O Is for Organize

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. Check out the intro post here to see an overview of the whole framework.]

Introduction

The organize part of AEIOU in 1-on-1s is about getting people involved in the concrete tasks of organizing. After having agitated with someone around grievances, created a plan in educate, considered the boss’s next moves and addressed people’s fears in inoculate, you are in position to put the rubber to the road. “What do we do now?”

Just as workplace problems are complex, so are workplace solutions involving collective action. The organizer can help break the problem down into chunks and separate the solution out into a series of manageable tasks. In supporting people who are new to organizing and motivated to solve problems at work, the organizer’s role is to discuss with people what needs to be done and how to do it.

One of the contradictions of being an organizer is the opposition between the speed and effectiveness of doing things yourself vs. taking the time to show others how to do things. Everything an organizer does can be done by someone else, and if the organizer already knows how to do it, the aims of the organizing will be served in the long-term by showing someone else how to do things instead of doing them oneself. 

More people, more knowledge, more skills–these are the tributaries which flow together to create working class power. Against the short-term interest of completing specific tasks quickly, it is in the long-term interest of the organizer to as much as possible help others learn to do the things that result in direct action that improves workers’ lives.

Dispensing Tasks vs. Collaborating on Them

There are innumerable ways to split up and distribute tasks among people who are organizing. When things are hot and moving fast, a different set of guidelines often applies, but the discussion below is relevant for the kind of gradual organizing conditions that holds for 97% of the time.

Let me start by criticizing the way that distribution of tasks is often talked about in activist circles, which I shall call “The Great Dispenser” theory of task distribution. This theory is sometimes just used as a short-hand for a more involved process but its flaws are real enough in actual practice. This image of organizing depicts a master organizer who has all the right tasks ready to dispense to workers, handing them out like candy bars on Halloween. A worker comes up to an organizer and is pissed off about something, and the organizer has just the right task, which they dispense to the worker and the worker goes off on their own to complete the task and wammo, that’s some delicious organizing.

This model of task distribution mostly just works for a small subset of workers: those who already have the motivation, initiative, confidence, and basic skill set necessary to complete some nontrivial task. However, most workers who are brand new to organizing and agitated about working conditions don’t already possess this combination of qualities, and so just giving them tasks will result in them getting confused, deflated, or overwhelmed and they won’t complete the task.

Even after a worker has grievances and wants to do something about it, it may take them a while to work up the confidence to start doing tasks. So just dispensing tasks to people won’t help and may actually hurt by making coworkers feel pressured to do something they’re not ready for yet. There’s been countless instances where I’ve talked with coworkers or other workers in my industry who are agitated about conditions and interested in changing them, but it’s taken them a while, from days or in some cases even years, to work up the confidence, understanding, and motivation to take the leap from inaction to action. Certainly my own early days of organizing were not filled with rapid-fire task execution, but were characterized more by talking with people about things, gradually getting comfortable with this new way of seeing and doing things, and only wading into actual organizing when things started to make sense and feel right.

When someone is taking on a certain kind of task for the first time, I prefer to do it with them as much as possible. After we talk about an issue and identify some task that needs to get done that moves towards solving some workplace problem, we then do the task together from beginning to end. Along the way I show how I’ve done it in the past but leave room for us to do it differently if there’s a better way. 

This approach has the advantage of simultaneously building relationships and doesn’t allow someone to fail by being left on their own and losing motivation or confidence. Organizing is all about relationships, and if you’re emphasizing, strengthening, growing, and leaning on relationships at every stage of your organizing you’ll do better than just dispensing tasks for people to go off and do on their own. After someone has done a task alongside someone else, they’ll be able to do it on their own the next time.

Rather than seeing myself as a great dispenser (and there’s plenty of organizers who do this) who centers my organizing with coworkers around questions like, “What’s the ideal task to give this coworker?”, I’ve found it much more helpful to constantly be asking, “What can I do together with this coworker?” Seeing myself more as a dance partner who hears the music and plays off the other person’s movements and affections than a captain of a ship who is constantly directing others what to do, has been much more successful for me.

Sometimes there’s a task that someone has to do on their own and that doesn’t lend itself easily to doing it together for their first time. For example, if a worker at another workplace is ready to start having 1-on-1s with coworkers around a grievance at work, it might not make sense for you to go along with them to these 1-on-1s. As with all organizing, with these kinds of tasks you try to talk it through with them, ask them about aspects of it that sound challenging, find ways to think through and prepare for those challenges, and boost their confidence.

Treading Lightly

How then should we decide between different ways of distributing tasks?

A good rule of thumb is to intervene as little as possible while setting people up to be able to deal successfully with a workplace issue. In its most heavy-handed form, organizers can single-handedly fix the problem for their coworker, and certainly that’s appropriate sometimes given the specific conditions and issue at hand. But in most cases this approach is detrimental to organizing because it doesn’t utilize the power of collective action, doesn’t give people agency over solving their problems, and doesn’t give them the skills and experience to solve their problems on their own next time. Next on the spectrum of intervention is dispensing a task to someone and telling them what to do and how to do it. If time is short and a task needs to be completed pronto, maybe being so direct is appropriate. 

A softer approach which is more widely applicable is to do a task with someone, as described above, and for many workers who are brand new to organizing, I’ve found this to be ideal. If a worker already has the willingness and ability to do a task themselves, sometimes only the lightest intervention is necessary, where all you have to do is ask a few basic questions about what they think is the best way to approach the issue, and they’ll come up with the task and execute on their own.

Imagine a coworker isn’t getting their breaks and they come to you about it. Maybe you’re a union rep at your workplace or maybe you’re just known to your coworkers as someone who will stand for them. Sometimes a coworker will come to you and expect you to tell the boss to give them their breaks. Maybe you could do that, but knowing what you do about collective action (i.e., the boss doesn’t just change policies because you individually tell them to do so) and the importance of people being able to fix problems themselves and not be dependent on others, there’s other ways you could respond. Rather than try to go to the boss on your own, you can ask the coworker if they’ve heard of anyone else having a similar issue, and if not, who could we check in with to find out? Without drawing out every step of this example, I hope it’s clear that good organizers can find ways to empower others and make organizing more collective instead of making others dependent on you.

Whether someone new to organizing is taking on a task on their own or with you, it’s helpful to stir in some agitation at this point too. Sometimes the discussion and execution of tasks can seem tedious or irrelevant if people don’t understand how it relates to the issue that they care about or that affects them. Throughout discussion of some task, you can continually discuss the connections between the problem at hand and how the task is part of the solution.

Needs and Interests

Each organization has its own methods and goals that intersect with each individual’s needs and interests in different ways. Part of the organizer’s job is to link together individual needs and interests into a chain that hauls the organization forward. Nowhere is this more important than when coworkers start to take on organizing tasks themselves.

By needs I mean those more basic things people require to feel satisfied. To simplify things a little, most basic needs boil down to people wanting to be in community with others, wanting to be challenged, wanting to be valued, and wanting to make the world a better place. Luckily for us, when organizing is done right it is very potent at fulfilling these needs. 

Organizers at the top of their game can get all of these needs met with people in each interaction they have, be it a meeting, a 1-on-1, or a direct action. For example, if an organizer is having a 1-on-1 with a coworker about how they’re not getting their breaks at work, the coworker will feel in community because they have someone in their work community who they can share problems with and get support from, the coworker can feel challenged to think through what can be done to fix this problem, and the coworker can feel valued by being recognized for taking on an issue that affects them and others. The world is a better place if everyone gets their breaks than when people don’t get their breaks, and additionally, the power workers have to keep making the world better will increase as more issues are identified and resolved. The best place for someone to meet these needs is to participate themselves in the tasks of organizing and taking action, which is what the organize part of AEIOU is about.

But as much as individual organizers can do to help people get their needs met through organizing, organizations as a whole need infrastructure in place to help needs get met for everyone involved. Without taking a lengthy detour, I’ll just note that some ways orgs can do this is having systematic ways of checking in on people and having members engage each other in 1-on-1s, have meetings be designed thoughtfully with people’s needs in mind instead of narrowly focusing on what the org needs to do, have trainings where people learn the practices of the org so people can actively participate themselves instead of just receive orders from above. Many orgs do these things haphazardly instead of consistently and systematically, and it is why so many groups that purport to focus on building grassroots power stay small and insular.

Interests are specific things people like to do that help meet their needs. Some people like facilitating meetings, some like setting up social hours with coworkers, some like reading and researching about issues, and so on. In helping people figure out tasks they want to do in organizing, whatever an organizer can do to learn about and engage people’s interests as a way to meet their needs will go a long way. 

Blaming Your Coworkers Isn’t Organizing

You have all the ideas in place for what the problem is and what needs to be done about it, but when it comes to actually implementing those ideas by taking on tasks that move towards direct action you discover things aren’t so simple or smooth. 

After reading about organizing or attending a union training, people will naturally want to jump into the dramatic and exciting stuff, only to realize after a few attempts that none of that seems practical or achievable despite checking all the boxes that they thought they needed to to take direct action.

Maybe not everyone agrees on what the main workplace issues are. Maybe people are too busy to meet up outside of work to talk about issues. Maybe the turnover is too high for people to be around long enough to care about issues. Maybe people don’t seem very interested in talking with you about workplace issues despite their constant complaints about them. Maybe people keep thinking that the boss is trying their best to fix things and we just have to wait for them to handle it.

I’ve certainly stubbed my organizer toe on each of these obstacles before when trying to move from talking about workplace problems, as often happens in AEI, to doing something about them, as with O. The default response to these kinds of blocks is to get frustrated and then blame our coworkers for not caring or being radical enough. Unfortunately, blaming our coworkers for all of capitalism’s problems is not a very effective approach for attacking capitalism.

Rather than blaming coworkers for all of capitalism’s problems, it’s helpful to see people’s reluctance to solve workplace problems as the effect of capitalism’s structuring of the workplace. Whatever you might believe in moments of frustration, your coworkers aren’t the ones designing capitalism and implementing it and benefiting from it. Bosses spend a lot of effort getting people to not care about what affects them at work and thinking there’s no other way things can be done. Your coworkers might go along with capitalism to varying degrees, but they’re not the source of the problem. 

Capitalism’s structuring of the workplace and the resulting power dynamics are the problem. And this is a real and immediate problem, not just an abstract one or one that you can safely dismiss as you try to organize. 

The best way to tackle these kinds of problems in the workplace is to slow down. If it looks like you can’t get enough people on board in the immediate future to march into the boss’s office to demand everyone gets their full breaks, don’t try to force it. If coworkers don’t seem to care or want to do anything to solve problems, it’s probably more a result of feeling powerless and not knowing or trusting people than it is a reflection of their inherent apathy or conservatism. 

In the context of a 1-on-1 you’re having with a worker, when you get to the organize part of AEIOU, if there’s no pressing grievance or impending action it’s often best to just focus on specific tasks that help people get to know their coworkers better. While this might not feel or look like real organizing compared to what we’re often lead to think real organizing is like, it is (really it is (I promise)). Whether it’s finding ways to talk to people more on the job or in the break room, trying to get coffee with someone, going to happy hour after work with a work group, having everyone sign a card for someone’s birthday, whatever you can do to just get to know your coworkers is THE best organizing to be done much of the time.

After you’ve built up these relationships, then grievances and ideas for action will much more naturally begin to surface and as an organizer you’ll be paddling with the current instead of against it.

One workplace I was organizing at had been characterized by long periods of outward apathy and rigid compliance by coworkers. Especially earlier in my time organizing there, this fortress of the status quo seemed impenetrable and I often doubted whether anything could change. So many coworkers seemed to fit the perfect stereotypes of those people in wider society who would never go against the grain, who thought they had no skin in the game, who would sooner sacrifice themselves than risk disobeying orders. But in building relationships with coworkers, gaining another organizing buddy, and slowly building up a counter-presence to the boss’s influence, the ground began to shift under our feet. We were never able to reach everyone, and even most of the time, most people still went along with the orders from above. But in moments of crisis and turmoil, which the contradictions of capitalism inevitably bring about, we were able to polarize issues in such a way that the staff as a whole seemed to move against the fortress, the walls crumbled, and real gains were made. This was always and only possible because so much work had been put into really building up trust and care between coworkers, so people could more openly explore what they felt and what they wanted with each other. Of course, when the crisis passed, capitalism was still standing and the status quo fortress at our workplace was rebuilt, but it no longer appeared invincible and we knew better how to maneuver around and through it.

Don’t Pressure People

Of all the steps of AEIOU, organize is where people make the mistake of pressuring people to do things. This is understandable because so much of activist culture is based on doing big things and fast and creating a sense of urgency that things have to be done right away. A large portion of news and media about activism uses this frame because it creates a compelling story that can stand out from a lot of the background noise of the media landscape.

However, rushing things and trying to do big things right away is like jumping into the deep end of a pool without ever having tried to swim before: you’ll flail around frantically and possibly hurt yourself and others. 

The number one mistake of rushing comes from pressuring people to do things. When people feel pressured to do things, they feel uncomfortable, they feel like they’re boundaries are being disrespected, and they feel like they’re not being listened to or valued.

At one workplace, an organizer I knew was nudging everyone to go confront the bosses at a big meeting over some unfair firings. Some workers expressed reservations about their own job security if such an action were attempted, they refused to take on tasks related to the action, and then they took a backseat as the organizer didn’t listen to any of the reservations and kept driving things forward. The action seemed like a victory when it happened as the demands were tentatively met, but soon after the action was over nearly all of the boss’s concessions were reversed and a wave of retaliation descended on some of those who were (or were perceived to be) involved. It turned out that the reservations expressed by some were entirely accurate, and the situation could have been handled much better if things had moved more slowly, if the organizer had listened to others, and if they had all come up with an approach that everyone felt respected their needs. As it actually played out, this action has become my personal textbook example of how not to organize.

It’s entirely possible to go through agitate, educate, inoculate, but when you get to organize people still feel uneasy about actually taking on a task. The respectful response to this is to go at the speed that they’re concerns dictate. If you encounter resistance, try to open up a space for them to speak to their hesitation. Maybe it’s best to back up and go through agitate, educate, and inoculate again to see if there’s anything important that was missed before about what this person thought and felt about the grievance or the action. Maybe the reasons behind the resistance can be talked through and overcome, maybe the reasons require someone to not take on a task at the moment, or maybe the task being discussed is actually just not the right one for the situation and the person you’re talking with can help find other more useful tasks if you slow down and think about it together. 

Earlier in my organizing life I was talking with someone who was relatively new to my organization but who I knew had a deep commitment to organizing and leftist politics. We were putting on a big event and I wanted this person to reach out to others in their network to pull them into the event. During a 1-on-1 they expressed interest in helping with the event, but when I suggested they talk to their friends and get them to come, they got kind of quiet. Maybe they didn’t think their friends would be interested, maybe they were shy about asking their friends, maybe they had their own reservations about the event that they hadn’t shared with me yet.

In any case, when I encountered this quiet, I took it more as a sign that they needed that extra push instead of a sign that I should slow down. The extra push I gave them made them even more quiet and I’m certain they didn’t talk to their friends about the event. In fact, I saw very little of this person in the months after that 1-on-1. I felt like I breached the trust that we had started to build between us. This was an entirely avoidable mistake I’ve resolved not to repeat.

There’s a difference between building someone up and giving them the resources and confidence to internally overcome their fears and hesitations themselves and pressuring them externally with exhortations and appeals to urgency. The latter kind of pushing sadly passes for legitimate organizing in a lot of spaces, but should be rejected by organizers who want to create nourishing and sustainable orgs.

If you value the trust in your relationships with people over trying to create a big media splash or rush to the next big win, you’ll be a better person and a better organizer. Organizing is not about pushing people to do things, but rather is about helping people be who they want to be by opening up opportunities to come together with others to solve problems. The organize part of AEIOU is where people are invited to get in on the (collective) action.

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