Maximizing the Expanding Organizational Footprint

Making a point, Jill O’reilly from Ottawa ACORN

Paris   Listening to the reports from the head organizers in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and operations in the United States was so exciting. There had been real progress in one campaign after another.

Questions were fired back-and-forth on the details of various campaigns. Exactly what was involved in the landlord licensing victory won in Toronto? How had the Sheffield organizer used Google keywords to find a mention of the codicil in the giant Spanish bank’s Santander’s lending agreement to UK landlords that forced a rent increase annually – that a quick campaign was able to upset. It was exciting to hear about our new organization in Aubervilliers beating back Veolia’s efforts to raise water prices and privatize their system, especially since Local 100 had long experience with the same company where we represent clerical and accounting staff for the New Orleans regional transit authority.

Beth from A Community Voice

Raising the hood on the nuts and bolts of the organization in report after report, it was impossible to ignore the impact of social networking recruitment efforts that were being bolted on the basic organizing model. Where we had begun counting “provisional” members in ACORN over the last dozen years who had expressed a threshold interest in ACORN and were in a targeting process to move up the ladder to full membership, the advent to so many other measures of social network indicating support were also being measured more intently. Petition signers and other overt expressions of support were being databased and integrated into meeting and turnout calculations, assembled into phone and autodialer programs, and counted reliably in the same way as regulars and full-pay members.

The numbers add up. With ACORN Canada at 110,000 members, 80,000 are associates and provisionals. ACORN in England has utilized social media in their basic organizing more aggressively than many other operations given their extensive base building among private tenants. Provisional and associate members now number 15,000 in the less than three years of the organization’s work. In Scotland, there are 3000 in the provisional-associate category. The organizing in France has been more traditionally based in social housing but still counts more than 800 supporters in Aubervilliers after only a year of organizing for example.

Stuart Melvin, head organizer ACORN UK

The high level of internet access and smartphone proliferation in our English tenant base has led to an exciting level of experimentation by ACORN in Bristol, Sheffield, and Newcastle. Tools by Action Network have been valuable. They have had more experience in using Slack than many of the other organizing operations who are more reserved in their utilization. They are using Facebook creatively to set up recruitment meetings that result in an extremely high sign-up success rate. I had heard something similar in Hungary from some organizers that were still able to use Facebook events on turnout, which we had largely discounted in the USA. They felt they were able to reliably count on one-of-three to attend.

As always there are changes and new technology, so the organizer were eagerly soaking up skills and techniques to see what might make their organizing more effective.

Melva Burnett, president ACORN International and ACORN Canada

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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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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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Figuring Out How to Grow Globally, One Country at a Time, One after Another

action-mie-4Grenoble   Finally with the last of our meetings over in Paris, we headed for Grenoble to focus on our own business, the internal and external work of ACORN International and its affiliates, most importantly, the Alliance Citoyenne and our joint work through ReAct globally. Where do we begin? Well of course everywhere, but we continue such conversations in captive audience meetings on trains from Brussels to Paris and then into the night along the three hour journey between Paris and Grenoble. The conversations were wide ranging, charts and diagrams emerged, maps were drawn, boxes were ticked off, pros and cons debated, and endless lists emerged for follow up and implementation. It’s trite to say that it’s a big world, but true nonetheless, and the opportunities are boundless, but how are organizing models built except through similar processes of selection and rejection.

In France, progress seemed to have been made after our recent staff meeting to expand significantly in an area close by to Aubervilliers, where we are now organizing, in the lower income and immigrant suburbs. The devil is in the details, but there seems to be some blessing emerging for such a plan that could be a rocket boost for the work in Paris. Vision drives the timelines and trying to build a national organization, would find us still fledgling in 2017 at the next national election, but more realistically would allow us to concentrate multi-city growth and development by 2022. Lyon is the third largest city in France and only a bit more than an hour away from our powerhouse in Grenoble, so it’s an obvious choice to develop perhaps within the next year. St. Etienne is also in this cluster and about the same size as Grenoble, so would seem inevitable within coming years. We have an ally in Rennes, which takes that off the list for now, while discussions continue, but what else is possible? Marseilles is the second largest city. Lille has been mentioned in the north. Nantes is worth thought for size and location. Without some strategic thinking Paris and “greater Grenoble” could take us years, so this will be interesting to cobble together.

With a meeting of all of our Africa-based staff, thinking about France seems easy compared to trying to determine where we can build a showcase operation to root the model and the work in Africa. On the Anglophone side, we have a deep and lasting commitment in Kenya, but have had trouble breaking out of the Korogocho slum, given its size (450000) and complexity, and certainly can’t pretend that we are contending for power anywhere else. Meetings in Germany and earlier in London, put South Africa on the list based on the prospects of developing a training program for community organizers there, but who is to know. ReAct has done extensive campaign work and direct organizing in several countries in Francophone Africa so their experience drives this conversation importantly. Cameroon has shown the most promising success and our work in organizing more than 1000 plantation workers in several areas of the country also proves that the base and campaigns can be built in more rural areas as well. Our meeting in the fall is going to be held in Douala, so that city, one of the largest in central-west Africa, immediately becomes a primary candidate, so we’ll have a chance to take a good look. Another argument was made for an even larger city, Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast and West Africa. The political climate is slightly less stable, but the potential there is huge.

The one certainty is that to organize effectively in countries throughout Africa, we have to build a showcase operation in several places just as did in the United States starting in Little Rock, in Canada starting in Toronto, in Honduras now for Latin America, Bristol in the United Kingdom, and Grenoble in France in order to drive the growth. These conversations are always heady and exciting, but the decisions that follow and the commitments they entail are permanent, so care and caution must match vision and dreaming in such planning.

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Housing Schemes and Contrasts in Paris and the Suburbs

CGT

CGT

Paris    Our day began in the south of Paris in LaPlace where I had been staying with one of the Alliance’s key advisers when we traveled to the stunning complex of buildings where the large labor union federation, CGT, has its headquarters in the eastern part of the city. CGT has been leading the bitter battle over the last two months against the so-called labor reforms of the Socialist government that would erode many pillars of the renowned French labor standards.

at CGT

at CGT

We met the head of the Paris regional CGT briefly but he was dealing with an unexpected arrest stemming from a protest where the government in a breach of common practice was trying to sentence the protestor, part of the required union security team, to three years in jail. Our meetings, not surprisingly shifted down the hallway for a discussion of organizing, where we hoped we planted the seeds that will yield to ongoing, productive dialogue. Such discussions are all in a day’s work of evangelism, but nothing was more inspiring than standing in the CGT atrium, whose expanse also serves as a union hall and meeting place when needed, and when not offers a setting for a dramatic display of banners celebrating the union’s issues and campaigns.

Banners at CGT atrium and Adrien Roux

Banners at CGT atrium and Alliance Organizer Adrien Roux

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From there we began the first day of our staff meetings with the Paris and Grenoble organizing staff where we dissected the experiences and lessons of recent organizing drives, and then for the highlight of the day we left our office in the soaring public housing high rise, that are legendary warehouses build on the outskirts of Paris for lower income families and workers, and walked through Aubervilliers, where we organized our first two groups, to see the turf and meet some of the leaders.

public housing in Aubervilliers where we are organizing and where we have our office in the project

public housing in Aubervilliers where we are organizing and where we have our office in the project

Aubervilliers is a separate township abutting Paris with a population of about 50,000 or so, and either the poorest or second poorest district in all of France, depending on whom you are talking with at the moment. As we walked through the area, Elias Showk, one of our Paris organizers, explained the state’s housing scheme in this and many other areas where there is an abundance of public housing. The state program freezes the number of units between public and private and then subsidizes developers to bring in mixed-income construction, essentially disinvesting in public housing. We walked through streets where we could see the older housing being torn down so that new buildings could be added next to other public units little maintained.

Solene Compingt and Antoine Gonthier two Alliance/ACORN organizers in picture

Solene Compingt and Antoine Gonthier two Alliance/ACORN organizers in picture

Most of this Aubervilliers organizing drive had been conducted in 1500 units of public housing in the area, and where we ended up was standing in the parking lot that had been an issue in the first campaign of this group. We were in the neutral zone between a shiny, new glass building where some of the units had been torn down, a grass field, and the parking lot. Our leaders explained that they had been paying an assessment of twenty euros per month for two years for the lot, but the entry barrier had been broken as well as many concrete parking stanchions, so in effect their lot had become community parking that they were subsidizing. It was hard not to believe that in effect they were paying for the parking of the residents of the new mixed income units.

example of french housing scheme -- tearing down old to replace with mixed income

example of french housing scheme — tearing down old to replace with mixed income

In their first action they had confronted the public housing manager and after an hour of negotiations won a commitment for repairs, many of which we saw firsthand, as well as a commitment to refund 240 euros or one year’s worth of parking payments for the tenants because of the lack of barriers. The leaders were still unhappy that the primary barrier remained unrepaired even though there was other progress, so there was discussion of next steps even as they proudly showed off their progress.

new building for mixed income built after tearing down some of our public housing and the parkiing lot where we have been fighting for change

new building for mixed income built after tearing down some of our public housing and the parkiing lot where we have been fighting for change

In the tilted housing policy of the area, walking away we were inspired by their conviction about these fights and the organization, because there was no way to avoid thinking that this was simply the first of a thousand battles in Aubervilliers.

more on lot and newly set parking barriers we won

more on lot and newly set parking barriers we won

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organizers talking to leaders and looking at the parking barrier still waiting for repairs

organizers talking to leaders and looking at the parking barrier still waiting for repairs

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First Victory in Paris!

DSC1195-700x450New Orleans    Part of what sustains organizers is the almost irrational belief that each new group, may be the best community organization ever; each new action may be the most powerful action ever; each new victory could open the way to unimaginable victories; each new member could be a leader of a lifetime; and each new organizer could build the future.

The first meeting of our ACORN’s Parisian affiliate occurred recently, launching the Alliance Citoyenne d’Aubervilliers or the Citizens’ Alliance of d’Aubervilliers, a diverse lower income, working community on the outskirts of Paris. Good crowd and a large, exciting committee of leaders were elected. The first action was immediately set with another coming.

The report from the first action was exhilarating. The members who were tenants in a large complex had been required to pay a 20 euro fee at the car park as part of their monthly payments. But for two years there was no security there and the gate to the parking lot was broken, essentially meaning that the members were paying for nothing.

The action was feisty, and the outcome was total victory.

The housing managers agreed to refund 240 euros to each of the tenants, and of course immediately repair the car park and get security there.

These small victories are what starts the peoples’ avalanche rolling towards enough power to move everything out of the organization’s way. In d’Aubervilliers this will be the making of an instant legend, and the word will spread among tenants and others throughout Paris like wildfire.

This is why they join. This is why we do the work!

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