The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.

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Farm Workers in a Box

9781596914605Orange Beach It’s not a happy experience reading Miriam Pawel’s book on the United Farm Workers Union, The Union of their Dreams, but for those of us in the work, it’s worth the climb no matter how unsettling the view.  I reached out for her through Google triangulation in order to seek permission to excerpt the book in a coming issue of Social Policy, so I’ll leave the real discussion of issues raised in the book for the magazine.

My old comrade, Gary Delgado, had recommended the book and given me a come-on line about Cesar Chavez’s vision of building a Poor People’s Union, which piqued my interest and sent me to Amazon, but that was a tease.  The power of this book is the picture it paints of the unraveling of the United Farm Workers from the inside with Cesar Chavez as the primary string puller of the demise.  Marshall Ganz in his book on the farm workers opened the window a crack sufficiently to confirm some of the stories one had heard over the years.  Reading Pawel, I suspect he had no choice, especially given the multi-part series in the Los Angeles Times a couple of years before which opened the box on the Game, Synanon, and Chavez adaptation of the tool as an internal disciplinary device within the union.  Other recent writers took different angles on the story, but Pawel’s book will reshape the debate for professionals and impact the discussion on Chavez’s legacy for everyone else.

Perhaps its tangential but I couldn’t believe how much of Pawel’s book was inarguable because it came directly from tapes of National Executive Board and other meetings and conferences, hidden conveniently right out in the open at the Wayne State University labor archives in Detroit.  Chavez is clearly on record questioning the work and loyalty of long time staff and even organizers and leaders working at the time of the meetings themselves.  It’s almost a Richard Nixon – Rosemary Woods repeat.  What were they thinking ?  How could the vaunted UFW Legal Department have allowed them to have those tapes?  How did they prevent these tapes from being regurgitated in the hundreds of lawsuits and injunctions filed to stop the union?

The other major sources are the private papers of Chris Hartmire, former head of the ministry supporting the farm workers, and Eliseo Medina, all of which included letters back and forth with Chavez and each other, as well as the kind of self-serving notes and unsent letters and memos that most would have lost or destroyed over the last 30 to 40 years.  Undoubtedly they kept what they had because they knew they were playing a small part in something historic, but…gee?

The Farm Worker culture was to keep the union business inside the union, which makes good sense for institutions under constant attack.  I wonder now if many of the principals didn’t have one eye on history, including their own role, and the other on the grape.  There’s more to come before we find a real balance to this important story and the role of everyone who played a part in both the dream, the history, and its real tale telling the best we can be and the most human we often are.

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