Making Decisions “On the River”

ACORN International Organizing
ReAct makes decisions "on the river"
ReAct makes decisions “on the river”

Budapest    Back to the category of “new tricks for old dogs,” before I forget I wanted to share a method the French organizers used in order to try to resolve difficult decisions and see if they could achieve consensus before abandoning all hope. We were meeting on the board of ReAct, the transnational organization partnered with ACORN internationally, with the Alliance in France, and the main vehicle they have used for anti-corporate and global work, especially in Francophone Africa. As part of the partnership, I had joined the board of ReAct, so this was my first meeting.

There was a debate on whether or not ReAct should enter into a contract with a small, sectarian and perhaps anarchist local union in Lyon, France to assist them in increasing their membership in the hotel sector. The proposed contract was relatively short term at perhaps six months, but there were concerns by many board members on many issues ranging from whether or not there were reputational issues in working with this local union that might endanger other union relationships to whether or not there was “mission drift” from ReAct in moving from a more global orientation to one that focused on France. There were also issues that concerned me about the impact on the Alliance Citoyenne, ACORN’s affiliate in France, and whether it would impact any expansion of the Alliance to Lyon, a significant city in our French expansion plans in close proximity to our powerhouse in Grenoble.

After lengthy debate, suddenly the chair called for everyone to stand up and move to another part of the room to try to resolve this “on the river,” as they called it. The river was a dividing line, and everyone started on one “bank” of the river, a division of sides obviously, and then after more discussion was asked whether they had already determined which side of the river they stood on. Those already in favor of the proposition moved over to the other bank. Some, and I was one, were on one bank with one foot, so to speak, still in the water. The chair would then ask people on the other side if there were specific conditions that they could articulate, that if met, would allow them to comfortably cross the river. Different people articulated different concerns. One attached a condition, easily met, that the work would align with the Alliance, so once assured, she moved over, and I got my feet out of the water as well. Another offered the condition that the work with this union only occur in hotels where there were not members of other unions. They agreed to that readily as well, though I think that condition may be impossible to meet, and another one crossed the river, and so on.

Our organizer from Rome, watching the proceeding, was aghast. He found it to be gross “manipulation” and a forced consensus. The head organizer from Canada was intrigued and thought she might try it in certain situations where nothing else might work.

There was no doubt that it was a directed decision, but at the same time it was somewhat ingenious in not allowing consensus to be blocked and moving to a decision one way or another. It would be an interesting tool to try on harder questions where management, or in this case the chair of the meeting, was not so invested in the outcome of the decision, but this is a good technique worth trying.