Misdirection or no direction

There is a lack of direction among today's political groups. This is true for both local groups, as well as the large, well-funded ones (big-box groups), but for different reasons. Some groups are content with just forming and loudly asserting themselves at the right times without actually starting or contributing to anything, others simply do the same thing all the time and wonder why such little progress has been made, and still more have turned themselves into businesses and disengaged with the grassroots.

Here in Richmond, Virginia, I've noticed that only a few local groups have a long-term strategy. The rest just crop up and start fighting the good fight when tension mounts around a popular issue. This isn't to say they don't do things regularly, it's just that the things they do aren't part of a coherent course of action that would help them achieve long and short-term goals. The reasons are different for different groups, but the results are always the same. The group ends up being a small circle of friends who have no impact on the community, no impact on their issue, and end up riding the waves created by other organizations instead of making their own waves. In short, their accomplishments are minimal or non-existent.

Going Nowhere

At the time of writing, I was working with an organization that was trying to improve public transit in Richmond. Their main activity is canvassing bus stops in order to have the bus riders take a survey and give us their contact information. We've been bothering the local bus riders with variations of the same survey for a few years now, but so far we haven't taken any serious action. Unless we decide our political position is survey-ism, then this will get us nowhere. On more than one occasion I have raised the issue of organizing some sort of action that will help build enough momentum around the issue of transit to start a real movement in the city. I like the idea of organizing a town hall, and I don't mean one of those fake town halls that politicians put together. I mean a real meeting of bus riders to discuss the issues and decide on a collective course of action to take after that day. No politicians allowed and no domination by staffers with nice cars.

While this essay will often be highly critical of staff and staff-lead initiatives, members have their rotten moments as well. A few years ago I was involved with a certain local union for school employees which I will leave unnamed to avoid drama. The elected officials of this local held a monthly meeting for themselves and their staff of two (myself and my supervisor). They presented documents detailing the decline in their membership. The meeting was very brief and centered on complaining about their declining numbers. The elected leaders presented no solutions or ideas. My supervisor explained to them that rank-and-file members felt disrespected by the elected union officials because their input wasn’t sought, there were virtually no opportunities to be active within the local, and the officials didn’t do anything to advocate on behalf of educators at city hall or elsewhere. Engagement, activity, and respect were running a deficit. He then explained it could all be turned around if they would put more effort into organizing in the schools and advocacy in the community. He also said members should be listened to and engaged with. The elected leaders refused to listen to him, and concluded the meeting by saying, “I don’t know what we are going to do.” Had I not been in the room for this meeting, I would have laughed at it and swore it was an episode of FX’s Louie with my supervisor unwillingly playing the role of Louis C.K.

Departing from the Grassroots

The big-box groups, on the other hand, either intentionally have no direction or go in a direction that disconnects them from the people. For example, I have a friend who used to intern for a big-box environmentalist organization. Some local activists were putting together a protest outside of a meeting where the governor and other boring people were meeting to discuss various environmentally unfriendly plans. My friend alerted her big-box employers about this with the hope of getting them to endorse the protest. They refused, stating that they don’t want to alienate the liberal governor. Her bosses then went on to criticize the “immaturity” of the young activists organizing the protest. So instead of making good connections with real grassroots leaders, this big-box organization decided to go in a direction that leads away from the people, away from the grassroots. All to avoid hurting the feelings of a politician who clearly didn’t care about them anyway.

The state of most large organizations today is one of separation from the masses. They dress like the bosses and the politicians, but expect the denim-clad workers to relate to their message. They hire staff to do most of the work, and then claim their initiatives are grassroots. Or worse, they wonder why there is a lack of interest from the public while refusing the ideas and any meaningful, creative participation from members of the public. They have sales quotas. The organizing bosses won’t call them that, but that is what they are. The big environmentalist organizations, the unions, and many others all have quotas that their employees need to meet. At this point they aren’t organizers, they are salesmen. They must sign up so many people to the organization each week, or risk being fired. Solicit so many donations a day, or get fired. Get so many petition signatures or get fired. Their staff goes through all of the troubles and abuses that workers in every other sector endure. They go through everything from tracking devices to intimidation and lies (Fuld, 2014).

To make matters worse, the moneyed organizations love jargon. Instead of the campaign having a demand or a goal, it has an “ask.” Instead of a script, it’s a “rap.” Instead of asking someone to join the union, we “call the question.” Where I’m from questions are asked not called and raps are a type of music. Why do we need professional jargon for such things? We don’t, and using pointless jargon only serves to separate an organization from those it is trying to reach. In the minds of those active in, or employed by, the organization, it erects a wall between those in the group and those outside the group.

Fight for 15 campaign.

In his essay “Fast Food Unionism,” Erik Forman (2013) discusses the Fight for 15 campaign and what he calls “the McDonaldization of unions.” This basically means that unions have taken on the structure, culture, and values of their corporate counterparts. Given the information already presented and yet to be presented in this piece, I would say the so-called “grassroots community organizations” have also become McDonaldized. The rhetoric coming from the big unions today is ironic considering that the mainstream of the labor movement refused to even acknowledge the existence of fast food workers until recent years. Forman even mentions being turned down by a local UNITE-HERE leader when asking for support organizing a Starbucks he worked at. The decision to wage a unionization campaign is made not based on solidarity but on typical business calculation (Forman, 2013).

Starting in the 1970s, employers increased their efforts to resist unionization. They really began to lay down the gauntlet for unions in post-New Deal America, but the union bureaucrats refused the challenge and instead attempted to take a business approach, which contributed to not only a decline in unionized workers over the past several decades but also a decline in the average person’s faith in the unions. The unions will cut backroom deals with management and even support corporate legislative agendas in order to get a good deal with upper management. All of this comes at the expense of the rank-and-file, whose input is often excluded from the campaign and even bargaining. The potential of the average member to shut down production and force real concessions from the company is squandered at best if not ignored completely (Forman, 2013).

The current Service Employees International Union-lead “Fight for 15” campaign is nothing more than a spectacle. SEIU leaders will tell you that workers organized themselves and demanded the union’s leadership, but in reality it was all a business plan hatched out in the SEIU boardroom. The $15 an hour living wage demand was not thought up by workers, but by Berlin Rosen PR Firm. The cities targeted for the one-day –strikes were selected not based on need, but based on where SEIU bureaucrats thought they could get the most media attention and gain a push for legislation mandating higher wages. The task of union “organizers” in this campaign isn’t to organize, but to get media attention for a cause and to sell the idea to workers and community members. No permanent infrastructure or organization is left in these workplaces or communities when the campaign moves on to the next city. Often they can’t even get enough workers to support the faux strike, leaving them to substitute naïve activists from the general public in place of the workers. Of course, the purple press releases won’t ever say that (Forman, 2013).

Direction of Spectacle

Money is, unfortunately, a very important thing in every aspect of modern life, and that includes grassroots organizing. Often reputable grassroots organizations will end up having to approach some foundation, the occasional large union, or some other money-pit, hat in hand with the hope of getting some sort of grant. As you may have guessed, this money comes with strings attached.

An old organizer I know once said to me that, “Organizing used to be about people, now it’s all about numbers.” If only everyone knew just how right she was when she said that. Foundations want “deliverables.” Foundations want organizations to produce a certain number of member mailings, petition signatures, meetings with some damn politician, and media headlines. In other words, they want things that can be quantified. While all of these things are generally part of organizing, foundations and other lenders prioritize these things at the expense of relationships between people and the building of “leaders” from the grassroots. These two things are the heart and soul of long-term organizing (Johns & Ryan, 2014).

This has its consequences. Grassroots campaigns turn into campaigns-in-a-box or even “Astroturf.” Organizations acting under contracts from foundations shift their focus from organizing the unorganized in parts of the country that desperately need to be mobilized, to tapping into already existing networks in states with many advocacy organizations and large labor unions. The focus on quantifiable things leads to more work by staff members while input and control over the organization by actual members is discarded. Naturally, members realize their experiences and voices no longer matter and end up leaving these groups (Johns & Ryan, 2014).

Plans are written up by funders or organizing managers living far, far away from the community where the organizing is taking place. Members are given no say in this, and often take offense when approached with scripts or unrealistic plans drawn up by strangers in a distant city (Johns & Ryan, 2014). I have personally sat through Skype interviews with managers who didn’t even live in the area where the organizing job I applied for was located. A woman in Maine interviewed me for a job in Philadelphia. When I applied for a union job in Washington DC, I had the misfortune of being interviewed by someone who thought he was a big shot just because he worked in a New York City office. What would someone in Maine know about the struggles of the poor in Philadelphia? What would someone in New York know about the actual situation and on-the-ground needs of workers in DC? Nothing.

Did Joe Hill take marching orders from a staffer in a distant office? Were Eugene Debs, Saul Alinsky, A. Philip Randolph, or any number of other historical figures in the world of organizing judged by irrelevant things like their GPA or the number of Washington Post headlines they made? No. The direction of many organizations, and sadly but still arguably the whole of organizing today, is the direction of spectacle. Organizations bound to foundation contracts are now more concerned about creating the appearance of a major grassroots movement as opposed to actually building a real movement. The focus is not on developing grassroots leaders and lasting, empowering organizations, and I get the impression very few state or national organizations even do that anymore. Now the staffers show up in your city, turn out a few activists and college students for a few days or weeks and claim it’s a real movement, then leave town without leaving in place an actual organization. Now the focus is on the cameras, the Facebook likes, and the tweets with the hope that some politician will listen. Three out of every four years they don’t listen. On the fourth year they listen a little and occasionally throw working people some scraps in the form of measly concessions, or they at least give the appearance of doing it to win voters. In the long-run, however, the politicians don’t care because their corporate backers are giving them twice as much money as foundations give these instant campaigns. To build only the appearance of a grassroots movement results in achieving only the hollow appearance of victory at best.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand mentions in her book how a union leader once told her: “When I first met you in 2006 you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win [the special election], you need to be beautiful again.” Gillibrand had been struggling with her weight after having a baby, and this trash was what those in charge of the American labor movement passed off as good advice (Lowrey, 2014). I don’t bring this up to defend a damn politician, but rather to make a point. Much of modern “organizing,” focuses too much on appearance and too little on actually building the infrastructure to empower communities and working-class people.

For example, groups like ANSWER Coalition will often get a permit for a rally in front of the White House with the hope of making a big splash in the news. They will show up at large demonstrations whenever they can with as many ANSWER signs as they can pass out. All so they can get on camera. I don’t mean to single them out, there are numerous other groups employing the same tactic. It’s all about the glamour shots, but at the end of the day they haven’t left any infrastructure in place to continue the fight or empower working-class communities to respond to any of the constant attacks on them by the wealthy and their politicians.