Outside the Box?

Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California: Every year for the last number we have done two sets of training for all of ACORN‘s new organizers.  Mid-level includes all organizers with between six and eighteen months of experience and Advanced moves in many organizers who seem to be “keepers” a year after they have done mid-level.  For many years we did the training in Chicago mostly at the Cenacle Retreat Center run by the sisters near Lincoln Park, which is a venue we all enjoyed.  Over recent years we have met on the west coast for the first two years around Los Angeles and this year here at the north end of San Diego County in one of Father Juniper Serra’s chain of missions built in the 1700’s on a hill overlooking a valley less than five miles from the Pacific.

 I always enjoy the opportunity to run the advanced session.  I get an chance to meet the younger or less experienced organizers coming into their stride and usually at the juncture of making longer term decisions about deepening commitments and increasing responsibility.  Originally, these sessions were three days, but they have been whittled down to two days to fit my schedule better, which seems short, but gets all of us most of the way there.  Recently, given ACORN’s growth spurt, the sessions have gotten larger as the staff has multiplied, and there were eighteen on my crew this year.  Mid-level tends to hewn pretty closely to a set curriculum since we are trying to bring everyone being trained across the country onto the same page where we can assess the organizer as well as the training in our offices.  In advanced there is a tolerance allowing me to do what might interest me that year and engage the organizers, so we tend to try something different every year.

 One of the ongoing tensions in organizing rests in the importance of both making sure that organizers are proficient within a particular model or organizing methodology, while being careful to ensure that that model is a framework, rather than a cage, providing a structure from which organizers, leaders, and members can innovate, grow and adapt.  This is often difficult to achieve.  It is hard to modify anything that is working.  Nonetheless it is critical for organizers to know how to think about their work in the broadest and most creative ways, if they are going to be effective.

 This year we have focused on how one thinks differently.  The organizers were asked to read a chapter of Michael Lewis’, Moneyball, about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s and Bill James and his way of looking at baseball’s statistics and accepted wisdom.  They were also asked to read several chapters of James Suroweski’s Wisdom of Crowds and Naomi Klein’s No Logo.     Some liked the readings and some did not, but in each case it was unavoidable in the discussion that one has to be able to look under the rock to build any organization, create any effective campaign or strategy, and particularly to have a chance at winning.

 As we finish these two days together, one sometimes wonders if a lot of others besides newly minted organizers with a year or two of experience under their belts should not be reading the same books, or at least thinking about the same questions to see what is really under the hood and whether or not there may be a better way.  It even seems fitting to be writing this inside a mission along the Camino Real laid out hundreds of years ago in another time and in another world, and wondering what it takes to both make it for the long haul and still mean something at the end of the trip.

Gardens in the mission San Luis Rey.

Running from the Workers or the Bosses?

Houston: Building a union means fighting for every member, marking every inch of ground.  The point has been brought home to us for the hundredth time again in Houston over recent weeks, but if for no other reason that to find the company that misery craves, let me share the hard tale.

 Starts simply enough.  Workers over the last two years had been subcontracted by the Houston Housing Authority – particularly those workers handling Section 8 housing, which means scattered site work among other things.  The bid had been won by a large, national contractor – Quadel – and the whole shebang was operated under the name of the Houston Housing Partnership. 

 For reasons neither here nor there, no love came to be lost.  Privatizing the workforce was a mixed bag.  Wages went up — benefits went down.  Job security went out the window, and the beat went on.  All of which led the unhappy workers to our union, Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union

 A good solid, strong organizing committee got the cards signed in what quickly became a classic drive with solid leadership which managed every hurdle, filed with heavy card strength, and hung on through a hard campaign to win by a significant margin.  The company we found was union with a sister SEIU local in Chicago, so had a reputation for hard bargaining and campaigning, but that is all par in this part of the country.

 A foreboding apprehension was unavoidable when we heard from the company that their legal, bargaining representative would be a lawyer of our intimate acquaintance from Vinson, Elkins, who was known and proven to be one of the more effective union busters in the Houston area.  Nonetheless it still came as a surprise as the first bargaining session drew nigh recently to be notified that in fact the company was abandoning the contract and the jobs were moving back to the public sector.


 Was the company running because the union had won?  Was there a prior tension between the company and the Houston Housing Authority which had escaped or been unknown to us?  Were we a priori or just the last straw?

 Legally, the company under the National Labor Relations Act still has mandatory bargaining responsibilities, and they have honored them to the letter, and in fairness, have already agreed that there will be no loss of pay as the workers move back to the public sector, which was a critical concern of course.  Other issues still await reply as this transition back in time speeds to its mid-October dateline.  None of which is helped by the confused responsibilities in the handshake between private and public employers.

 Normally, taking jobs from private to public can be a positive thing.  In Texas it’s a little dicey though because public workers have no easily assumed, automatic rights to union representation – they can have them, but it’s a fight – and they are barred from collective bargaining categorically! 

 All of this times time and is of crucial importance to the 85 workers in the bargaining unit teetering over the abyss.  Who knows at this point no matter how much is won after months of work by the union whether a single member will end up in Local 100 when all is said and done. 

 A victory at the Labor Board isn’t worth the paper of the certification when it comes to the discretion of the Mayor of Houston whether to grant checkoff to the union and allow the workers to continue to build what they so ably began.

 One could spend years pointing fingers here in this one case study, but perhaps while that is going on, it’s easier to spend the same amount of time, simply trying to figure out a better way.

Local 100 members organizing for justice in Houston. Names for last photo: (front) Al Green Congressional Candidate. (Back) Freeman Fletcher. Right to left: Gail Bell, Zina Robinson.
Sandrael Martin.