Mostafa Meraji, Vakil Mosque in Shariz, Iran. Big faded brick pillars recede into a dark open hall with an ornately blue and yellow-tiled arching ceiling.

Relationship-Based Organizing with Thorny Coworkers

[This post is part of my series on relationship-based organizing. If you are new to my blog, I recommend checking out earlier entries in this series first.]

Relationship-based organizing (RBO) is a method of union organizing that centers building social relationships with coworkers. Everyone likes social relations, especially in our hyper-isolating and individualizing and anti-social capitalist society, so RBO is just puppy dogs, lollipops, and rainbows all of the time, right?

Of course not. One of the first things that goes through new organizers’ minds when they think about how to talk to their coworkers and build relationships is the question of those coworkers that aren’t easy to talk to or build relationships with. I’ll call them “thorny coworkers.” Like your biological family or your neighbors, you usually don’t have much control over who your coworkers are and you have to find some way to live with what you got. The first temptation upon realizing this is to think that maybe the organizing can just leave the thorny coworkers out of it. Depending on the grievances and social dynamics of any particular moment, this might be an entirely plausible strategy. 

However, as a general approach to organizing your coworkers, leaving the thorny coworkers out of your organizing entirely will likely backfire or severely restrict what you can win. Every coworker you exclude from organizing is another coworker who becomes easy pickings for the boss to turn against you. Every once and a while, you might be at a workplace where just one or two coworkers are thorny and ignoring them doesn’t really create any problems. 

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A Critical Survey of Left Unionisms: McAlevey, Burns, Moody, Syndicalism, Permeationism, and Relationship-Based Organizing

[Featured image credit: © Roman Eisele mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Ev. Kirchengemeinde St. Michael und St. Katharina / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0. The image is looking up at the large ornately buttressed ceiling of an open chamber with pillars coming down.]

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

Unions and organizing are complex things with many parts, dimensions, and dynamics. Major theories of unionism each try to build a worldview that organizes how these concepts fit together in a coherent way and that advances a particular set of union practices. The main theories on left union theory and strategy today include those of Jane McAlevey, Joe Burns, Kim Moody and Labor Notes, and reform caucus unionism. Other left unionisms, dominant at different points in US history but less prominent today, include syndicalism as practiced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and permeationism as practiced by Marxist-Leninist organizations. These theories are not static nor mutually exclusive, as they often overlap in important aspects, get mixed and matched in practice, and evolve over time.

Different unionisms will tend to weight the importance of the different aspects of unionism differently. Many unionisms tend to highlight one or two parts that are the most central, around which every other part is organized around to support and tie together. While each form of unionism is nuanced and complex, a useful way to survey the landscape of left unionisms is by showing what each one locates as its central concepts. I briefly draw out some of the main features of these union theories as well as some of the critiques of them. 

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Notes on Social Relationships in Workplace Organizing

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

Everyone can organize, and everyone’s organizing will be stronger if they drop some popular images of organizing they have in their head. This image often singles one person out as separate from the community they belong to, which already is a mistake. The prototypical organizer in the activist imagination is a charismatic personality, a forceful public speaker, overflowing with confidence, capable of acts of bravery and intensity, spends all of their time glued to pursuing their political vision, and who we all look at with awe. If you have some of these traits, maybe they’ll be helpful for you. At the same time, I think the polar opposite traits are equally effective at organizing if we properly understand what organizing is about.

Union organizing is often portrayed, in popular media as well as union training materials, as really flashy. It occasionally is, but when it’s not flashy newer organizers often feel confused or get stuck trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. Parts of this post are really basic, but in being clear with the simple and basic stuff hopefully we can find better ways to talk to new organizers about what organizing is all about.

I hope to show that the things that make a workplace organizer good are things that everyone already has inside them, which is the ability to relate to others. Sure, it’s something everyone can get better at and do with a certain kind of intention, but the most fundamental and important skill of organizing is just building relationships with those around you.

In my own development as an organizer and in talking with others, I’ve come to realize that the role relationships play in organizing is often different than how that role is talked about. In the intro post on relationship-based organizing, I criticized how relationships are so often instrumentalized in organizing, with the organizer using others for political goals. In this post I want to discuss more broadly the many ways that building relationships is the foundation of strong organizing. 

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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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