A week in Toronto

Toronto: The Community Leadership Centre (www.columbiainstitute.ca) reassembled our organizer trainees in Toronto to have them debrief from their first dozen weeks in the field and do some intensive training on campaign mechanics before their second stint of field assignments.  We were a smaller, but hardier crew as we pulled into Victoria College on the University of Toronto campus for these sessions.  Two of our number had not survived the community placement, so the three that remained were more confident for the experience and new conviction in their own skills and discipline.  If it were easy, it would not be organizing. 

 We had an excellent three days because we benefited hugely from colleagues in the Toronto area sharing their experiences with various campaigns.

 We started the sessions with Keith Stewart, Smog & Climate Control Campaign Coordinator for the Toronto Environmental Alliance (www.torontoenvironment.org).  Keith had been referred by John Cartwright, President of the Toronto & York Labor Council, who called him the “best campaigner” in the area.  This reputation sprang from a long fight to prevent the privatization of the electric utility capacity under the Harris government, and Keith detailed the fight and the larger alliance constructed with CUPE Local 1 and others with both insight and humor.   We asked at one point what climate control was?  Was this global warming or something?  Yes, in fact that turned out to be exactly the case, but he related the fact that in Canada they had to change the message.  If he were talking to Canadians about global warming, most of them pretty readily said, “right on!” and felt it was a great idea.  Climate control quickly became the euphemism so they could get any support for their message!

 It was like that throughout the week. 

 Mike Fraser, Director of UFCW – Canada (www.ufcw.ca ), spent several hours with us catching us up in great detail with the organizing efforts throughout the country on five or six different Wal-Mart stores over the last 12 months.  There was great commitment to a strategy of seeking to win certification in one of the provinces on a Wal-Mart store, which is certainly a goal that has eluded the labor movement in the States and elsewhere.  Brother Fraser also surprised us with the stories of the UFCW’s campaign to organize agricultural workers and migrant workers in Ontario, who have been denied the right to unionization since the Harris government as well.  The UFCW runs three farm worker centers in Ontario and two in Quebec to support this organizing, and has assumed the mantel that one would have presumed the UFW would have had.

 John Young, the Executive Director of ACORN-Canada (www.acorn.org/international) reprised his experience directing the British Columbia Public Power Campaign with the OPEIU to prevent the privatization of that utility system.  Later in the week Jon Kest, Head Organizer of New York ACORN (www.acorn.org/newyork) , shared analysis and results of affordable housing and housing development efforts in New York City over the last twenty years, and how that might compare to similar issues and campaigns in Vancouver and Toronto and lessons that were learned. 

 Cliff Andstein, Executive Assistant to President Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress (www.clc-ctc.ca), opened everyone’s eyes when he discussed the shear volume and variety of the campaigns nationally that the CLC administered.  Clarity of objectives was Brother Andstein’s message over and over as he marched us through a number of campaigns, particularly the long twenty year struggles to prevent privatization of the liquor stores in British Columbia and Ontario. 

 Karen Dick of TOFFE, the Toronto Organization for Fair Employment (www.toffeonline.org), in a similar way was able to weave together the long struggles their organization had waged to get back pay for workers in the area against big name companies like Rogers Communications and others.  We were disappointed to be missing a Bad Boss Tour that TOFFE was leading within days to a half-dozen sites of big name employers who were literally ripping off largely immigrant work forces in the GTA for thousands of dollars in back pay.  We all felt we were completely on the inside track when we read an op-ed in the Toronto Star by one of TOFFE’s staff during the week indicating that back pay was owed to 60000 workers in Ontario.

 Tim Dramin, Executive Director of Tides Canada (www.tidescanada.org), was gracious enough to confront the issue of resources for organizing campaigns head on without pulling any punches and walk the organizers step by step across the difficult minefields of external fundraising in Canada to be able to build the future campaigns that would fall on their shoulders.  It was disappointing to hear how challenging foundations would be, and encouraging that unions and churches might be sources.  The hard work on resources was undeniable though, but clearer thanks to Tim’s advice.

 It was jam packed.  The organizers spent time looking at the elements of campaigns, trying to imagine tactics that fit strategy, and taking sides as they read Thucydides on the hard bargaining between the Melians and the Athenians.   Having sharpened their skills and shored up their knowledge, one organizer went to assignment with the UFCW-Canada and within days would be on a blitz in Toronto on a Wal-Mart and then on to support a drive for 1200 workers in Brooks, Alberta across the country.  Another would head back to British Columbia to work with Check Your Head (www.checkyourhead.org) on a project called “Get Your Vote On!” to come up with a strategy and implementation program on registering younger voters.  Another would go back to SEIU 2028 in San Diego and at the end of community drive training begin work on support a drive to organize 5000 home childcare workers in San Diego County. 

 They all faced the future with a mixture of fear, determination, confidence, and curiosity as they took yet another step in the journey that will decide their future as organizers.

Keith Stewart of TEA discussing campaigns against electric privatization while Daniel Sorenson, a Centre organizer listens

Watching Fahrenheit 9/11 in Lafayette with Local 100 Leaders

Lafayette: An extra treat for our annual SEIU Local 100 Leadership Conference this year was a last minute addition and an unexpected surprise. 

One of our office staff approached me on the Friday before we left for Lafayette about how I would feel about some entertainment for the leadership meeting?  Why not, I thought.  She then mentioned that in the ways of the world and the young digerati of our times, she had come into a DVD copy of the current smash documentary move hit by Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11.  I thought for about 30 seconds about the “morality” of this, and decided that if Michael Moore was really serious in all of his reported newspaper quotes saying he hoped that this movie might actually help jazz up the base to beat Bush, then how could he mind giving some working folks a shot at seeing a first run flick at a private “Hollywood” screening in a Lafayette, Louisiana Holiday Inn.  Our leaders needed a shot in the arm to really hit the streets and make a difference in the hard scrabble frontier of battleground states like Louisiana and Arkansas, not even counting the bastion of Bush-ism in Texas. 

So after a long day of workshops and panel discussions and a nice sit down meal of fried catfish and good conversation and fellowship with each other, we adjourned back to our meeting room and the big screen.  First, Vernon Bolden, Local 100’s President and I gave our Certificates of Participation to all of the leaders.  This was a ball!  What a bunch of hambones and prima donnas!  One after another they started trying to top each other, partly because we took pictures of everyone getting their certificate until the film ran out. 

I was surprised when a fair number of the Local 100 staff indicated that they had already seen the movie, though I don’t know why.  I guess since I had not had a minute to go see it, I just assumed that neither had they, but on second thought they were exactly the demographic of the believers that were probably the prime constituency lining up to see the move over and over.  The leaders, though, were as curious as I was to finally see what it was all about.

A lot of it was dumbed down to a simple conspiracy of money and the Saudi’s that was interesting but circumstantial.  Some sophomoric high jinks and cleverness for its own sake were played to cheap laughs, but not many of them really.  But the movie had a strong finish and was moving when it got to real people and real emotion.

It certainly moved the leaders when Vernon led an evaluation of the movie the next morning.  On the downside some wondered why it was worth the effort when money would always win.  Maybe they were right at some levels, but this was hardly the moral of this story!  We were looking for “dare to struggle, dare to win,” and we had to work for it.  One organizer who had lived in New York City also moved the members by saying she felt like she had been under attack in New York and because she had roots in the East, was under attack again.  Others were moved by the pictures of children playing before bombs fell, and had trouble sleeping thinking of the pictures of dead and maimed Iraqis.  All were moved by the Flint mother’s lament, her courage, and her pain.  In the main when the leaders went one by one around the room later that morning the movie helped them commit to what needed to be done to get out at the worksites and talk to the their co-workers, register the fallen, motivate the discouraged, and get them all out to vote. 

By the time the conference broke up, hands held in prayer around the circle, it felt like we really meant it and were ready to make a difference.  Let’s hope so!

In downtown Lafayette there are two steel griders from the NY World Trade Center attack which raise up 6 feet or so and are recent memorials to 9/11 in this middle sized, conservative Louisiana City. There is a quote from President George W. Bush about terrorism on the Lafayette 9/11 Memorial.