Brussels Language is a funny thing. Even when we think we are totally in synch, we are easily sidetracked. Examples abound. This morning the directions to the airport train took me to the Metro station which I only sorted out once I had paid two euros ten for a subway ticket. 500 meters and nine euros later I was on the way, no problem. Directions thanks to a Starbucks barista, since English is required at the counter!
Yesterday, was even funnier. In spare minutes in-between our second day of training we were doing for organizations that wanted to expand their notions of what might be possible by learning some of the techniques of community organization, I asked my colleague, Adrien Roux, about the meeting we had with some union folks scheduled for later in that day. Wasn’t it at 5pm? No, a little later, he would answer. But, on their Facebook page they seem to have an action scheduled for 7pm, I would say. How can they have enough time to really meet with us? He would shrug and say, no problem, and away we would go. I explained how one could construct a campaign, using Facebook as an example. He led role playing on negotiations to the great excitement of the folks. Merrily, we went along.
Finally, we met our two union friends near 630 at a small restaurant near the center of town. They keep looking at the clock, and they started saying the word that in Belgium may end up being my new trigger word: “debate.” As Adrien and I had passed like the proverbial two ships in the night, it turned out that within minutes we were due at a union meeting hall nearby for a “debate” or panel discussion, as I’ll call it, about how community organizing might offer new methods for union organizing. The posting that I thought was for an action because it had a picture of flying flags at a demonstration was the advertisement for our debate. Wow! How exciting would that be? And, how prepared was I? Whoops!
Luckily, this was a subject I know as well as my name, so the crowd of almost one-hundred union staff and activists and representatives of other organizations was, hopefully, none the wiser. I shared information on ACORN and its work, especially with unions, and the principles that guided it. Adrien threw in some examples from France and other campaigns in Africa, and then the questions began. This was a serious crowd, and the questions reflected real concerns that many had about the state of the labor movement in Belgium.
Unions are huge there. The one that organized the panel has 1.7 million members. The second largest had way, way over 1 million. Interestingly, a huge number of those members were unemployed and the union was the paymaster for their social benefits. I need to understand more about all of that. At the same time, the last year was the first in which the largest union had actually lost members, about 3%. This was a wakeup call and the stimulus for the interest in our panel.
Great people. Great opportunity. A great discussion. Time to head back home, but I’ll look forward to the next time I get to work with the Belgians! I have a lot to learn, and we all have a lot to share.