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.
(See Part I here.)
Great organizing is as rare as it is complex. To get all the parts operating at their best in a constantly changing environment against dominant social norms, thick wallets, and the combined state forces of politicians, courts, and the police is as at least as remarkable as humanity’s other great achievements.
In Part I, I covered the defining bare essentials of organizing: outreach and skills development, democracy, and direct action. Here, I cover a set of secondary organizing features that nonetheless are indispensable to great organizing.
(See Part II here.)
My mean little idea is that organizing is the most important thing the left should be doing. This would be a nice little idea if in fact the left did any organizing, but this largely is not the case.
Progressive and leftist political organizations engage in a very wide range of activities, but year after year, it seems so little is gained and so much is lost. I suspect a lot of leftist activity is just not advancing the ideals that we hold so dearly.
Organizing is a particular kind of activity for changing society. So much is bound up in that concept that it gets investigated and poked at a lot less than should. If it’s organizing that we want to do but we don’t know what it is, we’re condemned to eat every plump red berry we come across in the name of organizing.