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.
The Chicago Example
Unions in the United States are in decline, for sure. But it doesn’t have to be this way. To see what solidarity and real working-class power look like today, look to the 2012 mass strike called by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the extraordinary worker leaders who led that strike.
Their 2012 strike (and this past April’s one-day walkout involving nearly thirty thousand teachers) demonstrates the promise of working-class power. A strike is a boot camp for learning about solidarity and power. Strikes develop leaders like no single other tool (certainly better than the expensive, feel-good leadership seminars so fashionable in today’s movement). The best labor leaders, like CTU’s Karen Lewis, are fearless and unapologetic, and they are often women of color.
The CTU strike showcased from-the-base organic worker leadership at its best, women and men who exercise all manner of brilliant decision-making and leadership as part of their daily routine: They are educators. When they bring that intelligence and life experience to a fight with the bosses, watch out.
As the CTU’s example shows, the bad news about union decline is also the good news: The biggest factor in the decline of working-class power lies not in the changes we see in contemporary political economy, formidable as they are, but in our own decisions about how to build worker power.
The labor movement was once led by enough people who believed so deeply in the human capacity to act that it would have been unthinkable to speak on workers’ behalf without their participation. But today, among the unions that regularly engage with the broader progressive community — referred to here as “New Labor” — union officials think that they can act alone, working out big problems for the poor benighted masses. Actual workers are not welcome.
New Labor discourages meaningful worker participation. Peter Olney, the longtime organizing director for the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), summed this viewpoint up succinctly when I interviewed him:
Just before the split at the AFL-CIO, the conversations [that New Labor was driving] were about how workers really got in the way of organizing. We [the national organizing directors] would actually sit in rooms, in annual meetings about the state of organizing, and the discussion would be that workers often got in the way of union growth deals.
Twenty years ago, it was obvious to New Labor leaders and everybody else that winning union elections and running strikes was getting more challenging. They declared they would rebuild the ranks of unions by organizing the unorganized. But in this, their most important task, they failed.
Instead, pollsters, public-relations firms, and secret negotiations replaced face-to-face organizing.
These days, New Labor leaders have zeroed in on the lowest-wage sectors of the workforce. Prioritizing the lowest-wage workers as the key strategy for labor’s revitalization is understandable in some respects. Workers’ wages at the lower rungs of the labor market are far too low in this country and need to be raised dramatically, and low-wage workers have long been ignored by much of American labor.
But focusing simply on a workforce because it earns low wages is strategically misguided. It will not succeed in rebuilding organized working-class power in this country on a mass scale. Simply put, workers in some sectors are better placed to build working-class power than others. As power is what’s urgently needed, we need to be focused on organizing those strategically key sectors today.
The brilliant organizers of the CIO understood that within the industrial economy of the mid-twentieth century, steel, coal, and other key industries mattered more than other industries. Within the service economy today, education and health care are the strategic sectors.
For at least the next couple of decades, there can be no exit threat: Schools and colleges, nursing homes and hospitals, clinics, and many other components of the always-changing education and health care delivery system can’t be moved offshore, automated, or relocated from a city to its suburbs or from the North or Midwest to the Sunbelt.
That is why the corporate right is campaigning tirelessly to change the legal structures that govern labor through the cases it brings before the Supreme Court. Immune (for now) to the exit threat, education and health care are also especially strategic terrain for organizing and movement building because of their social and geographic 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.
These workers are still difficult to replace and often (though not always) have some savings in the bank — all factors that enable them to successfully take high-risk actions like real, production-disrupting strikes.
Some unions have organized strikes with these groups of workers in recent years. But perhaps such “strikes” should be put in quotation marks. In my book, a strike happens when the majority of workers walk off the job. But in today’s PR-driven world, unions’ “strikes” are often temporary work stoppages by a few workers, who then stand on the sidewalk handing out leaflets or doing TV interviews.
Unfortunately, this can be seen most clearly in the Fight for 15 campaign, in which workers in most cities are taking incredibly brave action in walking off the job, but aren’t walking off with enough of their coworkers to cause significant disruption to the businesses they’ve left behind.
New Labor likes to claim that it wants to empower workers, but in practice it’s the opposite. The focus on highly vulnerable, easily replaced low-wage workers allows labor movement professionals — people like Workers’ Lab founder, SEIU leader, and media darling David Rolf — to be in charge and stay in charge. Instead, we need people like Karen Lewis in charge.
The Karen Lewises of the working class are smart. They understand that in order to win, solidarity has to be developed not only between workers at work but outside the workplace, too. When Chicago’s teachers struck, they changed Chicago, not just their union.
Like the union organizers of the 1930s, they understood the importance of a broader class struggle — not just the needs of their own members. They built a base both inside and outside the schools through dogged, determined, and methodical work. They’ve raised expectations that the working class deserve more and can win it for themselves if they organize.
To be clear, there are plenty of full-time staff working with the rank-and-file educators in Chicago and elsewhere. The issue is not staff versus the rank-and-file; it’s the roles that staff and members should play in the union. Strikes that involve an overwhelming majority of the workforce rather than a small handful of particularly courageous workers make it easier to ensure that workers themselves are calling the shots and that staff are there to support them. But in the always hostile workplace terrain, it does take experienced staff to nurture and prepare workers to build toward and succeed at real strikes.
We need to go back to whole-worker organizing.
This is what got the goods back in the days of the CIO. The CTU strike shows that it still works, but so do other recent examples. In eastern Pennsylvania, a small independent union called the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) has pulled off a string of incredible organizing wins without any of the top-down deals of which some other health care unions are so fond.
Health care workers have been picking ferocious fights with the bosses and winning all of them. And PASNAP, like Chicago’s teachers, routinely employs all-out, open-ended strikes where the vast majority of workers decide together to walk off the job.
Winning a strike is not impossible today. It all comes down to a fundamental strategic choice — should we organize and put the levers of power in the hands of ordinary workers, or should we mobilize and put power in the hands of professional staff activists?
Organizing is a high-participation, movement-building, long-term approach that emphasizes building the power of workers to challenge the power of capital; it helps people through a transformative process of self-discovery, leading to the realization that solidarity is both essential and beautiful.
Mobilizing, on the other hand, is a campaign-focused, short-term approach that does not build the kind of power that can change the structure of elite power. It aims to replace bad elites with more responsive ones who can be counted on to say the right things (but, all too often, not do them).
Mobilizing has gone from being one of the tools in the organizer’s toolkit — like big flag-wielding demonstrations — to being labor’s weapon of choice. Organizing is based on the already existing worker leaders, not professional activists, paid staff, and other do-gooders. They might do a lot of good, but they are not building worker power. The job of staff is to help the already existing worker leaders learn to organize, not substitute their own too-clever-by-half PR schemes for genuine worker leadership.
New Labor, following the example of community organizer Saul Alinsky and his acolytes in the labor movement, has created a model where the full-time organizer is not a leader who answers to the thousands of grassroots people they recruit, but a professional staff person primarily accountable to their supervisor or national leadership.
They call it “organizing,” but the results speak for themselves: Staff organizers and official leadership are mostly unaccountable to union members, and unions and workers are weaker now in relation to the owners of capital than at any time in the past century.
Separating something called “community organizing” from the unitary process of class organizing both at work and at home bastardized the original CIO model. That model brought class into the community through the workers themselves. A one-dimensional view of workers as solely workers, rather than as whole people, limits good organizing and prevents organic worker leaders from effectively building power in every aspect of their lives.
In previous periods of working-class strength, workers built these relationships inside and outside the workplace. William Z. Foster devotes an entire chapter of his 1936 pamphlet 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,” for example, Foster argues, “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.” Foster also argued that the union should set up committees inside ethnic and other community-based organizations “in order to systematically recruit their steel worker members” into the steelworkers’ union.
The CIO’s organizing methods incorporated an appreciation of power inside and outside the workplace. They were systematic about the broader community in which the workers lived. Yet today, most good unions that organize inside the shop mobilize outside it, in the broader community — deep inside, shallow outside. It’s as if they can’t see the full extent of the battlefield or the vastness of their army.
These relationships, built by workers with the support of staff — not by the staff themselves — can help build the power of the working class through a mutually supportive relationship that improves the union’s visibility and reputation and the power of the broader working class.
Sadly, even the few unions that are strong on workplace organizing leave the community work to activists who are not intrinsically part of working-class struggle. They end up with “community allies” who are largely symbolic “rent-a-collar” do-gooders, rather than influential leaders in the broader working class and community.
If we want to restore power to the working class, we need to leave behind the false divisions created by mobilizing and get back to whole-worker organizing.
What Teachers’ Unions Teach Us
The success of the war on teachers has been dramatic. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear liberals say that they support unions but not teachers’ unions. In Chicago, the teachers showed that a workplace struggle embedded in a broader community struggle can be transformational for the whole of the working class.
Karen Lewis would never have become a more popular figure than Rahm Emanuel in that city without a successful strike. Chicago changed — not just the teachers, not just the parents, not just the students — and its working class gained real power in an all-out fight for good public schools, led by teachers who care deeply about all aspects of their students’ lives. In the process, the city’s working class also changed its view of teachers, schools, racism, neoliberalism, and the city’s slick neoliberal mayor.
That doesn’t happen through a PR campaign or a mobilizing model. It happens through real organizing by teachers themselves, with their coworkers, with their students and parents, and in their communities.
We have to go back to basics and follow an organizing model that is consistently strong, both inside the workplace and outside the shop, based on the way our forebears did it in the 1930s.
The good and bad news is that there are no shortcuts. If we do it right, we can build power and win. If we don’t, just look to the last few decades of declining union membership and even more rapid shrinking of ordinary people’s power to change their own lives for the better.