What We Can Learn from the Labor Left
Unions may be the key to the far left's decades of success in political organizing. Conservatives should be taking notes.
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
This is a column about hows.
As conservatives, we tend to focus on lot of Who, What, Why, When, Where: Who is a Villain (those nasty lefties); What America Must Do (vote for righties!); When Everything Went Wrong (typically, after the author’s own childhood); Where People Went Wrong (they didn’t listen to the author). While I enjoy as much as anybody else hearing for the ninety-fifth time exactly how lefties are wrong, I haven’t been able to help noticing that for people who are wrong about everything they seem get a lot more of what they want than I do, in part because they’re a lot better at organizing to push for it.
So how is the left so good at organizing, anyway?
One of the answers you hear a lot from people on the right is that it “just comes naturally to them.” Organizing seems unpleasant and unnatural to us, after all. And leftists just being innately talented is a comforting answer, in much the same way it is comforting to believe that you don’t need to put forth any effort in life, because people will love you for who you are.
Of course, neither of these beliefs are true. Organizing doesn’t come naturally to anybody; that’s why they call it “organizing.” Even if you’re innately talented, it’s still a technical skill that you have to learn, and practice—like woodworking, or playing the piano.
Thinking in those terms: what does it take to learn a technical skill? Well, it depends on the skill, but it always helps to have mentors. You need the necessary tools (like a workbench, or a piano) and a place to practice. It’s useful to have good practical literature on the subject. Everybody works better without worrying about cops breaking down their door, so it helps if the thing you’re practicing is legally allowed. And if you want to be part of a big community, it has to be accessible to pretty much everyone.
As it happens, there is an area of organizing that meets all of these criteria. It is legally protected, has an extensive training network, comes with a voluminous literature geared at practical application, and it’s widely applicable because it focuses on someplace most people go nearly every day.
The big Rosetta Stone that explains the success of the modern left is union organizing. This is where the skills come from—and, in fallow periods for leftist activism, where they are maintained. Saul Alinsky, the only organizing name that most people on the right know, wasn’t a self-taught genius; he learned his skills as a mobilizer for the CIO. Cesar Chavez, who has his own holiday in California, learned his skills from union organizer Fred Ross. The civil rights movement had a lot of groundwork laid by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph—being mobile and independent of local whites, they could transport black newspapers produced in Northern cities to the the South. Even when big unions are less active, more go-along-to-get-along, the legal protections they enjoy also provide cover to more militant unions and organizers—and the organizing skills that unions teach can be used outside the workplace for other kinds of campaigns.
A union might get you a better paycheck, or better working conditions. It can force the employer to negotiate, or back down, or change policies. It can help you understand what the company benefits can do for you, like an HR department that works for you rather than the company.
But for radical union organizers, a union is a stepping stone to a more radical world. It teaches members to identify problems in the workplace and put people together to use power, rather than pleading, to solve them. The act of building a union gives workers an experience of living in a radical future in which ordinary people like them can join forces and build enough power to twist the arms of those above them. Forcing the employer to meet employee demands. Identifying and resolving individual problems that are actually common problems. Encouraging people to think of themselves, not as individual employees, but as members of the union.
A union is, in a sense, a voluntary state. And voluntary states have the ability to declare war outside their borders. So once a collective body of people knows and trusts each other, identifies as a group, and has experience working together to apply pressure to their employers, they can join forces with allied groups and apply pressure to people who aren’t their employers. This is how unions project power, and other groups can use the same skills to pressure all kinds of people.
In North Carolina, for example, a long fight to unionize a pork factory paid off because the newly minted union members provided bodies for regular protests of the state legislature—which helped pay electoral dividends down the line. Union organizing provides skills to individuals, manpower to causes, and—in the hands of the most radical organizers—does so in a way that encourages people to imagine and work toward a radical future.
Conservatives don’t really have this sort of thing. We learn to run campaigns, not build infrastructure, and outside of electoral politics we’re not very good at imparting skills or building effective organization. The closest you see is something like church-planting, but that’s a very different approach with very different goals. Nor are we big on presenting people with an arrangement in the here and now that evokes the world we’d like to see. (It’s interesting to imagine what, for various flavors of conservative, such an arrangement might look like, but imagination isn’t good enough—you’d have to get lots of groups of people experimenting in the real world to see what works and what flops, and we don’t have that either.)
So what can we learn? Well, let’s look at some of the things that unions, and other forms of organizers, do differently from us.
For one thing, they teach people how to form groups without using general publicity. Righties who want to form a group will put up a notice on Facebook or post a bulletin-board flier. There were days when doing that for union organizing could get you killed, so the first step in forming a union is talking to people quietly. And they talk differently than we do, too. Conservatives like public debate, showy stunts like setting up a table with a sign that reads, “Direct election of senators was a mistake—change my mind!” but union organizers are trained—get this—to have conversations designed to produce recruits. They’re not selling “supporting unions is an acceptable opinion,” but “having a union is the right choice for you and me, right here, right now.” Union organizers aren’t looking for grudging tolerance, they’re looking for people to see that it’s in their self-interests to join up and do the work.
Another useful technique crucial to organizing a union or a pressure campaign is mapping the territory. This can take a variety of forms. For organizing a union, it’s literally a map of the workplace: where workstations are, who works there, where people congregate, the flow of movement. This helps union organizers assess power relationships, build their networks, and see where union organizers or stewards are needed. Other times, such as during the design of a pressure campaign, the map looks like an organogram—just who works where in what jobs with what responsibilities. This is essential for staging a pressure campaign, because an organization’s decisions are made by individuals within that organization. You’re not facing an implacable, faceless opposition. You are facing an opposition whose decisions are made by people, and people have wants and needs and can be pressured or coaxed.
That’s a skill we don’t teach. But we should.
Here’s a project that you can do yourself, or as a group: make an onboarding manual for your city. Or your county. Or your state. By “onboarding manual,” I mean a document that explains how the jurisdiction works: how it’s organized, what the various districts are and who represents them, how that level of government operates, how your local political party works. Something you can hand new people so they have a good understanding of how things actually work, and that serves as an aid to make your opinions felt — not as one person who can be ignored, but as a group. Something that, when the government makes a decision you don’t like, will help you identify who made the decision, how to pressure them about it, and where their office is.
I’m sure a lot of local parties out there have something like this already. If you’ve got one, send it my way; I’d love to see what it’s like, and I’ll use them to make recommendations in future editions of this column to help people in places that don’t have them write their own. Unlike lefties, righties tend to silo; our people in different places, particularly grassroots activists, don’t talk to each other and learn from each other as much as they should. But we can change that, and should. So if you’re involved in grassroots organizing on the right, drop me a line at [email protected].
And hey, if you’re a conservative who works in a union shop, step up and spend some more time doing union stuff. It could be a real learning experience.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.