iWatch is a Major Piece of Democracy Protection in Tunisia

Catania    I had heard about iWatch before arriving in Tunis from one of our leaders in Grenoble, who has roots in Tunisia, and said we had to meet with them.  Their website seemed to identify them as an anti-corruption nonprofit.  Once in Tunis it seemed to the Organizers’ Forum delegation that everywhere we went, we heard about their work, whether it was at the Jasmine Foundation or in the Nadha party offices.  When it came to talking about institutions that were protecting the democracy, iWatch would be mentioned.  Quickly, it became clear that they were absolutely monitoring corruption, but they were also smackdab in the middle of the election process itself.  In fact, one of the candidates leading the polls was running from jail and it seemed he was in jail largely because of the work of iWatch.  Finally, it was becoming clear why the president Achraf Aouadi was having trouble fixing the time:  they were in the bunkers with incoming fire from all sides.

We met with Achraf on our final day at the Café du Theatre, which had become our clubhouse of sorts where we had conducted one meeting after another on the main boulevard of Tunis.  Achraf jumped right into our briefing with no holds barred.  They had sued four of the candidates for corruption, violations that the court was now considering.  The suits had gone viral.  Polls indicated that almost a quarter of the population knew iWatch and those who knew it were wildly supportive.  They had learned something else from their analysis of the data.  Where they thought their primary support was young men, it turned out to be younger women.  Where they had thought they were mobilizing primarily their friendship networks, it turned out they had a national support base.

The organization was founded as a nonprofit after the revolution in 2011.  When we asked Achraf about the scope of their organization, he flatly stated that in terms of the civil society sector they were probably only second to UGTT, the big trade union federation, in resources.  Their budget had blown up during the elections to $1.5 million USD, all of it coming from outside donors, largely the European Union and Scandinavian countries.  They had seven offices in regions around the country.  Their staff was around 140 people now and normally almost fifty.

As president of iWatch, Achraf was not an employee, so like ACORN there was a separation of elected leadership from paid staff.  He made his living as a consultant for various enterprises both public and private.  They were young, hip and different.  They did festivals for a month instead of conferences.  They wouldn’t go to luxury hotels.  They abhorred USAID funding. The organizational structure was complicated.  They had recently decentralized with directors of the various teams from research to communications.  Wisely, they had applied for a radio license in Tunis.  They wanted to equalize their headquarters resources with their regions.

We were able to get insight into the complicated results of the election.  Nothing was quite as it appeared.  The rumor of 1.5 million new registrants was “fake news,” he told us.  A number of candidates could still be disqualified, even if appearing to lead in the polls.  It was as possible that some charged would flee the country, rather than take their seats even if they won.

Our heads were spinning as we tried to absorb all we were hearing.  Our fingers were flying as we tried to make notes of all of the information.  We were clear as well that iWatch was absolutely central to the forces protecting democracy.  They were under attack, but they were hunkering down to be able to survive and build for the next steps.

You watch, we watch, we all watch iWatch to see what happens next in Tunisia.

***

Please enjoy Walls by The Long Ryders.

Thanks to KABF.

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Work Lessons from an Experienced Union Organizing Director

Police Brutality at the LA Justice for Janitors Strike in 1990

New Orleans        Talking with Peter Olney, a friend as well as a veteran labor organizer and former organizing director of the west coast based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) where he retired in recent years, on Wade’s World was an important reminder of huge lessons we had both learned the hard way, but are cautionary tales for any and all efforts to organize, as well things worth remembering for any hopes to rebuild the strength of the labor movement.

One theme Peter underlined in our conversation was a reminder of one of the central lessons from some of the classic Justice for Janitors organizing campaigns directed by Stephen Lerner and a host of organizers within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), both from their victories and defeats.  The lesson, simply stated, rested on the ability to leverage existing labor and union power in order to win organizing victories.  He cited the key role played in winning the janitors’ strike in Los Angeles in the 1990s played by the large and powerful Local 32BJ and its normally conservative, business union leader, Gus Bevona.  In reaction to police violence against strikers in LA, Bevona sent the message that 32BJ would strike the same companies where they had contracts and shut them down in New York City, forcing them to settle.  Additionally, the labor movement in Los Angeles was united behind the effort and had leverage of its own.

All of these conditions didn’t exist in places like Atlanta where the janitors’ campaign failed, but there are examples in many other big organizing projects as well.  The lack of real labor institutional buy-in and internal resistance from the hotel workers’ union was the Achilles heel of the HOTROC joint organizing campaign I ran in New Orleans.  Similarly, the UFCW’s lukewarm and arms’ length support of the Walmart effort I directed in Florida was also fatal, regardless of the success on the ground in both cases.  Campaigns like the long running McDonalds effort arguably are more imperiled because of the lack of union power anywhere and the failure of leverage to bridge that gap.  Peter felt the more recent OUR Walmart suffered from this as well.

Peter drew another lesson from his time as director of the seminal Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LA-MAP) in the mid-1990s that was in some was related.  As organizers we often feel we are in a constant struggle with the labor bureaucrats.  Sometimes the top leadership is also offering more grudging than real support for organizing programs.  Their bread-and-butter is delivering to existing members, while ours is delivering new members.  That’s sometimes an irresolvable tension.  They have to be re-elected based on their ability to prove their case, and our work continues on our ability to deliver the numbers without roiling the base, a dynamite fuse that always seems to be burning without enough distance from the charge.  Peter felt in retrospect that more time and attention to this paradox might have salvaged LA-MAP.

Maybe, but these were all righteous organizing programs that won and deserved support and delivered results.  All union campaigns can’t check the boxes perfectly on leverage, internal and external support, but that doesn’t mean it’s not our job to push and pull them into practice.  Olney is right that we have to do better, but it’s a two-way street now as unions continue to weaken even more precipitously over recent decades and are totally imperiled currently with one reversal after another in labor law protections.  We have to be better organizers for sure, but we need better leaders to support and win these fights as well who are willing to take the short-term risks for the long-term gains and in these times, the survival of unions themselves.

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