Organizing Committees are the Heart of Organizing

ACORN Organizer Training Organizing

            San Francisco             In Oakland we had the sixth and final regional ACORN and Anthropocene Alliance training with about ten people drawn from groups in the Bay Area.  In the early afternoon, I always lay out the elements of an ACORN organizing drive in a community, particularly stressing the critical importance of the organizing committee, where local residents to put their sweat equity into the home visits and preparations for launching the organization.  Once we finish the outline of the building blocks in the drive, I underline that we use many of the same techniques in tenant and workplace union organizing, because a strong and effective organizing committee is a universality in membership-based organizing methodology.

All of which meant that it came as no surprise to start hearing in the post-mortem on the UAW’s heartbreaking representation election loss at the Mercedes plant in Alabama that once again the fatal flaw was the relative weakness of the organizing committee.  Following their historic victory at the Volkswagen facility in Chattanooga, organizers seem to have drunk their own Kool-Aid, feeling that they had the momentum to win, if they could keep on rolling.  They had good reasons to take the bet.  Hundreds of workers had signed up at Mercedes and other plants in the wake of the Tennessee victory, so organizers, rightly, wanted to keep the drive alive.

As soon as I started reading the talk about “hot shop summer” here and there in union friendly papers and emails, I started worrying.  Statistically, unions lose the majority of hot shop elections, because the heat doesn’t equal real traction across a workplace.  This could be especially fatal in large elections.

UAW local leaders are now admitting they went heavy on social media and new-tech tricks and lighter on building and managing the organizing committee successfully.  Many of the authorization cards, it now turns out, were signed using QR codes, which are acceptable under new, more modern election rules of the NLRB.  The problem is not that the QR signees are not indicative of a strong showing of interest and support for the union, but that direct authorization signing by coworkers or organizers embeds inoculation into the process against the likely company campaign.  Perhaps a strong organizing committee and follow up on tech support could have offset this problem, but a weaker shopfloor committee would have been at a disadvantage in an aggressive company campaign.

A lot of the reported company campaign seems classic.  Removing the old manger and inserting a new one is textbook.  Using that and other corporate moves in a “give us another chance” campaign is almost too common.  Private backroom meetings targeted at persuadable, middle of the road workers is also very old school union avoidance strategy.

Momentum is important.  The UAW was likely right to take their best shot.  I’m not throwing rocks.  I’ve done the same thing seeking to capitalize on early wins so that later targets would fall like dominos.  Unfortunately, I’ve been burned more often that not using that strategy and tactics.  Social media and new tech are once again proving themselves to be great communication tools, but weak substitutes for direct, person-to-person organizing methodologies.  The tech slogan may be “move quickly and break things,” but in organizing it still seems to be “move quickly, and lose things.”

Luckily for the workers and the rest of us, the UAW understands that you only really lose, when you quit organizing.  I would bet on them winning at Mercedes the next time around, because management with a second chance is just going to be the old song with a slightly newer verse.  Good contracts and election wins somewhere else don’t move workers on their own jobs, where their risks are more real than possible rewards.  These are hard lessons, but they continue to be taught to us over and over again.