QUOTE(dtobias @ Sun 8th February 2009, 11:09pm)
A panhandler's union just seems like a really ridiculous idea... just who would they go on strike against? Unions are for workers; who does a panhandler work for?
QUOTE(GlassBeadGame @ Mon 9th February 2009, 8:08am)
I think they mean union in the sense of "direct action." I'm not sure about PHU but many homeless/street persons/runaway-throwaway-kids activists groups address this issue. It usually takes the form of a free speech campaign and civil disobedience around asking for money which is often prohibited speech under various "vagrancy" laws. The activists assert no speech is more deserving of protection than people asking for assistance when in dire need. This also becomes political speech because it illustrates serious failures of the economic system and social safety net. One frequent tactic is to publish a newspaper in which street people can tell their stories or express opinions. They then ask for donations for the paper.
Not really the kind of thing "internet libertarians" are likely to get behind, despite the obvious free speech issue. Now setting a homeless person on fire and posting a video on Youtube is more the kind of free speech Wikipedians can support.
Howdy, folks. Sorry it took so long to reply to you, but I had some difficulty getting an ack from the site here so I could register.
In answer to your statements about the union, the Ottawa Panhandlers' Union is a real union. We are a shop of the Industrial Workers of the world (IU 630), we pay union dues, and we carry a union card just like any other union workers. Your confusion is understandable, since the modern concept of a union is very different from the ideals on which the original unions were formed.
A union is a group of workers who stand together for mutual aid and defence. It has nothing to do with collective bargaining with an employer, although a union can certainly do that, and often does. The IWW has a long tradition of organizing the unorganized; during the Great Depression, for example, the IWW unionized the men in work camps, bringing them together in solidarity to fight for dignity and better conditions. Here in Ottawa, as in many other places, the homeless population has exploded as a result of a perfect storm of neo-liberal doctrines such as the elimination of rent controls, slashing of welfare rates, closing of hospitals and mental institutions, failure to provide drug treatment, and the empowerment of a belligerent and ever-growing police force which openly states that its mandate is to protect business from the poor. These conditions have resulted in a massive increase in panhandling with a concommitant rise in friction between panhandlers and the business lobby which views them solely as a problem which must be eradicated.
The IWW does not work like other unions with which you may be familiar. There is a single paid member for the entire union. All the rest of the work is split up and done by the workers themselves. This is called the "solidarity unionism" model, which is opposed to (and by) the craft unions (which we often refer to as bureaucratic unions). If you belong to a Wobbly shop and you walk off the job, no men in suits from the IWW national are going to show up and seclude themselves in a smoky back room with the bosses where they may or may not be fighting for your rights. The workers themselves negotiate, building solidarity among themselves, but are also able to call on the broader support of the union as a whole. The motto of the IWW is, "An injury to one is an injury to all."
For the Ottawa Panhandlers' Union, this model of organizing fits perfectly with our needs. People on the street are made to feel worthless both by those who want to exterminate them but also by their supposed allies on the soft liberal left, who make people weak and reliant through their myth of the "deserving poor." Most of the members of the Panhandlers' Union are panhandlers only because they are prevented from doing what they really want to do, such as busk, sell arts and crafts, vend newspapers and trinkets, or do artwork on the street. The OPU started a newspaper program, where anyone on the street could by copies of The Dominion, a grassroots Canadian newspaper, at cost and distribute them on the street in exchange for a donation. Under pressure from the business lobby (called BIAs, Business Improvement Areas here), Ottawa City Hall made this practice illegal, forcing people to go back to panhandling.
No one, not even the panhandlers themselves, want a panhandler on every corner. Nearly everyone who is currently panhandling is capable of doing *something*. They are on the street for reasons which almost inevitably include mental illness, drug addiction, or both. These conditions make conventional 9-5 employment impossible, but they are more than capable of engaging in small itinerant self-employment if only they were not constantly thwarted from doing so. I can tell you from personal experience that most of our members are extremely intelligent and highly creative. Stupid, bland, uncreative people don't end up on the street, they end up behind a desk (or in Parliament). If all those who could vend or busk were permitted to do so, there would be few enough people left panhandling that their numbers would not elicit the kind of class rage we see now by the middle class.
Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded, but I wanted to explain that we are not just another activist group, out waving placards and marching in the street -- although we do that too, sometimes. We do a lot of small direct actions with specific goals in mind. For example:
* We shut down the local police station -- twice -- to force them to get rid of a cop who was beating up street people. We occupied the street outside their doors for an hour the first time, and warned them if the cop was not fired we would be back. He wasn't and we were, this time marching right inside and occupying the lobby, flags waving and megaphone blaring, while 200 angry cops surrounded us. This time they acted, and the cop was taken off the street. (They promoted him to detective, presumably because it's easier to promote a cop than to fire him. That's fine with us, as long as he's off the street and not beating up homeless teens in empty parking lots.)
* We helped one of our members sue the Rideau Centre, a large shopping mall in downtown Ottawa, for $70,000 after he got beaten badly by three members of their security staff for the crime of looking poor. The Rideau Centre settled out of court, and the member used the money to buy a car, get an apartment, acquire his A-Z license, and is now earning $25 an hour driving a truck. He also now assists us in organizing the union.
* One of our members is schizophrenic and spends time occasionally in hospitals for that reason. In Russia, before he emigrated here, he was a lawyer, and he is trying to update his skills at university. The hospital would not let him go to classes because they said they did not want to be responsible if he went nuts or something. Another member volunteered to go with him, and we told the hospital they'd face a picket line if they didn't let him go. They complied.
* While one of our members was being held in a detention centre, they denied him the use of his wheelchair because they said it could be used as a weapon. He was forced to literally crawl on his hands and knees to use the bathroom or move anywhere but his bed. They said if he was willing to go into isolation -- alone in a tiny room with no one to talk to, no television, no radio, and nothing to read -- they'd give him his wheelchair back. We paid them a visit and told the detention centre they'd have a picket line outside their gates if he didn't get his wheelchair back. Their response was to pressure the court and release him before our date for the picket.
Those are just a few examples of the kind of stuff we do. Our activities are determined and planned by our members. Not only does it mean they obtain the solidarity necessary to protect themselves and their comrades against the State and the power of capital, but they learn useful skills which will make them valuable activists in their own right, capable of standing up for themselves and others. The JzGs of the world don't stand a chance against us.
(PS: Yes, that's me in the avatar at the 2007 Mayday protest.)