Verizon: union win

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Thu Aug 24 08:56:32 PDT 2000

On Thu, 24 Aug 2000, Doug Henwood wrote:

> >One of the luxuries of pure speculation is that you can avoid hard choices
> >and either/or decisions. But in most organizing, there are choices, in
> >time, in energy, in resources devoted to one strategy or another.
> To quote a great inclusionist, there he goes again. The sweatshop
> kids and the unions, just to take one example, are each energizing
> the other - it's a wonderful synergy. I don't see why you have to go
> looking for contradictions where none exist. Unproductive, divisive,
> destructive contradictions, I mean. It's like that whole tedious
> identity/class division.

The identity/class contradiction is an existential one, where the contradiction is as theoretical as the need for choice is real in concrete organizing. As someone who has been (at the same time at most points) a "sweatshop kid" and a "trade union bureaucrat" (or TUBie in a friend's parlance), a leftwing radical socialist and a Democratic hack, I have no problem with such existential dualities. A lot of other folks do, I note.

But on any given day, in any given hour, each activist and each group with resources, has to decide what work to do, what choice of strategies to take. No one argues (least of all me) that only one kind of activity should be done, but to say that we should do "everything" is an empty phrase. THe question is what proportion of our activism should be theatre and rallies, what proportion outreach to non-activists, what proportion base-building and training of committed cadres, what proportion lesser-evil political hack work, and what proportion policy workery.

These are questions of both financial commitment by movement budgets and political commitment by movement decision-makers. And it is decisions by individual activists.

If I thought rallies were useless, I would not have spent time in my life organizing them or been on the DC barricades. But when I say that we need less theatre and more day-to-day organizing, less mayhem and more union building, that is the expression of an opinion of how the movement should reorient its proportions of resources spent of these respective activities. Others may differ on the proper proportion, but this is not "dualism" but the bread-and-butter of strategic debate and planning.

> >And success goes to those groups that choose to put their resources into
> >the best strategies while minimizing resources wasted on ineffectual ones.
> Which presumes you know which will be which in advance. You sound
> like some financial theorist imparting perfect foreknowledge to The
> Markets.

Doug, you spend too much time with such market analysts who don't aspire to change the phenomena they study. It's part of what occasionally comes out as a theoretical fatalism.

For those organizers who seek to change the system, the first step to evaluating what to do is evaluating what worked in the past and what didn't work. Without a complete rigidity, you usually do less of what didn't work and more of what did. And you experiment with new innovations to develop new strategies, but then evaluate them for their success without becoming enthralled with them merely because they are new.

The DC/Seattle/Philly/LA mobilizations have a lot going for them. They inspired new activists (outreach), solidified committed activists (cadre-building) and impacted the public debate (theatre and policy wonkery). There downsides were limited - a minor amount of alienation of some folks and use of resources that might have gone to other activities, but on balance worthwhile. But anyone has to admit that their effectiveness have been on a declining curve, from the globe-shaking effects of Seattle to the moderate effect of the DC protests to the almost normalization of their role by Philly and LA. They've lost their shock value and although some folks would say that would call for upping the ante and increasing their disruptiveness, my opinion (contested I know) is that this would lead to a decrease in both public sympathy and in outreach effectiveness, gaining little. This is a classic problem with public spectacle - a short public shelf-life demanding almost unsustainable creativity to keep it effective.

This is one reason healthy strategy calls for most effort to be steady day-to-day organizing punctuated only occasionally by such kinds of public spectacle, to keep the latter fresh and primarily to reinforce the former.

My position is that the movement has to shift its emphasis and focus away from the mass spectacles towards that day-to-day organizing, not exclusively but in a much higher proportion.

That is not dualism but Organizing 101. Try reading less market analysis and more Alinsky.

-- Nathan Newman

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