Apps for Organizing and Social Change

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.13.28 AMNew Orleans   Marching solidly on the trailing edge of new technology innovation, I want to make it clear that I’m no hater, I just want it to work for all of us. And, hey, maybe there’s some hope out there that some of the apps are coming our way and might be tools for social change.

In Taiwan for example, a free protest app available through the Apple Store named Bingela, after a Taiwanese phrase associated with overturning a table in rage, was downloaded 260000 times in a two-week period by users who wanted to determine if a product was associated with Ting Hsin International, a conglomerate at the center of a food safety scandal last year involving cooking oil. Now that’s interesting, and what a great tool to assist the difficult task of organizing a consumer boycott in these days when big corporations can so easily show one brand somewhere and hide others everywhere.

I’m not sure that the organizing was done with an “app,” but an interesting phenomena on the other side of the digital divide seems to be happening in Seattle as well with the organization of something that almost seems a contradiction in terms: the App Based Drivers’ Association or ABDA. It seems that Uber and Lyft drivers who work in precarious terms at the beck and call of smartphone and computer apps for these high-flying ride sharing services have organized in Seattle with the help of the Teamsters local union there to resist the downgrading of pricing in the city which has cut wages for some of these so-called subcontractors by as much as 50% in recent months. They have organized and gone to this very progressive City Council asking the council to establish a procedure allowing subcontractors to unionize since there is no provision for them to do so under federal labor law. Needless to say, the companies are saying no-way, but still for the rest of us the message may be that in the same way that apps can disrupt us, there may be ways and means for us to use apps to disrupt them.

Tunde Obazee, formerly the longtime public affairs and empowerment radio broadcaster with our “voice of the people” radio station visited with me recently in Los Angeles where he is now the IT director for UCLA’s Family Clinics in Venice. Sitting in front of his computer bank in the quiet of the clinic closed on a Saturday he showed me how I might be able to use a free application called U-Stream on a smartphone with an internet connection to broadcast remotely from the phone directly on the air. It was amazing. I can hardly wait to try this myself. Meanwhile, Tunde is finally going to walk me through how we can develop a separate internet radio capacity for ACORN International.

I have a Skype call this morning linking tech-perts in the USA, Abu Dubai, India and elsewhere to discuss how to develop a membership recruiting video that could be shared with or without the internet for organizing in India. My daughter just sent me a link to the podcast on Serial about the soldier’s dilemma in Afghanistan. All that says there’s hope for all of us if we can just develop somewhere between a cadre and a crowd of folks who can listen to us closely and then take us by the hand to be able adapt technology to the needs of organizing and social change.

Maybe they’ll help us develop an app for that?

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Organizing Strategy Based on Solidarity and Power

1ilwu1-1024x768Houston   Thinking about various strategies to rebuild the labor movement is a painful pastime for many organizers, but talking to Peter Olney, the organizing director for the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union, the fabled 60,000 West Coast dockworkers’ powerhouse, on my weekly radio show recently was a good primer on the basics for holding your own and moving forward.

Another painful footnote of labor’s troubles was inescapable in the run-up to the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles with the release of an impassioned and sharp tongued letter from the President of the ILWU to Rich Trumka, the federation’s president, disaffiliating the ILWU from the body after 25 years of membership. The issue for the ILWU was essentially the lack of solidarity.

Solidarity is so rare in the modern dog-eat-dog, struggle for survival, last-man-standing labor environment that it almost felt nostalgic to hear Olney express so clearly this essential, but too often forgotten, fundamental principal of labor.   The old adage of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” like the fight for an 8-hour day, harkens to an earlier day for labor it seems, where storied unions like the ILWU could talk with some credibility of how a “general strike,” like the great effort they led in San Francisco is still possible.  Part of the ILWU’s last toss of a brick through the window of the house of labor spoke to a series of disputes that they had experienced with other unions, most notably the Operating Engineers, where they felt the toothlessness of the AFL-CIO had isolated their members to fight on their own to protect their work and classic jurisdiction.  In a labor movement torn asunder by the defections to the Change to Win alternative federation, the SEIU and HERE disputes within C2W and in northern California and with their own local union, and a host of other discouraging debacles, a simple plea for more solidarity from a union that has often led the way in showing the huge strength of solidarity in supporting the efforts of farmworkers to organize, South Africans to end apartheid, and a score of other efforts, has a surprising amount of power and resonates as a potential source of strength.

In talking about organizing, Peter and I could easily agree on the critical need to focus on distribution plants in organizing Walmart, despite the fact it is hard work with fewer headlines.  In looking at the organizing strategy for ILWU, Peter was clear that he starts his strategic analysis from an obvious, but often forgotten cornerstone, by looking at where his union has power that they can leverage to organize additional workers.  Certainly, this was the key to the ILWU’s historic drive inland from the strength on the docks to the warehouses where their loads were taken from the ship hulls.  Now moving from their pocket of power on the docks, they are looking to organize hazardous materials workers who clean the ships and surrounding areas.  Makes sense doesn’t it, but it’s surprising how often even the best organizers forget the fundamentals in trying to look at future targets.  We found ourselves talking about the plight of independent truckers that are servicing the major ports and the efforts to organize them by the Teamsters and others that has now been stalled by court action.   Peter is too much the diplomatic ambassador of labor solidarity for me to have asked him the obvious question about whether or not the ILWU power on the Pacific docks might not be the critical factor along with community support in any successful, future organizing effort by these abused drivers.

Solidarity may be an increasingly distant dream, but moving forward from even the shrinking islands of strength that we have in the growing ocean of the unorganized are lessons from Peter Olney worth remembering for all organizers.

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Exploiting Contract Workers

New Orleans Reading an surprisingly good article in the New York Times about the union fight in Indonesia against the great mega-retailer Carrefour to win rights for contract workers that they thought they had gained in a strike earlier this year, I was struck by how blind we all are to similar worker exploitation right in front of our eyes every day.  We are not blinded so much by ignorance as by ubiquitous corporate deceit and sleight of hand.  The worker smiling across the counter, hauling our garbage can, delivering our prescription, telling us about the traffic on the way from the airport, and in many other situations is not really working for the company whose name is on their uniform, but often an exploited contract worker in disguise.
Recently talking to Ken Paff, the long time organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) about any new organizing being done by the Teamsters, he was incredulous when I told him that Waste Management and many other companies really only employed the drivers on those privatized municipal sanitation trucks, because the laborers on the back end of the trucks were almost always contracted, casual and temporary workers.  I knew because Local 100 has represented them with all of the garbage companies in New Orleans, Dallas, and elsewhere for years.  It’s part of the business model, pure and simple.  Offload the workman’s compensation liability on someone else because running in traffic behind a multi-ton truck is very dangerous work and besides who knows (cares?) what they might be paid for the work and the risk.  Just like the Indonesian worker was quoted  by Sara Schonhardt in the Times, “New employees who are young and ready to enter the work force will take whatever pay they can get…” and this sets the stage for exploitation obviously.
Taking a cab into the city from the Metro Airport in Detroit I saw an envelope between the cabbie’s seats that was marked UAW.  I asked him if he was represented by the autoworkers union.  He was on the organizing committee of a difficult drive to organize the company with the UAW’s help, but they kept being rebuffed as “contract” workers.  To same “in name only” beggars the question of the weaknesses of labor laws for this burgeoning sector of the domestic and global workforce.

Of course it goes without saying that this is part of why ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign continues to insist that Carrefour, Walmart, Metro, Tesco, and other giant multi-brand retailers must agree to labor standards, job protections, and community benefits before entering India.  The notion of using contract workers in retail to escape national labor laws providing protections and benefits is well established.    For example in Mexico where Walmart is well established as Mexico’s largest private sector employer (just as they are in the USA and Canada), when you are watching the cashier ring up your bill and someone else bag your groceries, just like in Indonesia, you are talking to a contract worker with a smiley face on their shirt just like the rest of the Walmart “associates.”

Not all associates are created or treated equally it seems.  This is a critical issue that could easily be solved either by worker action or by closing the loopholes in the labor laws.  It would be wonderful if both workers and lawmakers could combine to fix this problem in many countries, though that seems like a Christmas kind of wish and too much to hope.

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Airports in the Union Zone

fa-safety-demonstrationNew Orleans Good news in a bleak horizon: the National Mediation Board approved a rule change allowing the majority who cast their vote for a union covered under the Railway Act to determine representation, rather than a majority of those eligible to vote. This should mean a significant increase in unionization within the airline industry, which is already one of the few remaining industries with excellent union density, as well as being a boost on the ground for some of the land based workforce at airports but covered under the Railway Act, like ramp workers and, importantly, some of the security workers assisting the TSTA workers.

This won’t be a slam dunk regardless of what some of the “union free” right-to-work folks will say, because for years companies opposing unionization in the industry have convinced people that a NOT VOTING was the same as a NO vote, which was true under the old rules, but there have also been many union representation elections where unions have been decisive winners by huge margins among those actually marking the YES box, but still failed to win certification because the winning tally did not exceed the 50% plus one needed to represent a majority of all eligibles. Big unions that stand to gain because of this rule change should be the Teamsters and the Communications Workers and maybe even the Transport Workers, all of which have a significant presence in the industry. The flight attendants and the pilots will also do well.

The Railway Act covers all interstate transportation workers and is administered by the National Mediation Board, which is why airline workers come under its jurisdiction. This has been a weird and unfair exception to commonsense for decades existing only to thwart unionization, so it’s good that the Obama appointees did the right thing.

If not for the hyper conservative and risk adverse politics of Secretary Napolitano and her Homeland Security outfit, the next big unit that should be rationalized under the Obama administration in this same space would be the TSTA agents handling the screening at the nation’s airports. George W. Bush in a fit of pique and animus declared these folks ineligible for unionization in the build up in the wake of 9/11, but there’s no rational excuse why they should be denied the same kind of representation that other federal employees receive. They don’t wear guns, so it is ludicrous to declare that union representation would be un-American and expose citizens to security risks because they had contract protection.

Part of the job is done and more waits to be set right, but the airports are destined to wear a union bug, and that’s the way it should be!

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