Rats, Mold, and Entitlements:  A Party Embraces Community Organizing in Netherlands

ACORN ACORN International Community Organizing

Heerlen        In the evening thirty party activists assembled at headquarters for the evening’s program.  The introduction was straightforward.  Ron Meyer, chairman of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, made some remarks, as we sat in the front of the room on high chairs.  I expressed my pleasure and honor at being with them and noted the progress since my visits three years ago.

All well and good.  A thousand meetings have begun and ended exactly this way.  Nothing out of the ordinary.

Then we moved to the back of the room with the others as three activists, one after another, presented a description of the campaigns they were pursing and specific questions they had and were hoping for feedback from me and others.

The first chapter had gotten involved in trying to organize migrant workers, largely Polish.  The agenda was unclear, but the commitment was deep, and the issues profound.  I ended up steering the conversation towards worker centers, and stumbled on the fact, unknown to me despite my earlier experiences, that they ran “service centers” of sorts in perhaps fifty of their 125 or more chapters around the country.  We talked about ACORN Service Centers and an intake model.  We talked about our friends and colleagues at CASA de Maryland.

It became obvious that this was going to be a different political meeting than I had ever attended.

The next campaign had started on one block in a lower income set of housing blocks where 30,000 lived.  After door knocking the issue was clear.  Rats had taken over the units. They swarmed the common garden plot.  They scurried across kitchen floors.  They achieved some success, but quickly realized that the rats simply moved from the block they had organized to the next blocks.  Wrap your mind around this.  They were talking about a rat infestation in the Hague of all places.  The country’s Parliament and seats of government are at the Hague.  All the huge international NGOs have their headquarters in the Hague.  The place is as infested by think tanks, embassies, and the like as it is with rats…well, not quite it turned out, there are even more rats!  I don’t even need to start listing the creative and effective tactics that started flying around the room.  This was a winner.

The final campaign presentation was equally to the heart of classic ACORN community organizing:  building tenant unions in social housing.  I had been hearing about mold all day, and now we were fighting for renovation of the units.  Suddenly, the young man mentioned a division among the campaigners because some were getting 5000 euros of relocation money during the rehab and others were not.  I quickly asked, was this an entitlement?  Yes, was the answer.  Was it a matter of national law or regulation or only in the community under discussion?  Yes, national.  Boom, we were talking then about minimum standards and direct benefit campaigns.  Such a thrill.  What fun?!?

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I had spent five hours with the organizing team earlier in the day.  They had described the adaptation they had made to the basic ACORN organizing model for the purposes of their campaign organization.  They called it the “storm” and there were four phases, beginning with door knocking and outreach and culminating in actions and victory.  Not all of the dots were joined together perfectly, but they had put a significant number of chapters into motion with multiple campaign capacity.

They were doing this work outside of the standard party-based electoral obsession.  They were building a broader base, if they could take the next steps to link these nascent organizations more closely to the party, sort out how structure and membership that might work, and redefine what they meant in describing the SP/N as a different kind of political party, they would have something unique.  Indeed, they would be building something as powerful as rare.  The potential seems endless, if they can continue along this path.  Exciting stuff!