The stories on the streets here and the headlines around the world are daunting. The law trimming back collective bargaining in Ohio seems even worse than Wisconsin. The banks and servicers managed to scuttle another foreclosure avoidance program which would have used $1 billion to bridge losses of income and has not accepted one single application yet. Yet Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac figured out a way to pay themselves princely sums and not much has changed on that account either. A bunch of folks led by Wider Opportunities for Women put together a more realistic budget and established that single or with families people are miles away from meeting their basic financial needs even with a job: a single person would need $30,000 about double minimum wage for example.
Here in Kenya more than year ahead of the elections politics is all the talk from the street vendors to the cab drivers to the NGO crews, expats, and casual observers. The best news is that many do not expect the post-election violence to repeat itself at least at the same level of intensity. The bad news is that most seem to not expect there to be much change in the gridlock, corruption, and indifference in government. Parties are assembling lists, but the programs are hard to distinguish and the campaigns most seem to think have more to do with hope than with change.
This would be tragic of course. A problem which has occupied days in our organizational planning for ACORN Kenya has been the need to construct new schools in Korogocho. While we met about this at length yesterday afternoon, Drummond Pike, my Paladin Partner would search for information on whatever topic was at hand on the computer. One of the first items he pulled up on this issue is the fact that the United States and United Kingdom had both suspended aid grants for $7M and $9M respectively for new school construction in Kenya because they had no confidence the money would actually be used for schools rather than simply ripped off. Many simply pretend there is a solution by believing the problem of equity and justice does not exist. At breakfast I read in a Kenyan business magazine a glowing puff piece on the 5600 “scholarships” to secondary schools being offered annually by Equity Bank and the Mastercard Foundation based in Toronto and others. Their strategy was to look the other way about the problem dealing with the masses of school children and hope that they could craft an elite program for the top 5% of the students who tested out of primary schools so they would be able to go forward. Depressing!
giraffe munching on the trees
Since Paladin Partners were committed to our professional development program for Judy Duncan and would soon be leaving her for another several weeks to work with ACORN Kenya’s staff and leaders, we tried a different tact for a change. Years ago when as a boy I lived in Denver, I would hear comments that you could live hard in Denver, because you could look at the Rocky Mountains along the western horizon and always feel there was hope and a future. Early Friday morning we headed out for the a Kenyan National Park less than 10 kilometers away. We drove in through green forest cover and were quickly in the savanna. Looking at rhinos, lions, giraffes, water buffalo, zebras, and more, we would sometimes see the entire city down the ridge as the two worlds of Africa meld together. Nairobi or Denver? Doesn’t solve the problem, but reminds us why it matters.
Discussion with AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Nairobi
Nairobi Our annual check-in with the AFL-CIO’s Nairobi based Solidarity Center working in various eastern African countries like Uganda and Tanzania in addition to Kenya underscored my belief that the future of organizing has to be among the growing numbers of informal workers. Talking with director, Rick Hall, the real organizing excitement and accomplishment seems to be found in collective agreements won for floral agricultural workers and important new drives with informal fisherman around Lake Victoria among all of the water-sharing countries.
More worrisome was hearing the continued difficulty in implementing the important improvements in standards that had been established for urban and rural minimum wage rates and in other critical areas like the measures protecting domestic workers. The potential impacts of these measures are huge. As we all talked (the ACORN Kenyan organizers, Paladin Partners, and Solidarity Center staff) it was hard not to think about how door-to-door campaigns might work. When Rick mentioned that he wished they could canvass the middle and upper income neighborhoods distributing the standards and getting signed recognitions from householders to actually pay the minimums and provide the benefits, I found myself telling about the 1978 campaign when I moved back to New Orleans with the Household Workers Organizing Committee when we were forcing compliance with for domestic workers who were just gaining coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA in that year and trying to make examples out of employers (the Gambino bakery family in city was our big “shame” target) who were paying way below and not paying the required social security payments. Now more than 30 years later Kenya is ahead of much of the world, and certainly Africa, but still has to move a campaign to make the law come alive.
The other story that was disappointing was hearing the ineffective enforcement program by the Labor Department in Kenya of minimum wage violations. Rick and his team were delicate, but it sounded too often like the act of making complaints by workers and unions was seen too frequently as an opportunity by inspectors to cash in from the companies by looking the other way. Seemed like another situation where the “crowdsourcing” tools we were talking about this week in Nairobi might also be effective for our friends and allies in labor unions.
Nonetheless, the story in eastern Africa is still encouraging as a bright light for organizing and organizers fearlessly putting together new and effective strategies and breaking ground for informal worker union. A story from Uganda of a terrible problem in a fish processing center that was the springboard to the fisherman’s organizing where a lockout pushed 400 workers out on the street with 40 active committee members fired when the plant reopened and hundreds of police working for the state and the company against the workers, also reminded all of us why this work is both so hard, and so important.