The Pleasures of Meeting with Local Leaders

Grenoble   Your average person on the street would say that sitting in a meeting for a couple of hours conducted in a foreign language with only occasional translation would be right there on the list with watching paint dry, but they would be wrong. For perhaps the fourth time in the last two years I was a guest at the local board meeting of the Alliance Citoyennne, ACORN’s affiliate in Grenoble, and, as always, it was a pleasure. As a leader said during our meetings in Paris earlier, “Grenoble is the Little Rock of France,” meaning that just as Little Rock was the founding city of ACORN, so does Grenoble have the pride of place in starting the Alliance on its successful path.

It was hot in Grenoble and though the office has small fans propped on many a desk, and none of the humidity of New Orleans, making it all still highly tolerable, meetings quickly move to the shade of the trees in front of the coop offices. A card table holds the papers, and chairs are clustered around. I enjoyed the fact that when I sat down, I knew everyone of the board members now from my last visit, so it was like seeing old friends. Even the one member who missed his train, was well known to me. Rather than stumbling through the cheek kissing greeting of France, I could appreciate the good will of greeting people again. It was cool in the shade and there was a steady breeze, so who could complain?

The agenda before the board was difficult. There had been a hard slough of conflict with mistakes made and tough lessons learned throughout the last year. Some leaders had left. There had been difficult staff transitions. The mere fact of conflict itself had been trying on everyone. I could repeat how natural and normal this was in a new organization’s life a million times, and that would not have made anyone feel any better. The board had grown though. These were now veteran leaders well used to each other and prepared to lead. The board had also completed the transition to a governance structure that was almost completely composed of members elected from the local group membership which also made a difference.

The hardest issue the board tackled was how to deal with the decision around a new head organizer for the Grenoble organization. They had a strong 3-person staff, but that almost made the process more difficult, wanting to both keep everyone on the team, but also pick a leader of the team. Any decision would set an important precedent throughout the organization about how much the leadership wanted to manage and direct the process, and once in, would there ever be a way out? There was a lot of discussion back and forth and various proposals, including individual interviews with each organizer. The added difficulty had been the fact that the staff had proposed a candidate in recent weeks, but the board had not come to consensus around the candidate. Finally, the board directed that the overall Alliance head organizer needed to meet with the staff and essentially, work it out, and come to agreement with the staff and then make a recommendation that the board could either accept or reject, while protecting its position to determine policy. It was the right decision.

Talking about the future, they planned a discussion on an exciting campaign to run their members and leaders to the government boards of all of the public housing projects where they had strength. The elections are held every four years and the next is in 2018. This is the area where leadership that has been developed in these kinds of struggles can shine. I was enthusiastic.

The meeting ended on a high note, and, this being France and Grenoble, and this great group of leaders, then we ate homemade chocolate cake with raspberries and whipping cream on top! C’est bon!

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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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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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Grassroots Democracy is Scary, but Essential as Grenoble Paves the Way

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble   The highlight of my last full day in Grenoble before beginning the multi-city trek back home was getting to sit in and observe the city board meeting of ACORN’s affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble. The board is still new and in transition from the “old” Alliance governance structure composed of various people in the larger community and the emerging governance structure composed of elected representatives of the membership coming from each of the five existing local groups. In some ways, the leaders have been invested with the responsibility of writing on a blank slate how they will work in the future, and given the fact that Grenoble is the largest of the emerging organizations in France, there will likely be precedents set by almost every single decision these new leaders make. This is grassroots democracy at its best and to build a strong and powerful organization, it is essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also scary at times watching leaders navigate the future.

Grenoble is a lovely town in the valley dominated by the Chartreuse Mountains. The evenings are pleasant, but the days heat up considerably and fans and air conditioners are not common. Not embracing the heat, the board was meeting on tables and chairs outside of the cooperative office complex where they share space, mixing the seriousness of the meeting with some of the atmosphere of a picnic, as people sat around drinking juice and eating chips as they held their agendas.

 a leader makes a report on a recent victory

a leader makes a report on a recent victory

The reports from the local groups were a litany of victories in the wave of success the members are having in winning improvements from local housing authorities. This group had gotten a commitment for more than 30 doors and locks to be replaced. Another was winning a timetable for replacing windows, long in disrepair. Everyone had a good story to tell of actions and negotiations. One group was fresh from an exhilarating meeting where the Mayor had attended to formally sign the agreement was, according to her report, credited the Alliance with their work over and over again. Big smiles all around!

There were some thorns on the roses that inspired more debate. Transitions are hard, and one board member had resigned in a bit of passion at the last meeting and then several days later retracted her resignation, so the board had to puzzle out how to deal with that situation at several junctures in the meeting. Should it go back to the local group to sort out? Should there be a “grace” period for reconsideration? Conflict isn’t easy and the leaders searched for common ground to work out relationships that could make hard decisions in the future without much concern for the precedents it might create or experience with principles and practice they could rely on for guidance.

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

The most critical decision they faced was on whether or not to continue to expand and organize new groups. There is no issue like the continual tension in a membership organization between maintenance of the existing membership and expanding to add more groups and membership among the unorganized. If an organization doesn’t decide to grow, it dies. Without growth, the organization would be unable to empower the membership sufficiently to achieve their aspirations. At the same time nothing is ever perfect, there are never enough staff and resources, more can always be done, so there’s always a temptation to slow down, wait, and take a more cautious route. I watched nervously, realizing the proposition they were debating was way more serious than they likely reckoned. Without knowing French, I was relying on body language and words here and there and the passion that pushed them along with an occasional aside in English from the organizers, listening just as I was. They decided unanimously to expand, which was exciting – and a relief — and also moved affirmatively on investing responsibility and accountability in the staff for evaluating which areas should be next and how to add the next organizer.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

At the end I couldn’t help feeling, as we all shook hands and expressed good wishes for the work done, that the board had come out of a thick forest and it was in the clearing now. There would be many hard decisions to come, but having made these tough calls tonight, they had a new confidence and solidarity with each other, an emerging trust and confidence in the staff, and were ready to face the future.

Democracy works, but it’s a constant struggle.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

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Best to Remember the South is a Violent Place

Police in Baton Rouge after blocking protestors

Police in Baton Rouge after blocking protestors

Grenoble   As I mark the calendar closer to the finish on my euro-hella-road-trip, reading the news and seeing the videos on-line first from Dallas, where of course we have an office and members, and then over and over again from Baton Rouge last weekend and now more recently, where we also have a union hall and lot of union members, I have to admit, it’s unsettling. It was also unnerving to be in Brussels the night of the truck massacre in Nice, France, but Texas and Louisiana are home, so I understand the fear and fury there much better.

The killing of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge is tragic, chilling, inexcusable, and insane. The fact that the law-and-order message is likely to finally give the Republican Convention in Cleveland some coherence is both unsurprising and scary in its own right. If the public is angry, confused, uncertain and scared, that sets the table for authoritarian platforms and candidates. I’m currently reading a book about Germany and five generations by a lake near Berlin and reliving the rise of Hitler against this backdrop and just finished the Nobel Prize winning book of interviews ten years after the Chernobyl disaster in Belarus, so the impacts and aftermaths of such tendencies are perhaps too much on my mind, and I apologize for that.

The killings by the police of African-Americans and Latinos is also tragic, chilling, inexcusable, and insane though. Last weekend, my daughter shared several videos with us of the police riot and sweep up of demonstrators in Baton Rouge protesting the killing there. I’m a veteran organizer and have been on the other side of police lined up in a phalanx, marching forward on crowds. I’ve steered marches away from mounted police and the power of their horses. Nonetheless, I can hardly ever remember a more foreboding and intimidating situation than watching the videos of the police forming up in line in Baton Rouge and then advancing on the protestors there, while police runners moved from the main body of the formation to chase down the slow footed, beat them down and arrest them over fences and behind trees and bushes. This was not police work, but armed and dangerous mayhem. Two hundred were arrested, including friends of my daughters and other well-intentioned people exercising their right to protest. Many ended up stranded and staying with friends of friends and their families. Charges against one hundred of them have now been dropped. If reports have touted the Dallas police chief and its force as clamming and effective in that city’s recovery, the same cannot be said in Baton Rouge.

Peaceful protests, even ones that are a bit sparky, and police killings are apples and oranges and completely unrelated. Most public figures have been on message both defending the police against death by public service as well as the fundamental right to protest, but wisely spokespeople for Black Lives Matter and others are saying that no matter they are afraid to protest right now given the events that this is all triggering.

“Rap” Brown was from Baton Rouge and famously said decades ago that “violence was as American as apple pie.” For all of the gun happy crowd that refuses to countenance any restraint in purchase or use, it’s worth remembering Brown’s words and adding the fact that if there is any area of the country more violent than another, as Dallas and Baton Rouge are proving again, it’s the South. When global observers wonder in the words of a Times’ headline how to sort out the difference between a “terrorist and the deranged,” they are talking about France, but they could as easily be talking about Baton Rouge and Dallas.

We’re playing with fire if we don’t move to fix these problems on all sides of the debate and do so immediately.

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