Rough Road for Unions in Cameroon

DSCN1852Douala   About 30 years ago in the 1990s there was a “liberalization” in Cameroon. Citizens were given freedom of expression, the total autocracy was diluted, and they gained freedom of association, including the ability to form unions. There is a labor code. The state does actively involve itself in labor-management disputes. In talking to workers who had the experience of organizing unions even in recent years, make no mistake though, this is not an easy road to travel.

We met at length with a leader of the teachers’ union branch that has been involved in trying to win recognition for a union of more than 740 parochial school teachers in the Archdiocese of Douala. Listening to the story of his own career as a teacher, it was no surprise that they had sought a union. He had been a teacher in the Catholic system for 42 years and his top pay was 38,000 francs per month or about $65 USD monthly, less than $1000 per year.

They began organizing in 2012. It took them two years to receive the necessary filings from the state for their organization. A first reaction to their unionization by the diocese was to fire all 65 of their leadership delegates. A strike then lasted six weeks before they were back to work without many concessions, and 14 of their leaders were still not reinstated and continued not to be paid.


They had enrolled more than half of the teachers in their union and sought to win recognition, move pay to 50,000 francs per month, get some minimal benefits, win seniority pay and some pay recognition for additional degrees, an end to arbitrary transfers, and better conditions in the schools. Meetings with school management were fruitless even though the system reportedly produced more than a billion francs per year in surplus revenue. They struck again for two days on November 11th, 2015. 654 of the 750 odd teachers participated in the strike. They went back to work after two days waiting for a new governmental minister to be appointed and the Bishop to return from Europe. The government sided with their demands for an increase to 50000 francs monthly and more than a dozen of their other conditions. Management promised to comply, but did nothing other than raise pay to 50000 francs monthly. Seeing no action, they struck again in the middle of March. Of their eighteen demands, the Archbishop had claimed he had met them all in a letter to the state, but the union knew only two had been met.

They are now before the labor court trying to win compliance given the state’s support. Meanwhile nothing more has changed. More promises are not kept, and more than a dozen leaders are still off the job. No ending to this struggle is in sight, and no happy ending seems possible at this point.

We heard similar stories from a member of the shipyard workers union. We listened to three student union leaders tell of having been jailed for challenging the imposition of a new fee for a student ID after the costs for schooling had been set by the university. The president has to register with a human rights organization in France whenever he travels and avoids any nighttime travel feeling that they are still under threat from the government for their protests on fees and housing.

Unions do not even exist by and large among informal workers, and they constitute 80% or more of the employment.

No one was giving up, but there was also little optimism in the room.



The Interesting Transition from Ideological Argument to Personal Contact

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg -, Nutzung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Belegexemplar]

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg –, Nutzung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Belegexemplar]

Berlin   Visiting with political and labor organizers and activists of all stripes in Germany was fascinating and for me, an education. It was impressive to see the deep, lifelong commitments that so many have made individually to progressive work that permeates down to their living conditions. Similar to France and the United Kingdom, people often worked at minimum wage for years in support of their political and community projects, and then went home to cooperative housing arrangements, often erasing any lines between the personal and the political, or so it seemed to an interested observer.

Unions are still strong. But, these are times of transition. Unions are not as strong as they were. I heard that the massively impressive building of Ver.di, the second largest union in Germany, where we met with a group of people one evening, was now seeking tenants for space they no longer occupy. At the same time there is new energy in some organizing projects. In our meeting at Ver.di were three or four organizers and activists preparing for a strike for a first contract at a huge hospital where they had won bargaining rights while still trying to organize a secondary unit of 2300 workers.

On the other hand, talking the next day to students from the Global Labor College, a small elite program to train future union staff and policy people, it was somewhat surprising to hear how little attention and training was focused on organizing, as if somehow everything would remain locked in place. Asking students about to graduate if they were being placed either in their countries or elsewhere, it seemed they were offered internships, but in many cases they laughed and told us that this was largely an exercise in them providing free labor in exchange for future contacts, and it was unclear if they would be able to find a place in the labor movement in the future at all.

Party life is carefully articulated and dissected into large slabs and small slivers. People often have more voice, than they have power. Meeting with top education, strategic planning, and campaign staff of Germany’s Die Linke, perhaps the largest left-progressive parliamentary party in Europe, was fascinating. A more talented and thoughtful team of people would be hard to find anywhere in the world. Yet, as the meeting went on, it became clear there was a transition at work here as well. Where once parties could communicate easily to a large base of ideologically compatible people, modern times and issues were intruding and confusing the base of working class voters everywhere. Participation in voting was falling election after election. Wedge issues like immigration were toxic, but there was also a sense from some sectors of the base that there was satisfaction in assuming a fixed level of support was possible without aggressively trying to adapt to modern political campaigning, communication, data, and field operations.

Just as I had found in the Netherlands, people are pushing forward and making plans, while listening and learning on the run. There is good cause for hope in the future, but like everywhere, we are running against the clock and change – and sometimes the calendar – are not always kind to us.


Please enjoy Holy Communion by The Pretenders.  Thanks to KABF.


The Dark Side of Works Councils in Germany

DSCN1461Aachen   In the morning and later in the evening, I got a short course on how unions worked in Germany from organizers, staff and leaders at Ver.di, who met with me at their regional headquarters in Dusseldorf. The television screen in their meeting complex might have been translated as if I was giving a training session, but at many times I was being schooled more than they in the basics of how unions worked and the challenges they face in Germany.


I’ve certainly heard about “works’ councils” for years and even met representatives of such councils from time to time in various delegations or when groups have visited New Orleans or so forth. The perspective from the ground floor where organizers’ work, repeatedly established that when there was a conflict between the theory of workers’ input at the council level within a firm and the reality of whether or not workers could make change or build power through a council, the theory was crushed and thrown out of the window by the crushing weight of the reality. At lunch without as many of the other folks listening, in somewhat of a silent sacrilege, two members of the key regional organizing team asked me what I might advise on how to deal with a work council when they were as much of an issue as the management.


Certainly in the USA, we can read op-eds and news stories from the corporate point of view that hold works councils as little more than a German artifice that got in the way of what company’s wanted to do. All of which, almost by default, led me to believe they were likely a good thing. Hearing from both organizers and works council members was an education. Councils are basically a meet-and-confer operation with elected leaders in the work place about non-economic terms and conditions of employment. In Germany every business of a certain size and employment is required to establish such a council. On the one hand organizers were finding them an obstacle in organizing because they were often entrenched with unaccountable leadership. In organizing they would initially begin by trying to convince the works council members that a union was a good thing and there should be cooperation and assistance, but often they would find the union had to either organize to take the council over, elect new members, or go around the council, none of which are easy tasks and all of which took time, energy and resources. Councils are elected to four year terms, so if a union is organized in a firm and comes in after the last election, if could be that many years before there’s a chance to deal with them accountably, and that’s a job hard to handle.


Talking to leaders at works councils at American Apparel retail stores and Home Depot stores, they were unhappy for other reasons. At Los Angeles-based American Apparel, they were hanging in and hanging tough despite the fact that the company was in Chapter 11 reorganization. They felt like they couldn’t get any information or analysis they needed from the company or their American manager. At Home Depot, they felt a union drive and campaign were needed, but troubled about what role they could play. Others were concerned about their powerlessness in dealing with subcontracting and joint employer situations in German law and were critical about whether the union was doing enough to get ahead of these problems either.

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

The Rhine-Ruhr valley is at the heartland of labor’s strength in Germany, where unions are still a key part of the economic order. Ver.di is attempting to innovate in organizing and in fact that’s part of how I got to Dusseldorf, because the leader of the newly created organizing team, Jeffrey Raffo, was interested in participating in a dialogue about how community organizing methodology melded with labor organizing technique to create a strong, amalgam of organization. Nonetheless, they all nodded that German unions were also getting weaker, even if not as weak as those in the USA, and works councils were clearly not enough to provide workers protections in the absence of strong unions.



Making Decisions “On the River”

ReAct makes decisions "on the river"

ReAct makes decisions “on the river”

Budapest    Back to the category of “new tricks for old dogs,” before I forget I wanted to share a method the French organizers used in order to try to resolve difficult decisions and see if they could achieve consensus before abandoning all hope. We were meeting on the board of ReAct, the transnational organization partnered with ACORN internationally, with the Alliance in France, and the main vehicle they have used for anti-corporate and global work, especially in Francophone Africa. As part of the partnership, I had joined the board of ReAct, so this was my first meeting.

There was a debate on whether or not ReAct should enter into a contract with a small, sectarian and perhaps anarchist local union in Lyon, France to assist them in increasing their membership in the hotel sector. The proposed contract was relatively short term at perhaps six months, but there were concerns by many board members on many issues ranging from whether or not there were reputational issues in working with this local union that might endanger other union relationships to whether or not there was “mission drift” from ReAct in moving from a more global orientation to one that focused on France. There were also issues that concerned me about the impact on the Alliance Citoyenne, ACORN’s affiliate in France, and whether it would impact any expansion of the Alliance to Lyon, a significant city in our French expansion plans in close proximity to our powerhouse in Grenoble.

After lengthy debate, suddenly the chair called for everyone to stand up and move to another part of the room to try to resolve this “on the river,” as they called it. The river was a dividing line, and everyone started on one “bank” of the river, a division of sides obviously, and then after more discussion was asked whether they had already determined which side of the river they stood on. Those already in favor of the proposition moved over to the other bank. Some, and I was one, were on one bank with one foot, so to speak, still in the water. The chair would then ask people on the other side if there were specific conditions that they could articulate, that if met, would allow them to comfortably cross the river. Different people articulated different concerns. One attached a condition, easily met, that the work would align with the Alliance, so once assured, she moved over, and I got my feet out of the water as well. Another offered the condition that the work with this union only occur in hotels where there were not members of other unions. They agreed to that readily as well, though I think that condition may be impossible to meet, and another one crossed the river, and so on.

Our organizer from Rome, watching the proceeding, was aghast. He found it to be gross “manipulation” and a forced consensus. The head organizer from Canada was intrigued and thought she might try it in certain situations where nothing else might work.

There was no doubt that it was a directed decision, but at the same time it was somewhat ingenious in not allowing consensus to be blocked and moving to a decision one way or another. It would be an interesting tool to try on harder questions where management, or in this case the chair of the meeting, was not so invested in the outcome of the decision, but this is a good technique worth trying.




Does the New Overtime Rule Really Affect Nonprofits and Organizers?

overtimeNew Orleans     Randy Shaw, the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and its burgeoning empire, first challenged me to think about whether the new FLSA overtime guidelines would prevent any future prospects of building a farmworkers’ movement or an ACORN, both of which famously focused on building an army of volunteer and professional organizers working “long hours at low pay,” as ACORN advertised for years. The new overtime rules, long overdue, as more and more people are realizing, double the level of eligibility for overtime from a 2004-floor of a bit over $23,000 per year to the mid-$47000 range. On organizing programs that are not easily shoehorned into a 40-hour grid, such a jump seems like a huge budget buster and dream crusher. Both the US Public Interest Research Group, the Nader-created group of researchers and students, and Judicial Watch on the right had both expressed fears of the new rules impact and how it would hurt their work.

Looking into this all more carefully and going back to the basics, I remembered our many tussles with the fine men and women of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, an understaffed and overworked group, I mean this seriously, the likes of which has few parallels in government. At different times we were able to establish organizers as discretionary employees and therefore properly salaried, which still maintains. I also remembered once on a Local 100 review shaking the investigators hand as he left, having concluded in the mid-1980s that we were not involved in sufficient interstate commerce. To make the story shorter, I finally shook myself back from my stupor and went back to the basics.

At one level, the gross expenditures to establish coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is $500,000, so a huge number of nonprofits in general and organizing efforts in specific are far under that number and face years of work to have any worries in this regard. More importantly, a DOL Wage & Hours circular dated as recently as August 2015 reminds one and all that nonprofit organizations existing for charitable, education, and similar purposes are in fact exempt from coverage of the FLSA and that this is a long settled matter in the courts as well. The circular importantly for membership-based organizations like ACORN and the original UFWOC, says that dues, gifts, donations, and the like are NOT counted at establishing the gross revenues, and in ACORN’s case those were the revenues period. Furthermore, the coverage threshold is established by commercial activity, and the DOL is clear that a nonprofit can also separate out the workers and revenue involved in any sales or commercial work so that only those workers are under the FLSA. The same separation can be done for any individual staff involved in regular interstate commerce like phone calls and travel between states.

So, why did ACORN worry about these issues for its organizers? First, ACORN was a complicated organization as any look at the more than 130 “banned by Congress” list would establish, yet we operated under one organization-wide salary and seniority schedule, so the mix-and-match would have diluted that solidarity of mission and commitment. Secondly, we were involved in hundreds of living wage fights, and the “optics” were sometimes issues, including the one legal test where we challenged the coverage in California. It was easier to raise the minimum of our scale in 2004 at the last FLSA adjustment on overtime to over the threshold and more clearly differentiate hours for non-field staff. Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that we believed under the FLSA, like all other similarly situated nonprofits that we were legally exempt, and we threw in arguments over freedom of speech and association into the mix as well.

Why are the US PIRG and Judicial Watch worried? Obviously, I can’t be sure. The PIRGs contract a lot of their fundraising to a for-profit, which may have been part of their concern. Judicial Watch is a unit of other conservative operations to the best of my knowledge, so there might be issues that are not immediately obvious. For the most part though, if they were willing to take the heat, they could still cook the same way even in the new kitchen.

So in short, yes, a farmworkers movement could be built again under FLSA with the additional argument I believe still exists that all of its $5 per day and room and board were volunteers under the FLSA guidance, and an ACORN could also be organized again. The obstacles to doing so are many and mountainous, but they are not the FLSA or the new overtime rules.


Union-backed Walmart and McDonalds’ Campaigns Face Uncertain Futures

DSC_6745New Orleans    The emperor with no clothes is not a pretty sight, and it’s almost as bad when the finger pointing at him is Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “Labor Groups are Taking on Walmart and McDonalds. But Who Will Fund the Fight?” I don’t have anything against him or the Huff Post, but this was a story we knew would be coming, the only surprise might be that it took so long to get here, and it still seems to catch us unprepared with our pants around our ankles.

The trigger for this tale is the annual meeting of Walmart gearing up in Bentonville, which has also become an annual action by organizations trying to force one of the world’s largest retailers to more accountability and better practices and standards for its workers. This year OUR Walmart is once again on the scene, but now divorced from its supporter and financier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and trying to go on its own. A decade ago, UFCW did much the same thing with a competing effort called WakeUp Walmart not so much as to organize but to keep their brand and jurisdictional claims alive and compete with the SEIU-backed WalmartWatch and the multi-union effort we ran to prove that Walmart workers could be organized in Florida and to establish that we could stop their expansion with aggressive work and community allies both in the US and India. New leadership at UFCW jettisoned the program support for OUR Walmart leaving them trying to keep the flame alive, all of which seems terribly reminiscent of our earlier efforts.

Jamieson asks the simple question no one likes to hear in public about the viability of OUR Walmart and the sustainability of its effort without a deep-pocketed sponsor. He raises the same question about the multi-year expenditure that SEIU has made to organize McDonalds in companion with its support of the Fight for $15 campaign. SEIU has been resolute in its commitment to these efforts. Both campaigns can claim significant victories. Walmart did move on wages at the bottom. Not to $15 per hour but up to $10 across the board at a cost of billions. SEIU has seen dividends from its Fight for $15 in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and in states like California and New York where it has significant membership, so they can claim some success from their advocacy. McDonalds does not seem to have moved any closer to the union than Walmart has moved towards UFCW, though closer observers with better information than I have claim that SEIU’s strategy is global, is sound, and may still yield significant organizational victories as well.

And, that’s the rub. Unions are not foundations. They have to eventually see members and dues or some direct benefit from the expenditure of dues or the reaction will be predictable, just as is was with UFCW’s leadership change. And, when it comes to funding, foundations are not a substitute for workers and their dues or workers and their unions. Foundations will shine a bright penny for a minute, but they will never double down to the level needed to get to scale in fighting giant enterprises like either of these companies.

Can OUR Walmart create a real workers’ movement at the giant retailer with a strategy that produces sufficient organization and membership that will finance a long struggle? It’s possible, we proved that in Florida, but that’s a 10, 20 or 30 year project, and would represent the life work and sacrifice of many to survive, and, even surviving, would, having proven the concept, still need support at some point to get to scale. The same transition will need to occur in the McDonalds’ campaign, but hopefully with the continuity of SEIU’s support and assistance.

No one else is going to finance these struggles without workers carrying a huge part of the weight. The publicity is great, but smoke and mirrors is not organizing. David Rolf of SEIU’s big Washington State local, was quoted as saying, “The old model has failed several generations … We should encourage these experiments, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. We still haven’t figured this out.” Certainly, he’s right, but his remarks must seem gratuitous to organizers and workers deep in the struggle. OUR Walmart has proven that the day of reckoning for such experiments comes quickly, so the time for figuring it all out for all of these organizing projects remains now, before it’s too late.


Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.