Transformation, not Transactions: Preaching Community-Union Linkages to the Choir!

ACORN ACORN International Community Organizing Organizing

Victoria    When the topic of the leadership conference is “Building the Links:  Connecting Unions and Community,” and my 90-minute slot has the same title, it’s already a slow pitch to the plate looking for a big swing.  After weeks of singing for my supper on the road with translators in Spanish, Japanese, or Korean, it was nice to be able to get straight to the point in English without a filter.  When I told about my flights to Victoria from Seoul to Tokyo to Seattle to Victoria and that I was sustained by two things the whole way, one was how much I enjoyed meeting with the brothers and sisters of the BCGEU, and the other was the fact that I would be able to get a nap on Friday, the laugh was quick and immediate.

In some ways, this was the same message that my friends at Tokyo’s Meiji University had wanted to hear.  They had seen it as how to apply community organizing methodology to labor unions and in British Columbia they wanted to see how “linkages” might do the same thing:  make the union stronger.

In Victoria, we had some common experiences.  They had come to know ACORN already and worked with ACORN Canada.  When I reminded them of our first living wage ordinance victory in New Westminster outside of Vancouver, many of them knew the story.  One woman came up later and told me that they were close to passing an ordinance in a couple of weeks in Parksville up the coast on Vancouver Island.  I could mention talking to Mike Eso, one of the BCGEU staff and head of the Victoria Trades and Labor Council, and our disappointment that we had not won here after our hopes were higher when we had last discussed this in Hanoi.  Given the hard fight and job actions to get their last contract and prevent their provincial liquor warehouse from going private, a fair number of them had been on the doors in their community, so when I told them real partnerships had to be built before a crisis not after one, they knew what I was saying from recent, hard experience.

The core of my message was that the connections had to be real and mutual between unions and community organizations.  The relationship could not be transactional but had to be transformative.  Transactional relationships involved calling to each other only when you needed something, like strike support or help on a campaign or election.  Those were not the kind of transformative partnerships based on mutual interests that would build a new organizing model that incorporated labor and community interests in a formation designed to organize “majority unionism.”  Add politics to the mix as well, and I told the coming story of Ecuador and recommended reading Victory Lab for an endorsement of ACORN’s style of door-to-door political action as most effective.  I talked to them about the opportunities to lead with the Remittance Justice Campaign and the emerging infrastructure campaigns around water and sewerage, since I had heard the federal MP candidate mentioning fecal matter in drinking water in the Victoria district.  I was singing my usual song and belting out verse after verse.

What was nice was having people come up after each session and tell me, as one brother did, that he had been thinking the same thing, but figured he was just crazy, so it was good to hear me say that he was on the right track.  Others, recently “off the doors” buttonholed me about how much easier it would have been to have a real partnership.  During the questions & answers, some wanted to go right to the issue of how to structure such an amalgamated organization, which might have been putting the horse before the cart.  Others thought unions and others should all merge, which was way past my scope.  One woman wanted to see the union build housing developments, which I wisely held my tongue about, though I would have told her housing counseling, yes, housing development, no.  Another thought the union needed to lead a campaign to stop inflation throughout North America.  We were off and running.

It was nice to get a shot of supportive adrenaline on the road, and if there’s any union that could help lead such a transformation of community and labor unionism, the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union, might just be the one.  Eventually it will be “ready or not,” but at the crossroads it is always a hard decision about whether to keep on the way you’ve been travelling to go a different direction at the fork in the road.