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The Red and Black

Everything Old is New Again

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Power comes in many forms, but for the working class it always boils down to the same fundamental ingredient: unbreakable solidarity. In my two decades of organizing across the United States, we almost always win when workers are in the driver's seat. We lose when we forgot about solidarity and think we might succeed with easier, less confrontational activities like lawsuits, policy mobilization, and cozying up to elected officials.

Today's struggle for social change requires the same worker-focused strategies and methods that built enough power to achieve the amazing social and economic gains made by ordinary people from the 1930s through the 1960s. Everything old is new again.

Think the "gig economy" is something fresh and exciting? Think again. It promises (and delivers) the same endless insecurity, lousy benefits, extreme power inequality, and demoralizing treatment faced by our grandparents who labored in the coal mines and garment factories of the 1920s. Granted, the bathrooms are a lot nicer now, and if you work for a tech company you sometimes get free M&Ms.

Workers and worker-organizers in those times knew that they could not address the depredations of ruthless employers without confronting the question of power — both in society at large and on the shop floor itself. Building real workplace democracy is about identifying the already existing, organic leaders of the working class and helping them move into position to successfully lead their coworkers into battle.

The goal is what 1930s-era radical labor organizer William Z. Foster called "systematic mass participation." Building that kind of mass participation should still be the principal goal of rank-and-file and staff organizers today.

The Class Struggle Theory of Power
Capitalism has changed over the past eighty years, but certain things remain the same. People get up in the morning, go to work, and find out that they live in the same old nasty world where you can be fired for any reason — or no reason at all — and someone is always cutting your benefits and messing with your schedule.

The basis for organizing workers today, then, is the same as it's always been. In my years as a labor organizer and negotiator, I do this by adhering to a class struggle theory of power, in which I identify and mentor organic worker-leaders by engaging in hard fights and constant testing.

I can't do this on the shop floor because paid staff are legally barred from private-sector workplaces before the union is formed (and often through the first contract-negotiations period); I do it by demystifying power and teaching workers how to get it for themselves.

Organizers, whether paid or unpaid, are leaders, defined as people with real followers who trust them and support them — not employees or colleagues. A true leader can only serve with the active support of their community or other workers. Most social-change activists, by contrast, are not organizers.

Organic leaders are ordinary people inside and outside the workplace who are already leaders before anyone sends them to some "leadership development" workshop. These leaders are the essential ingredient to building power by developing unbreakable solidarity — a solidarity that will not back down in the face of adversity and will do what it takes to win.

The most critical skill of an organizer, then, is to be savvy about identifying the most respected workers and persuading them to support the union or fight for any other cause. The role of organizers is to identify the organic leaders and coach them through the inevitable fight with the employer, which is often ugly and difficult. Organizers can only find these leaders by having serious conversations with all of the workers.

By the same token, mass participation only happens when thousands of organic leaders rise up from the ranks and help their fellow workers to understand their own power to change their lives for the better. Any labor organizing strategy that puts power in the hands of consultants, union staff, pollsters, political operatives, or backdoor deal-making by top union leadership is doomed to failure. Unfortunately, this characterizes much of what passes for "organizing" these days, in both labor and community arenas.


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