No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey (this is a book for workers but there is a lot we can draw from it)
My interest, borne out by the empirical cases that follow, is in understanding the power structures of ordinary people and how they themselves can come to better understand their own power. There’s plenty of evidence…that Mills’ power elites still rule. The level of raw privilege that a Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates or Jamie Dimon presently possesses isn’t much different from that which Bertrand Russell described in his 1938 book Power as “priestly” and “kingly.” That helps explain why multinational CEOs were included and indistinguishable from the kings and presidents in the many photos taken at the December 2015 climate talks. It doesn’t seem all that difficult to understand how today’s priestly-kingly-corporate class rules. But for people attempting to change this or that policy, especially if the change desired is meaningful (i.e., will change society), it is essential to first dissect and chart their targets’ numerous ties and networks. Even understanding whom to target—who the primary and secondary people and institutions are that will determine whether the campaign will succeed (or society will change)—often requires a highly detailed power-structure analysis. This step is often skipped or is done poorly, which is partly why groups so often fail. Domhoff’s website, combined with a dozen other more recent similar websites—such as LittleSis, CorpWatch, and Subsidy Tracker—can help groups in the United States sharpen their analysis of precisely who needs to be defeated, overcome, or persuaded to achieve success. Understanding who the correct targets are and the forms of power they exercise should be only one step in a power-structure analysis,6 but often when that step is taken, it only plots the current power holders in relationship to one another. Good start, but keep going.
What is almost never attempted is the absolutely essential corollary: a parallel careful, methodical, systematic, detailed analysis of power structures among the ordinary people who are or could be brought into the fight. Unions that still execute supermajority strikes have an excellent approach to better understanding how to analyze these power structures: to pull off a huge strike and win (as did the Chicago teachers in the new millennium) requires a detailed analysis of exactly which workers are likely to stand together, decide to defy their employer’s threats of termination, and walk out in a high-risk collective action. Which key individual worker can sway exactly whom else—by name—and why? How strong is the support he or she has among exactly how many coworkers, and how do the organizers know this to be true? The ability to correctly answer these and many other related questions—Who does each worker know outside work? Why? How? How well? How can the worker reach and influence them?—will be the lifeblood of successful strikes in the new millennium.
Liberals and most progressives don’t do a full power-structure analysis because, consciously or not, they accept the kind of elite theory of power that Mills popularized. They assume elites will always rule. At best, they debate how to replace a very naughty elite with a “better” elite, one they “can work with,” who wants workers to have enough money to shop the CEOs out of each crisis they create, who will give them a raise that they will spend on consuming goods they probably don’t need.
The search for these more friendly elites frames the imagination of liberals and progressives. An elite theory of power for well-intentioned liberals leads to the advocacy model; an elite theory of power for people further left than liberals—progressives—leads to the mobilizing model, because progressives set more substantive goals that require a display of potential power, or at least a threat of it.167
(As with Vatican II, this) theory of power (is) different because it assumes that the very idea of who holds power is itself contestable, and that elites can be dislodged from priestly-kingly-corporate rule. Though almost extinct nationally, there are still powerful unions operating at the local and regional level. These unions’ democratic, open negotiations—in which tens of thousands of workers unite to stop bad employers from doing horrible things and then create enough power to pull up to the negotiations table as equals and determine something better—provide evidence that ordinary people can exercise both absolute power (power over) and creative power (power to). A focus of this book is on why and how to analyze this still vast potential power of ordinary people. Marshall Ganz simplified the concept of strategy by explaining it as “turning what you have into what you need to get what you want.”7 The word you is crucial—and variable. How do people come to understand the first part of this sentence, “what you have”? And which people get to understand?
Only those who understand what they have can meaningfully plot the “what you need”: create the steps that comprise the plan, plot and direct the course of action, and then get “what you want.” And because “what you want” is generally in proportion to what you think you can get, demands rise or fall based on what people believe they might reasonably achieve.
Who is the actual you in “what you want”? To better understand outcomes—winning or losing, a little or a lot—requires breaking down each subclause in Ganz’s excellent definition of strategy. First, Ganz rightly suggests that the specific “biographies” of those on “leadership teams” can directly affect strategy because “diverse teams” bring a range of “salient knowledge” and varied and relevant networks to the strategy war room. It follows, then, that the bigger the war room, the better. I expand who should be in the strategy war room from people with recognizable decision-making authority or a position or title—such as lead organizer, vice president, researcher, director, steward, and executive board member—to specific individuals who have no titles but who are the organic leaders on whom the masses rely: parishioner or congregant, nurse, teacher, anesthesia tech, school bus driver, and voter.
I urge a deeper dive into the specific backgrounds, networks, and salient knowledge of the masses involved, rather than only those of the leadership team—the rank and file matter just as much to outcomes, if not more, than the more formal leaders. Why? Large numbers of people transition from unthinking “masses” or “the grassroots” or “the workers” to serious and highly invested actors exercising agency when they come to see, to understand, and to value the power of their own salient knowledge and networks. The chief way to help ordinary people go from object to subject is to teach them about their potential power by involving them as central actors in the process of developing the power-structure analysis in their own campaigns—so they come to better understand their own power and that of their opponents. When they see that three of their own ministers and two of their city council members and the head of the PTA for their children’s schools serve on commissions and boards with their CEOs, they themselves can begin to imagine and plot strategy.
People participate to the degree they understand—but they also understand to the degree they participate. It’s dialectical. Power-structure analysis is the mechanism that enables ordinary people to understand their potential power and participate meaningfully in making strategy. When people understand the strategy because they helped make it, they will be invested for the long haul, sustained and propelled to achieve more meaningful wins. Three key variables are crucial to analyzing the potential for success in the change process: power, strategy, and engagement. Three questions must be asked: Is there a clear and comprehensive power-structure analysis?…190
…Global and regional trade accords also give multinational corporations the right to buy land anywhere in almost any country, and new corporate landlords have forcibly evicted or cheaply bought off millions of people from self-sustaining plots of land, directly contributing to a huge rise in immigration into the United States and Europe.8246
The Importance of Ordinary People
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The main difference between these two most powerful movements half a century ago and today is that during the former period of their great successes they relied primarily on—and were led by—what Frances Fox Piven has eloquently termed ordinary people. They had a theory of power: It came from their own ability to sustain massive disruptions to the existing order.
Today, as Theda Skocpol documents in Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, attempts to generate movements are directed by professional, highly educated staff who rely on an elite, top-down theory of power that treats the masses as audiences of, rather than active participants in, their own liberation: Aiming to speak for—and influence—masses of citizens, droves of new national advocacy groups have set up shop, with the media amplifying debates among their professional spokespersons.263
The chief factor in whether or not organizational efforts grow organically into local and national movements capable of effecting major change is where and with whom the agency for change rests. It is not merely if ordinary people—so often referred to as “the grassroots”—are engaged, but how, why, and where they are engaged.274
Advocacy, Mobilizing, and Organizing
Here is the major difference among the three approaches discussed in the book. Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way; lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle. Though effective for forcing car companies to install seatbelts or banishing toys with components that infants might choke on, this strategy severely limits serious challenges to elite power. Advocacy fails to use the only concrete advantage ordinary people have over elites: large numbers.277
The 1 percent have a vast armory of material resources and political special forces, but the 99 percent have an army. Over the past forty years, a newer mechanism for change seekers has proliferated: the mobilizing approach. Mobilizing is a substantial improvement over advocacy, because it brings large numbers of people to the fight. However, too often they are the same people: dedicated activists who show up over and over at every meeting and rally for all good causes, but without the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them.
This is because a professional staff directs, manipulates, and controls the mobilization; the staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change. To them, it matters little who shows up, or, why, as long as a sufficient number of bodies appear—enough for a photo good enough to tweet and maybe generate earned media. The committed activists in the photo have had no part in developing a power analysis; they aren’t informed about that or the resulting strategy, but they dutifully show up at protests that rarely matter to power holders.
The third approach, organizing, places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all—that’s the point of organizing. In the organizing approach, specific injustice and outrage are the immediate motivation, but the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority, from the 1 percent to the 99 percent.
Individual campaigns matter in themselves, but they are primarily a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved. The organizing approach relies on mass negotiations to win, rather than the closed-door deal making typical of both advocacy and mobilizing. Ordinary people help make the power analysis, design the strategy, and achieve the outcome. They are essential and they know it.282
In unions and SMOs in the United States today, advocacy and, especially, mobilizing prevail. This is the main reason why modern movements have not replicated the kinds of gains achieved by the earlier labor and civil rights movements. Table 1.1 compares the three models by their distinct approach to power, strategy, and people. Hahrie Han has a somewhat similar chart in her excellent book How Organizations Develop Activists.11 However, Han focuses on what I call self-selecting groups that do not make class a central issue.296
Options for Change302 Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Structure-based304 – Parish Based Organizing
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The labor and civil rights movements were located in the landscape of what I call structure-based organizing. The structures were, respectively, the workplace and the black church under Jim Crow. Both movements chose organizing as their primary strategy. Mobilizing and advocacy also played a role, but the lifeblood of these movements was mass participation by ordinary people, whose engagement was inspired by a cohesive community bound by a sense of place: the working community on the shop floor, in the labor movement, and the faith community in the church, in the fight for civil rights. The empirical research that follows and the voluminous literature examining the outcomes of the 1930s through 1960s are fair grounds for arguing that structure-based organizing still offers the best chance to rebuild a powerful progressive movement. Unorganized workplaces and houses of faith remain a target-rich environment, and there are plenty of them.306
Since organizing’s primary purpose is to change the power structure away from the 1 percent to more like the 90 percent, majorities are always the goal: the more people, the more power. But not just any people. And the word majority isn’t a throwaway word on a flip chart, it is a specific objective that must be met. In structure-based organizing, in the workplace and in faith-based settings, it is easy to assess whether or not you have won over a majority of the participants in the given structure to a cause or an issue. A workplace or church will have, say, 500 workers or parishioners, and to reach a majority, or even a supermajority, the quantifiable nature of the bounded constituency allows you to assess your success in achieving your numbers.
An organizer intending to build a movement to maximum power who is approaching a structured or bounded constituency must target and plan to reach each and every person, regardless of whether or not each and every person has any preexisting interest in the union or community organization. Beyond understanding concretely when a majority has been gained, the organizer can gauge the commitment levels of the majority by the nature, frequency, and riskiness of actions they are willing to take. The process of building a majority and testing its commitment level also allows a far more systematic method of assessing which ordinary people have preexisting leadership within the various structures, a method called leadership identification. These informal leaders, whom I will call organic leaders, seldom self-identify as leaders and rarely have any official titles, but they are identifiable by their natural influence with their peers. Knowing how to recognize them makes decisions about whom to prioritize for leadership development far more effective. Developing their leadership skill set is more fruitful than training random volunteers, because these organic leaders start with a base of followers. They are the key to scale.314
In self-selecting work, most people show up at meetings because they have a preexisting interest in or a serious commitment to the cause. As Skocpol says, “[M]any of the key groups were not membership associations at all. They were small combinations of nimble, fresh thinking, and passionate advocates of new causes.”14
In self-selecting work, movement groups spend most of their time talking to people already on their side, whereas in structure-based work, because the goal is building majorities of a bounded constituency, organizers are constantly forced to engage people who may begin with little or no initial interest in being a part of any group.
In fact, in the beginning of a unionization campaign, many workers see themselves as opposed to the very idea of forming a union, just as many parishioners may be opposed to a more collective-action orientation in their church when first approached about joining or helping to build a new faith-based group. Consequently, organizers and the organic leaders they first identify and then develop devote most of their time to winning over people who do not self-identify as being “with progressives.” Structure-based organizing deliberately and methodically expands the base of people whom mobilizers can tap in their never-ending single-issue campaigns. Han’s book reinforces my argument that self-selecting groups develop an activist-based approach, whereas structure-based groups develop a strong, more scalable grassroots base, because they focus on developing organic leaders who themselves can mobilize to reach majorities.330
Most faith- and broad-based organizations are known as O of Os, that is, “organizations of organizations.” The O of Os more often than not are religious entities—individual churches, synagogues, and mosques—and the initial recruitment happens between an organizer and the leader, who in this model is an official, generally full-time position holder, typically a person with a title that confers a more formal style of leadership: priest, minister, rabbi, imam. Once that more formal leader has been won over to the project of building a broad, faith-based organization, he or she gives the organizer full access to the congregation.346… Top of Form
Collective agreements themselves expire, triggering another round of deadlines. Faith-based organizing has no such exigencies, and faith-based organizers and organizations often take several years to build to something like an initial majority or to take a first action.18 For all of these reasons, union organizers, much more than faith-based organizers, must hone their skills in identifying organic leaders, persuading constituents, and developing what union organizers call structure tests. Of course, since the McCarthy era, most unions haven’t even attempted to organize unorganized workers, run strikes, or win high-participation contract-ratification votes.19 This book’s purpose is to draw lessons for power building from the best examples of success under the most difficult conditions.366
A new army of college-educated professional union staff bypass the strike and devise other tactics to attack the employer’s bottom line. New Labor’s overreliance on corporate campaigns has resulted in a war waged between labor professionals and business elites. Workers are no longer essential to their own liberation. New Labor’s leaders, many of whom self-identify and are seen as progressives outside the union sector itself, have rationalized “carrots” and accords reached with big business that have stripped workers and their communities of the tools to defend themselves against their employers.26 Moreover, New Labor’s adoption and fetishizing of corporate tactics stands in contrast to the organizing style at the root of many of labor’s great victories, won during an even more hostile period of industrial relations than that of the past four decades: the 1930s,428 Strikes are essential to restoring the power of the working class, not just for the better standards strikes can produce, but also because they reveal high-participation organizing.460
In all of the cases, losing and winning a little or a lot can be correlated with one common factor: the beliefs and motivations, or purposefulness, of the leadership team.29 Table 1.2 provides a summary of the cases. TABLE 1.2 Cases in the New Millennium, 2000 to 2014*479 more systematic way to merge workplace and non-workplace issues. There is enormous value to this approach, starting with the political education it offers.598
A Seamless, Unified, Values-Based Approach (Dignity for All, Human Needs) – Go for Grassroots Agency
Workers who understand how corporate power is wielded both in the workplace and outside it can strengthen themselves in both spheres and carry the fight into both, tapping their social and community networks, including key people with access and influence, such as religious leaders. To rebuild a base powerful enough to seriously push back against the economic and political crises strangling most workers today, unions will have to practice the best organizing methods both inside and outside the workplace, simultaneously, in a seamless, unified approach.601
Women have long understood that issues such as child care, good housing, quality schools, clean drinking water, safe streets, and an end to mass incarceration and police violence are every bit as important as higher wages to the well-being of workers and their families. Understanding how to frame a more integrated approach that covers these needs requires further clarity about, and a little history of, the differences between mobilizing and organizing.608
Most CIO organizing was based on a mass collective action, high-participation model anchored in deep worker solidarities and cooperative engagement in class struggle. Strikes, the kind that could shut down production—strikes in which most if not all workers walk off the job in a high-risk collective action—were routine, and were evidence that workers themselves were the primary agents of their own liberation. “Left” organizers, those associated with various socialist and radical factions, flocked to the CIO because of the principal of inclusion, of uniting all workers across ethnicity, gender, race, skill level, and every other working-class division.
The AFL had had a long, complicated history not just of excluding semi- and unskilled workers, and Black workers, but also of having taken positions against European and then Asian immigration, and very narrowly limiting the union struggle to wages and working conditions.5 The CIO’s left organizers were intensely committed to recruiting and building power across the many “isms” and other divisions among the working class, and they had to develop special methods to do so.619
This work cannot be done by organizers alone… Very effective are small delegations of steel workers from one town or district to another and large mass delegations of workers from organized mills to unorganized mills. Other methods of drawing in new members included music, and “social affairs674 involving family.14 The radicals in the CIO understood that workers were embedded in an array of important workplace and non-workplace networks, all of which could be best accessed—and, for organizing on a mass scale, only accessed—by the workers themselves. Foster describes the “list” and “chain” systems,15 1930s terms for methods of building a network of the most respected workers inside and outside the workplace who could then mobilize their own networks. Unions that still677 master the old CIO craft of learning who the organic worker leaders are and persuading them to support the union.
These organic leaders in turn can use their influence and are the best people to persuade their coworkers to join the struggle. The legal context of the private sector forces 100 percent worker agency: In these settings, the workers themselves are the only ones who can lead an “inside” campaign, which almost always must be waged in an extremely hostile climate. To connect to rank-and-file dynamics in the workplace, union organizers use a mechanism called organic leader identification, in which they analyze the workers’ preexisting social groups. This is done among the workers and in conversation with them, not apart from them. Workers themselves identify their organic leaders, who become the primary focus for full-time organizers. If these leaders are successfully recruited, they are taught the organizers’ techniques, so that they can recruit their supporters on the shop floor, where outside organizers cannot go. Rarely, if ever, does a worker accurately announce himself or herself as a leader. Kristin Warner, a contemporary organizer in the CIO tradition, notes: [Organic leaders are] almost never the workers who most want to talk with us. More often than not, [they’re] the workers who don’t want to talk to us and remain in the background. They have a sense of their value and won’t easily step forward, not unless and until there’s a credible reason. That’s part of the character that makes them organic leaders.16685 These are the leaders needed for a serious struggle,697
A structure test is the culmination of a series of tests that begin by measuring and assessing individual workers’ power, and end by testing the power and collective organization of the workers worksite by worksite.700 If the worker-leader given the assignment can turn this kind of action around in only one or two shifts, the organizer has correctly identified an organic leader. On the other hand, if a prospective worker-leader, even one personally enthusiastic about the union, cannot get a majority of coworkers in his or her shift and unit to do anything quickly—let alone engage in high-risk actions—it is clear that the leadership identification was incorrect, and again the organizer must start with talking with all the workers to better assess which coworkers they most respect and will most willingly follow. The worker who fails at the test is likely a pro-union activist, not an organic leader, and leaders, not activists, win the campaign and have the capacity to build strong worksite structures. The process is not easy; even a true organic leader sometimes fails to get a majority of signatures, often because of either weak personal commitment to the union, or even active hostility toward it.712
If an organic leader remains undecided, the recruiting organizer, because of the urgency that always exists in high-risk union fights where the employer’s war is either imminent or already in motion, takes the next step: “framing the hard choice.” The process begins with understanding an individual organic leader’s self-interest and helping the leader come to his or her own understanding, through face-to-face discussions, that this self-interest can only be realized through collective—not individual—action;719 A good organizer understands this, and at this point will say something like, “So, Sally, I want to be clear about what I am hearing. You are good with the boss continuing731…Top of Form
the best organizers in the CIO tradition call the moment that follows “the long uncomfortable silence,” because the organizer is trained to say nothing until the worker responds—and that can take several long minutes of dead silence between two people sitting face-to-face. The organizer respects that silence and waits it out, because the decision Sally is being asked to make is huge, and must be treated that way. Sally is not being lied to, she is not being promised anything, she is not being manipulated, and she is being advised that the employer will take swift and direct action against her and her coworkers. She is having a discussion about going on strike. This is worker agency. An axiom of organizers is that every good organizing conversation makes everyone at least a little uncomfortable. And it’s a conversation that must be had. All other actions come from this one.734
Public activities, socializing workers to take a risk together; they are solidarity- and confidence-building, showing workers the strength of their numbers; and they are part of an endless series of assessments of the strength of each organic leader.741
Only true organic leaders can lead their coworkers in high-risk actions. Pro-union activists without organic leaders are not effective enough, and professional staff organizers certainly cannot do it; they aren’t even allowed into the workplace. The organic leader is essential to the organizing model.744
Marshall Ganz, in Why David Sometimes Wins,20 says the purpose or motivation of leadership teams is central to outcomes. The early CIO did use some full-time left-wing organizers; this was the Depression era, and many were either donating their time or being paid considerably less than today’s full-time professionals. More importantly, the old CIO’s full-time organizers were co-leaders with rank-and-file organizers, the organic leaders among the workers.759 In CIO’s (model), the role of the paid organizer is to identify the organic leaders, recruit them, and coach them how to most effectively lead their coworkers against the inevitable employer war.766
Cultivating human agency, for system change
As in Kimeldorf’s case, smarter demands—for more autonomy and control of the production process rather than for more money—lead to a smarter strategy, in which worker agency is primary to building the power needed to win. Ganz’s and Kimeldorf’s in-depth studies reinforce a core argument in this book: What sociologists and academics have long labeled structure is actually human agency.771
The left-wing organizers in the CIO who developed human structures powerful enough to defeat staggering inequalities, and who were committed to genuine worker agency, were replaced after World War II by a massive bureaucracy. Kim Moody and Nelson Lichtenstein document the expansion of professional union staff in the 1950s, an expansion that was later mimicked in social movements after the advent of the New Left at the end of the 1960s.21
In her book Diminished Democracy,22 Skocpol focuses on what she calls the “extraordinary reorganization of U.S. civic life after the 1960s, seeking to make sense of the abrupt shift from membership-based voluntary associations to managerially directed advocacy groups.” That shift was precipitated by the abrupt and massive shifts in unions. During every period Skocpol methodically analyzes, U.S. unions represented the largest sector of what she calls “cross-class voluntary federations.” The U.S. corporate class succeeded in taming unions by pushing for labor laws and regulations that encouraged or forced the replacement of workers and worker agency with a huge union bureaucracy, which they promised would promote the workers’ interests better than could the workers themselves. Skocpol’s “abrupt shift” emerged in part because the corporate class realized they could institute the same weakening mechanisms to quiet the unruly left wing growing outside the unions. A vast new philanthropic focus in the 1970s shifted from naming buildings to professionalizing protest; social activism was legalized to death. Skocpol’s exacting analysis of why democracy diminished when professionals replaced ordinary people can be applied in every respect to why democracy diminished in unions, though democracy decimated might be a more accurate way of putting it. One underexplored aspect of this effort to rationalize and contain agency781
Alinsky compromised the CIO organizing model in three significant ways that have weakened labor and nonlabor movements alike. First, he delinked the method he observed from the mission or motivation of the left-wing organizers—organizers who were committed not only to winning campaigns but also to radically altering the power structure itself.806
This is one reason why Gary Delgado, founder of the Center for Third World Organizing, and his successor and protégé Rinku Sen have each written solid, constructive, nonsectarian critiques of Saul Alinsky.40 Delgado locates his in the limitations of the politics of place and race in segregated America. Sen, in her book Stir it Up, argues that Alinsky’s obsession with pragmatism and nondivisive issues resulted in decades of well-meant efforts that often undermined the very people who need good organizing the most—the poor, the working class, and people of color, whose issues could hardly be characterized as nondivisive.
She points out that Alinskyist groups focused locally and on winnable fights have often reacted to the infusion of drugs into their communities by calling for more police and more prisons. Enter #blacklivesmatter. Similarly problematic, some Alinskyist groups working on education reform today have embraced charter schools, which undermine teachers’ unions and siphon public tax dollars out of the publicly controlled school system.41 In Chicago, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) has yet to stand with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), teachers, and parents who are struggling to keep schools open in black communities, a situation examined in Chapter Four. A further weakness in the Alinskyist model for community organizing is his discussion of and framework for organizers and leaders, an aspect of his legacy that has deeply penetrated and negatively impacted major union segments, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (UNITE-HERE). In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky obscured the issue of organizer strategy. He declared that there are leaders and there are organizers, and that the two are different. The organizer is a behind-the-scenes individual who is not a leader, has nothing to do with decisions or decision-making, and must come from outside the community. (They also had to be men: Alinsky didn’t believe women were tough enough, even during the era of the feminist movement.) The leader, on the other hand, must come from the base constituency and “make all the decisions.” This is a good narrative, but disingenuous: The organizers in the Alinsky model make many key decisions.895
Only the rank and file can strike against the employers. Majority strikes are one strong indicator that workers themselves are determining their fate, rather than leaving it to a professional staff.928
In community organizing and some social movement groups the obsession with leadership development and not leader identification prevents all members of a movement from gaining the collective power they need and deserve. Leadership development without previous leadership identification is a bicycle without wheels. It severely limits how far that movement can go—the success it can and should achieve.947
Social-movement organizations (SMOs) are typically the self-selecting type that Han’s book describes. They, along with most community-based organizations and now, unfortunately, unions as well, label as a leader just about anyone who enthusiastically shows up at two successive meetings (even one sometimes), making the words activist and leader interchangeable. It’s an egalitarian impulse, as is the aversion to power. The Occupy movement has muddied this discussion even more with its talk of “leaderless movements” and “horizontalism.” But in any strategy for building power, all people are not the same.952
After 1995, following New Labor’s ascent to positions of power in the national AFL-CIO, justified by the Alinsky assertion “Organizers take orders—leaders lead,” professional staffing ballooned, with many new positions added—researchers, political campaigners, and communicators. People in these positions have at least as much real power as the organizers, if not more, further diminishing the importance and voice of the real “leaders.”975 The corporate campaign model directs and trains unions to see the employer from the employer’s point of view rather than the worker’s.998 (Do we likewise intentionally or unintentionally encourage looking at things from the hierarchy’s or existing system view?)
In annual meetings about the state of organizing, and the discussion would be that workers often got in the way of union growth deals.54 It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of how workers are viewed by key staff and leaders in the New Labor model. There are many flow charts and organograms in circulation that outline the corporate campaign’s focus on the employer,1004
(Those in the pews or on the front lines) are seen as a largely undifferentiated mass, and the chief criteria for engaging them is whether or not they initially favor a union. From among workers who do, staff select the most telegenic and likely to appeal to an elite audience such as the media, and use them as the public face of the campaign. They will then be called “leaders.” Professional communicators write press and legislative statements for them and prepare them to present these well in public. In this model, union staff need not engage more than a minority of the workforce in the fight, since victory is pursued through one or more of the corporate campaign’s other eleven points of leverage. This sidelining of the majority of a workforce, engaging only those already predisposed to support the union—union activists—would be impossible in a CIO-style campaign, because the CIO approach is contingent on winning a majority of the workers in a workplace to the cause of the union: class struggle. Majorities are also practically necessary, because CIO-model unions run not symbolic but real strikes, in which a supermajority of workers participate.571034
A maximum mobilization of the membership is our only real source of strength. To get this requires genuine participation.1125 Worker agency (of those on the frontlines) is a prerequisite for organizing and for building powerful structures.1142
The working class does need more power to win. That is irrefutable. William Foster devotes an entire chapter of Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry to what he calls Special Organizational Work. The chapter is divided into four sections: “Unemployed—WPA”; “Fraternal Organizations”; “Churches”; and “Other Organizations.” Under “Churches,” Foster says, “In many instances, strongly favorable sentiment to the organization campaign will be found among the churches in the steel towns. This should be carefully systematized and utilized.” Under “Fraternal Organizations”: “There should be committees set up in the local organizations of these fraternal bodies in order to systematically recruit their steel worker members into the A.A. [Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers].”59 The CIO organizing methods incorporated an appreciation of power inside and outside the workplace. They used a systematic approach to recruiting support not only from the shop floor but also from the broader community in which the workers lived. Yet today, most good unions that organize inside the shop mobilize outside it: deep inside, shallow outside. It’s as if they can’t see the full extent of the battlefield or the vastness of their army. A (limited or) one-dimensional view of (the grassroots, parishioners, front line, workers) as (just one thing) rather than as whole people limits good organizing and constrains good worker organizers from more effectively building real power in and among the workers’ communities.
Since the early 1970s—the period of focus for Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy, a period dominated by Alinsky’s teachings—community power, like workplace power, has decreased. Most groups in the broader community now have little to no power. Yet even unions that organize effectively at the local level have usually contracted their “community support work” out to these relatively weak groups—mobilizing rather than organizing. When the groups then fail to bring serious power to back the workers in a tough private-sector fight, the organizers who enlisted them conclude, incorrectly, “The community stuff doesn’t work.” They miss that the problem with “the community stuff” is their own reliance on the weak approach of advocacy or mobilizing, an approach they would never use for the fight inside the workplace. For the inside fight, these unions have a theory of power; they understand how to identify the most influential workers among the total workforce; they pay attention to semantics; and they create structure tests to assess precisely how much power they are building step by step. Sadly, they check all this intelligence at the door when they step outside the shop and shift their horizon line to the community, for which they have no concomitant theory of power, no concomitant theory of leader identification. If they see the community’s potential contribution as weak, it is because they don’t apply the same standards to recruiting and building it, with the workers themselves doing their own community outreach among their own preexisting social networks.1144
CIO-model union organizers today frequently take the shortcut of engaging an already pro-union or progressive priest or minister, the equivalent of the staunchly pro-union worker activists inside the shop (who can’t win), to stand with them at a press conference—a practice they know wouldn’t be effective in the workplace. And just as the most enthusiastic worker activists are often not capable of leading their coworkers, so, too, the most committed activist religious leaders often can’t lead their colleagues. To build power in the community, the good organizer must apply the same intelligence, skills, and techniques—beginning with painstakingly identifying organic community leaders—as he or she does to building power and organic leadership in the workplace. True organizing in the workplace plus true organizing in the community can and does win; organizing in the workplace plus mobilizing in the community does not.1170
…is not a life-altering change, and the process develops few real worker leaders, or none. Equally significant, such a fight rarely develops new organic community leaders—those involved are generally already involved, already pro-union priests and pro-union self-selecting activist types. They have not been recruited or trained systematically, and, so, this approach is not an organizing approach in the community, it is a mobilizing approach in and outside the workplace and isn’t expanding the army. With the exception of the Chicago Teachers Union, today even most organizing unions rarely systematize their brilliant approach with workers on the inside by using an equally brilliant approach to the workers’ own organic community on the outside.1265
The CTU learned from the British Columbia Federation of Teachers that to win a massive and illegal strike, it had to have staunch support—active support, tested and well prepared—from parents, students, and key community institutions. The Chicago teachers voted in a new leadership in 2010 that already met the first criteria for the organizing model; they believed the purpose of the union is to enable workers to radically change their lives in all aspects, that the union is a tool for class struggle. They knew that this condition could only be met if ordinary workers, not staff, were the primary agents of change. The teachers had built strong ties to key community- and neighborhood-based groups throughout Chicago. The leadership saw the relationship with parents, students, and the broader community as something more than an alliance: If they called a strike, parents would be key, either with decisive support, or potentially decisive hostility (in which case they’d be advancing the agenda of the mayor, not that of the teachers). They were right, and they had just enough of a direct rapport with parents directly through their students and indirectly through their many community allies to beat Mayor Rahm Emanuel and save their union by rebuilding it through a strike. The most profound success of the Chicago teachers’ strike was the building of powerful solidarities among teachers and between teachers and the whole of Chicago’s working class. That their leader, Karen Lewis, an African-American high school teacher, would go on to poll consistently as the most popular person in the city to challenge the incumbent in the mayoral race would have been utterly unimaginable before the strike.1270
If we devoted the time and energy to understanding and engaging each and every relationship that workers organically possess in their community, rather than focusing on the boardroom of the employer, the kind and level of power of built would yield far greater success. TABLE 2.3 Power Available (Disruption Costs) To blunt the employers’ edge, rank-and-file workers need these strong ties; with them, they will be able to do the organizing and unionizing work themselves that today is mostly being done by paid staff—and do it far more effectively. When this model was followed in Chicago, the results were stunning. Jake Rosenfeld, in his book What Unions No Longer Do,65 published in 2014, argues that there are only two forces in U.S. society that have an equal (and high) rate of influence on how ordinary people vote: unions and religious institutions. He describes how well the right has applied this, making an intentional power move to build an evangelical base of voters, a base that grew steadily while leftists in good CIO-style organizing unions said, “I don’t like religion, I do class, that’s why I am not building relationships with them.” That’s an actual quote from this author’s interview with an extremely successful organizer. Yet this is in direct contradiction to the belief system of good organizers, the kind that believe in worker agency. If a community or other tie matters to the workers, that should be enough for good union organizers. If faith matters to workers, I argue it has to matter to unions. Otherwise, the union remains a third party in the church—not of the membership, but apart from it.1285
Take a Whole Life, Whole People and Community Approach
The pressing concerns that bear down on most (people and) workers today are not divided into two neat piles, only one of which need be of concern to the union, while the other is divided up among a dozen single-issue interest groups, none of which has the union’s collective strength. To effectively challenge neoliberal capitalism in the present moment, to successfully challenge the excessive corporate power that defines our era, (we) must create a whole-worker organizing model that helps—rather than hinders—large numbers of Americans to see the connections between corporate domination of their work lives, their home lives, and their country’s political structures. Figure 2.4 offers an illustration of how Chicago’s teachers behaved after 2010, of how the workers at Smithfield won the third round of their fight, and what Connecticut looks like when the whole union brings the whole community into the fight.1314
The resolution won approval, and Stern essentially replicated the explosive growth in nationally administered resources and national staff that the UAW and others had achieved in the 1950s. From the 2000 convention to 2012, the union’s income from per capita payments almost tripled, from $101 million to just under $300 million.7 Membership did increase in this period, by about 37 percent, but not enough to account for the huge increase in per capita revenue. Likewise, there were 416 union employees listed in the union’s financial reports in 2000, and 863 in 2012. And these staff numbers do not include another significant layer of senior staff Stern brought on as full-time consultants, an addition that would increase the total substantially over 863. These consultants functioned as staff, but their salaries were often so large it was politically impossible to call them so; by calling them consultants, Stern could avoid reporting how many there were and how much they were paid, because consultants are handled differently in federal reporting. The union also began to spend lavishly on consultants who actually remained consultants, working out of their own firms, but in near total service to the union. There were and are hundreds of them. SEIU had never previously been a big player in national politics, but the union’s new resources allowed Stern to start lunching with governors and party leaders—and hand over million-dollar checks. With the shift to a massive national union staff and concurrent national budgets, Stern’s profile and ambition began to grow. The vast majority of these new funds were not spent on existing union members, but rather on launching a high-level and top-down program to “grow” the national membership. Assisting existing members with services/direct support—or paying them much attention of any kind—was not on the to-do list. Stern’s top chief strategist for “growing” the membership was Tom Woodruff, one of his executive vice presidents, who also held the title of organizing director. Woodruff found dealing with existing members not only a distraction but also a drag on the strategy he and Stern were pushing with missionary zeal: working with corporations, so that those corporations would stop opposing unionization. Woodruff summed up a key aspect of this strategy: “The organizing model points us in the most narrow way … the better job you do with 15 percent of the market, the more the boss wants to wipe you out. We have to direct our energy outside.”8 That is, if SEIU insisted on being really good at representing the members when they had only a minority of employers in any particular industry, it would incentivize the employers against unions. The chief problem with their strategy is that most workers form unions precisely to get protections from their bad bosses. Stern and Woodruff weren’t going to be sidetracked by this fact; instead, they focused on devising strategies, like the rest of the New Labor–era unions, to cut deals in corporate boardrooms, making actual workers’ votes (and needs and opinions) less important to the “growth” process itself. The union leadership went from using CIO language about organizing to using Wall Street language about growth metrics. Semantics matter.1406
Seth Borgos, long associated with ACORN, progressive philanthropy (where he frequently collaborated with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development), and now the Center for Community Change, said in an interview: Alinsky’s critique of the discipline [social work] was that it was insensible to power dynamics, dedicated to adjusting people to structural conditions rather than figuring out how to change the conditions. His obsession with power was a defining moment in the separation of community organizing from its social work origins, but the result is that Alinsky often seems far closer to Machiavelli than to a King, Reuther, or Marx.10 Stern himself was frequently accused of being hostile to the idea of democracy. So was Alinsky, and so is David Rolf. Rolf’s Rise as Stern’s Protégé David Rolf was and is a protégé of Andrew Stern; he may be the closest adherent to Sternism in the union today. He and Stern sound indistinguishable when they speak of their shared belief that unions are a twentieth-century concept (and you hardly ever hear either of them talk about actual workers).1442
Rolf studied how Silicon Valley incubated start-ups. With Stern, he paid a call on former Intel CEO Andy Grove, that rare Silicon Valley guru who’d written critically about American business’s abandonment of American workers. ‘Grove told us he didn’t know enough about the subject to offer specific advice,’ Rolf says. ‘But he did say to think about outcomes and treat everything else—laws, strategies, structures—as secondary. That made me understand the death of collective bargaining isn’t something we should be sentimental about.1453
Three widely respected books about the post-McCarthy labor movement, describing bottom-up grassroots organizing within unions—in which dignity, not wages, was the front-and-center issue, and the workers themselves were the primary lever of power—all focus in whole or in part on the same union: 1199. All three books celebrate the ingenuity of the working class and are routinely found on labor sociology syllabi: Rick Fantasia’s Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers,24 Steven Lopez’s Reorganizing the Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement,25 and Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg’s Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: A History of Hospital Workers’ Union Local 1199.26 The very fact that 1199’s story is ongoing, that this chapter picks up where these earlier authors left off, and that this union continues to enable workers to be the primary lever of power, including in militant actions and majority strikes, is evidence that Robert Michels was wrong: Oligarchy does not always win.1569
Believed that organizers, paid and volunteer, learn through struggle.1588 Our position was, we couldn’t sell that which we didn’t own, and we didn’t own the workers’ right to make their own decisions in the future. Kieffer and Rolf were selling something they didn’t own. We refused to do that.”1596 constantly engaging in strikes and by practicing what is called open collective bargaining negotiations, 1199NE is constantly engaging in the hardest of structure tests—that is, tests that measure both union democracy and the participation levels of the rank and file.1616 Key question in 1199 for generations has been “Are there two sides or three in a workplace fight?” Upon learning of a union drive, an employer will usually begin an anti-union campaign by declaring, “We don’t need a third party in here”—by “third party” the boss means a union as a third party, with the boss being one party, and the workers being a second party. In good organizing and in the 1199NE approach, a key to victory (and to a successful strike vote and strike)—is that the workers see themselves as the union—in which case there are only two sides, a crushing answer to the employer’s message. Below are two examples from the opening of two separate new-millennium training workshops in a CIO-style organizing approach. Both are titled “Semantics,” and they reveal the centrality of language and its meaning to the fight, and to the craft of organizing.1653 The 1199 nursing home campaign in 2014 that Baril was describing above was a textbook implementation of the Advice to Rookie Organizers (see below), including postulate #20, “We lose when we don’t put workers into struggle.”1682
The list below represents the key postulates taken from the characteristic 1199 organizing “manual”—a handwritten, dated, single sheet of paper that hangs on the door or is pinned on the bulletin board of most 1199 organizers’ offices. It is often covered with coffee stains and marking-pen notes and is called, simply,
“Advice for Rookie Organizers.”34
- Get close to the workers, stay close to the workers.
- Tell workers it’s their movement/union and then behave that way.
- Don’t do for workers what they can do.
- The union is not a fee for service; it is the collective experience of workers in struggle.
- The union’s function is to assist workers in making a positive change in their lives.
- Workers are made of clay, not glass.
- Don’t be afraid to ask workers to build their own union.
- Don’t be afraid to confront them when they don’t.
- Don’t spend your time organizing workers who are already organizing themselves, go to the biggest worst.
- The working class builds cells for its own defense, identify them and recruit their leaders.
- Anger is there before you are—channel it, don’t defuse it.
- Channeled anger builds a fighting organization.
- Workers know the risks, don’t lie to them.
- Every worker is showtime—communicate energy, excitement, urgency and confidence.
- There is enough oppression in workers’ lives not to be oppressed by organizers.
- Organizers talk too much. Most of what you say is forgotten.
- Communicate to workers that there is no salvation beyond their own power.
- Workers united can beat the boss. You have to believe that and so do they.
- Don’t underestimate the workers.
- We lose when we don’t put workers into struggle.1686
Each postulate expresses a core value and reflects 1199’s roots in the CIO era. Starting with the first one, a close relationship with all or a majority of the workers can only be formed in a majority-worker approach and by working through the organic leaders. And there are other postulates—the most important ones in terms of worker agency—that can only manifest in a model that vests primary power in the workers themselves. Postulate #2, “Tell the workers it’s their union, and behave that way,” is significantly worded: behave, not act—no pretense allowed. That’s a commandment, and in the 1199NE tradition, it’s a commandment with teeth: An organizer can be fired for not behaving that way. Similarly, postulates #17 (“Communicate to workers there is no salvation beyond their own power”) and #18 (“Workers united can beat the boss—you have to believe that and so do they”) conceive of workers as the primary leverage in their own liberation.1718
(When) the union remains a third party, different from the workers, advancing its own interests through negotiations with the employer to meet the employer’s primary objectives: increased revenue and status quo management rights. In turn, the union, as a freestanding entity, separate from the workers, meets its own primary objective: growth. The objectives of the third group, the workers, enjoy the least consideration in the negotiations. In this model, there are three sides to the bargain, but two sides have interests that lie closer together—the union and the employer. These two oppose the primary needs of the workers:1764 tronger shop floor protections, a meaningful voice in shop rule making, and benefits that, even more than increased wages, might lift them out of poverty.1768 …remember the workers being generally unresponsive to the presentation. Sort of apathetic, low energy. These were not like any other nursing home workers I’d ever seen. What was different? We weren’t speaking to their issues. I remember talking to one worker on the side after the meeting. She was uninspired. The meeting didn’t address her concerns. They were short-staffed, today. She was poor and mistrustful of the boss. The idea of going to lobby for more money didn’t meet her needs, which were both immediate and different. She saw the problem as the boss and we were not inviting her to build an organization that met her needs.1777 In strong contrast to the Washington experience, 1199NE today continues to run a successful NLRB election program. The workers routinely strike and win contract standards better than those of any other nursing-home workers in the country; they have converted lousy jobs into fairly decent ones.1782
The 1199 tradition—the CIO tradition based on identifying preexisting worker-leaders and connecting with them and coaching and apprenticing them through the employer fights is a winning tradition. Organizers in 1199NE understand that real fights for life-changing gains can be won only by the workers themselves, led by organic worker-leaders. By contrast, the 775 tradition, based on the principles of Stern and Rolf, does not build worker agency, worker leadership, or worker strength.
The advocacy/mobilization model picks leaders based on community organizers’ criteria: likability and charisma, commitment to the organization’s agenda, attendance at meetings, and ability to speak with the media and chair meetings. In the 1199NE model, none of those factors matter. The only factor that does matter is that coworkers trust and respect the worker-leader, who might not—and often does not—display the public qualities sought in the 775 model. According to Brendan Williams, the former head of the Washington Health Care Association (WHCA), the employers’ lobbying group, “One challenge for the  union is [that] they could never get the big players on board, those guys with the most homes, the national players, who have so much money they can afford their ideology and ignore the union’s partnership offers.” Williams explained that even though he assured the nursing-home owners that David Rolf was a decent guy, he could not move them. He encouraged the owners to see “the entrepreneurial aspect to it, to set aside ideology and look at the union, they aren’t being ideological, they don’t want to bring about the destruction of capitalism, they want to grow just like you want to grow.” But by 2007 it was apparent that the Washington union ceased “growing” in nursing homes because the state legislature had voted to lock in a multiyear reimbursement rate that was set to last until 2015. Because Rolf could no longer increase this rate for the owners, he couldn’t draw down more election “victories.”1796
David Pickus, 1199NE’s current president, says: What I understand about our work is that people want a better life, and that’s about the relationship between workers and the boss. When I started out, people were afraid to talk about this as an ideological issue. Understand me: This isn’t some ultra-left issue, or hard left. This is what capitalism is, you work in it, you sell your labor, they don’t need you, they need all of you. And if you accept that, you’d better get everyone together, because if you want a better life, you need a plan to do that. People have a tremendous respect for you when you talk to them about the truth and where their power comes from and what they will have to do if they want to win.40 In New England today, as everywhere, workers and their unions are having a harder and harder time—the ongoing decimation of labor unions across the country and the nearly complete acquiescence to the employer-alliance model have made the higher-participation model increasingly challenging. According to Pickus, “The employers have got it down now, it takes them about ten full days to replace the entire staff of a nursing home for good during a strike.” And so 1199NE, like most unions in the service industries, will have to make a choice about which strategies to embrace to garner the additional power needed to continue winning in today’s conditions. Their parent union, SEIU, beats the drum loudly about deal-making strategies, and may yet drown out 1199’s other clear, far better choice: adapting each postulate from their own Advice to Rookie Organizers to an approach that goes as deep into organizing their members’ communities as it does into organizing their members in the workplace.1816
As Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have found through their own analysis, the ability of workers to withdraw their cooperation from the interdependent relationships of power is, in part, contingent on workers understanding their contribution to the interdependent power equation.
Chicago Teachers Union example
Teachers and educators (including paraprofessionals; clinicians, such as social workers and school nurses; and more), do understand their contribution to the education and development of today’s K-12 children. I argue that teachers and all educators are what I call are mission-driven workers. Surely, they labor for a material reward that enables them and their families to pay the bills, but they also labor for something deeply purposeful; they are called to their labor. Enabling mission-driven workers to strike requires a very particular set of circumstances, a special context, because mission-driven workers understand that the withdrawal of their labor has an immediate, direct impact on those they are called to serve—in the case of teachers, America’s children, teens, and young adults. When Chicago’s teachers and educators went on strike, the strike authorization vote was 23,780 in favor of a strike to 482 against, out of a total universe of 26,502 union members.6 One of the most dominant themes arising in my interviews with rank-and-file teacher leaders was their disbelief, after twenty-five years of never having been on strike, that their students, and, their students’ parents, would fervently lend them support. When Chicago’s teachers struck, it was a total disruption of the “production process,” not a merely symbolic action of the kind so common today. Sociologically speaking, the Chicago strike brought a major United States city to a grinding halt. The strike impacted over 400,000 people in 180,000 households, snarled traffic for days, and put an end to business-as-usual. It was a massive exercise of power.1857
Chicago’s students and teachers became the guinea pigs for a relentless barrage of efforts to “reform” both education and unions—few of which changed actual outcomes in student achievement or teachers’ morale.121898
Robert Michels15 suggests that the absence of internal parties, or caucuses, is a symptom of oligarchy.1916
According to Kristine Mayle, a middle and elementary school special education teacher and currently the CTU’s elected financial secretary, “We were going to neighborhood groups and saying, Look, we are talking about little human beings, about kids; we are teachers and you are our natural allies; we can’t do this alone.”31 With each school closing, the ranks of teachers frustrated and angered were growing. By the time CORE was formalized in early 2008, many more were actively participating in the study groups, including Jesse Sharkey and Karen Lewis. At this point, rather than fighting school closings or challenging the CPS, Marilyn Stewart, the union president, was focused on a single goal: taking total control of the union (just as 1199’s Bernie Minter describes it, in Chapter Three).2025
According to Jackson Potter, CORE’s initial mission was “to do what the union should have been doing all along, acting like a union in the face of massive upheaval.”32 The CORE study group was now being augmented by other activities. Potter’s school had been converted to a charter (half became a charter and half a charter-like “team” school); taking advantage of the ten months of paid “reserve” time provided by CPS, he decided to study history at the graduate level.33 The forced break led to many other important developments for Potter. He began to work with a group called the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, where he met Pauline Lipman, an education professor. It was Lipman who encouraged Potter to attend an important annual gathering of teachers from Mexico, the United States, and Canada called the Trinational Conference. That single conference introduced Potter to the concept of progressive teachers forming caucuses.2035
Jinny Sims, the leader of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF). The BCTF was fresh off an illegal strike in 2005 widely considered to have been won primarily because the teachers had spent several years developing mass support among community-based groups before they walked off the job. The strike had been mounted in defiance of a recently passed provincial law that defined teachers as “essential employees,” eliminating2045 The EEOC complaint and several other school and teaching profession–specific fights that CORE led during the summer of 2009 were part of CORE’s ever-expanding reach into all aspects of the union, pushing beyond the school-closings battles.2076
Elected delegates—what most unions call shop stewards. The delegates function as problem solvers at the shop floor (or individual school) level. But because the CTU had been mostly consumed by internal warfare for years, no one really understood the quality of the delegates the CORE leaders were inheriting. Plus, the workers who are often attracted, or at least recruitable, for these kinds of positions in unions tend to be activist personalities—people who tend to work alone, who often have been in trouble with management before in their own work lives, and who may not have the respect of many other workers. (This is why CIO-style unions like 1199NE try to recruit the organic leaders, not the activists, for these positions. There is a radical and crucial difference between delegates who approach problem solving as a group effort and those who operate as lone wolves.)2206
Organizers went from school to school attending as many school meetings as they could and blowing the debate about strategy wide open. Luskin recalls that they’d start by saying, “If any of you think the next contract is about a percentage-point raise, tell us, because we think we know it’s about the future of public education as we know it: that’s what’s on the table.”48 If the labor movement’s instinct has been to reduce demands in order to sound reasonable, the new CTU took the opposite approach: They led every meeting with school-based discussions of billionaires, banks, and racism. (Note to other teachers’ unions: they got reelected.) Mass political education of the existing base was their primary focus. Along with all of CTU’s leaders, they were creating a sense of urgency, a burning platform, and framing the choice ahead in very clear and unambiguous language. They were being as mindful with semantics as 1199NE. Because CORE had won a commanding victory, every single officer was a CORE slate member, including the many lesser ones—area vice presidents, vice presidents for every type of school and grade level. All of these newly elected officers were on the same program, unified in their vision, making the work of “winning over the delegates to the new strategy” a union-wide effort at every level.2228
Political parties and people who sweep into office with something of a mandate hit the ground running: They begin asserting their agenda during the outgoing administration’s lame duck period. CORE did it at the teachers’ union after trouncing the entrenched old guard. And Emanuel did it after winning the mayor’s seat in a one-round fight.2309
This was CORE’s first exercise in holding union leadership accountable to the platform they ran on, union democracy, and it was a breakthrough of sorts. Most union caucuses that engage in electoral work inside of their unions either disband until the next election cycle or toe the party line once their party is in power. But CORE didn’t start out as an electoral caucus; it was formed by progressive teachers to pressure the CTU to “act like a real union,” and they felt that their new leader had just violated this principle in a way that was likely to have dire consequences for the rank and file. It was an important lesson: for Lewis, for the executive officers, for CORE, and for CTU members. Lewis’s willingness to publicly apologize to those members was something of a novelty and is still unusual among union leaders at her level. And CORE’s powerful message that she should never make such an error again helped the caucus reestablish itself as a voice independent of the leadership, including the leadership that had emerged from CORE itself. Meanwhile CORE and Lewis were able to quickly mend their relationship and return to the business at hand, staying focused on building their power against the threat from Emanuel, which now loomed larger than ever.2335
At the December 2011 meeting, the teachers used the #OWS (Occupy Wall Street) tactic “mic check”: One person says something and everyone else repeats it, as into a megaphone powered by human voices. After the mic check began—“These are our children, not corporate products!”—the school board left the room and shut the meeting down.57 The teachers and their allies were successfully finding their voice and practicing direct action; business as usual would not be happening.2375
Chicago’s teachers have proved that a broken union can be rebuilt in a very short time—less than two years. They’ve demonstrated not only that the strike remains the working class’s most powerful weapon, but also that its successful deployment is contingent on first developing deep relationships with the wider community. And they’ve demonstrated the crucial importance of broad democracy in the union, beyond the formal vote—the democracy that let the rank and file read the proposed contract settlement line by line on the picket lines, and helped the teachers take full responsibility for their own liberation. In the process of that liberation, inevitably, there will be compromises on the way to more substantive victories. But the Chicago experience has shown that when workers are empowered to make the decisions in real-life fights, their union becomes stronger, not weaker. The union speeds on the way to a better future when it slows down to allow broad democracy to flourish. The working-class teachers of Chicago are struggling as a class.2584
North Carolina Smithfield Factory example
As Ollie said, “Me, Slaughter, and Keith, we had a tight relationship. People would see the white, the black and the Indian, and management knew trouble was coming.” In the Smithfield factory, workers were isolated to an unusual degree, segregated by department, room, race, language, and more, with incredibly loud machines running at all times, drowning casual communication. But Livestock workers had to walk the entire length of the plant to get to their jobs. This gave them a second privilege as power workers: They could see people, and talk to them, as they walked into and out of the plant. It took almost 40 minutes for Hunt, Slaughter, and Ludlum to get from the parking lot to their station.37 They would soon turn that already long walk into a saunter, doing union work along the way, work only the worker-leaders themselves could do, since union staff were barred from going anywhere near this factory. More than one hour of face-chat time each day. Bruskin says that once the leaders established this first small team of worker activists inside the plant, they began to physically map the entire factory, something the union had never attempted in the earlier campaigns. The sheer size of the plant—973,000 square feet, with a maze-like layout—was daunting. Drawing a literal map is step one for workplace organizers, but charting which workers worked where, with whom, when, and who related to whom and why is the most important step, the chart is a hallmark of a good organizing campaign.
The Livestock workers walking among their fellow workers were key in drawing the map and charting social networks among them all. They also spent the summer and fall escalating “in-plant” direct actions and beginning to build a statewide community support effort, as well as a national coalition that would soon launch a consumer campaign against Smithfield, all under the banner of Justice@Smithfield, complete with a website, facts about the employer’s track record against its workers, an exhaustive litany of the company’s environmental law violations, CEO profits—just about as good a profile on a company as any ever done in such a campaign. Top-notch research and strategic leverage had been among Bruskin’s areas of expertise coming into the fight, and FAST had already conducted years of in-depth research on every aspect of this company. Workers and their allies were marching at shareholder meetings, creating online petition campaigns, and more. The Justice@Smithfield campaign was generating not just local but also national newspaper headlines. Workers were constantly challenging the company’s authority inside the plant, including sitting down in the plant, backing up the line, blocking the highway, and more. By the fall of 2006, there were strong pro-union worker committees being built within the plant’s Latino and black departments. Bruskin was trying to figure out how to begin to build solidarity between these groups, and this was harder than usual, because management had almost perfected the science of fomenting racial hatred inside the plant. The three weeks Charles LeDuff, the New York Times reporter, spent undercover in the Tar Heel factory led to a searing journalistic indictment of company-inspired hate. LeDuff wrote that the whites and Indians hated the blacks and Mexicans; the Mexicans hated the blacks; the blacks hated the Mexicans; and the boss drove this hate systematically.38 Bruskin decided it was time for a Black-Brown weekend picnic among the groups’ key leaders. People were ready to meet and talk as one factory, to emerge from their departmental ethnic enclaves. And just as the plans for the weekend BBQ were launched, Smithfield launched an “air strike.” In October, the employer sent several thousand letters to Latino workers, saying that they needed to prove their immigration status by providing Social Security numbers that matched their birth certificates—one of the more common employer tactics today.392940 Bruskin’s reaction to the call underscores the central importance of top staff leadership. He could easily have said, “Get them all back to work as fast as you can,” which was exactly what Bruskin’s supervisor demanded he do, or “Run the other way,” or, worse, “Hold a press conference condemning the workers’ behavior.” Any of these responses would be fairly typical of many unions today. Instead, Bruskin guided by his leftist principles, ordered his staff to get “1,000 bottles of water and 100 pizzas to the workers, fast!”40 It’s still hot in southeastern North Carolina in November. A handful of non-Latinos had also walked out in solidarity, workers like Ludlum. According to Slaughter, “These firings and then the walkout was a wake-up call to us blacks in the plant. Watching brown people get taken off the line and fired and then others walking out over it sort of shook us, like, Hey, what are we waiting for? What are we doing about the conditions here? It was almost embarrassing how little we were doing.”41 The walkout generated headlines throughout North Carolina, and also in The New York Times, which declared how unusual it was for nonunion employees, let alone employees with documentation issues, to wildcat in the United States.42 As soon as the walkout began, creating a crisis for the employer, Bruskin and the worker leaders decided to dispatch a priest, Father Arce of St. Andrew’s Catholic church, to mediate and negotiate with the employer. Smithfield had refused to meet with union staff or union-identified worker leaders, so the union found a perfect alternate to handle the negotiations: a religious leader who had credibility with the Latinos but was not seen as an associate of the union. In fact, Father Arce was receiving coaching from the Latino members of his parish who were also now union leaders, the workers themselves acting as brokers between the union staff and the Catholic priest.43 The workers’ demands were that everyone who walked out be allowed to return to work the next day with no reprisals, that the company stop firing people, and that the immigrant workers be given more time to prove their status. When Father Arce first came out of the meeting with a “promise” from the employer to meet all demands, the Latino parishioners turned union leaders sent him back inside to get it all in writing. They were schooling the priest that the company was not to be trusted. Bruskin understood at the time the pivotal importance of the fact that for the first time ever the employer was actually negotiating with employees—the fact that it was through a Catholic priest was immaterial. The mere act of getting recalcitrant employers to begin to learn to bargain with employees can be an important first step towards later negotiations: The concept has been established.2979
On the heels of this walkout, Bruskin and key worker-leaders, the very ones who had just met for the Black-Brown BBQ, agreed that they needed a way to get the black employees activated and working together with the Latinos. Their idea was to demand that Martin Luther King Day be an official holiday at the plant, with paid time off for those who requested it and double time for everyone who had to work shifts that day. The union immediately began to produce literature in Spanish and English, with King’s picture on one side, Cesar Chavez’s on the other, describing the common values and the liberation efforts of these two leaders. Additionally, the demand that Smithfield honor Martin Luther King Day was one that union activists could use to rally the broader community to their cause. When the nationally recognized holiday arrived, a majority of workers had signed a petition demanding a paid day off, and the company’s refusal generated press headlines sympathetic to the workers.44 Smithfield then reversed its decision, but did so in a manner that denied the workers’ victory; the company announced a new policy to give all workers in all their facilities nationwide the holiday, effectually denying their decision had anything to do with local worker demands. The workers felt vindicated nonetheless, but their euphoria was short-lived. Two days after the holiday, on January 23, the employer let Immigration and Customs Enforcement into the plant,3001
Rather than see people slink away one by one, worker-leaders decided to shut the plant down, again. It was an act of defiance as well as a move to avoid getting dragged off to a for-profit U.S. detention center for eventual deportation. On Sunday, January 28, more than 2,000 Latino employees walked off the first shift, which shut the plant down immediately.45 But this time, the workers had packed up and left for good. There were no parking-lot negotiations between Catholic priests and the employer. “La Migra,” Immigration, was clearly returning soon to deport more workers. Whatever trust the employer might have earned with its November decision to allow the workers back into the plant had been permanently destroyed. There were so many employer-inflicted casualties in this particular class war, the rather stunning fact that 2,000 individuals lost their jobs in a single day because they had wanted a union can almost get buried in the long list of other outrages. That they chose to leave by engaging in a massive wildcat strike that would hurt the boss, if only for several days, speaks to their deep sense of human dignity, and their bravery. By this time, there were almost daily daring actions by workers on the inside and vicious responses from the employer, and the fight was shifting outside, where it would generate more support.3015
Think community is a framing for all the issues we face, and in this case the leading edge of the issue at Smithfield was labor. By calling this a community struggle, we began to change the frame and break down the structural division and set it up so that if justice is the issue here, than everyone in the community is invited to be a part of the campaign. So labor isn’t an “other,” some “Northern-based” thing, some “anti-Southern” thing; it’s actually people in our own community.473040
Complicating matters more, a new generation of unionists born at Change to Win but schooled originally in Andy Stern’s SEIU63 took a position somewhere in the middle: continue the corporate campaign but shut down worker organizing and shut down the community campaign in North Carolina. This reflected their view, discussed in Chapter Two, that campaigns can be won without workers, and that workers (and in this case also the workers’ community) might just get in the way.3178
Make the Road, New York
“I think it means us. We are the ones who are an army of the good. Every day we fight to hold politicians and bosses accountable for the wrongs they inflict on our community.” A round of applause and head-bobbing followed, signaling that the woman in the back of the room was speaking for everyone. The scene was a meeting of Trabajadores en Acción (“Workers in Action”) at the office of Make the Road New York (MRNY), in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. More than fifty people were present for this gathering, a weekly event where MRNY members and prospective members meet to analyze the previous week’s activities and plan future actions. Those at this meeting had just been asked to interpret the meaning of a quotation from Juan Bosch: “No hay arma más potente que la verdad en los manos de los buenos” (“There is no weapon more powerful than the truth in the hands of the good.”)1 Such prompts are a regular feature of MRNY’s public meetings, which are conducted in Spanish. First, all those present introduce themselves, stating whether they are first-time visitors or members (and if so, how long they have been part of MRNY). Then the leaders open the discussion with a prompt designed to spark a discussion that everyone can participate in—longstanding members and newcomers, old and young, men and women. The prompt is also intended to ensure that the meeting agenda includes a “big picture” question along with quotidian details such as taking volunteers for leafleting (a key form of outreach for MRNY) in the coming week; evaluating what did and didn’t work at the last big public event or direct action; asking who would like to cook for the next meeting.3260
MRNY has won significant victories involving immigrants, poor people, and low-wage workers during a time when many other organizations have experienced setbacks and defeats. One major reason for their success is the favorable political environment of New York City, which has higher union density than any other major U.S. city,8 an enduring social democratic tradition rooted in its labor history,9 and a relatively immigrant-friendly political culture. These conditions make New York fertile ground for the kind of immigrant-rights and worker-rights organizing to which MRNY is dedicated. Of course, there are many similar organizations and campaigns in New York City that enjoy the same conditions, yet none can claim as strong a record of accomplishment as MRNY, which has amassed a larger staff and budget than any comparable organization in the city. MRNY has adopted a highly collaborative organizational model that reflects exactly the kind of strategic capacity Marshall Ganz described at the United Farm Workers, with “leaders who take part in regular, open, and authoritative deliberation and are motivated by commitment to choices they participated in making and on which they have the autonomy to act.”10 MRNY also has a highly deliberative and participatory organizational style—referred to internally as a “high-touch” process. This is similar to Francesca Polletta’s analysis of participatory democracy and prefigurative politics.11 Polletta and MRNY emphasize the importance of process in strengthening internal solidarity and enhancing the political impact of social movements.3310
Efforts to win and enforce progressive change, whether through the courts, the ballot box, negotiated union contracts, or legislative bodies, can only succeed in the long term if large numbers of ordinary people are participating at levels high enough to enable them to hold institutions accountable. Part of the organization’s capacity stems from its multi-issue character. MRNY’s size has enabled it to operate effectively on a range of issues, including but not limited to workplace justice.3323 and democratic organizational structures helps increase motivation among MRNY leaders and members alike, because different individuals will feel passionately about different issues.3330
I argue that MRNY is not an advocacy group. By advocacy, as I defined it in Chapter Two, I mean groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, or Greenpeace—groups that merely campaign on behalf of some broad societal goal and/or on behalf of a constituency or constituencies. By contrast, Make the Road’s members are active players in campaigns and have decision-making in such key areas as hiring and firing staff, approving budgets, and deciding on the direction and priorities of the organization. They also understand that mass collective action is a key source of leverage. Another sign that Make the Road goes beyond a pure advocacy approach is that they are not simply trying to win specific legislation or material benefits, but also trying to make long-term, structural changes in the power structure of the wider society, shifting the balance of power toward the organization’s base constituency and away from the forces that oppress them. I will provide of examples how this works later in the chapter.3331
The relationships among and between just about everyone on the staff team start and end with respect for one another, vertically and horizontally. For Ganz, this combination is key to the success of organizations fighting for social and economic justice. The frequent use of the word love (Chatterjee, “we love each other here”; Valdes, “we are rooted in love and community here”) reflects the deep commitment of the SLT to a highly participatory and equally diverse membership.3506
Francesca Polletta argues that participatory democracy strengthens social movements and their organizations. Among “people with little experience of routine politics,” she argues, “making decisions by consensus and rotating leadership has helped create a pool of activists capable of enforcing the gains made by this movement and launching new rounds of activism. Participatory democracy’s potential benefits … cannot be reduced to ‘personal’ or ‘cultural’ changes. They go to the heart of political impact.” She adds, “Participatory democracy … can advance efforts to secure institutional political change … [and] can be strategic.”30 MRNY has adopted a detailed and transparent decision-making process. Most decisions are made by consensus, and rotating leadership is standard practice at meetings. MRNY’s “Decision-Making Authority” document (available to members in both Spanish and English) specifies in detail how people are chosen for every role and every sub-body in the organization, and specifies the authority embodied in each role and sub-body, much like a union constitution.313514
As Javier Valdes explained, “The weekly meetings serve the same purpose as church. It’s a ritual … it’s the same time, the same day, every week, in the same office.” He added, “Having access to the membership so frequently provides a constant opportunity for growth and political education. The members all run the meetings and … spend time every week thinking about the agenda and about how to run an effective meeting.”323528
MRNY is predicated on the idea that its success depends on its ability to recruit, develop, mobilize, and retain members. But the deep commitment to democratic practice and leadership development is also a source of tension and what cofounder Andrew Friedman calls democracy fatigue, describing the more than thirteen regular weekly meetings—all of which require tremendous energy and attention. There is, according to Friedman, a dull but persistent discussion of the endless attempt to reduce and shorten meetings. Friedman absented himself from this fatigue by creating the Center for Popular Democracy, a national group without the kind of day-to-day base accountability that Make the Road still maintains. But Javier Valdes (who would later replace Andrew as a co–executive director) and others involved in building MRNY’s member participation program insist that any compromise in the highly participatory nature of the organization would weaken MRNY’s effectiveness.3541
The special burden of the most successful organizations across all sectors is the need to maintain their own momentum while exercising the kind of solidarity that lifts the floor of success across the entire progressive social movement spectrum.3559
Unions’ strategic and tactical repertoires can also be highly constrained by such mechanisms as the no-strike clauses in collective-bargaining agreements, which are present in most contracts. In addition, unions like Washington’s Local 775, profiled in earlier chapters, and many New York City unions have chosen to develop deep institutional ties to political and economic power-holders that limit their own effectiveness and constrain rank-and-file workers. The SEIU, where Jenkins now works, frequently limits the options available to its members by signing growth accords or cutting contract deals with employers that require the union to stand down on legislation, organizing, bargaining, and other forms of activism. Once again the question is, What are the motivations or ideologies of the key players? The issue is less the institutional form and more the central question of where the agency for change lies. Aversion to risk and a lack of faith in the intelligence of ordinary people is the central problem here, for unions and other types of worker organizations. The high participation that characterizes MRNY’s high-touch model separates it from more typical social-movement organizations, in which “membership” is nothing more than subscribership. MRNY’s ability to mobilize its members in civic actions is palpable at legislative hearings; on street corners and in marches; in its many press conferences; and in the forty-two buses they sent to Washington,3580
People display soul-affirming levels of instant and intense solidarity and sympathy, and the images preserved of people helping one another in these dire situations can make the toughest cynic cry. But the solidarity that follows disasters, natural and otherwise, is created in a moment of fierce emotional heat that flares up and quickly smolders. Real organizing, the kind done by the Chicago teachers, the nursing-home workers in Connecticut, and the meat-production workers of North Carolina, creates a critical situation, too: the employer’s war against its workers. The craft of organizing helps people connect the dots between the critical, solidarity-affirming moment and the larger system it challenges, giving the workers in crisis a new way of seeing themselves and a newly formed sense of the society’s political economy. The process of deep organizing constructs a kind of solidarity that persists long after the employer’s war and when done well, workers also carry their new understanding of how things work with them into the voting booth. The cases in this book that generated the greatest power, enough to overcome very powerful institutions and players, were those in which large numbers of the workers themselves decided to walk off the job. Based on those cases, one can argue that the strategic front for the most successful movement effort is still the workplace, but not only the workplace. When workers walked out of the Smithfield Foods factory in wildcat strikes, they created such a crisis for their employer that even in a region as hostile to labor as eastern North Carolina, the community began to take note that something was seriously wrong in that facility. The community mattered a great deal in the win, once the workers helped educate them about the reasons for their actions—the missing fingers and lost limbs, the hogs being treated better than the humans who slaughtered them. Yes, the national consumer campaign helped, but without the agency of the workers and their community, there would have been no Smithfield win. When Chicago’s teachers walked off the job in a strike that riveted the nation, they did so after several years of good work with the broader community and months of intentional discussions with the parents in Chicago. Their community enabled their success by backing them against a vicious and powerful opponent who immediately framed the fight as “teachers abandoning their students and their community.” And that frame failed the mayor precisely because the relationships between teacher and parent, and between teachers’ union and community had already been forged. The case of the nursing-home workers in Connecticut is even more striking. It takes a gut-wrenching decision for medical workers to walk off the job: They must walk away not only from their livelihood but also from the patients they care for and care about. In Connecticut, they strike only after speaking with the patients’ families and preparing them to step in and supplement the inadequate care that temporary staff provides during a majority strike.3660
There is still a manufacturing workforce in the United States that desperately needs unionization. Although employers’ exit threats make it objectively harder, it is not impossible, as we saw in Chapter Five. The U.S. Deep South is to Europe—and, increasingly, to China—what Mexico is to the U.S.: a cheaper place than home to run a factory.3687
It’s actually people in our own community.”) Many labor strategists, particularly men, can’t see past the need to reorganize the manufacturing sector—and Smithfield demonstrates that it is of course possible. They implore labor to focus more on the logistics sectors, which makes perfect sense and should be high on the movement’s to-do list. But given the domination of the service economy today, we need a unifying strategic plan for and within the service economy. The brilliant organizers of the CIO understood that some sectors of the industrial economy, such as steel and coal, were key; they mattered more than others. Within the service economy, education and health care are the strategic sectors. First, because for at least the next couple of decades, there can be no exit threat: Schools, like nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, and other components of the always-changing health-care delivery system, can’t be moved offshore or relocated from a city to its suburbs or from the North or Midwest to the South. That is why the corporate right campaigns tirelessly to change the legal structures of the Rust Belt—and the nation—through the cases it brings before the Supreme Court. Immune (for now) to the exit threat, education and health care are also particularly strategic fields for organizing and movement building because of their geographic and social placement in the community: They aren’t walled-off industrial parks, and the nature of the services they provide creates an intimate relationship between the workers and their community. There is an urgent need for precisely this kind of solidarity building. While some see this relationship as a complication, it’s actually an incredible strategic advantage. First, as long as the workers—and especially their leaders—grasp the context of this relationship and do what the Chicago teachers did (in stark contrast to the borderline anti-community efforts of most teachers’ unions and their national union officers), it is clear they can win over the broader community not only to the importance of the craft of teaching but also, even more fundamentally, to the importance of unions in society. The success of the national war on teachers has been pretty thorough going. The average self-described good liberal will generally say he or she supports unions—but not a teachers’ union. But in Chicago, the teachers showed that a workplace struggle led as a community struggle can be transformational for the whole of the working class. Their strike changed Chicago—not just the teachers, not just the parents, not just the students—because the city’s working class assumed agency in an all-out fight for the right to have public schools in their neighborhoods, taught by teachers interested in staying with their kids. The working class also changed its view of teachers, schools, racism, neoliberalism, and the city’s slick mayor. That doesn’t happen through a messaging campaign or a mobilizing model. Educators and health-care workers can hone that worker-community relationship by taking the conversation directly to the families they live among and work for, showing them how their needs as workers and the quality of their work life relate directly to student performance and patient outcomes. Education and health-care workers, to a much greater extent than factory workers, are consumers of their own exact form of labor: They have kids and sick family members, and they get how hard they work. When unions get this right—when they understand the basis of the relationship between the workers and their own community—they can defeat not only a bad employer but also America’s centuries-old anticollective messaging; they can change not only their workplace but also society. Howard Kimeldorf pointed out that the social base of a workforce is key to the kind of union it forms. The social base of educators and health-care workers trends fundamentally toward solidarity and collective behavior because the workers are mission-driven: Their motivation for success is high,…3695
There are two clear and distinct models inside and outside unions in the New Labor era, only one of which can enable majority strikes. I name these distinct models the mobilizing model and the organizing model, and they produce different levels of success. The mobilizing model places primary agency on staff and is only capable of winning under certain restrictive conditions: those that do not require high levels of power. An organizing model places the primary agency for success on an ever-expanding base of ordinary people, and it can win in much more difficult circumstances, those requiring high levels of power. In each model, staff plays a very significant but radically different role. The key difference is where and with whom the agency for change lies. Paying close attention to today’s conditions and looking at which sectors in the U.S. economy are expanding, or at least stable, with little or no threat of exit, and being mindful of the workforce in these sectors, I conclude not only that success is contingent on the organizing model as it has been deployed by a handful of successful unions inside the workplace, but also, for even these unions to keep winning, the model must be expanded into the community via the workers themselves. For labor’s community actions to be as successful as the best workplace unions, agency must rest with workers, not staff. Today’s good organizing unions face a choice: see the community their members and unorganized coworkers live in as their key additional power strategy, or surrender that element to expensive consultants who promise a strategy of perfect messaging, high-quality consumer data, and slick (but shallow) community-labor alliances. That kind of so-called community plan has failed and will fail—again and again. This is strong evidence that an expanded vision of the organizing model, one that bridges the workplace and the community through the workers, is more capable of winning the hardest fights than the carrot-and-stick corporate campaign model that labor has chosen over the past twenty years. In 1995, despite the promise of bold new organizing, the New Labor leaders ushered in an era of electionless unions, workerless unionization growth deals, and contracts settled by national agreements between union and corporate lawyers rather than by committees consisting of actual workers. They converted a tactic, mobilizing, into a model. Ironically, Alinsky’s brilliant understanding of power and tactics has morphed into New Labor’s grossly disproportionate emphasis on the corporate campaign—good rope twisted into a noose. It’s not that unions and other organizing groups don’t need smart research; of course they do. But smart research should augment, not replace, workers as the primary source of leverage against employers. Smart union and social movements’ research departments could shift from staff-only corporate-focused research to worker and staff–led geographic power-structure analysis that involves workers themselves in the research process. With workers as research partners, the strategy of understanding who holds power—how and why, and how to change the balance—can be arrived at for far less money and without recourse to highly paid consultants. And in the process, the workers can learn about power in their own community and make informed decisions whether in a workplace fight or in the voting booth. During interviews and research conducted3756
latest scheme to avoid engaging workers in their own liberation:3781
The consultant-industrial complex that straddles national unions and the national Democratic Party has been urging unions to spend tens of millions of dollars purchasing consumer databases—data gathered and aggregated by search engines like Google—and develop predictive models for which workers might be inclined to vote yes for a union. That is incredibly expensive, and like the information gathered from polling and pollsters, the “data” is derived outside the context of an employer fight, rendering it as useless as the promise of “framing” has been for the past two decades. Data, like messaging, can be useful, but not when the people driving the data and driving the polling are also driving transactional (rather than system change) efforts; e.g., one-time get-out-the-vote. Transformational experiences come through high-risk collective action, not through data-crunching or air attacks on the corporate boardroom.3782
Some of the misunderstanding of the promise of the corporate leverage and top-down research, with its minimal worker involvement, stems from a misunderstanding of which kind of sectors and what types of workers are involved, and what the relative concession costs will mean to the employer. A handful of so-called authentic messengers and a minority of workers engaged might work for a Justice for Janitors campaign, where concession costs are a tiny fraction of those involved in a hospital workers’ campaign, or of the pension plans still enjoyed by 28,000 teachers in Chicago. High concession costs require high power. High power is what progressives need to beat the Koch brothers and the power elite—to reclaim the country from the corporate right. The greatest damage to our movements today has been the shift in the agent of change from rank-and-file workers and ordinary people to cape-wearing, sword-wielding, swashbuckling staff. To deny that having experienced staff can be the difference between workers winning and losing is ridiculous and counterproductive. Way more counterproductive has been the wholesale elimination of the crucial role of the rank-and-file workers (at work and at home). Having experienced staff matters, but the role of the staff should be coach, mentor, history teacher to the organic leaders. Without reorienting the focus of everything staff does back to identifying and enabling the central role of organic leaders among the workers, today’s movements can’t achieve scale. Scale comes from seriously developing the skills of the organic leaders among the masses of ordinary people. Saul Alinsky unfortunately obscured the issue of agency by declaring that there are organizers and there are leaders: The organizer is a behind-the-scenes individual who is not a leader, who does not have anything to do with decision-making, and who must come from outside the community; the leaders must come from the base constituency, and they make all the decisions. Yet near the beginning of his chapter “The Education of the Organizer,” Alinsky writes, “Since organizations are created, in large part, by the organizer, we must find out what creates the organizer.” He then reveals his real point: Those out of their local communities who were trained on the job achieved certain levels and were at the end of their line. If one thinks of an organizer as a highly imaginative and creative architect and engineer, then the best we have been able to train on the job were skilled plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, all essential to the building and maintenance of their community structure but incapable of going elsewhere to design and execute a new structure in a new community.5 By “on the job,” he means grassroots leaders. Outsiders are “imaginative and creative architects,” and community members are “plumbers and electricians.” This inviolable Alinskyist principle relates directly to a core concept of the New Labor era: the distinction between organizer and leader, and the corollary between external organizing and servicing. External organizing is the supreme driver, and existing worker-leaders and the shop floor are relegated to the backseat—or, sometimes, the trunk. The result is an ineffectual contract like that “negotiated” for Washington’s nursing-home workers, which stripped them of shop-floor rights, of meaningful negotiations, and of the right to strike, and brought them instead a marginal material gain. New Labor’s efforts at developing a more robust political program, considered a hallmark of the post-1995 era, have not made matters better, and for the same reason: The focus has been away from the shop floor. The unions’ chief priority has been to massively increase the money they raised and coordinated for the Democratic Party. But while labor unions ponied up more and more for election coffers—mostly at the national level—big-business groups working with right-wing forces got busy on two salvos that would obliterate union hopes of competing in the election-spending game….3788
Mobilizing is not a substitute for organizing. The community-organizing sector today is weak, and labor is weak—and weak plus weak does not add up to the strength that can stem the anti-labor tide. Forty years of Alinsky-inspired community organizing have not done it, fifty years of business unionism have not done it, and the past twenty years of a mobilizing model veneered as a robust organizing plan to revitalize unions, relegating workers to one of a dozen points of leverage, have not done it, either. This is pretend power, and it doesn’t fool the employers. Today there is almost no organization left among private-sector workers. If the corporate class has its way, this will soon be true among the public sector too. Sprightly strategy and cunning tactics matter, but labor cannot jujitsu its way out of its demise. It is time to acknowledge that growth strategies and theories that rely on giving workers less say in the workplace only compound the problems that put New Labor and its promises of reform in power in the first place. New Labor desperately needs to return to bottom-up base-building as its core strategy: organizing, not merely mobilizing.3830
The low-to-no-exit workplaces with strategic power are heavily made up of women of color. Imagine a new movement filled with tens of thousands of Karen Lewises. Yes, they really are out there. True, Lewis is charismatic—but so are tens of thousands of educators and health-care workers. To be good at their job, which the vast majority aspire to be, they either arrive with or have to develop a strong sense of confidence. Making real decisions that have significant impact on kids and patients is central to their work. They must possess strong powers of persuasion to lead students and patients through challenging, sometimes frightening, moments; they must know how to explain a plan of action for a successful outcome. They must build intense relationships with families and the community. As Karen Lewis developed her power through a massive struggle and strike, so can millions more. The Whole Worker model offers a way to overcome the silos analyzed by Ira Katznelson in City Trenches, because it structures class into the community via rank-and-file union members. This is a considerably different approach from today’s labor-community coalitions, or what is typically considered social unionism, which reinforces rather than resolves the Katznelson divide. Unions are under pressure from extraordinary external forces. But unions are also dying from the inside out. Although many of the external factors in play would be difficult for unions to change, returning to a genuine bottom-up organizing model, one that encourages and equips workers to resist the multifaceted assault on their interests inside and outside the workplace, is within the decision-making control of today’s unions. There are no shortcuts.3838
Which unions constitute New Labor? I combine a few: CTW is short for the Change to Win Federation. Technically, the UBC and the UFW were also on the CTW list initially. Another commonly used list was developed by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Roger Hickey in Ruth Milkman and Kim Voss’s Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement (Cornell ILR, 2004), accessed here through the digital commons. I also factored in the list of which unions in 1995 initially voted not to back Kirkland in the AFL-CIO election, and then the slightly different list of which unions ultimately backed Sweeney. In the end, I combine them to arrive at a rough list of the most common unions that might be called New Labor.
CTW Bronfenbrenner-Hickey Reorganizing the Rust Belt. 25.Julius G. Getman, Restoring the Power of Unions, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010; Richard Hurd, “The Failure of Organizing, the New Unity Partnership, and the Future of the Labor Movement,” Working USA, Vol. 8, September 2004, 5–25. 26.Many of these accords include language that constrains future action by workers and their community. For example, in a particularly well publicized agreement between SEIU and nursing home operators in California, the union leaders agreed to surrender the future union members’ right to arbitration or strike, and the union also agreed to block workers from testifying or speaking about poor conditions inside California nursing homes.3898
What some people call ideology others call beliefs or world view, and Marshall Ganz uses the words motivation and purpose.3921
Jack O’Dell, author interview, January 2011. O’Dell was a legendary organizer and leader. He was a Communist until the 1950s. He was a leader in the National Maritime Workers Union and later a full-time staff member in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he advised Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on strategy, until the Kennedy brothers asked King to remove him in 1963. Sources: The King Library, Stanford University, website search 9-9-15, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_odell_hunter_pitts_jack_1923.1.html, and Jack O’Dell and Nikhil Singh, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement’s Writings of Jack O’Dell, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.3934
In nursing-home strikes, as in hospital strikes, crippling production by 90 percent or more of the regular workforce walking off the job; the employer choosing to hire an expensive, second full set of contract staff; management working regular staff shifts, often around the clock; state inspectors in the facility monitoring the situation, and families often on hand 24 hours a day to care for loved ones, because they mistrust the temporary, union-breaking specialist firms.3953