The Contradictory European Legacy of Saul Alinsky

labor unions protest in Brussels (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Brussels      Saul Alinsky would have wanted to be seen as a realist, so I can easily imagine him just shrugging and saying the equivalent of a “whatever” from more than 45 years ago.   The right seems to read him more closely than the left, both in the US and abroad, but at least some are reading him.  He’d be happy with that.  In the same way that Facebook is seen as the same as the internet in many countries around the world, in Europe at least, and perhaps everywhere, Saul Alinsky is seen as the same as community organizing.  Saul would be ecstatic to hear that undoubtedly.

I thought about this a number of times while in Brussels.  During the debate and question and answer sessions after the showing of the “The Organizer,” there were some questions about Alinsky.  During our training one or two of the people in the session asked about something they had read, often apocryphal, in Rules or Reveille.   Frequently, they want to know if the actions Saul discussed in the book every happened.  Usually not, but the threat is often more powerful than the action itself, so what’s the harm.  Do all actions have to be “fun,” one asked citing Alinsky?  No, many are more necessary than “fun.”  Then in the debate at the union hall the advertisement bringing people to the meeting suggested not only that my colleague, Adrien Roux and I would be there to talk about ACORN, but that we would also talk about the principles of Saul Alinsky and how they might suggest “new methods” for organized labor in Belgium. That would have been hard to do.  In some cases, we were asked to describe how the ACORN methodology was the same or different from Alinsky’s precepts.  On those questions, we had to put sugar in peoples’ coffee often times.

We all owe a huge debt to Alinsky and his work.  He was the great evangelist for community organizing.  In some ways, as evidenced by the interest expressed on the union flyer, he still is.  Our head organizers in France and Italy have both written books about Alinsky.  In that sense, Saul is still bringing people into the work.

At the same time, I think Saul would have adapted to the changes over the last almost five decades since his death.  Organizational and institutional ties have weakened hugely in that period.  To build an “organization of organizations” would leave out more people than it would involve these days.  Alinsky could not have anticipated these declines, but I like to think he might have evolved a model closer to what ACORN has done.  Before his death he was already experimenting with organizations like the Chicago-based Citizens Against Pollution and trumpeting the need to organize the middle-class rather than the poor.  I’m not saying that I agree with his direction, but he was smart enough to know that organizing had to continually adapt and experiment.  The latter day Alinsky followers still stress building from the base of institutions, especially the church, and particularly the Catholic Church.  There is a rationale there, but it also creates something less than an autonomous organization, and one that rises and falls with those institutions as well.

The legacy of Alinsky is alive and kicking.  In Europe particularly perhaps, it is best to simply protect the legend, because the actual organizing methodology would likely not bring as many people into community organizations.

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Organizations and Unions Looking for New Methods in Belgium

Role playing negotiations

Brussels   Language is a funny thing.  Even when we think we are totally in synch, we are easily sidetracked.  Examples abound.  This morning the directions to the airport train took me to the Metro station which I only sorted out once I had paid two euros ten for a subway ticket.  500 meters and nine euros later I was on the way, no problem.  Directions thanks to a Starbucks barista, since English is required at the counter!

Yesterday, was even funnier.  In spare minutes in-between our second day of training we were doing for organizations that wanted to expand their notions of what might be possible by learning some of the techniques of community organization, I asked my colleague, Adrien Roux, about the meeting we had with some union folks scheduled for later in that day.  Wasn’t it at 5pm?  No, a little later, he would answer.  But, on their Facebook page they seem to have an action scheduled for 7pm, I would say.  How can they have enough time to really meet with us?  He would shrug and say, no problem, and away we would go.  I explained how one could construct a campaign, using Facebook as an example.  He led role playing on negotiations to the great excitement of the folks.  Merrily, we went along.

Finally, we met our two union friends near 630 at a small restaurant near the center of town.  They keep looking at the clock, and they started saying the word that in Belgium may end up being my new trigger word: “debate.”  As Adrien and I had passed like the proverbial two ships in the night, it turned out that within minutes we were due at a union meeting hall nearby for a “debate” or panel discussion, as I’ll call it, about how community organizing might offer new methods for union organizing.  The posting that I thought was for an action because it had a picture of flying flags at a demonstration was the advertisement for our debate.  Wow!  How exciting would that be?  And, how prepared was I? Whoops!

Luckily, this was a subject I know as well as my name, so the crowd of almost one-hundred union staff and activists and representatives of other organizations was, hopefully, none the wiser.  I shared information on ACORN and its work, especially with unions, and the principles that guided it.  Adrien threw in some examples from France and other campaigns in Africa, and then the questions began.  This was a serious crowd, and the questions reflected real concerns that many had about the state of the labor movement in Belgium.

the debate

Unions are huge there.  The one that organized the panel has 1.7 million members.  The second largest had way, way over 1 million.  Interestingly, a huge number of those members were unemployed and the union was the paymaster for their social benefits.  I need to understand more about all of that.  At the same time, the last year was the first in which the largest union had actually lost members, about 3%.  This was a wakeup call and the stimulus for the interest in our panel.

Great people.  Great opportunity.  A great discussion.  Time to head back home, but I’ll look forward to the next time I get to work with the Belgians!  I have a lot to learn, and we all have a lot to share.

the crowd ready for the debate

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