July 2012, Week 2


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mon, 9 Jul 2012 20:59:13 -0400
text/plain (283 lines)
There is No Substitute for Organizing : How Unions
Might Help Win Future Battles 

There is No Substitute for Organizing: How Unions Might
Help Win Future Battles 

By Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Jane McAlevey, 

The Nation July 2, http://www.thenation.com/

also posted on July 7, 2012 by dcampbell1

Before Wisconsinites voted down the attempt to recall
Governor Scott Walker, and certainly since, principled
progressives inside and outside of unions have
disagreed on whether or not the campaign should have
happened. In fact, between the two of us, we don't
fully agree about whether or not the recall was the
correct tactic. But with the defeat in the rear view
mirror, two clear lessons can be drawn from Wisconsin:
unions need to reinvest in mass participatory
education--sometimes called internal organizing in union
lingo; and, unions need to stop focusing on "collective
bargaining" and actually kick down the walls separating
workplace and non-workplace issues by going all-out on
the broader agenda of the working class and the poor.

Once you get past the reports that Walker outspent the
Wisconsin workers by 7:1, the next most startling fact
is that 38 percent of union households voted to keep
the anti-worker Governor. That's slightly more than one
third, and had the pro-recall forces held the union
households, Walker would no longer be Governor. With
major media outlets drubbing us with the 38 percent
number, the liberal political elite seem stuck on a
rhetorical question: why do poor people and workers
vote against their material self-interest? Actually, in
our own experience, the poor and working class don't
vote against their self-interest--but there's a
precondition: we have to create the space for ordinary
people to better understand what their self-interest
is, and how it connects with hundreds of millions in
the US and globally.

Participatory education can best be carried out within
unions through an on-going organizing program. We know
from years of experimenting that adults learn best
through taking direct action. Actions themselves are
often transformative. And how to calibrate the learning
and action dialectical is the work of good
organizers--paid and unpaid. But today's unions have all
but abandoned organizers, educators, organizing and
radical, participatory education. Why?

First off, many union leaders, despite their rhetoric,
do not believe in the critical importance of worker
education. Instead they believe in "PowerPoint."  They
invest truckloads of money into pollsters who perfect
their quick and fancy presentations with graphics which
all too often aim to dazzle rather than educate.  They
believe that worker education cannot be quantified and
does not necessarily translate into a specific,
tangible outcome, thereby making it worthless.

A second reason for the anemic internal education is
the legacy of the Cold War and McCarthyism. "Big
Picture" education that truly examines the roots of the
current economic crisis and the nearly forty year
decline in the living standards of the average US
worker leads to a fundamental critique of capitalism.
This conclusion scares many leaders who fear being
red-baited, or may even harbor a fantasy that that they
will at some point be re-invited to the ruling circles
of the USA.

A third reason is that an educated and empowered
membership can be unpredictable. They may start asking
questions that many leaders wish to avoid. They may
start suggesting different directions. And, horror of
horrors, they may actually run for office in the unions

The second big lesson from Wisconsin is that we can't
do it alone. While the attack by Walker was a frontal
assault on women, people of color, workers, the poor
and more, unions all too often kept the focus on
collective bargaining. When unions allowed the battle
in Wisconsin to go from mass collective rage over the
excesses of the One Percent to a battle for union
rights, it was all but game over. Criticism of
Democratic candidate Barrett's refusal to go along with
labor's messaging on collective bargaining is beside
the point--in our opinion, the campaign was lost before
the May primary. Reassured by polls showing a majority
of Americans (61 percent) support the "right" to
collective bargaining, union leaders failed to
anticipate the power of a barrage of wedge messages
about over-paid government bureaucrats, taxes, union
bosses, the unfairness of why public sector workers get
pensions and so-called private sector ones don't and
much more. Walker had the apparatus of the state and he
had bought the media--he essentially turned Wisconsin
into one big captive audience meeting, subjecting
Wisconsites to the kind of unbearable pressure that
workers in private sector union elections are all too
familiar with. We don't poll in elections where workers
are going to vote as to whether or not to form a union
because we understand polling is useless in a hotly
contested, deeply polarized fight.

In union elections, the sophisticated union busters
want to ratchet the tension up so high that everyone
associates the new tension in their life with this
thing called "the union." And the boss drives a message
that if the union goes away, everything will go back to
normal. And normal, which wasn't OK before the
campaign, suddenly sounds good because the venom and
hate feel much worse. To have any chance of beating
these kinds of campaigns, the campaign can't be about
"collective bargaining" or "the union." It has to be
about a bigger fight for dignity and economic justice
that can deeply appeal to a much wider audience.

It is true there's been an uptick of unions declaring
the importance of building allies and  "working with
the community," but still the community is too often
treated as if it's a separate species from "the
workers." The workers are the community, and yet union
leaders act like 'the community' is some foreign land
that requires visas, formal paid ambassadors and a
Rosetta Stone language learning kit. The reason most
labor leaders don't understand the community is because
they stopped trying to understand their members and the
unorganized workers who live side by side in every
union member's house. The way back to winning big
majorities of Americans to the cause of labor is for
labor to take up the causes of the majority. This isn't
rocket science, it doesn't require pollsters or power
point--it requires thousands of meaningful conversations
with tens of thousands of people. It requires
rebuilding our organizing muscle.

But the phrases, "organizing doesn't work, it's too
slow," or the variant, "organizing doesn't work, it's
too expensive," have become like a mantra in union
headquarters (and the offices of foundations). And yet
for our entire adult lives, almost every time we have
seen workers and poor people given the opportunity to
stand up and fight back, they did.

What about the recall? Wisconsin was a wicked short
timeline--unions and their supporters were trying to
overcome forty years of no real education or organizing
among the rank and file. The recall failure has led to
an open season on unions, but this isn't just a problem
with unions. Multiple institutions have failed workers
for decades, starting with the Democratic Party. And if
that's not enough, there's our public school
system--including universities and legions of
intellectuals--that fail to teach students how to
understand the actual power structure in our country or
what unions are or have done. And, corporate owned
media that have long distorted the real story of

The reason that unions themselves, not front groups,
need to take up the key issues facing their base when
they aren't at work is because this model of community
work helps to develop even more worker leaders--it
provides an ongoing action-learning program for the
members when their contract has been settled. And,
pedagogically, it helps the members to better
understand all the forces keeping them down. "The boss"
becomes the economic and political system rather than
simply the swing shift supervisor or the foreman or the

There are plenty of important structural issues that
the rank and file could be engaging, including the
on-going housing, credit, climate, public
transportation, and child care crises. And there's the
matter of bringing the worker's sons, daughters,
nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from
unwinnable wars of aggression. The very best way for
unions to build real alliances with non-union groups is
via their own members--the very people who make up "the
community." If unions expanded their issue work by
engaging their own rank and file, we could develop even
more skilled leaders, not simply 'worker faces' for a
press conference. The organizing-education model
assists people in creating better lives for themselves,
rather than relying on paid professionals to do the
work for them. And the results are that we build mini
social movements, not special interest groups.

Organizing is incredibly hard work. And it's messy
work. And the liberal elite, including most union
leaders, are constantly investing in everything but
deep organizing. The real reason we lost in Wisconsin
is the same reason that progressives have been on a
four decade decline in the US: it's because of a deep
and long-term turn away from organizing and education
and towards something that more resembles mobilizing.
Organizing expands our base by keeping our energy and
resources focused on the undecideds, and on developing
the organic leaders in our workplaces and communities
so that they become part of an expanding pool of unpaid
organizers. Mobilizing focuses on the people who are
already with us and replaces organic leadership
development with paid staff. That and the split between
"labor" and "social movements" account for the failure
of progressive politics, the loss in Wisconsin, the
ever shrinking public sphere, and the unabashed rule of
the worst kinds of corporate greed.

The work we are describing isn't an election 2012
program, it's not a 12 month program; it must happen
every day, every month and every year. It's ongoing.
Workers are every bit courageous enough and smart
enough, but they experience a lifetime of being told
they are not worthy, not smart, and not deserving. In
other words, sit down, shut up and listen. Unions have
to challenge this paradigm, not reinforce it. When
conservatives suffered their own strategic defeat and
lost the election in 1964--by much larger margins than
the recall in Wisconsin--they didn't say, "well, no
point trying." They instead built for the long haul and
in 1980 it paid off with Reagan.

And with the Supreme Court edging eerily close to a
ruling that will make all of America governed by
"Right-to-Work" laws, unions have to start acting like
they are already operating in a "right-to-work"
environment. The education-organizing program outlined
here is the very same program unions will need to
survive let alone thrive under the current Roberts
Court. The sooner unions stop acting like a special
interest and start behaving like a social movement; the
closer we will be to making lasting, positive change.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the Executive Editor of
BlackCommentator.com. He is a Senior Scholar with the
Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past
president of TransAfrica Forum. He was a co-founder of
both the Center for Labor Renewal and the Black Radical
Congress. He is the co-author of "Solidarity Divided"
(University of California Press, 2008)."

Jane McAlevey, a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate
Center, spent two decades as an organizer in the labor
and environmental justice movements.

Posted on July 2, 2012, Printed on July 7, 2012


The following article first appeared in the Nation. For
more great content from the Nation, sign up for their
email newsletters.

Reprinted with permission.


Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

Submit via email: [log in to unmask]

Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3

Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq

Sub/Unsub: http://portside.org/subscribe-and-unsubscribe

Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive

Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate