ACORN a Major Force in Voter Registration for Tenants in United Kingdom

New Orleans   Your mind just did a double take, right? ACORN and voter registration in the same sentence, that’s so 2008, right? Well, yes and no, but screw your head on tighter and focus, focus, focus, because now we’re talking about ACORN as a force for voter registration, and the setting is the United Kingdom. What’s up?

The snap election called by British Prime Minister Theresa May is coming soon, and voter registration has become more difficult in the UK. Until recently the head of a family with one swoop could register everyone in the household, now everyone must individually register. Other new rules that fit in with the global voter suppression efforts of conservatives impact potential young voters because universities, for example, are barred from registering students, largely to keep them from creating a voting block in the towns where they are located.

The other huge group that is being disenfranchised now in the UK is tenants, and ACORN’s base in England and Scotland is significantly composed of tenants, given the housing affordability and access crisis which has swept the UK. The Guardian quoting an ACORN report, noted that “ 93% of property owners are registered to vote but only 63% of renters.” Others say the number may be as low as 59%.

In a more recent article in The Guardian, the case was even clearer that ACORN is working to register and bring attention to millions of tenants being disenfranchised. The Guardian reported:

Campaigners have also warned that another high-risk group is the more than 3 million private renters in England. Generation Rent and ACORN, both pressure groups for renters’ rights, estimate that about 1.8m private renters have moved home since the 2016 referendum and must therefore register again.

Private renters are typically on tenancy agreements of no longer than 12 months and are six times more likely to move in a given year than homeowners, the groups said. A further 1.6 million private renters are estimated not to have been registered in the first place.

ACORN’s national organiser, Stuart Melvin, said renters’ rights were dependent on registering to vote. “Renters need a government that will reform the housing market to protect them from unfair evictions and rising rents, and we won’t get one unless we vote for it,” he said.

Before renters can do that, they need to make sure they’re registered, and when you are on the register it is too easy to fall off it when you move.”

Buzzfeed was even more specific on the importance of ACORN’s efforts noting that “research from Renters Vote, a campaign from renters rights groups ACORN and Generation Rent… say 1.8 million renters who are eligible to vote moved home since the EU referendum in June 2016 and will need to reregister in their new address, while a further 1.6 million renters were unregistered to start with…Renters move home six times more often than homeowners on average, due to the widespread use of 12-month assured short-hold tenancy agreements, meaning they have to register each time they move.”

This is a major issue given the upcoming election, and the clock is ticking. Despite the efforts of ACORN and our partners, a huge number of tenants will be left voiceless in this election, as ACORN’s national organizer, Stuart Melvin noted. There isn’t much doubt that that was the point of these voter suppression efforts.

One bright light for the future was included in the recommendations by a Guardian columnist of what needed to be done to fight this problem in the future, which we totally embrace:

6. Unionise

Official recognition for tenant unions, such as Acorn, Living Rent [ACORN’s affiliate] in Scotland, Tenant Voice and Generation Rent. Include them in discussions, invite them to select committees, listen to what they say.

Amen to that!

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Could the US Labor Movement Lose 3 to 5 Million Members Under Trump?

Sheffield   Visiting with a British union organizer in touch with colleagues in the United States, I was shocked, though perhaps I should not have been, when he told me he had been hearing of worst-case scenario meetings of labor strategists meeting after the election estimating that the American labor movement could lose 3 to 5 million members based on policies and initiatives that might be unstoppable at every level under a Trump Administration. Needless to say, such a mammoth disgorging of union membership would be crippling, not just for existing unions, but for the entire array of progressive forces throughout the country.

In the last 35 years, union membership density in the US has already fallen from slightly over 20% of the organized workforce to barely 11%. There are somewhere around 14.5 million members of unions, so a loss of even 3 million would deplete membership by more than 20%. A loss of 5 million would rip away over one-third of US union membership. The private sector membership of unions is now less than 7%, and even without Trump, organizing strategists for 20 years have warned that without major restructuring of organizing programs and significant organizing initiatives and policy shifts, labor was on a path to only 5% density or one in twenty American workers enjoying union membership. The current jet fueled conservative assault is likely against the more than 35% public sector membership that remains in unions.

We already can see the attack unfolding on several fronts. Republican-controlled legislatures and statehouses have already eviscerated union security provisions in Kentucky and Missouri is likely to fall with the house already having acted and the senate approving after current contracts expire with the governor’s signature seemingly inevitable. Other states are on the list. A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand. The other major front already manifesting itself is more broadly aimed at public sector workers. Memorandum attacking paid union leave time in the federal sector for grievance handling and contract enforcement is already proceeding. The defeat in Wisconsin, which had been the birthplace of public unionization, provides a road map for other states to follow, but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.

Antonio Scalia’s death provided temporary relief when the Supreme Court split on the issue of withdrawing union security provisions for public workers in California and one or two Trump nominees, barring another miracle, means that even in staunch labor redoubts public union membership at the city, county, state, and educational level could be devastating, as we have seen in Wisconsin. Powerhouses of progressive labor like the teachers, service employees, government workers, and even industrial and private sector unions like the communication workers, auto workers, and teamsters which also represent significant bargaining units of public workers would all be hit hard.

Some unions are reportedly taking steps to prepare for these losses, both in their organizing and servicing programs, but lessons from not only Wisconsin but also from the British labor movement where union security was lost under Prime Minister Thatcher, indicate the losses under any reckoning will be severe. Never make the mistake in believing this will be a crisis only for American workers and their organizations. Conservatives know well what progressives should never forget, crippling institutional labor will have a seismic impact on all progressive organizations and capacity.

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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.

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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.

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The Interesting Transition from Ideological Argument to Personal Contact

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

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg – www.lichtbild.org, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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