Building Trades Unions Playing Role of Roaring Mouse

AFL-CIO_Headquarters,_Washington,_D.CDenver   Hey, give ‘em a break, the Democrats can’t stand to have the Republicans getting all of the attention for their splits, factions, and divisions, so it was only a matter of time before they got in the act. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s a family fight that starts with an argument about money and the company other parts of the family are keeping, and then ends up with demands about getting a job and working for a living. The difference is that the family is the fractious house of labor, which is pretty much always a house divided among itself, the bad company are billionaires and environmentalists, and the jobs are a spat over work now on such controversial projects as the Keystone pipeline coupled with a devil may care view of any future consequences.

All of this was so predictable. Once there was a big announcement that the two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had joined with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the three big, almost exclusively public worker unions, along with billionaire, environmental funder, West Coast political aspirant, and former hedge fund operator, Tom Steyer, to create a get-out-the-vote bankroll for certain battleground states in November, you could just smell trouble. The Service Employees had reportedly considered joining and then opted out, which was another sign of dark clouds building, since they had frequently been in alliance with Steyer on other projects and a comfortable part of the Democracy Alliance, a prominent political player among rich liberals. The ante to get in the game was one million dollars for each player, and Steyer was going to throw in five million to match it up to more than ten million.

Stopping for a second, what did any of the labor unions have to gain? The big union political players would have ponied up anyway, along with the AFL-CIO unions, big and small, to try and put $60 to $100 million into the election one way or another. SEIU certainly will spend a pile regardless. In recent years, Steyer has leveraged his money more and more around climate issues, so his interest in pledging to move more money with his own is clear, and his interest in publicity for a possible race in California is a matter of wide speculation. I suspect that’s part of why SEIU bowed out, but that’s just a guess.

Now we have a mess. The building trades unions not only have their own federation within the larger AFL-CIO federation through the Building Trades Council, that works as a world unto itself, but really should be in a federation of their own since most of the unions operate in a night to day different fashion compared to the industrial, service, and public unions. Nonetheless, the trades couldn’t seem to stop themselves from bringing their sense of permanent grievance to the table. They are only truly happy when they are the small tail wagging the dog. So, they joined behind the largest of their number, the Laborers, to pen a couple of protest letters to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, complaining about billionaires, hedge funders, job killers, and the enviros. Not that Trumka seems to have had much to do with this from what anyone can tell. The point was to get to pout in the press at the public unions and the company they keep.

What they seemed to have achieved was simply a widespread, public notice of the accelerating weakness of labor even in the political arena which, until recently, had been one of the last bright spots for unions. So, sure none of this GOTV PAC money deal makes any real sense, but that still doesn’t justify the trades’ tactics. With little ability to relieve themselves outside of the tent, they seem more than happy making a mess inside it.


Proving Registration and GOTV Work for Lower Income Voters Once Again

wards_keymapVancouver       It’s that time of the cycle.  Reporters are riding from paper to television shouting the warnings:  the elections are coming! the elections are coming! the elections are coming!  Time to hide the small children it seems.  And, of course do everything possible to suppress the participation of lower income voters.

            At the ACORN Canada board meeting, head organizer Judy Duncan, shared the results of a study commissioned by the Maytree Foundation called “Who Votes in Toronto Municipal Elections” by Myer Sieniatycki and Sean Marshall, which broke down the voting in all of the 44 wards of the city and across 140 identifiable neighborhoods.   The authors looked at elections in 2003, 2006, and 2010.  The one that the leadership studied the most closely though were the numbers in Ward 8 in the 2006 election where ACORN had done an extensive, pilot turnout effort fueled by ACORN campaigns to improve the landlord licensing program and increase the minimum wage. 

            Ward 8 is well known in the Toronto area.  The ward has a population of almost 50,000 with close to 40% in poverty.  Everyone knows the ward as the home of the Jane and Finch neighborhood and its extensive reputation as a center of social housing.  Usually, when it comes to elections, you can write off Ward 8.  In fact in this study it consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of Toronto neighborhoods in terms of voter participation.  In 2003 and 2010 Ward 8 was in the lowest participation category with less than one-third voting in 2003 and less than 44% voting in 2010.  But, when ACORN ran its program of intensive contact, door knocking, and issue focus in Ward 8 in 2006, bam, Ward 8 hit the top of the charts with the richest of Toronto’s wards with 50% turnout.   It’s no surprise of course that when people actually do the work to engage lower income voters with issues and the elections, boom, they respond.  Everyone doesn’t want this of course, but ACORN sure does, and when the opportunity presented, delivered with flying colors as documented in the Maytree report.

            People still care.  ACORN Bristol in England in the wake of an exciting first meeting with 100 people in the Easton neighborhood already heard members talking about whether they might have to run in local elections to get their voices heard.   An email came zinging out of the blue the other day from people in Redding, California looking for help trying to register 500 new voters to make a difference in local elections there. 

            Resources may be thin, but peoples’ aspirations for using elections as a voice for those unheard and unheeded continues, and, when given a chance, people respond, as evidenced once again in Jane and Finch.


Political Ground Game in Ascendancy as Simple Math Triumphs with Big Data

dtodNew Orleans    What goes around, comes around, it seems, if you keep around long enough.

Reading about cutting edge political strategies, like the “Bannock Street project,” reminds me of frequent late discussions at the regular Wednesday night staff meetings of ACORN in Little Rock 40 years ago as we would debate whether to spend all of our efforts on voter registration to tip the political balance or put all of our marbles on getting our members and their neighbors to turnout to vote.

In the wake of civil rights victories in the 1960’s, of course voter registration was huge in the South as millions of disenfranchised African-Americans were enrolled in the wake of the movement and the Voting Rights Act.  Statistically, newly registered voters are also always more apt to vote than voters who have been registered for years, so this all made sense.  Political reputations were being made on the new outlines of the demographics whether the election of the first Republican governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, in Arkansas, or Moon Landrieu’s election as Mayor in New Orleans, by appealing to black voters where others had attacked them.

By 1970 the voter registration arena was filled and financed in places like Arkansas on the Republican side, but as we broke into electoral politics in 1972 in Little Rock’s school board races, we were looking at citywide elections always won in 5th ward in the western, hills of the city despite by then huge numbers of registered voters in the more low-and-moderate income precincts.  Working on the doors every day, our strategy then and it continued throughout four decades was all about the ground game, going door-to-door to turn out our voters, and register any, if we could, that we found while we were there.

Democratic Party strategists using “big data” and armed with computers rather than our boxes and boxes of 3×5 cards, constantly hand sorted, seem on the verge of finally winning the argument that no matter how much the candidate likes seeing himself on television, it’s all about one-on-one contact on the doors, phones, and anywhere possible to identify the your voters and then wrap them in a carrying case all the way to the polls on election day.  The Bannock Street project named after a similar effort in electing Senator Bennett in Colorado and of course the huge big data victory run by Jim Messina for Obama’s campaigns have been tilting more and more people and money to the ground game.  Looking at the numbers where Democratic registration gives the party huge advantages yet Republicans continue to win races, it seems we may finally be thoroughly shifting the political battles from the Fox News yelling to the trenches where our people live and are waiting for us to get personal to how to get them real candidates, real issues, and real help to get to the polls.

This is a winning strategy!


Hating on ACORN as Election Countdown Nears in USA

Victoria   We are hardly more than a week until the USA Presidential election and predictably the conservative rightwing is pulling out the big guns and narrowing their sights for the kill, but surprisingly many are still aimed at ACORN, now almost two years gone.  Sure, it’s not as bad as it was four years ago.  One long screed I read this weekend even bemoaned the fact that ACORN did not come up in the debates between Obama and Romney as it did last time, but it’s pretty amazing how much hating on ACORN and grinding their teeth on the organization is still commonplace on the whack right.

For some of these commentators, almost of all of whom quote each other in this vicious circular fringe firing squad, it almost seems like nostalgia for them.  They want the old days back, when ACORN was alive and kicking, big and bold, and they could feel their own reflection in that sun.  Now they are left pathetic and pleading as the clock winds down on the last minutes of any interest in what they have to say.  They harrumph at the fact that Project Vote “didn’t even change its name” and neither did ACORN International.  Yet after their harrumphing, everything they say is time dated.  They have no capital letter, big sub-heads on their reports that even point a finger at work that Project Vote is doing now.  They simply roar signifying nothing.

They also rant and rave about the fact that some of the former state organizations have changed their name and managed to survive organizationally.  Sadly, they say don’t even try to lay a glove on any of them for any activity in this Presidential election cycle.  They have nothing to say about any of the rebranded organization’s work in voter registration or GOTV work.  There are no new accusations, just rocks thrown from an old discard pile.  I say, sadly, because it also may mean that many have not been engaged in these vital activities in the way low-and-moderate income families desperately need them to be.

One commentator tried to get a head of steam going about candidates for the US Senate who had been friendly to ACORN.  One sad thing about the ACORN reorganization is how few of the rebranded state organizations survived at a viable level for this contest two years later.  They can whine about Ohio deciding the election, but there is nothing alive of the vestiges of ACORN in that critical state where ACORN was so important previously.  The same could be said for Nevada, Colorado, and Michigan, all of which have been listed as battleground states.   Florida and Arizona are shadows of what they once were.  In fact if they looked at their own list, ACORN organizations largely survived, even if diminished, most robustly in states that mattered least in this contest because they were already dark, dark blue or bright, bright red:  New York, Illinois, California, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and so forth.  Our friends in Pennsylvania may be one of the only strong operations still in a state that makes the list as critical in this election.   Nonetheless, hating on ACORN as a parlor sport of the right goes on, largely unimpeded by any contemporary rational analysis.

It’s ok though.  Better for the right wingers to beat on a dead horse, than continue to hammer at some of our fewer and fewer progressive institutions that can claim to be “alive and well.”


Ecuador: Another Progressive but Contradictory President, Oil Fed Economy Boom, Assange

progressive organization in Ecuador

Quito   A couple of days filled with meetings with the leadership of Rupture 25, an progressive political party in Ecuador working on its field operations plan for the upcoming national election next February as a crash course in the subtle politics of the country, exposing some of the contradictions in the general world view on the left branded President Rafael Correa and the hackneyed narrative about this group of current national leaders.  Correa, a former economics professor, has done an outstanding job with the economy with robust annual growth rates during the current global recession.

No small amount is driven by oil.  There is a long term sourcing contract with the Chinese who will buy much of what is produced from the country from 2015 to 2030.  A new refinery is being built with their loans, now totally $8 billion last year.  Spain which was investing $250 million a year, is now investing less than $2 million given the hardships in that country.  At lunch today, we watched a large delegation of Korean business people leave from the backroom.  They are also big players here.  There is talk to moving away from the oil economy, but that takes years as well.

Similar to the conversations we had recently heard in Bolivia, there was some disappointment by progressives inside the country with Correa.  One observer felt that 90% of what Correa was doing, particularly with the economy, was great, but that “10% is driving people away,” and this particularly had to do with human rights, press freedom, and other critical democratic norms.  Rupture 25 had been in a coalition with the President’s party, heading four departments, with 100 members working in government, and 90 left en masse in protest of policy directions.

Julian Assange and the Correa nose thumbing move to provide him sanctuary in London was a non-issue and a yawner in Ecuador.  Many felt this was just another split screen perspective that played huge worldwide but had no impact inside the country.

Nonetheless, there was no indication despite a number of parties assembling in the field and candidates including some very well financed, including a banker with a network of over 1000 microlending branches around Ecuador, that Correa was in any serious trouble facing re-election.  I listened to one conversation where the argument was whether he would win in the first round or have a runoff, but consensus seemed to say he would be back.

The politics seem less right or left, but open government versus consolidated and centralized power.  There’s mandatory voting (hurrah!) and a robust and contentious election ahead, and this will be another country worth watching as a harbinger of the future.

Quito North -- part of the party's priority base work in Quito


ACORN Canada Convention: Happy and They Know It!

ACORN Canada ConventionOttawa Once the members put on their t-shirts, grab their packets, and start struggling to find dorm rooms on campus, classrooms for workshops, and auditoriums for the plenary sessions with maps in one hand and agendas in the other, the smiles come out and I know it’s an ACORN convention.  The weather was picture perfect, warm with a steady, but gentle breeze.  Spirits were good.  Numbers were holding, and the one b

ig bus from Toronto was early…does it get better than this?

Yes in fact it does when the reports were being given during the Saturday evening session from each of the offices in Toronto, British Columbia, and Ottawa.  People were proud of their campaigns, their victories, and their struggles even while still engaged.  They were also just plain personal in a way that as surprising and moving.  A delegate from Toronto introduced his sister who had been the stead force pushing him along and enabling his participation.  She waved to the crowd.  One of the key Toronto leaders thanked everyone for “changing her life.”

This was Natalie Hundt who with her two daughters had visitedIMG_0418with me in the hallway before the meeting once she put together who I was.  She asked me if I wanted to hear a story about the way “this thing you started so long ago saved my life?”  How would I have ever wanted to hear anything else?!?  She was from Kitchner in Ontario and had ended up in Germany with her family.  These things happen.  She fell in love, left school, and had two children.  Almost as quickly, it didn’t work out and she was in Scarborough in a low income high rise apartment raising those same children with precious little money, no prospects, and the entire place literally falling down on her head.  She was angry, frustrated, and didn’t know what to do.  She had thought about a petition, but didn’t know how to go about it.  A young woman knocked on her door and asked her if she knew about ACORN and the fact that it was organizing in her building and others in Scarborough.  Natalie looked at me and laughed, and said she literally grabbed the organizer by the arm and pulled her into the apartment and say, “I’ve been waiting for you!”  I loved this story.  I’ve trained hundreds of organizers that behind every door are “natalies” waiting for them, if they do the work and get there, so to have real live witness ready to testify is always a gift.

Natalie told the rest of the story quickly.  She got involved.  She was forced to speak up at a meeting and survived.  It happened a second time, and it wasn’t so hard.  By the third time she was called on to speak about her issues, she had realized, “I can do this.”  After that it didn’t stop.  She ended up going to help out on an ACORN Canada supported GOTV effort with some New Democratic Party (NDP) campaign, was invited back to help more, and has now run twice as for her riding winning on the NDP line winning 16% the first race and going past 30% several months ago against a 16-year incumbent.  Her work with ACORN and now the NDP, combined to connect her to a job, and you know the rest of the story, her life has changed, and she is comfortable saying so.  At the end of her report on the work ACORN is doing in tenant campaigns in Toronto, she closed by telling everyone how much she appreciated ACORN and everything it had done for her.  Having heard the back story, I knew what she meant, and could clap even harder, knowing how much her story meant to me!

Kay Bisnath lives in Scarborough as

Kay Bisnath

Kay Bisnath

well and closed the reports with greetings from all of the countries in the ACORN International federation.  President Bisnath spoke movingly of solidarity and the “scarlet threads” that held all of us together and united us in fights for justice all over the globe.  After closing to rousing applause she asked the crowd to join her in a song.  She then led people in the classic tune that linked ACORN and how all of us were happy in the organization.

We were happy.  We did show it!