This text was originally written by members of the Workers Defense Alliance of the Twin Cities.
How Do We Organize?
A lot of people talk about organizing. You can ask any union, nonprofit, or political party, and they’ll all say they’re organizing- and even that they are grassroots organizing, or organizing the rank and file. But different groups can mean very different things when they say this. It’s important for us to be on the same page, and talk about organizing means to us, in the solidarity network. For us, organizing means that we are identifying our shared problems, and struggling against them together, in a way that builds up our experience, trust, and shared power to transform the society we live in, and ourselves in it. We have a few points below that unpack that.
1. We organize where we have shared vulnerability to build shared power.
As workers, we make the world run through our labor at work and our reproductive labor in the community. The very same place we are exploited by capital, is where we have power to stop the wheels of society turning and make demands- or remake society. When we organize, we identify a shared position of exploitation or oppression we have- as workers in the same workplace or industry, as tenants sharing and industry or landlord, or as people facing the same type of bigotry as a community. By organizing with the people who are in that position with us, we can turn that shared problem into a shared power.
This doesn’t mean that you can only build solidarity with people in the same workplace as you, or who are co-tenants. Just like it’s more powerful to work with other people in the same position as you, we are more powerful when groups of workers organize and discover how our struggles are connected. For example, union construction workers can make demands on our bosses, but their demands can be greater when they also help organize undocumented and non-union construction workers. By understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all, we build federations of solidarity.
2. We organize to build power, not to ask power to help us
A lot of protesting is based around performing for the media to show how upset you are, in order to get someone in power to act for you. This kind of activism doesn’t give us the power to win the deep changes that those in power are not going to be willing to give us without a fight. When workers and oppressed people have gotten more rights and reforms, it has almost never been through simply asking for them. These gains have always come from struggles- whether the massive strikes that put labor law into place, or the civil disobedience and riots that led to the civil rights acts.
When we ask bosses, landlords, and governments to treat us a little nicer, they can take it back any time, unless we have built and kept a strong network of resistance to enforce what we’ve won. For example, the US congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act in response to large, militant strikes in the 1930s, in order to move struggle off of the shop floor and into grievance processes and courts- and make the unions not maintain such active and militant committees in the workplace. Then, after the NLRA was enacted and the AFL and CIO unions had entered into joint partnerships with industry and government to win the Second World War, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act which restricted the tactics that labor can use to win on the shop floor. In the decades since, a weakened labor movement that has little active shop floor presence has been handed defeats and seen our gains rolled back. Power is a muscle we need to exercise- and winning by direct action and grassroots organizing lets us keep the knowledge, experience, and confidence to exercise it.
We know that as we build power, and challenge those in power, we are going to face repression. This could come from legal suits, police brutality, firings or evictions as retaliation, or other backlash from those in power. We prepare defense against repression as a key part of our organizing.
3. Organizing is transformative
There is no such thing as an unorganized workplace or community. We are already organized into departments at work, or social groups, or neighborhoods, with bosses on top. Organizing is about transforming those relationships – and often, transforming ourselves, too.
When we take part in organizing, we gain new insights into how the world works- what barriers are put up against us and how to overcome them. We learn how to resist and rebel against power, and pick up new skills. We form new relationships and remake old ones. But the process is not just individual- as a group, workers who organize gain a new understanding of our shared power. This process has been called “class composition”- the way that we grow to understand ourselves as a working class and develop strategies to fight our own exploitation.
When we organize, we are not only asking people who are already on our side to turn out. This is called “mobilizing”- and while it’s important to mobilize allies to fight alongside us, we wouldn’t get very far having the same small group of activists fighting every fight. When we organize, we engage with people who share our problems and our place in society, and transform through struggle as people striving together.
4. Organizing is a collective process
Transforming our relationships takes the participation of many people, and our organizing seeks to involve a broad coalition of working class people. We don’t change the world by thinking up the future we want on our own and then expecting other people to fall in line behind us. We hash out the world we’re building together, because the only way we’ll get there is together.
Workers have to free ourselves- and our organizations work best when we have real ownership over them and make them come alive with our participation. Organizations that don’t build participation are vulnerable to burnout, non-engagement, and repression if a few key figures vanish. Organized communities that have strong participation can keep fighting and rebuild even if the formal organization dissolves.
For people who aren’t participating as much, this means that we encourage you to ask what needs to be done- or suggest things that you think of. For people who are doing a lot of work, building participation can look like asking others to help with it, or teaching people how to do that work. Building participation also means recognizing the many roles that organizations need, from childcare to security to note-taking, and valuing them.
5. Organizing is based around building trust
Trust is what turns our shared problems into a shared power. When we need to stand up to a boss or landlord, it is usually fear that stops us- the fear that we might get fired or evicted, or punished somehow. We know that if all the people around us stood up to them together, we could win- but can we trust them to take the risk and have our back?
Through struggling together, people learn who we can trust, and we build a more powerful relationship with those people. This is why campaigns often escalate from lower risk actions to higher risk actions. As people learn to trust each other and work together, it becomes easier for us to carry out more ambitious plans.
But, building trust means not taking shortcuts in organizing. We need to be honest with our fellow workers about our goals and intentions, and honest with ourselves about our motives and interests. We need to value each other as people, and never as a means to an end. When organizing, we need to remember that the organization exists as a tool for workers, and never the other way around.
6. Organizing is not linear
It would be very convenient if we could sit down, write out a timetable for how and when we want to take on bosses and landlords, and then just run through that chain of escalation until we win. But struggle has its ebbs and flows. The tension between workers and the system we live in is always there, and struggles against it are happening even when things look quiet. Sometimes, workers organizing can lay groundwork and build relationships for years- only to see a struggle erupt from a corner they never expected it to. Movements can rapidly escalate, and just as rapidly fade away as things harden into a new equilibrium for a while.
When workers organize, we need to learn how to navigate these booms and busts in struggle. Ignoring them means not standing with our fellow workers when they’re taking on the boss and need us. But, just tailing them without a longer term plans doesn’t build power. When struggles erupt, we offer our honest solidarity and work alongside the workers launching these struggles. We offer our knowledge and experience while listening to and learning from others. If the movement makes gains, we push as far as people are willing to go. If the movement declines or is repressed, we protect each other through the decline, and gather our strength and the lessons we learned for next time.
Workplace and Social Mapping
An important tool for understanding how power works in a workplace or in housing, is to make a social map. There are many different ways to do this.
Workplace and Housing Mapping
Mapping out the physical workplace or the housing that we are organizing helps us recognize patterns, find safe places to talk, and figure out how to best carry out direct actions. Try making a map of your workplace. Ask yourself some of these questions:
– Where are the exits, and entrances?
– What route does a worker from different departments go through during her day?
– How does production happen? Where does the material come from, and where does it go from coming on site to the time it leaves? Where does waste go? Where would stopping the work gum up the works?
– How does the boss keep tabs on people? Are there cameras? Patrolling supervisors? Key fobs that track people in and out of the site? See our supplementary guide, Workplace Surveillance.
– Who works together?
– Where do people hang out? Do people meet informally in the workplace, or outside?
– For tenant organizing, where in the apartment or neighborhood do neighbors actually see each other and talk?
– For tenants, what other properties does the landlord own? You can find this out through tax records, often- or looking at their websites’ listing of sites. Be aware that properties might be owned through shell companies or business partners.
Some workplaces are much more complex or distributed than others. These can still be mapped, and mapping them is often even more important. If the work is all done online, try mapping out the lines of communication and the connections between the workspaces. For transit workers, think about what routes are busier at what times, or where the transit hubs are in the city. For construction workers, try mapping your job site, but also think of how this fits into the bigger picture of development in the area.
There is no such thing as an un-organized workplace. Every workplace has an intentional organization imposed by the boss, and ways that workers organize our relationships to each other. Because organizing is about transforming relationships, it’s important to revisit and re-draw the social chart repeatedly as you organize. Try making a social map of your workplace or apartments.
– What are the social groups? Who are friends with each other? Who do people go to for advice? Who carpools together? Who smoke together? Who hangs out after work? Who watches each others’ kids or has each other over for dinner?
– Are there potentials for conflict, like people passing the buck on to each other, disrupting each others’ work, former lovers, or bigots? In tenant organizing, are people having noise complaints or other problems with each other?
– Do workers see each other at work? Who works which shift, in which department? Who is full time or part time? Who is new here? Does everyone work for the same company? For workers who are split between different crews, shifts, or work remotely from each other, you might need to actually create space for people to meet.
– Looked for racial and gender divides in the workplace. In many workplaces, racial tensions are used as an intentional way of keeping workers divided from us. Are different shifts in a slaughterhouse mostly staffed by different immigrant groups? Is the back of the house at a restaurant more black than the front of the house? At a construction site, are some Trades mostly white men, while others have more women or people of color? Think about how people are organized by age, religion, language, immigration status.
– Is there a high turnover or a lower turnover at this job? High turnover often means that workers are agitated but able to find other jobs and be replaced quickly, and might not build strong relationships on the job. In higher turnover industries, it’s often more effective to organize the workforce across many shops at once- this is what construction and longshore unions are modeled on, and can also be called a “corridor campaign.”
– What relationships do the workers have to the community around them? Teachers often have a strong relationship with their community, though in black communities with largely white teachers there might be more tension. Nonprofit workers often find that community members are confused about why they are “attacking” the nonprofit they work for when they assert themselves as workers. Mining or oil workers might have a complicated relationship with communities that look to them for jobs and economic stimulus but also suffer environmental consequences. Do workers at this workplace send their kids to the same school, or go to the same church together? Who lives near each other? Who grew up together?
– What is the structure of the company? Is it a contractor, or subcontractor? A small business? A franchise? Is a landlord a small landlord, or a bigger developer? Do they use a property management firm? Who has the power to give in to demands?
– Is there a union in the workplace? Is it responsive to the needs of the workers? What sort of relationship does it have with the boss?
Workplaces tend to have people who are existing social leaders. Generally, we want to have the social leaders of different social groups on our side, because these leaders can influence the people around them to support our organizing. When building committees, it’s powerful to include social leaders from across the social groups in the workplace from early on.
When we are talking about social leaders, we don’t mean bosses. Sometimes, a boss or supervisor might be popular. Even when they are, their material interests are fundamentally at odds with ours as workers- we can’t trust them to support our organizing when the chips are down. Not every person who is highly supportive of the campaign is going to be a social leader- someone might be very supportive of forming a union or making the union more militant, but actually be a bit of an outcast from other workers. You can help such a person make better relationships with their coworkers, but be sure not to overlook the “organic” social leaders. Not every social leader is going to be someone we actually WANT on our side. Some leaders are leaders because they are bullies, or even bigots. If a social leader is very toxic, or if they are against the organizing we are doing and can’t be swayed, it’s better to work around them, or try to sideline them.
Social leaders tend to be:
– Popular or well liked
– The one people go to for advice
– A person whose opinion people value
– Someone who organizes events outside of work
– Someone with seniority (but not always!)
As we organize, it’s important to get contact information for workers- phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. We need this, because as a campaign heats up, we need to be able to reach many workers and have conversations with them– and the boss is NOT going to be happy to give militant workers this contact information.
Because organizing is based in trust, it’s best to get this contact information in the most honest ways we can. As much as you can, form the kind of relationships and friendships with coworkers that would involve having contact info- these are the people we spend most of our waking hours with. We should be friends if we can.
But, nobody can be good friends with everyone at work, and even a very diverse committee won’t have everyone’s contact info. There are “sneaky” ways to get the contact information that the boss already has access to, and even that playing field. The boss probably has a directory of everyone’s contact info on hand, which a worker could get their hands on. Company trash might have addresses and information on it. You can ask for people’s contact information on a flimsy pretense, or even organize an event just to get someone’s contact information. Kids’ school fundraisers are a great way to get people to order some pizzas or chocolate and give their address and contact information. Petitions are another way. Be aware that if you get someone’s contact info under sneaky circumstances, you should be prepared to explain yourself if they ask why you did that.
Building the Committee
Organizing is about relationships, and the most important tool for workers trying to organize is the face to face conversation. Sitting down with a coworker or a neighbor is the time when we can ask what problems they’re facing, what risks they’re willing to take to address it, what needs they have or what they can offer to others. It’s a place to see and hear another working class person as a person.
The one on one conversation isn’t about lecturing someone on your plans or recruiting them into a role we’ve already decided for them. We are not here to be “the Organizers” who tell everyone else what to do- we’re here as workers and tenants organizing with each other. So, the one-on-one conversation is mostly about listening. Some workers who organize call this the 80/20 rule– the person taking on the role of organizer should talk about 20% of the time, mostly asking clarifying questions, and let the other person talk most of the time. This is not a hard rule. You as a worker or neighbor might have important information you need to get across. A person you’re having a one on one with might need to ask some real questions to you, for them to know where you’re at. But the 80/20 number is less important than the spirit of the rule- the one on one conversation is a place to listen. Working class movements are strongest when working class people have real ownership over them, and that starts with being heard.
When we talk organizing, we need to earn and build each other’s trust. This is important, because for a group of working class people to take direct action together, we need to know what people’s needs are, what our vulnerabilities are. Building trust can mean talking about things we normally don’t talk about in light conversation. In an organizing conversation, we might talk about the worst experiences we’ve had with work or with housing. Or, we might talk about our fears about what could happen if we don’t change things, or what a boss or landlord might do if we try to change things and fail. We might give honest opinions about people in our workplace, our community, or other circles- who we trust, who we have questions about. When we organize, we need to ask these questions.
We need to build the one-on-one into a place where we feel comfortable asking for and offering help, or imagining how to totally transform our work or our community. If having shared problems is the root of solidarity, building trust between us is what lets us spin that shared problem into our shared power.
There are a few parts that an organizing conversation might want to include. Again these are not hard rules, but suggestions.
Agitate – When we say agitate, we mean being honest about our problems and how we feel about them. Agitate means “stirring up”. So often, our problems with the people in power above us are suppressed. We keep our heads down and bury those feelings under a layer of civility. When we agitate, we’re asking questions that prod at those frustrations. How does it feel to not be able to make plans with your family, because the company won’t tell you your schedule until the day before? What does it feel like to work so hard to pay the rent, then have your home sit there neglected because the landlord won’t make repairs? How does it feel not to be heard by the people with the power and the money? In an agitational conversation, we are overturning the barriers we usually put up on these feelings, and making space for each other to talk about them.
Educate – When we educate each other, we’re looking to understand the reasons we’re exploited, what resources we have to fight back, and how to use them. This can mean answering the questions that the social mapping exercise tries to answer. Or, it can mean researching what rights we’re supposed to have and if there’s any enforcement of those rights. Education can mean looking into the boss’s or landlord’s cash flow and finding pressure points we can put on it. A huge part of education is looking into ways people have already tried to fight back in situations like this, and figuring out what worked and why.
Inoculate – When a doctor inoculates a person with a vaccine, they’re introducing a little bit of a virus, to help our bodies build up an immune system that recognizes the real virus and knows how to respond. So, when we inoculate each other, we’re discussing what consequences might come, so we can prepare for them. One tool for doing this is a threat model – a process where we identify ways that we are vulnerable, how likely it is, and how we can protect ourselves from it. For example, if we are planning to do a work slowdown at a restaurant, we might know that the boss could fire someone, but he’s not likely to because we’re already short-staffed. But, if he fires any person, maybe we plan to sit down in the kitchen and not work until that person gets hired back. Or, maybe we put someone who really can’t afford to take the risk (like a coworker who is expecting another kid soon and needs this job, or someone who has a hard time finding work because of their record or documentation) somewhere on the line where their work is being slowed down by the slowdown in front of them- so they can claim they’re not trying to work slow. Maybe instead of firing someone, the boss is more likely to retaliate by taking away something nice, like the free meal he usually gives workers. So, we all just go have a meal at someone’s house, away from the boss, to talk about our next moves! We can think of creative ways to respond to a boss or a landlord retaliating against us, but only if we talk it through. That’s inoculation.
Organize – Organizing is when we decide how we’re going to relate to each other, and what we’re going to do. When people have identified their grievances, know what they can do about them, considered the risks and how to overcome them, and are ready to take action, they are organized. Someone can be organized without being a formal member of an organization- and can be a member without really being organized. What is important is that they are acting in solidarity with fellow working class people in a common struggle. For a workplace or tenant campaign, a good way to cement someone as organized is to ask them to do work on behalf of the struggle- like taking part in a direct action, having an organizing conversation with a coworker, or bringing food to a meeting. As people take on more of the work of the struggle and carry out actions together, they tend to grow in trust, confidence, and skill- and our power as workers grows.
Growing Through Struggle
One of the important rules for organizing a direct action is to know what pressure you realistically can bring to bear on your boss, landlord, or other target, and what you can’t- and how much your strongest effort can realistically hit them where it hurts, in their wallet.
This determines the upper end of what we can demand. The cost of giving in generally has to be less than the cost of weathering the worst we can throw at someone.
Our long game, then, is to win victories that grow the confidence, support, and trust that any given group of workers or tenants has with each other, and our skill at confronting capital. Hopefully, this sets the stage for being able to carry out stronger actions that can win greater demands. This is why most campaigns have a chain of escalation- starting out with smaller demands and less disruptive actions, and growing towards larger demands and more disruption.
The flip side is that canny bosses and landlords know this, and are often willing to eat heavy losses up front just to avoid giving into demands, so that they can defeat or weaken a union or other mutual defense organization. For example, when the MNA nurses at Allina hospitals went on strike in 2016, the hospital spent much more on scabs and public relations to break the strike, than they would have spent giving in to the nurses’ demands. The point was to weaken the union.
Some forms of organization have much more power than others. Workers organized on the shop floor and able to shut it down by withdrawing their labor (also, tenants able to withdraw their rent) have much more power than a group of people who can only shame a boss or call for a boycott- we have power where we intersect with capital, because our labor makes “the money crop” grow. Organizations that have the ability to defend themselves (from legal charges, intimidation, evictions, etc) are able to punch well above their weight class, compared to organizations with lots of members but no defense ability. Organizations do well when they’re able to act in a united way, and also when people in the organization feel a real sense of ownership over their own struggle.
It’s crucially important to know the power a group can bring to bear, and to regularly practice bringing that power to bear. It’s also crucially important to maintain credibility by never making empty threats or over-stating your power- either to capital, to coworkers or neighbors, or to yourself.
It is also important to know how much the boss or landlord can actually afford to give as a concession, and what tactics pressure them most effectively. For example, a landlord who already owns the building they are renting out and is not paying a mortgage, has much more ability to waive rent- but because they are less reliant on that rent, they might also be less pressured by a rent strike. The workers at a small, poorly run cafe might find it easy to organize against their boss, but hard to demand higher pay because the business is not doing well. Workers at a construction contractor may find it easier to demand higher wages, if that’s a demand that the labor movement is organizing to enforce across all of the competitors, too. Because businesses are under pressure of competition from each other, a worker committee isolated in a single shop will have limits to what it can demand, even if it is very well organized and militant. Organizing as workers across a group of competing businesses allows us to make stronger demands in each of them.
Sometimes, we can lower the cost of giving in to our demands and make it easier for the boss to say yes. For example, the workers in a shop might want a supervisor fired who is abusive to other workers, but the boss says that he can’t find anyone else with that supervisor’s skill on a specific piece of software. The committees could find someone with that skill, or a worker could offer to learn it. When making these kinds of compromises, remember that these are tactical deals made to get the concessions workers need- even when we make deals with the boss, the relationship between labor and capital is still basically one of exploitation.
It is important for people who are organizing with their coworkers or neighbors to not assume that the organizer knows what problems people want to take on. Maybe you want to push for higher wages right away, but your coworkers see the lack of air conditioning in the warehouse as a bigger priority. Sometimes, different groups in the workplace will have different grievances. In a restaurant, maybe the servers want to get rid of a creepy manager who won’t stop making inappropriate comments, while the main priority for the kitchen staff is to get a non-slip mat near the deep fryer. If you’re trying to build solidarity across a whole workplace or housing complex, it’s important to listen to people from all over the workplace or the apartment building, and include demands that reflect many different people’s needs.
We can build our committees and networks in the workplace and community, when we choose grievances that build bridges between different groups. For example, consider a delivery company where the boss is waiting for the few old mechanics to retire, and refuses to hire new ones- because when the last one retires, he can get rid of their bargaining unit with their union. So, the truck drivers are working with faulty trucks, which is dangerous. Perhaps the truckers could demand that the trucks be repaired, and get the mechanics’ union on board with this by demanding more mechanics be hired. If the boss is determined to break the mechanics’ union, and this demand would cost a lot, the committee might need to first build bridges with the sorters in the warehouse- for example, by making a demand that the sorting speed be reduced so workers will be at less risk of injury, or that the temperature conditions in the warehouse be kept to workable levels. Another example of building grievances across groups in a workplace, could be a mostly white teachers and support staff fighting for the job of a black teacher who is being disciplined for an “unprofessional” black hairstyle. Or, a group of mostly male construction workers demanding that a woman’s job be available for her to return to after her maternity leave.
When mapping out a chain of escalation in a campaign, try thinking of what connections you want to form through struggle, and how those connections would make the committee more powerful. If there are easy-to-win grievances that effect multiple groups in the workplace, these can make ideal early grievances to win by involving people from those groups. This would put the committee on a stronger foundation by including a broader cross-section of the workplace from the beginning.
Building Trust and Ownership
A working class organization is only as strong as the participation of its members. While nonprofits funded by grants or the state can hire staff to keep programs running even with few volunteers from the community, our organization is funded only by our members and runs on our participation even more than our funds.
In a healthy organization, work is spread around between a lot of people, and the people doing the work bring new ideas and take an active role in shaping the direction of the work. In unhealthy groups, a small handful of people do most of the work, especially work that they take on because nobody else will volunteer for it. These few people get burned out, while other people who join the organization drift away because they can’t plug in, or don’t feel like they have a real voice in the group.
Participation isn’t just about sustaining the work; participation is the point of the work. Our goal isn’t only to win victories, but to win in ways that grow our skill, memory, confidence, and power as the working class. People do not typically grow more able to fight for ourselves when our role is limited to voting someone into power or watching a lawyer argue our case for us. Participation in direct action and democratic decision making is what drives the transformation both of our relationships and ourselves.
In many volunteer groups, a handful of people do most of the work. Frequently, this group is drawn from the more educated people, the people with more free time, and people who are ideologically committed to the cause of the group. This often means that the people doing most of the work, and making most of the decisions, are from a wealthier or more privileged background- and often are younger. Not only might those organizers not have the same perspective or even interests as most of the organization, but they will frequently attract other people like them to the organization- while alienating other people. Allowing too few people to take on too much work also makes it hard to hold those people accountable if they become “irreplaceable.”
Identify barriers that stop people from participating. If you want your organization to be inclusive to parents, try to provide child care at meetings and events. If you are holding meetings in a space that isn’t accessible to people who use wheelchairs, you can expect that people in wheelchairs won’t be in your group. Translators can be important to people who don’t speak English as their first language. Having meeting locations near public transport, or providing carpools, allows more people to come.
Some barriers to access can be cultural, and even come from “progressive” culture. A major problem in American activist circles is casual anti-working class attitudes, or making fun of rural poor people or people from the South. Another is very specific or academic jargon. Sometimes, expectations around “nonviolent communication” or certain ways of “performing” safety can police way poorer people talk and act. Building a culture in our organizations that is comfortable for activists but uncomfortable for other working class people is a sure way to recruit only other activists, and keep our networks small and powerless.
When people join an organization, it’s important to help them find where they fit into the work. Be sure to give people the overview of what different organizing projects are doing, and what help they need. Find out what their interests are and what they’d like to help with.
If you are a newer member, try “going where the work is” and volunteering your help. For more involved members, practice delegating work. Sometimes it takes more work to train someone up on how to do something, or to watch them screw up a few times- but it is a more sustainable strategy that doing it all yourself. For volunteer stewards of the organization, it’s important to keep in touch with members and find out if they are involved in any work, have capacity to get involved, or have any needs they need help with- and to keep tabs on what projects need help.
It’s important to value all kinds of work, not only the glamorous work. Giving people recognition for doing childcare, financial work, being great listeners, and other crucial skills communicates that the work is valued and worth doing. It’s also important for social leaders in a group to recognize and admit when they might be wrong, and to give newer members props for good ideas.
Think carefully about how power and decision-making are structured in the group. Are specialists with specific skills, like accounting, in charge of what work is done and what money is spent? Or do they carry out the democratically decided instructions of the membership? To enter into a decision-making role, does a person have to volunteer to take on lots of extra paper work or hours of volunteer labor? Who does this keep out of those roles? Are officers limited by term limits? Can they be recalled instantly?
“Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.”– Utah Phillips
One of the most important things that we can do as workers organizing is to study the lessons other workers have learned in struggle, add our own lessons to it, and pass it on. When we keep these lessons alive and evolving, we create a living consciousness of ourselves as a class of workers. Groups that pass on institutional knowledge can avoid reinventing the wheel and making dangerous mistakes.
Here are several tools for building and passing on knowledge.
Sharing our skills: As the working class, we have all the skills already. But, most of us specialize in just a few skills and do that as our jobs. It can be powerful to share our skills with other workers so more people can contribute to the movement. What job or life skills do you have, that could be useful to organizing and struggle? What skills do you wish you had? What kind of worker might have those?
Debriefing and Reportbacks: After any major action, it’s important to have a quick meet-up and discuss what went well, and what didn’t. Did you meet your goals? What unexpected challenges came up? Did anyone perform really well? Does anyone need to be talked to about their conduct? What can be done differently next time? If possible, create a written report of this conversation, so people who can’t make it can learn from the action. Reportbacks can also be made about entire campaigns- and reading reportbacks from previous campaigns is a great way to learn.
Trainings: If there are skills you want many people in the group to learn- like canvassing, picketing, organizing, how to carry out shop floor actions, or so on- consider developing or finding an existing training that teaches this skill. If you think you’ll have to give the training more than once, think about having someone learn to give the training and have an in-house trainer.
Mentorship: For developing organizing skills, a mentor relationship is one of the most valuable. Mentors can provide a consistent framework and voice for organizing, while shaping that advice to the specific circumstances you are facing. If you’re new at organizing, consider finding a mentor and helping them with the work they’re doing. If you’ve been organizing and learned a lot, consider mentoring someone else.
Guides: Guides, like this one, can pass on knowledge. Remember that people have different learning styles; some people will find an audio or video guide more useful than a written guide.
Intergenerational Organizing: None of the struggles we are in are new. Workers have fought back against bosses, landlords, and all the tricks and brutality of the ruling class for generations. Many older people in our communities may have experience in struggle somewhere in their past. Building a movement that is inclusive to older people allows their knowledge to be available – and lets the currently younger people to stay in the movement longer as they gain experience.
Ebbs and Flows
Most of the time, the struggle between the classes isn’t obvious- workers work, bosses get richer, and the “class war” looks pretty one sided. Some people might stand up to the boss on a small issue, or just try to slack off at work- but the tension is more of a whisper than a roar.
During these times, the most militant workers in a workplace or tenants in a neighborhood can often find ourselves isolated. It’s important not to be- these are the times that we nurture the relationships that we’ll rely on when the chips are down. You can get to know the people you work with or live around. It’s important, during the slow times, not to let our knowledge or our culture of resistance slip away. Remember that power is a muscle, and has to be exercised. Workers who only take direct action during a strike will not be as prepared as workers who regularly take direct action to deal with grievances at work.
Every struggle has a trigger- something that sets the conflict in motion and unleashes the tension that’s been lying dormant in the slow time. Maybe the management puts an unpopular new policy in place, or announces a plant closure, or the end of the contract is coming. Maybe a tenant finally got sick of having her notices about needed repairs go un-answered and decided to take action. Or, perhaps an act of police brutality was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and a community rises up. The eruption doesn’t necessarily come from the most militant workers. In fact, it often doesn’t- in these moments, the people most directly affected by the problem are often the most active and willing to confront power, even if they don’t consider themselves political. Militant workers here run a risk of missing (or dismissing) the eruption- not thinking the struggle being launched is important, especially if it doesn’t fit in with our existing ideas of what the real important issue is going to be, or our speculative plans and timetables for escalation. Other militant workers try to approach the new movement, but push their own agenda. This burns trust. Remember that organizing is about finding out what our shared goals are, and respecting other people’s goals and grievances. When a struggle erupts, it’s important for militant workers to support the demands that we can get behind, fight hard for them, and advocate for our own demands if we can make the case to others that those demands are in their shared interests, too.
Escalation and Peak
As movements get rolling, they can spread in unexpected ways. A march by women demanding bread, a protest after the self-immolation of a small time merchant, or a group of school kids resisting a subway fare hike have all been the sparks that set off revolutionary movements. An event can speak to people’s long-buried frustrations and agitate them to the surface, giving us the willingness to trust each other enough to take risks and fight back.
In recent decades, the way that the ruling class in the US responds to protest movements tends to be with a two-pronged “counter-insurgency” strategy of repression and co-optation. Many large nonprofit activist groups in the US are funded by the same funds linked to the major political parties, especially the Democratic Party, and usually approach social movements with the goal of moving the action off the streets and into the ballot box. These organizations will typically arrive to a developing movement, try to form ties with figures who are organizing or put their own activists at the front of the movement, and then de-escalate the movement. A line is usually drawn between “good” and “bad” protestors, with police violence directed at people in the movement who are not falling in line with what the official leaders say.
For militant workers, the phase of escalation for a movement might see the established political machine try to lock us into their agenda, or lock us out of the movement entirely. Staying active and building deeper relationships of trust and cooperation with the regular people on the front lines of the movement is important. If our groups or networks start getting a lot more people involved, it’s important that we work hard to integrate new people into our work and give them trainings- otherwise, work imbalance and burnout can set in very quickly.
As a movement grows, people in struggle together need a way to make collective decisions. As we covered in “Why We Organize”, a completely un-organized resistance is easier to repress — or to co-opt by claiming to provide leadership. One way we can build people’s ownership and involvement over our own struggle, is to call for general assemblies. A general assembly is a mass meeting of all the workers in a strike, or the tenants in a fight with their landlord, or people involved in a movement. The assembly can provide a way for everyone to get involved in discussing the struggle, bringing up needs that might otherwise go overlooked, and participating in it actively, rather than passively. For a great example of the use of general assemblies, read “Anarcho-Syndicalism in Puerto Real”, from the “Digging Deeper” list.
Eventually, most movements decline. The people involved in them might win some concessions that satisfy them enough to rest. Often, the more moderate elements of the movement will be offered some sort of seat at the table with the power structure, while more radical elements are targeted for repression or retaliation. For workers who have put our hearts and souls into a struggle, the decline can be a very dangerous time. We might face firings, evictions, or legal charges- and the work of defending people who stuck their necks out is crucial here. Beyond the dangers from those in power, we also face a high risk of burnout and depression. Many groups face infighting as frustrated activists have different ways to try to move forward, or blame each other for the problems they are facing. There is also a risk of people turning more militant out of desperation, and trying actions that are ultimately futile. When a movement is in decline, it is important that we stick together, practice care for one another, and protect each other from retaliation. If we can do that, we can enter the next “slow period” stronger, and prepared for the next struggle.
When we build power enough to resist repression and start putting in place our own solutions and new institutions, we may enter a state that is called “dual power”. In dual power, the institutions of the workers, tenants, or other oppressed group is competing with the institutions of the bosses for control- over the workplace, the housing, even over a country. This is an unstable situation, and eventually tends to be resolved through conflict, and one side establishing its power. For us, this means taking ownership of land, housing, and capital for ourselves as working class people. When workers win, and take power over something from capitalists, we are faced with new dilemma- how to survive as a liberated territory in a capitalist world. Often times, workers take power at companies or even in whole countries where the situation is already bad. For examples, workers might take over a closed down factory or a failing company from an incompetent boss who is driving it into the ground. Then, we have to figure out not only how to structure the new relationships we have without bosses- we also have to figure out how to turn the sinking ship around! We often find that when we liberate just one business or area, we are still disciplined by the market itself, forcing us into competition with businesses that will ruthlessly exploit workers to cut costs. Faced with these pressures, a lot of worker-run firms have to take on more and more exploitative practices to keep up.
The key is making connections with other liberated workplaces, zones, and territories, and expanding the struggle. Isolation can destroy a revolutionary project, whether as small as one cooperative or as large as a country. If we connect with other revolutionary projects, we can practice mutual aid, help each other develop, and defend each other from attempts to take power back for the bosses.