Category Archives: Community Organizing

Serving Meals in Delhi

From Street Demos to Solidarity Work

Pearl River     What do mass-based organizations and social movements do when their tactics of mass action, disruption, and street protests are impossible due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing?  Do collective actions simply devolve into solitary moans on social media?  No, never!  Mass-based organizations assemble the base into action in another way to serve their members.  Let’s call it solidary or support work, and for all of the companies and governments who think that the dissipation of direct action is a silver lining in the cloud of the coronavirus, here’s bad news for you:  It’s making us stronger!

In the United Kingdom in recent weeks, ACORN mobilized 3500 volunteers to support individuals stuck at home and without services, to support food banks, to pick up groceries and drug prescriptions, and you name it.  Add to that circulating a petition that gained thousands of signatures to stop evictions and demand rent relief for its members.  Throw in this special distribution which is getting props from media throughout the country:

Coronavirus: Latest Information for Renters by ACORN. For those concerned about their housing during the ongoing pandemic, ACORN has a section providing information.

Membership is soaring!

The work gets really direct for ACORN Delhi, where we and one of our affiliates, Janaphal, administer more than a dozen night shelters for migrant workers who were caught by the government shutdown order and police action without work, and therefore income, and of course food as well.  Suddenly, we are running seven kitchens in the centers and during the week went from serving 3000 meals a day to 7000 and still rising.  The government is supposed to reimburse us, but the government was supposed to provide food to these workers during the shutdown.  People come first, as long as we can get the food to cook.

The stories abound throughout the ACORN federation of organizations, but it’s solidarity work with a bite, as collective actions continue where essential workers continue to labor.  In France, our affiliate in Lyon, Uniti, coordinated a strike of security workers being forced to work without personal protection equipment (PPE), and won. In Louisiana, workers in MH/MR community homes run by the giant national service company, ResCare, were left without adequate protection or quarantine procedures once a resident contracted the virus.  Workers passed petitions and joined Local 100 United Labor Unions to demand more from ResCare, despite threats of retaliation. Membership is soaring!

This is happening everywhere.

In Hong Kong, as reported by the Washington Post, “Rather than continuing to plug mass demonstrations, anti-government activists have used the networks they built during months of organizing to import more than 100,000 medical masks and distribute them to people in need.”  In Chile, “they’re also moving to adapt. They’ve been callingcacerolazos — balcony-bound pot-and-pan-banging protests traditional in Latin America — loud enough to drown out music and conversation inside homes. An artist’s collective, Intermediate Depression, published an illustrated “manual for protesting from home” on Instagram, encouraging Chileans to deck their balconies with protest signs, “share [their] favorite songs with [their] neighborhood” and engage in cyberactivism.”

Trust me on this.  In crisis we double down.  People learn what the slogan, “The People United Shall Never Be Defeated,” means in daily life, not just on the streets.

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A Top-ish Down Twist on a Bottom-up Campaign

New Orleans       At the Year End – Year Begin meeting of our principal North American organizers with ACORN and Local 100 United Labor Unions at NO-MAC at the Rathke Residence in New Orleans, we continued to push out the discussion on ways to expand our mass-based organizing past the inevitable ceilings of staff-size.  There were many interesting suggestions and evaluations of our work against this increasingly important measure.

Orell Fitzsimmons, Local 100’s Texas state director and longtime field director, was paired with Toney Orr, Arkansas state director and newly appointed field director, to lead a workshop on “How We Can Spur More Organizing without Organizers” in a swansong performance as the clock winds down on his last days as a regular staff member before his retirement after more than thirty-years.   Orell once again discussed the successful campaign the union had conducted over several years in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to move the wages up for custodial and food service staff. We’ve been able to go from $8 per hour to $10 per hour to $12 and now near $14 per hour.  Workers and our members who have led the campaign are obviously ecstatic.  In this workshop, Orell took the discussion in a surprising, but logical, direction once he laid it out.

Wage compression is a key concept in understanding wage policy for union organizers and negotiators, and really for anyone who works or manages workers.  The best way to understand it is to recognize the obvious that when senior workers see junior workers right on their tail in terms of wages, the there’s a wage compression problem.  There’s no space in terms of wage differential that explains why one worker is rank-and-file and another is supposedly a supervisor or mini-management.  As the Houston Local 100 organizers visited the almost 300 schools in HISD and talked to workers in the cafeterias, they also talked to plant operators and cafeteria managers who on the chain of command are somewhere between lead-workers and full-bore managers.  They don’t have the ability to hire and fire, but they do supervise work and write people up.  At the same time, they are still “on the tools” and do the work.  The problem at HISD is that even as we won the raises for the workers, the plant operators and food service managers were stuck at roughly $14 per hour as well creating a huge wage compression opportunity for the union.

Fitzsimmons argued in this workshop that having the union campaign for these lead workers and mini-management to get a raise now as well would not only benefit them and provide the union with hundreds of new members, but provide other benefits.  On one level creating more wage differential for those workers would help our current membership push for a higher level as well.  On the critical level of building the organization, running a campaign and delivering for these sometimes-supervisors would also allow us to push them to organize and enroll their workers.  As workplace leaders they would be excellent at signing up members, and on this workshop, that was the point.  The union could expand its membership past its organizers using the campaign and mobilizing these supervisors, who we normal eschew.

It might be a semi-top approach that is not common for the union, but working through a bottom-up campaign, would benefit all the workers and teach us more lessons about how to get the most out of our members, regardless of the size of our staff.

We’re going to miss Orell Fitzsimmons on our team.

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