First Steps to Building Community-Labor-Political Alliances without Shortcuts

Amsterdam      It was just a first step.  ACORN had joined Ron Meyer and Lieke Smits, the principal officers of the Socialist Party Netherlands, in calling together a small group of twenty or so in the late summer who might be able to come together for a conversation on a Saturday in Amsterdam to share their experiences in trying to build a working alliance or partnership between community organizations, labor unions, and political formations or parties.  Interest was huge.  The only real obstacle was the European holiday schedule where many were already committed or unavailable, as we sent out inquires of interest.  Nonetheless, we had representatives from various organizations including France, United Kingdom, Brussels, and Holland that joined us for what turned out to be a very fruitful and intense initial conversation.

Almost like a neighborhood first organizing committee meeting, the morning introductions when groups reported on their work were peppered with questions and the excitement that comes from people realizing that others are sharing the same experiences with similar issues, and therefore are not alone.  The party representatives from France were thrilled to discover the depths of the experiences of the SP/N with community organizing.  The unions from the Netherlands and Brussels found common cause on issues from organizing – or the lack of it – to institutional and traditional restraints in the way their large organizations of were facing the challenges of declining membership and new work formations and expectations.  The community organizers with ACORN were intrigued at the similarity of methods and issues they were hearing.

Everywhere there were “learning” moments, rather than “teachable” moments.  There was no effort at consensus, but a refreshing frankness served in solidarity.  Different views on the integration of movements and organizations looked for light, rather than heat.  Explanations about cultures of compromise tried to grapple with organizing models based on conflict.  Advice given about quietly fighting within were listened to closely even as others argued for storming the barricades.

One union organizer cautioned others that “assumptions are the mother of all mess-ups,” though he used a different word.  An SP organizer critiqued a former methodology as doing “actions FOR people, rather than actions WITH people,” noting that they had moved their interactions from 90% talking to 80% listening instead.  These were organizers of course so opinions were often challenged with questions about the underlying numbers, whether there was accountability, and how tactics and methodology responded to the numbers.

The evaluations were unanimously positive.  No decisions were made.  No officers were elected.  There was only consensus on one item:  meeting again in January with everyone here and all that could not make it on such short notice.

That was enough, and it was important.

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Political Break Movements

Lieke Smits of SP/N leads conversation on new political developments

Paris  One of the more intriguing discussions at the ACORN International leaders and staff meetings over these several days at the offices of the Confederation Paysanne in Paris looked at the changing political climate for our work in various countries. There was special interest in what ACORN UK head organizer, Stuart Melvin, referred to as the “political break movements” in so many countries, especially the UK, France, and the US, when one examined Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron.

In a lucky, last minute invitation, I had reached out to Lieke Smits, the campaign director of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, who I worked with closely last fall in devising a field program for the election there where they had also faced a populist disruption. Lieke began her remarks by noting that many of these break movements were reactions to forces long building after decades of difficult policies for working people in the wake of neoliberalism. The impact of globalism, trade, job loss, displacement and the movement of millions had been unsettling, and despite wide recognition, these changes had been inadequately and ineffectively addressed. Voters were moving to the fringes of the right and left to find effective voice and protest to force policies to address their concerns. Families were torn over the fact that their children were not going to have the security and well-being that they had. Parties, particularly professional politicians, had not done enough to address these changes, opening space for new movements and other voices to emerge and gain support.

Stuart Melvin and Jonny Butcher of ACORN United Kingdom talk about politics there

Lieke described their current program in the language of community organizing, making me feel like I was with them once again in their discussions in Amersfoort! One-hundred of their chapters were embarking on an outreach program to listen for local issues where they could organize and take action. The party had pushed dramatically on changes in the national healthcare program in the Netherlands which have left almost one-million people without coverage. Now they were taking the same kind of organizing and campaign insights and drilling down more deeply to reinvigorate their base and expand the lessons from the campaign where home visits and phone banking to new people had opened up new opportunities.

Beth from ACV details fundraising principles

In the UK, the surprise performance of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the recent election demonstrated that there is both class and generational appeal for progressives as part of the movement. Bernie Sanders was an equally unlikely surfer dude on the wave of change being demanded, particularly by the young. It is unlikely that it was a coincidence that both had tuition-free programs for students among other appealing platform positions.

Leaders and staff from Grenoble and Aubervilliers listen carefully

Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, argued that times of political upheaval in France that were demonstrated in the Macron and Marche upheaval that crippled established parties, usually meant great organizing opportunities at the local level and around institutions. There were clear opportunities now in France.

The same could be said in the United States. The challenge is whether or not we have the capacity to convert the opportunities to enable our constituency to build power.

ACORN International Board Meeting
leaders and staff at ACORN International meeting
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