The Contradictions of Paid Staff in the Union Movement, Part I

[This article was originally written for the Industrial Worker and is part of my series on relationship-based organizing.]

A recent report on unions in the US decried their lack of investment in organizing despite immense and growing assets. Unions have nearly doubled their net assets from $15 billion in 2010 to $29 billion as of 2020 but have also cut their staff by 19% and lost 3.2% of their membership over that period. The report calls for a massive investment of union resources in organizing, including hiring 20,000 more union organizers at an annual cost of $1.4 billion.

Why aren’t unions aggressively organizing if doing so would increase their membership numbers and dues income? Would hiring 20,000 more staff super-charge organizing and lead to a resurgence in labor militancy and victories?

Many union members reading this probably belong to unions that are considering raising dues to pay for more staff. This is a constant conversation among leadership in my mainstream union, and the justification for higher dues and more staff is usually that they are needed to organize for the next big contract campaign or to launch some political initiative.

You can probably sense my lack of enthusiasm for such plans, though I don’t want to reduce the issue to a knee-jerk reaction against paying more dues. How much unions collect in dues, how they spend those dues, and how they use staff raises much more fundamental questions about the union movement. 

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The Contested Politics of Racial Capitalism in Táíwò and Kendi

(Táíwò photo credit to Jared Rodriguez. Kendi photo credit to Stephen Voss.)

With the recent publication of his book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò is becoming a leading thinker of the theory of racial capitalism. Since the publication of his two best-selling and award winning books, Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi has become the most prominent thinker on race in the US today. Kendi has also recently adopted the concept of racial capitalism to frame his social analysis.

Táíwò and Kendi share a commitment to careful investigation of the dynamics and interrelations of race and class, but in other ways they have sharply contrasting and even opposing politics. Not for the sake of labeling theorists as good and bad nor for trying to draw sharp lines around who belongs in contested political spaces, but for the sake of clearly defining political positions that shape efforts towards liberation, the contours of these contrasting and opposing politics are worth inquiring into.

The hotly debated tradition of racial capitalism theory and the renewed attention to race and class in contemporary social movements provide ample impetus for undertaking an investigative journey through the class politics of Táíwò and Kendi. Táíwò provides analytical tools for discerning the kind of class divides that Kendi tries to harmonize. Táíwò also happens to discuss many of the same historical figures that Kendi does, which enables an ideal opportunity to clearly compare and contrast their diverging class analyses. After briefly reviewing Táíwò’s book and then situating Táíwò’s class politics within the current political landscape, I use his work to pivot towards Kendi and then launch into a textual analysis of Kendi’s class politics.

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Sun People, Moon Spaces, and the Source of Grassroots Power

[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]

[The featured image shows the Taft Bridge in Washington, D.C. Photo credit to Matt Blaze.]

Artist and organizer Ricardo Levins Morales speaks of sun spaces and moon spaces to explain how power is generated in some spaces but is merely derivative or reflected in others (in pamphlet form here, in a video here). I first heard about the concept when a fellow worker and organizer created a workshop of these ideas and brought them to a picket line where we were both on strike. I’ll apply his brilliant metaphor to relationship-based organizing and develop it in some other directions as well. 

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Relationship-Based Organizing: An Introduction

[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]

The most common refrain in organizing is that “it’s all about relationships.” It rings true enough that everyone accepts it on the surface but is vague enough that each person interprets it according to their own beliefs and the needs of the moment. 

Concealed underneath the words of that phrase are distant and often warring conceptions of what organizing actually is. What role do relationships play in organizing? What kind of relationships do we want as we fight alongside each other for a better world? 

Through my own organizing experience in the workplace and developing ideas with fellow organizers, I’ve realized that relationships play a much different role in organizing than is commonly thought, than is discussed in organizing books and articles, and than is taught in organizing trainings. The role of relationships in most organizing approaches is often instrumentalized in a way that contrasts sharply with what I now see as strong grassroots organizing.

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U Is for Uplift

[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 uplift part of AEIOU is where we follow-up and check in with people. Sometimes we’re following up specifically about tasks and sometimes we’re checking in generally about how their organizing and life is going.

In the previous post in this series on the “organize” part of AEIOU, I highlighted how we should avoid as much as possible leaving new people on their own to organize. There’s many steps to take from first getting involved to becoming experienced and knowledgeable about the many aspects of organizing, and taking each step in community with others helps foster relationships and share best practices. But no matter how collective we make organizing, there are still countless moments where people have to do something on their own, where they have to overcome some part of themselves and their environment using their own resources and confidence.

When people complete a task for the first time, it’s good to follow-up and debrief with them about how it went. When people don’t complete a task, it’s good to follow-up and see if there’s anything you can do to support them. A lot of the same concepts used for task follow-up can also be applied to general check-ins.

Life is hard, workplaces are complex, coworkers are complicated, capitalism is a big, bad jerk, and sometimes organizing doesn’t go as planned. Uplift is about staying in relationship with people through the ups and downs of organizing.

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