I determined that the first-hand accounts of the people most involved with SeaSol were the best way to find out what SeaSol is trying to build and how effective the organization is. I conducted six interviews in the spring of 2011 designed to explore the effectiveness of SeaSol’s strategy for rebuilding a popular revolutionary labor movement in the United States. From my own experience working within SeaSol I knew that the group is broken down into three main groups denoting three different levels of activity and commitment in the organization: organizers, members, and supporters.
An organizer is anyone who, at a minimum, has committed to regularly attend SeaSol’s weekly planning meetings and to call ten to twenty SeaSol members every time SeaSol has an action. SeaSol’s members include everyone who has agreed to receive a phone call and/or email about every SeaSol action and attend if they can, and SeaSol’s supporters are those who have agreed to be notified by phone and/or email only about SeaSol’s largest or most important actions. SeaSol’s meetings are public and many members who are not organizers regularly attend, but it is far less common for a supporter to attend.
In addition to these three main groups, there are also those individuals who have been at the center of specific SeaSol campaigns. These are typically people who had never heard of SeaSol until they were having a problem with a boss or landlord and saw a SeaSol poster and decided to get in touch. They typically do not get involved with SeaSol for any ideological reasons, but rather because they are trying to resolve a specific dispute with an employer or landlord. This means they are likely to offer more of an “outside” perspective on SeaSol, especially when compared to SeaSol organizers with a considerable background in activism.
For the purposes of accurately understanding SeaSol, I determined that SeaSol’s organizing committees as well as the individuals at the center of specific fights comprise would be the most fruitful people to interview about SeaSol’s organizational strategy. This is simply because in order to fully understand SeaSol it is necessary to regularly attend SeaSol meetings. SeaSol organizers are the most heavily involved in SeaSol’s activities, so they are naturally the best choice for understanding how effective the organization is. The only drawback to focusing exclusively on SeaSol organizers is that they are primarily ideologically motivated individuals who are likely to share common biases.
To counteract this I decided it would also be a good idea to also focus on individuals at the center of specific fights. As outsiders to SeaSol who first got involved for very practical reasons they could reasonably be assumed to be free from the same biases that those who had already committed a great deal of time and energy into SeaSol could be expected to share. At the same time, they would still have enough experience in SeaSol, having been heavily involved in their own fight and at least attended SeaSol meetings during the duration of their fight, to speak knowledgably about how the organization works.
SeaSol’s activities are best understood in the context of specific struggles. For the purposes of this article I decided to focus primarily on three recent SeaSol campaigns: one about a landlord suing a tenant, one about a landlord refusing to return a tenant’s deposit, and one about a restaurant owner refusing to give a last paycheck to a waitress. By focusing on these three specific and recent fights SeaSol had taken on I ensured fresh and well-grounded interview data about the effectiveness of the organization. I also knew that the organizers as well as the “victims” involved would be especially informative for my purposes, likely be available for an interview, and that the stories of the fights themselves would provide a well-rounded picture of SeaSol.
I ended up interviewing four SeaSol organizers and two SeaSol members who had been at the center of specific SeaSol fights. We will call the four SeaSol organizers I interviewed Bruce, Henry, Claire, and Simone. We will call the two individuals at the center of specific fights I interviewed George and Ramona. The third case that I wanted to highlight for this article involved a woman we will refer to as Ana. Unfortunately, I was unable to do an interview with her due to time constraints and difficulties locating a translator. However, I did interview the two organizers who were the most heavily involved in her fight. In order to provide better context for what SeaSol is really like it is useful for me to give a little background information about the six individuals I interviewed for this article.
Bruce is a twenty-year old software programmer and was one of the founders of SeaSol. He has a background in union organizing, is a member of the IWW, and is one of SeaSol’s most experienced organizers. I interviewed him specifically about his involvement in Ramona’s fight. Henry is a twenty six year old restaurant worker and bar tender. He was born and raised in Seattle and graduated from Evergreen State College. He became increasingly involved in SeaSol after attending an action in the spring of 2009 and had been heavily involved for about a year and a half at the time of this interview. I interviewed him specifically about his involvement in Ana’s fight. Claire is twenty-two years old, recently completed a degree in sociology from the University of Washington, and is currently looking for work. She became involved in SeaSol shortly after moving to Seattle three years ago from a small town and has been an active organizer for two years now. I interviewed her specifically about George’s fight. Simone is thirty-four years old and has been working as a paid union organizer for the past year. She is a seasoned activist who was also in Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization in 1999 and began organizing with SeaSol after she heard about it by word of mouth in 2009. I interviewed her specifically about her experience working on Ana’s fight. George is in his forties and is currently working as a handyman and painter. He moved to Seattle from Chicago about twenty years ago. He had no background in activism before contacting SeaSol about a conflict he was having with his landlord in the spring of 2010. I interviewed him about his experiences working with SeaSol on his own fight. Ramona is a twenty-eight year old waitress. She contacted SeaSol in September of 2010 to get help with some wage theft she was experiencing. She also had no background in activism before joining SeaSol. I interviewed her about her own experiences working with SeaSol in her own fight. Taken together, these six individuals have a wide range of experience with SeaSol and other types of organizing.
As I thought about SeaSol and looked over my interviews, I determined that any effective strategy for rebuilding a popular revolutionary labor movement would have to be one that delivers tangible results for the people involved, is growing in numbers, and is transforming how people think and feel about contemporary economic and social relations in our society. It was this definition of effectiveness that prompted me to examine three major subcategories of effectiveness in SeaSol: (1) SeaSol’s ability to win fights, (2) SeaSol’s growth as an organization, and the (3) personal radicalization of people who are involved with SeaSol. The subsequent sections will examine several significant themes that became apparent in my interviews related to these three types of effectiveness in SeaSol.
The First Type of Effectiveness: Winning Fights
SeaSol’s over all success rate is notably high. The organization has taken on thirty-eight fights and has won thirty-one of them in the past five years. Two of the three cases that were highlighted in my interviews were undisputed victories. In the case of George, the organization successfully pressured his former landlord to drop a $1500 bill for damages that SeaSol believed was unjust. In Ana’s case, SeaSol also successfully pressured her former landlord to formally stop pursuing her for $1800 unjust charges and additionally secured the return of her entire $500 security deposit.
In Ramona’s case, SeaSol was unable to recover her $478 in stolen wages, but the organization did put her former boss’ restaurant out of business. Interestingly, although SeaSol did not win its stated demand in this case, both Ramona and one of the most active organizers her fight, Bruce, reported feeling that putting the restaurant out of business was in fact a victory. When I asked Ramona how she felt about the outcome of her fight she told me that she was, “very pleased…just sadly seeing him in a financial situation that I was in and that he had put so many other people in…it was definitely a victory. Even though I didn’t get my money I still won.” We will spend more time exploring how Ramona felt about the outcome of her fight and what putting the restaurant out of business meant for SeaSol later in this chapter, but suffice to say that it would not be accurate to consider the outcome of this fight as a “loss” for SeaSol. Arguably, it was actually a greater victory for Ramona and SeaSol than just recovering her $478 in unpaid wages would have been.
Even just a cursory examination of SeaSol’s activities reveals that the organization wins the overwhelming majority of the demands it decides to make. However, my interviews also revealed something much more significant about SeaSol, and that is how that process works. My interviews revealed a notable consistency among SeaSol organizer’s about how they consider which fights to take on and which demands to make. All four organizers I interviewed reported that it is no accident that SeaSol wins such a high percentage of the fights the group takes on, rather it is the direct result of one of the organization’s core principles: “winability.”
When I asked a given organizer why SeaSol had decided to take on George’s, Ramona’s, or Ana’s fight they invariably told me in every case that one of the major reasons was because they felt confident that SeaSol could achieve the desired outcome. When I asked Bruce why SeaSol had decided to take on Ramona’s fight one of the things he said was: “The fact that it was very winnable, we had a lot of leverage on the business, we had the power to put this company out of business- so we aught to be able to win this fight!” When I asked Simone why SeaSol had decided to take on Ana’s fight she also told me, “It was winnable because you know we are looking at whether a fight is winnable. We’re trying to find how we can put pressure on them [Nelson Properties].” Henry and Claire also said very similar things when asked the same question about the respective fights I was interviewing them about.
Claire was one of the last people I interviewed, so when I heard her bring up this concept yet again I asked if she could explain it to me in a little more detail. She told me:
“Winability is one of our basic principles. It is this concept that is really important and kind of straight forward and seems kind of silly to talk so explicitly about, but really I think it is kind of ignored by other activist groups generally and that is: can you win what you are trying to get? Can you get your demand? Could you do it? Is it possible? And while you can never know that concretely, you never know for sure, but you can use rational thinking about what that person [the employer or landlord] values and how they’ve been acting in the past.”
Claire explained that SeaSol only fights to win. The organization will not take on a demand that they do not believe they can win. As Claire says, she felt this is a very simple idea that is “silly to talk so explicitly about.” However, as she is quick to point out, the simple truth is that winability is something many activist groups never seem to think about at all. Many activist groups simply select an issue they would like to address, such as globalization for example, but never take the time to honestly ask themselves: what would it really take to transform or dismantle the IMF and World Bank? What sort of popular movement would be needed to truly force the US to restructure how it conducts world trade? Do we really have the power given the present strength of the Left in this country to achieve this outcome?
It was clear from my interviews that SeaSol organizers think hard about these sorts of power dynamics every time before they decide to take on a fight. The organization is open about its unwillingness to take on fights they do not believe they can win and they discuss their concerns about certain fights winability openly at SeaSol’s weekly meetings. Five out of the six people I interviewed mentioned being present at a SeaSol meeting when the group voted on whether or not to take on a given campaign and SeaSol regularly votes not to take on certain campaigns because they do not feel they are winnable. Claire told me that just recently the group had voted to take on a fight against a smalltime landlord who had stolen several tenants’ deposits but then changed their mind when further research indicated that it was probably unwinnable:
“…she had stolen their deposit and we really wanted to take on the fight and we thought she had this moving company we might be able to target, but even when we took it on we weren’t sure. Then after doing more research and finding out she actually isn’t even in the State three weeks out of the month and she has no other economic targets and no vacancies and has no reputation in the neighborhood- it made it seem like a very unwinnable campaign so we decided not to take it on after all.”
It is clear from Claire’s story and others that pragmatic ideas about what the group can and cannot accomplish form a major part of SeaSol’s culture. Multiple interviewees reported that this sort of pragmatism was part of what makes SeaSol distinct as compared to other groups they’ve been involved in. Simone told me that as compared to her work as a paid union organizer, “working with SeaSol has just kind of kept me sane…I don’t really think that a lot of activism is really leading to anything whereas with SeaSol I feel it can be very empowering for people.”
Simone’s words call attention to the fact that SeaSol’s pragmatic notions about winability are not rooted in a lack of inspiration or a broader vision for how they hope to transform society. On the contrary, Simone felt confident that SeaSol’s approach is actually working to build a larger movement to one day actually “be able to tackle larger institutions that are incredibly oppressive to us.” Multiple other interviewees reported that SeaSol’s pragmatic approach was actually part of a conscious strategy to build a larger and more powerful movement to accomplish bigger goals. Many of them were simply fed up with being demoralized by repeatedly trying to make sweeping social changes that the organizations they were a part of simply did not have the power to make. In my interviews I found that while organizers thought that it is useful to understand social problems on a systemic level, they also thought it was foolhardy at this point in time to think the Left can attack those systems directly with any success. To do that successfully SeaSol organizers felt that they need to work on drastically increasing their numbers through practical activity rather than by relying on propaganda. They felt that it is by putting their politics into practice in a tangible way they will be able to demonstrate the validity of their ideas and win more people over to their ideas.
Every SeaSol organizer I interviewed told me that this is why they thought that winning fights was so important. Every victory proves that SeaSol’s approach really works. The theory behind SeaSol is that it is this sort of practical demonstration that will attract larger numbers of people to their ideas and eventually allow them to take on larger issues in society. All six people I interviewed, including George and Ramona who did not initially get involved with SeaSol for any sort of ideological reasons, reported that they wanted to see SeaSol continue to grow to successfully take on larger and more significant problems in society. When asked to describe what sorts of problems they would like to be able to solve someday interviewees had a long list including “Chase” bank, “capitalism,” the “State,” and even “industrial aqua-culture.”
In SeaSol organizer Henry’s words, “the basic motif of SeaSol that I know is we do what we can today so we can do what we want to tomorrow.” We will discuss in greater detail in the next section how SeaSol hopes to transition from doing what they can to doing what they want, but it is necessary to touch on this element in the group’s thinking in order to understand why the organization takes winability so seriously. My research indicated that SeaSol only takes on fights they believe they can win because they believe it is only by winning smaller victories in the here and now and becoming inspired that more people are going to become organized to win larger and more important victories in the future. To quote Henry again:
“The question, the difficult part, is how do you get from nobody to hundreds of thousands of people? How do you get that force so that it can operate well? So that it can operate sustainably and in a progressively better way? The answer to that for me, is what we’re doing.”
There can be no doubt that SeaSol is effectively winning the small fights they so selectively take on, but the more important question is will these victories actually spawn the larger movement Henry and every one of my other interviewees hopes for?
The Second Type of Effectiveness: Growth
The three fights highlighted in my interviews all occurred during a substantial period of growth for SeaSol between the Spring of 2010 and the Winter of 2011. George’s, Ana’s, and Ramona’s fights each set a new record for the most people SeaSol had been able to get out to an action. Claire reported that the largest action during George’s fight in the spring of 2010 included “twenty five or twenty seven people,” Simone reported that the largest action during Ana’s fight during the summer of 2010 included “thirty one people or so,” and Bruce reported that the largest action for Ramona’s fight during the Winter of 2010-2011 included between “forty and fifty people.”
I asked Claire to describe when George and SeaSol delivered their demand letter to George’s property manager and she told me, “It was one of the biggest mobilizations we’d had at that time- I’m sure everyone says that- because we continue to have bigger and bigger mobilizations every time we have a fight.” SeaSol is still a very small organization but everyone I interviewed agreed that the group has been growing in numbers. Between 2010 and 2011 SeaSol’s organizing committee grew from seven or eight members to sixteen and the weekly attendance at Seasol meetings also increased from the low teens to the mid twenties. Needless to say, these small numbers do not yet mark any kind of revitalization of a mass labor movement. However, the ways in which SeaSol has been growing are nonetheless noteworthy.
One of the most interesting ways SeaSol grows is based around the organization’s concept of mutual aid. All four SeaSol organizers I interviewed reported that one of the major reasons they wanted to take on George’s, Ana’s, and Ramona’s fights was because they thought the three of them were likely to stay involved in SeaSol and they all expressed a genuine desire to come out and support other people. A strong willingness to join SeaSol and a verbal agreement to continue to support the organization in the future is actually required before SeaSol will agree to take on a fight with someone who is not already involved in the organization. Simone’s description of her first impression of Ana after their first meeting demonstrates this point quite clearly:
“She said, ‘I don’t want them [Nelson Properties] to do this to someone else,’ which is something that is really important for me to hear from someone. There is some enlightened self-interest involved, or a lot actually, but the fact that she’s thinking about other people and recognizes that she is connected to other people, that others are like me, is a really good sign. She just really wanted to fight back, so it wasn’t just, oh, I feel sorry for this woman, it was like, oh, I really feel for her but I also have a lot of respect for her. She’s ready to fight back against this huge company. She doesn’t have any experience that I ever got out of her doing this, so I had a lot of admiration for that.”
Simone’s words are indicative of the very conscious effort SeaSol makes to distinguish itself from social service organizations. SeaSol does not want to simply provide direct action casework for someone only to have them move on with their lives once the campaign is finished. SeaSol wants to provide support for people to solve their own problems, but also wants to retain their permanent involvement in a reciprocal relationship. The fact that Simone heard Ana express such a strong eagerness to fight back against her property management company not just for herself, but also to help protect other people in the future made Simone think that she would make an excellent SeaSol member. Additionally, Ana’s attitude made it clear that she did not want to have a passive role in the campaign as she might of if she had pursued her issue using a legal strategy instead of direct action. It is clear from Simone’s description when she describes how she did not just feel sorry for Ana that she was not trying to just be an advocate for her. Instead, Simone admired Ana and was clearly excited to work with her side by side.
In much the same way that SeaSol makes a conscious effort to only take on fights that it considers winnable, SeaSol organizers also try hard to only take on fights with individuals who they believe are going to remain involved in the organization. Of course this is hardly an exact science, but it is something SeaSol organizers take some time to consider. For example, if the person keeps insisting that what they really want is a lawyer or they mention that they won’t be able to make time to attend their own actions, these are warning signs for SeaSol organizers that they are unlikely to become very involved. In addition to winability, when I asked a given organizer why SeaSol had decided to take on George’s, Ramona’s, or Ana’s fight they invariably told me that one of the major reasons was because they felt confident that each of them would remain involved in SeaSol after their fight was over. It is also worth noting that it was only one year before these interviews were conducted that SeaSol decided to begin telling people that they would need to join the organization and come out and support other people if they wanted SeaSol to take on their fight. There is no way to know with any certainty, but it is possible that this change in how SeaSol approached new fights could be related to the organization’s growth over the last year.
In all three fights I highlighted the organizers proved correct in thinking that the new people would remain involved after their fight was over. My interviewees reported that George, Ana, and Ramona all continue to come out to SeaSol actions on a regular basis. We will discuss in greater detail why this might be when we explore the third type of effectiveness in the next section, however, it is important to note that SeaSol appears to be successfully retaining the involvement of the people who’s fights the organization takes on. Both George and Ramona told me in our interviews that they planned to remain involved in SeaSol and Simone reported that she still sees and hears from Ana (who I unfortunately did not interview) regularly as well. When I asked Ramona if she would remain involved in SeaSol, and why or why not, she told me:
“Definitely. It’s just the justice, it’s just seeing a group of people stand beside you and support you and tell you it’s ok, I’ve been through this, it’ll get better and we’ll stand up to them and they won’t win.”
SeaSol has clearly succeeded in retaining the involvement of at least the three people in the fights I focused on for this article. Again, we will explore in more detail in the next section why this might be so important. However, it is self-evident that a mass movement will never be built just by retaining the involvement of one person at a time who is dealing with a specific problem. In fact, this is not the primary way SeaSol has grown in the past few years.
SeaSol had only ever had twenty five fights at the time of these interviews after all yet the organization had somewhere close to one hundred members and five hundred supporters on its largest email list. SeaSol’s success or failure at building a larger movement depends very much on its ability to get more than one person involved at a time. My interviews with SeaSol organizers revealed that this is something they are acutely aware of. Henry described his thoughts about SeaSol’s growth this way:
“When I say ‘gathering people’ there are sort of two things that go on with that in any given fight. There are the people that come into it because they are at the center of a fight and then there are the people that come into it because there is a fight going on and they want to help out. For that latter group, I have seen more people come on from that group in labor fights- because labor fights involve big actions that you want to have as many people as possible at and really landlord fights don’t. The labor fights perform both tasks very ably. The landlord fights are kind of more appropriate to the internal training.”
We have already discussed how SeaSol tries to retain the involvement of people at the center of a given fight. Henry believes that the most new people are brought into SeaSol by participating in labor fights because they usually involve large pickets of a storefront and that can be very exciting for people whereas landlord fights tended to be more useful for internal training purposes. We will return to Henry’s idea about internal training momentarily, but first it is important to talk more about how labor fights tend to bring more people into SeaSol. Bruce echoed Henry’s opinion about labor fights when I asked him if he thought Ramona’s fight strengthened SeaSol as an organization. He told me:
“It brought in Ramona and some of Ramona’s friends, but mainly it was a great fight because it gave us a lot of picketing opportunities. It gave us opportunities for fun and exciting actions that lots of people can participate in and that had an immediate and powerful impact- and people could see the power in that it actually destroyed the business. It gave people an opportunity to come out and picket that was real, not just symbolic.”
All four organizers I interviewed mentioned that getting the maximum number of people involved was something they considered when deciding which fights to take on and what tactics to use. Claire and Simone also mentioned in their interviews that the more SeaSol takes on fights that required multiple mass actions the more the organization grows. Multiple interviewees described how SeaSol has learned to be more conscious of this fact. Claire described how while in George’s fight SeaSol had relied largely on smaller groups informally heading out to put up “Do Not Rent Here” posters around properties owned by Lauren Rudd the organization adapted this strategy during Ana’s fight:
“Everything in Nelson [Ana’s fight] was just a better job of what we did in George’s fight. By having different groups go poster around different neighborhoods as one big action instead of just informally mobilizing for it with George.”
In this case SeaSol intentionally adapted its strategy to involve more people not because it was necessarily more effective at getting the posters up, but rather because it was a way of making sure more people could get involved. All four organizers said that SeaSol’s continued growth is very much dependent on the amount the organization can find ways to effectively mobilize larger groups of people in a meaningful way.
The group is also experiencing financial growth. SeaSol is a very time intensive but low cost operation. However, having more financial resources is certainly useful. The organization is funded almost entirely by small individual donations. On their website, people can sign up on PayPal to contribute ten dollars a month if they desire. Between 2010 and 2011 the number of people signed up as PayPal contributors doubled from about ten to twenty. Additionally, SeaSol passes a hat to collect cash donations at every other public meeting. So far SeaSol has had no difficulties covering its limited expenses. At the time these interviews were conducted the organization was working towards getting enough people signed up on their PayPal account in the next year to be able to afford professional childcare at their meetings. Childcare and other things, such as a larger meeting space, would certainly be a nice thing for SeaSol to have, but income did not seem especially relevant to SeaSol’s future success or failure.
A more significant threat to SeaSol’s continued growth is related to the amount of time and energy people are willing to put into the organization. It was clear from my interviews that the SeaSol organizers I interviewed voluntarily put at least ten hours of work per week into SeaSol and probably much more. However, all of the organizers reported that they were happy to continue putting in this much effort because of how rewarding they felt the work was. Still, it is uncertain if the same organizers will be willing and able to put in as many hours as they are into the organization indefinitely. The future of the organization will likely depend heavily on its ability to recruit new people who want to become as involved as the most active organizers. In fact, SeaSol organizers viewed giving people more practical organizing experience as one of the most important elements of SeaSol’s activities for a variety of reasons.
All four organizers said that one of the primary purposes of SeaSol was to give people practical experience in how to effectively fight back against their employers and landlords when they were abused. Simone described this kind of growth this way:
“Well in the short term, obviously, we have these very small issue based economic fights, and you know it’s helping people tackle, engaging people in struggle in their own life and then helping them actually win. In the long term I see it as helping people develop themselves as organizers, develop organizing skills, both for themselves and then just for everybody that is involved because it is such a collaborative and cooperative effort.”
Every organizer hopes that SeaSol can provide practical training for people that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. This means training not only the individuals at the center of a specific fight how they can successfully face down their employer or landlord, but also giving everyone involved useful experience in how to collectively improve each others lives. Bruce described even more specifically what this might look like:
“My hope is that we can build it [SeaSol] into a stronger and stronger force and it can lead to having a large number of people who are competent and confident at organizing and doing direct action, we can hopefully branch out from the types of fights we are doing and organize groups of workers in workplaces and tenants in apartment buildings.”
This sort of transition is vital to SeaSol’s future growth. All four organizers involved in SeaSol recognize that the organization’s present model is not going to be able to build a truly mass movement. Instead, they want to use SeaSol’s current activities as a springboard to expose people to direct action and inspire as well as train people how to organize on the job at work or as tenants in their buildings. This is consistent with SeaSol’s ideas about organizing mass actions that involve larger numbers of people. The organization hopes to continue evolving not only so that it can get even better at what it is already doing, but more importantly so it can increasingly transition to taking actions that involve larger and larger numbers of people as Bruce put it, “to serve as the foundation for a broader working class movement.”
The Third Type of Effectiveness: Radicalization
If SeaSol continues to win fights and successfully expands its activities in new ways such as organizing workers on the job and tenants in their homes it just might be able to rebuild up a popular labor movement- but what about a revolutionary one? As if the organization’s task at hand wasn’t difficult enough already, SeaSol also hopes to one day create “a world without bosses or landlords.” As Claire put it SeaSol is ultimately trying to:
“…build up enough people who are serious about taking control of their lives and who don’t think bosses and landlords are necessary. To build up a militant, conscious, organized Left to take over, immediately, the sources of capitalism and that State that interfere the most directly in our own lives and to take control of our own lives in that way.”
What this means in the here and now is that SeaSol is not just concerned with winning fights and growing in numbers. The organization is also passionately concerned with achieving these goals in a way that transforms people’s opinions about society and empowers them to feel that we could one day actually overturn the power relations that so utterly define our lives.
First and foremost, SeaSol attempts to prefigure how such a society might work in how the organization is internally structured. All of my interviewees confirmed that the organization makes all of its important decisions at its public weekly meetings where anyone present has the right to vote. After some period of discussion the meeting facilitator takes a simple majority vote by show of hands. Additionally, there is no paid staff and the organization depends entirely on people’s voluntary participation in its activities. I found that there is little difference between the ideological and practical reasons for this. All four organizers I interviewed described themselves as antiauthoritarian and Bruce explained the importance of SeaSol’s decision-making process this way:
“To avoid authoritarianism is practical. It’s sort of an ideological way of putting it but it is a shorthand way of saying something that’s practical that’s much harder to describe in words. If we got in a situation where some individual or clique who isn’t accountable to anyone else was able to force their will on the majority, force other people to do things that they didn’t want to do rather than being free and democratic, then I don’t think it would be possible to pursue the type of organizing we are trying to do. I think it would change the organizing model because our whole model is based on encouraging people to take action on their own because they want to.”
SeaSol wants to build a cooperative and egalitarian movement to do away with those who they believe exercise illegitimate and arbitrary authority over other people’s lives- namely bosses and landlords. Bruce is simply saying that it would be impossible to do away with authoritarianism using authoritarian methods. I found in my interviews that not only SeaSol’s decision making process but also in its entire strategic approach was intended to empower the people who become involved in the organization in a radical way. This is also why the organization relies on direct action instead of legal or political action. The organization is interested in demonstrating it does not need lawyers or politicians to improve people’s lives, when people are well organized, they can actually solve their problems much more effectively themselves. The interesting question for me in my interviews was, to what extent does SeaSol actually succeed at transforming how people feel about contemporary society?
My interviews showed that the contrast between SeaSol’s approach versus other options for workers and tenants who have been abused by their boss or landlord was immediately apparent at least for George and Ramona when they got involved. Ramona told me:
“I felt like to L&I I am just like another case number and it’s very impersonal and with SeaSol I just met a lot of people that I just really related to, that made me feel welcome, that made me feel like my voice was important, and really supported.”
George had somewhat similar reasons for choosing to get involved with SeaSol:
“I know a little bit about the legal system and I know that attorneys are expensive
and the legal process is-unfortunately- the landlord has a lot of money and a
mansion you know and I can’t afford to put myself in court against this man. It
ain’t gonna happen, I’m not gonna win. I had no resources to fight someone like
Both George and Ramona felt that their legal options were entirely inadequate. In Ramona’s case she felt that the department of Labor and Industries was to bureaucratic and was not going to be able to really help her get the kind of justice she wanted. George on the other hand felt that the legal system was stacked against him and that he could not possibly win against a very wealthy and powerful landowner in court. Both George and Ramona also mentioned in their interviews that they were unable to afford legal fees and felt they had little chance of success even if they could. This frustration with their “official” options is what made SeaSol’s approach so attractive to them and their subsequent participation in a SeaSol campaign had a major impact on their personal beliefs about their own position in society.
This does not mean that George or Ramona would now describe themselves as anarchists as many SeaSol organizers do, but this is not what SeaSol is trying to accomplish. The organization has no explicit political ideology. Instead, SeaSol’s organizers operate from the belief that actually taking direct action is a much more powerful and radicalizing experience than talking about politics in the abstract. SeaSol’s organizers do not think how other SeaSol members self-identify politically is nearly as important as their willingness to take militant direct action against employers and landlords. SeaSol wants to build a mass base of support that is consistent with certain principles, but which does not require that everyone share all of the same political beliefs. Three out of the four SeaSol organizers I interviewed described themselves as anarchists, but they all agreed that putting their principles into practice is much more important than trying to get everyone in SeaSol to agree on any sort of official political program. SeaSol’s priority at this time is simply to build a collective culture around the idea of fighting back. Simone has confronted her own boss before as part of a union drive she helped organize at her workplace and she described the power of that kind of moment this way:
“I mean once you’ve marched on your own boss for instance, and I imagine it is the same for anybody who goes and confronts their landlord, it doesn’t sound like a big deal handing this letter and saying, ‘look, I demand what’s right and I’m going to claim my right as another individual who should have equal power to you.’ It’s definitely transformative. It is scary as hell and it’s a huge moment of growth for people and it stays with you. It really does stay with you forever.”
SeaSol is based on the idea that encouraging and supporting people to stand up to their employers or landlords in this way is in fact as transformative as Simone says it is. Fostering this willingness and ability to successfully stand up to power is the essence of SeaSol’s activities.
I was very interested in my interviews to discover if there was any truth in this claim. Did George’s and Ramona’s experiences working with SeaSol actually transform them? It was clear that they were essentially first brought into the organization by their desperate circumstances and a willingness to try a different approach, but both of them reported that they plan to remain permanently involved in SeaSol. Ramona described her feelings about SeaSol this way:
“It’s a really amazing organization that’s really changed my whole perspective on things…it is like a family, I love it and I will always remain involved in SeaSol. I fell like I belong and I feel like it helps everyone feel like they belong, it’s like a home. It’s awesome.”
Ramona’s experience trying to recover her stolen wages with the help of SeaSol was plainly a very positive experience for her. It is significant that even though the group was unable to deliver her the exact results she was looking for by recovering her stolen wages, that did not detract from her opinion about the organization. What was important to her was how her participation in the group made her feel. It made her feel liked she “belonged” and like she does not have to face the injustices in her life alone. Ramona did not join SeaSol because she had read Bakunin or Marx and was inspired by their ideas. Ramona joined SeaSol because she had a specific problem with her former employer and thought SeaSol could help. She is not remaining involved with SeaSol because she has now become an anarchist or a Marxist, she wants to be part of SeaSol “forever” because she feels like she has a “family” of other people who are willing to protect her and she them.
SeaSol is based on the idea that these feelings of mutual support and willingness to take direct action to protect each other is incredibly more important than how individuals might describe their politics in the abstract. George seemed to have comparable feelings to Ramona about his experience with SeaSol. He told me the following in summation of his experiences working with SeaSol:
“It really saved my ass because the landlord would have sent it to collections- and it made me believe in other human beings in the world…I was very happy to get help from SeaSol and you know I feel like I can help and that’s the nice thing about Seattle Solidarity. They helped me and I’m trying to help, what I can, back, because I like what they’re doing number one and plus I feel like I owe Seattle Solidarity for the help.”
George will obviously never forget his experience with SeaSol and even went so far as to say that it made him “believe in other human beings in the world.” He did not describe his feelings about the organization as intimately as Ramona, but he expressed a crystal clear understanding of the basic premise of SeaSol’s organizing model: “They helped me and I’m trying to help, what I can, back.” George would certainly not describe himself as a “revolutionary” of any kind and he expressed serious doubts in our interview about whether someday creating a world without bosses or landlords is possible. However, SeaSol’s organizing model is based around the idea that that just isn’t terribly important at this point in time. George did express a strong willingness to take direct action to make life better for other workers and tenants in the here and now. Moreover, his lack of revolutionary politics did not seem to come from any sort of ideological conservatism, but rather from taking a pragmatic look at the world around him and finding it difficult to conceive of a society where he did not have to pay rent or sell his labor to others- and who can blame him for that?
I also asked Ramona if her involvement in SeaSol had changed the way she felt about bosses and landlords. She said it definitely had but she had some trouble articulating exactly how. She said that “it’s just opened my mind to all new sorts of possibilities,” and after struggling to explain exactly how in words she simply told me: “I feel like I know what to do now if my boss or landlord tries to fuck me over.”
Before George and Ramona got involved in SeaSol they did not know what to do because they felt isolated and were frustrated by the inadequacy of their other options. Now as a result of becoming involved with SeaSol, George and Ramona both know what to do when they or others suffer abuse as a result of their working class social position: work together with other people in similar situations to fight back together, as equals, without becoming dependent on legal or other experts for help. That is what working with SeaSol means and this definition was confirmed in all six of my interviews. Regardless of how George or Ramona might describe themselves politically in the abstract, this simple idea is the very essence of anarchism and they both continue to help put it into practice on a regular basis.
A radical labor movement will never be defined by what it says. It will be defined by what it does. My interviews have demonstrated that SeaSol has had tremendous success at moving people towards taking radical action to better their own and other people’s lives. The organization’s ability to transform how a “regular” person who sees one of their posters feels about their own power in society after becoming involved with SeaSol holds great promise. By directly helping people solve problems in their own lives SeaSol ends up changing how people feel about society much more deeply and profoundly than selling them any number of radical newspapers ever could.
This sort of change is not reserved just for new people who become involved in SeaSol, multiple organizers I interviewed also told me that working with SeaSol has changed them in many ways. This is what Claire told me when I asked her about this very question:
“It [SeaSol] gives me a sense of something I’ve always been wanting…it’s like we are making better lives for ourselves and immediately as possible and for people after us. To me that is meaning in itself and it’s also a group of people who is also ready to be solid for you. I mean they will come out to fight your fucking boss, everybody will, to tell him to fuck off when he fucks you, tell your landlord to fuck off when he fucks you. To me building that up and making it more powerful is the most important thing I can think of to do to change what I think is wrong with the world. I think that interference and control of our lives on a daily basis is the most immediate manifestation of some very large and systemic problems.”
It is difficult to describe what SeaSol does in a more straightforward way than that. According to the individuals I interviewed it gives people hope and makes them feel like they just might be able to actually change the things that can make their lives so much less than they could be. Whether Claire is right or wrong, there can be little doubt that SeaSol has greatly effected how she sees the world. The same can be said for all of the other five people I interviewed. SeaSol is not a mass revolutionary labor movement, but it is undoubtedly reaching new people and exposing them to experience that is making them begin to act like one- at least when and where they can.