MK Lees digs into the psychological dimensions of organizing.
I have seen so much misunderstanding in the IWW when it comes to the “U” in AEIOU. Some people think it’s AEIO = U. You Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, and Organize and then you get a Union. This is not the way I learned organizing, and so I want to talk about an idea that I feel has gotten lost, and humbly offer up some advice.
U stands for “The Union Makes Us Strong,” the anagram-friendly way of discussing pushing.
U is as essential a skill for organizers as A or I. Pushing others to go beyond what’s comfortable is itself an uncomfortable act for many of us. But like many organizing skills, it can be learned and honed.
What is Pushing?
So what do we mean by “pushing”? I’ll take a stab at a definition.
Pushing is the relational work of enabling a worker to move from their current state of commitment and activity to a higher state.
By “relational,” I mean that it happens in the context of a relationship — specifically, an organizing relationship — which means that most pushing happens in a one-on-one conversation, just as all the rest of AEIOU does.
Because this is our definition, how pushing occurs is going to be context-dependent. Broadly speaking, pushing means being alert to a fellow worker’s level of commitment and level of self-understanding, while looking for opportunities to push them to the next level. There’s a staircase from someone who becomes dissatisfied with their conditions at work, to an active, class conscious, revolutionary organizer. Most of us take that staircase one step at a time, with many steps arriving as a result of a push from someone we trust and respect. Even outside the life-changing experiences of taking collective action on the job, little things change people.
In a campaign in Chicago, I worked with this guy, Ben, who started to come around committee meetings, but was very quiet. He’d never done any organizing in his life, but he’d seen us force his friend’s boss to pay back stolen wages and he liked what he saw. Eventually someone gave him a push: could he chair the next meeting? He reacted with a bewildered “who, me?” look. He didn’t know how and would never have volunteered on his own, but he accepted. Ben did a decent job for his first time facilitating, but importantly he became functionally connected to the committee. He noticed that other committee members valued him and his work and he started thinking about himself differently.
Around this time, I left that campaign after four years working on it, and moved to Oakland. I began working on new IWW campaigns there, and let go of the union in Chicago. A year later I attended the IWW Organizing Summit. I was stunned to find Ben there. Since I’d last seen him, he had become one of the top leaders of the whole campaign. He had decided to go to a union convention where he knew no one (he didn’t know I’d be there), and speak on behalf of his campaign, and he spoke eloquently and confidently. I was choked up. Would this day have happened had he not gotten a small push out of the corner of the room and handed a gavel?
Chairing that first meeting, attempting that first one-on-one, doing that first one-on-one with someone we’ve never talked to before, wearing a union button, marching on the boss, reflecting and writing about an organizing experience — all of these moments end up marking little turning points on a path, where an individual worker reconceives their own relationship to the committee, to the campaign, to the union, and eventually to their own place in an unfolding history of class struggle.
But not every step comes easily. The very idea of “pushing” implies there’s going to be some resistance to push against. So before we can push someone, we have to be able to diagnose the obstacles in their way. A novice organizer’s first instinct is usually to fixate on external obstacles. “She’s super busy with school.” ”He’s going through a tough time with family right now.” “They live far away.” I don’t want to diminish some of these real obstacles, but we have to be on the lookout for external alibis, because the real problem is almost always internal.
What Holds Us Back?
The question here is as much about us as about anyone we are organizing. Pushing is never comfortable, but the goal is to cultivate an environment where workers feel willing to push other workers. To accomplish this we must also be willing to be pushed ourselves. So what are the things in our heads and hearts that hold us back from being better organizers? We need to recognize these things in ourselves and others.
Marshall Ganz was an organizer with the United Farm Workers in the 1960s (who later went on to direct his skills toward some very run-of-the-mill electoral campaigns). He now teaches his own organizing method at Harvard, and he provides what I think is a useful breakdown of some broad categories. He doesn’t relate these areas to pushing, but I’m going to. Ganz identifies five categories of what he calls “belief barriers”: Fear, Apathy, Inertia, Self-Doubt, and Isolation.
The big one. This beast has its tendrils in the four others that follow. Fear is everywhere in organizing. Fear of confrontation. Fear of instability. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the effects on our lives from retaliation by people in power. Fear of responsibility. Fear of failure and the feelings that failure will bring up, in ourselves and others we care about. Fear is very powerful, and the hardest internal obstacle to clear. If you’ve done even a little bit of workplace organizing you’ve seen fear make progress very challenging. But the trickiest thing about fear is that since most of us know that acting out of fear is not a good thing, our minds automatically rationalize our fear into other, more “objective” explanations. So the higher difficulty for organizers is recognizing when someone’s behavior is actually being dictated by their fears, but appearing as something else.
Apathy is a lack of passion, a seeming inability to care enough to take action. But often apathy is a shallow diagnosis of something deeper, and hopefully, mutable. Sometimes apathy is actually a manifestation of fear being translated back as a lack of passion. It is easier not to care, when caring means risking getting hurt. Other times what appears to be apathy is actually a feeling of powerlessness and the resignation that comes when a situation feels hopeless. But an apathetic worker is just someone we haven’t figured out how to effectively push yet, because we don’t understand what motivates them.
Newton’s first law of motion is: an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. Every day we don’t act to change our conditions increases the likelihood that we won’t act tomorrow. Whatever psychological survival mechanisms we’ve developed to get through the day lead to a byproduct of resistance to change. Inertia means even when we might not be happy, we feel no urgency to resist. Fortunately, Newton’s law cuts both ways: once someone is really going, it’s easier to keep going.
In a couple campaigns I’m currently supporting, we often see new workers become agitated, commit to organizing, even attempt a couple one-on-ones, only to get lost in the conversation, fail to move their coworker/s, and defer to other committee members (or worse, outside organizers). They feel out of their depth, unqualified to take responsibilities different from what they’ve attempted before. For those of us who have been doing some kind of movement work for a long time, it’s easy to forget just how new and strange it is for someone to be asked to do something as “simple” as designing an agenda for a meeting, let alone having an intentional conversation with a coworker to try to move them to participate in the campaign. Most workers have spent much of their lives only being punished for independent thoughts, for initiative, for taking risks, and told by everything in our culture and politics that they are incapable of running their own lives. It’s no wonder that we doubt ourselves and our own capacity to lead. Feelings of self-doubt are pervasive, because that feeling serves the interests of the bosses well.
When I was organizing at a company where I worked many years ago, I remember having a one-on-one with a coworker I had never met before. He responded to my urging him to get involved with the campaign by saying, “Yeah, I’m down for this, you’re down, but I’ll tell you right now the problem is nobody else here will support us.” I smiled and shook my head. I had heard essentially the exact same concern come out of the mouths of the last five other co-workers I had met with. I wondered: how many of us are out here, pissed off at the way we are paid, being treated like human garbage every day (quite literally, we were forced to use the service entrances by the dumpsters when coming and going), wanting to fight back but assuming no one else feels the same way? Solidarity for this coworker was just an idea, not something he could feel. Instead what we felt every day, all day, was alone.
The Organizer’s Toolbox
Ideas for overcoming these psychological roadblocks are provided in every section of the IWW’s Organizer Training 101, but I want to look at them from a new angle, thinking a little more like a craftsperson, first diagnosing a problem and then choosing the best tool to address it. We need the appropriate type of push for each type of obstacle we want to help someone to overcome. One way to think about pushing is to imagine that as human beings with complex psychologies, we are driven by a tapestry of thoughts and feelings. Many feelings about say, our job, can exist within us at one time. But some feelings, like the five we looked at above, can be so powerful that they are overwhelming and drowning out other feelings we also have that might lead us to take collective action. So pushing often requires engaging a competing emotion that can overpower the one that’s holding us back. I want to take a look back at some elements of the 101 with this framework.
The most important tool in the one-on-one tool box is almost always going to be the first vowel in AEIOU. Agitation. In our conversations with coworkers, we’re trying to clear the way for anger to emerge when one considers the gulf between the way things are and the way we know they could and should be. Apathy, inertia, and deeply resonant emotions like fear can often only be combated by something stronger, like the love we feel for our families, and the outrage that emerges when we take the time to really think about how our relationships are being harmed by the boss. It’s outrageous that someone busting their ass for minimum wage can’t sleep at night because they wonder how they’ll manage the medical cost of their daughter coming down with anything more serious than a cold, while their boss buys his daughter a house in the suburbs and a Lexus. It’s outrageous that a shift supervisor is allowed and even encouraged to assert their dominance by screaming at and humiliating someone in front of their coworkers. It’s outrageous that someone should be coerced into working with unsafe equipment, suffer an injury as a result, and then be discouraged from going to the ER because the workplace is short-staffed. What are the consequences for allowing these situations to continue unchallenged? Can we really continue to live with these consequences? For how long?
When people are given the space to feel angry and for damn good reasons, that powerful, justified emotion of outrage outsizes the less powerful and increasingly less justified feelings of fear. Fear is not something we can just eliminate. It’s going to be there, but if outrage is felt alongside fear, then fear will not immobilize us. So if you want to push someone past fear, you have to agitate, not just to discover what bothers them at work, but to get to something deeper and emotionally resonant. As James Neil Hollingsworth put it, “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
Hope is the simple but powerful idea that we can win. Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But the ability to truly envision a world where we can work with dignity and feel free from fear, instead of bitterly watching our lives slip away as we make a few assholes even more rich, is a powerful thought. Hope, like anger, can stir up all kinds of other productive emotions that might overpower our emotional hang ups. It’s no coincidence that so many politicians’ campaign ads — the ones who aren’t peddling fear, anyway — use hope as a currency to drum up votes. Meanwhile, the world around us often seems like a giant hope-killing machine. Even with a belly full of anger, without a plausible image of a better world for ourselves, we’re probably not going to spend our small amount of non-work time going to meetings and doing work that we feel will be pointless in the end. We can be very pissed off and yet still apathetic if we feel hopeless.
But outrage emerges more naturally in a good one-on-one with a worker than does hope. This is because anger is usually already there, under the surface. In my experience, hope is less of a guaranteed resource. It’s something we may have to offer, when it can’t be drawn out. So I think the first question to ask yourself is what gives you hope? Because if you yourself don’t believe in your bones that we can win, you’re never going to get anyone else to believe it either. But there are many stories of individually powerless workers who made a decision to join together to fight their rich, powerful bosses, and despite all the odds against them, they won and found themselves dramatically transformed forever. Those stories are our resources that can light a fire of hope in others. So another way to push is to find a story that gives you hope for the ability of workers to fight and win. Better yet, find your own personal story of hope, and don’t be afraid to learn to tell it well. It didn’t come naturally, but I learned to take responsibility for inspiring other people. You can too.
Lastly, remember that there’s a reason we discuss outrage before hope, agitating before we educate. Since there is no guarantee that we’ll always win, fighting bosses takes a leap of faith. And we’re more willing to take some risks when the situation feels intolerable.
Confidence (Inoculate and Organize)
The first and more widely known part of Inoculation is in preparing workers for unexpected elements of the bosses’ efforts to psychologically manipulate workers away from their union. If you show off some prototypical anti-union literature before the boss starts using their own, what potentially could be intimidating to workers ends up looking laughable, or better yet, insulting (“yes, this is how just how stupid the boss thinks we are”).
The second part of inoculation is something more like “exposure therapy,” where we’re going to directly confront our anxieties in a context where there’s no immediate danger. The hope is that by finding ways to do “mini-exposures” to stuff that causes us to doubt ourselves, we amplify the confidence that comes from having a plan for when we’re in an unfamiliar situation.
Participants practice a form of this kind of inoculation in our Organizer Training 101 just by doing so many roleplays. Because talking to other people about organizing can be unfamiliar and anxiety-inducing, we practice to get more confident with the motions of the conversation in a relaxed, low-stakes environment. Captive audience and march-on-the-boss roleplays are also designed for just this purpose: to take a situation that is designed to confuse, intimidate, and demobilize workers, and expose them to that situation in advance so they can feel what it’s like to be unprepared and then make a plan. When I am pushing workers to take on commitments outside their comfort zone, I try to notice when something I’m asking them to do might be bringing up some self-doubt because it’s new and unknown, and I’m immediately looking for a roleplay that might simulate the experience, so we can try it and debrief. Usually, it turns out that it’s not as scary and weird as someone was imagining, and even if it is uncomfortable, we have a chance to step back and make adjustments to the approach before the real thing arrives.
A crucial and sometimes underestimated aspect of developing self-confidence is having opportunities to contribute something concrete in the service of our goals. We give tasks that are personalized; they should challenge people but not so much that you are setting them up for failure. And when someone succeeds in completing a task, we find ways to recognize their work. Completing a task, feeling appreciated for one’s work, and understanding how that small personal success helped move the campaign forward is a formula for dissolving self-doubt over time. Like in a current campaign, where we have an isolated salt (undercover organizer) who is very green and hasn’t been trained. Two workers from another store with committee had been pushing him for awhile to get some phone numbers of other workers there, but he was hesitant. Finally he got up the nerve to do something that might seem small, but it was a big step for him. He asked his supervisor for a contact list and got a list of phone numbers for the entire store. He was super proud when he came back with this information, because the committee in the other store was so excited and gave him tons of recognition for his work. His accomplishment helped him know he was an important part of something bigger than him, and it’s changed him.
Solidarity (Social Leaders, One-On-Ones, Culture of Care)
If confidence is about a worker’s ability to trust in themselves and their ability to succeed, solidarity is about trusting in all of us having the ability to succeed together. Solidarity smashes our feelings of isolation. Social events, developing a shared identity, caring about people’s lives outside of work and supporting people in all aspects of struggle, and most importantly, face-to-face strategizing and planning are the elements of nurturing new bonds of solidarity. Even in today’s world of atomized, digital communication, it’s a rarity to find someone who’s going to risk getting fired on the basis of an Instagram groupchat with their coworkers. True solidarity only comes from looking into the eyes of other human beings IRL and knowing that they have your back. That’s why one-on-one meetings are not optional. One-on-ones lead to mass meetings which lead to mass actions which leads to a bedrock of shop-wide solidarity.
In our trainings we also talk about the importance of identifying leaders in the social ecosystem of a workplace and targeting them for recruitment to the committee. The idea is usually related as a strategic consideration: if we don’t do the work of getting the influential workers on our side, they’re going to end up on the boss’s side, and their influence will be used against us. It’s also strategically efficient: win over a leader, and you also theoretically stand a good chance of winning over all that person’s “followers.” However I think there’s a point sometimes overlooked in the importance of organizing social leaders: their presence is itself an emotional push. At some point we are going to ask people to take a big risk by acting in new ways to confront people who have a tremendous amount of power in their lives, as I’ve emphasized, with no guarantee that they will win what they want. But when they look to their left and see that the co-worker they most respect and trust is themselves going to take that risk alongside them, well that makes them stand a little taller, to act in spite of fear, to reconsider apathy, to move beyond inertia, to lose some self-doubt, and to know for sure we’re not isolated anymore. That’s the power of relationships and the power of solidarity. While difficult and time-consuming to build, this is why we say solidarity is the most powerful weapon the working class has.
Pushing or Pushy?
I regularly get some version of this question from new organizers: I have this person I’m trying to get to do this task, but they keep not following through. How do I get them to do it? Right off the bat I hear some problems in the premise. The goal is about the end result which helps the organizing, not about a more fundamental problem: the worker they are engaging is not motivated to act to change their own conditions. That leads us to different, ultimately more pressing questions: How can we help this person consider the seriousness of their own personal situation? How can we help them discover for themselves what’s holding them back? How do we empower them to overcome these internal obstacles? The focus is on the other person’s process of self-discovery. The more we tell workers about their problems and our solutions, the less we are developing their capacities to engage directly with their own problems for themselves. We’re not pushing, we’re just being pushy.
As an example, a couple of weeks ago I had a one-on-one with a worker who had agreed to talk to someone from one of our campaigns. She works in a new store where the workers are trying to get a foothold and expand the organizing. We were hoping she might be the one to begin forming a new committee. I was tasked with seeing if we could get her to commit to talking to a couple coworkers. But from our first words I could tell she wasn’t enthusiastic about organizing. She acknowledged some other workers are suffering but not her. She felt bad for them but mostly keeps her head down and wants to stay out of trouble because she really likes having a job that can work around her schedule as a mom with four kids. I sensed fear immediately. She wanted out of this conversation. I thought quickly about how to push, and switched gears. I wanted to know about her life at work, outside of work, and what it all meant for her. Before long we were talking about how horribly management has treated her. Her supervisor yells at her in front of customers and lies about her performance to avoid giving her a twenty-cent raise. She requested to take home a broken item that couldn’t be sold and was accused of breaking it intentionally so she could have it. She withdrew her request and management threw the item in the trash. She felt disrespected and humiliated, but she stuffed her feelings of resentment down because she couldn’t afford to be fired if she spoke up. By this time in the conversation she was upset. We talked about how she deserved better and what the job could be like if management didn’t have all the power they do now. In the end she was not just willing, but eager to talk to three coworkers she knew were dealing with harassment from management, and attend a meeting.
There is no simple how-to for pushing, for recognizing what’s really going on when someone is pushing back, and responding appropriately. Instead it’s an instinct we have to cultivate. But I hope the sort of “toolbox” I’ve attempted to conceptualize here contributes to being systematic and deliberate about pushing workers we have built relationships with. If we can identify emotions that seem to be guiding someone’s hesitance to get more involved, we can consider counter-emotions that might allow them to get up and move. They may lack self-confidence. They may not be profoundly angry on a personal level. They may not yet feel trust. They may doubt that there’s any hope for winning. When walls go up, and people defend their own inaction the role of the organizer is to pierce those defenses.
Though pushing is not a particularly fun part of the organizing process for most of us, we know that our minds have ways of distorting things in ways that are unhealthy and hold us back from acting to make positive changes in our lives. In any organizing campaign, it remains inevitable that we are going to ask people to do things they don’t want to do. Let’s remember that time in our lives when we had bad reasons for not wanting to do something and someone we trusted pushed us to do what needed to be done. Accepting the role of an organizer means clarifying choices and enabling others to realize their own power. If we push others and push ourselves, if we can beat our own internal obstacles, the many daunting external obstacles to our success will be something we all meet together. And what we do together is easier than what we struggle to do alone. That’s how the union makes us strong.