Mutual Aid for the Rest of Us

ACORN Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Organizing
A black and white photo taken in 1940 of a Coca Cola employees dinner at the Marti Maceo Club, Ybor City's Afro-Cuban Mutual Aid Society.
A black and white photo taken in 1940 of a Coca Cola employees dinner at the Marti Maceo Club, Ybor City’s Afro-Cuban Mutual Aid Society.

New Orleans       Maybe it’s because it’s the season? Not winter, but the season in the sense that “for every time there is a season,” as the psalm records. In this season, thinking about friends, comrades over decades of mutual struggle por la causa, and family who suddenly are beset by circumstances that in our youth we might not have been able to fully imagine and foolishly thought we were adequately prepared, I found my eyes grabbing a sub-head in an op-ed about the revival of mutual aid societies.

As Professor Molly Worthen points out very clearly in the Times, it would be even more foolhardy to believe that mutual aid societies, where we all look after each other, can replace the role of government. No way! But, the safety net is too loosely woven to keep us from crashing through now unless we figure out a way to supplement and strengthen the weave.

There are too many current examples.

A former ACORN local group leader and stalwart who organized part-time for years with ACORN in Dallas and then for the last half-dozen years has done so for Local 100, was hit by a car, leaving a lot broken and bruised except her spirit. Suddenly after months of hospital care and then more months of living in a rehab facility to painfully begin to rebuild her capacity to walk, she was told last week that despite being 68 years old, the Medicare clock has run out of time. Essentially, she would have to come up with $50,000 or be discharged home “as is,” meaning still not mobile or able to care for herself. As an innocent victim of the crash, the lawyer is telling her she may have to settle for the best that she can get to throw against the rehab bills that will be coming. Another friend and former organizer, was taken down as randomly by a debilitating illness without the advantage of Medicare, but once again in a situation where not fully able to take care of himself and without the wherewithal or resources to find good alternatives. When in New Orleans, I visit my 91-year old mother with full time sitters dealing with her dementia issues at the same cost as a nursing home so that she can in fact stay at home, except that none of her constant care is reimbursable.

Is any of this right or fair? Of course not! Furthermore, other than random luck and accidents of birth and genes, any of this could be any of our lives right now either for better or worse.

Friends, comrades, and family members try in all of these situations to come up with alternatives. Hearts are huge and hopes are high, but the road stretches out with hundreds and thousands of tomorrows and none of these solutions are permanent. Reading about the mutual aid societies brought me back to the various funds that ACORN had for mutual help for our staff so that they could provide the discretionary support needed and not offered by insurance companies with everyone’s equivalent contributions to health care. Eventually we converted it to a Taft-Hartley trust to rationalize the organizational matches which then became fully paid by the employers, and that was our healthcare. A similar fund provided retirement benefits that all vested employees cashed in as ACORN reorganized.

Seems like this is the season for mutual aid for all of us who have the will and wish to be a part of it for the sake of each other and possibly someday for our own sake. The article talked about some church aid groups, and it was interesting to see how they had muscled up to get the bills lowered for participants just as we are talking about doing with the Citizen Wealth Center with Chris Hariston of Local 100 and again with Mike Gallagher, a former ULU and SEIU organizer, recently on KABF’s Wade’s World. I found myself puzzling over the fact such assistance is classified by the IRS as a tax free gift to the recipient and offering our 501c3’s at ACORN International and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center as “homes” for such funds so that the donor could also qualify for a tax deduction.

There are models for all of this. The needs seem ever present and likely growing. We need a coalition of the willing and able to put these kinds of mutual aid operations together for all of us who understand that nothing protects us from bad luck, random fate, old age, or health disasters, but at least if we can come together somehow we have a chance. At the least we have each other, and that’s worth something.