Tuesday Apr 07

The Gold Standard Part 1 – Changing the World

An organizer acquaintance of mine likes to refer to the work his network does as “gold standard”. Apart from the presumptuousness of the claim, it did raise the interesting question, “What constitutes the gold standard for the work of small “d” democratic people-power organizers?

The promise of organizing is that it will create a vehicle (organization) through which powerless or relatively powerless people will gain the ability to address the conditions of their lives—at work, where they live, where their children go to school, in the health care system they use, the public transit they ride, the parks where they recreate, and whatever else they may be. They do this by negotiating with decision-makers in the worlds of business, major non-profits and government. When these decision-makers refuse to engage in good faith negotiations, action is taken to force them to do so.

The gold standard can be assessed using four measures that I will call “more and less,” prerogatives, qualifications, and relative wealth, status and power. They are interrelated, but analytically separable.

More and Less

More money, more frequent transit service, more doctors in public health clinics, more immediately available beds for drug abusers, fewer children in a classroom, less cost for housing, better pay per hour, more benefits, fewer hours worked, greater safety, no hazardous job site materials…you get the idea. A gold standard organization would be in a continuous process of winning victories in these and other areas of importance to their members. What was won in the early years of that organization’s life would be less than what is won currently because, presumably, the organization is gaining power to “up the ante” as time passes and it grows in numbers, experience and reputation

For Example:

• An organization that won a reduction in public transit fare should ten years later be at the table with its transit agency designing a plan to increase citywide service, particularly in low-income neighborhoods where people are most dependent upon public transportation, and the fare should by now be greatly reduced with the revenues lost made up by progressive taxes on wealth and upper incomes.
• The city’s public housing authority and/or community and housing development organizations should have built, and be building, decent, safe, sanitary, attractive, well and respectfully administered, service-rich housing affordable to low-and moderateincome people.
• Class sizes in pre-K, kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school should roughly approximate or be smaller those in elite private schools (often 12 students).

“Who Gets to Decide What?”

This is the question of whose prerogative it is to make decisions that affect other people’s lives.

There are examples from labor and community of the broadening effect gold standard organizing can have.

Before a union was organized, hiring was at the pleasure of the boss. After a union was organized, democratically-elected leaders negotiated on an equal footing with employers. An effective grievance procedure allowed rank-and-file workers to oppose contract violations; health and safety issues could be resolved. The union took control of work from the boss and gave control or voice

Unions intervened on questions of race, national origin and gender and the union provided a vehicle for legislative, electoral and direct action on issues of justice. The union was a means for solidarity with struggles across the globe—as, for example, west coast longshoremen acted in solidarity with the anti apartheid struggle in South Africa

Too many young radicals and community organizers are dismissive of unions. Whatever may be wrong with many unions, they are the most important voice workers have—if they are fortunate enough to belong to one. And for the most part, what is wrong with unions can be remedied by reformers from within.

The gold standard for community organizers would include at least three dimensions of work in relation to the world of work: action in solidarity with union organizing, collective bargaining and strike activity; action within their own organizations that provided members tools to organize within their union if it was corrupt or ineffective, and, in some cases, action to directly organize workers. It is rare to see the first of these, though it does happen. It is even rarer to see the second, though historically the political left and religious bodies have each in their own way sought to strengthen workers who wanted to organize or who wanted to reform corrupt unions. The only examples I know of the third is when Baltimore BUILD entered into a partnership with AFSCME to organize city contract workers and of course ACORN’s partnership with SEIU, AFT, and the CWA to organize many home care and childcare workers’ unions.

Clear parallels in community organizing also exist. With a variety of power structure institutions, a community organization might enter into a relationship to plan development in a neighborhood, curriculum in a school district, or design and implement a mental health program for the residents of the city.

In my “on the ground” days, in San Francisco’s Mission District, the organization for which I was lead organizer negotiated an agreement with the mayor that created a planning body for the Federal Model Cities program that had to initiate all programs that were going to be in its neighborhood. In effect, fears that Model Cities was a Trojan Horse for a bulldozing urban renewal program were laid to rest. The organization nominated
two thirds of the planning body’s board of directors (the mayor formally appointed 17 from a list of 25), and the organization had the authority to recall them if it believed they weren’t serving the interests of the people. That the program became a sad tale of cooptation wasn’t inevitable. (I tell that story in gruesome detail in A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco.)


When I was a field secretary in the mid-1960s for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), I was struck by how deeply the power structure of Mississippi had been able to get everyday Mississippi African-Americans to believe they weren’t qualified to vote. When SNCC decided it would no longer teach black people how to take the literacy tests qualifying them to vote, I discovered that it wasn’t only in Mississippi that these views were held. Paraphrasing Mississippi Project Director Bob Moses when queried by a Federal District Court judge, “you can’t deny a people an education then use their lack of education as the reason to deny them the right to vote.” SNCC instead won elimination of literacy tests as a requirement for voting.

“Unqualified” people defer to those who are “qualified”, not because the latter have demonstrated leadership or competency but because of a status having to do with class, race, ethnicity, gender or some other identity unrelated to the matter at hand. Organizing shifts people from being the objects of the decisions of others to “subjects” actively engaged in public matters having to do with their interests and the common good.

Gold standard organizations shift increasing numbers of people, and finally categories of people, from the internalized oppression of feeling “less than” to a sense of full person-hood. This shift happens both in the course of action itself and in internal programs and procedures of training, evaluation, reflection, celebration and education.

Relative Wealth, Status and Power

If we take small “d” democracy seriously, we should have in our minds’ eyes ways of breaking up all concentrations of power; the hierarchies of unearned status, and the sharp inequalities of wealth and income. Programs and policies our organizations support should contribute toward these ends.

The gold standard organization carefully uses small issues to build its power so that it can engage in issues that more and more deeply deal with present vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth, status and power. Failure to do so limits organizing to tinkering at the edges of problems whose center must be addressed. To address them without power is one kind of mistake; to fail to address them when the power to do so can be assembled is another. Both the worlds of community and labor organizing are prone to the latter.

Today we are organizing in the context of climate change and species extinction; vast inequalities of wealth, status and power; deep problems of student debt, homelessness and inadequate health care. We also face a military-industrial complex that fosters foreign policy goals of domination and control. All this requires power that no one center of people- power possesses. No single union or federation, no single community organization or network, can successfully address these problems.

The gold standard organization would take the lead in creating coalitions whose sum is greater than its parts. Without such a coalition, for example, environmental disaster will be unavoidable. Severe effects from the climate crisis will already be visited upon our children grandchildren. Without such coalitions, we will not be able to stop capital strikes that take place when big investors don’t like the direction public policy is taking. Isn’t that what’s happening when the news tells us, “the stock market took a turn downward in the face of new uncertainties resulting from Trump’s freeze on Chinese imports?” Isn’t that what’s taking place when wealth seeks offshore shelters against progressive taxation?

Big Campaigns

On occasion, a people-power organization ought to undertake a campaign on an important issue that it can’t win alone. It ought to reach out to others who have been unwilling to join it and, in effect, say, “you don’t have to join us but we should come together on an ad hoc basis to fight for ‘x’ which directly affects all our people and which none of us alone can do anything about.” Such coalitions are difficult but necessary.

The demonstration of power gets you to the table where your organization can make proposals and if agreement is reached, your power to enforce them will be tested. If rejected, you must demonstrate the capacity to negatively affect the interests of your adversary. Campaigns seek to do that. When you win, you are back at the table—this time with the likelihood of reaching agreement.

Now a new danger arises: getting too comfortable at the table. Its more formal name is “co-optation.” That’s where most American unions ended up in the 1950s and 1960s, after the militant ones were for the most part destroyed by McCarthyism. Most 1960s and 1970s community organizations ended up there as well, only in their case co-opted by the administration of programs—seduced by the opportunity to build houses, for example, they lost sight of building power.

The alternative to co-optation was, and is, to up the ante once at the table: new proposals must get more-andmore deeply at the root of problems. As long as injustices remain, that is the necessary role of people power. But power must precede program: to make a more radical (going to the root) proposal for which you lack the power to negotiate is to reject power for prophesy. Prophetic voices are needed, but that is not the role of people power organizations. They have to win or they soon shrink or die.

Values, Vision and Program

The organizer saying, “power precedes program” is a wise one. Most people don’t want to sit around arguing about, or even discussing, policies or programs which stand little-to-no chance of being adopted by decision makers. Those might be good topics for university coffee houses and activists, but they don’t contribute to building mass-based people power.

On the other hand, it seems to me there is something absent in most organizer conversations in the Alinsky tradition: the question of vision. Vision is more specific than values and less specific than policies. It fleshes out, but not concretely, what it is for which we are struggling.

In their effort to be practical and to focus on building power, some organizers have narrowed their field of vision. They speak about organizing the “moderates.” When Alinsky used similar terms to distinguish himself from people who couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag, he didn’t eliminate from conversation the identification of where we should be heading

Everyone has an ideology. Too many organizers distinguish themselves from others by saying they don’t have an ideology. Frankly, that is nonsense. Alinsky used the term “rigid ideology” to distinguish himself from those he thought were locked into systems of thought that distorted their understanding of the realities in which they worked, and blinded them to new opportunities. He didn’t claim to have no ideology.

But the focus on “moderates” can be too narrowing. Would an organizer in New York City in the heyday of Local 1199, District 65 and other left unions of the period not want to include them in a mass organization he was putting together? I would hope not, of course they would include them! Would an organizer in San Francisco largely-Latino Mission District in the late 1960s, such as I was, want to include Latino youth who were militant, the Farm Workers Union support group, or any of a number of other groups that were members of the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO)? Of course, we would! And, when they raised program and policy ideas that were too far out for the vast majority of our church, union, block club and tenant union members they were voted down.

As a matter of fact, in Alinsky’s first organizing effort—the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC)—two path-breaking power building accomplishments took place. Alinsky and his associate Joe Meegan got feuding Catholic parishes, each dominated by a particular Eastern European nationality group, plus an Irish and a largely Mexican parish, into the same organization with the blessings of the Archdiocese. Furthermore, they got the Communist-led local of the Packinghouse Workers union in as well. The power of BYNC was in its ability to bring center, left and right in one organization and move it in a progressive direction.

In Reveille for Radicals and interviews for popular magazines of the time Alinsky often spoke about aiming at the middle class, and about his vision:

[I]t’s the continuing fight against the status quo that revitalizes society, stimulates new values and gives man renewed hope of eventual progress. The struggle itself is the victory. History is like a relay race of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by one group of revolutionaries until it too becomes an establishment, and then the torch is snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new generation of revolutionaries. The cycle goes on and on, and along the way the values of humanism and social justice the rebels champion take shape and change and are slowly implanted in the minds of all men even as their advocates falter and succumb to the materialistic decadence of the prevailing status quo.

How do we get people to expand their horizons in the period we’re in? One way is to send delegations to see how other people do things, and report back on what they learned: how does the Finnish public education system—first in-the world—work, and why? What has NAFTA done in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America that has pushed people off their land and into the migratory stream that heads for the U.S. border? Does the coup d’etat the U.S. supported in Honduras (during the Obama Administration) have anything to do with the large numbers of Hondurans who are seeking entry into the U.S.? What are the Mondragon (in the Basque region of Spain) and Emilia-Romagna (in Northern Italy) worker-owned cooperatives like, and does their success suggest that we don’t need to reward CEOs with mega-millions to achieve quality and productivity in business enterprises? What is the Swedish health care system like, and why does it work without similarly rewarding pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors as the American system does?

Mutual Aid

When Cesar Chavez organized farm workers in California in the mid-1960s, his first organizing projects were a tire-buying and auto parts-buying club since farm workers drove long distances from their “shoe-string communities” to their workplaces, and a reliable car was a necessity. He later added a burial society and other mutual aid activities.

Unfortunately, few unions or broadly-based community organizations directly engage themselves in mutual aid activities, and when they do, they are administered in very traditional ways. That need not be the case. A gold standard organization of low-to-middle income members might start with a food buying club. Over time, from this small beginning a buying club might grow into a consumer cooperative that offers quality, affordable goods, well-paying jobs to those who work there, and the possibility of democratic forms of management. The workers could have representation on the coop’s member-elected board of directors.

Integrating mutual aid into an organization whose primary mission is changing the dominant institutions of society can be a tricky business. Mutual aid typically doesn’t rock the boat; it tends to be a conservatizing influence within such an organization. A strategic balance has to be achieved so that it doesn’t become the tail that wags the dog, urging caution when militancy is what’s required.

Finally, if what an organization is doing is of value, it should grow. Growth in numbers is central to building the people power required for social, economic political and cultural transformation. In Part II of the Gold Standard, I will discuss the features and issues faced in building community and power.

Mike Miller can be found at www.organizetrainingcenter.org

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