Understanding the Pushback in Prague

Prague   Meeting with 15 people in the AKORN Gallery in Praha 2, near the center of town, on a cool, but surprisingly clear evening, there was great good will but it was not always easy going.  The ACORN, or AKORN as they call it here, activists and organizers were enthusiastic and had invited others to discuss a more comprehensive community based organizing drive. 

             The gallery itself was a new venture.  A combination art space, coffee house, and meeting area for activists, young artists, and passersby, that they had opened within the last month and were staffed between 10 in the morning and 6 in the evening.  It gave them a presence without giving them a deeper base.  In the first month it was, predictably, a fledgling affair, where hopes were high, but revenues still meager and the rent coming due.

             Three women had been active in Occupy Prague and similar efforts.  They had experience going door-to-door, but had not had any success with it, and blamed the system, fear, apathy, and in general the people themselves for not taking action.  None of that was unusual, but their Occupy time had hardened their skepticism once they were down to 20 people and holding onto one tent space near the square.  I wasn’t sure that I was able to convince them that another way was possible.

             One man told an interesting story of the US-funded National Democracy Institute (NDI) and its funding of a community organizing experience.  There were paid organizers, there was doorknocking, there were many meetings, and even a few small actions of a sort.  People responded well to the systematic methodology.  There was optimistic and concrete results, typical of any solid community organizing experience.  Then the project pulled the organizers out and the organization and activity quickly dissipated.  I’m not sure what the NDI was trying to do.  Their mission is supposedly to promote civic participation and engagement.  The notion of sustainable organization that might have been an empowering tool for people in the Czech Republic didn’t seem to have fit in their scope, or at least so it seemed in this telling.  The sum product was to intrigue those who knew of the effort, but frustrate them as well, all of which made my job harder.

             One man wanted to talk about how to reclaim a factory that he had lost.  There was interest in translating my books into Czech and how that could be done.  There was interest in seeing if more support could be gained from local churches.  It was that kind of evening.

             We had a long conversation with a number of the organizers after the general meeting about a project they were trying to promote in Guinea in western Africa around “agro-circles,” a technology developed in Slovakia, many here felt to be more affordable, environmentally adaptable, and critical to increased food production in that country.  We have been going back and forth on these questions for months between English, Czech, and French with great confusion.  The project would be difficult under any circumstances, and finally there was agreement on who was doing what, when, and how, and the very limited role that ACORN International could really play in a rural development project outside of our expertise.

             The hard part of all of these discussions was moving people to act and go forward, rather than dwell on the great movements and disappointments of the past.  Getting people to try something different is never easy, and at the end of the evening, I would have to say that a stalemate is different than a decision to move forward, and I’m not sure people were yet ready to really change their organizing process in order to see something different happen here.

Pushback in Prague Audio Blog

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Living Wages in Czech Republic and Being a Fly on the Wall as Labor and Parties Plan

IMG_1559Prague        Much of the day seemed like a 100-mile march through Prague as I got to know the organizers and leaders of ACORN Czech on a 10000 walk around the city complete with churches, cemeteries, synagogues, statutes galore, breathtaking views, and more Czech-lish jokes that I would want to recount on how many structures were built when America “was still just Indians.”  Priceless!

In the afternoon I did my second presentation to another group of activists, intellectuals, and potential supports, this time in a juxtaposed baroque room in the Social Democratic Party building right behind a fancy, beer joint with taps at individual tables (?!?).  The crowd included a former Czech ambassador to the United Nations from the late ’60’s, organizers of cooperatives, a philosophy professor who had traveled over from Bratislava, and, among others, a free lance researcher worried about the aging “demographics” of the Czech people and the funding for Social Security, so needless to say, I felt right at home.

The quIMG_1553estions got most interested  when they honed into the notion of a Living Wage Campaign for the Czech Republic.  The minimum wage is 8000 crowns per month (Czech like UK has not gone euro) and has been frozen for 7 years in a familiar lament.  They do have the ability from what I could tell to do initiated petitions, so a lot of these stories resonated deeply.  There was some difficulty understanding the notion of a “community-labor” partnership because such an idea was so far removed from experience, but the more that people began to understand the concept of building a base that was not just right wing and property protecting on the community level, the more excited people became about forging ahead in this direction.  Frankly, I got excited at the notion of this kind of campaign here as well.

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We rushed from this meeting to the imposing building of the Federation of Trade Unions where somehow Michal Ulver, our head organizer for ACORN Czech, had gotten us an invitation to sit in on a critical meeting that was assembling a coalition of the trade unions and progressive political parties to breakthrough on the economic challenges and stalemate from the right-center governing party.  Perhaps a dozen men and women were assembled around the conference room and despite uneven translation one had no difficulty recognizing that this was a group able to handle hard problems with good humor and quick conversation and compromise in order to make things happen.  The plan was designed to forge a three-pronged strategy for a mid-November general strike led by the Federation, a petition to the government, and a coordinated legislative push in Parliament.  At least one-third of the participants had been former ministers in previous governments with portfolios in health, social security of labor, so these were experienced hands who had traveled the roads back and forth between politics and government and labor.   Part of what was unusual here is that despite the fact that the Communist Party has the most seats in the Parliament, they are not able to form a government because other parties will not coalesce with them.  In this meeting they were more than an equal and enthusiastic presence embraced fully by all of the other parties and formations in the room.  Fascinating!

In my final debriefing for the day it turned out that some of our meetings were garnering some press attention on the internet, TV, and print, so perhaps we were providing support and sustenance for our new affiliate here.  At the least I was impressed here in the “heart of Europe” about our prospects for the future and the potential our organizing might have in such friendly soil.

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