Thursday Oct 17

Online Only Features

By Peter Olney

My son Nelson has been studying at the Univerisdad Complutense, the largest public university in Spain with 75,000 students. He has been in Madrid since October of 2011 enrolled in a University that was founded in the 13th Century. My wife and I decided to spend a month in Madrid visiting him and his girlfriend Sarah Ribbers. Life comes full circle when your children start to take care of you. Nelson has mastered Castellano and he knows Madrid inside out so he was our caretaker and guide to the sights and the Tapas bars!

It was a long overdue and much deserved holiday, but I could not resist taking part in a home defense in the working class neighborhood of Carbanchel. Early on a weekday morning the barrio committee of “los Indignados”, Spain’s version of Occupy that kicked off on May 15th of 2011, gathered a crowd to defend the home of Vicente a 73 year old man facing eviction at the hands of Citibank. Posters and signs covered the walls of his building, and Vicente’s grandson leaned out of the window of his condominium shouting support. The chants that pierced the cool morning air were familiar to anyone in the USA who has participated in foreclosure fighting. The action was successful and well covered in Spain’s major newspaper, El Pais. Vincent was able to keep possession of his home. These types of neighborhood actions are a daily occurrence throughout Spain. Usually they are successful although they have been met with violent police repression in some regions. The website is a great resource to track actions in Spain and the development of the movement to Stop Desahucios (Evictions).

This kind of adversarial action has been the story of my life in the trade union movement. I have dedicated 40 years of my life to organizing and strengthening trade unions in the United States as a means to improve the lives of workers in the context of building a broader revolutionary movement for radical social change. I have always maintained that workers need unions to battle the boss to improve their wages, hours and conditions.

Therefore I approached my visit to Mondragon, the largest worker owned worker run cooperative in the world with great interest and a good deal of skepticism. Mondragon is a small town of 20,000 nestled in the Basque region equidistant from the two port cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao. Since the 1940’s Mondragon has been the home base for an experiment in worker management. This is not a neighborhood food cooperative or a boutique bakery, but rather a multifaceted enterprise employing 93,000 people. Mondragon is the umbrella for the largest company in the Basque region and the 7th largest company in all of Spain. Mondragon operates a large retail supermarket chain Eroski, a social service provider Lagun Aro, heavy industrial manufacturing and a savings bank, the Caja Laboral. The Universidad de Mondragon graduates scientists and engineers and managers many of whom become part of the cooperative.

Mikel Lezamiz, Mondragon’s director of Co-operative Dissemination and my guide explained that the Cooperative had capped the manager to worker pay ratio at 9 to 1! The CEO of the Savings bank, Caja Laboral only earns 7 times the salary of the cleaning lady. He then took me to a factory that manufactures washing machines under the brand name, Fagor. I watched giant metal stamping presses shaping the tubs for the washers. I realized that I was in the midst of something very significant on a scale that I could not have imagined existed in a capitalist world, owned and managed by the workers .

Spain is experiencing a huge housing construction bust after an intensive speculative boom. Obviously the demand for washing machines has dipped drastically. The workforce voted in general assembly to do job sharing to avoid layoffs and the worker assembly voted to take a 7% pay cut up and down the employment ladder to preserve the vitality of the enterprise.  What then is the role for unions, if any, if the workers make decisions about their work lives and elect their managers? Mikel explained that while workers are welcome to join any of Spain’s many trade union federations, very few Mondragon workers do.

I left Mondragon intrigued and interested in this mode of industrial organization and control that was an affront to many of my guiding paradigms. I had viewed cooperatives as small scale boutiques that could never reach the scale necessary to transform the lives of workers and whole communities. Often in the USA worker ownership is associated with lemon socialism, workers giving up their life savings to rescue an unfeasible manufacturing concern in the rust belt. Now I was confronted with a living breathing example of a different model.  I need to reflect, read and learn more about Mondragon and its applicability to our reality.

Well, that was how I spent my vacation on a Spanish holiday!

Author's note: Peter Olney is the organizing director for the International Longshore Workers' Union (ILWU) based in San Francisco. He has a piece coming in the fall issue, Volume 42 #3.

OAKLAND, CA  (12/5/11) -- When Occupy Seattle called its tent camp “Planton Seattle,” camp organizers were laying a local claim to a set of tactics used for decades by social movements in Mexico, Central America and the Philippines.  And when immigrant janitors marched down to the detention center in San Diego and called their effort Occupy ICE (the initials of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency responsible for mass deportations), people from countries with that planton tradition were connecting it to the Occupy movement here.

This shared culture and history offer new possibilities to the Occupy movement for survival and growth at a time when the Federal law enforcement establishment, in cooperation with local police departments and municipal governments, has uprooted many tent encampments.  Different Occupy groups from Wall Street to San Francisco have begun to explore their relationship with immigrant social movements in the U.S., and to look more closely at the actions of the 1% beyond our borders that produces much of the pressure for migration.

Read more: From Planton to Occupy

The Weston/Mount Dennis area in Toronto was visibly rundown in August 2004 when ACORN Canada launched its inaugural drive. Weston/Mount Dennis is dominated by a large number of high rise buildings that are a mix of social housing and private rentals. Many of the buildings were in derelict condition, with obvious pest problems, including cockroaches, and bedbugs, large, unfixed holes in both common areas and occupied units, mold spreading through ceilings and walls, and elevators in high rises completely non-functional. Nothing was being done about these problems. Residents found themselves unable to get the attention of their landlords.

ACORN Canada adopted a door-knocking methodology that was largely the same as the highly successful model used by ACORN offices across the United States. Organizers have fifteen to twenty-five minute conversations with residents, talking about local issues and the power of collective action. After each conversation, an organizer methodically asks people to join the local organization as a full member. Membership requires a bank draft of $10 per month. Individuals who decline full membership are asked to join as associate or provisional members, which requires them to pay a small one-time sum or nothing at all, respectively. Associate and provisional members are invited to join in the developing campaign, but do not receive the same voting rights as full members. Experience has shown ACORN that the people who join as full members are by far the most engaged in the organization and hugely value their ownership stake and voice in the organization.

The pay for membership model is sometimes criticized as marginalizing or exploiting low income people, who are “too poor” to have to pay dues. However, ACORN encourages provisional membership for people who wish to be involved but are concerned about paying the monthly membership dues. Importantly, this approach avoids the condescending position that low income people are not able to make decisions about their own personal spending patterns. Further, like the concept of unionism, an independent funding source from the membership base is the key to maintaining control on the campaign and objectives of the organization by its board, which is comprised of members of ACORN.

During two months of working in the neighborhood, we talked to over 800 people in their homes about their community and about the larger issues that they identified and were concerned about. We also undertook hundreds of hours of house visits to interested people and worked the phone bank with nightly phone calls. At the end of two months of door-to-door organizing, we finally felt we had big enough lists of engaged community members to do a community organizing drive.

The organizing drive started with a series of three meetings, one each week, with the new members. In this way, the new group sprung to life. The group overwhelmingly voted to focus its first campaign on improving apartment building conditions. The other two priorities that were identified for future action were police profiling and the need for more youth-based community programs.

The group quickly identified that the Toronto Municipal Code established apartment building standards. For example, the Municipal Code has an explicit standard related to pest control:

629-9. Pest control. All properties shall at all times be kept free of rodents, vermin, insects and other pests and from conditions which may encourage infestations by pests.

However, the reality for ACORN members, is that this standard is not met in either private and publicly owned buildings. The Municipal Licensing and Standards office with the City of Toronto has no effective way of enforcing the Municipal Code. The process of issuing work orders and the penalties related to them do not create a penalty costly enough to give landlords an incentive to maintain their buildings.

The three introductory meetings were followed by a fourth and final planning meeting at which members created an action plan. The members decided to do a Cockroach Derby press event, to take place outside one of the worst buildings in the neighborhood, 1775 & 1765 Weston Road. The members and newly emerging leaders invited all media outlets, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the absentee landlord, and all levels of politicians. Staff and members started working on turnout while members collected cockroaches.

In late October 2004, ACORN Canada held its first event. About thirty members some with cockroaches showed up at 1775 and 1765 Weston Road for the Cockroach Derby. The media, Municipal Licensing and Standard, and some local politicians attended, and the event was a success. The media picked up the event.

The City of Toronto even agreed to move all of its rent-geared-to-income tenants out of the building. The consensus was clear: the politicians, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the media, and our members all agreed that the buildings were far below the standards outlined in the municipal code. The landlord did not attend. For a short time after the event, the landlord, Vincenzo Barrasso, responded to the negative press accounts and boosted maintenance in mostly superficial ways, such as painting and fixing broken locks on the front door, but these efforts were not sustained.

ACORN Canada continued its work. Municipal Licensing and Standards, working with ACORN staff and leaders, agreed to bring their special investigations audit team into the building and, unit by unit, tried to force the landlord to do the repairs. Part way through the process, Municipal Licensing and Standards had issued work orders in about 490 units. While the landlord took responsibility for some of the repairs, some things were never fixed.

ACORN staff and newly emerging leaders continued organizing and doing press events. Actions included “The Prison of 1202,” which focused on ACORN member Sharol Jason, who is in a wheel chair, and how she was trapped in her apartment for six weeks due to an inoperative elevator. Living on the twelfth floor, she had no way of getting up and down in her building while the elevator awaited repairs. The press tracked the story and was at the building about once a week for three months. Headlines, which included “Tenants Lived in Hell,” “Highrise Hostage,” “Home Not so Sweet,” and “Building Tension,” tell the stories of the many members who lived in the two buildings. Although ACORN Canada and the members had initial success with its actions, it had a more difficult time maintaining pressure on the landlord to continue to respond to work orders and tenant issues after the City left the building and after ACORN was no longer organizing a press event at the building every two weeks. The landlord stopped investing any money in bringing the building up to standard. Over time, the building started to slip back to its original state.

ACORN leaders then decided to use other tactics to raise the standards in the building. ACORN leaders decided to try to use the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, as it was then called, as a tool to force the landlord to bring the building up to the standards outlined in the Municipal Code. However, due to the pro-landlord legislation and the procedural requirements of the Board, this approach turned out to be no small feat, and the activities that the ACORN members needed to undertake against their delinquent landlord proved extremely cumbersome.

One might think that designation of disrepair and a full scale audit by Municipal Licensing and Standards, as well as the City’s decision to move all of its rent-gearedto- income tenants out of the buildings at issue would support a prima facie case against the landlord and assist the tenants in this action. Moreover, one might think that there would be support for tenants who are trying to raise issues like these before the Landlord and Tenant Board. To expect low-income tenants to have the capacity to put together a case against a landlord is a human rights issue.1

ACORN staff and leaders helped all interested tenants in the building to fill out the complaint form required by the Tribunal. This activity alone took hundreds of hours from ACORN staff, leaders, and members in the building. Nevertheless, ACORN leaders felt that it was important to act against their landlord and even took time off work to help other tenants complete these forms. ACORN paid the filing fee required by the Tribunal for the forms from the 105 people who chose to file collectively. The filing fee alone was $45 per building, plus $5 per additional tenant.

The case went before an adjudicator. However, at this first hearing, we quickly realized we needed a legal aid lawyer to help manage the issues involved with 105 complaints. York Community Services Legal Clinic picked up the case. One of the lead filing tenants was on Ontario Disability, which enabled him to qualify for legal aid. Hundreds of hours were spent by YCL, ACORN staff, and ACORN leaders to put together this case and then in the hearing before the Tribunal.

In March of 2005, Elizabeth Beckett, a member of the Tribunal, issued an interim order ruling in favor of the 105 tenants. Subsequently, in her final order, Beckett separated the rent abatements into two time periods based on the evidence of disrepair that she heard. Tenants received a twenty percent refund on rent paid from March 1, 2004, to Feb. 28, 2005, and a ten percent rebate from March 1, 2005, to Dec. 31, 2005. As monthly rent costs about $900, the average tenant would receive a total of $3,060 in return. Some tenants were compensated an additional $100 to $600 for the inconvenience caused by damages in the common areas such as the elevators. Victory! This equaled over $321,300 dollars in savings to tenants. However, the lengthy process and ongoing frustration with the landlord and the state of their homes had taken its toll on tenants. By the time the tenants were able to claim the rent abatements, about thirty percent of the tenants who participated in the action had moved out. Rent abatement was of no benefit to them at that point, and the landlord in effect received a windfall.

To this day, the buildings are still in massive disrepair, and most of the people who had the means to move out did so long ago. Approximately ninety-five percent of the 105 tenants who brought the action against the landlord before the Tribunal have now moved out.

Following the Rental Housing Board proceedings, again, as soon as the City, ACORN, or the press stopped investing energy into enforcement of basic building standards, the landlord stopped doing any repairs. The complaint-based system provides no long term incentives to maintain standards and is completely ineffective with a landlord like Vincenzo Barrasso, who has resisted compliance with work orders and standards at every turn. In short, it is cheaper for the landlord to ignore the Municipal Code as a standard operating practice and deal with the consequences repeatedly, than it is for the landlord to maintain a building in a state of good repair. Tenants be damned.

However, ACORN established itself as a leading voice for tenant rights, and members were well engaged in tenant issues, which affected them directly. By 2006, ACORN staff had done two other organizing drives in other communities in Toronto, Scarborough Centre and Chalk Farm at Jane and Wilson, both of which resulted in ACORN members deciding to tackle massive disrepair in apartment buildings. In short, these decaying high rises with absentee slumlords were numerous across the city of Toronto in the lower income neighborhoods.

The ACORN leaders across these communities decided it made no sense to try to fix the buildings one at a time. They started researching potential legislative fixes to this enforcement catastrophe on a broader scale. As a result, Toronto ACORN leadership decided to put together a Landlord Licensing and Rent Escrow Campaign.

Landlord licensing programs exist in other cities like Los Angeles. These programs require landlords to maintain a license for their buildings. Where building conditions fall below basic requirements, it triggers tenant use of a rent escrow account. Rent escrow programs allow tenants to pay their rent into a rent escrow account, typically held by a city, when a unit is in disrepair for a given period of time. The city can then draw on that money to fix outstanding work orders, and the tenant is protected from eviction due to non-payment of rent. Landlords are pressured by the loss of rental income to address the outstanding complaints. We were also fighting for a communication component, which allows the city to post signs in the lobby if an apartment building is below code, so that tenants become more aware of their rights and the vehicles that they have available to assert those rights.

ACORN lobbying was successful in winning the support of City Councilor Anthony Perruza of Ward 8, who introduced a motion at City Council directing staff to research and implement a landlord-licensing system. The City staff report returned with the recommendation from Municipal Licensing and Standard to boost the already existing audit program with a target of four buildings in each ward across Toronto. The recommendation, adopted by Toronto Council, was a huge organizational victory but a very small step forward. The audit program focuses on common areas and represents minimal progress for the actual units and the tenants in them. The audit program has limited impact on landlords’ behavior.

It is worth noting that Municipal Licensing and Standards in January 2010 stated that roughly 100 million dollars in repairs have been done in slum buildings across Toronto as a result of the program. However, the details behind this number have been difficult get from the city, leaving the leadership feeling skeptical about the claim.

There is much speculation as to why the city did not come out with a full landlord-licensing program. Some have suggested that the landlord lobby was too strong. Others have suggested that this program would have put the city in a conflict, because the largest landlord in the city, also very below code, is Toronto Community Housing TCH, which is a crown corporation that houses thousands of low-income tenants across the city. ACORN’s Toronto office continues to work on these issues. The scope of this problem in Toronto is tremendous, and the city of Toronto has little help from the province. The campaign continues.

Judy Duncan has been the Head Organizer for ACORN Canada since 2004. She started the ACORN Canada field program after working with Washington ACORN in the United States for over a year. Judy has her Masters Degree from UBC in Community and Regional Planning

To understate the obvious: our side in the fight for social and economic justice and full democratic participation by all people isn’t doing well. I would like to use the California budget crisis to ask “Why? Why isn’t there a politically serious, no cuts, improve public services, progressive taxation proposal on the table?”

Easily asked; not as easily answered. The roots of the problem go deep.

The last time there was a serious effort to pass a “no-cuts” tax relief and reform proposal was 1975-1977 when the California Tax Reform Association (CTRA), a Sacramento-based and labor-supported public interest organization, and the Citizens Action League (CAL), a coalition of labor, minority, religious, senior, neighborhood and activist organizations, supported Sen. Nick Petris’ SB 154 – the Tax Justice Act.

It provided substantial property tax relief to 80% of homeowners and to renters (very highly priced homes didn’t do so well), and made up lost revenues by a combination of new upper-income tax brackets, mineral extraction taxes, and closure of corporate loopholes. It was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Then-Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy and the SB 154 coalition got a veto override vote; Senate leader David Roberti and CTRA-CAL couldn’t in the Senate. Proposition 13 became law the next year.

Jump To Now

Recently, a $26 billion deficit loomed because of the housing crisis-precipitated recession. At the same time, wealth concentration and income inequality were growing by leaps and bounds. An SB 154-type package could have made up the early deficit figure of $26 billion with no cuts in, and, indeed, improvements to, programs.

Conservative Republicans in California wanted to eliminate $26 billion of government services as part of their general destroy government strategy. They continue to play variations on Ronald Reagan’s “Get the government off your back” theme.

Democrats wanted to eliminate $13 billion of government services – the “crippled programs syndrome” approach that leads to inadequate public programs. They wanted to pay for the remaining $13 billion with a mix of regressive and mildly progressive taxes.

Yet, according to surveys of Californians, a majority supports Prop. 13 reform and progressive taxes, and is angry at the increasing concentration of wealth, income and power going on in the state and the country.

And, despite the supposed "anti-tax" climate, many local school and other bond and revenue measures are adopted by the voters, even when they require 2/3 approval.

There's a radical disconnect here? How should we understand it? What should we do about it? Why?

It is easy to blame spineless Democrats. But surveys and elections are two different things. Politicians understand that in the absence of mass-based “popular” organizations, money is required to buy mass media, that without mass media it’s difficult to win elections, and that you get money to buy mass media from people who have lots of it. Small donations aren’t sufficient. While politicians may or may not be spineless, they know what it takes to win elections.

Who were Democrats able to seduce (though it does take two to climb into the bed) in their crackpot realism compromise that cut the most vulnerable? Organized labor, particularly most public employee unions. Until labor is willing to disengage from its hand-in-glove relationship with Democratic politicians, and mount, or participate in, mass-based campaigns to push Democrats from the left, this drift to the right will continue.

Who might initiate the effort to pull labor away from its seductress? In 1976, some private sector unions that participated in the CTRA-CAL coalition wanted to preserve corporate loopholes in their particular sector of the economy. Others in the coalition said, “no deal. Either there’s across-the-board elimination of corporate loopholes, or we’re out.” There are no “Others” now to push labor in this way.

We have to look at a second source of our problem: the displacement of vigorous voluntary sector organizations of low-to-middle income and minority communities by the plague of community-based nonprofits, each of which may operate a program of merit but who collectively constitute a layer of co-opted leadership now dependent on a combination of government and foundation funding, making them competitors with one another for pieces of a shrinking pie.

In CAL days, religious congregations, unions, moderate and militant community groups, and various identity-based organizations came together in creative, sometimes tense, lowest significant common denominator coalitions that could — when they agreed — muster the clout to pass significant legislation and wrest significant concessions from corporate power.

We now face this irony: while individual community organizations are more powerful than they were 1974-78, and while some of them are part of state-wide and national “networks,” the sum is less than the parts. Each of the major networks in California — IAF, PICO, Gamaliel, ACCE (heir to ACORN), as well as important “independents” — can point to victories on specific campaigns. None of them seems to have any idea how, or they lack the will, to create majority coalitions that can slow, halt and reverse growth of the plutocracy. They list often-major victories while the experience of most Californians is that the quality of their lives continues to decline.

“The left,” broadly defined, pursues policies, strategies and tactics that may individually be of merit but whose cumulative impact has been to isolate it from the white working class, significant sectors of the very constituencies for whom it seeks and claims to speak, and middle-class “Anglo” moderates.

With no apparent place to go, the former drop out or support people and organizations ranging from George Wallace to The Tea Party. In the black community, the division between the people who go to church and the people who hang out on the street is far deeper than in the days of multi-class ghettos. Parallel divisions exist among Latinos, elderly, disabled, youth and other groups.

The political result in California is that centrist Democratic governors and legislative leaders made alliances with moderate Republicans to create legislative majorities, boxing progressives in and isolating them — despite majority public support for their economic policies.

Meanwhile, corporate power and individual wealth got off scot-free. It is easy to say they use “divide and conquer” strategies or have limitless money at their disposal. Both are true. But they are givens – the complaints of observers, not those who would make and change history.

What Is To Be Done: Two Steps Backward In Order To Move Forward

A new majority constituency position has to be defined by a group of leaders representing important labor, minority, senior, disabled, student, small business, professional and other significant groups in the state. They have to take this position deeply into the rank-and-file of their respective organizations. In many of these organizations this means getting beyond the usual activist core that speaks for others but fails to engage and involve them. Such a group, program and approach can stake out a moral claim that allows them to speak for the best of our religious and small “d” democratic traditions.

That position has to benefit 70% of Californians in its policy impact, avoiding, for example, the division over tuition increases in state institutions of higher education where middle-class households pay more so children of lower-middle class, working class and low-income households can receive student aid. This position must restore a steeply progressive income tax at high income levels, adopt and increase mineral extraction taxes, close corporate loopholes, and split the property tax between commercial/industrial and residential property and otherwise revise Proposition 13.

A campaign for this policy should be viewed as a three-to-five year effort so that local campaign committees can be built in most state assembly and senate districts, aimed at creating a veto-proof legislature in 2014 or 2016. It should target the legislature so that politicians who support it can be rewarded and opponents can be punished.

The local campaign committees should be non-partisan, but consciously seek to develop visible spokespersons who could be primary challengers against a negative legislator, principally in Democratic Party primaries, but also supporting the few moderate Republicans left, and perhaps in some circumstances supporting a third party candidate. The campaign should be kicked off by massive public rallies or mass meetings held throughout the state so a credible threat can be made to boycott corporations that threaten to move out of California because of the policy’s tax consequences for them.

Underneath the umbrella of the statewide campaign, a door-to-door canvass should be initiated that combines fund-raising, political pressure on legislators and education with a canvass-organizing effort to build new individual- membership, dues-paying, neighborhood and small town level clubs that have a life of their own. The clubs would use political participation, direct action and mutual aid to pursue a multi-issue agenda. They would define a program of public service improvements they want in their districts. The canvass-organizer who was their original organizer would shift to being their organizer whose salary and benefits are paid by their dues and such grass-roots fundraisers as raffles. Imagine a relatively small neighborhood of 10-20,000 with a club of 500 members who pay $100 a year in dues. The club has social, cultural, educational, mutual aid (time dollars, buying clubs, pooled baby-sitting, etc), direct action, lobbying and electoral activities as parts of its community-building activities.

CAL created a unit of experienced canvassers and added an organizing component to their job. While canvassing, they asked people if they would be interested in coming to a house meeting to discuss what they could do to help the campaign. They also assessed responses, and tried to discover who knew whom, and who respected whom on the block. When they thought they had a potential leader, they asked that person to convene the house meeting, and gave her the list of interested people in the immediate neighborhood. Canvassers raised "quota" (the fundraising goal) in three, instead of the usual five, days. In the remaining two days, they organized the house meetings, helping leaders create the agenda, and training them to conduct a small house meeting (a dozen-to-25 people). The level of participation that was generated staggered CAL's canvassers and leadership. The anger was waiting to be tapped. (The only similar energy I've seen since are the responses in the Latino community to immigration rights battles and the responses of public employees and their allies to Wisconsin's Governor Walker. And, unfortunately, the responses to The Tea Party.)

The feasibility of such an effort was demonstrated in the 1975-76 SB 154 campaign. A contemporary version has to take into account vast differences in today’s political climate. That, in turn, requires initial conversations among the group of leaders to whom I earlier referred.

Putting that group together is like stringing individually distinct beads on a necklace: it’s done one at a time as a result of one-to-one conversations initiated by one or two respected people who are willing to step up to see if this can be done. The conversations are framed in an “If…then” manner: “If a dozen-or-so key leaders in California are willing to meet to discuss how to make this campaign happen, would you be willing to be one of them?”

If no critical mass, no forward movement. And if no forward movement, we will continue to move backward.

Mike Miller directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center. He was a founder and chairperson of the Citizens Action League (CAL).

Adapted from a shorter article with the same title that appeared in Beyond Chron: The Voice of the Rest. San Francisco’s Alternative On-line quarterly.

Subscriber Login

Latest Issue


Joomla! Debug Console


Profile Information

Memory Usage

Database Queries