Organizations and Unions Looking for New Methods in Belgium

Role playing negotiations

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.

the debate

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.

the crowd ready for the debate
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Welcoming Belgians and Germans to Community Organizing

small groups discussion ACORN Organizing Model in Brussels

Brussels     There were more than twenty people in the room, mostly from Brussels area community-based development and service organizations, along with three last minute additions from Germany and one 11th hour insert from an NGO that Adrien Roux of the Alliance/ACORN in France and I had met several days ago.  They were there for an “introduction” to community organizing as it was advertised.  In reality, rather than an introduction, it was a full-scale head first dive into the ACORN model, doorknocking, and how we build organizations.

Adrien had some interesting tricks up his sleeve.  One I had seen before, as I was reminded later, but it was even more challenging than usual.  Rather than just have people give their names and where they worked, each individual would walk up, give their name and occupation, but also repeat the names of everyone who came before them.   To say the least my ear is not attuned to French, so I jumped up in fourth or fifth place so I could at least limit my embarrassment, though some showboats at the very end were still able to repeat all twenty names, amazingly enough.  A good tool to introduce people and embed the names more deeply.

small groups

My part of the agenda then was to layout the mechanics of building an organization using the ACORN Model, which proceeded on schedule for about ninety minutes.  There were the usual questions and clarifications particularly about asking for dues and joining even before the organization had a first large meeting or taken action.  Many wanted to understand more clearly the organizer’s role compared to the leaders and presumably their own experiences.  Pretty standard stuff although one difference seemed to be that in Belgium most of the organizations were state funded pretty much whole hog.

Adrien then did a couple of clever things.  Pretty straightforwardly, he asked people to team up with another random person in the group and discuss what they thought was most difficult to resolve in what they had just heard about the organizing process.  After letting them roll for about 15 or 20 minutes he stepped in and went from group to group without saying a word but holding up his hands in a triangle, although it could have been any physical motion, and having described the tool in the earlier session ground rules, without a word people became quiet.  This is an old anarchist and Occupy tool, but well suited here.  He then had each group of two combine with another group of two, so that each group could try to resolve the problem that the other group had identified was troubling them.  Amazingly, after another 20 minutes when he asked each group how they had managed of the five only one had been unable to sort the situation out.  Some nice work there!

Adrien Roux of Alliance/ACORN making a point in community organizing training

There were great meetings in and around the training in trying to understand the potential opportunities and challenges of organizing in Germany on one hand and in another meeting trying to understand youth organizing around Belgium.

Learning something every day is a great thing!  For all of us!

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