Digital “Tools” for Organizing Protests and Building the Movements that Follow

New Orleans    Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote an interesting op-ed in the Times, headlined, “Does a Protest’s Size Matter?” The answer is easy: of course it does!

But, that’s not the point she wants to underline. The professor wants to underscore the fact that a protest about something is different than the outcomes it produces. And, once again, of course that’s right as well.

Although this is not the answer the professor wants on this quiz, she is comparing apples and oranges. A protest is not a movement. In fact it is just what it says it is, an expression of dissent, a tactic hopefully in a larger strategy. Make no mistake, when communicating dissent, the numbers matter hugely. Say what anyone will from the President and his people on down, when an estimated 3.5 million women in the United States stepped to the street that sent a powerful message of protest, and that’s what it was meant to do. Mission accomplished.

The professor makes the case in a digital age that organizing such protests are hard work, but easier. Gee, I wish I believed that, I really, really do. Communication is quicker and cheaper for sure in a digital world, but nothing is really easier, partly because too many will think it’s easier and put more pressure on organizers to produce eye-popping, mind-boggling numbers. If one could spare one nanosecond of empathy for the anti-abortion protestors heading to Washington now, their numbers will be compared to the American-record historic numbers of the Women’s March, and they don’t have a prayer, no matter how much they hosanna in DC.

A protest is not a movement and neither are organizations, though both require huge levels of organizing. Where the professor is correct is that now even more work is needed to take the energy and anger and forge actual social change.

A related point was made by Columbia professor Todd Gitlin after the march that other historic marches were the product of organizations and their efforts to highlight long struggles with significant protest. Professor Tufekci almost paints the picture that the women’s marchers would be starting from scratch to building what Gitlin called a “full service movement.”

Talking on Wade’s World to Mark Fleischman, the president of Corporate Action Network, whose actionnetwork.org supplied the digital platform for the Women’s March, there is an easy answer to one of the professor’s questions. She says, “But if those protests are not exchanging contact information and setting up local strategy meetings, their large numbers are unlikely to translate…” In this case names of all of the people who registered for the march in DC or the sister marchers were turned over to local organizers in each city to use as the building blocks for the future. An item on their website also provides tools for organizing follow-up.

Fleischman, an old comrade from the labor movement, talked extensively about the “tools” the network is building for many purposes not just these kinds of mobilizations, but more importantly building real movements, real organizations, and real social change. Of course tools only work if there are people ready and able to wield them, so everyone can agree that remains the open question and real challenge.

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Does Former SEIU President Andy Stern Really Advocate Labor Law Waivers?

Andy Stern with SEIU members

New Orleans   I know Jay Youngdahl, as an old friend and comrade, dating back to his father, Jim, a legendary labor lawyer, when he introduced us in the early 1970s. Our building on Main Street in Little Rock, and the home of KABF radio and ACORN for years, was once the old Youngdahl law offices. Jay after a typically winding road from the 60’s ended up as a labor and civil rights lawyer as well, based in New Mexico for years, who ended up sometimes thanklessly representing ACORN in some matters, just as his father had done. Jay is more an occasional labor lawyer now for a Laborers’ region, while also publishing and writing a column for the East Bay Express. All of which is a long way of saying that when I noticed that Jay had written a piece for In These Times “Working” bulletin it caught my eye, especially because there was a picture of Andy Stern and the title of the piece was “In the Fantasy Land of Labor Theorists: Andy Stern’s Latest Contribution.”

I know Andy Stern even better than Jay Youngdahl though, having worked with him for more than twenty years when Local 100 was part of SEIU and serving on SEIU International Board when he was president for eight years, and, if anything, would count him normally as an even better friend and comrade. I found myself reading Jay’s piece incredulously. Andy had teamed up with a conservative author to write a piece in the recent number of National Affairs. The essence of their argument, according to Jay, was to “reform” various labor laws by giving the federal government the ability to issue “waivers” to the states similar to what they are able to do for federal health programs and did to wheedle raw red states like Arkansas and others into participating in Obamacare.

Surely, Stern and Eli Lehrer’s argument were much more nuanced than Jay was painting. Surely, Jay was gilding the lily just a bit, given the hardcore Bay Area trepidation on all things Stern since the bitter trusteeship battle over old Local 250, the giant healthcare local in California. Jay makes the point that a transfer of these federal protections and powers, as argued by Stern, to states and local jurisdiction would exacerbate the blue-red state divide, along with a list of other weaknesses in their arguments. I figured I should reserve judgement until I read the original article and considered it carefully. Perhaps this was something run up the flag along the Beltway before the Trump truck crashed through the Washington wall. There must be more to all of this.

And, there was, but it wasn’t necessarily better.

Especially disturbing was the weight in their argument given to the success of state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Here Stern and Lehrer were confused about the difference between minimum standards and preemption, in fact arguing that Fair Labor Standards allowed “state preemption,” which is incorrect. The statute does what it says by establishing a minimum standard. Nothing prevents a state in such situations from raising standards, but in a national policy, no state can lower standards below the FLSA thresholds. Red or blue, they are also silent on the fact that such increases have largely been in areas where the majority of voters had the opportunity because of democratic reforms introduced by previous movements through citizen initiative and referendum which undercuts their pretended consensus that “all labor reform” has come at the state level, rather than mostly through popular demand. Much of their admittedly controversial proposals are cast as the ability to “experiment” as well, but there has been nothing stopping many jurisdictions from experimenting by offering procedures or protections for workers exempted from the NLRA or FLSA. California’s farmworker representation regime with its strengths and weaknesses is an example, as is Seattle’s current effort to create representation norms for on-demand or gig employees. The protections provided in law by states in India for example for many categories of informal workers are vastly superior to the silence of US law at every level, and even though nothing has stopped activity, it is certainly not because there is a need for a waiver to start it.

But, no need to pile on. Jay was not picking nits, and little more needs to be said, other than the one question that perplexes me: Why? I think we’re in no danger of seeing such waivers to federal labor protections allowed even in Trump time, so was this just about stirring the pot? Stern can’t really believe the arguments made in his name in this piece, so why would he allow himself to be associated with them? Inarguably, Andy Stern was one of the most dynamic and creative labor leaders of our generation, albeit with strengths and weaknesses, rights and wrongs, as we all have, but even having forsaken his voice as the head of the nation’s largest union, why would he allow himself to be placed in a position where any of his brothers and sisters would be allowed to wonder now, which side is he on?

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Trump Shrewdly Exploits the Labor Movement Divide

President Donald Trump poses with labor leaders on January 23, 2017 in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC.Getty Images

New Orleans   Depending on what papers you read, you might have seen a picture of President Trump meeting with business executives or on the other hand a picture of him meeting with union leaders. All of the pictures featured grinning, older white men in nice suits, so please read the captions carefully so you know who you looking at, even if you can’t see much difference in what they are saying.

Trump’s big play yesterday was removing the United States as a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Japan, Canada, and a number of other countries. This has been a contentious issue for labor and the left. The AFL-CIO and particularly legacy manufacturing unions like the UAW and Steelworkers have long opposed the TPP and similar trade deals as job killers for workers and unfair dumping grounds for cheaper products. It was a signature platform promise of Senator Bernie Sanders as well. Interviewing Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers on the radio, he maintained that his participation in Sanders’ campaign and his union’s maverick endorsement of Sanders over Hillary Clinton was largely prompted by Sanders’ opposition to TPP.

The labor leaders in the White House yesterday were giddy after their meeting with Trump. One, on exiting, described the meeting as the best he had ever had in his career with the union. Reports of the meeting, including glowing remarks about Trump from the Teamsters’ Hoffa and the Carpenters’ McCarron, leave little doubt that this was a meeting that focused on something that Trump knows something about and where, as a New York City based builder, he has long experience with unions, and that is construction. Discussions about infrastructure expenditures for constructing pipelines, bridges, airports, highways, and other big ticket items are the bread-and-butter of the building trades’ councils and their member unions, meaning happy members paying working dues. The membership of the trades, like their leadership, are still, even in the 21st century, mainly white and mainly men, so this is right in the Trump wheelhouse. In the age of Trump, we may read a lot about new right-to-work legislation, but we’re not hearing a peep about repealing Davis-Bacon, which is the building trades’ life-support system on higher, prevailing wages for construction.

Manufacturing unions have been bleeding from the downsizing of automation, trade, and disinvestment, but that doesn’t change the fact that building trades unions are the smallest part of the shrinking labor movement and often at odds with both the manufacturing unions as well as the service unions that have become the major driving force of the labor movement. The divide between service-sector unions in healthcare, public service, education, retail, and elsewhere and the construction unions is huge, and no matter how masked by claims of ongoing solidarity, this distinction and the lingering political and cultural separations were at the heart of the division into competing labor federations. In service unions the membership and many of the unions are led by women, immigrants, and the non-white, and diversity of all kinds is their watchword. The building trades’ unions impulse is to protect what they have for their existing members so that there are fewer workers sitting on the bench at their hiring halls, and many times they see their charge as keeping other workers out of their industries. The workers outside the hall are largely irrelevant to them, if they can hold on to their work, while service workers have to grow or be overwhelmed by the unorganized, and construction workers try to build a fort with a moat around them.

Trump may not have formally declared war on all unions or all of labor, but he’s been around the blocks of Manhattan, and he knows full well how to divide the already sagging house of labor. With the enthusiasm of the construction unions, we’re about to watch him do so.

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Good Advice for Big Organizing from Sanders Campaign Innovators

New Orleans   Having already read a number of pieces about the guts of the Bernie Sanders campaign from different perspectives, when I saw that my friends and comrades Becky Bond, who I’ve known back when CREDO was Working Assets and I would run into her in their San Francisco office, and Zach Exley back to his early days at SEIU, had written a book, I made a mental note to put it on my long to-read-list, but I wasn’t in any hurry for another slog in the “look at me, I was there” campaign book genre. I was wrong. This is an organizing book and should be on the top of the pile for anyone who wants to see serious organizations and social movements built from the ground up to build power and make change. I mean it. This book will be required reading for our organizers meeting in January.

The book is entitled, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, which is a little tongue and cheek riff off of some of their slams at old school Alinsky organizers and precepts. I actually agree and embrace their critique of one-on-ones and the wrong-headed cult of paid and so-called “professional” organizers and the limits of its scalability, although some of their other shots miss the target, but “big organizing” as the title would have spread the net wider, and this book needs to be read by anyone who wants to organize for change. Having just spent months with a political party in the Netherlands devising a system to maximize their volunteers and go whole hog with phone auto-dialers, I read the book excitedly in the way scientists in different parts of the world might marvel at how parallel our work was without having any idea that others were on the same track. I found myself scrolling for their emails and excited to reach out for them.

This is not the Sanders model book. Becky and Zack are clear that they failed to convince the campaign to endorse their approaches as fully as they felt warranted by the results. Like all organizers running field operations, they rue the millions spent on sending television ads out into the void, rather than investing more in the field where the differences are real, immediate, and measurable. Of course a lot of the book is a thank you note to their colleagues and props for their stars, but the meat of the book is invaluable as an outline for their “barnstorms” and phone operations.

Importantly, for real-police organizers, the book is also refreshingly hard headed and pragmatic and aligns well with what so many of us do day to day. Here are some examples from the one chapter that specifically lists “rules” of a sort:

· Be outcome-focused
· Respect and learn from volunteers
· Practice “high input, low democracy” as a team
· Choose speed over perfection
· Embrace productive conflict but not yelling
· Keep out of email trouble
· Operate on East Coast time
· Don’t be defeated by meetings
· Eat your own dog food
· Take care of yourselves and each other
· Be grateful for your team

See what I mean. This is actually great, solid advice for any organization and organizing effort. I might add even for political campaigns. It’s not the Ten Commandments. For example you could pick any time zone, but picking one would help reduce confusion, but all of these “rules” are good examples of the kind of solid, nuts and bolts, no baloney advice that Zack and Becky provide in this book that, taken seriously, will advance all of our work.

Read this book!

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What Happened to the Push for More Nonprofit Community Development?

New Orleans    Community development corporations, once seen as an important tool for neighborhood revitalization, may not have fallen on hard times, but it has become increasingly invisible in many cities. Partly the strategy, heavily funded and much-touted in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, shriveled as the huge federal funding programs diminished and the ideological dominance of private sector and market-based development suck the money and air out of the development space. Partly the strategy receded as studies like those by David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and something of an urban expert, could not prove that CDCs, as they were called, had been successful enough to make a difference in deteriorating areas, especially compared to gentrification. Many CDCs became more service operators than jobs or housing developers. There were, and are, of course huge exceptions some of them very successful, but there numbers are no longer legion and their record more mixed.

When CDCs were ubiquitous, community organizations were often pushed, carrot and stick, by funders and their own search for stability and institutional status in this direction, building grocery stores, small businesses, community centers, and housing developments. Unions like the Teamsters in St. Louis and the AFL-CIO local federation in San Antonio became known for their senior housing and other services. Churches, as anchor institutions in many cities, tried to take on the task. Not so much anymore. It was hard work, requiring significant resources and managerial skills often stretching organizations far outside of their missions and expertise.

I was thinking about this while in Buffalo and talking to my friend and comrade Bill Covington and hearing about his church and how much they have continued to buck this diminishing trend of abandoning community development by doubling down in Buffalo’s predominately African-American east side and creating something rare, a buffer zone protecting the community from the expansion of the medical center. St. John Baptist and its social conscious isn’t a new thing. They pride themselves on being in the Martin Luther King, Jr. wing of the Baptist Convention and having committed civil rights Reverends Jesse Jackson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Al Sharpton speak and preach to their congregation. They started down this trail of community commitment first by creating a credit union, but more recently they have expanded to a community center and school projects, including a charter school, and, most importantly, a clutch of community development corporations focuses largely on reviving and creating affordable housing in the East Side Fruit Belt area.

Their community development corporations consist of McCarley Gardens housing complex which are 150 unit 2, 3 and 4 bedroom tri-level apartments and St. John Tower a 150 unit Senior Citizen unit. The St. John Fruit Belt Corporation is the producer of a $54 million combine of single-family, subsidized housing units and town homes. Listening to Bill Covington on Wade’s World, it seems that they are continuing to break ground on additional affordable housing projects, including more desperately needed rental units. The financing, not surprisingly, largely comes from state, federal, and local pubic sources.

Community development is not for everyone, and it is not a magic bullet for curing poverty and turning around deteriorating neighborhoods, but it makes a difference, and it’s encouraging to see a success story in some faith-based institutions that are still committed to making community contributions and playing a leadership role benefiting everyone, regardless of theology and ideology.

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Labor and Community Collaborations Digging in to Fight Forward in Buffalo

Graphic from Open Buffalo

Buffalo    Richard Lipsitz, the head of the Western New York Area Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO, sits at an interesting cross section. With the call to revive manufacturing he notes that his area may have less manufacturing jobs than it did, but, interestingly, he argues that the overall economy in metropolitan Buffalo has about the same percentage of manufacturing jobs as it ever did, between 15 and 20%. A headline in the morning paper bolstered his case as General Motors announced a several hundred million dollar investment into improving and expanding its plants, once feared on the list for mothballing. Visiting with the staff of ACORN Canada at our Year End/ Year Begin meeting, he made the case that there would be resistance to turning back the clock and that labor was deeply debating the issues.

At the same time, Lipsitz was balancing on a slender beam. He argued for patience. He argued for finding a way to pull all of the pieces together. He admitted that some unions would salute revival of pipelines and all would support more infrastructure investment, but it couldn’t divide labor. He was clear that Governor Cuomo’s investments in the Buffalo area were also a key reason for low employment and a rising population, fueled partially by immigrants, in a rare rust-belt comeback. The expansion of the medical corridor and its 26,000 jobs made a huge difference. On his tightrope wire, he wanted to commit labor to the fight, but didn’t want any high winds blowing with dissident movements or factional fights. He had no patience for the Working Families Party in New York, but was open to Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution being part of efforts to move the Democratic Party left. He was categorical in advocating that the only way forward for the Democratic Party was a headlong commitment to being more progressive.

We also met Franchelle Hart, the executive director of an interesting formation called Open Buffalo, the product of a funding competition run by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations that had been won by Puerto Rico, San Diego, and Buffalo. Open Buffalo describes itself as “…a Community Movement for Social and Economic Justice” and “… a civic initiative to make major, long-term improvements in justice and equity in the City of Buffalo.” They are committed to building civic capacity in the areas of restorative justice, leadership development, arts, and innovation. That was the top-line of her remarks, but what clearly moved her most personally were efforts to force the police to be more sensitive to the community, especially African-Americans, “without a Ferguson,” as she argued, although she seemed skeptical from the work thus far that that might be possible.

Open Buffalo had also supported a campaign to win inclusionary zoning in the city opening a dialogue with the ACORN Canada organizers, who are involved in a number of campaigns in different communities on this issue. Hart reported without satisfaction that they had at least gotten a commitment for a study. Some of the Vancouver organizers comforted her that that was farther than some of their campaigns had gotten.

The Trump Era, as she called it already, was much on everyone’s minds. Lipsitz was clear in the commitment to resist, and Open Buffalo was still digging in to fight forward, so both offered the beginnings of a consensus for the future.

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