From our last post on the topic of organization, S Nappolis wrote, “Revolutionaries active in the mass level need to prioritize work that facilitates the radicalization of militants at the mass level.”
The following is being reposted from the blog, Workers Power, which archives material from the Industrial Worker newspaper. In a similar vein, it begins to discuss what is required to actually help a new layer of militants develop as organizers.
by J. Pierce
The primary task of an organizer is to build more organizers. We need more and more working class leaders and the way to do this is to constantly replace yourself. Here’s a few easy ways to help you build up your successors:
Reveal your sources so others can think with you: “I had a long talk with MK recently. He really convinced me that we should reorganize as a shop committee instead of having one or two ‘stewards’. He gave me this awesome article on how IWW shop committees used to work.” Telling others where you got an idea from demonstrates that you think of them as equals. You also provide an opportunity for them question your sources.
Show others how it’s done and take them through the process: “Hey Keith, has anyone showed you how to post an article to iww.org? I’m going to post that write-up on the strike right now. Let me show you how to do it. We need another person who can post.” Pass on the technical know-how so others can be ‘experts’ just like you.
Encourage people because you believe in them and you know they can do it: “We really need this message to get to the people upfront. Can you have a talk with Shannon? She respects you and you’re the best person to talk to her.” You run faster for coaches that want to win. We’ve got to show that what we do matters and that we believe in each other.
Ask people to do things that are difficult. Move them to take on responsibilities outside their comfort level: “I’m glad you’ve been talking things up so much at your shop. You’re one of our best guys, Jerm. The next step is for you to start coming to the Industrial Organizing Committee meetings. I know its gonna be tight with your schedule but we’re gonna help you fit it in. You have to be there or this thing doesn’t move.” We need to help others break out and step up. It’s a sign of respect to ask people to do difficult things.
Train your replacement for an officer position: “Hey, Mei, you got a second? Has anyone talked to you about becoming the chair of the Committee? I’m going to be stepping down at the end of my term and you’re everyone’s pick for this position. Put some thought into it. Meanwhile I’ll start showing you what the job entails.” If we train new officers properly and regularly, we can avoid crust and dust in our leadership structures.
Encourage other members to read what you’ve read: “For those that didn’t make it to the Summit, Maxine did a killer presentation on the legal barriers to organizing in her industry. It totally reminded me of this thing I read in an old One Big Union Monthly. So I ran off some photo copies of that article for y’all to check out. I think it will help us come up with some good strategies we can try.” In making IWW history and principles accessible, you cut down on the knowledge monopoly and pass on valuable lessons and experiences.
Introduce people to each other and have them exchange phone numbers: “Tenaya, have you met Steve yet? Steve, this is Tenaya. Yeah, you guys both work in the same industry and would have some awesome stories to tell each other. You two ought to collaborate and submit something for the next newsletter.” By introducing and ensuring info exchange, you avoid ‘Ol Boys Clubs’ and now information doesn’t have to go through you.
The task that we have as IWWs is to build working class leaders everywhere we go. We are constantly looking for opportunities to teach others what we know so that they could do what we do without us.
9 thoughts on “Developing Militants and Organizers”
Yes! Thanks for posting this on. I’d never seen it before, and these tips are so practical and grounded.
I can think of so many specific instances where people I look up to have done these things with me, and only now that I have some experience under my belt myself can I appreciate the intention they were probably putting into it.
Working in a youth empowerment context, I think one of the first, and most powerful ways to empower people towards radicalism is simply posing meaningful and challenging questions to them, with the comradely expectation that they will have a response. And often times people who are new to politics won’t have a response, or their response will be simplistic. This is where a lot of folks trip up, thinking, “oh, this person must not be into politics,” or whatever. And then they stop asking the questions and trying to engage in dialogue. No! You’ve got to keep asking the questions, keep assuming that people have the ability to care and take action on the things that are affecting them. The fact that someone is treating them with respect and cares about their opinion, that matters. And the space this creates for someone’s opinion to matter also matters, especially for young people. The ground of ideas begins to open and sometimes it takes years, but eventually you see folks who you would have written off years before now taking political action. Oh, it’s so beautiful.
I think one of the most beautiful things I see in life is people growing as political agents and discovering their talents, aspirations, and voice.
Something interesting along these lines is found in Stan Weir’s discussion of his initiation into the seamen’s workers’ culture in his article Unions With Leaders Who Stay on the Job http://www.flyingpicket.org/node/19 and Farrell Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion. In both they go over the mentoring process, which is significantly different from how much of the left conceives of education (and probably different than Dobbs would practice later). That dialogue (dialectic) that occurs is irreplacable, and unfortunately underdiscussed because of the orientation of “teaching” in the left that always wants leftist work to involve lecturing people.
Having a language, a practice, and a tradition of this mentoring is crucial and we need to contribute more to this. I know in the past, these ideas led me to underestimate the political elements in this process, and to take a technical orientation to building organizers in workplace organizing. Now I see that work as fundamentally occuring on a political landscape, and one that is necessarily non-linear, involving dialogue, and following the trajectories of struggle. It’s a crime of our movement that there are so few doing this work, and why reason I value those here who have taken personal and social risks to do so.
I really appreciate you reposting this. In case you’re interested, the author has a blog of political cartoons he’s done –
He’s slowed down more recently on these, busy with life and all, like everybody, but some good stuff there.
this is something that i have talked A LOT about with comrades.
when i think about my own development as an organizer and a revolutionary in the beginning, i struggled with just thinking about the day-to-day responsibilities of organizing.
for instance, you need to write a flyer or poster, pass it our or hang it up, write an op-ed for the paper, facilitate meetings, draft agendas for the meetings… and the list goes on.
i think by and large when folks are new to organizing there’s a lot of mystery about how everything happens, and without a process of mentorship what is actually a lot of mundane drudgery becomes mystified. being a good organizer gets reduced to pure talent, or something you are born with.
i actually think this is the way a lot of skill and greatness in the world gets portrayed. professional athletes, for example, don’t just fall out of the sky. there is a lot of hard work that goes into it.
what i’ve learned is that a lot people need time to sit down and think about these day-to-day tasks. there is a set of skills or tools that can be learned. i prefer to meet up with people one-on-one outside of any official meeting and just casually brainstorm about the organizing.
i like this method because almost an infinite number of things, however tangential, get brought up in these looser, casual conversations. the conversation is much more fluid and dynamic. it’s also a time when you can take a step back and avoid the tunnel vision that is an easy trap in the middle of organizing.
the other thing i like about this is that you can strategize not just what some of the next steps in the organizing might be, but also how “the replacement” might go about executing them in an organizational capacity.
the role of the veteran or the mentor is more of an advisor than an actual organizing presence inside the group.
what i find difficult is know when to play that advisor role on the one hand, and when to step in and be an active presence inside the group that attempts to legislate and execute either a certain task or a particular direction for the organization and the organizing.
I agree that organizing should be completely de-mystified!
There are a lot of basic, practical tools that we can use to organize, and I think it’s great when we can pass these tips on to each other. So, in that spirit:
One of the things a friend and I have been talking about is the limitations of the internet and social media for organizing. Obviously, these media help us share information quickly over wide geographic areas, and potentially to huge numbers of people. But they are not necessarily a very good tool, and are often relied on too heavily, when it comes to actually getting a decent number of people to show up to an action.
Some old-fashioned practices like phone-trees (actual calls, not texts) and face-to-face conversations work well, because we can get a much better sense of whether or not people will actually show up, and it also increases the potential that our comrades and friends will take the action seriously enough to invite THEIR comrades also. Asking a question like “Will I see you there?” kind of seals the deal. I always assume that when someone says “maybe” that they probably won’t show up – and then if they do, it’s great to be proven wrong. But it’s helpful to be able to gauge ahead of time how many people will likely show up – it gives us a sense of what might be possible during the action. Also, it seems like 100 “yesses” usually translates to about 50-75 people who actually show up, so over-shooting is a good idea.
I’d love to read other peoples’ thoughts and experiences. I’m often frustrated that organizing is mystified and therefore kept out of the hands of those of us who could use it!
yeah, I like the way this discussion is unfolding. The piece gives some good advice for how to develop new organizers and the suggestions folks have added are also helpful. I hope other folks can keep sharing what works well for them.
One thing Seattle peeps have learned from Advance the Struggle is working class flyering. We’ve always flyered, because it’s a great way to develop that face to face contact Huli’s talking about. We’ve always tried to pair one newer organizer with a more experienced organizer so that folks can get experience flyering, can learn how to approach people, etc. Sometimes this is very political because if your flyer is provocative it will generate discussion, debate, support and opposition, and it’s a chance to have those kind of informal strategizing sessions Jubayr is talking about with a new member. It is a good way to get a more accurate read about “where people are at.”
But what’s new that we we learned from AS is to go out flyering in groups, to build a sense of camaraderie and to establish a regular presence in our working class communities. We’ve been flyering about police brutality here, linking the struggle against police brutality with the labor struggles we’re involved in. This has been good because having a whole group of people seems to draw more folks into discussion because you seem less like one or two idealists or preachers just out there prostelyzizing, and instead you kind of invite folks to be a part of your political community life. This can also give more of a sense of support to new folks who might be flyering for the first time, a sense of rolling with a crew and relating to our broader community.
This is something that can also be done even when you’re not doing a full scale campaign – you can just put out a flyer that raises some key political questions (per Jeremy’s point) provoking discussion, and maybe inviting folks to something low key like a movie showing or discussion. It’s a good way to build the base necessary to launch a campaign. You can also invite folks who like your flyer to join you the next time you flyer at the same spot, and ask if they want to bring a friend or two.
Whenever possible when flyering I try to ask passerby a question instead of just putting out a slogan or remaining silent. Like Jeremy said, it is a sign of respect and it shows that we take their ideas seriously. And at the end of a flyering session we try to debrief and share folks answers to the questions we asked, and share questions or challenges they might pose to us, and this gives us a chance to refine our politics and how we communicate those politics and to improve the next time around. It is also a way in which we’re constantly learning from other people in our communities, and from each other.
Liking the discussion, too.
Two additional comments:
-One thing I’ve seen Evangelicals do is go out and set up a whiteboard with provocative questions, and then invite people to write on the board. I’ve only seen this in college campus contexts, so I don’t know where else it might work…but it always created a space for debate for them when they did it.
-There is a great little book that’s hella old called “Dedication and Leadership” that I once found in a used bookstore. It’s written by an ex-Communist turned Catholic and it’s basically him explaining what Catholics need to learn from Communist base-building techniques in order to fight the Red Menace. It’s filled with little tips like reading the organizational paper on the bus and then leaving it on the seat flipped to the sports page (or something like that), and much more.
This is really thought provoking. On thing that struck me reading over the comments now is a limit of the piece – not in the sense of “it should have done XYZ instead” but in the sense of it needs a sequel or two. As much as I really like this piece, I think it’s noteworthy that it’s primarily written from an individual perspective — one organizer replaces her/himself with one other organizer; how does one organizer create another organizer. That’s incredibly important, but it’s not quite the same as how multiple organizers with relationships — cohort of organizers (or a network/core/whatever term we want to use for this collective of organizers) collaborate on creating multiple organizers. Especially if the goal is, and it should be, not just creating multiple individual organizers but creating a multiple organizers with relationships among themselves as a cohort. And with relationships with organizers in other cohorts, aside from just each individual in the newer cohort having a relationship to the individual organizer who mentored them.
In my opinion there’s an issue of group size. I think the smaller a group is the easier it is to handle this stuff on an exclusively informal or intuitive level. I think the bigger a group gets the more it becomes necessary to have formal/systematic processes in place to track this stuff — who are we targeting for development, in what way, how is it working on their end and ours, etc. To put it another way, the bigger a group gets the more there needs to be structural and administrative attention to these matters if we’re going to do them well. I think it’s difficult to get this exactly right because processes that are necessary at a larger scale aren’t an asset early on and can actually be a cost in terms of extra time spent and in some cases it can feel impersonal. At the same time, if groups expand and don’t start to track this stuff, then existing unevenness continues or intensifies with negative results. I think this is also a good argument for a structure made up of smaller components for relationship purposes – cohorts of militants (that are networked and crosscut by other structures for sure) so that there’s attention paid to development for folk who most need it, rather than just self-starters/self-selecters.