Practicing Scales

The day after Obama was first elected, in 2008, I had a deep sinking feeling, and was incredibly depressed all day. Don’t get me wrong — the night before I was caught up in all of the excitement of, among other things, a Democrat winning Virginia and North Carolina, and a sense that a small but significant victory had been won over white supremacy. But while Obama had always been pretty clear that he was a candidate of the center-right — he was just going to be smarter about pursuing imperialism abroad and austerity at home than Bush was — I could just see the widespread politicization and popular mobilization that characterized the last few years of the Bush administration dissolving into vagues “hopes” for “change.” Having been a Reagan-era kid who was caught up in the excitement of Clinton’s election in 1992 (as, I might add, the first president from the modern working class), I had seen this movie before.

This time around, I am cautiously optimistic that things will be better. The labor movement seems to understand the need to fight the austerity measures being proposed by both parties in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the remnants of Occupy (still organized enough to do a better job than FEMA in Hurricane Sandy relief) are not exactly lining up for cabinet positions, and the sector of the left that I identify with most strongly — the independent community- and worker-based organizations that make up such alliances as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice and Jobs with Justice — seem to be very clear on the need to both maintain independence from the Democratic party while building broad alliances.

However, none of this really matters if we can’t, as it’s often put, “organize to scale.” Having been in and around conversations on this question as a staff person at NDWA, a leader and strategist at the Vermont Workers Center, and a pretty much lifelong member of the United Electrical Workers union, I thought now would be an opportune time to put down some of my thoughts on, um, paper.

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1. Relevance

One line of thinking about “organizing to scale” looks at the organizations which have scale — trade unions, churches, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, etc. — and focuses on their relevance to people’s day to day lives. Unions represent workers in their dealings with their bosses, churches provide a sense of community, address spiritual needs and increasingly act as the only social safety net around (as public programs are defunded), Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services, the NRA gives people access to gun safety classes, shooting ranges, etc. The American Association of Retired Persons is, essentially, an insurance program. These organizations collectively have millions of members, and can still wield significant power in the electoral arena.

I think that in some sense, this analysis is spot-on. For a dozen years, I worked in a small shop with fairly high turnover. The likelihood that any of my co-workers would have ever gotten involved in any “movement” activities through their own social networks, or through being leafletted or door-knocked, is, I think, pretty small. The union gives us three things. First, it gives people an experience of collective action through the grievance and bargaining process. Second, it essentially forces people to take on leadership roles (“someone’s gotta step up and be the steward, people”). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it gives us a shared cultural context and identity which allows a college-educated dorky political guy in his 30s to engage younger hipsters and older working-class folks in political discussion and action.

But I think that, in a deeper sense, this analysis is deeply un-historical. Quite simply, trade unions, churches, Planned Parenthood and the NRA did not get to be the size that they are by behaving the way they currently behave. If that were the case, they’d still be growing, right? — something that is most emphatically not happening to the labor movement. We can rightly fault the particular weaknesses of the American labor movement, but the reality is that labor movements are in crisis throughout most of the world. *(but more on the recent growth of mega-churches below)

This is not to say that the existing mass organizations (trade unions especially) should not continue to try to organize, or that our smaller, more ideological and grassroots organizations shouldn’t try to figure out ways to be more relevant to our members’ (and potential members’) day-to-day lives. We should just think carefully about how we’re doing that — and we should be especially wary of strategies that rely on, essentially, modern mass-marketing techniques.

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2. Participation

The labor movement couldn’t have grown by offering workers collective bargaining and grievance handling — before collective bargaining was widely established (in the railroads in the late 19th/early 20th century, in mass industry in the 40s, in the public sector in the 70s, etc.), unions simply didn’t have the power to “offer” representation to workers. While there are some unions that can organize this way in some industries today through card-check agreements, or political deals, anyone who has been through a knock-down drag-out organizing campaign — especially any successful one — knows that the one thing that is absolutely essential to organizing is a strong, representative organizing committee of committed leaders from inside the shop, who know and can move their co-workers.

I’m most familiar with the labor history of the CIO, which established collective bargaining in America’s mass production industries in the 1930s and 1940s — and this pattern certainly holds. We frequently complain about how hard it is to organize workers under our “broken labor law” — and certainly the psychological sophistication of the multi-million-dollar union-busting industry is much greater now than it was then — but the reality is that workers in the 30s on the whole faced much more difficult conditions and “stuck with the union” for much longer, with much less in the way of “services,” than we expect workers to do today. When my union, the UE, was founded in 1936, only one of the seventeen independent locals that gathered in Buffalo to form a new union in their industry had a contract. The United Auto Workers — founded a year earlier — didn’t win a collective bargaining agreement with Ford until 1941, and only after suffering, among other things, direct violence at the hands of company goons.

What kept folks going? There’s a variety of theories (and different unions had different organizational cultures), but crucial to the initial organizing of UE locals — much of which was initially underground, kept secret from the boss — was a structure of stewards organizing small groups of workers in each department. To this day, UE policy is that there should be a minimum of one steward for every ten workers, and some shops have even more.

These stewards were not people who “enforced the contract” — there was no contract initially — or navigated a bureaucratic grievance procedure. They were, fundamentally, rank and file workers who stepped up and took responsibility for leading a small group of their co-workers, in manageable tasks such as collecting dues and, frequently, organizing direct, collective confrontations with the foreman in the department. Numerous oral histories testify to the importance of these confrontations — of, in modern left-speak, people participating in their own collective liberation — in maintaining loyalty to the union.

These stewards networks in the UE and in the early UAW (and in many other industrial unions) not only kept the union alive when it had little to “offer” its members, they also created a culture of vibrant democracy within the unions and opportunities for women and workers of color to step up to leadership at a time when local officers were almost always white men. It was precisely the establishment of collective bargaining (and, it must be said, the eagerness of many union leaders to be incorporated into the power structures of the capitalist state) that, in most unions, turned the steward from a leader into a bureaucrat, and, in many unions like the UAW, eliminated their shop-floor power altogether.

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3. (counter-)Culture

My wife grew up in the Church of Christ (not to be confused with the liberal United Church of Christ). She was never a liberal, she pretty much went directly from Republican-voting Christian to Marxist. We often talk about how for her, growing up in a culture that had a strong sense of values that countered the materialism of the dominant culture made it a lot easier for her to recognize the deep inhumanity of capitalism, once exposed to a Marxist critique of it. (To be transparent, the other members of her family are all over the map, politically).

Similarly, when I think about why the UE is so different from the rest of the American labor movement, and had such a transformative effect on me, there are plenty of structural reasons, sure — the ongoing commitment to a grassroots steward system, strict rules on preserving democracy within the union, frequent opportunities for local leaders to get together regionally — but I keep coming back to the culture of the organization. As just one example, UE meetings are officially run using Roberts Rule of Order, but they are far more participatory than many of the lefty “convergences” and “spokescouncils” and so forth I’ve been at that are run through consensus, with lots of agreements and ground rules and sitting in circles and so forth. This, I think, because there is a deep culture of leadership which sees the role of the person with the gavel as facilitating discussion and building consensus.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the UE’s organizational culture is the end-all and be-all; it is a culture that comes out of industrial trade unionism, and I don’t think that trade unionism alone is going to get us where we need to go. But I think we need to think about organizational culture seriously, and especially think about how it connects to broader cultural struggles.

We talk a lot about “culture” on the left, while simultaneously bemoaning how we don’t incorporate it enough into our work. But I think we have too narrow an understanding of culture. We frequently have an admiring but ultimately utilitarian and tokenizing relationship to artists or “cultural workers” — we open our meetings with the reading of a poem, or have a mural painted on our building, or ask musicians to play benefits for our organization. Or we get everyone singing — before we get down to the “real job” of presenting a panel discussion or hashing out who is going to be overworked by how much at a staff meeting. Or we try to get broader exposure for our issues by linking it to a bit of popular culture or enlisting a celebrity to back our case.

All of which is good, but what we don’t do is see cultural work as the work of transforming how people think, how people see the world and relate to each other.

Social transformation is complex and contradictory, and the tools that we use — leaflets, YouTube videos, online petitions, marches, rallies, occupations and strikes — simply can’t hold all of that complexity and contradiction. At least not the way that stories, music, poetry, and the other arts can. And I think this is important, especially in the current moment when we need to hold both a sense of victory from the elections and a realistic assessment of the Obama administration and the Democrats.

This is not simply an encouragement for “organizers” and “cultural workers” to rethink how we relate to each other — though we should certainly always keep having that conversation. I think we need a deeper conversation about how organizers can think of our work as cultural work, and how (left) cultural workers can think of their work as organizing — and how we can all build a movement, and organizations, that are relevant, participatory and deeply (counter-)cultural.

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One of the pieces I keep thinking about is this New Yorker article about Rick Warren, one of the most successful leaders of the “mega-church” movement. The mega-churches (unlike the unions, or the traditional churches) have actually been growing, and most importantly, they have been growing in the places that most embody the tearing-apart of the social fabric that has been characteristic of neoliberalism. You should go read the whole article, but what I take from it is that mega-churches combine all three of the elements I discussed above – relevance (meeting people’s needs for community, spirituality and frequently for material assistance), participation (in small groups, doing manageable tasks), and a strong culture that counters (some aspects of) the dominant materialistic culture of neoliberal America.

Christian mega-churches, of course, benefit from already having one of the most market-tested stories ever told — and one that has, over the millenia, easily adapted itself to not challenging hierarchies. We don’t have anything that can compete. Yet. But that is our challenge.

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