Bits Along the Road

Manchester     Two words heard regularly in the UK are “sorted” and “bits.”  Sorted makes sense in a way.  Get organized, straighten out, arrange in place, whatever, to sort something is to put it right, and the term is ubiquitous.  Almost as common is a reference to “bits” with is a catchall for a miscellaneous everything from a to-do list to random things that of course need to be sorted.  On the trains in the United Kingdom there is an announcement along with posters in every station about keeping your eyes open for things that are out of sort with the slogan “see it, say it, sort it” as a promise that that the authorities will take care of the matter.

One thing that is no longer sorted in the UK is the notion of being able to count on the trains running on time. Our crew left wildly early for airports back to the US, Canada, and France on the assumption that the trains would be late, not timely.  Going from Heathrow through Reading a train scheduled on our itinerary simply disappeared and remains, what can I say, but unsorted.  A larger surprise was showing up to buy train tickets in advance in Cardiff and being told to get to the station for the first train and hope for the best, they were unsure on that Sunday when or if trains would be running at all.  That was disconcerting!

Talking to information we learned about both the continued power of the railway unions on the Great Western line as well as the wild popularity of the World Cup.  We were advised on the down-low that the real problem was that some 75% of the train conductors had called off for that Sunday in expectation that England would prevail against Croatia and be in the Cup final.  The GWR was unclear if they would have enough trainmen to run more than a quarter of their routes, so for anyone trying to get a plane out of London or go anywhere else, that might just be too bad, but nothing management could do about it.  As it developed, England lost to Croatia and then again on Saturday to Belgium, though everyone was measured in their disappointment, not having believed they would get so deep in the tournament, for soccer-clueless travelers with no horse in the race, we got there early and waited to be rewarded with trains running both to London and Manchester.

In Manchester finally, I learned that unions have hunkered down to organize home health care workers which sounds about time.  Another organizer told me about the Wisconsin-style rules that force the public workers union to have to climb a huge mountain to poll 50% of the eligible workers in favor of a strike vote.  Failing to do so has stuck such workers with a 1% increase annually for almost a decade of austerity.  In cities like London the minimum wage guaranteed would only leave 20% left over to live after paying the average rent of over 800 pounds.  Meanwhile the government in a private-public partnership is spending billions on a high-speed train proposed from Manchester to London which would save perhaps 15-minutes of travel time.

There are a lot of bits that need to get sorted.

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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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