Can Ideology Save an Organization?

Thessaloniki    The twenty people watching “The Organizer” documentary screening in the classroom at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, were all either PhD candidates in political science or professors.  They began with a good, open-minded attitude and were friendly and tolerant as we worked to get the pieces together at the last minute.  We had experienced our usual snafus at the airport of missing each other in the waiting area for several hours, so by the time I taxied to the university with help from a mutual friend in Brussels transcribing the location for me from the flyer, we hardly rendezvoused at the stated start time.

Though the script had been translated into Greek, the technical transfer of captions into the documentary didn’t really get done, so everyone had to make their way through the film in English.  The professor was convinced this would not be a huge issue, and perhaps it was not at least for some.  One woman before the meeting said she was actually from Bennington, Vermont though she had been in Greece for years.  Another, surprisingly, had spent a year in high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, and had traveled in Texas, and she thought it likely in Arkansas as well.

Nonetheless, the Q&A section that I live for was difficult.  No small part of it was likely on me.  Having been up for almost 36 hours straight, I was likely less patient than usual and certainly not at the top of my game.

The political science students were earnest.  They wanted to believe that there might have been a magic bullet that could have saved ACORN when it was under attack in the United States eight and nine years ago.

One asked whether we were familiar with other kinds of currency systems that might have allowed ACORN to avoid the “capitalist” system and cited various small-scale examples of experiments with alternative cash-credit programs.  In answering I said I was familiar with some of the trials, and even nodded knowingly to the woman from Vermont that I thought some of them were in that state, but that, frankly, that had been outside the scope of an organization like ACORN, regardless of its size.

This was a sophisticated crew so there were no questions about social media, but there was a detailed question about anarchism and the structure of ACORN, which I weathered.  There was another lengthy question that seemed to hope that the problem was that ACORN was an NGO and wanted a detailed list of how we distinguished ourselves, that I was happy to provide though left the questioner unconvinced from what I could tell.

Then there were a number of questions that firmly believed that if ACORN leaders and staff had a more committed and traditional ideological framework then the organization might have survived even though they had been “duped by Clinton and Obama,” as the questioner argued.  I made the case for the organization’s own internal ideology, but could tell I had not convinced the crowd, perhaps because the very demise of ACORN in the United States likely proved the weakness of my argument.  I was probably simply lucky that the students did not press home that point to my embarrassment, and finally left so I could find my way to my sleeping pad and get some rest to fight the wars another day.


Life Stirring in “Remnant” Unions in Pacific Northwest

public lands in Seattle for housing

Corvallis    Driving through rush hour on both sides of Portland early in the morning in route to Oregon State University I was listening to an interview on KBOO, the 50-year old community radio station broadcasting from that city.  The interview was with a professor at Berklee Music College in the Boston area who didn’t teach music but political science.  He had written a book he was promoting about eco-socialism, and they were discussing it enthusiastically.  At one point, the host mentioned the Dakota Pipelines fight in 2017, and the fact that a number of building and trades unions had supported the pipeline against the native peoples and many progressive groups.  He bemoaned the fact that what he called “remnant unions” were so often on the wrong side of environmental issues.

Remnant unions?!?  Wow, we think of the fact that unions are embattled, losing court cases, fee payers, and overall density of membership compared to total jobs, but even though we know intellectually that only one in twelve workers are now in unions, there’s something about calling these once mighty workers’ organizations “remnants,” like they are the last of a dying breed, that is a gut punch.

Talking to union organizers and activists at the screening of “The Organizer” in Seattle at Southside Commons organized by LeeAnn Hall, Derek Birnie, and Jonathan Rosenblum and sponsored by SEIU locals, UAW, One America, and others and listening to the questions after the documentary was reassuring though.  There’s still life stirring in unions on the coast.

I caught up with an organizer involved in a UAW drive at Tesla in Fremont, California for the last three years, who was hopeful given worker response to the Elon Musk craziness of recent weeks.  He reported that they were more upset about the constant pressure on production and confused about the hundreds of “volunteers” who are Tesla-fan-owners who come in to help boost sales at the end of every quarter for this desperate company.  Another big bunch, also with the UAW, was organizing student teachers and adjuncts at the University of Washington, and were raring to go.

An organizer from California told me about working closely with ACCE, the former California ACORN, on trying to unravel the impacts of Prop 13, finally!  He was more discouraging on the prospects of the coming statewide referendum that would allow cities to enact rent control in California cities that ACCE has been leading, but it’s still a fight, so no one can count them out yet.

An organizer reported booming out to work with the great provincial union and ACORN ally in Canada and internationally, the British Columbia Government Employees Union.  He had his hand in the municipal elections there as well as being blown away about the progress BCGEU has made in achieving over 50% density among casino workers in BC.  Ok, that’s Canada, but getting back to the US, I caught up with old comrades with SEIU as well.  One organizer told me about the plans moving forward for SEIU to spearhead a project to build 500 units of affordable housing in Seattle where average housing sale prices have been astronomical and have priced workers out of the city.  They had convinced the Washington State legislature to allowing surplus state land to be used for such publicly beneficial purposes for free, rather than requiring market price acquisition, making such projects feasible, which could be a real breakthrough for both labor and the community.

In the questions and comments part of the screening, people advocated for hard discussions about mistakes we were making in organizing and a clear-headed evaluation of our organizing models.  I even got a great question about organizing in Argentina! For sure, there’s still signs along the Pacific of union revival, but it was also clear why I support these screenings.  They are great organizing tools to bring the community of organizers together, and that gives me hope on many different fronts as well.