Sixth in the Series: On Organizing
Working Idealism In : Engage the People
Peace and economic justice is not something we need just for the workers of the Maquiladoras or the people of the Middle East: it is necessary to the well-being of the American people. The massive redistribution of wealth to the military-industrial complex stunts every social program. And, war is more; its death and disability for millions including US veterans and their families. War is unprecedented Corporate Power and social control.
We still confront the interlocking systems of oppression and social control that Martin Luther King described as the giant triplets of Racism, Militarism, and Economic Exploitation. It is in our interests to oppose white supremacy, war, mass incarceration and wealth inequality as a way to fulfill our ideals of peace, equality, and democracy.
Naomi Klein, Christian Parenti and many others are persuasively making the connection between war and climate change. The US military is the single greatest consumer of fossil fuels. War will accelerate climate catastrophe. Neither is in the interest of the people and both can be framed in terms of broad ideals of human rights and environmental justice.
The Organizer has Interest in one hand; Ideals in the other.
Peace, climate change, universal health care and racial justice issues are admittedly very difficult areas to work in with union members long trained in the narrow self-interest typical of service unionism or worse, business unionism.1
It is not a coincidence that narrow self-interest, surrender to machine politics, and the failure of domestic and international solidarity all occurred in an environment where organizing was devalued or simply not practiced.
On the one hand union members will always express different political opinions and controversy cannot be avoided. On the other leaders create barriers to membership and activism if official opinion strays too far from that of the rank and file or if external political matters are seen by members as a distraction from union’s core mission.
It is generally unwise to alienate members for the sake of high sounding but ineffectual resolutions no matter how noble the cause. Political stands arrived at without thorough discussion, explanation and the opportunity for dissent can backfire. Better to take on one or two issues and vet them well rather than pass dozens of unanimous resolutions through an executive committee.
Members will be more willing to listen to the controversial views of their leaders if they feel the union is listening to them. Are they engaged by co-workers or shop stewards? Have they been contacted by staff members? Are they served well by the contract?
Solidarity is learned in practice, by example, at home. Exhortation will not work. Long term education will. Workshops and seminars matter but it will take a multitude of the quiet conversations that are the foundations of organizing.
Self-interest, enlightened self-interest, and universal values are not necessarily stages of development that progress from one to the next. It is useful to introduce ideals and values from the outset given that your constituency has already assented to them in theory. You will draw power to your organization if you connect your day-to-day struggles with dignity, fairness, justice, freedom, peace, democracy and the health and wholeness of mother earth.
For Example: We Will have Democracy at Work or Nowhere.
The workplace is the last frontier of American freedom. We have a very rich challenge ahead. The Bill of Rights stops at the workplace door. Although we spend most of our waking hours at work, it is where we are least free. Arguably, Americans are the least free people at work in the developed world. Why should political rights at work be so limited when it is obvious that the corporations are free to have boundless influence in our government and public life?
The intervention of private corporations in government has blurred the distinction between public political power and private economic power to the point where the two are inextricably connected. The lack of democracy in the economy has made the attainment of democracy in public sphere unlikely. If corporations enjoy the full rights of citizens in the political sphere should workers not enjoy the full rights of citizens in the economic sphere? Democracy depends on the hope that someday the Bill of Rights will be respected in the American workplace.2
The job of the organizer then is to articulate the connections between job security, low pay, favoritism, divide and conquer, or other bad managerial practices, to democracy and the other values we claim to cherish. This is particularly important in the recruitment and development of leaders and organizers. Ideals will provide a sustaining spirit for the union.
Organizers draw strength and endure the trials and minutiae of their work knowing that the specific and particular is the form in which the universal ideals like democracy reveal themselves. Your daily work may be to shore up the grievance procedure but you are really working on due process protections for democracy at work. Decent compensation frees people from survival concerns and allows them to realize their potential as citizens and humans.
Organizers blast through what may seem tedious details regarding small matters because they know that the struggle for freedom is found in the details of life. The details are the only place universal values are ever found–even in love or literature
1.Moody, Kim. An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism, San Francisco, CA, & Chelsea, MI: Verso, 1988.
2.For more See Richard Moser, “Organizing the New Faculty Majority, pp. 103-108