Blog 852: 300 Million

Ideas and Issues International Labor Organizing Personal Writings

Bogota We finally all got to talk to each other. Shashi Bhushan and I met with the asian caucus that quickly became the india plus caucus as first one then another jumped in to speak.

SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association, had an organizer and two leaders present. They claim 31,000 waste-picking members and three cooperatives in Gujurat. I asked if there were any tensions between mass union members versus the "elite" in coops. She answered "yes" but offered no other details.

I asked the group at one point whether it was confusing to talk simultaneously about waste pickers as labor union members vs professionals vs small business people vs coop members. They all nodded vigorously that this was a real problem! Unfortunately no one wanted to engage in the discussion.

I shared the organizing accomplishment in the state of creating an "employer" for informal workers to create a way to bargain and raise standards. I shared that the million plus members organized this way in the last 25 years was probably our only clear success. More nodding. No questions. No discussion.

Talking at lunch to Chris Bonner from WEIGO on of the organizers and sponsors, I asked her theories about this problem. She had done 18 years in the South African labor movement when it counted for the chemical workers ending up as education director before moving on. I told her that was enough time for a cup of coffee and an introduction to organizing. How did she explain the resistance to count members, collect dues, and embrace mass organizing including labor strategies?

She said "It’s complicated." Huh? I said, “Look, I’m lobbying you now that you have come up to me. Why isn’t this part of the discussion or included somewhere in the debate as a workshop or track or something?” She felt part of the problem lay with the NGOs because they didn’t believe in members and dues. I said, "but they are the funders so are you telling me this is just project-based, people being forced to follow the money?". She nodded. Complicated. She said WEIGO was a research and policy shop and didn’t set the agenda but wanted the waste pickers to do that. I asked if people even given options. Could they at least do the study to let people talk about strategy? “Maybe” she said.

There was so much excitement and energy in the congress. There were so many stories of struggle and success. But where would it go other than to more meetings? It was hard to tell.

Columbian tv led with a story for the home watch accusing Chavez of giving $300 million over recent years to finance the dreaded FARC. CNN and BBC ran the story of Ecuador and Venezuela expelling Columbian diplomats from their countries. One had a piece about the likely economic impact of this warmongering for all three countries. The FARC cancelled the prisoner exchange. The crisis built hour by hour.

But not in Bogota. The buses were packed. The highways clogged. Another day of work. All of this was on a remote border a million miles from the citizens of all three countries.

WEIGO, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing