Liberals and progressives have generally seen union and community organizing as the best tools to resist corporate power and provide the working class with a political voice. But in this era of neoliberalism, these traditional models of organizing have lost their effectiveness.
Unions have continued to lose membership and are fighting among themselves over organizing and politics. Building trades, manufacturing, and public sector unions seem to be going in different directions despite the efforts of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to bring the labor movement together. When direct attacks on labor occur, the labor movement does come together, as we saw in Ohio in 2011. But not always, as in the struggle over collective bargaining in other states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where some unions preferred pragmatic, self-interested politics that led to distrust and divisions.
Community organizing has also suffered, especially from fatigue. In 2012, Obama’s mobilization efforts were incredibly effective in organizing women and people of color. This was no small deal given the political attacks on and the 2009 collapse of the preeminent community organization, ACORN, which required activists to build new community organizations, especially around working-class issues like housing and income inequality. These new organizations have succeeded in campaigns around vacant properties and the minimum wage, but overall, community organizing has become episodic, and it wins too seldom.
This is particularly important for the Democratic Party and its base. As Michael Tomasky predicts, the Democrats’ problem will be motivating voters. The Democratic Party is terrified that in the 2014 mid-term elections its base (African-Americans, Latinos, women, and young adults) will not show up and it will be unable to gain new support from the solidly Republican white working class. The result would be decisive Republican Senatorial and Gubernatorial gains that will be as difficult to unwind as the Republican redistricting of the last three years.
Today’s conversations and reevaluations, especially about community and union organizing approaches, have been occurring across the political spectrum, but we should pay particular attention to some ideas emerging from the old New Left. In a review of two new books by Gar Alperovitz and my Youngstown colleague Staughton Lynd, David Moberg notes that Lynd has attributed the current political environment to the American Left’s inability to build real mass movements that can pressure politicians. As Lynd puts it, “Obama is a liberal, a good human being, and we have failed him.” Like Lynd, many in the progressive community have given up hope for the kind of Labor or Socialist Party that exists in other countries to advocate working-class issues. His solution is to move beyond the single-issue politics of an earlier era. Instead, we should seek greater participation in representative democracy with distinct moral overtones.
Perhaps one way of understanding Lynd’s ideas is through Pope Francis’ teachings and approaches to poverty. In a world of so much wealth, the Pope sees poverty as a scandal that demands justice and requires us to bear witness. The Pope’s vision is not merely an updating of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a call to action that echoes the ideas of liberation theologians from the Global South. Lynd echoes the Pope’s sensibility, using the term “accompanying” rather than “witnessing” in thinking about organizing — a term associated with the Pope’s murdered colleague, El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero. Pope Francis warns that witnessing is not about managing, instructing, or judging (like “legalists, scribes, and hypocrites”) but rather about listening, accepting, and validating others. Real power is gained by being a role model “with that zeal to seek people, heal people, to love people.” Likewise, Lynd sees accompanying as avoiding didactic approaches and the often situational ethics associated with organizing. Rather, accompanying involves deep and extended community obligations and committing to “equality, listening, and seeking consensus and exemplary action.” This includes the free interchange of ideas and modeling personal and democratic behavior. This moral approach can help local organizations build real pressure to move public opinion. As Timothy Weaver suggested at a recent Urban Studies Association Conference, it is time to move beyond “the dead weight of pragmatism and feasibility.”
Forget parachuting in community organizers who work hard during the election season only to disappear after the results. Forget about the current servicing model of unionism or “hot shop” union organizing that never builds real union solidarity. Pope Francis and Lynd believe that community and labor organizing begins where you are and embraces a moral approach, not just organizing tactics. It engenders real participation and not just cooperation.
This approach is already being used effectively. The low-wage worker and Wal-Mart campaigns and strikes may have seemed minimal and episodic as workplace actions. But these same actions have had strong community support (that included religious figures and community groups to provide moral authority) as well as worker involvement. Both locally and nationally, these efforts have been crucial in moving public opinion around inequality and living wages. In Ohio, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative “brings together neighborhood, faith-based and labor groups to build the capacity necessary to create sustainable change in our community.” The MVOC has provided a moral and ethical model for grassroots organizing around economic opportunity, fighting human trafficking, housing and vacant property reform, and food and health care access. This morally-focused model of accompanying has inspired other community organizations statewide, including religious groups such as Ohio Prophetic Voicesand ACTION, various neighborhood associations, and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
Lynd’s concept of accompanying as an approach to organizing calls us all to organize where we are, and above all, to assert and sustain strong moral claims to justice, equality, and fairness before we get too quickly to the “pragmatic and feasible.”