Co-Op Leaders in the Bunker, but Feeling the Heat

coversummer2016New Orleans   The cover story in this issue of the quarterly journal, Social Policy, laid out the case once again on the lack of diversity and democracy in the rural electric cooperatives in the 12-state southern area. The minimal representation of African-Americans and Hispanics is region-wide despite the huge populations of both of these groups throughout the region, frequently occupying majorities in many of the service areas of the cooperatives. The regional statistics are less than 5% representation for African-Americans and less than 1% for Hispanics. Women fare only slightly better, though they represent a majority in the South when we looked at these same 313-odd electrical cooperatives.

Cooperatives ostensibly are membership-run institutions with every member getting to vote to elect their representatives and on have a say at annual meetings on matters of policy. All of these cooperatives have been the beneficiaries of extensive grants and loans of public monies, usually federal, dating back to the New Deal, and many still are receiving discounted interest rates and loans for their programs and generating facilities. The USDA and their own literature claims they are critical economic development and social service providers in rural areas, and as a multi-billion dollar set of institutions they are a significant employer and economic presence in their service areas as well. Almost all of their websites and information includes language claiming that they do not discriminate. But, here we sit with facts and figures that undermine all of these claims and provide evidence of the opposite.

Frequently the story and the earlier report speak of these cooperatives and their leadership as “frozen in the fifties,” as if they have been able to hunker down and pretend time stopped and the civil rights movement, women’s movement and other major social changes that impact the same demographics simply never happened. Being in rural areas they have believed they could escape notice.

Being big, they can get away with it. In releasing the report to news outlets throughout the region, it was depressing talking to some of the small town weeklies and other news outlets that allegedly cover the news in these rural communities. They basically didn’t want “to rock the boat.” Many pleaded that the impact of reporting the story, even when obvious and well-known to some of them, because it was the equivalent of economic suicide: they needed the ads from the cooperatives and their leadership. We had noticed this group-think and stifling collaboration earlier when we had sent letters to all of the cooperatives and, almost defying all statistical or random possibility, we received not one single response, even a refusal to provide information or a brushoff or a go-fly-a-kite, just total silence.

Meeting with various cooperative experts and advocates while I was in Madison, Wisconsin recently, it was reassuring to find out that according to inside sources the report was on the agenda at the recent meetings of the board of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. One advocate speculated that there was likely not a manager of an electric cooperative in the country that had not received a copy of the report. He also believed it was likely mandatory reading increasingly for elected members of cooperative boards. All that was good to hear. They may be hiding with their heads down, but they hear the bullets whizzing by them increasingly.

If I believed in some kind of by-the-by, trickledown theory and practice of change, then I might just say, “our work is done,” and wait to see whether there might be some gradual reforms or some jump of the needle indicating more diverse representation in coming cooperative elections.

That’s not what we believe though, so to keep the heat on we are meeting today in New Orleans with our ACORN International researchers to see what the IRS 990s for the cooperative say about what these folks in the cooperative bunkers are paying themselves for directors’ fees. So far what we’re seeing isn’t pretty, but it as the cop-shows on television say, it does establish an additional motive for this kind of anti-democratic behavior which keeps the “white, right, and ready to fight” crowd running the cooperatives without real diversity or democracy, just as they have for over 75 years.

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Making Working Men More Economically Attractive

Little Rock     The headline was no tipoff on this piece in the Times’ business section.   Another article about how much the economics of single parent households really suck, blah, blah, blah, please tell us something we didn’t know, will ya?  So they did by basically in so many words and with all due concern letting we know that men, especially working men without college degrees are a problem.  How can I summarize their argument delicately…men it seems are, how can we say it, losers.

“Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Suppose the available men were getting married to the available women? Would that be an improvement?’ ” Instead of making marriage more attractive, he said, it might be better for society to help make men more attractive.

“Make men more attractive.”  Now that’s a lifetime project for many men and, way too often, an ambition for the women, parents, and children who love them.

The argument here was based on a recent study from an MIT professor David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, his graduate assistant.  They note that there is a vicious cycle pulling some men down in their view:

In this telling, the economic struggles of male workers are both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of traditional households. Men who are less successful are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners. “A vicious cycle may ensue,” wrote Professor Autor and his co-author, Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student, “with the poor economic prospects of less educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.”

So as the reporter, Binyamin Appelbaum hustled around trying to get a grip on this phenomena from one academic to another, he basically found that the experts all agree:  it’s a head scratcher!

Among people who were 35 years old in 2010, for example, women were 17 percent more likely to have attended college, and 23 percent more likely to hold an undergraduate degree.  “I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economics professor who was not involved in Professor Autor’s work. “And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an explanation.”

So it turns out there are terrible consequences at the deepest levels of society, including family life and class stratification that flow from economic inequity and the stagnation of working and lower income family wages.  No surprise there either, but the terrible nightmare that the avarice of a generation would in fact force the sins of the “fathers” of such policies fall not on their sons and daughters but on generations of low-and-moderate income families is tragic.

I have to also wonder as we wallow around looking for an explanation whether part of the paradox of making men “more attractive” economically, is that men in their precipitous financial fall have still not leaned to be the docile workers that employers demand, and whether women in their more recent climb in wages are not “leaning in” as aggressively within the workforce yet, making them more currently coveted by employers?

More training and more education would undoubtedly be good for me – and women – but finally allowing people to breakthrough and earn living wages, or what once we called “family-supporting” wages, might be the easiest way to “make men more attractive” in building and holding these families together.

 

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The Problem of Remittances and Financial Literacy for Immigrants

ACORN International GSU Team: (left to right) Jennifer Phillips, Fred Brooks, Charlene Davison, Alice Lee, Brittany Burgess, Tim Zdencanovic

Atlanta   I got lucky and five students, now calling themselves the ACORN International Team at Georgia State University, picked as their major project at the GSU School of Social Work helping us develop information and support for our Remittance Justice Campaign.   We assembled at a Nepalese restaurant in an Atlanta neighborhood that is at the epicenter of immigrant and refugee resettlement so that we could compare notes and make out plans for the kind of deep and extensive look at remittance experience and costs in a US-city, similar to what we have done in Toronto and Mexico City previously during this campaign.

Going around the table, the reports were encouraging.   The survey instrument had taken shape.  We were making progress securing translators for the target communities among Burmese, Ethiopians, and Latinos.  Several churches and agencies where the students were doing field placements had already been enlisted to help and were showing some interest and enthusiasm in what we would find.  The team was committed to doing blogs and social networking to communicate and get the word out.  The goals of 100 completed surveys per team member could find us with 500 pieces of rich data to work into a report for ACORN International to release in Atlanta, Social Policy, and wider to engage more discussion about the need to change public policy.  We were on our way.

The one roadblock that kept cropping up in some of the reports was a repeated expression of disbelief, if not outright warning, to the team from the “gatekeepers” that immigrants would refuse to share information about the real costs of remittances with us.  One outfit offered to circulate it for us so that maybe they could extend more legitimacy to our questions about costs and transfer methods.  Another well intentioned soul suggested we not ask specifically what the cost of remittances were or the amount sent but give “ranges” between high and low dollar amounts.

As well meaning as the comments might have been, I was amazed at how clearly they and these notions were actually building the infrastructure for financial exploitation and illiteracy for “new” Americans that would inevitably and predictably lead them now predatory and perilous paths.  By avoiding real questions, discussion and engagement on practice and costs, immigrants and refugees would be relying on “word of mouth” recommendations about “best practices” rather than real data on the least expensive and most secure remittance streams and most reputable, reliable money transfer organizations (MTOs).  The gatekeepers were also assuming and projecting cultural values about the appropriateness of discussions about money that might be more common here, than elsewhere, and, more importantly, were making predictions not premised on field experiences.  They were projecting their own lack of comfort around financial issues onto the students before our team was in the field and could evaluate the credibility of their advice.  All of this was also in the face of information from the team already that those groups receiving resettlement grants from US-based sources almost invariably sent most of the money home immediately to their families left behind, and were also clearly not getting advice on the cheapest ways to make such remittances.  It also goes without saying that the team was not even asking for people’s names on the survey, unless volunteered.

In truth our experience in Canada, Mexico, and around the world where we have collected the data for the Remittance Justice Campaign is the opposite.  People can hardly wait to talk about their experiences in making remittances, especially since the dollars are dear and few can believe how much the middle men are raking off.  The Pew Trust and InterAmerican Bank have also contracted for such surveys repeatedly through “cold calls” and usual methodology without any difficulty.

Why would community organizers and total strangers have found that immigrants are anxious to share remittance experiences, yet some gate keeping agencies been resistant to real discussions with their “clients” about such critical issues?  The answer may lie right there:  seeing them as clients, rather than people, like the rest of us, trying to navigate confusing financial systems with limited information, and desperate for help.  New immigrants and refugees deserve better frankly, and in this area they deserve and have earned justice not continued exploitation.

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Welcome to My World on Thanksgiving!

photo from ACORN in Buenos Aires

New Orleans   On the eve of the USA Thanksgiving there is a long list of chores and cleanups, some long postponed, that have to be sorted out as family and friends assemble.  Normally, these times signals a momentary lull, a chance for a breath, but believe it, working in the world is not like that at all, and the pace quickens.   While so many are getting ready to put their feet up and feedbag on, I thought I would share:

  • Canada has Thanksgiving, but almost a month ago, so it’s just another workday and the emails keep rolling, especially on their release of a new remittance report.
  • Pictures in this morning finally from Buenos Aires on a recent human rights workshop in La Matanza, which the organizer had time to send since a general strike yesterday shutdown the city and most of the transportation.
  • Skype conference call today to prepare for our setting up the field program next week in Ecuador for the national elections in five provinces.
  • The election may be over in the USA, but ACORN International members are examining slates, programs, and plans for elections this coming year not only in Ecuador, but also in Honduras, Kenya, and Indonesia.
  • Work slowed in Mumbai as our operations in Dharavi with many Muslim members battened down the hatches as the shock troops of the right parties hit the streets to mourn the death of communalist instigator Bal Thackery.  Newspaper reports indicate that police have picked up two young women who questioned the respect being given this man on Facebook.
  • Social Policy went to printer yesterday for the fall issue, so proofs have to be checked out today, so issue hits mails internationally and domestically next week.
  • Interesting hour long conversation yesterday with David Moberg, labor reporter at In These Times, about organizing strategy and the work being done by UFCW at Walmart these days in USA.
  • Interesting reports from ACORN Italy on new legal services support being rolled out for our members there with more details to follow.
  • Early morning email from Belgrade where a former ACORN organizer in Ottawa is starting the process of seeing if an ACORN Serbia can be built there in coming months.
  • As I write this, I’m bouncing back and forth on Skype notes, about how to integrate community organizing into an on-line medical training course being offered globally and recently accepted as a pilot for 500 med students in Sudan.  They asked that I block dates in November 2013 to speak with them at their conference in Thailand potentially.
  • Double checking the schedule at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse so we can fit in the meeting after the holiday on how well we are doing on our environmental footprint and sustainability measure, making sure we are staffed fully on Thanksgiving because our community needs us, approving another group to play soon and another yoga and dance time slot, and getting ready to host the Tides Foundation JBL Awards presentation next week.

There’s always a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving and this small sample reminds me how lucky I am many decades ago to have found work that teaches me daily and resists boredom no matter the tedium of tasks, and where so many of us have developed small skills that can make contributions to the work being done every day around the world to bring justice, equity, and security to so many people.

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The Rarity of Labor Union Strikes in Today’s Economy and Labor Market and Lost Hope at NLRB

New Orleans   In Social Policy magazine we’ve published in the current issue a solid description of the ups and downs of a group of nursing home workers in Connecticut.    The piece focused on the lessons learned in the course of a strike that the workers and the union felt was successful.  We also published in an earlier issue last year an excerpt of a book calling for a revitalization of the role of strikes in labor relations.

Looking at a chart in the Wall Street Journal, it seems clear that workers are “voting with their seat,” rather than “voting with their feet” and hitting the street.

The 21st Century is not a striking century for workers and their unions.   The graphic recorded both strikes and lockouts, and it goes without saying that a lockout is a management tactic to coerce a unionized group of workers to accept certain terms and conditions of employment, in the same way that a strike is a tool for workers to try and bring a company to heel or , these days, back to reason.   The chart indicted that in this century only once has there been more than 20 of these things and in some years, hardly a handful.

Caterpillar, the tractor maker, is once again a screaming canary in this mind shaft and trying to force its workers in plants to take frozen wages over 6 year contracts, with fewer and fewer seniority rights for shifts or jobs.  Workers in Joilet, Illinois seem to have come to that cold place in the night where you may know the boss may beat you, but he’s going to have to whip you first.

No one pretends that this is a winning strategy, only that when there was no other recourse they then had no choice.

At the same time the “reforms” of the more activist Obama appointed members of the NLRB seem to have stalled again.  The simple “notice” provision which would have required a posting of the law and protections for workers to organize freely at all workplaces, seems to have been stymied.  The rules on quicker elections seem lost in a deep quiet zone as well, where perhaps no news is good news, since the only safe bet would be lawsuits trying to block the rules.

The election, if lost, would eviscerate the NLRB in the same way we now see the right moving to de-unionize the public sector in state after state.  Where does this leave workers?  Fewer strikes, more lockouts, and fewer victories from either one may argue for more corporate campaigns, but watching the Walmart corruption press rise and fall and the shell game of corporate social responsibility, and the diminishing “power” of the press, and it is clear that there is no silver bullet here.  In the same way we need to adopt new organizing strategies, we need the same new thinking for action tactics.

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Coming into Wisconsin at Ground Zero of Class War in America

Recall effort in Wisconsin

Milwaukee   I couldn’t resist an invitation to speak at a panel on ACORN and community organizing this weekend at a conference of historians largely because it was being held in Milwaukee and it gave me an excuse for several days to see what was really happening here at ground zero in the class war that the right has declared on workers and regular citizens in Wisconsin and throughout the country.  Social Policy just came out with a Special Report on Wisconsin One Year Later which had piqued my interest and given me a thorough introduction for just how devastating this has been beneath the headlines.  Join me in reading the reports currently on the website.

There is a recall election set now with the primary only weeks away in early May and the general election for Governor in early June.  The speed of the recall has made this a strange campaign.  Watching the road from the airport into Milwaukee was curious because there were no yard signs visible, no billboards, and in fact no sign that there was anything out of the usual happening in Milwaukee.

The offices of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin are in a re-purposed Baltz Brewery and are new and well put together with pale yellow walls and subdued purpose trim and doors everywhere.  There are names on all of the doors and cavernous conference rooms though it is largely quite as a small training for the election is happening around a large table in the open atrium.  The several stewards and volunteers are being told how “right-to-work” really works and why SEIU has endorsed their candidate for the Democratic primary.

The action is in the field, not the office, and that’s the good news, but predictably there is a breath exhaled after the giant recall effort that still has to be inhaled deeply for the second wind to test the full mettle of whether or not Scott Walker can be stopped here at the sharp point of the conservative surge in the Midwest.

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