Starting From the Beginning
[Contribution to the Reimagiing Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
My vision for the future starts at the beginning. At the risk of misquoting lots of folks, in particular Gandhi and Ella Baker, this essay is about the organizing of people to create the world we would like to see or being and organizing the change we would like to become. The opinions and possible insights in this essay are based on various social movement theories none of which will be cited, but hopefully some will recognizable and almost 50-years of personally trying to change the world I live in. I have been a participant-observer in dozens of local, regional and national organizing efforts aimed at creating a more inclusive democratic society. I have spent my life organizing workers into unions, reorganizing workers that are already in unions, organizing activists in numerous communities and around an assortment of democratic issues. At both local and national levels I have been involved in the strategic planning and implementation of national campaigns for social justice (e.g., worker rights, race, gender and anti-wars). I have met, debated, interviewed, read about, interacted with social activists throughout the U.S and different parts of the world. I hope my perspective on the world is intergenerational. I have taken great pains to reach out to my own children and my students and other young people in an attempt to grasp how they view their world.
My name is Fernando Gapasin, I describe myself as a local labor movement activist, author and labor educator. I co-authored Solidarity Divided with my friend Bill Fletcher, Jr., The Gapasins were farm workers and neither of my parents finished elementary school. My family members were founders of early agricultural unions in California and became founding members of the United Farm Workers Union. I was a farm worker and an organizer for the UFW. My uncle Philip Vera Cruz, former vice-president of the UFW, instilled in me ideas about solidarity and socialism. And, as a child he warned me that capitalists would scapegoat immigrants for the economic hardships caused by capitalism.
Despite spending over a decade in academia I have been a worker all of my life. I’ve been a retail clerk, dishwasher, auto worker, steel worker, fiber glass worker, roller coaster assembler, heavy equipment mechanic, bus mechanic as well as a university professor. While in academia I was a recruiter and executive board member of AFT and I was the president of an AFSCME local that represented childcare workers. In the local union movement I have served in every capacity from shop steward to principal officer of two local unions and two Central Labor Councils. I’ve also been a paid union organizer and staffer and the principal researcher for the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities program in 1996 -1997. I have been a staffer or elected leader in a dozen different unions. In all of my various positions on the shop floor or in the unions I have perceived myself as a dissident. I am also a Chicana/o movement activist.
Since I am convinced about the idea of class and class struggle I often find myself at odds with the bosses and union leaders who espouse a form of Samuel Gompers’ plain and simple unionism, aka, “business-unionism.” Since, Gompers’ form of unionism envisions only a capitalist world and seeks the acceptance of capitalist leaders I find myself at odds with most union leaders on most issues. My experience in the union movement has been “hands-on” predominantly at the level of implementation, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I have engaged in the discourse of broader labor movement theories, mostly from a critical perspective, e.g., class, race, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, but my focus has always been on how such theories translate into local action by activists and working people.
In my decades of organizing I have found that there are two keys to developing activism. First, people have to come to the belief that change is necessary and second, that by their action they will contribute to the desired outcome. Both of these two components are ideologically charged, meaning that the change they desire and the strategy they select to make the change reflects essential beliefs held by the individual. A good organizer, in my experience, understands how to create intersections for different ideological perspectives that might otherwise be in conflict. The best organizers never use “cookie cutter” or pre-patterned strategies of organizing, mainly because they understand that organizing is about organizing one person at a time. This means organizing people to organize other people.
They also have the quality of being self-reflective, meaning that they are conscious of their own “social encasement,” e.g., ideological beliefs, values and behavioral tendencies. Furthermore, they are conscious of the group and organizational dynamics, including culture of the people they are organizing. Good organizers understand that group and organizational dynamics are influenced by race, gender, class background, national origins, geography and occupation of people. The best organizers understand how family background and cultures of communities affect the people being organized and how these factors can become obstacles or opportunities for success.
At the risk of committing a real faux pas I’ll say that the best organizers cannot be primarily organizational people or folks bound first to institutional loyalty. I believe that they are first people who are committed to notions of inclusive democracy and empowering people to change the world. In a word, the best organizers facilitate a vision of hope and a realistic strategy that ideologically may be independent of institutional goals. The best social movement leaders understand how to balance inclusive democracy and institutional maintenance. But for most social movement organizations this contradiction becomes more apparent the farther away decision making gets from the locus of interpersonal interaction. Nowhere is this more evident than the divide that exists between International and National unions and local labor movements.
National unions replaced local and regional central labor bodies as the primary institutions in the union movement at the AFL convention in 1891. At that convention the current per-capita structure was established. Union votes were determined by the number of members they had and central labor bodies got one vote regardless of their membership size. Since then local unions have become subsidiaries of national unions and national unions have dominated the federation both on a national and local level. Each national union has its own history and culture. The AFL-CIO is a conglomeration of traditions and organizational cultures. The same can be said about the split-off Change-to-Win grouping. Words have different meanings and significance for different unions. A grievance for some unions may be the central mechanism for dealing with employer issues, for other unions a grievance procedure may have little or no use or meaning. Seniority may be a central concept for industrial unions and may have virtually no importance for a building trades union. Internal organizing for most public sector unions means organizing members of the bargaining unit who are not union members, but for some unions internal organizing means that a dissident group is organizing opposition to the incumbent leadership. The term “organizing the unorganized” could mean the central thing that unions do or an extra activity that is done when the opportunity or need arises. External organizing could mean organizing people and growing the union movement or organizing jobs for an existing membership. The term “Solidarity” could mean only practical unity when it is mutually advantageous, usually on a local level or it could be class wide and international in its perspective with no immediate economic benefits to a particular union. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) support of the grape boycott, anti-apartheid movement, and its opposition to the Iraq invasion are good examples of class wide internationalist solidarity.
When local central labor bodies were the locus of union activity, the particular nature of the trade or occupation meshed with regional traditions, behaviors, and values to form a culture for that particular union institution. The power of localized unions and central labor bodies to affect local cultures came from their institutional integration into the community. For instance, unions were part of the social fabric of communities. When national unions became the axis of the union movement the traditions, behaviors, and values of the parent union were imposed on their local adjuncts.
This occurred primarily through guidelines for behavior which were memorialized in constitutions and bylaws. These guidelines defined membership. In the union movement, exclusivity was defined by trade, occupation, region, employment status, political beliefs, ideology and previously, formerly excluded people by race, national origin and gender. Because of a history of exclusion some unions may still have few members who are women and people of color. Consequently, in some areas of the country working people of color are not permitted to participate in the AFL-CIO because the unions that are part of the federation have very few members of color even though a large portion of the local work force might be people of color. An important component of the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities program was the inclusion of more groups of workers who have not been previously represented in union leadership.
The relationship that most workers have to unions is largely determined by the culture of their local union and their local communities. The existence of “cultures of solidarity” in the community and the local labor movement is an essential determinant for building the labor and union movements. Cultures of solidarity manifest themselves when different groups of people in a community are willing to coalesce and be mobilized against injustice and for social justice. Examples might be when large numbers of people can be mobilized in a community to defend against the forced eviction of mobile home owners from trailer parks or protest racial profiling by police, protest the abuse of gay people and support union organizing.
Creating community cultures of solidarity is related to the issue of developing labor movements that embrace the 88% of workers who are not in unions and create an inclusive labor movement that fights for the interests of all workers, not just the 12% that are in institutional unions. The potential for growing “cultures of solidarity” requires porous boundaries between union movement organizations and social movement organizations. Overcoming institutional barriers and creating opportunities for inclusion becomes a goal for the union and labor movements. If the institutional obstacles are too formidable alternative forms of inclusive organizations have to be created to form the bases for a new progressive movement. This essay will discuss fighting for social justice and creating communities of solidarity.
Ideologically, neoconservative cultural strategies create a formidable obstacle to cultures of solidarity. Manipulation of mass media is an important part of the neoconservative agenda. Federal laws that distinguished news reporting from entertainment, required balanced reporting and prevented the corporate monopolization of the media have been disabled or destroyed by conservative legislators. Neoconservative cultural strategies have played a major role in the reshaping of the cultural terrain of the U.S. working class. Consumerism, personal enrichment, privatization and the diminishing social role of government, deteriorating public infrastructure, deregulation, increased poverty, deteriorating healthcare and education, immigrant bashing racism plus no alternative to capitalism breeds hopelessness. National and local conservative community cultures have diminished the scope of civic responsibility along with notions of class solidarity. The building of local “cultures of solidarity,” thus expanding the scope of civic responsibility becomes an essential building block for making possible an alternative world view.
Tied to the idea of building local cultures of solidarity is municipal and regional power for working people. Central Labor Councils have historically been a voice for unions in local and regional governments. Unions themselves may or may not represent the needs of all working people in a region due to the limitations of their institutional cultures and the exclusion of most working people who are not members of unions. Building local forms of organization that facilitate inclusive democracy and increase the capacity of working people to change the world should be the starting place for the Left.
When I refer to the Left I’m talking about those activists who believe in an alternative world that is not dominated by financial institutions and capitalists. Many Left activists believe in the concept of socialism. I am not drawing lines of demarcation between those that believe capitalism has to be overthrown and those that think capitalism will destroy itself or even between those that believe that the worst aspects of capitalism can be legislated away. My vision of the Left is not nuanced enough, anymore, to draw clear lines between different leftists and I have the perhaps naïve idea, based on some real experience, that on a local level collective strategic planning can occur which will facilitate the building of inclusive strategies and organizations for social justice and socialism. I also believe that current levels technology permit local communities of solidarity to be linked with national and international communities of solidarity.
I have seen working people gain local power in variety of ways in big and small cities nationwide. I hesitate to identify the cities where these examples have occurred first, because the people carrying out the work, in all probability, want to remain anonymous or at least semi-anonymous, it seems that quite often folks become suspicious of people who consciously herd other folks and second, because I believe that there are many examples of similar organizing going on across the country and I don’t want anyone doing this good work to feel excluded. That said two general weaknesses in these local efforts are common. One, the local strategies are not usually seen as working people taking over their cities and changing the culture of whole communities. Two, the work is not purposely seen as part of a national, let alone international, effort to create an alternative world that is not capitalist.
One example of how this kind of organizing can occur will suffice for this discussion. In one large city following a major social upheaval leftist used their positions in universities and nonprofit organizations to form an inclusive community problem-solving group. This discussion group consciously recruited activists from unions, various social movements, community organizations, churches, nonprofit organizations, and universities to participate in strategic planning on a variety of issues. The discussion group would often collectively do readings on particular issues. They recognized that issues they picked to work on would be influenced both by the people who were involved and would also impact the scope of involvement in the future. After using social mapping methods and holding numerous constituency group discussions they identified union organizing, immigrant rights, racial justice and living wage as central issues that would broaden their coalition building efforts. The social mapping and investigation process itself were organizing tools for broadening the social base of activism.
During this time the union movement itself was going through the transition from the old AFL-CIO to the Union Cities program. Unions sought community allies and the Union Cities program itself triggered a means for creating a community of solidarity. The demographic analysis of the city revealed that large numbers of immigrants would be eligible to become citizens. Community research also revealed a continuing and growing rift between native-born Afro-Americans and immigrants. University research also revealed that corporations were being given huge tax subsidies with no guaranteed benefits to the local community in the form of tax revenue or living wage jobs. Nonprofits spearheaded the campaigns for economic justice including several successful living wage campaigns that mobilized mass support on a broad scale. Get-out-the-vote campaigns orchestrated by unions put unions into immigrant communities and forced them to work with existing immigrant rights organizations further broadening the inclusive coalition. This brought new immigrants into unions and helped to change the anti-immigrant policies of the AFL-CIO. Community support for union organizing increased and some of the most successful union organizing and strike support work occurred in this city, thus increasing union density from 16% to 21% in less than a decade. As the coalition grew people were asked to join the discussion group. Inclusion of impacted workers and activists in the discussion group was a strategic consideration. Since unions restricted participation to union members much of the work of the discussion group was coordinated by nonprofit community groups or churches. Key to success in this city was the public mobilization of communities around living wage, immigrant rights and union organizing. Solidarity manifested itself in mass demonstrations highlighting strategic issues. This community of solidarity also mobilized and crafted legislation to address other issues: examples include, stopping the forced eviction of low-income tenants by developers, stopping legal discrimination of gay people and responding to a dramatic reduction in community college funding by creating a community taxing mechanism that provided educational scholarships for low-income community college students.
The long term impact of this local strategic planning and organizing were legislative changes in city and state government and progressive change in the election of city officials. Working people of color were also elected to office at the state and national levels. Clearly circumstances influenced the ability of the discussion group to form and its ability to create a workable strategy for change. The racial upheavals, NAFTA, the change in the AFL-CIO, the emergence of new union and community leaders, term limits, history of left activism and thoughtful good organizing as mentioned above all contributed to local success.
Some of the key elements to building local communities of solidarity seem to be:
1. Having good organizers as described above.
2. Building long term inclusive democratic community organizations. They don’t have to be new organizations. They can be existing organizations with porous boundaries.
3. Broad based community strategic planning, informed by competent social research, aimed at creating intersecting interest based collective action.
4. Consciously building local community cultures of solidarity. The AFL-CIO’s Union Cities program was a good vehicle for building working class communities of solidarity. Solidarity does not occur by accident. Loosely paraphrasing the Dodger’s Wesley Branch Rickey, I believe that solidarity is the residue of design. For instance one Central Labor Council committed itself to the idea that all working people in their jurisdiction would stand together for social justice and based on the needs of their local community identified their priorities as family wage jobs, affordable housing, healthcare for all, building public transportation, fair trade and immigrant rights. This Central Labor Council opened itself to any community organization willing to abide by the constitution and pay the dues of the labor council, thus providing more resources and broader access to the whole labor movement.
5. Realizing expanded capacity by increasing involvement and growing resources.
I believe the key elements for broader anti-capitalist change is first to promote the belief that working people have the right to control the resources of their cities. Secondly, that local communities of solidarity are part of an international movement for social justice. Good organizing can occur locally and there are several Left led efforts to create national intersections between local organizing efforts in unions, labor support groups, nonprofits, racial justice groups and single-payer healthcare. At the risk of leaving out any group I won’t name any right now. There is an obvious vacuum in the U.S. for a Left organization that can be a clearing house for evaluating and enhancing the overall efforts of the Left to change the world. The Right has the Republican Party. I fear that until this vacuum is filled the goal of developing and implementing a collective strategy to create a non-capitalist world will be unrealizable.