Political organizing can sometimes feel like going over a waterfall. Things move too fast and there’s a hundred things running through your mind. This is the kind of organizing we’re often told stories about in media and which many of us try to emulate, consciously or not. Other times organizing can feel like sailing across the ocean with only the faintest breeze. You think through every possibility of how to speed things up but the situation dictates that you take a more steady approach.
I’ve had more than a few unflattering stray thoughts comparing the slow pace of organizing at my work with the pace of organizing at other people’s workplaces. But if your organizing isn’t the spitting image of impending revolution, that’s actually ok. If you’re putting in the effort and seeing progress, even if slow, your organizing can be as valuable as any other organizing.
[This piece was originally written for Regeneration Magazine.]
There’s a dissonance at the heart of the labor movement. On the one hand, contemporary labor unions were built on the back of militant worker struggle. For example, the massive strikes of the 1930s built the backbone of the present-day AFL-CIO. Any particular long-standing union, if you go far enough back in its history, you’ll find strikes that made the union. On the other hand, the labor movement of the present has been in retreat for decades, in large part aided by the passivity and cowardice of union officials and staff who have preferred to make concessionary deals and shy away from direct confrontation.
This dissonance expresses itself most when workers in a unionized workplace want to fight for better treatment and pay but the union leadership itself is either urging compromise with employers or is just ignoring the workers altogether. What are workers in these settings supposed to do? Some fellow workers and organizers of mine have developed the idea of a spectrum of organizing models for how to relate to your mainstream union, which I’m borrowing and putting my own spin on here.
With left groups on the rise across the country, there’s a hunger for ideas about how to relate our new formations to existing ones. While the dichotomy of working within the system versus working outside of it is a helpful starting point, as an ending point it erases an array of strategic options that fall in between. With the assumed goal of doing grassroots, action-oriented workplace organizing, this piece draws out a range of organizing models of how to relate to mainstream unions and factors that might help you choose between them. This article will provide information to help choose the organizing model that best facilitates the kind of workplace organizing given the particular conditions.
[This piece was originally written for and published on the blog organizing.work.]
In my first job after finishing college, I worked at a preppy private summer school in Los Angeles located two blocks from the mayor’s mansion. I was making barely above minimum wage while my student loan bills started to arrive, and I was given a full class of 6th graders despite having virtually no classroom teaching experience or training. My job entailed yelling at kids all day, not so harshly that I or the kids felt entirely miserable, but just harshly enough that they did their rote worksheets and my boss didn’t feel it necessary to come in and really humiliate the kids (and me). During the staff lunch break, which wasn’t really a break because we had to supervise the kids eating lunch, all the teachers complained to each other.
Looking back, I wish I had had basic organizing skills then because everything was out in the open and people wouldn’t have needed much persuasion to see what was wrong, or much nudging to do something about it.
However, since then I’ve personally felt stranded in my organizing at a string of after-school and education assistant jobs, because they didn’t match that image in my head of a shitty workplace. There are still plenty of problems, including chronic understaffing, lack of training, and falling wages. But between having nice bosses, working in an industry where we’re made to believe we “do it for the kids”, and pay and benefits being just good enough that few people are desperate, I have had a difficult time wrapping my head around organizing.
Much of organizing is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time. The right information at the wrong time or for the wrong person is one of the most prevalent missteps rookie organizers make. Trying to explain what socialism is to your coworker before you’ve had the chance to talk about your working conditions and grievances is a mistake because often they’re more worried about paying their rent or avoiding their micro-managing boss and they’ll wonder why you’re talking about all this abstract stuff. Learning when to say what and how is about organizing the abstract ideas and information in your head and then putting those into the practice of organizing with real people.
Nowhere is the delicacy of information more important than in meetings. A meeting is getting people together to discuss and plan, essentially putting information together in useful combinations to move the group towards its goals. Novice organizers treat meetings as places where people get together and slap information together by putting together an agenda at the last minute, taking half-assed notes, wrongly assuming that everyone in the meeting has the proper context for what’s being talked about, and getting pulled into tangential debates. I’ve participated in and facilitated my fair share of these kinds of meetings. Bad meetings are a volcanic mess, with information splashing and exploding all around the room without any coherent logic to it. Good meetings are intricate fountains of highly structured information cascading through people’s heads, maximizing everyone’s participation, and moving the organization forward.
This blog post is as much a nuts-and-bolts guide for how to plan and run organizing meetings (thus it can be very detail-oriented in places) as it is an analysis of what makes organizing meetings good.
When I was in college my small radical book club was organizing a screening of The Take, a documentary about the Argentinian reclaimed factory movement where workers began seizing factories that companies had abandoned and running them as their own. The book club was hoping to find other radicals or radical-curious people on campus who would want to check us out. I spent a few hours designing a flyer and an entire afternoon posting them on every dorm building, department, and office event board on campus (it was a big school). I was new to radical politics at the time and thought the ideas described in the flyer would bring people out because how could anyone not be as excited about this stuff as I was?
It turns out I was wrong. Only one person not already in the book club showed up, and he left about 20 minutes into the screening. I learned a hard lesson about reaching people and getting them out to an event, and I’ve seen the same thing happen to myself and others dozens of times.
Most effective event turnout, as with organizing in general, happens beneath the surface. As a novice, I would just see an email about an event and then see 100 people show up and assume outreach was as easy as pie. What took me a long time to figure out is that good event outreach requires an immense amount of intention, effort, and learned skills.