The page presents the entire series “On Organizing as a single essay.
Our terrible dilemma: While the climate scientists tell us our time may well be short, the road ahead seems so long and winding.
Start now. Start organizing.
But, what is the culture of organizing? What are its underlying assumptions, principles, methods, and tensions?
And, most important: What is the purpose of organizing?
As with the series on the Inside/Outside Strategy, Electoral Strategy Union Triad and Martin Luther King, “On Organizing” proposes a method of mobilizing people toward the goal of social transformation. Organizing is a means to an end: Participatory Democracy and the Next American Revolution.
Organizing is a way of seeing and being in the political world—a way we must cultivate if we are to rebuild and renew the social movements.
The culture of organizing grows through a sustained engagement with people and assumes that knowing the world and acting in it are inseparable parts of the same process. Organizers value research, analysis and history, but usually assume that learning through experience and teaching by example are the most effective means of education.
This emphasis on practice predisposes organizers to experimentation. We learn from failure as well as success; from allies as well as enemies. Failure and enemies are the mothers of invention. Study them both but above all act, for activism is the greatest teacher of all.
The organizer’s rhetorical, strategic and tactical repertoire is designed to produce social action because it is in the tumult of political life that leaders emerge, relationships develop and transformations in consciousness are realized.
One way to understand the culture of organizing is to explore a series of creative tensions that underlie the organizers work and view of the world.
Between Change and Continuity
Organizers work in the creative tension between change and continuity.
Organizers usually become committed to their work out of deeply held desires for fundamental social and cultural change yet they must be ready to dedicate themselves to a life of incremental progress and evolutionary change.
Except in rare historical moments like revolutions, great depressions, and world wars, change occurs gradually. Even then, the organizer’s core practice is talking with people not rushing to the barricades.
Maybe, just maybe, the perfect storm of climate catastrophe, corporate domination, mass incarceration, endless war and the increasingly obvious dysfunction of the two-party system are clearing vistas to revolutionary change.
Even then, organizers suspect that behind the great dramas of history are slower preliminary shifts in the way people understood the world. Revolution is in the minds of the people and minds change all too slowly — most of the time. The organizers task is to contribute to the evolution of thought and action.
Without making evolution how will we ever learn to make revolution? Visionary projects need intermediate programs.
The glacial pace of cultural change in both society and movement organizations means that organizers typically must have a high tolerance for frustration. Or, a historical perspective that sees the big picture reflected in small daily acts of resistance.
Organizers keep sight of long-term goals but recognize just how monumental real change is. Wary of shortcuts, quick fixes and big promises, organizers suspect that any type of “activism” that does not increase the quantity — and improve the quality — of face-to face or small group encounters is likely to be just so much smoke and mirrors.
Politics Begins by Engaging the People
Of all the principles of organizing, the most enduring has been that organizers must begin with people the way they actually are, not the way we wish they were.
Saul Alinsky usefully schooled thousands of activists. He captured the kernel of organizing wisdom when he wrote “As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not is any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.”1
Organizers engage the world and work with it but without abdicating their principles, compromising their strategy or resigning themselves to business as usual. This critical embrace of the world places the organizer on a razor’s edge.
Organizers do not stand high above the fray to criticize and deplore the world because self-righteousness is inimical to social action and solidarity.
Nor do organizers indulge grandiose fantasies of power.
Illusions of power lead the dreamer to think they will ride a wave of insurgency and insurrection to wipe the slate clean and remake the world according to their ideology.
On the other side of the spectrum, the ambitious trade on their claim to formal representation of unions or social movements hoping to become an inside player on equal footing with the rich and powerful.
Where have these power trips taken us? Both are essentially apolitical — divorced from the people — and from organizing.
Observe and Assess
The organizers first skills are those of observation and assessment. We always start at the beginning by trying to understand who we have to work with. So let go, and listen up — be patient no matter what the crisis. When you arrive on the scene, avoid the temptation to act like people need to be set straight.
Organizers should facilitate activism but if they substitute their own initiative for that of the people they can reinforce passivity, deference or cynicism and do more harm than good. Find out who the leaders are (they may not be the elected ones) and what they believe is appropriate political activity. Assess the strengths and weaknesses and evaluate resources so you will know what is possible. Be mindful of the fact that your ambition to change things will tend to cloud your judgment.
When you do begin to speak and act the starting point should be within the experience and culture of your constituency. You cannot have politics if you do not have a dialogue and for that there must be a point of contact and engagement.
Ideologues make poor organizers. Ideologues unintentionally depoliticize seemingly radical beliefs because they prize the intellectual order, moral superiority, or aesthetic quality of their systems too much to risk engagement with the disorderly and contradictory world.
Ideologies do matter, and cannot be dispensed with in any event, but are useful for organizers as a general reference rather than a formula. Ideological rigidity tends to limit the organizer’s experimental sensibility.
Once you have built up trust by acting in ways people can recognize and understand then you can slowly move the point of the dialogue and action toward greater empowerment. In most cases it is one small step at a time. But there are good reasons to believe that progressive social movements will someday gain the advantage and when they do — well-grounded organizers could be decisive in winning revolutionary change.
Since grassroots power usually grows out of community, successful organizers respect local culture and tradition. Time-tested and revered values will sustain people’s courage for action and provide the ground on which new understandings will develop. Tradition can be a platform or a prison. A good organizer makes it a platform by identifying what aspects of existing tradition and culture have the potential to be renewed, recast, reconstructed and revitalized.
Historical consciousness tempers the kind of thinking that depends on great leaps forward, insurrections and revolutionary situations. Apocalyptic expectations almost always fails and leads to defeat and cynicism.
Today, we have radical ideologies by the score and debates uncountable. But, still — still — we lack a working theory of revolution. The unspoken theory is that protest, moral outrage, analytical prowess and ideological rigor will somehow produce political power.
How are we doing with that? How much time do we have?
Until Then: Be Creative
Let’s experiment by putting learning, strategic thinking, and organizing at the center of our revolutionary vision. Debates and polemics are best resolved in the field through organizing, activism, engagement and participation.
The Inside/Outside Strategy encourages learning since it begins with an appreciation for political positions not identical to our own. Build a transformative project by including insights, resources, and strategies from all progressive positions. Diversity and inclusion are good. Reject and repudiate other positions — as we Americans are so good at — and we slip back to the status quo. Include and transcend. Reject, repudiate or repress and return.
A little more philosophy. As Grace Lee Boggs said, “Evolution is not linear.”2
Consider the ideas of transformation and reconstruction as ways of changing the world, not simply interpreting it. Transformation and reconstruction means we put our hands and minds on the world we have inherited and we work on it to change it. Sounds simple enough.
“Revolutions succeed when new, more inclusive, and compelling visions of worn-out traditions take root by assuming the latent power and liberating vision of some frayed but classic ideal.”3
Someday this: revolutionary change will allow us to connect to the best of our old traditions of democracy and anti-imperialism. Someday we will become worthy of our revolutionary ancestors and make them proud. Someday we will transform tradition. If we have the political skill, creativity and good luck to approach the threshold of revolution, we will invent transhistorical possibilities free from the blinders of linear change where the past falls away from us. We can reinvent the American political tradition — a tradition that begins with the American Revolution.
But revolutions are rare, and organizers — we do not wait — we act. Martin Luther King took this worker-like view: “There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”4
Deep currents flow through American culture — and in the social movements — that under appreciate history and lead us to expect apocalyptic change and radical discontinuity. In the long run, expectations for easy change actually disarm and demoralize organizers leading to the twin dead ends of corporate-style empire building common to political machines, or to the isolated and polemical thinking typical of sectarianism.
If I have overstated the case for continuity and gradualism it is because an evolutionary approach starts with the movement as it actually is. Evolution seems best suited to bridge the gap between the distracted, fatalistic, and fearful majority and the moral enthusiasm, idealism and ideological isolation of radical movements. The path to revolution begins with evolution.
Prepare for the long road ahead. Prepare by organizing.
1.Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, 1972 p.xix. However, most organizers will find Alinsky’s first book, the 1946, Reveille for Radicals a far better primer than Rules for Radicals.
2.Grace Lee Boggs, in the film “American Revolutionary”
3.Richard Moser, “Was it the End or Just the Beginning: American Storytelling and the History of the Sixties,” in, The World the Sixties Made, eds. Van Gosse and Richard Moser, Temple 2003.
4. Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community
The Personal and the Political
Personal politics — deeply felt and enduring — might just be the only politics that really matter. In the late 1960’s, Carol Hanisch and others in the emerging women’s movement breached the borderline between private lives and public action. Daily oppressions and humiliations that seemed a “natural” part of women’s lives were revealed as a historically constructed system of patriarchy. Since then, organizers have understood that problems seen as personal are often expressions of underlying political issues. Organizers raise consciousness by helping people see their personal trials as outcomes of power struggles and political choices.1
Individualism and the free-market ideology that believes rewards are distributed according to merit also encourages people to understand their troubles as personal shortcomings and failings. If the organizer allows those views to go unchallenged then people will be demoralized and passive and few will take the risk to become activists.
The organizer provides the relevant context—social, economic, political, or historical–to demonstrate that the grievances being experienced are not just individual matters but part of broader trends with solutions that can only be found in concerted action. The point is to link individual problems with systemic causes. Then you can help someone to discover an identity of interests with others. Common interests make collective action possible.
One must, however, be careful not to overemphasize large impersonal forces in history as that may promote victimhood or resignation in the face of the juggernaut. The twin and indispensable part of connecting the personal with the political is the promotion of agency: the basic democratic belief that people have the ability to govern themselves and improve their lives.
Promote agency by breaking down isolation, fear and fatalism. Embolden people by aiming for small victories and positive events that you have some measure of control over. Connect modest struggles with larger issues and the broader movement.
Show how some small victory is linked to the struggle for workplace democracy—almost all workplace issues are. The movement against mass incarceration connects the personal with the political. When our prisons are full of non-violent offenders and HSBC does not even get indicted for laundering hundreds of millions for the drug cartels it is obvious that discriminatory policing selects criminals by color and class. Crime and punishment are personal politics.
Organizers also promote agency through the long and patient effort to develop leaders. Ella Baker, one of the most influential organizers of the mid-20th century, argued that movements needed “the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.”
So true. That is what organizers do.
Sometime in their lives most people have developed a positive core of attributes that can be bought to bear on the political process. In many cases people see these skills as personal ones appropriate to their role as parents or special to their occupations. It is the organizers job to be aware of an individual’s strengths and skills, and to help them find political work that matches and then enhances their abilities.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for.”2
We fuse the personal to the political with personal responsibility to activism. The people have rights and responsibilities and they are both collective and individual. In many ways, the organizers most important target is not the power-holder or decision-maker but the sources of passivity, avoidance, and denial within the people.
And, we should not deny that our problems are largely of our own making.
As Fredrick Douglass taught, “Find out just what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”
Submission or resistance? Both regulate injustice. We make choices and those choices have consequences. There is simply no substitute for personal responsibility to political life. Yes, the political is personal too.
When many millions discover just how political their personal lives are — and act on that knowledge — then we will cross the threshold to revolutionary change.
- See Also Sara Evans classic work, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and New Left.
- Versions of this quote have been attribute to June Jordan, a Hopi Elder, and Grace Lee Boggs.
Planning and Opportunity
The vast majority of movement work today is reactive. In part that is a result of the defensive posture of the labor and social movements but it is also a reflection of the political culture of our organizations.
Many unions especially treat the historic decline in membership as a succession of surprises: one dissatisfied member, decertification campaign, runaway shop, or lost election at a time. Yet when each crisis calls forth the most expedient, narrow, legalistic, managerial and apolitical response possible we can only blame ourselves. Conventional union politics has failed us. We need bold conscious plans.
Without action plans and intentional campaigns union officers and staff avoid accountability, play house politics, and settle into business as usual.
Effective organizers on the other hand “plan the work and work the plan.” While we can never predict the future — and trying to is an all-too-common waste of time — contingency planning is essential. Create a scenario based on your best guess and another one based on your second best guess. Avoid the rigid certainty of the soothsayer or ideologue. Embrace the tactical flexibility of the revolutionary.
You can never, nor should you, avoid reacting to events or seizing opportunities, but working according to plan allows for better preparation and encourages organizations to envision a means of anticipating political problems with political solutions.
That does not mean rigid adherence to past decision but it does mean that you have a text to revise, a yardstick to measure your progress, a way of learning from mistakes, and a hypothesis that can actually promote and guide experimentation.
Planning does not prevent mistakes or bad luck; in fact they will be your constant companion. Instead, get to know them well; one day they may introduce you to success and good fortune.
Good action plans are not produced solely by the work of a few leaders and staff. Strategic planning is an excellent opportunity to practice union democracy and convene a union-wide discussion on the union’s future. Open ended discussion is necessary to discover new ideas and enlist the members in making the plan work.
Good action plans are also not scholarly reports or policy recommendations or wish lists. A lot of precious time and energy have been wasted on formulating pious wishes and lofty desires. Strategic thinking may involve history, analysis of current conditions, or statements of desired goals but strategy is primarily characterized by a proposed course of action.
Strategic questions ask: “how do we win?” How do we create the transition between what is and what ought to be?
An effective strategy proposes how existing consciousness, resources, and capacities can be marshaled to achieve a range of political ends. Strategic plans try to answer the hardest questions of all—what to do next and how to do it.
Start with an inventory of your resources, match them to goals, plan the next step and you will be on the way to reenergizing your organization.
Both Interests And Ideals
Organizers usually accept the idea that self-interest is the best starting point for empowerment. Unions are predicated on serving the interest of working people. Social movements too advocate the peoples’ many interests. Yet self-interest is never enough. If the labor and social movements are to inspire people to great things, organizers must help people connect matters of immediate self-interest to enlightened self-interest, and ultimately with the great ideals of freedom, democracy, equality and justice.
History would suggest that social movements attain the potential for dramatic growth and social transformation only if they are able to convincingly connect self-interest with ideals and universal values.
Self interest is an important starting point because it is a generally accepted value within modern commercial culture and firmly grounds a person in the reality of the issues. A person with self-interest is much more likely to know the nuances and subtleties of the issue, and be more engaged for the long run, if more guarded about taking risks.
Fighting your own battles is a potentially transformative experience in ways that advocating for others rarely is.
Self-interested struggles come with considerable risks and convene an inner dialogue testing and extending the limits of courage, understanding and commitment. The workplace is a hostile environment where interests clash. Pursuing self-interest (given that its through collective means) is usually more difficult than fighting for ideals or the well-being of others although those are noble pursuits as well.
Self-interested struggles are incomparable learning experiences because the direct experience of risk and exposure to power reveals the discord between claims about freedom and democracy and hard reality of the unfree workplace. Deeply felt dissonance is an effective way to revise peoples established view of the world and makes possible the transformation of deferential workers or dues-payers into activists and citizens. Successful efforts also reveal the boss to be less than omnipotent and the people more capable than previously imagined.
Activists who have not taken the risks or had the experience of organizing their own workplaces or communities sometime in their lives will have difficultly understanding the people they are trying to organize no matter how good their education nor how radical their ideology.
Despite the value of self-interested efforts, the underlying theories of “economic man” (that people react rationally and logically to their class or economic interest) have been proven utterly bankrupt. If interests dictated behavior than how does one explain that millions of working class people, including millions of union members, vote for the Republican Party?
The Seeds of Solidarity
Good organizers seek to broaden self-interest into a community of interest by linking — first rhetorically then in organizing — the agendas of different constituencies. Enlightened self-interest is the pre-condition behind the cohesive relationships we commonly call solidarity. Enlightened self-interest exists when people realize that they must help others to help themselves. Solidarity begins when people understand that their job security will always be threatened unless everyone at work enjoys it. Solidarity grows when people realize that job security is a principle that should be universally applied not only because it could make them more secure but because it serves the public interest by introducing democratic practices into the workplace.
Since almost all workplaces are fractured by race, gender, age, sexuality and class (meaning either rank or occupational differences or multi-tiered labor arrangements), internal conflicts of interest abound. Every work force or community can be divided. Conflicts of interest are most apparent in the immediate and short-term issues such as the distribution of scarce resources. A community of interest is more apparent in long-term interests reflected in issues surrounding workplace democracy, job security or quality of work. To promote solidarity, the organizer should connect each campaign to the long-term interest of the whole work force, wider community, working-class or “the people”. Needless to say this is a long-term project.
On the day-to-day basis this take the form of resisting zero-sum approaches imposed by management that attempts to shift costs and risks between different groups of workers favoring one group then the other in an endless game of divide and conquer. Political favors to one group can become the basis for a setback for the wider community or workforce.
Employers and other elites rule not through bare-knuckle domination alone but by offering advantages to certain segments of the workforce. They count on our complicity. But, enlightened self-interest can help us see that some gifts can be detrimental to our shared long-term interests. The idea that a union’s mission is to always get the best deal for its members–no matter what–is all too common and easily plays into divide and conquer strategies.
Enlightened self-interest can bridge larger political efforts that need to evoke universal values to succeed. It is now obvious that no union-negotiated healthcare benefit in the United States is secure, because we do not have universal healthcare. The attack on private pensions systems and the weakening of social security are part of the same process of shifting costs away from corporations onto everyday people. Struggling for universal benefits is not just an altruistic luxury. Part of the current failure of US labor to satisfy the self-interested demands of members is a product of the historic collapse of enlightened self-interest.
Abandon Ideals All Who Enter: Welcome to the Machine
During the Cold War, Labor unions violated their own sacred principle of solidarity by joining with imperial elites and corporate interests to weaken militant trade unionism abroad — usually under the mantle of anti-communism. By undermining unions, AFL-CIO foreign policy helped corporations exercise global control and contributed its share to the availability of cheap labor abroad. That cheap labor then became a central ingredient in the trends toward outsourcing, plant closing, wage suppression, and the loss of jobs at the heart of labor’s current decline.
Labor’s own eager cooperation with the Cold War agenda undermined our unions and our way of life at home. That was the price we all paid so union officials could be “team-players” and reap the illusory benefits of the machine: status, minor concessions and patronage positions in city, state and national machines.
The domestic counterpart of the Cold War was the mid-century social contract, also called the labor-capital accord. The truly national mobilization during WWII opened new vistas for workers, women, and minorities both racial and sexual. While an unprecedented feeling of national unity was momentarily forged, rising expectations also fueled the emerging labor and social movements.
In the wake of W.W.II, America’s unrivaled economic and political power allowed most Americans to enjoy a remarkable period of economic opportunity. Government promoted and sustained economic growth through a vast array of Keynsian spending programs including investment in higher education. As the GI Bill opened the door to everyday people, higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post war economic activity. Business and administrative leaders upheld their end of the bargain by agreeing to a rising standard of living for most working people that included such protections as pensions, medical benefits, job security and meaningful minimum standards set by law.1
Unions were reluctantly tolerated as long as labor officials agreed to management’s right to be the sole authority governing business.
Both the limits and benefits of the mid-century social contract were formalized first by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and then the 1950 UAW contact remembered as the “Treaty of Detroit.”2. Taft-Hartley purged radicals, stripped unions of powerful tactics and promoted “right to work” laws, while the Treaty of Detroit set the pattern for increased material benefits for millions of workers.
The benefits of the 1950 UAW contract was the result of years of rank and file power. Such power, dependent on organizing and activism, is always insecure and could in no way be guaranteed by deals at the top. Taft-Hartley on the other hand, was a bi-partisan act of Congress with decisive support from Democrats, who joined Republicans in overriding Truman’s veto. Needless to say, the Treaty of Detroit has been “repealed” while Taft-Hartley is all too alive and well.
At that key moment in US history, labor made an admittedly tough but fateful compromise and chose to pursue private welfare plans rather than commit to the struggle for universal health care, such as that proposed by President Truman in 1945. Health care as an exclusive right of membership eventually undermined itself by allowing employers to cry competition and lower benefits in a “race to the bottom.”
Special benefits may have temporarily functioned to motivate workers to join unions but once the peak of prosperity passed by the mid-70s, “exclusivity” backfired and encouraged resentment among unorganized workers making then open to anti-union appeals. Private welfare plans yielded decisive ground in US political culture: health care or pensions became private matters for “member’s only” not political rights for all.
Be it Cold War or mid-century social contract, Labor’s political perimeter was set and policed by the politics of the Democratic Party. And, this is nothing new. Since the days of Tammany Hall in the 19th Century, big city machines have corralled first Irish-Americans then African-Americans and many others since. The bribe: swap narrow self-interest in the form of racial, status, organizational or class privilege — even at times the most pathetic and temporary forms of patronage — for freedom, equality and democracy. Quite a bargain for the Corporate Power.
I challenge anyone to identify when and where political machines ceased to function as instruments of social control.
- For more on the mid-century social contract see David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press 1980 Chapters 5 and 6; Barry and Irving Bluestone, Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business, Basic Books, 1992, Chapter 2; Nelson Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer, On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, University of Illinois Press 1989, pp. 1-16; Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968, Cornell, 1995. For more see p. 109 Endnote #3, in Richard Moser, “Organizing the New Faculty Majority” in Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System,Keith Hoeller editor, Vanderbilt Press, 2014.
- Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walther Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, New York: Basic Books.
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-
The Revolution for US labor is Social Movement Unionism.
The strategic question, as always: how do we get there?
Organizers may detest service unionism but that is the world we are in. Can we organize our way out of the service model?
First, we need to recognize that the social contract culture created over half a century ago is deeply embedded in the minds and methods of many union officials. The inertia and resistance to change is remarkable given the fact that the corporate and political bosses have given up their end of the bargain long ago and turned instead into labor’s worst enemy.
Despite decades of retreat some of the potentially most powerful unions in the US continue to squander their resources and undermined both their reputation and bargaining power by propping up the political machines of yesteryear.
While meaningful change often occurs gradually it is usually the product of visionary and revolutionary efforts. Rising expectations shake the status quo, broaden the horizon of the possible and clear the way for fundamental change. Yet we begin with the sobering reality that our strategy must start where we currently stand. We should accept good service and efficient bureaucracy as necessary to effective unionism and organizing while we struggle against the political inertia and machine politics that have weakened unions and hurt workers.
Rethinking the Service Unionism/Organizing Model Debate
Rather than replicate the service/organizing duality that has both structured and limited the debate for the last decade perhaps an evolutionary model would allow a better passage toward a more effective union model.
An evolutionary approach, in which characteristics of earlier forms are necessary to and embedded in later forms and serve as references and resources, could move us away from an “Either/Or” choice to entertain the possibility of “Both/And.” A good union model includes the positive components of all the major species of unions created by the labor movement.
Using the academic labor movement as an example, let me argue that four types of organization: conventional trade unionism, professional unionism, public interest unionism and social movement unionism represent a continuum of union models we can learn from, draw on, and aspire to.
The “Business as Usual” Baseline.
At one end is conventional trade unionism with a social contract culture. The focus is staff delivered service and members are largely consumers or called on during mobilizations that ask them to take fairly easy actions on behalf of decisions made by union officials. The focus is on the specific workplace and the immediate and material self-interest of existing members. Organizing is devalued and the advice of experts, lobbyists and lawyers holds sway.
Conventional union officials rarely make principled opposition to management and instead seeks “fine-tuning.” They seek “a little more” for workers within the system of managerial power and zero-sum parameters imposed by bosses. Conventional officials accept tuition increases — as if the students were their only possible source of income. If pushed by the student movement these “realistic” leaders compromise with the token of “affordability.” Something lost long ago.
The massive ranks of low wage and contingent faculty are also viewed as an inevitable part of the funding formula for top-tier faculty. Once the low wage/high tuition model is accepted, “business as usual” becomes beating an orderly retreat with an eye toward maintaining dues income and budget surpluses for the organization. If confronted with adjunct activism the conventional response is token leaders and token pay increases.
Much maligned, and often for good reason, the service model was nonetheless proficient at delivering the services and basic representation without which unions would not exist. The creation of professional bureaucratic staff was necessary for the survival of unions in the modern society and professional staff will continue to be indispensable given the size of both unions and corporations. Convention unionism often included a spirited defense of teachers as a special interest group. Many higher education locals go beyond convention unionism and act as professional unions as well.
Professional Unions Professional Ethics
Professional unions have similar characteristics to conventional ones but also act as professional associations that enlarge their purview to include all members of the profession nationally and internationally. Professional unions go beyond narrow self-interest and specific worksites to develop ethical codes and professional standards for the benefit of the whole profession.
Professional unionism includes an educational function that schools it members and does not simply reflect or represent members opinion. Members are expected to live up to ethical codes of conduct. The leaders of profession unions act like teachers with their own moral compass, not their finger in the wind.
The exploitation of students and low wage faculty and staff can at least be viewed as unethical if not an urgent matter for practical politics.
Professional unionism in higher education is limited however by a belief that academic freedom and shared governance–that is freedom and democracy in the workplace–are unique privileges appropriate only to those that teach and research rather than a standard all working people should aspire to. In the current climate, the exclusivity typical of professional unionism tends to undercut working conditions because its special privileges become easy targets for “reformers,” corporate-style managers and resentful workers deprived of basic job security or a living wage. Still, the ethical codes of professional unionism are important because they provide a passage beyond narrow self-interest toward issues concerning the common good.
Unions In the Public Interest
There are times when professional unionism shades over into public-interest unionism. Public-interest unionism requires a dramatic enlargement of the discursive and political terrain on which a union is willing to engage. The community being organized extends far beyond a single campus or system. Arguments about quality teaching and research connect to the interests of students and the larger body politic.
The teachers’ working conditions are recognized as the students’ learning conditions.
Public interest unionism embodies enlightened self-interest and social solidarity and argues that education is essential to well being of the public at large and to democracy.
While not a union itself, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) led the way with grassroots resistance against the corporate model of education, linking student welfare to the fate of the faculty. New Faculty Majority and an array of new organizations and organizing drives are moving toward public interest unionism.
Another leading example of public-interest unionism is the innovative and important work done by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE). CFHE bring together leading locals from all unions and provides visionary leadership pulling and pushing more conventional unions in the right direction.
Public interest unionism may begin by highlighting higher educations role in economic development but also introduces ideals such as citizenship into the public debate. Public interest unionism demands a much deeper participation by members who must tap personal contacts and professional expertise. Mobilization efforts are common and involve a high level of activism. Political action goes beyond professional lobbyists to mass lobbying and coalition work with students, alumni, parents, and other unions.
The goal of public interest unionism is to intervene in the public discourse and change public policy. Its success ultimately depends on the creation of a culture of organizing with growing numbers of members involved in direct personal contact with others members and other political actors.
Because Public-interest unionism initiates principled political challenges to management it may move seasoned and committed unions to cross the threshold to social movement unionism and embark on the revolution US labor so badly needs.
What is Social Movement Unionism?
The rarest and most politically charged form of unionism, social movement unionism is also the most difficult form of working-class rebellion to define or realize. When the borderlines between working class struggles and movements centered on race, gender, sexuality, age, and empire merge into a movement of movements — then political innovations and revolutionary changes are afoot.
Revolutions defy easy description, and we have yet to articulate a working theory. But, if we look carefully at social movement unionism we might begin to see the political attitudes and alliances that can help us envision what transformative change looks like in our time. The evolution of union activity: from conventional unionism, to professional unionism to public interest unionism takes us to the revolutionary threshold of social movement unionism.
As we approach that threshold, members, leaders and staff consciously belong to a larger national and international effort dedicated to the creation of freedom and democracy in the union, workplace, and in society. The sense of community extends to the furthest horizon as unions claim to represent the interest of all the people. Social movement unionists often adopt the language and agenda of citizenship movements by working to exercise and extend basic human and civil rights into the workplace. We lay claims to democratic political traditions.
Social movement unionists aim beyond the workplace because they believe that workplace democracy will not likely be achieved outside of a broad popular movement that can alter the structures of law and political power.
For this reason, social movement unionists act in concert with other social movements and organizing and community building are given primacy. They value coalition work and for inspiration on vision and tactics, they look to the civil rights and other racial liberation movements, community organzing, feminism, and gay liberation. Unions closely associated with social movements (such as the early United Farm Workers), and the rank and file rebellions of the pre-1940’s labor movement also provide good examples.
Social movement unionism embraces and expresses the full spectrum of alternative political identities and consciousness aiming toward the realization of democracy. And, has emerged most frequently as local community struggles, often those of poor and immigrant workers.1
Perhaps most important, social movement unionism can only be created by rank and file activism — be that inside or outside of formal union structures. Workers who live at the intersection of multiple freedom movements are well suited to lead the way. Both labor and civil rights, and/or peace, and/or immigration, and/or women’s rights, and/or environmentalism and/or gay liberation and so on and on.
Social Movement Unionism: Right Here, Right Now!
“Our challenge,” Martin Luther King said, “is to organize the power we already have in our midst.”
Social movement unionism is not distant utopia. It is both means and ends, path and destination. From King’s perspective, all the deep cultural resources and political ideals we need for social transformation already exist. Take a good look, there is an American revolutionary tradition. Now, we need the political skill and organizing savvy to make it real again. Consider the following. We the people are ready.
“The Battle for Seattle”
The complex international constellation of social movements, ideas, discussions and organizing that lead up to and were a consequence of the 1999 “Battle for Seattle” offer us a glimpse of what social movement unionism might look like today on a grand scale. The civil disobedience and protest that shook Seattle had a distinctly northwestern flair as local activists and labor and populist traditions set the stage for a gathering of international justice groups from the global North and South, as well as unions, women’s and environmental organizations.
The coalition of “Teamsters and Turtles” proved fragile but Seattle remains a powerful example of what might be. Seattle remains one of America’s most organized and active cities.
Against War and Empire
While 9/11 and the so-called war on terror profoundly interrupted the course of social movement activism and international solidarity, the international coalitions that protested against the War in Iraq produced the largest global demonstrations in world history. On Feb. 15, 2003, a truly uncountable number — estimates range from 15 to 36 million — took to the streets to stop what we now know to be one of the greatest blunders in the blunderous history of the American Empire.
Today veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are the working-class voice for veteran rights and against war and islamophobia. The Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace continue the traditions of soldier and veteran resistance to war that go back to Vietnam Vets Agains the War. VoteVets seeks restraint in US military policies, support for the veteran community and endorses veterans running for federal office.
Look at grassroots leadership and there you will find veterans. Listen to them.
The Great American Boycott
On Mayday 2006 approximately one million people in 50 US cities avoided work, school and shopping to march in one of the largest days of protest in American history. Inspired by the farmworker movements of the 20th Century, Mexican-Americans and other Latinos played crucial leadership roles and filled the streets. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win endorsed the event, in part, because tens of thousand of new union members were immigrants. The Great American Boycott focused on immigration reform at a time when many unions were changing their attitudes and policies toward immigrants. Solidarity was recast in broader, multi-racial and multinational terms, then US labor had previously been willing to do. That is a serious breakthrough.
The movement continues and organizations, such as the FAIR coalition, continues to make connections between economic justice, immigration, racism and the record deportations under the Obama administration.
Wisconsin and Occupy
In 2011, the people of Wisconsin, led by a union of teaching assistants long steeped in the social movement style, kicked off the first massive anti-austerity demonstrations since Seattle. Later that year, the Occupy movement sparked a tsunami of international resistance against austerity and the corporate power. The 99% resonated with millions of people and gave new life to class consciousness and class solidarity — reinvesting “class” with its broadest possible meaning. In a burst of revolutionary creativity, the working-class and “We the People,” merged into the 99%.
Economic democracy became a mass aspiration. In contesting public space, the occupations became a living embodiment of the 99% in hundred of cities and towns much as the Flint Sit-down strikes had triggered similar occupations and similar demands for economic democracy during the Great Depression. At countless meetings, people experienced direct local democracy often for the first time.
Occupy redirected feelings of resentment against public employees — or just the person working down the hall or living next door — by focusing on the 1%. Occupy made the corporate power visible again. At first, some in the union movement picked up on fresh faces and new messages that occupy created. But, as Occupy waned, labor officials returned to the muddled discourse about the “middle class” and business-as-usual machine politics. Occupy faded but never disappeared as many groups continue activism around the country. Revolutionary outlooks and energies may have submerged but still ran deep among the union rank-and-file and the 99%.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” Martin Luther King
Black Lives Matter and Ferguson
In 2012, after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer, Black Lives Matter organized to rebuild the moment for black liberation, this time fully affirming the lives and leadership of people from all along the spectrum of gender, sexual, and able identities.1 Here is something for labor organizers to learn: social movement unionism embraces and expresses the full range of alternative political identities and consciousness aiming toward the realization of democracy.
In August 2014, thanks to the people of Ferguson, the long-simmering civil right movement was refounded as a dynamic national movement. Again, it was grassroots activism that created the possibilities for social movement unionism. And, it was activists, particularly black and low wage workers that brought #blacklivesmatters into union work. AFL-CIO President Trumka did make a clarion call to consciousness, even recognizing labor’s racist past. But, much of the organizing came from workers centers, domestic workers and other groups along the dynamic edge of the working-class movement.
Stephanie Luce, writing for Public Seminar, outlines the potent, if rocky, relationships between labor and the new civil rights movement.
Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, is also on staff with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, highlighting the ways in which activists are linking economic and racial justice (including with immigrant rights issues).
In many ways, the alliance is an obvious one. Black workers comprise a disproportionate share of low-wage workers; they also have higher unionization rates than non-Black workers. The movements for economic justice and racial justice have intersected throughout history — from the movement to abolish slavery to the collaboration between civil rights groups and public sector unions in the 1960s. Yet that does not mean the alliance is a natural or easy one. Labor unions have an unflattering history of racial exclusion, and while an increasing share of union members are black, the leadership is still overwhelmingly white. And many civil rights organizations, including churches have tried to avoid confrontational class-based politics for fear it could be divisive within the black community, or due to relations with the Democratic Party and elected officials.
The greatest potential for social movement unionism lies in bottom up coalitional work between labors’ activist edge and the array of new organizing projects leading the new civil rights movement. And yes, we are still hobbled because of racism within unions and because both labor, civil rights groups and churches accept the limits dictated by the Democratic Party.
But like the movements of the late 60s and early 70’s Ferguson moves beyond the liberal consensus of conservative unions and the Democratic machine . In a recent forum by Viewpoint the new civil rights movement proves itself rich with potential for new strategic alliances. Viewpoint’s editors introduce “Strategy After Ferguson:”
The eleven groups featured below constitute part of what may be an emerging radical pole in the struggle for black liberation. Even in their analytical divergence and organizational heterogeneity, they yield the outlines of a revolutionary unity, opposed to separatism, whose ambitions exceed that of the misleadership both new and old.
The political vision of those eleven organizations offer far more than hope. Historically grounded, politically astute and strategically savvy; they represent a movement with which alliances are possible and synergies abound.
It’s worth remembering the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign. Although ill-fated, it pointed the way toward an interracial movement that aimed at the core power structure of the day: the evil triplets of militarism, racism and economic exploitation. A New Poor Peoples Campaign For Today aims to pick up on that power. When movements for racial justice, peace and economic democracy merge that is social movement unionism.
The Sanders Surge is a Social Movement.
For the first time in living memory a presidential campaign has unleashed revolutionary spirits. Against all odds — and against expectations of the left, right and center — Sander’s call for a political revolution is moving millions. And, we must admit that serious politics starts where there are millions of people. We need not see Sanders as some perfect hero to learn how to leverage the Sanders surge. But we do need to move toward a transformative electoral strategy.
The mass demonstrations, protest marches, and record-setting meetings are raising consciousness. Sanders has already made history by running a major presidential campaign funded by everyday Americans. Only the Green Party aspires to do the same.
It’s hard to understate the importance of restoring class politics to the electoral arena. It’s about more than just issues. A major political realignment seems possible. The much maligned but potentially powerful white-working class is moving decisively in the direction of the social movements. The multi-racial protests against Trump may not be formally part of the Sanders campaign, but they are part of how this election is taking on the transformative possibilities of a social movement by extending the horizon of the possible.
It is time for organizing and movement building. And it is time to disrupt.
There is a power shift underway. The Sanders surge is disrupting the ruling strategy of triangulation and subverting its social control narratives: fear and fatalism, lesser of two evils, electability, inevitability, “there is no alternative” and the spoiler. It is the organizers task to show how those narratives no longer describe the new realities even though the corporate media and the machines repeat them a thousand times.
Yes, a new world is possible.
Much to labor’s discredit, the invitations to social movement unionism have almost all come from the social movements and an exceptional electoral campaign. It is up to us to accept the invitation by encouraging rank and file activism and popular dissent.
Social movement unionism will reach the revolutionary threshold when the fusion of class race, gender, anti-imperial, environmental, youth and sexual consciousness finds simultaneous and equivalent expression in mass movements that incorporate all of the different trends yet is greater than the sum of its parts. Well easier said than done, but who supposes that social transformation will be easy?
Here then are the major social upheavals of our time: the 1999 Battle for Seattle, the 2003 global resistance against war and empire, the Great American Boycott of 2006, Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011, Black Lives Matter 2012, the Ferguson rebellions of 2014, and the Sanders surge of 2016. This is evidence, potent and unmistakable. It is possible to create a revolutionary movement and a revolutionary strategy.
Look at America. We are ready to begin anew.
For a new and insightful interpretation of BlackLivesMatter, See Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
History Has Not Come To An End
The series “On Organzing” aims to help us learn from the challenging and confusing dialectical tension that is every organizers terrain and trouble. Among the most productive problems we face can be understood as those between change and continuity, the personal and the political, ideals and interests, planning and opportunity, and the transitions from evolutionary to revolutionary forms of unionism.
While these different versions of unionism discuss in “On Organizing” are not necessarily higher and lower stages of development it is difficult to envision how unions could aspire to social movement unionism without a history of solid service to its members, a strong ethical foundation and the kinds of experience that comes from struggling over the defense of the public interest.
Once we reconceptualize unionism in this way two approaches recommend themselves for resolving the tension between service and organizing and social moment unionism. First we should attempt to latch on to service functions and improve them by finding the organizing potential within them. That means that organizers must develop synergistic programs between organizing and legislative, grievance work, or negotiations. Usually grievance officers and lobbyists prefer casework or palace politics but that is the challenge. But by encouraging the participation of members, the organizer can avoid the zero-sum struggles for union resources and reconnect the lost link between organizing and the representative functions that were created by member activism decades ago.
Many unions already practice synergy by emphasizing community outreach by members during electoral campaigns, direct member interaction with legislators, member engagement with negotiations thought advisory committees, or face to face organizing teams that poll and educate members, or by entrusting union work, including grievances, to a shop steward type system. At first this may be more work for staff and leaders but in the long run could mobilize members and prove that organizing is not just about getting more members.
Organizing for Transformative Change
For us to go beyond just building an organization and to organize movements for fundamental social change we will need passage beyond the ancient theological model of either/or choices and static binaries so deeply embedded in convention radical thinking.
The inside/outside strategy depends on the creation of organizational centers outside the organziation that work in conjunction with clusters of interest and support inside. The “outside” organization becomes a safe home for activists and supporters to exchange information, develop strategy, publicize their agenda and make their case free from internal union pressures or organizational rivalries. The insider supporters funnel resources to the independent organization, legitimize its work, and bring its views into union discourse and practice.
It is the “outside” with its pressure politics and disruptions that we so lack today.
The key is to coordinate the efforts of people and organizations along a range of political and institutional positions. This tactical diversity and flexibility aims to create a push/pull dynamic edging the union toward more desirable activity.
In transformative organzing, the IOS also depends on the ability to travel between opposing, or what seem to be opposing ideas. Beyond either/or patterns of rejection or acceptance to learn from and include different political concepts and positions.
The ability to work within the multiple oppositional tensions I have described requires a certain degree of balance and calls on the organizer to master dialectical relationships through the art of dialogue, connection, and commensurability. Organizers are liminal figures that straddle political thresholds and borderlines: the “inside outsider,” the person with one foot in the community and one foot out, the “other” within.
The political passage, betwixt and between, is trod as the organizer helps a community live up to ideals agreed to in principle but unrealized in practice by struggling to do the same.
In “On Organizing” I have argued that organizers work in a world of contradiction. It is our goal to place these seemingly static oppositions in flux. To see the present in the light of the past, to find our personal lives embedded in the political world, to discover the connections between our particular interests and universal values; to both prefigure a better world and protest the existing one. This is how we reorganize the mind. Then maybe, fate will favor the prepared and social movements will build the capacity to reach the many millions it takes to approach the threshold of revolutionary change.
Remember that history has not come to an end. It’s just that we cannot know its pace or foresee its twists and turns. Despite the triumphant claims of global elites that there is no alternative to the present regime, this, too, shall pass. If history is a credible guide, new possibilities may grow right out of the heart of corporate and imperial dominion.