Moving to Action: workplace organizing beyond recipes

by S. Nappalos- When a revolutionary begins organizing in a shop, the first step is typically to agitate one’s coworkers. In our minds we see a step-by-step process wherein our agitation leads to other opportunities, recruitment, committee building, until we have power and an organization. The problem is that for most workplaces, this way of thinking gives the wrong impression. In some workplaces, particularly in production, there’s a state of constant agitation and actions burst out before committees ever get built. In other workplaces agitation just never seems to take hold. What do we do in these situations? What do we do when agitation takes years without much visible result, or in places where workers are clearly in the retreat or a passive state?

We must begin by seeing the bigger picture. Much of our thinking and historical reference points come from times where workers and communities had organization, histories and memories of struggle, and there was a broad combative mood in the working class. We tend to overlook the periods before and after those struggles. So we look at agitating people as either teaching them or cheerleading. Often times though, fighting is unpleasant and people either perceive or have better options available than long protracted fights (which is what real organization requires). It must be recognized that organizing would bring its own misery and there’s a social cost to this. Simply finding the right way to explain organizing or having motivational wrestling isn’t sufficient in many instances to bring people to action. To build a functioning, participatory, and combative workers organization would take a degree of social mobilization that isn’t timeless or immediate. There are objective factors that must come into play that makes social class war a better option than settling our problems with the existing means of resolution.

This problem is poignant for new organizers hired onto a worksite. As someone new we come into a situation with the balance of forces given, relationships established, and we want to change the whole scenario. Without having respect, trust, and influence amongst your coworkers, it’s irresponsible and dangerous to try and organize. In fact you will endanger everyone else more than yourself. Coming into quiet shops where people accept the discipline they are given, resist fighting back, and are antagonistic towards organizing poses a double challenge.

The reality is that in these situation you need to try and build collective fights, but you’re unlikely to succeed in the short term. First you need to establish yourself, but also the mood of the workplace needs to change and it usually takes a spark either from inside (aggregious changes) or from the outside (industry or economic change, or other fights break out in the working class). Part of being new is going the extra mile for people, and sewing the seeds of solidarity in day to day actions. Do extra things for others that make their lives easier, be kind, participate in social gatherings, and come to be seen as someone who is reliable, dependable, and invested in your coworkers. As you become integrated into the informal workgroups and social map of the workplace, your activity and opinions will become more important, especially if you avoid trying to lecture people or spout off about abstract political opinions.

We need to move away from models of organizing by lecturing people about why we could rule this world and capitalism is horrible, or believing getting people agitated will automatically lead to organization because the workers are already radical. Instead we need to think about organizing as a relationship, a back and forth between a revolutionary(ies) and their coworkers in dialogue and common struggle. While laying out your own ideas is appealing and often satisfying, simplying depositing our ideas into people usually leads to a speedy withdrawl. Instead we want people to develop their own revolutionary ideas as part of their process about thinking about their experiences. As an organizer you try to get people to lay out their conception of their work, bosses, coworkers, and the world. Organizers work on what people want to work on, and the fights that they have interests in. It’s on this basis that people learn and develop, and through struggle that they radicalize. Addressing their interests in the context of collective struggle gives us the space to re-examine their theories and ideas, and change them to fit new circumstances like workers imposing their power directly at work. That back and forth between ideas and actions is called praxis.

While this is a way to understand class-based workplace organizing, it is also the model of liberatory or libertarian education of whom Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator and revolutionary, is the most famous proponent. In fact workplace organizing with this model is a better example of liberatory education than what usually passes for it, which is no more than lectures with clever activities and “popular” content. For us there are two pieces: (i) engaging peoples ideas about how they understand their world and struggles, (ii) struggling around people’s collective interests. These two happen simultaneously and go back and forth influencing each other as we build up our struggles. The organizer is a teacher, but not one in a classroom outside the struggle, but a participant vested in the struggles, and learning as a participant at the same time. It is crucial to understand that as workplace organizers and revolutionaries we are doing political work. Too often this is seen as a technical matter of doing “good organizing”. Good organizing is preparing the field so that we can weather the storms that come not in 1 or 2 years, but in 10 or 30 years. This requires not just building actions, but creating new people, new protagonists in struggle. As Sam Dolgoff said,

“We must not be impatient. We must be prepared to work within the context of a long-range perspective which may take years of dedicated effort before visible progress will show that our struggles have not been in vain” [1].

Many jobs won’t give us the luxury of easily launching into collective fights. Management assualts, dominating legalistic grievance procedures and contract-environments, and false forms of management-led democracy can sometimes be successful in suppressing the will to fight as a group. It is consequently extremely difficult to get the opportunity to transform people in struggle, if we’re forced into individualistic and isolated forms of struggle particularly if it’s through alienating bureaucratic means.

Yet if our methodology of organizing is not technical but political, and we are building organization through building relationships and planting seeds, the field is somewhat altered. Revolutionaries should be people that others come to when they’re having trouble they’re unable to grapple with alone. That alone may be a significant step for someone. Once you have people’s trust, and I mean genuine trust that you have their interests in mind like we would for loved ones, even individualized forms of struggle can be potential opportunities to build praxis. Taking action, even through ineffective methods such as informally talking to the boss to try and make small changes, can deepen the solidarity between coworkers and open space to further action.

We have to remember most people face this world completely alone, and feel terror at grappling with all the threats to themselves and their families thrown at them at work. Even just to walk with someone down that path, and have someone listen to them and present alternatives can be powerful. We’ve been raised in a society that has socially engineered isolation and anti-social behaviors for decades, and we are swimming against the tide to try and build lived mutual aid and solidarity in our day to day activities. Any steps we can take to back others up can created tiny ruptures and open up new spaces for reflection and action.

Part of the problem is that our understanding of why people take action and what motivates them is often too simplistic. A popular conception on the left and in unions is that people will fight for better conditions, more material benefits, or their material interests. While it’s not irrelevant obviously, people often say something completely different.

At a meeting of taxi drivers who had been involved in organizing, one driver explained people’s absence based on the economic crisis, the low season, and the rough state their families are in. His reasoning was that people were hard up, and couldn’t afford to take the two hours off to get active and attend meetings. Another driver countered by saying that he will fight even if that means loosing thousands of dollars and being expelled from the industries, because he can’t let injustice stand. In fact this had some reality, as every driver in the room had lost out financially, personally, and in some instance criminally. Workers had been beaten, arrested, and harassed because of their work. The last generation of leadership literally was run out of the city. Any reasonable balance sheet would show that the workers had lost ground through organizing in purely economic terms.

If you think about strikes, often workers loose more through striking than they win through raises with a successful strike. I was on strike for 3 months once, supposedly over a raise. If you calculate the amount of money lost through striking, it would have been decades in a high turnover industry before we recuperated our lost strike pay.

People are not typically motivated by raw economics. A sense of justice, dignity, and faith in their coworkers run deeper. If it was only about money, it’s usually a better idea to hustle than it is to fight. Realistically the reformist options in the short term would likely help you and your family get wealthier, or at least not incur the penalties that are doled out for resisting. Yet it is inspite of this that people organize. Organizers are conscious of what is at stake, but at a certain point accept those as part of struggling for what is right. That is crucial, because too often we’re liable to think about organizing as good marketing, with our option having the most benefits. People will fight and fight politically not because of the benefits they see, but because of their conviction and commitment to a different way of living their days out.

We can hone in on why workers fight, and build organization on that basis. This really is a source of strength for us to understand these motivations, discuss, and promote them. In most instances this will mean building and integrating the social fibers that can hold us together when the bosses wage relentless war. After all this is one of the main things that brings us to the fight. We come to recognize that we can no longer cope with what is imposed on us as individuals, and need to graduate to a collective methodology.

1. Dolgoff, Sam. The American Labor Movement: A new beginning.

11 responses to “Moving to Action: workplace organizing beyond recipes

  1. Pingback: Moving to Action – workplace organizing beyond recipes « Liam Fox: Irreverence Cafe

  2. Jim Del Duca

    Excellent and accurate! Very good suggestions for a new direction in organizing.


  3. Adelante!

  4. Thanks for this interesting piece. I would like to come back to some of the points you made. I’m sorry, in advance, if this reply is too long.

    As Scott knows, one of my favorite Sam Dolgoff quotes is the one he used at the end of his article.

    And this is generally the point I try to drive home to my younger comrades.

    I was just recently having a conversation with a comrade. He salts for a union and the conversation was about building indigenous shopfloor leadership and ownership of the union in the workplace.

    The comrade wrote, in discussing the relationship between a salting militant and
    their co-workers:

    “I can see how a lot of overzealous young radicals might follow the same
    pattern I did, though. My problem is that I try to be the most
    super-militant bulldog in there, but that doesn’t necessarily make me
    a good leader.”

    Perhaps that is the take away from this experience. I think that by hogging the militancy and spotlight, it dis-empowers coworkers. They become to rely more and more on you and not on themselves. Without a long term perspective and commitment to trying to stay on the same job for a long time, we are unable to have any possibilities for building self-empowerment and strong shopfloor unionism.

    In reply, the comrade wrote:

    “I’m sure you’re right that staying in one shop for years and years
    would be a more effective way of bringing workers into the anarchist
    movement. I’m all for people doing that, but I really want to do more
    new organizing.”

    For me, there’s a sort of contradiction here. Day to day struggle is
    organizing. The mundane stuff is organizing. The conversations that go
    beyond “this job sucks” as to why this job sucks is organizing. The
    lunchtime or bathroom raps about the world around is, about the trials
    and travails of our lives and how we change them is organizing. The
    long term process of brining in new folks into workplace “leadership”,
    the fights around a whole host of things is organizing. The
    “organizing” phase of union building is the most dramatic and most

    Wahoo aspect….the real test of organization building is, well, building
    the shopfloor organization and having co-workers own the shopfloor
    organization. This comes with time, if it comes at all.

    Of course we want militant unionism….and of course we want to go
    beyond militant unionism. We want to help build militant and radical
    co-workers. We want to help create openings to bring broader ideas
    into the discussions and into our overall work. I found that this takes lots of time, lots of work and there is little day-to-day excitement as you have in the height of a union drive, a contract fight, a group grievance and so forth.
    But that’s what sets the old time radicals off from the new time
    radicals — commitment to stay on the job as long as that job is
    there (or as long as the pocket book can afford).

    By keeping ones “eye on the prize”, lots of long term commitment, often times creativity and stamina to plug at is is needed. From this anarcho-syndicalist’s point of view, there are no guarentees. Sometimes it’s we “luck out”, sometimes we fail. But if we make no meaningful efforts at trying, we are sure guareeting our failre.

  5. Thanks for this article. I agree entirely and have had several conversations along this line in the past few months.

    Along the lines of what I think Syndicalist is getting at, I would just make certain suggestions in terms of how we phrase things when we’re talking about this sort of thing. For example, near the beginning you say, “Without having respect, trust, and influence amongst your coworkers, it’s irresponsible and dangerous to try and organize.” From the context of the rest of the piece, I think what you’re trying to say is that it’s irresponsible to try and “push for action”. As far as I’m concerned and in fact have been trained to see it, ‘organizing’ is exactly what you suggest we should be doing: building relationships, confidence, and trust.

    The dramatic actions that get a lot of press are not the core or necessarily the goal of what our organizing is (or should be, at least). Like you point out, we are organizing in many different contexts and in a lot of places and times the big actions aren’t really feasible. But that doesn’t mean we’re not organizing in all the places we’re at where there aren’t the big actions going on. I think you’re right that a lot of folks who want to organize are really hung up on wanting the action and militancy to explode in a short time, and I think our job in trying to combat those kinds of approaches is to talk more about and really demonstrate that we value the relationships and education you’re getting at as much or more than what Syndicalist called the Wahoo aspect (I love that phrase!).

  6. Scott Nappalos

    Good comments. Part of the inspiration for this piece came out of wrestling with my role in my work & how it didn’t fit with conceptions I held when younger about what workplace organizing was. Syndicalist and I had a productive discussion of the nuances between salting and working long term in an industry to organize. I think in some ways our conception of organizing is too narrow like the commenters all discuss. Even I felt like I wasn’t organizing at work, even though I was. Part of thinking in new ways about what we’re doing is that it opens up opportunities for new action. If we see some of these elements (relationship building, responding to lack of solidarity, etc) as organizing, it can bring to light how we can be strategic in many different environments, with different tactics and progression of activities, and over the long term.

  7. Both Rachael and Scott hit upon the cornerstone to all that we do in
    organizing: trust and relationship building. Even when these are
    built, they are often times tested. And sometimes they are tested
    because people are going thru some drama at home, in their own life or
    real or perceived disagreements, rumors, backstabbing, competition,
    mood wings, insecurities (personal as well as political) momentary or
    period differences of priorities or plain ole misunderstanding.
    Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why folks may be on one page today,
    but not tomorrow. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out, sometimes these
    other issues come into play. And sometimes folks are just tired and we
    have to recognize that not everyone can be a super-militant all of the

    Scott writes:

    “Part of the inspiration for this piece came out of wrestling with my role in my
    work & how it didn’t fit with conceptions I held when younger about
    what workplace organizing was.”

    Funny, I’ve been transcribing an “ideas & action” article I wrote when
    I was 27 (I’m now in my mid-50s) entitled “Anarchist Shop
    Experiences”(ideas & action #2, Summer 1982). 29 years after the
    article was written, I can see how much of what I wrote was tested by
    practice and by my own development. Although I had already been an
    active anarcho-syndicalist for almost a decade at that point, a lot of
    testing and trials and tribulations were still to come. So, all these
    years later, I see perspectives and nativities that time has changed.
    Even so, the world has changed as well, so it’s not always fair to
    judge the past by where the movement may have pro-gressed today.

    Anyway, one experience on “conceptions”. I’ve told this story before,
    so maybe some of your readers will recognize it. Back in the mid-1980s
    I was involved with a contract fight at a medium
    size metalworking company. 3 years earlier, the workers struck for 6
    months, beat back a
    majority of the bosses give backs demands. OK, cool, these workers
    were tough, had experience and were willing to fight. Comes round 2.
    The bosses come back 3 years later with a whole round of garbage give
    backs. So I work with the shop, the shop committee and so forth to
    work the plant backwards or at least to rule and stay on the job after
    the contract expired.

    We did our training, etc. everyone outwardly was on board. The boss
    locks the shop out, the picket line collapses and the workers who
    bravely fought a good fight 3 years before, buckled, collapsed and
    retreated in defeat on the bosses terms.

    Convinced that we could pull off a good fight, given the recent
    history and preparedness, the workers were projecting outward
    militancy in conversation , yet were defeated inside their heads. One
    would have thought I had a good understanding of who, the what and the
    way going into this fight. I did not and no matter how many lunch time
    pickets, petitions and other stuff you do, you may not always know
    when the your concept of what the situation will bring can be so
    totally off mark. Or when a fight breaks out and people who you had
    “given-up” on come to the fore.

    Let me sign off, I think I rambled enough and hope I was mainly on point.

    Thanks again for the article.

  8. Thanks, MAS, for another excellent and accessible reflection on organizing and thanks also to Syndicalist and Rachel for their thoughtful commentary as well. I’m following MAS and other related projects with real excitement here in Texas.

  9. Thanks for this article. This is a good summation of my thinking in the last year of a new job, trying to figure out how to organize. The small things do add up.

  10. Pingback: … is the connection between universality and dispute resolution? « crashcourse666

  11. Pingback: Struggle changes people |

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