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

[This post is part of my series on relationship-based organizing. See also Parts I and II.]

A few years ago I was solicited to apply for a staff job in the union I’m a member of and was told that if I applied I’d likely get it. On the one hand, this was a bit of an ego boost to know that I was respected enough for my organizing to get this kind of invitation. Without the job title and the status of being a “professional” organizer that comes with being paid for it, society views your efforts as less serious and merely recreational.

I also knew that if I got the organizer job that my annual income would nearly double. That certainly was appealing in some ways, but it’s not what my politics and beliefs suggested was the best way to build the union movement and create the wider social change that I sought. Being in a position where I didn’t have large financial obligations like lots of debt or needing to be a breadwinner for a family, I could turn down such a salary and stay true to my vision of change. 

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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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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. 

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