Renters’ Rising

banner_fb-page001Buckhorn, Ontario   It is starting to feel like we’re getting real traction in what has become a global fight for tenants’ rights. Not only has ACORN built an effective organization for tenants to resist the arbitrary, capricious, and sometimes dangerous and unhealthy practices of landlords in an often uncertain legal environment, but as importantly we are developing real programs for real protections from government and policy makers. As I was crossing the Atlantic to attend an ACORN head organizers and staff training session in Ontario, there was evidence of this kind of progress for tenants on both sides of the ocean.

In Bristol, in a conference attended by hundreds, ACORN organized a wide-ranging discussion on steps that needed to be taken to shore up and advance tenants’ rights not only in Bristol but throughout England. Launching a new campaign, Renters’ Rising, with actions and events throughout England, ACORN is calling for a country-wide Renters’ Union. Similar steps are being taken by ACORN Scotland on the wake of their parliamentary victories on security of tenure and rent control.

The crisis in affordable housing in the United Kingdom touches through virtually every city. London is now world famous for the breadth of the issue, but ACORN chapters in Newcastle, Reading, Birmingham, and of course Bristol and London have organized meeting after meeting where members are demanding solutions and are determined to take action. The collapse of social housing and the dramatic increase of private landlord tenancy has created an environment where protective rules and policies for tenants has not caught up, giving too many landlords the upper hand which they are exploiting. ACORN Bristol’s promotion of an ethical letting charter and its support by the Bristol Council as well as several letting agencies themselves has given momentum to these campaigns.

On the other side of the water the progress in Toronto in winning a landlord licensing regime with real teeth in enforcement after a campaign with ups and downs over more than a decade is finally at the finish line. ACORN has already won initial support by the full council but the devil is in the details and is now rounding up council support in anticipation of the staff report and final votes on implementation. Organizers reported real progress pretty much across the board with strong support from various council allies who are essentially telling us, “We got this!” Nonetheless, members are involved at every step along the way and will be present in large numbers at every opportunity. ACORN Canada President Marva Burnett was realistic in a recent interview on what the approval of landlord licensing would mean. She noted both her disappointment at the Toronto Council’s rejection of the proposal in 2008, as well as her expectations and hope for the final vote on the plan this fall.

Burnett’s points are inescapable. None of this is easy and, given the power of landlords, these fights are won through persistence. But the factor on ACORN’s side on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that politicians cannot ignore reality forever. The rental market is out of control and that demands effective regulation. The other point that is equally inescapable whether Canada or the United Kingdom is that tenants can neither fight nor win without effective, mass organization and that’s what they have built in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada and that ACORN is now building with is Renters’ Union in England.

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Hating Immigrants is the Wild Card in the Electoral Deck

immigration_2280507bNew Orleans   Wow! It must have suddenly become hate-on-an-immigrant day and Hallmark didn’t prepare any condolence cards for the rest of us. In one day the lives of immigrant millions of families were cast into limbo with the split, no-decision 4-4 polling of the Supreme Court and the 52-48 so-called Brexit vote for Great Britain to leave the European Union. President Obama called the Supreme Court split decision, “heartbreaking,” and said the upcoming election would determine “what kind of people we are.”

Meanwhile the United Kingdom showed what kind of people they were, and it was a bit brutish and left little doubt that immigration and the attendant freedom of mobility within the European Union was the wedge issue driving them out of the EU. As reported in the Times,

With net migration to Britain of 330,000 people in 2015, more than half of them from the European Union, Mr. Cameron had no effective response to how he could limit the influx. And there was no question that while the immigrants contributed more to the economy and to tax receipts than they cost, parts of Britain felt that its national identity was under assault and that the influx was putting substantial pressure on schools, health care and housing.

The campaign run by one of the loudest proponents of leaving, the U.K. Independence Party, flirted with xenophobia, nativism and what some of its critics considered racism. But the official, more mainstream Leave campaign also invoked immigration as an issue, and its slogan, “Take control,” resonated with voters who feel that the government is failing to regulate the inflow of people from Europe and beyond.

Prime Minister David Cameron will pay for the misjudgment and shortsightedness in calling the vote and the rejection at the polls with his job, offering his resignation after a couple of month’s transition to sort out the mess. There is pulling of hair and rending of clothes throughout Europe in trying to understand the “turning point,” the vote represents, but it is hard to see it as anything other than backwards. Scotland which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, is likely to press again for independence from the United Kingdom given this debacle.

Meanwhile in the United States the same mess is brewing. Trump of course said, “good for them,” joining the nativist on both sides of the Atlantic. Speaker Ryan who is becoming expert at the convoluted logic of politics claimed the no-decision was somehow a rejection by the Supreme Court of Obama’s executive authority around immigration, knowing that all of this awaits the appointment of a tie-breaking Justice in the hands of the next President. The Republicans once again proved how quickly tragedy can be converted into farce.

But what about the people, the immigrants themselves? The five million or more who were living on the bubble of this decision who were parents of citizens or children raised here, all of whom were hoping for some security and a path to the future? Advocates promised to mobilize, voter registration efforts were highlighted, but in the meantime, the “kind of people we are” will be the kind of people who break up families and deport record numbers of people from the United States, because our politics lacks both a heart and a backbone willing to make hard political decisions even when they are so clearly morally correct.

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Setting the “Real” Living Wage in the United Kingdom

_85293800_gettyimages-492437705London   The conservatives in the United States may have managed some permanent confusion among workers by labeling their decades long campaign against unions and dues collection, the “right-to-work” laws, but on our side of the line the several decades we have fought “living wage” campaigns was an equally powerful organizing bulwark against ongoing efforts to freeze millions of workers at the minimum wages, making it clear the minimum was simply not enough for workers and their families to live. In the United Kingdom this fight over labeling has become a very important battle of the brands.

The Guardian summarized the dispute well, writing:

The long-running campaign shot to political prominence last July when the chancellor made a “national living wage”, to be set at £7.20 an hour in April, the centrepiece of his budget. But [Secretary of the Exchequer] Osborne’s statutory minimum, which is set to rise to about £9 an hour by 2020, will apply only to over-25s and remains below the living wage, which is calculated to reflect the cost of a decent standard of living for a full-time worker. The living wage now stands at £9.40 for London, where it is calculated by the mayor’s office, and £8.25 across the rest of the UK. More than a quarter of FTSE 100 firms have signed up to pay it to their staff, with Lidl, the supermarket chain, among recent high-profile converts.

Converting the pounds to the dollar and translating English to American, the conservative government is essentially proposing an increase in the federal or national minimum wage in the UK to $10.42 this spring and then $13.03 in US dollars by 2020. The living wage campaigners numbers in London equal $13.61 in dollars and nationally $11.94, so these are differences worth fighting for obviously. The living wage campaigns in the UK are won by voluntary compliance rather than being established as mandatory minimums, and the signees claimed around 66000 workers under agreements in 2015, I was told now believe that they are closer to 100,000 workers.

So, what’s to do about this somewhat slick, though flattering, attempt to appropriate the terminology and spirit of wage increases while not giving them out in reality? A high level, blue ribbon commission has been formed with labor, churches, foundations, and economists to try and re-calibrate the figures in establishing a competitive standard to establish a new “living wage” for progressive forces. The commission debated calling itself the “real” living wage outfit or changing their name, but instead rightly entered the fray. As we know from the US and Canadian campaigns such pursuits can become fool’s errands as one tries to balance political reality against all of the elements that might justifiably be included in such formulas. In the US the arguments have always been around health care and day care costs. In Canada, childcare has often been the bridge too far for some city bylaw fights.

With voluntary compliance some might think this is an argument more about posture than policy for progressives trying to keep the pressure on while holding tightly to their signatories, but talking to people close to the Commission’s deliberations there’s much more at state. The devolving governmental powers in Scotland won by the Scottish Parliament after losing the independence vote last year have the Scottish National Party and its allies on this issue, including from the labor unions, moving to establish a living wage standard for public, governmental workers in Scotland. The Scots have indicated to the Living Wage Commission that they are interested in setting their rate at the number the commission recalibrates, assuming the economics aligns with their politics and finances as well, The potential for Scottish adoption of the, what can I say, but “real” living wage, makes this dispute and the number crunching that undergirds it much more than a spitting match about terminology, giving it a strong push against what fairly, we and others, could now label the lesser “so-called” living wage set by the conservatives in the national government at Westminster.

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Where is The Line Between Good Advice and Crass Marketing?

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Advise and photo from The Guardian

New Orleans    Recently, I read that the well-known progressive newspaper based in the United Kingdom, The Guardian, has established a special section on its website called “protest.” Wow, I thought, now we’re talking! And, truth to tell, I’ve started making it a point to regularly check it out every couple of days. I’m not saying this new feature is going to end up on everyone’s weekly “to do” list, but what can I say…it’s on mine.

If I remember correctly I had gotten the heads-up from some columnist who saw this Guardian feature as a “sign of the times” kind of thing indicating that protests were becoming constant and ubiquitous. Oh, how I wish! A regular reading indicates the opposite. Sometimes it’s pretty thin gruel as The Guardian tries to keep hope alive in this section to tell the truth.

And, sometimes it’s just plain troubling.

I read a piece by Tess Riley identified as a Guardian journalist and a former student campaigner entitled Three Steps to Building a Successful Student Campaign. Not surprisingly the section on communication given her career choice was stronger than some of the other “steps.” For the most part it was all pretty standard, cookbook style recommendations: wear comfortable shoes to a march, use “strong visuals” in protests, and the like. Community organizing made her list, but was obviously a bit outside her experience and just sort of taken off the shelf as she wrote:

This grassroots approach seeks to find out what people want or need by listening to their stories. By finding common themes, organisers can mobilise neighbours through shared concerns to bring about change.

Obviously this is not my cup of tea since it continues to propagandize a spin on the work that is somehow separate from building an organization, seeing people simply as a base to be mobilized, and trying to dilute the power of issues and anger in some milquetoast whitewash called “their stories.” But, that’s just me.

More disturbing was finding by the end of Riley’s piece the real point seemed less about The Guardian giving students a shot at making change, but more about The Guardian doing self-promotion of something they were calling Guardian Students, which seems like a scam to sell students on the need to read The Guardian. Fair enough, they have to pay their bills too, but equating social change and sales felt sketchy to me. It made me question whether or not the “protest” section was really about the news and getting the word out about important actions people are taking than just pandering to eyeballs like mine to drive traffic to their website and the ads running along the side of articles. Was I a supporter or a sucker?

I should have known. I had read a book several months ago that warned me, and any others that might care, about the role of the Gates Foundation is playing in slanting the spin on development through their sponsorship of the Global Development section of The Guardian.

We need the news and regular and reliable news on things like protest, poverty, and development is hard to find, but where is the line drawn between good advice and crass marketing, their drive to survive at any cost, and our interest in fair and objective information. Where is the section that will explain to us whether we are players or being played?

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Banks are Building “Credit Deserts” in Birmingham and Elsewhere

182984189-465119Edinburgh   We have real deserts like Sahara, the Gobi, Mohave, or Chihuahuan in the world. We have food “deserts” in many lower income communities with little choice but mom-and-pops, corner stores, kiosks, and bodegas to serve millions. Now there’s increasing evidence that banks have been allowed to build “credit deserts” in many cities, and work in Birmingham, the second largest city in the United Kingdom, makes it clear the map of the desert is also the outline of lower income communities in the city.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Reportedly, British banks have shut down 42% of their branches over the last 15 years, and of course a huge percentage of the closures have been in lower income areas. Fleeing from the responsibilities of community banking has long been a trend in the United States of course, but in the United Kingdom the concentration of most banking in a handful of companies exacerbates the crisis. The U.K.’s antitrust regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, recently said that Britain’s retail banking market isn’t competitive enough, but then didn’t do much about it and made no proposals for forcing the country’s big lenders from making any radical changes to their businesses. U.K retail and business banking is dominated by four banks: Lloyds Banking Group , Royal Bank of Scotland Group , Barclays and HSBC Holdings holding approximately 70% of personal current accounts and 80% of business accounts in the U.K.

Now as data is becoming available in recent years on where small businesses, mortgage loans, and smaller consumer loans are being given by banks, the city council of Birmingham did some number crunching, and then laid out the results on a map. In general Birmingham citizens had less access to credit than virtually any other part of the UK, but more specifically when a comparison was made on where loans were NOT being made, the overlap with lower income communities was precise. There is no question that banks are discriminating against low and moderate income families as a matter of policy and as a key part of their business plan.

While the banks build a “credit desert,” the vultures that sweep in to feed on the people are of course the payday lenders and cities in the UK, just like the US and Canada are seeing a feeding frenzy. ACORN organizers not only in Birmingham but in other cities in England and Scotland were quickly able to rattle off the names and addresses of payday lenders, pawn shops, and other quick money spots in our neighborhoods.

While visiting we looked up the regulations on payday lenders in the UK. Not much hope for relief there in the credit desert. Pretty much everything goes if the interest rate on the loans was less than 100% of the loan itself. Checking the popular internet money lender, Wonga, to our shock they boldly displayed an APR or annual percentage rate for their lending rate at 1509%.

The plan seems to be to discriminate in lending and then open the door wide so that the pockets of lower income families can be picked clean.

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“Payday Loan Song”by Erich Vieth

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Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:

TO: MINIMUM WAGE WORKING GROUP

As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.

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