New Orleans Obviously an article in the Times by Steven Greenhouse entitled, “Some Organizers Protest Their Union’s Tactics,” would catch my eye. One reads it with some peril given the bricks still being thrown from one glass window or another between SEIU and UNITE HERE, but despite that caveat, it’s worth serious attention. The article looks at the complaint from former UNITE HERE organizers about “pink sheeting,” which seem to have been a practice of recording highly personal information on pink sheets (they are now a different color) and allowing supervisory access to such information and using it to direct and drive organizers in a way that some find manipulative. Now in one of the rare articles we have about internal union business we get to read about tawdry internal affairs and psycho-babble mind games: kill me now!
The story gives way too much information about the internal conflicts lying in the back story of individual union organizers from broken families to weight issues to presumably everything else that they share with the life history of many in modern America. John Wilhelm, the head of UNITE HERE, said many of these practices have been reformed, and I’m confident that this will be done at the human resources and personnel management level.
Having talked with a lot of UNITE HERE organizers though, I actually think the issue is deeper and perhaps more serious and lies at the heart of the fundamental interchange that organizers are trained to have with workers based on the construction of “one-on-ones” which are common in some forms of organizing methodology. “One-on-ones” are commonly used by community organizers, especially in the faith based practice found in the Industrial Areas Foundation and other operations, as a basic construct for doing the hundreds of leadership visits to assemble a project. They are designed to achieve many goals, but one of them is establishing a connection between the organizer and the community leader by deliberately sharing some personal experience to establish a common bond.
I should disclose quickly that although I understand “one-on-ones” as a methodology, I have never been comfortable with their practice or their claims, largely because in my view they inappropriately elevated the role of the organizer in a way that both create a false mutuality with potential leadership and a distortion of the roles that would most effectively build the organization particularly around the issues of organizer-dependency and a conflation of organizers and leaders making them almost synonymous. It is neither the way I have trained or supervised organizers nor the way I have been involved in building organizations or organizing models. Nonetheless, I have always been respectful of the practice, despite my reservations, because I was confident that the best practices in the craft probably protected against some of these potential problems. In organizers’ shoptalk we used to kid about talking to organizers from other “schools” and having the conversation turn creepy when they started “one-on-one-ing” us and crossing boundaries on a personal level. But, realistically in doing leadership visits and building leadership relationships over time, all of us understood that real personal friendships would emerge and rigid protocols would evaporate over years of work and mutual understandings.
As the use of “one-on-ones” from community organizing morphed into some labor organizing, I think the adaptation got even more bent. In looking under the hood with HERE UNITE organizers, part of the construction of the “one-on-one” was more deliberately an effort to pull out of the organizers a core motivation for why they did the work that was deeply rooted in explaining their motivations, angers, and sense of powerless they shared with the workers based on intensely personal experiences in the organizer’s life. Divorces, family issues, dependencies, addictions, and whatever else frequently emerged as core issues for sharing in the one-on-one. Staff meetings and training sessions described to me were sometimes too eerily reminiscent of some of the old, hugely discredited Synanon sessions so notorious from the last years of the United Farm Workers under Caesar Chavez.
It’s easy to see how the fruit can start rolling from that tree and end up being stored away an allowed to rot when used inappropriately.
Wilhelm will stop abuse from the supervisors. I’m confident in that.
Might be harder, though frankly way more important, to take a harder look at the core organizing model of UNITE HERE and whether or not the ways and means of using “one-on-ones” doesn’t need a total review and reworking right at the foundation level.