Thursday Nov 30

BACKSTORY 53.3 - The Resource Crisis in Organizing

Having organized unions in communities and workplaces both domestically and internationally for decades, admittedly, I’m biased. Organized power in the hands of lower income families and lower waged workers is a critical antidote to poverty, arguably more effective than any number of other schemes or ideological advocation of uplift and education. Increasingly, the facts and reports from experts make my point not opinion, but gospel.

Economists looking at equity gaps regularly cite one of the key causal factors in recent decades has been the weaking of unions. Studies on education and the increase in the number of African-Americans with college degrees in the face of continued differential in earnings and opportunity underscore the fact that education without power reenforces the status quo, rather than making change.

If this has now become almost impossible to ignore in the United States, a developed country way ahead of the game, how is it possible that development and economic experts, politicians and so-called philanthropists, have not gotten the message as they look at narrowing the gulf between rich and poor around the world and between countries? Recent experiences have impressed this point to me over and over: fledgling efforts to build unions in precarious communities and workplaces are simply stalled for resources, even while millions and billions go into fancy offices, websites, and paychecks of staff and promotors of failing programs and bankrupt dogma.

In just the last few weeks in the United States, Netherlands, Germany, Sicily, Ecuador, and now Brazil, I have listened to one story after another of real kingdoms being lost for lack of horses.

In one meeting or conversation after another, I have visited with people making huge sacrifices of time and energy with little to no resources to change their workplaces and communities, even as their tasks and the lack of support make their labors seem Sisyphean and unsustainable. We met with a union of domestic workers in Salvador, Brazil with 2000 members facing an unorganized workforce of 150,000 in that city alone and an estimated 8 million in the country, whose most important question to us was where could they get the money to organize. In Sicily,

I met with volunteers in a cooperative trying to prevent demolition of their community who were ready to organize except for one problem: no money. In Germany, I met with a primary funder of community organization efforts around the world for more than fifty years who had money, but admitted to me that they were now getting less of it and would have to reduce their support, when they should be increasing it. In Ecuador, the largest labor federation and indigenous organization both reached out to me through common friends looking for help to raise the resources to build sustainable structures and programs and deal with governmental oppression.

Researchers, advocates, professors and others study these issues and make the case, but there’s no trickle down. It’s not even just the gap between rich and poor, either. Climate is the issue de jour, but volunteers trying to save biospheres in Brazil, lacked resources. Organizers seeking to force rural electric cooperatives to finally phase out coal and adopt alternatives along with real diversity and democratic governance, get compliments for the plan, but pennies, if that, to make it happen.

There’s no longer any valid counter argument that building power levels political and economic operating theaters, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, power concedes nothing without a fight, and in this fight the powerless are penniless in the face of pretend programs and plans, fighting with two hands tied behind their backs and dancing backwards in high heels.

Everyone asks me as I visit, “where can we find the resources?” I used to answer, jokingly, that it might take a “ski mask and a gun,” but after a meeting with forty people some years ago in Dublin, where I was surprised that rather than laughing, they were nodding in agreement, I had to drop that joke from my repertoire. Unfortunately, now I have no answer. I can only nod sadly in agreement.

WADE RATHKE is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).