Thoughts on Workers Rising Everywhere - Organizing for Power

Ann Grant
Cover photos: NUMSA (Facebook) and Fdtpkn (Wikimedia)   Design: Clémence Hutin and Sarah Reader  Editing: Ethan Earle and Jeff Rousset

May 18 - June 2, 2021 for Workers Rising Everywhere, the 4th training in the Organizing for Power series led by Jane McAlevey and hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, this time featuring new trainers and inspiring stories from across the world.

June, 2021


My first thought is on the title of the course – that's what we need to get as quickly as we can – power. And the other thing I'm impressed with is that McAlevey always says (I've watched a number of her online speeches, workshops beside this course and read her books), that she is concerned not just about organizing but about doing it to win and again that's what we must do. No good unless we win and win big and soon.


The next thing that really impressed me is her distinction between advocacy, mobilization, and organization. We know that there is all kinds of advocacy going on and lots of ENGOs fundraising and constantly imploring us to send money, sign petitions, write letters to those in power etc. etc. but how far is that getting us and does it give us the needed power to win?!!


Then there is all the mobilizing that goes on also by ENGOs sometimes even unions and all sorts of other groups – Friday's for Future etc. etc. And we have taken part in all sorts of large and small demos, I've carried lots of popular signs etc. Some of the demos worldwide have been huge and not to say they weren't energizing for the participants or that they haven't had some influence on those in power but they obviously haven't had the power to make the necessary action on climate emergency happen.


This is where I'm really impressed with Jane McAlevey's point, (and of course the emphasis of many other people), that what really is going to count is to organize huge groups of workers. These are the people who already have the real power in society and we want them to exercise their power to make what really needs to happen on the climate emergency and on equality happen NOW like yesterday!


So how does McAlevey propose to do this? She proposes to take the experience of generations of union organizers and the best of democratic tricks of the trade to apply to either already unionized workers to get them to act or to organize workers to form unions so they can act. Note that she is not interested in persuading union bosses on a course of action but in showing workers that they are the union and they can take their power into their own hands.


She has developed these skills into a course for organizers, The plan is to get people to understand the skills and to practice them with the hope they will then put them into practice.


As far as I can see the most important thing initially is to understand that the skills are to be applied to a structured group that exists not as a self-selected group of concerned and motivated people (say for a cause like Vancouver Ecosocialists or Socialist Unity Assembly etc.) but a group that exists in society already. This is particularly a group of workers who are a group by reason of the fact that they all work for a particular organization, operation, business – they have not come together to work on say the climate emergency or on inequality or housing but - for workers - out of the need to survive/work. [Or they happen to be the tenants in a housing development. They happen to be members of a particular church etc.] Taking the case of workers, they are typically a workforce of people with mixed interests and backgrounds. They won't all be interested in organizing or in improving their lot or the world. The project is to get them to see that they will be better off if they do work together even if many don't see the importance or value of this at first. So ultimately this is such an important way to expand power throughout society.


And I found that the (tried and true – hence 'no shortcuts') skills she works people through make a lot of sense. First there is the question of defining what is the unit you are going to organize. This must be clear, bounded and defined. Next comes an analysis of the social connections between the members (workers, tenants) in the unit with the goal of finding those who have the most connections and influence. These are the natural leaders. These are the people you go to first to persuade them of the value of organizing. And there are suggestions on how to do this particularly as this can be difficult – they may need a lot of convincing. Then you enlist these leaders to involve all the rest of the workforce in a systematic fashion. [I should add that the point is made that words are important and that it is important to ask those you are trying to organize what exactly are their particular concerns. Don't presume you know what people's concerns are or that they are always going to be about money in work situations! And don't tell people what they should be concerned about. Being a good listener is very important – as in many situations.]


And most important - you get everyone to agree 'in writing' to some course of action – the structure test. This you do time after time with increasing stringency until you are quite sure that you have a really large majority of the workforce (or other group) on your side and committed to taking real risk and important action – say to strike if necessary. By the way, this is why you need a clear bounded group for this organizing to work because then you know exactly what population you are working with and so can accurately assess how your structure/stress tests are doing in getting to that large majority. And this is done of course without publicity, confidentially, with the sole knowledge of the group. Only when you have that overwhelming majority do you confront the organization and now the group has real power! And so it goes.


Jane McAlevey can point to a number of high profile recent job actions in the US which were organized in just this way (Chicago teachers, LA teachers, nurses in particular US hospitals etc.) and with great success so this is not just hypothetical pie-in-the-sky. [And going back into the past there are lots of examples of the strength of these organizing techniques. Jane McAlevey has made the point that it's in recent years that North American unions have settled for weak advocacy and/or mobilizations as opposed to doing the hard work of real organizing and taking the risks of using their power.]


Most interestingly for those of us focused on the climate emergency she has written about unions in New York State who have had real world power in the realm of energy transformation.

According to Vincent Alvarez, the president of the New York City Labor Council, the official body of the largest regional organization of the AFL-CIO in the country, “We took a look at the frustrating discourse and inaction on climate issues that was taking place in Washington, D.C., and decided that we wanted to get something done on the ground that tackled the climate and inequality crises. We wanted to build a program that could start actually making measurable improvements in building a more resilient climate, addressing the dual crisis of climate change and inequality.”

And now we have something similar in California:


This is why I propose that we try to get some of the people involved in these projects to put their points of view to Canadian union people. Connie Hubbs has suggested Iron and Earth as good candidates and I agree.


But it must be said that McAlevey's focus has mainly been on organizing with workers.


Although I don't want to discount mass direct action in the right spots and I'm sure mass mobilizations can and should still have their place I'm feeling more and more that action particularly by worker unions is really where the power and real change we so desperately need is going to come from.


हिन्दी - DEUTSCH - عربي  - РУССКИЙ 





Participant Manual

May 18 - June 22, 2021


हिन्दी - DEUTSCH - عربي  - РУССКИЙ 



[One more note:

I can also say that the O4P course was interesting and inspiring in that it involved both instructors and participants from many parts of the world, was free, and managed to group a huge number of participants in one session into small 'breakout groups' from all these participants. I myself, was in a group which I think they called a community group and in fact we had some discussion about how it might be possible to apply our 'lessons' to community situations and there was even some exchange of contacts. The discussion as I recall it was inconclusive but it was interesting to hear people struggling with similar concerns. In my group was a young person who is with the Vancouver Tenants Union whom I 'met' for the first time.


I also went to a breakout group in a recent International Socialists meeting where the O4P course came up in the discussion as another person in attendance was taking the course. One of the (very good) speakers (Liz Medina from Vermont, VT AFL-CIO) talked in such a similar way to Jane McAlevey I was surprised she said she had not been to a McAlevey course!]

[Cover photos for Participant Manual: NUMSA (Facebook) and Fdtpkn (Wikimedia)   Design: Clémence Hutin and Sarah Reader  Editing: Ethan Earle and Jeff Rousse]