Discovering Precarious Work and “Hotel Mama”

fast-food-strike-AP46472623_620x350Charlotte         Is it just me or is the mainstream starting to discover precarious employment?   Maybe it’s the “fight for $15” push that’s opening eyes?  Maybe it’s a residue of the Occupy 1% theme?  Maybe it’s the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us?  I’m not sure, but I know two things.  One, that, like spring, tales of the precarious are starting to sprout up everywhere, and, secondly, that it has to be a good thing, no matter how odd some of the pieces come out.  None of this is George Orwell down and out in London and Paris, but most of it is more a long look through a telescope at Mars full of observations with very limited, well gloved participation at most.

The New York Times of course has the occasional story of a fast food worker trying to live and raise a family on barely minimum wage, but that’s hardly new.   Recently though, The New Yorker ran a story by William Finnegan, their esteemed reporter on all things south of the US border, where he followed an informal mineworker – one of an estimated 400,000 — in the gold fields of Peru at 17,000 feet who tried to make a hardscrabble living as his fuse burned to an early death.  Elsewhere in the magazine for the life of me it almost seemed that the reader was being encouraged towards at least a glimmer of empathy for Somalian pirates because of the dire economics and precarious prospects for making a living in that failed state.  Interestingly, the business end of piracy seems to be small time, marginal workers hardly a half-step above precarious making “investments” in the success of the ransom demands.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not recommending this for marginally employed workers, but the New Yorker’s door opening for their readers into the other worlds of work outside Manhattan is truly fascinating!

The Economist recently expressed concern for the increasingly precarious situation for Japan’s working poor where even with almost full employment, defined at 4% or less, a record-level 16% of the population is now living on less than half the national median income.  Bestsellers are being written in this orderly society on how to live on less than $16700 per year.  American low-wage workers would love to read some books with valuable advice there!   The bottom line is irregular employment.  The Economist noted that “the number of irregular workers – often earning less than half the pay of their full-time counterparts with permanent employment contracts – has jumped to over 1.5 million.  Casual and part-time employees number nearly 20 million, almost 40% of the Japanese workforce.”

Many reports are now wondering, “How are people living like this?”

In Japan, many, especially younger workers, are living at home with parents as their primary housing and welfare agency.  That’s not unusual it seems.   Precarious employment is forcing huge numbers of younger workers around the world into what is being called “Hotel Mama” in Eastern Europe.  In the US 15% of adults 25 to 34 live with their parents.  In Slovakia 74% between 18 and 34 and 57% between 25 and 34, in Bulgaria 51%, Romania 46%, Serbia 54%, and Croatia 59%.

As more and more observers discover the ubiquitous nature of informal employment as if this is a new exploration into a previously unknown world, it’s a good thing, though I have to wonder how they avoided it so long.  Unfortunately, the observations decoupled from participation, still seem woefully short on solutions or even recommendations, even as the recognition of the growing crisis increases.


The Search for Community and the Hope for Organization in Southern Italy

the class today

the class today

Taranto       My second day as a “professor” at La Scuola di Bollenti Spirit, the School of Hot Spirits, we were set to dive into how to look at campaigns.  Roberto Covolo, the school’s director started with an exposition of some of the differences in the Italian understanding of “state” responsibility and reflections that he and some of the students had come to as they rehashed some of our first day of discussions of community organizing.  From the discussion his helpful chart illustrated, we were able to look more seriously at some of the changing focus on public and private targets by community organizations that had arisen in the cross currents of neoliberalism and devolution.  We were off to a powerful start!

Next thing you know we were planning a jobs campaign on ILVA, the giant Taranto, Italy steel mill with 11,000 workers.  The bigger they come, the harder they fall.  We actually found a lot of handles and a bounty of leverage points fairly quickly in the conversation, which got the hot spirits thinking just maybe this was all possible.

Next, they wanted to tackle a problem almost literally under their feet, the abandoned properties in “old town” Taranto.  Where once there had been a community of 20,000 people, perhaps now 500 families lived in this section of the city.  Houses had fallen down, been condemned as unsafe, and ended up in the hands of the municipality which lacked anywhere near the resources needed to rehabilitate the units.  The students told me that anyone could buy a unit for as little as 2000 euros, but it might take 70 to 100,000 euros to rehabilitate the properties, though no one seemed to know for certain.  I broke them into small groups to see what they might come up with, and they harnessed themselves to the task with interesting results.  They were getting this organizing thing, finally it seemed.

small groups

small groups



Later in the afternoon, we visited a partner organization of sorts where I later learned some of them were likely to be assigned.  This huge building had also reverted to city control in the new town area of Taranto.  In a former life, it had been a workers’ center of sorts, located cheek to jowl with the naval facilities.  This had also been the site of the Occupy encampment in the city, and continued to operate as an informal youth center of sorts with the tacit consent of the city but no resources including electricity and so forth.

Talking to the various groups in the afternoon that had come to visit with us in the space we could all easily hear the same refrain we had heard earlier in the workshops from the students themselves.  There were many lost communities.  One woman, when asked what she expected from the meeting, essentially said that she hoped to find “allies.”  She lived in an abutting neighborhood and had not been in the space since she was a small child with her father picking up presents being given for Christmas by the workers.  The young people in the group still occupying the site were searching for the same thing without much sense of how to find people and with some estrangement from organization even though they were also looking for the “tools” to build organization. 

students milling around the cocina, being opened for the area as a social enterprise

students milling around the cocina, being opened for the area as a
social enterprise


The school and many of its projects were experiments and innovations.  The students were exciting and excitable, talented seekers hoping to make contributions and create real change for themselves.  Over and over though it was impossible not to hear the search for community where people now felt a void and to hear and see the hope for organization expressed in so many ways.  The students have another exciting 6-7 weeks to go in the school.  For my part, I’m going to have to figure out how to act on what I’ve heard in southern Italy and see if there isn’t a way to deliver something in real demand:  community organization!



the meeting with other groups in the officine tarantine space

the meeting with other groups in the officine tarantine space


welcome to the port of taranto

welcome to the port of taranto


Workplace Occupations

Revolt-On-Goose-Island-235x279Rock Creek   The Kindle needed some juice and it was too early in the morning to get the converter humming, so I grabbed a book for a couple of hours that had been gathering dust at home, Revolt on Goose Island:  The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis by Kari Lydersen.  The book details the prequel and some of the postscript to workers occupation of their factory as Republic Windows and Doors tried to close them down in 2008 right after Barack Obama was elected as President. 

Most will remember that for some reason this incident then attracted wide attention because it reflected so much of the climate of anger around the economy at the time, job loss with warning, and the original argument by the company’s owners that they had been squeezed by the failure of Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase, even as they were receiving tens of billions of dollars in bailout monies.   The book ends with the belief that workplace occupations might become a common tactic for workers something on the order of the factory takeovers in 2001 during the Argentina financial crisis.

            If newspapers once wrote the first draft of history, then this book did a solid job on the second draft.  I had not realized that the UE union representative who developed the tactical response for the workers had been Mark Meinster, a former ACORN organizer in Washington, D.C, so that was interesting in itself.  But, what really got me scratching my head is why in the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street phenomena and the occupy this and occupy that, why in fact has the Republic Windows situation not been duplicated more by angry workers being displaced from their jobs, as Lydersen seemed to believe might be possible?

            Of course the obstacles are huge for such a tactic, starting with trespassing arrests on private property and in unionized situations, most times the pre-shutdown bargaining, when it happens, provide enough to blunt some of the outrage.  But, increasingly workplaces are not unionized, so workers in such predicaments are on their own.   So, when people get screwed and they’re mad as hell, why aren’t they sitting in at their workplaces until they get severance or the straight story or something that explains the years of their lives they put into a company that is tossing them to a curb, especially when at that point they have nothing much to lose and their self-respect to salvage? 

I’m left scratching my head.    Seems like to me “occupy work” would be boiling over from place to place everywhere by this time?  Perhaps this is one of those explosions happening with a long, slow burning fuse.


Occupy What? Occupy Where?

occupy-bannerRock Creek  The weekly entertainment and alternative paper in western Montana is the Missoula Independent.   The cover story entitled, “Occupy Missoula:  Where are They Now?” caught my eye.  Coming on the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the movement seems now more firefly than firestorm. 

            The reporter interviewed a half-dozen people who had been prominent in Occupy locally, but the article could probably have been written in scores of other communities. Typical of the power of a movement, all of them had hear the call and responded to the spirit.   Stirred to action by what they were seeing in New York City, more than 200 had assembled in a park of the Clark Fork of the Missouri River and then later camped out in front of the Missoula County Courthouse until winter came freezing them out and breaking them down with one problem or another.

            The cross-section of people interviewed included experienced activists, long accustomed to taking the long view of social change and heartened by the event, random folks seeking a voice to protest the economic collapse and its impact on their families and fortunes, and seekers, folks looking for a way to make change and desperately hoping that Occupy might be the answer.  Many had now scattered to the wind, returning home to work in more traditional nonprofits or teach school.   Others went back to school still grasping for a way to impact issues. 

A common theme runs through all of this that cannot be forgotten:  people want change but they have to find a way to be effective.  The common complaint from the Occupy experience, and for some the disillusionment, was the inability of the movement to define itself, either strategically or, moving past the encampments, tactically. 

One seeker joined an “intentional” community in Missoula that recently connected to something nationally called the International Organization for a Participatory Society or I-Ops for short.  I-Ops sounds like an interesting evolution of some of the strains of the Occupy excitement.   Members include some well known names like Noam Chomsky and David Graeber, the anarchist theorist credited with some of the thinking behind Occupy.   They claim 3200 members worldwide and are clear about their mission, ideology, and principles, which some of the ex-Occupiers appreciate.  They seem to call for a classless society and a participatory economy something along the Zapatista model in Mexico, according to this story.

In the same way Occupy sprang up in communities around the country, I suspect this story could be duplicated in city after city, community after community.  In Little Rock, there is still an Occupy time slot on Saturday afternoon with a heartbeat.  In New Orleans, like so many places, divisions were more common than consensus by the end. In Missoula, the I-Ops folks meet the last Wednesday of the month at the public library. 

Movements happen and their strength is the way they attract moths to the light, too bright, and people drift off again, but some come close enough to see a way to move forward and keep the fight alive, build the next thing, and learn a way to make change a part of their future, making it all worth the flight.


Learning from the Protests in Brazil

Toronto  The work of the Free Fare Movement in Brazil has triggered mass movements and mobilizations for change in Brazil.  The simplest of their demands, reducing what is reportedly a somewhat modest fare increase, has already been met in the major cities of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, but as the numbers have increased, the demands for change have escalated to focus more on the mismatch of priorities in governmental infrastructure spending on too many circuses and not enough bread.  

Several months ago I asked a Brazilian friend and filmmaker traveling to visit family in Rio if she would write something for Social Policy on whether or not there were organizations challenging the preparations for the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil and their expenditures on that as well as the police actions in the favelas.   She came back with apologies.   She couldn’t piece it together.   Mayara Vivian, one of the founding organizers of the Free Fare Movement when it began at a small conference of 200 people in Porto Alegre in 2005, was as surprised, as she and others started organizing protests against the fare increase.   According to an informative piece in the Times by Simon Romero and William Neuman,

Ms. Vivian, now a waitress and geography student who was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep after days of continuous protests, laughed when she thought about her early days as an organizer: “In 2005 we were a bunch of kids who had never organized any kind of demonstration.”  Without the organizing grunt work over the years, she and others said, the stage for the current wave of protests would not have been set. Still, Ms. Vivian and her fellow activists could not explain the change that had suddenly brought huge crowds into the streets all around the country.

            But that’s what makes a movement different than normal organizing.  In Brazil, people are coming out in huge numbers.  Something like Occupy had broad range throughout the US, but small participation largely because of the tactical limitation of encampments which couldn’t engage a mass base. The India, anti-corruption turnout numbers were massive, but were less about the rage of inequality than an emerging middle class upset about the clash between their rising sense of entitlement and their issues with the public bureaucracy and its lack of political action against corruption.   In Greece, the protests have been prompted by external demands for austerity.  Every one of these movements has been different, but in each case they have tapped deep wells of anger, and in Egypt and Brazil may lead to change.

            Also typical of a movement, other formations with longstanding grievances are seizing the opportunity to coalesce around larger movements for change and attach their demands to the new energy and mass base.

One group of protesters from Complexo do Alemão — a patchwork of slums in Rio once seen as an epicenter of crime and drug trafficking — belonged to an organization called Occupy Alemão, created to demonstrate against police abuses. “We want a public security strategy that is made in dialogue with society,” said Raul Santiago, 24, a community organizer. “We have a high cost of living and precarious services. This is for basic rights. Look at how much is being spent on the Olympics.”

            Finally, as we look for other lessons in Brazil we can even find some resonance with our work in seeking to create “citizen journalism” projects at KABF and in our organizing ACORN International.   When confronted with the problem of mainstream media (or “lamestream” as Sarah Palin calls it), activists in Brazil are creating their own ways to get the real news out through websites and social media:

As an alternative, some protesters have begun covering the demonstrations themselves, distributing their reports though social media. One group, called N.I.N.J.A., a Portuguese acronym for Independent Journalism and Action Narratives, has been circulating through the streets with smartphones, cameras and a generator held in a supermarket cart — a makeshift, roving production studio.

                Parts of that production are much older school than our friends in Brazil would realize.  Every major ACORN demonstration used to have a supermarket cart and a couple of heavy duty batteries to run the loudspeakers for the chant leaders.  Here they are using small generators but the idea is the same thanks to technology I learned from welfare rights more than 40 years ago.