The problem with 1199’s “Advice to Rookie Organizers”

Nick Driedger identifies a contradiction in the revered checklist.

One of the most widely-circulated statements on organizing is SEIU 1199’s “Advice to rookie organizers,” popularized most recently by Jane McAlevey but originally drafted in 1985 at an SEIU organizing conference.

It’s good advice — it’s actually excellent advice for the most part — and I think anyone who takes a hard look at almost any organizing can spot where things went right by how closely it followed this advice and where things went wrong by where it deviated from it.

You can also tell a lot about someone’s politics, and the goals of their organizing, by what parts they say loudly and what parts they whisper, what parts they underline and put into bold and what parts they ignore or creatively interpret.

Let’s be clear, my position is that this statement, taken to its logical conclusions, cuts across the politics of 90% of the left as it currently exists. It cuts across the heated debates inside organizations and between them. It does not vindicate any particular organization and at least partly condemns all of them — political parties and unions alike. The sentiment puts working people at the center of their own story and shows how they have the power to make a difference. The list downplays the importance of political actors carrying the gospel and puts its faith behind the dynamic that generates that gospel — the unending struggle between those who do the work and those who control it.

It’s also up on the wall of the office of many, many union staffers — and only a few union workers. Before we get into why that is, let’s go over the tips.

They are:

1. Get close to the workers, stay close to the workers.
2. Tell workers it’s their union and then behave that way.
3. Don’t do for workers what they can do.
4. The union is not a fee for service; it is the collective experience of workers in struggle.
5. The union’s function is to assist workers in making a positive change in their lives.
6. Workers are made of clay, not glass.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask workers to build their own union.
8. Don’t be afraid to confront them when they don’t.
9. Don’t spend your time organizing workers who are already organizing themselves, go to the biggest worst.
10. The working class builds cells for its own defense, identify them and recruit their leaders.
11. Anger is there before you are — channel it, don’t defuse it.
12. Channeled anger builds a fighting organization.
13. Workers know the risks, don’t lie to them.
14. Every worker is showtime — communicate energy, excitement, urgency and confidence.
15. There is enough oppression in workers lives not to be oppressed by organizers.
16. Organizers talk too much. Most of what you say is forgotten.
17. Communicate to workers that there is no salvation beyond their own power.
18. Workers united can beat the boss. You have to believe that and so do they.
19. Don’t underestimate the workers.
20. We lose when we don’t put workers into struggle.

Contradictions

The entire list also has one fundamental contradiction that winds its way through almost every point. If you need to “get close to the workers” and “stay close to the workers,” as tip #1 says, the workers are a third party to their own liberation already.

Who is the “rookie organizer” who is the subject of this statement? Are all rookie organizers staff? Is there another list that’s “advice to angry workers”?

This isn’t to say that paid organizers are the original sin — at some scale and at some point, people with a knack for organizing are going to be brought off the job to work for the cause. Maybe temporarily, maybe as a career change, or maybe as an elected officer with an organizing mandate.

But you also can’t deny that the relationship in this list, between the workers and organizers, is one where someone is coming in from the outside and bringing people together — that is the point of view here.

The best organizers are the ones who aren’t from the outside, though. They are the peers that are referred to in Tip #10: “The working class builds cells for its own defense, identify them and recruit their leaders.” Those recruits are the raw material from which staff ought to come when they are needed. If not from the union doing the recruiting, from other unions that are engaging in similar struggles and recruiting people that share their vision of a member-led union.

No one is a tourist to the working class either; unions are employers too and at the very least union staff are going to have their own disputes and tensions with their bosses. But the entire Advice to Rookie Organizers list is steeped in a point of view that sees working class struggle as something where how close you are to the struggle is even an option.

Imagine if the list said in Tip #7 “don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers to build their own union” or in Tip #20 “we lose when we don’t put ourselves into the struggle”? The advice is good but the narrator of the story is not reliable.

The list sets organizers up to ventriloquize workers, to put a dummy of the workers on the organizer’s knee and have the organizer project through the dummy — even though the entire sentiment of the piece is that organizers should do the opposite of that. The entire list is a performative contradiction.

The organizer and their organization

This contradiction doesn’t lie in the head or heart of the organizer, though — it’s in the union. Most unions at some point break with the idea that workers in struggle are what wins. Whether it’s deciding that they need to support a politician making policy promises that benefit them, or that “reasonable arguments” in front of an arbitrator are what gets results, you can tell almost everything you need to know about a union by how far they take the sentiment of the list, especially Tips #4, #11, #15, and #17.

4. The union is not a fee for service; it is the collective experience of workers in struggle.
11. Anger is there before you are — channel it, don’t defuse it.
15. There is enough oppression in workers lives not to be oppressed by organizers.
17. Communicate to workers that there is no salvation beyond their own power.

Winning isn’t a political position; it’s what happens when a union has power. Unions don’t always win, but the more they do, the more the list becomes alive: the more it is the workers themselves and not the organizers. Smart unions learn tactical retreats and even compromises while still developing a way to move forward with a strategy; less smart unions learn shortcuts and to do an end run around the basic ethic of building working-class power.

Where to from here?

All sorts of hucksters are going to tell you there is a way around this problem. People will say this contradiction is why you need a radical political party. But that doesn’t deal with the contradiction, it moves away from workers learning their own power and instead retreats into a self-selecting group of like-minded people. Others will say electoral politics are the path, but there is no room for a group of workers to learn their own power when they are door-knocking for a candidate and arguing for policy that will change drastically as soon as it leaves their hands and goes through the meat grinder of government policy committees.

Working-class power comes from one place: the collective control of working people over the product and nature of their work. The more directly and democratically they control that power through strikes, direct action, and control over their organization, the more power they have. But that power is fragile. It’s either trapped in small organizations, or only partially developed, or when developed on a larger scale it becomes vulnerable to political attack. Historically, any union that has built direct worker power on a grand scale has been targeted by the labor relations system for destruction. But being targeted is something we need to rise to the occasion of — and win. Building a membership base that is not dependent on political winds that can shift (like state recognition schemes) is important here.

Most of the voices that argue for worker-led organizing ultimately end up advocating for party and electoral strategies. This is why we end up with contradictions in 1199’s Advice to Rookie Organizers, where they assert a sort of staff-driven syndicalist politics. The advice is not completely understood by the people giving it. The perspective of the list is the job only half-done — the organizer has yet to remove themselves from the equation, so every step is presented from the point of view of someone working through someone else’s agency. It’s not that it’s bad advice, it’s that the advice is not carried through to its logical conclusion.

Nick Driedger is the Director of Labour Relations and Organizing for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

Nick Driedger

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