Back to Basics: Organizing 101

Right-wing forces have sharpened their decades-long attacks on the labor movement as they attempt to erase the very idea of the public good. Capitalist elites correctly identify unions as the most effective means for working people to contest their rule and exert democratic control. This year’s teacher uprisings against austerity demonstrate the scale and tactics required to combat this assault: direct action, broad-based unity, community mobilization, and visionary demands.

The strikes recapture the basic strategy that labor leftists have pursued to build organization through workplace struggle. This approach was developed by left-led unions during their prime in the 1930s and now persists in the most militant organizations across the country (chronicled in Jane McAlevey’s recent No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age), including my own union, 1199 New England. Strongly influenced by the orientation of its radical founders, 1199 NE continues to link the fights for labor and civil rights and use a robust methodology to organize the racially diverse healthcare workforce.

At the heart of this method is an understanding of power. Under capitalism, bosses derive their power from their ability to extract profit from the services that workers provide to earn a wage. Because bosses depend on everyone to keep the business of healthcare running, workers build power when they forge enough unity to create a crisis for their employers by hindering or stopping the flow of work. Crucial, unity is only achieved by identifying and recruiting rank-and-file leaders, who exist organically in every workplace, to lead their coworkers in coordinated campaigns.

This contest for power between workers and bosses unfolds through continuous struggle. Organization is strengthened in struggle, no matter how small or large—a march on the boss, a petition, a rally, a strike—because each fight is an opportunity to activate more members, recruit more leaders, and create greater unity. Because the healthcare industry is bound up with government policy and funding, this strategy requires confrontation with the state as well as with individual employers.

Several recent victories sustain this organizing model. In 2015, thousands of our private-sector nursing home members in nearly 30 facilities overwhelmingly voted to strike. After hundreds of members took to the capitol each week, we secured funding for a $15-per-hour starting rate alongside raises and defined-benefit pensions. This year, workers caring for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities replicated this strike strategy, causing legislators to almost unanimously enact a bill raising wages to $15 per hour—affecting all workers in the industry. Despite the legal constraints of the open shop, our public-sector members have applied the same philosophy. Our home-care members recently won a historic contract guaranteeing workers’ compensation for the first time and significant raises. Our state employee leaders have spent years preparing for the expected decision in Janus v. AFSCME by speaking with coworkers about the war that the wealthy few are waging on the working class.

But even the most radical unions alone cannot unclench the grip of capitalism. In DSA, we look beyond the vision in our unions toward a truly democratic society. However, we in DSA can learn from the strongest labor organizing methodologies: that is, to focus on identifying and recruiting organic leaders, on keeping direct action central, and on connecting diverse struggles through an overarching vision of rights and dignity. Deliberate attention to the details of organizing—what the great Ella Baker called “spadework” and Charles Payne described as the “slow, respectful, work that made the dramatic moments possible”—will help us grow and build our movement, brick by brick.