Thursday Dec 01

Fall 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Organizing Stories That Inspire and Make You Think

Sometimes David Wins:  Organizing to Overcome “Fated Outcomes”.  By Frank C. Pierson, Jr.  ACTA Press. 2022.

Frank Pierson is an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizer.  He is a story-teller, and a good one. His organizing stories inspire and make you think.  His personal story is engaging and dramatic.  Place him 100 years earlier and he would have been on the other side of the organizing barricades from his grandfather: “Silas worked to cement the dominance of corporate leadership in the hierarchy of power!”


“Stories,” organizer Marshall Ganz tells us, “not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel – our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage to act. 

Most of Pierson's stories take place in home turf, the Southwest.  His roots go deep; that makes the book’s texture rich.  He’s also rooted in the organizing tradition, so he tells us stories about Saul Alinsky and the early IAF to put his work in a context.  Both sophisticated organizers and people who know little about the work will find the book both enjoyable and filled with lessons on how we might close the gap between the world as we’d like it to be and the place it now is.    

Herb Mills was my best friend for 60 years.  He was a brilliant intellectual, with a PhD in Political Science, and a long-time leader in the San Francisco Bay Area Local of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). Herb loved to tell, and repeat, union and work stories.  Hearing one story for more than the second time, his wife Becky noted a discrepancy and called Herb on it.  “It ain’t the f…in’ accuracy that counts; what’s important is the lesson the story teaches,” he replied.  That was actually an old Wobbly line—the International Workers of the World (IWW).  

Therein lies a problem for story-tellers and telling.  Sometimes fact-checking is required.  Frank’s stories took me to the edge on this question.  I know enough about the bitter history between the United Steel Workers of America (USW) and the left (mostly Communist)-led International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers Union (“Mine-Mill”) to wonder about its telling here—a point to which I will return.

Frank Pierson

“My grandfather, Silas Gilbert Pierson, would have taken offense at my choice of career—community organizer.  The company for which he worked was responsible for the murder of a man who shared my profession—a union organizer, Louis Tikas, in Ludlow, Colorado”—site of the John D. Rockefeller-owned  Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and the Ludlow Massacre where strikers and their families were gunned down by National Guardsmen during a strike.  Frank’s reflections on what his grandfather might have thought and done are one of the pleasures of the book. 

“Saul Alinsky was my political grandfather… Determined as I was to follow many of Alinsky/s precepts, always perched on my right shoulder was Grandfather Silas, the archangel of industrial capitalism…whispering in my ear, arguing back.  I never fully reconciled the two and I never wanted to.”  Pierson is haunted by Ludlow, and has four times returned. 

Pierson’s Stories

When a developer came to the small town of Oracle, AZ where Frank and his wife Kaz lived, and hoped to remain living, he didn’t expect a fight.  Pierson aptly identifies such small towns as “cannot get enough of” places; he assembled an unlikely coalition of such people. They initiated an “array of disruptive actions.”  “This David knew how to use a slingshot,” he tells us.  Most places lose the fights against developers, then decry their power.   

There were more battles.  How, when and why are explained.  “In the real world of small-town politics, ever vulnerable to Goliaths on their doorsteps, the Davids in Oracle have managed, at least for now, to organize a unique pathway forward that appears viable, creative, and largely self-directed.”   

“Never do for people what they can do for themselves” is one of IAF’s iron laws for organizer behavior, and an excellent one.  But there are circumstances when “every law needs to be broken.”  David’s power had so intimidated a local leader that “he lost his focus” in a confrontation.  Pierson broke the “Never” law, and interceded.  He had to.  He tells us, the only law is that there is no “never.”  That’s a good one to remember.  

An organizer is in trouble if in the later years of an organizing project she’s doing what she did in its early years.  That’s a sign of failure to train people and let go.  In the story at hand, failure to break the iron law might have led to disaster.

Pima County, Arizona

A local newspaper called Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC) “a grassroots Goliath.” Tucson Mayor George Miller was an ally from the outset.  Developer Bill Estes, Jr wasn’t.  He became one, illustrating another Pierson/IAF law: “no permanent enemies, no permanent friends.”  It’s a law I take with a grain of salt.  I understand the Building Trades unions differently than I understand the finance, insurance, developer, real estate complex, and it’s too-often wholly-owned subsidiaries in boards of supervisors, city councils and state legislatures, and public planning, zoning, urban renewal and freeway agencies that are responsible for the destruction of too many American towns and cities. Properly circumscribed, the law is a good one for building people power.

Pierson describes PCIC’s founding convention.  If you haven’t been to one, just imagine a national Democratic or Republican Party Convention, only this one represents the people bases of both parties.  They can put an organization on the map, or be a big public announcement of failure.  

I could feel the excitement of these conventions.  They testify to the breadth and depth of an organization, and give it license to claim the right to negotiate with the powers that be.  PCIC used that license to establish a substantial track record.  It also made the difference in the outcome of a crucial statewide campaign for governor between Janet Napolitano and Congressman Matt Salmon.  The former dealt respectfully with PCIC, and reached agreement with it on important issues.  The latter tried to ignore it.  PCIC widely broadcast the difference, and turned out voters in the election.

We have multiple situations in the country now where a multi-issue version of this approach could make a qualitative difference in the lives of millions of everyday people, and contribute significantly to the growth of people power organizations.  Economic justice and other issues popular with working- and middle-class voters of all backgrounds don’t get beyond polling results.  Corporate power and wealth intercede, and shape the policies and fund almost all Republicans and too many Democrats.  

Citizens Action Program

Citizens Action Program (CAP) was one of Pierson’s early organizing experiences.  CAP engaged in what I call non-partisan partisanship.  It used Mayor Richard J Daley’s proposed Crosstown Freeway (which it opposed) to challenge all candidates in the 1972 election.  If you were against the freeway, you were for the people, and, contrary, if you were for it.  A massive voter education, registration and turnout the vote effort in the freeway corridor significantly contributed to the election of Governor Dan Walker and some down-ballot candidates as well, including the defeat of Daley’s post-retirement chosen heir.  

In the absence of a broader state-by-state and national partisan-nonpartisan approach to electoral politics, well-illustrated in both the CAP and Pima County stories, electoral politics fail to express popular interests, with results we are now living with and threaten to become worse in 2022 and 2024.

Immigration Reform

Pierson discusses Arizona Interfaith Network’s involvement in national immigration reform.  For those who want to divide and conquer, nothing seems more perfect for their purposes than “illegal immigrants.”  It even gets traction among “legal” Mexican-Americans, some of whom believe “we came here legally; so should they.”.  It is especially difficult because it cannot be successfully addressed without an international understanding.  

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) embodies everything that’s wrong with globalization when defined by corporate interests.  Subsidized North American corn drove native Mexican small farmers out of business.  When they sought work elsewhere in their country, there was little-to-none.  They headed north of the border. NAFTA was supported by both PAN, the conservative party that finally elected Vicente Fox, and PRI (Party of the Revolution Institutionalized) that Fox defeated.  Volumes have been written on the intricacy of this trade agreement.  It is clearly beyond the scope of both Pierson’s book and this review.  

But a Pierson story illustrates the limits of story-telling.  Fox is something of a good guy because he showed up at an Arizona Interfaith Network (AIN) gathering of 3,700 people to “shore up support for immigration reform and better treatment of migrants in the USA…” 

Rolling the Dice

“Rolling the Dice” is the story of Pierson’s move to Las Vegas.  The highlight issue campaign was opposing sex trafficking of minors.  The characters in the drama include Lt. Karen Hughes, who heads the vice section of the Las Vegas Police Department, and Andrea Swanson, one of whose daughters was a minor who got swept up in the sex trade.

There are more stories.  They are good.  Read them, and learn from them!  In what remains, I want to focus on one.

Magma Copper

In a small world story, my connection with Pierson’s turf organizing is more than casual.  Clint Jencks, a leader and organizer in the left-led (mostly Communist) Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers Union, got his Economics PhD at UC Berkeley where I was also a grad student.  He was a supporter of, and occasionally involved with, the student movement there that absorbed more of my time than my studies.  His refusal to sign the non-Communist Party membership affidavit in the Taft-Hartley Act led to his prosecution, and a Supreme Court case he won—Jencks vs United States.  I heard many Mine-Mill stories from Jencks.  

Steel Worker members were more often white; Mine-Mill more Latino.  “Rumors that Mine-Mill was infiltrated by Communists…were planted by the rival USWA… “Like Mine-Mill but with a less ‘radical-edge’…” “Mine-Mill was finally outvoted by the USWA.” They merged in 1967. Pierson’s characterization of this conflict misses how deep it was, and how the division was ethnic as well as organizational and political.  

Coal mine union President and CIO leader John L. Lewis deeply opposed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act.  When the CIO refused to follow his leadership, he took his coal miners’ union out of the federation. This story is told in detail by Alinsky in John L. Lewis:  An Unauthorized Biography.

Failure to appreciate how deep the conflict was spills over into Pierson’s broader power analysis, “American companies are not alone in making disastrous decisions driven by ineptitude…and a big dose of hubris.”  There is more to it than the psychology of top corporate leadership.  International (and now financialized) capital owes no allegiance to place or person.  It seeks to maximize short-term profit.  Elsewhere in the book, Pierson acknowledges the point.  But in a major story he doesn’t apply that understanding.  

In 1996, thirty years after the merger, USWA faced Magma Copper in what threatened to become another Ludlow conflict.  A different story was written built on “the hard relational work of union and corporate leaders’ intent on clearing a path for long-term survival and succeeding for seven golden years.”  “[T]hey proved that heretofore could be avoided by the actions taken by leaders, union power and a different kind of human engineering politics.”  

A confrontation was everted.  Militant Steel Workers Union leader Don Shelton and Magma Copper CEO Burgess Winters agreed to a new partnership between union and company.  Past antagonists now were partners, a change shaped by Bob Mueller, a new Magma official, who “brought some very peculiar ideas to the copper industry.  Chief among them was insistence that labor and management could learn to get along to the long-term benefit of both.”  They could “co-create a new future.”  A “shift in mind and heart” took place, and was expressed in “restructuring corporate governance through the formation of what they agreed to call the ‘JUMCC’ [Joint Union - Management Cooperation Committee].” 

This is the idea of “partnerships.”  It is rooted in the understanding that workers want to be more than “hands” attached to mass-production tools.  That recognition and implementation of changes based on this system would theoretically lead to greater productivity.  I’m familiar with Socio-Technical-Systems, one of its most fully elaborated examples.  

Traditional unionists, both more mainstream and radical ones, don’t like partnerships.  They view them as coopting and undermining worker militancy.  That’s a mistake because they deny the possibility of the union as an expression of a far broader understanding of labor-management contracts than “wages, hours, benefits and working conditions.”  

If broader work-related matters become negotiable, and if workers are deeply involved in implementing the results of terms agreed upon to implement these new considerations, a different kind of relationship can exist between labor and management.  But there’s a big “IF” that must be recognized.

When Mine-Mill was expelled from the CIO as a “Communist-dominated” union, so was the West Coast International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU).  Its Secretary-Treasurer was Lou Goldblatt.  He didn’t believe in partnerships.  He saw labor and management engaged in “a continuous struggle over prerogatives”, as he put it to me.  

How, then, do you both design work processes that enhance meaning for workers and increase productivity, and more fully involve workers with enterprise management, while at the same time enhancing union power in this constant struggle?  By taking the initiative, and using partnerships to further union prerogatives.

When the also-CIO-expelled United Electrical Workers (UE) faced Chicago-based Republic Windows and Doors in a bitter dispute over withheld wages, it staged a plant-occupation and took its power beyond company management to financier Bank of America.  It finally negotiated a transfer to worker-ownership of the company.  When a UE local in New Bedford, MA faced the shut-down of Morse Cutting Tools, it got the city government to threaten eminent domain, and finally negotiated an agreement that included it in management decisions.  

There are structures and processes that can enhance both union power and productivity:  worker-elected “lead-people” can perform functions once considered “management prerogatives;” workers themselves can make decisions formerly reserved to management; worker ownership can replace capital ownership.  As far as I know, Ken Galdston and Dick Harmon are among only a handful of Alinsky-tradition organizers who take worker ownership seriously.  

Elsewhere Pierson discusses the danger of “program before power,” a very important idea.  He contradicts himself in this analysis of the Magma partnership. 

Different understandings of power relationships shape organizing.  Stories told in the framework of one or another of these understandings don’t let us see what the alternatives are.   

Power, Solidarity and Relationships

Pierson: “Long noted for Alinsky’s strategic and tactical brilliance, the IAF’s new calling card and growth engine was the individual one-to-one relational meeting, which in many ways it still is today.  Simplistic as it sounds, this one methodological transformation moved IAF organizing away from primarily an issue-oriented campaign focus to the solid and long-lasting ground of relationship building… In many ways, it has proved more revolutionary than anything Alinsky said or did.”

I don’t think that’s quite right either.  Issue-campaigns build solidarity among those who are party to them.  Solidarity is a collective term for relationships:  when you’re in the trenches together, you appreciate one another.  It can also have a broader and deeper meaning, as when in the late 1960s/early ‘70s longshoremen’s unions across Europe refused to unload scab grapes from California.  Building it intentionally is a gain for organizing, but contrasting it to issue politics is a mistake.  The sense of community built by action shouldn’t be viewed as insignificant.  

But a problem arises if conflict is the only source of glue to bind people together. The results can create burnout, rootless organizations, and little more than the terrain for activists.  Pierson is right to emphasize relationships.

In the 1970s, when energy for public action was widespread, issue campaigns were used to build campaign organizations.  The evaluation of that experience led IAF and others, to develop institution-based organizing.  This approach took into account the fragility of civil society voluntary associations, particularly religious congregations, and consciously used one-to-one relationship building, articulation of the values underlying organizing and internal education as tools to deepen community.  The “one-on-one” (I prefer “one-to-one”) is no doubt an important tool.  To make it “revolutionary” is a little more than it deserves.

“Alinsky taught that an important counter to [corporate and political] adversaries was for the people’s organizations to both oversee the delivery of public services in their communities and then use the control of those services to teach political power skills.”  I’m not sure where Pierson finds this in Alinsky, so I’m going to make it Pierson and raise a question.  How is this balanced with “power precedes program?”  There’s a tension between the two, and substantial difficulties arise when an organization prematurely starts running programs.  I wish Pierson had discussed this further.  Too many initially-good organizations become bogged down in program administration when they should be moving on to larger issues affecting more people whose victory requires deeper changes in the status quo.  The same question arises for unions that get absorbed in “partnerships” between management and labor.

The Future

Pierson: “Alinsky believed that organizing work would spread toward a national impact if enough organizers could be recruited and trained.”  Did Alinsky mean that the organizations IAF built would do it alone?  I don’t know, but don’t think so.  There are now significant people power organizations scattered across the country, many built by IAF.  Others have been built by other organizers.  Stirrings in unions suggest an openness to new ideas.  Polling data support for unions is at its highest in roughly 50 years.  

Is this a time for boldness?  Do climate change, species extinction, staggering concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and more create ground for an initiative to challenge these trends?  Could some coordinated state-by-state, multi-issue, partisan nonpartisan campaigns both serve to slow, halt and reverse these trends and contribute to the renewal of civil society that now seems so eroded?  These are questions beyond Pierson’s book, other than the hint of them in the above quote from Alinsky.  In his next book, I hope he will address them.

More about Mike and his work can be found at <>

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