Why Organizing Matters
by Tom Kertes, Sun Jun 25, 2006 at 07:39:15 AM EDT
The difference between campaigning and organizing is a critical one, and it’s time for the left to refocus on organizing over campaigning. Organizing requires that relationships between people with the same values and interests be developed over time, in the context of leadership development, political education and community building. Campaigning simply calls for messages that either generate immediate action from a targeted demographic or that call on the already converted to act. Organizing is done by outreach, community building, and political education. In place of one-shot calls for action, effective organizing starts with an entry point and requires years of consistent follow-up and engagement.
Liberals are failing to organize. Somehow we’ve forgotten about how important reaching out to not converted in meaningful ways (not slogans or advertisements) is to moving from reaction to commitment. Yes, neo-conservatives do both organizing and campaigning. They know how to use fear to generate action from those not committed to the radical right’s agenda. But they also spend time, money and effort on moving the interested to the committed. They do this by creating starting points for those not already committed to their work, by reaching out to people in churches and other community forums and by following up and keeping engaged those organized by the right’s political machine.
2004 marked a shift in thinking about organizing by the left. Howard Dean demonstrated that folks could get organized, even if his first attempts were too shallow and too short term for real political affect. And he’s taken that listen to heart, demanding that the DNC focus on building up local organizations in every district. In additional, there were drives to connect with folks through home visits and to make GOTV a top priority. These kinds of efforts sit in the gray lands between true-organizing and campaigning. To be organizing, the contacts need to continue – year in and year out – at the neighborhood through community, relationships and political education.
The work of organizing is tedious. For example, the United Workers (the group I work for) spends almost all of its person-hours and financial resources on visiting low-wage workers in their homes and then turning these visits in multiple points of future connections. Members have meaningful roles in every aspect of the organization, with all members of the group’s Leadership Board coming from the ranks of low-wage workers. If we want to bring out 50 members to a protest we must dedicate at least 3 weeks of intense phone banking and repeated home visits to get out the word and to involve members in the event. And that’s after we spent 2 years building the first relationships before starting any actions.
The United Workers believes that organizing low-wage workers is critical for real political change to occur. We also believe that few in the left understand how big a challenge such an organizing effort presents. Most of the things that middle class organizers take for granted we would do at our peril. For example, at our recent Freedom from Poverty March we spent 3 weeks getting out the word to members – made especially challenging because of the amount of time members are away from home working. Since most are too poor to afford transportation, an army of transportation providers was required. And since our members do not have a lot of experience with things like vigils, marches and political action this weekend’s events were part of a three-month series of workshops, practice protests, planning meetings and leadership retreats that provided a context for our members to participate in the action. Finally, this weekend was not about mobilizing, but was instead about providing another concrete experience that would help develop our members into effective leaders of a decades-long campaign to end poverty.
If we fail to organize, and if we fail to organize the poor, now we will pay the price in twenty years – just as we are paying the price now for failures by the left in the 1980s. The right has shown how long-range thinking can pay off, and we have shown how failure to think in the long-term can destroy movements and threaten democracy itself. Low-wage workers, middle class homemakers, students, laborers and all others must be organized now, through home visits, extensive political education programs, welcoming rhetoric and highly developed strategic and coordinated plans for how to build a new base for the left. The United Workers sees itself as one part of such a puzzle. But we are but a drop in an empty bucket. Hopefully others will join us soon, before the bucket dries out (or is dumped out by the more powerful and better organized right).
Disclaimer: I am the Communications Organizer for the United Workers.