Three water protectors locked themselves together inside a segment of pipe for the Line 3 pipeline that would
carry tar sands oil into the U.S. Photo credit: Giniw Collective
By Jeff Ordower
Organizers can draw so much encouragement from 2020. The uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder became the largest movement in U.S. history. So many groups threw down brilliantly to flip back the battleground states. The pandemic and the support of groups like United for Respect made tech tools ubiquitous for organizing. Frontline Amazon workers, Instacart shoppers and healthcare workers pushed back against the pandemic profiteers.
Last year almost the entire progressive organizing infrastructure participated in the elections to some degree. That was necessary, and in large part successful, at least in defeating the most pernicious manifestation of Trumpism. Now we will see some strategic realignment within the social movement Left. Some groups are going all-in to win what they can from President Biden and Congress in the first 100 days. Others are doubling down on a commitment to build local and state political power, and winning significant issues and policies that come with that. Most groups have an eye towards base-building and growing their scope and power, concurrent with winning. Most encouraging on the strategy front is that the larger “we” of the movement ecosystem has learned from the early Obama years and is unafraid of inside-outside strategies.
The years ahead will no doubt be even more tumultuous than this last one. As a result, many of us also need to invest in different structures, organizing alongside or outside of the traditional unions, base-building and nonprofit organizations, thus enriching our movement ecosystem and augmenting our work for the multi-year struggles ahead. New approaches to worker organizing and to direct action seem particularly worthy of nurturing.
WORKERS STEP OUT
The huge upswing in worker organizing in 2020 often had union support, but with an experimental twist.
Over the first few months of the COVID-19 epidemic, workers from bridal shops to pizza places to supermarkets were organizing to get Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and winning. They used tools like the coworker.org site, which helps anyone start up a petition in their workplace and make demands. Groups like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a project of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) supported those workers taking independent action. EWOC provides a sophisticated intake system combined with veteran labor movement coaches to support workers winning their demands.
Groups like United for Respect and different coalition partners of Athena, fighting Amazon, have been building worker organizations and winning changes at some of the largest corporations on the planet. United for Respect has raised wages at Walmart, and won better conditions for pregnant workers. The Awood Center in Minnesota, which predominantly organizes East African workers, has changed Amazon’s practices in their warehouse to make sure that workers have accommodations for Ramadan and throughout the year as well.
Gig workers have no legal right to organize a union, but despite the law, Uber and Lyft drivers, Instacart shoppers, and Doordash delivery workers have been organizing before and during the pandemic. Groups like Gig Workers Rising, a group of rideshare drivers, have won minimum wages and benefits and concessions around unfair deactivations. Subsequently, gig companies spent $200 million to claw back many of those gains through Proposition 22 on the California ballot; but at least they had to spend more than any other ballot measure in history. Gig Workers Rising teamed up with drivers’ groups around the world to organize the Global Uber Strike in 2019, shutting down Market Street in San Francisco for hours in front of Uber Headquarters, and continue to push forward a high level of militancy.
Once workers exercise power in the workplace, they are building the confidence to exercise further power and build increasingly powerful organization. Worker militancy can create huge wins in the workplace, without entering into collective bargaining agreements. We can support workplace organizing both directly and indirectly.
BACKSTOPPING WORKER ACTIONS
Support at the workplace. This sounds simple but it cuts to the core of how we think about labor organizing. Increased workplace militancy begets increased militancy, as shown by the explosion of wildcat strikes in the 1930s. Increased militancy also leads to increased risk for workers. Most veteran union organizers are of the mind that we need organizational backing before workers can publicly take action. I am not sure that is entirely true. Workers might be able to take independent action, and then go to organizations if they run into trouble. Jobs With Justice has been filling this labor rapid response role for decades, and the Fight for 15 enlists faith leaders to accompany strikers back to work. This summer’s uprising has supercharged all of this infrastructure, and increasing numbers of folks are looking for opportunities to mobilize in solidarity. Movement infrastructure support, combined with traditional labor and faith actors and perhaps a National Labor Relations Board determined to move quickly and support collective action at the workplace, makes this an especially fortuitous time for us to both organize and support direct action at the workplace.
Financial undergirding for union organizing. Sometimes unions will support new forms of organizing and sometimes not, but workers paying dues right off the bat can support full or part-time organizers. The Communications Workers of America is doing the best work on this right now, collecting dues on bank draft or credit card through new projects with workers ranging from Google engineers to hospital workers. Two hundred workers paying $15 per month in dues pays for an organizer who would be making roughly the same amount as workers in retail or delivery. This may be a moment we can create sustainable economic models fairly quickly.
Support for salting. A salt is someone who takes a job with the intent of organizing a workplace. Unions like UNITE/HERE have used salts to organize hotels and there are currently salting projects at different warehouses as well. While we should not necessarily publicize current salting projects for reasons of security, we could be recruiting large numbers of young people and recently retired folks to engage in salting and organizing. For example, with so much of campus life on-line, student organizers could be rerouting their activism to the workplace. Sometimes, a group of people salting in a region live together in a group house, or we could find solidarity housing with folks who are long-time labor activists who have spare bedrooms. As workplace organizing and militancy comes back in vogue, we should be lowering the barriers to entry, and recruiting large numbers of salts, and thinking about how to create infrastructure that supports that, especially because wages, the most important thing, are already paid by the company.
Training and mentoring. Increasingly, we are seeing large strike schools and other mass worker and organizing training happening. All the projects mentioned above have real leadership training and development for workers, but tracks for organizers lag a little bit behind. This is because unions are still very invested in staff union organizers. As salts and militant workplace activists blur the line between “workers” and organizers, we should be creating mentorship and peer infrastructure for those workers, salts and organizers, even if they are outside of traditional infrastructure. The right program could solicit many veteran labor organizers and rank-and-file leaders to serve as mentors. Community organizations, not just unions, could provide some training for emerging labor organizers as well.
A freewheeling militant orientation, undergirded with support structures and increased tools and training, could radically increase the amount of collective workplace action over the next few years.
DIRECT ACTION AND DISRUPTION
The second important area for which we need support is scaled disruptive direct action. Last summer’s uprising was spontaneous, raw, courageous, and moved the needle in a significant way towards defunding law enforcement and moving a significant swath of white folks towards supporting the dismantling of white supremacy. Sometimes uprisings happen, and we need to be ready to support them. There are things we can do to try to foment uprisings. And finally, there are direct action campaigns that are inherently or potentially disruptive. Direct action requires some distinct kinds of scaffolding.
Infrastructure that undergirds movement moments. Since the Ferguson Uprising the number of local medic collectives and jail support structures has skyrocketed. Despite more “dots on the map,” we still collectively underinvest in that infrastructure. Good criminal defense lawyers are too scarce. Jail support is still insufficient for mass arrest situations. Many cities lack the numbers of trained medics we need. Tech tools such as broadcast texting for mass actions are not yet in use everywhere. Finally, we always need more money, and we need more formations willing to use money in flexible ways for needs such as legal support, food and housing for front-line protestors, and other unanticipated but necessary expenses. However, there are very few entities that can both collect and disburse money in loose but legal ways. Even where there is good infrastructure, sometimes there are disparate abilities to access that infrastructure, as the spontaneity that accompanies uprisings often means that organizations can be slower to support things that just “pop off.” Resourcing that infrastructure now means that we have more potential to support and maintain uprisings and movement moments as they happen.
Support for impermanent organizations. Edge organizations that can create conditions like last summer’s rebellion, or create a left flank, are not necessarily built to last, but are immensely valuable. Most of the edge organizations we see now exist to move a particular piece of legislation or a campaign, and then disband.
The Home Defenders League, which grew out of the Occupy Homes movement in 2011, disbanded in 2014, after homeowners had engaged in direct action and jail solidarity at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. in 2013. (People do jail solidarity by refusing to give their names or post bail.) The homeowners and their allies prompted the Obama administration to begin holding banks accountable again, to the tune of billions of dollars. A year later the Home Defenders League, believing its final action had pushed the envelope as far as it could, began to wind down.
If we support and sponsor edge organizations that do not have to worry about their self-preservation, we create a lot more room for risk-taking and bold action. The Home Defenders League did not exist in a vacuum. It drew support from the Leadership Center for the Common Good, which arose from the destruction of ACORN and was one of the groups that merged to form the Center for Popular Democracy. We should invest capacity in creating fiscal sponsors, legal support and mentorship for high-risk, time-bound projects. Right-wing attacks, SLAPP suits and government surveillance might destroy such organizations, but organizations can be expendable, particularly if we can protect the people involved from threats, and keep them in the work.
Supporting Direct Action Campaigns. Long-time Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure caught the attention of the world in 2016. That resistance is still going strong in the campaign against Line 3, a pipeline that will carry tar sands oil into the United States at great peril to the planet, to Indigenous lands, and to all of our Midwest freshwater. Organizers are launching a growing number of winter action camps. Activists are locking down to block construction equipment two to three times a week, and engaging in multi-day tree sits in the Minnesota winter. Participants in these camps are getting a crash course in building movement infrastructure – and a huge infrastructure will be needed to support thousands of water protectors traveling north to stop construction over the vast territory the pipeline will cover. With enough support, the Line 3 fight could rise to the level of Standing Rock – and should, given the courage of those resisting on the frontlines.
Scenario Planning. We collectively engaged tens of thousands of people and spent millions of dollars in scenario planning for responses to a potential coup. As a result, tens of thousands of people thought about civil resistance, and hundreds of others thought about shutting down ports and commerce. We need to figure out under what other circumstances some of those unions, community groups and Indivisible chapters would be willing to plan mass scaled disruptive actions. This might mean we will have to create edge or impermanent structures that can avoid legal risk.
Expanding our views on paid organizing and political work. Institutions, especially longer-term base-building institutions, both labor and community, are vital. Leaders of those institutions are often a combination of the best in the movement, detail-oriented visionaries who work night and day building their organizations. But we also need to support people who view organizing as their unpaid political work, or who are not seeking to build nonprofits or move up the organizing management pathway. We can coach and mentor them if they want to move into more freewheeling, impermanent organizing experiments. We can think about ways to reduce their cost of living with solidarity housing, shared meals, and other arrangements that would give them much more time to engage in the work of organizing. If we can support their choices, and provide them some ability to meet their basic needs, the number of talented, experienced organizers outside of our current structures will grow.
Crisis presents movement opportunities of which we cannot yet conceive—but we can build the scaffolding, skills, and people who are able to vision, throw down and support in these times of crisis. May we strengthen the old and build the new.