Organizing for Change

I really want to recommend Sarah Jaffe’s long-form interview with Jane McAlevey about her new book that I referred to here. McAlevey makes some really important points about a number of issues concerning labor–the restrictiveness of Taft-Hartley, how the Democratic Party dictates the agenda to labor, problems within the labor movement when it comes to organizing strategies, etc. You should read the whole thing. I do want to point out one piece, which gets back to some of the discussions we were having here before the election about the relationship between elections and change.

A point of influence that I’m getting rather obsessed with right now is this whole concept of microtargeting, and a lot of that’s coming from the Obama people and it’s really having an impact in the labor movement. I hear people in the last few years, in the labor movement, say “What do you think about buying databanks of information to see if we can assess whether a worker on a door is going to vote yes or not?” There’s this huge discussion going on in the labor movement among otherwise smart people, that we should just take another step past actually real organizing and just try to do the microtargeting that the Obama campaign is using to extract one vote every four years.

The mistake is that how you win an election and how you win change are fundamentally different. The election of the right people is a prerequisite to fundamental change, but all we do is help them get elected, and then we don’t do anything in the governing period except put everyone to sleep like a switch. If you think about the talent on the Obama team, what are they going to do for the next three and a half years? They basically go home. If you have the best campaign team during the election, those people actually need to stay and keep organizing the base every damn day, to actually create a left base to allow these people to run to the left when they’re governing.

I think a huge problem with the modern left, broadly defined, is the belief that if we elect the right people to office that things will change. That’s absolutely not the case. Change happens on the ground–in the workplace, at the school board meetings, in the courts. This all requires motivated and organized movements that see the election merely as a tool, not an end in itself.

23 comments on this post.
  1. dollared:

    Amen. And this has to cover every phase- intellectual leadership, framing/positioning, policy proposals, active research, schmoozing the media, educating young professionals, mobilization during policy battles, etc etc

  2. Bijan Parsia:

    I think a huge problem with the modern left, broadly defined, is the belief that if we elect the right people to office that things will change. That’s absolutely not the case. Change happens on the ground–in the workplace, at the school board meetings, in the courts. This all requires motivated and organized movements that see the election merely as a tool, not an end in itself.

    I agree to a degree with your broad sentiment, but clearly here you pushed it to a degree of incoherence.

    The courts are precisely where a long term successful electoral strategy with focus at the highest levels (senate and presidency) is essential. If we are going to rely on the courts, then getting people elected over the long haul is not in opposition to that strategy, but a component thereof.

    In general, I don’t think it’s helpful to overstate things in either direction. For example, if you want FEMA to change from competent to incompetent, it’s sufficient to elect a Republican president. Indeed, that’s pretty much the best way to do it.

    If you are dealing with issues for which the current power structure is deadlocked, then shifting public opinion in a stable way is helpful, but so too is having a party ready to exploit electoral shifts (cf gay rights).

    The useful contrary to Green Laternism/disappointment with elected officials/etc. is not that “change always comes from elsewhere”. The actual levers of power matter!

  3. Dana Houle:

    I hear people in the last few years, in the labor movement, say “What do you think about buying databanks of information to see if we can assess whether a worker on a door is going to vote yes or not?”

    Uh, not sure who these people are, but they evidently don’t know that labor has been doing this for years. Labor’s voter files are better than what’s available to most campaigns. And the empirically-based innovations that have in part been credited to the Obama campaign actually come from the Analysts Institute, which was created by, is funded by, and does many of their research studies with organized labor.

    I know that’s a bit afield of Erik’s point, with which I agree. But if McElvey’s that ignorant of what’s at the heart of much of labor’s member-to-member outreach to its members, it makes me wary of trusting her as a reliable source.

  4. Murc:

    problems within the labor movement when it comes to organizing strategies,

    Something I’ve actually been meaning to ask for awhile, and here seems as good a place as any.

    Why don’t I see the labor movement advertising itself more?

    I mean, seriously. I never see print ads for the major unions. Or tv ads, or billboards, or radio ads. I occasionally get them online… very occasionally.

    I don’t even see union literature lying around at places like public libraries and community centers, which usually have a little table or rack where things like free local newspapers and those little coupon books and flyers for local businesses reside. At local farmer markets and swap meets and other events, there is usually a cluster of little tables staffed by genial old people advertising this or that organization. Sierra Club, the Rotarians, etc. I see the Chamber of Commerce there all the time… almost never a union, and when I do its almost always police or fire.

    I know unions don’t have a ton of cash compared to corporate America, but you’d think getting the word out would be appropriate, right? I mean, a lot of people fucking loathe their jobs. You think the occasional radio ad in drive-time along the lines of “Are you working long hours for far less money than you’re worth? Does your boss put you in fear for your job? Can you take a sick day without being fired? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, maybe we can help. Contact your local SEIU representative and learn how to organize and take back what’s yours. You’re not alone.” would be a worthwhile investment.

  5. Dana Houle:

    Eh, I read the piece. It seems to me like a truism–organizing has to continue between elections, and electing politicians is a paltry substitute for creating and using independent political power–fluffed up with the content of a typical edition of Labor Notes.

  6. Chatham:

    People should consider becoming a Precinct Committee Person for their local Democratic party. Another place to start is with organizations like Democracy for America, that are still organizing post-election (and I get the feeling Obama’s team will too). It’d also help to have more of a focus on organizing – not just talking about organizing, but actual organizing – from the blogs on the left. A large part of the reason DFA exists is because bloggers in early 2003 used their platform and meetup.com to get masses of people on the left organizing.

  7. Dana Houle:

    Hugely inefficient. Think of it this way. Did Obama and Romney run ads in Arkansas and Rhode Island? Other than a very small bit of national cable advertising, no. And it’s obvious why: you’re advertising to a bunch of people who either will already get or have not chance of getting.

    If you’re SEIU, you’re trying to advertise, for the most part, two groups of people: low wage health care workers, and building cleaning and maintenance people. What language to advertise in? English? Mandarin? Polish? Spanish? Some West African language? Because those are all languages you’re going to encounter with those target audiences.

    And even when you’re in the right language, and using the right medium, you’re still advertising to tons of people who will never be able to join your union, because they work somewhere else in the economy.

  8. Dana Houle:

    AMEN! Not so much the DFA bit–they’re now mostly an email list; in every campaign I’ve managed since 2004 they delivered nothing, even when I had Jim Dean’s daughter on my staff as an organizer (who was pretty good, btw). But the vast majority of people who complain about the Democratic party don’t complain about their party, because they put a premium on not being joiners, on being outside the system, on not being perceived as doing what they’re told, on not being kept down by the man. But the reality is that in most places, the party is there for the taking. All it takes is some people willing to attend some meetings, plan a bit, and work with others.

  9. Murc:

    People should consider becoming a Precinct Committee Person for their local Democratic party.

    You know, this is good advice, but… it’s not surprising most people don’t do it, and speaking for myself, the fact that it’s even necessary sticks in my goddamn craw.

    Most people have jobs and families and lives. It is somewhat unfair to tell, say, a family with young children and two full-time jobs that if they want to keep the Republicans from eviscerating the infrastructure needed to raise those children well, they not only need to handle their jobs and kids, but also spend a lot of time agitating, essentially taking on a SECOND job.

    Because that’s supposed to be the job of the people whose full-time jobs are to run the goddamn Democratic Party and/or the country. The deal is supposed to be that you vote them into office, and then they make change happen. Otherwise you might as well just be doing it yourself.

    I don’t work as hard as I could, but I work pretty hard, and I’ve given money, time, and effort to the Democrats and to others because I know that the system does not, in fact, work in the way it should. But I resent the hell out of doing so, and I can’t bring myself to blame others with less free time than I have for not being fully versed in the nuances of how to bring about change from the bottom up.

  10. Murc:

    Think of it this way. Did Obama and Romney run ads in Arkansas and Rhode Island?

    I live in New York, and there were Obama and Romney signs everywhere. I put one up myself. Know why? Because the local Democratic Party gave me one and said ‘hey, we know we live in a blue state and all, but this is important, could you put this up please?’

    And I was sort of using the SEIU as an example, because it flowed better than “insert union here.” There are, you know, labor federations that are made up of MANY unions. There’s the AFL-CIO. There’s Change to Win. They could advertise, and then funnel the responses to the relevant locals, could they not?

    And as I said, I see the Chamber everywhere. That’s not inefficient for them?

  11. Marek:

    In the Boston metro area, some of the local unions (particularly, but not only, trades) buy radio spots. IBEW buys spots during Red Sox games, if I’m not mistaken.

  12. Dana Houle:

    There AREN’T people paid to run the local Dem parties in about 95% of America.

    A few weeks ago Erik posted the minutes of a union meeting in Oregon back in, iirc, the 1960′s. It was mostly mundane stuff, but his point–and it’s an excellent point–was that real change mostly happens in mundane ways, like attending meetings. Where you’re not paid to attend. Just like at that union meeting he wrote about.

  13. Marek:

    Here’s a link to Steve Earley’s review of McAlevey’s book, and her response:
    http://lists.portside.org/cgi-bin/listserv/wa?A2=ind1211D&L=PORTSIDE&F=&S=&P=17309

  14. Chatham:

    Yeah, it seems like a lot of people treat politics as a spectator sport. When we’re lucky, we here talk about what people should be doing, but we almost never here “let’s do something” or “here’s what I am doing and what you should be doing right now.” Before the election, we had posts attacking the Green party but not directing people to the Obama campaign’s at-home phone banking site.

    “They should” and “we should” are meaningless if we aren’t out there doing something.

  15. Erik Loomis:

    Personally, I don’t think either of them come across very well in this exchange.

  16. Marek:

    Agreed. But, I have read Earley for a long time and am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  17. Erik Loomis:

    The fundamental problem with his review is that he made it about what he is interested in rather than a real review.

  18. Chatham:

    It would be nice if we could all stay at home and have everything done for us. But this isn’t about what would be nice. This isn’t even about what’s fair. This is how the system works. People that are willing to show up are the ones that get heard. If you’re unhappy with the people that are paid to do things, then you have to get into a position where you have the power to pick someone else (or the power to pick a person that will then pick someone else).

    Getting involved doesn’t mean that you have to take on a second job. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend working that hard, because you’d probably get burned out. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask people who can to put at least a few hours a month into doing political work. Certainly when you’ve seen how much more sacrifice it took to get us here, it seems like sloth to let things fall apart because people that had the ability to do something were unwilling to do the minimum amount of work needed to hold things together.

  19. Bill Murray:

    I think a huge problem with the modern left, broadly defined, is the belief that if we elect the right people to office that things will change. That’s absolutely not the case. Change happens on the ground–in the workplace, at the school board meetings, in the courts. This all requires motivated and organized movements that see the election merely as a tool, not an end in itself.

    and what are you doing about this as you think it’s a problem? I suppose writing for a blog counts a little but not very highly. Or are you not part of the modern left, broadly defined and are playing Bill Krystol?

  20. Dana Houle:

    Setting aside your dim ad hominems, you don’t even have your insults right. Kristol probably did as much as anyone to scuttle health care reform in 1993-1994 by pushing the GOP to obstruct on everything. He had previously been chief of staff to the Vice President of the United States. And he had one hell of a role in getting us in to the idiotic war in Iraq.

    I’ll bet Erik would LOVE to be a left version of Bill Kristol. I know I’d sure love to have that influence.

  21. marijane:

    This almost seems obligatory:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3mw49mk_x0

  22. Marek:

    Many reviewers use the subject work as a jumping off point for a related essay; this doesn’t bother me. However, it seems that much of McAlevey’s book was only lightly touched upon by Earley.

  23. T.R. Donoghue:

    I’m a former organizer and current union lawyer. This interview is mostly incoherent and when she does manage to finish a thought it is a terrible idea like national right to work. That’s insanely stupid as anyone who has organized in right to work environment can tell you. That she thinks this is a serious idea which could lead to success for the movement is a bit frightening.

    Even the point that you have quoted is inaccruate at best. Workers are not put to sleep between presidential elections, far from it. The problem is you can’t expect working people to maintain the leftist activists rage day in and day out for years on end. Not all working people are activists, not all rank and file members are activists, not all members leaders of a local are activists.

    I read this interview with great hope and came away thinking it was mostly a waste of time.

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