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Organizing-as-Process: Building Towards Collective Action in Labor and Beyond

Column by
Bruce Kovanen
Andrew Bowman


Organizing offers a potential avenue to collaboratively imagine new worlds and to create critical relational solidarity, which, according to anthropologist Jen Sandler (2019), builds “the capacity of people to engage collectively across difference, and ultimately to act in concert to address precarity, violence, and injustice” (p. 83). In this column, we will introduce the organizing process and offer examples from our own organizing efforts that demonstrate its effectiveness in building organizing power. While we draw on our experiences as organizers and elected officers of our union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) Local 6300 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we see organizing conversations as a practice of wider importance than only labor organizing. Beyond our own work, we see organizing conversations as an essential part of any social movement. From recruiting people to the cause to taking collective action, organizing conversations are an essential, yet under-discussed element of bringing people into social movements. While labor strikes and protest actions are the most visible examples of collective action, these moments are not possible without first forming a coalition of trusted allies. We know from our own organizing experiences just how essential this first step is in making change. Below, we will share a few stories of organizing with the GEO to highlight the importance of organizing conversations in building organizing power as well as offer advice on how to have these conversations.

Before beginning this work, just know: you cannot do this alone. Organizing, at its best, should always be a collective effort built on trust. This is important for a number of reasons.

      1. Organizing activities can have legal ramifications. If you are acting alone, supervisors can retaliate and even fire you for organizing. (This is true even when organizing collectively but becomes more difficult with more people involved.)
      2. Organizing alone in your community can open you up to targeting and surveillance from police and other forms of state violence. 
      3. Organizing is difficult, time-consuming work, and going it alone can lead to burnout.
      4. Organizing alone can also lead to centering yourself and not the changes you want to see in the world. Centering yourself as the locus of organizing activity can lead to campaigns that evaporate as soon as you stop organizing.
      5. Organizing should be a collaborative effort that both seeks to make change and develop future leadership. You’re not going to be good at everything, and you need to recruit people with a wide variety of skills. From talking to colleagues, to designing flyers and updating spreadsheets, it takes many different types of work to make campaigns successful.
      6. Organizing should, in the words of Seth Kahn (2019), aim to “recruit new people into positions with genuine decision-making responsibility instead of relying on our usual suspects” (p. 141) to build an ever-widening network of organizers and activists.

The advice above was crucial to us as we stepped into organizing work. Throughout this piece you will find examples drawn from our own experiences in the lead up to GEO’s twelve day strike in 2018 that inform our understanding of organizing conversations and their purpose in building durable movements for social change. Below, we include advice on how to start organizing conversations, the conversations themselves, and how those conversations can grow into further action.

Starting the conversation—Building power

Before you can have an organizing conversation, you need to know who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about. Here we will offer suggestions on how to define your campaign for change and how to recruit comrades. Regardless of your campaign’s goals, building towards collective action should be the center of any organizing efforts. Labor Notes, an organizing and media project that seeks to empower rank-and-file workers to take action, offers four axioms that we have consistently returned to in our organizing efforts: 

Action is better than complaining.
Problems are waiting for solutions.
Solutions are collective, not individual.
People can be brought together to make things better. (p. 4)

Organizing is a recursive, iterative practice based on trust. Before beginning to organize, you’ve likely identified problems that need to be solved. Solving those problems is a collective effort, so defining them must also be a collective process of continued conversation. The goal is not only to address problems, but also build networks of trust and care that foster a durable and growing effort for change that can continue even after the first organizers have moved on to other work. Building relationships takes time; these sorts of organizing projects are built on months and years of work and rely on bringing in an expanding and ever-changing network of potential allies.

But first, you need to find them. 

Conversations are hard to have without contact information. Building your organizing strategy involves several techniques of mapping connections and constellations of power within your space/organization/community. In our experience, we’ve used two different types of mapping strategies. In one case, we map out physical structures like buildings, classrooms, departments, and other shared spaces of social connection (e.g., lounges, shared offices). In the other, we consider relations and power, asking questions like “Who are the people in this space that people already respect and listen to?” These maps are combined to form an understanding of a place and the social relations of its inhabitants.

For example, as part of an organizing drive to increase union membership in low density departments, I (Bruce) worked on locating and then organizing graduate workers in Accountancy. I first searched for office spaces in buildings where students in aligned programs (like the university’s MBA program) took classes. From this initial search and conversations with a few people I was able to meet, I learned that the majority of the workers in Accountancy did not have offices and that offices were in fact only reserved for Accountancy PhD students—a much smaller group (5 workers as opposed to 70 in the MA program). Knowing that office visits would be out of the question, I turned my attention towards classrooms and, using the union’s database, developed a list of the graduate workers in Accountancy and where and when they taught in order to have conversations with them after they finished teaching.

After developing an understanding of the physical and relational lay of the land, you can then move to the technical aspect of building your coalition: creating a contact list. These lists exist to facilitate and track the organizing conversations you will have with potential allies. Depending on how you plan to have your organizing conversation, this list might include: email addresses, phone numbers, office locations, and home addresses. You will already have some of this information from your earlier mapping efforts. For those working with established unions or public employees, this information might be publicly available or accessible through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. You can also use events and actions to grow your list. Contact information can easily be collected from signers and attendees as a way to facilitate their continued action. In their Spark article, Berte Reyes (2019) refers to this process as “making movements out of moments,” when planned actions—like a single protest or meeting–offer opportunities to transform trajectories of participation in activist work.

The organizing conversation

In our experience, one-on-one conversations are the bedrock on which social movements are built. There are many guides for structuring these conversations [1]. Here, we will highlight key concerns to keep in mind when engaging in these conversations drawn from our own experiences talking to our colleagues during the 2017–2018 GEO contract campaign and subsequent twelve-day strike.

Before the GEO began preparing for our 2017 contract campaign, both of us had been involved with the union for a comparatively short time. After being members of our respective committees for less than a year, we took up roles as Grievance Officer (Bruce) and Stewards Chair (Andy). While I (Andy) chaired the stewards committee (the primary organizing body of our union), I had only minimal experience with organizing conversations or planning campaigns. After taking office, I learned that the union member database—our contact list—was out of date. While we updated our information, I naively believed that recruiting additional organizers to join the stewards council was the more important task. As our contract campaign progressed, and we realized labor actions would be necessary to see movement at the bargaining table, I realized my mistake. While recruiting organizers was crucial to growing our union (the Stewards Council grew from less than five to over forty members in the space of three months), without contact information and power maps, we didn’t know who we needed to organize. As Grievance Officer, I (Bruce) learned about the contract through the filing of grievances and defending graduate workers. Based on my experiences enforcing the contract, I was asked to join the bargaining team. My participation on the bargaining team transformed my view of organizing. While at first I believed that well-reasoned research-based arguments would be enough to convince the university administration to concede to our demands, I quickly realized that we would need to get organized to take action outside the bargaining room to get a contract that would benefit graduate workers.

As bargaining continued to heat up, we both joined the Strike Committee. In October of 2017, discussions in the Strike Committee reached a difficult conclusion: a strike would be necessary to get the contract we wanted, but we weren’t yet prepared for one. We had a committed group of activists, but we had not brought the wider membership of our union into our contract campaign. This process taught us that we can’t skip steps. We stress the importance of building an organizing plan and recruiting allies early specifically because we know how hard it can be to do this work at the eleventh hour.

We spent the next six months doing that work. We prioritized updating our membership database. We divided members up amongst our new pool of organizers and had individual conversations with as many union members as possible. We tracked our progress through strike commit cards. Only after this work, and the certainty of support amongst our membership that it gave us, did we go on strike. After twelve days of marching through the rain and snow, rallying across campus, and finally occupying the offices of both the president and chancellor, the university administration and GEO reached a tentative agreement that was soon ratified by the membership. Our strike secured guaranteed tuition waivers, pay raises, increased healthcare coverage, and paid visa and immigration leave for our international members.

Our story shows the significant power that organizing can unlock. Below, we summarize some key organizing ideas we’ve learned through our experiences and from working with veteran organizers. We don’t consider these strict axioms, but instead consider them sign posts we use to guide our own organizing efforts.

Listen more than you talk

If you have decided to organize towards a solution, you are deeply invested in being a part of that solution. Before you begin an organizing conversation, it’s important to take a step back. Your main job in an organizing conversation is to hear what your potential ally has to say. Use their assessment of the issues to guide your understanding of what needs to change and what your campaign should be fighting for. 

Frame conversation towards collective solutions

Use language about joining the community and becoming part of the solution instead of telling people what you (or the group) can do for them. For example, Jane McAlevey, Preethy Sivakumar, Jon Hegerty, and Jollene Levid argue that organizers should never say “Thank you” (McAlevey, 2020). While seeming counterintuitive, common interactional phrases like “Thank You” can imply that they are doing you a favor by becoming involved. Instead, frame the conversation toward what people can do for themselves and each other when they come together.

Don’t guess!

If you don’t know the answer to a question you get asked, that’s okay! Use that moment as an opportunity to introduce them to someone in the community who might know. For example, in an organizing conversation with a graduate student in our department who asked about fellowship compensation, we connected them with another student who had been on fellowship, as we hadn’t yet applied for fellowships from the department. Don’t guess or make something up. Organizing is built on trust: if you don’t know the answer, help them find someone who does.

There has to be an ask

While organizing conversations must begin with listening, they must end with an “ask.” The responses to such asks inform what Jane McAlevey calls a structure test: a measure of “the power of the workers’ own organization” (p. 39). These tests give organizers a way to quantitatively measure their ability to make change and are the first step in translating agreement into collective action. In our organizing work, such asks have included: “Will you come to the meeting next week? Will you sign a membership card? Will you add your name to a collective email to the department chair where we voice our concerns? Will you come to the protest with me? Will you commit to joining the strike?” Use the conversation to guide your ask. Consider the activities and interests of the person you’re getting to know. What kinds of work are they interested in? How could they lend their skills to the work? 

Continuing the conversation 

Organizing conversations are the first step in any movement and should be used to plan future conversations and actions. This process can be divided into two main parts: debriefing and following up. Debriefing involves keeping a record of your organizing conversation and sharing your findings with other organizers. For example, in our work, we helped construct a membership database with records for all GEO members that tracked their involvement through meeting attendance, membership status, and records of all organizing conversations and the issues most important to each member. One organizing conversation is rarely enough time to form a durable connection between a person and a movement. Multiple conversations paired with asks that invite action and meaningful participation are key to forming a lasting connection and a wider movement.

Conclusion

Learning how to have organizing conversations is the first step in building power to make change. While often used in the context of labor organizing specifically, such conversations can be used to drive changes across a wide variety of domains. At our university, graduate students have organized to make changes to departmental practices and policies, such as gaining a seat on the Graduate Program Review committee or securing a new graduate lounge after losing our previous space.

Regardless of the venue in which you organize, there is always a path from talking about your concerns to taking direct, collective action. Our work has shown us that organizing conversations are the first and the most important step on that path.

Endnote

[1] Some of the guides we recommend include Jane McAlevely’s (2016) No Shortcuts and Labor Notes’ Secrets of a Successful Organizer, and organizing websites like Forge Organizing and Organizing.Work. Other books, like J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy’s Take Back the Economy, Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next), and Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, cover similar topics that we see as related to organizing work (especially community organizing). return

References

Bradbury, Alexandra, Brenner, Mark, & Slaughter, Jane. (2016). Secrets of a successful organizer. Labor Notes.

Kahn, Seth. (2019). ON STRIKE! A rhetorician’s guide to solidarity-building. In J. Lee & S. Kahn (Eds.), Activism and rhetoric: Theories and contexts for political engagement (2nd ed., pp. 139–149). Routledge.

McAlevey, Jane [@rsgexp]. (2020, Sept 28). Why is it important in an organizing conversation that organizers never say two words, “thank you?” Strike School session 2 tackles semantics, the words we use, and the structure of a hard conversation with @jollenelevid @preethysiva @JonHegerty Word choices matter in organizing. [Tweet]. Twitter.

McAlevey, Jane. (2016). No shortcuts: Organizing for power in the new gilded age. Oxford UP.

Reyes, Berte. (2019). Moments and movements: On scholar-activists considering the connection between activism and organizing. Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal, 1.

Sandler, Jen. (2019). Critical relational solidarity: Collectivist and transformative knowledge practices in and beyond the US academy. Collaborative Anthropologies, 12(1–2), 76–106. https://doi.org/10.1353/cla.2019.0009

Author Bios

Bruce Kovanen (he/him/his) is a PhD candidate in the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), labor studies, dialogic semiotics, and sociocultural perspectives on learning and becoming. Bruce currently serves as a Vice President of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Program and Policy Council.

Andrew Bowman (he/him/his) is the Associate Director of the Program in Professional Writing and a PhD candidate in the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He teaches first-year composition, professional writing, and multimodal composition courses as well as serving as one of the English department’s shop stewards for GEO. His research interests include protest rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, critical university studies, writing program administration, and critical pedagogy.

 

 

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