping holes in his argument against mass citizen participation by citing the litany of problems with the current system (lack of participation, problems of campaign financing, TV ads) and arguing for a system of random participation in “small group deliberations” which would have more time and ability to make “informed” decisions, which he likens to jury pools, ignoring all evidence to the problems with juries as well.

Parts of the Wired argument are not only anti-democratic but almost calculatingly deceptive.  First, Davis glances over the fact that he and the researchers want to pool their random people from a pool of “registered voters,” which blatantly reinforces a huge structural weakness in the current American system, which excludes, and increasingly suppresses, the citizen participation of minorities, elderly, and the poor among many others.  Secondly, Davis tries to conflate the Stanford “small group deliberations,” which he touts as “part of legally binding decision processes in 18 countries” as being the same or an adequate substitute for the real engagement and participation that is voting.  Small group, big group, mass meetings, whatever, let a thousand flowers bloom as pieces of a “decision” process, but that will never be the same as democracy, and no country has adopted that in this world.

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