Piven and Cloward: Organizing vs. Movement Making
In a nice summary of their later work , Piven and Cloward laid out rules for nurturing social movements. For us, the most relevant are:
Rule 2: [Organizers] should keep testing for disruptive protest possibilities. Watch for indications that people are ready for defiant challenges, and do not denigrate spontaneous disruptions when they occur. Adopt a stance that points toward political possibilities, that gives hope, and that encourages people to act on their grievances. Remember that no one, not academics nor pollsters nor pundits, predicted the great outbreaks of protest in the past.
Rule 3: [Organizers] should use mobilizing tactics to expand disruptive dissensus during times of turmoil. They should not play the elite game of trying to convert mass unrest into poor people's organizations. . . . Organizers should also scour social contexts for unnoticed opportunities for disruptive action. Every social context has latent power possibilities but some may not be readily observable, and thus go unexploited. . . .
Rule 6: [Organizers] should lead. They should engage in "exemplary actions" (e.g., leading mass arrests) in order to exacerbate institutional disruptions . . . . When mass unrest breaks out, there is no time for the typical emphasis on leadership training . . . . [Note my replacement of "Cadres" at the start with "Organizers"]
For our purposes, the key points are these:
1) when organizers organize instead of going for broke and mobilizing when people are ready for a movement, their careful pragmatism can inadvertently shut nascent movements down (This is Piven and Cloward's greatest fear about organizing).
2) it's hard to know when a "movement" moment has arrived. You've got to keep testing the waters. You've got to take risks.
3) community organizing groups can be key resources for starting and extending movements. They can model disruptive tactics, provide
Jobs: The Movement Issue Now
In my humble opinion, the key potential movement issue right now is jobs. Huge numbers of people are jobless and desperate for work. If masses of people believed they could force the government to create a significant jobs program, it might be possible to mobilize a movement. Poll numbers seem to support this (p. 101 of this book).
This fits with our culture right now. There is a dignity in having a job. Asking for a job is not asking for a handout. And jobs could address many other problems-reducing crime, juvenile delinquency, child abuse. Etc.
The right wing has spent year intensifying the already strong cultural belief in America in the importance of work for pay, demonizing those who don't. Can this "frame" be turned around and used to fight for some kind of right to employment?
Scholars have done work figuring out the specific mechanisms that could underlie a right to a job in the United States (see this and this , and this ).
I may be wrong about jobs. But this post isn't about the right issue. It's about the right process for sparking a movement. The jobs issue is an illustrative example.
Movement vs. Organizing: Issues and Tactics
As organizers know, a good issue needs to appeal to people on the most basic "gut" level. ("Unjust and unacceptable!") But a deep sense of injustice is much more important for movement than organizing issues.
An organizing issue only needs to get your established constituency out. A movement issue needs to bring masses of unorganized people out.
A movement issue has to go beyond instrumental concerns, striking at the heart of justice and fairness in our society. A movement is about core questions of right vs. wrong.
This issue needs to be strong enough to drive people to do the unthinkable. An effective movement throws a wrench into the everyday workings of society ( Piven ). It disrupts the status quo. This means participants need to be willing to get arrested, hurt, or deeply embarrassed.
Of course organizers also understand that actions need to be tactical. But organizers cannot (and would not try) to get people to march into waterhoses and attack dogs.
Saul Alinsky, the profane formulator of organizing in America, often spoke of creative "movement-like" actions. He described his idea for a "shit in," where his people would occupy every stall at O'Hare Airport and prevent tourists from going to the bathroom. But he never actually did this. On the whole, his organizations' actions seem to have been pretty staid. Organizing actions, today, have become even less risky.
An Organizing Approach to Jobs: Construction Jobs on Transportation Programs
Recently one of the organizations I work with had a small conference trying to work out a good "issue" around jobs. They brought in an organizer from outside to talk about how her group developed a jobs and training program for people of color to become construction workers on transportation projects.
This was a complicated effort, with layers of challenges. Leaders had to become educated about a range of arcane issues related to construction, transportation, government funding, etc. To cite only one example, it turned out that they had to get an agreement from the construction unions not to "haze" their new apprentices.
And how many jobs resulted? Compared to what we need, not that many, of course. And who got these jobs? They skimmed off the top-these were not the most desperate, but instead the most ready to work.
Theirs was still a real accomplishment. Their organization was right to be proud of it. And they were able to extend their "wins" to other related issues, and even recruited other organizations into related, successful campaigns.
But it's a typical organizing "issue." It's geared to the realities of the moment-stimulus $$ going into transportation-and to the most easily accessible levers of power. It's a "doable" issue that will accomplish something important and hopefully also increase the power of the organization.
But it won't get large numbers of people very excited.
It isn't going to mobilize the masses.
A Movement Approach to Jobs: 10,000 Public Service Jobs
Imagine if our organization took a different stance. Imagine if instead of thinking small we thought big.
What if we decided that we were going to get together with local unions and whomever else we could find and fight for an increase in the local sales tax in our city to provide, say, 5,000 public service jobs? Or maybe more. What about 10,000? Even this wouldn't capture all the people who need jobs. But it's big enough that people-regular, desperate people-could imagine that they could get a job.
Cities and regions get sales tax increases to build football stadiums all the time. Why not for jobs?
It's a ridiculous idea right now, granted. But it's the task of a movement to make the ridiculous conceivable.
What if we fought, somehow, for people's right to have a job? For the dignity of work and against the waste of human life? What if we got beyond the esoteric specifics of transportation rules into the real core issues of desperation that haunt our central cities?
And what if we were willing to do more than hold prayer vigils? What if we sent hundreds of people to the mayor's office to apply for a job? Day after day after day? What if we actually were willing to have hundreds of people get arrested to make a stand? What if we took over the unemployment office?
In my city we are approaching 70% black male joblessness, for Christ's sake!
I don't know exactly what would work for a movement issue around jobs. But, again, that's not the point of this diary. In any case, you can't tell people what their movement issue is. You have to deal with what turns out to be a movement issue.
Significant Structural Change Produces Cultural Change
Movements significantly alter oppression when they
Think of the two key movements of the 20th Century: the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Both of these led to significant structural changes-labor and civil rights laws. But they also fundamentally shifted what was "normal" in American society. Before the labor movement's big years, there was limited support for unions in America. Afterwards, unions became "normal." The same could be said for institutionalized racism and the civil rights movement.
- force structural changes which
- generate cultural shifts in how we conceptualize "right" and "wrong."
Of course there is a "chicken and egg" issue. What came first: the long "pre-movement" struggle, the movement struggle, the local changes, the national structural changes, or the cultural shift? Cultural change is evident all along the way. But it seems clear that a key factor driving cultural change is the fact that things have changed.
Once people have a legal right to unionize, a critical boundary has been breached. What "is" normal has changed. New strategies of oppression always emerge. But the old ones are shattered.
What structural social change today would lead to both:
- a significant number of jobs, while
- culturally shifting our "common sense" about the right to a job?
Why Start Local?
Most of the critical events in American movements happened amidst local conflicts. The labor movement did not strike against all of American capitalism at once, but industry by industry, and company by company. The civil rights movement started even more locally, in specific cities (Birmingham, Montgomery) seeking local changes that illuminated a larger national crisis.
These movements eventually either spread or threatened to spread in ways that forced institutional response. (Think of the violent riots across America in the 1960s, for example.)
It is hard to see where the resources to effectively spark and support a nationwide movement around jobs would come from.
Local movements, drawing resources from across the nation (as happened in the civil rights movement and in the case of unions), seem more possible.
What if Flint, Michigan, for example, exploded into a local movement demanding a shift in resources toward some kind of guaranteed employment? What if huge numbers of unemployed workers shut the city down? And what if another city took their actions as a model?
How many cities would it take before Obama would have to do something?
If we make the impossible possible in one place, who says we can't do it somewhere else?
We Can't Do It
From an organizing standpoint, fighting for this many jobs is a totally crazy idea. Any self-respecting organizer would say, "forget it." "We don't have the capacity or the power."
Let's look at these arguments.
"We don't have the capacity": In terms of the knowledge one would need to push an issue like this, it may actually turn out that a straightforward public service jobs program is actually simpler than the complex world of highway construction. It may actually take less work to get something broad like this put together as a coherent issue. So "capacity" isn't really the problem. It isn't going to take any more leaders or organizers to get the ball rolling than it would on any other issue.
"We don't have the power": Well, right. Of course we don't. But this takes us back to Piven and Cloward. Power is not simply the result of your step-by-step wins and the slow expansion of participants within your core organizations. Power is the general capacity to put enough pressure on your target to get it to do what you want. Period.
No, you can't "organize" enough people to win on an issue like this.
But if you could mobilize the people, if you could catalyze a movement with compelling enough vision and actions. . . . Well, then you'd have the power, wouldn't you?
Is now the time for organizing groups to stop thinking like organizers and to start acting like movement catalysts?
But what exactly does it mean to act like a movement catalyst? And how could traditional organizing groups reframe themselves to do this?
I don't have any clear answers, although Piven and Cloward have laid out some key suggestions.
Certainly we need better strategies for "testing the waters" for movement potential.
For those on the economic bottom of our society, the jobs situation won't really change for years if not decades. Things may not get better, period.
What are we going to do about it?
Are we going to be behind a movement, catching up?
Are we going to let the possibility of a movement fall away because of a lack of vision?
Or are we going to take the risks necessary to start a movement?