Much has been written about the role of the organizer in a political movement. As someone who’s been involved in organizing at every level for the last 45 years or more, including participating on UFW “boycott lettuce” picket lines when I was 12, agitating against the Vietnam war as a high school student, being a college communist who dropped out briefly and got a job in the steel mills to organize for his revolutionary party, working as a volunteer tenant organizer for an all-volunteer tenant organization in NYC, working as a paid tenant organizer for a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization directed by a radical, working as a community organizer for a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization run by what we would now call a neoliberal board of directors, working for a nonprofit front for a for-profit business using a free “hotline” to pull people in to fee-for-services representation, working as a union organizer for SEIU, and, currently, directing a 501(c)(3) tenants union that tries to utilize the class basis of the landlord/tenant relationship to organize people effectively, there’s a lot I can say about organizing. These are some of the ideas I have come to understand constitute the basic principles of organizing.
First, people organize out of their own self-interest. People don’t call the tenants’ union because they hate landlords or disagree with the notion of housing for profit, even though some do in fact have those positions. Instead, they call the tenants’ union when they don’t have heat. It is the organizer’s job to seize the moment, to give the tenant the message that he’s not going to have much success going at it alone, by taking the landlord to court or holding back his individual rent money. But if he organizes the building and the tenants engage in a collective action such as withholding the rent en masse, they can put themselves in a real bargaining position with respect to the landlord and change the power dynamic.
Second, people do not organize spontaneously even if the objective conditions are there. They need an organizer to stir up the pot. As a corollary to this, they need to develop a relationship with somebody who knows what to do and has done this sort of thing before. Unions hire professional organizers and have detailed procedures set up for doing organizing because they understand that their members are coming up against employer law firms that specialize in breaking unions, and are very good at it. If the union does not impart the same level of professionalism on its members as the law firms impart on their clients, they will lose.
When I was in New York City I worked with two different tenants’ rights organizations with two different philosophies, which sort of underline this principle. First I worked with Metropolitan Council on Housing. They had one paid staff person, funded out of minimal membership dues, and a large volunteer organizing staff who over the years activated thousands of tenants. They got rent strikes going, but they didn’t know how to follow-through. They would try to reach a settlement on the first court appearance, even though a rent strike doesn’t really work until the landlord is hurting, usually after several months of not getting rent. I also worked with a funded organization, GOLES, run by an old radical (and lawyer with 25 years experience) who knew how to use legal maneuvers to “continue” rent strikes into their second or third months or more, thus put tenants in a dramatically enhanced negotiating position, and “con” funding organizations to believe his was simply helping low income people facing eviction which he could use in enhancing his reporting stats. Because the strikes were so professionally organized and the power dynamic between the tenants and the landlord was so much turned on its head that their tenants won every case, GOLES was much more effective than Met Council. And yet, there was a whole group of people on the left who believed that GOLES, simply by virtue of it being a funded nonprofit organization, could not represent its members, whereas Met Council, because it was solely funded by tenants, could.
On the other hand, Met Council is still around today whereas GOLES, I think, has become just another mainstream nonprofit. Still, it was on the front lines of establishing rent strikes as an effective tactic in New York. Things are very complicated.
Third, there is a difference between an organizer, a leader and a member. It is important that these distinctions remain clear. The organizer needs to be a professional, one way or another, if she’s going to effectuate meaningful social change. Her job is to develop relationships with leaders. The thing that defines a leader is that he a) has the will to knock on doors, or be the first person to call the union, and/or b) have relationships with a lot of other people in the building or on the shop floor. The organizer, by activating a leader, can activate the 100 people the leader has relationships with.
I also want to say something about democracy. A good union has to be democratically run, but in any group there are going to be those who are leaders and those who are not. Some groups I’ve worked with have had some success, once the group is well established, with instituting rotating officers so that everyone not only gets a chance to be an officer, but is put in a position where he has to be one for a while. Still, this usually doesn’t work as well in theory as in practice. The real problem in my experience is the opposite: that only a handful of people do the work and they get burned out. An organizer has to be aware of this problem and must be constantly trying to cultivate new leaders within the group, not to run it democratically but to keep it running at all when the old leaders start to fade.
It is unfortunate that so many 501(c)(3) organizations are simply part of the establishment. And it certainly is not required that a progressive organization be tax-exempt. But it is required that they have a professional organizing staff. The role of the radical is to figure out how to make this happen; how to use the tools he has at his disposal, including grant money, to effectuate meaningful change.