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Organizing in Good Times and Bad: What We Need To Get Right

“In good times, organizations wrest and secure our gains. In bad times, they help withstand the inevitable chaos from backlash, repression and sectarianism.”

Clerical workers in District 925, SEIU on strike against the University of Cincinnati.,

When I visited Barcelona last spring, I took a guided tour about the Spanish Civil War and later told my 99-year-old father about it. Dad’s politics were those of a New Deal Democrat, so I was surprised when he showed me his copy of the latest issue of “The Volunteer,” the newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive, and told me he had wanted to fight in Spain but couldn’t because he was too young—he was still in grammar school.

The upheaval of the 1930s inspired millions of people like my father. The legacy of those leftists was largely hidden from the generation of activists like me coming up in the 1960s. They were inspired by a vision of a better future rooted in class politics and anchored by strong organization and activists experienced in strategy and tactics.

How do we take advantage of the current upheaval? Two organizing efforts I’ve been part of—9to5 and the working women’s movement starting in the 1970s, and Working America over the last 20 years— have focused on building mass-based, cross-class, multi-racial organizations, and inform the way I look at our challenges today.

Coming of age with “revolution in the air”

I saw a survey when I got to college in 1968 which found that one million students in the US considered themselves revolutionaries. While I wasn’t ready to describe myself that way, I sat in, dropped out, went to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade, came back, and cut my hair short. I got a part-time job as a clerical worker to support my full-time organizing against the war and for women’s liberation.

I participated fully in the often-chaotic anti-war movement. Decision-making meetings attended by hundreds of people who heard about it on the radio; meetings shut down over an arcane point hammered by a small faction. We lacked experience in making strategic decisions and building accountable structures.

We did our best to figure it out as we went along. A multi-layered anti-war movement did help end the war, and the energy from more than a decade of social movement organizing found new avenues. I soon realized I could organize on my job as an office worker. We started a newsletter in Boston we called “9to5” and knew we were on to something when a secretary sent this letter to the editor: “I’ll be called ‘girl’ til the day I retire without pension.”

Riding the women’s rights wave

We rode the wave of the demand for women’s rights and built a new front of the women’s movement. Clerical work was the biggest occupation for women, accounting for one out of every three jobs. Women’s opportunities were so limited that it was an advantage for organizing: working-class and middle-class women, women of color and white women worked side by side.

We reached out to women who did not identify as feminists (“I’m no women’s libber but….”), promoting the ideas of women’s equality without the vocabulary. We handed out our newsletter at subway stations and distributed surveys at big companies, sometimes leaving a stack in the women’s bathrooms. Tear off slips “for more information” poured into the office and our organizers often had three recruitment lunches a day.

Our “Bad Boss” contests illuminated outrageous behavior. Twenty or so members, along with the media, would confront the boss—like the guy who made his secretary sew up a hole in his pants while he had them on, or the boss who required his secretary to go to the local bar and beep him if she found a woman who met his specifications—and we’d be all over the 6 o’clock news. We filed charges with government agencies and sued companies, and used public pressure to boost the campaigns.

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In Boston alone we won millions of dollars in better pay and promotions in companies such as Houghton Mifflin, New England Merchants Bank and First National Bank, and Liberty Mutual and John Hancock insurance companies. (Years later, I was on a panel with a John Hancock executive who had been the personnel director when we targeted the company. He told me he had stayed in his office the night before the campaign kick-off. I’m not sure how he thought this would protect them.)

Our members gained skills running meetings, organizing events and making speeches. We gave women experiences fighting together, pairing Black, brown and white women, working-class and middle-class, old and young as committee co-chairs and speakers at events. We inspired Jane Fonda to make the movie “9 to 5” .which exploded the public debate, doubled the number of our chapters and generated 100,000 inquiries to a TV PSA featuring Fonda.

At the same time we built an institutional home with bargaining power in our sister union, SEIU 925. 9to5 members who organized for change in their workplace would come up against the intransigence of their employers and conclude they needed the power of a union to force them to bargain. Other women came to us through our hotline, leading to successful campaigns in universities, publishing houses, insurance companies and more.

But we got crushed in the mid-1980s and ’90s.We didn’t recognize the growing power of the right wing, promoted by Nixon and cemented by Reagan. Globalization and new technology were the background for a new wave of union-busting, a backlash against the women’s movement and a continued assault on people of color.

We could have been smarter. I am not sure we could have been stronger.

Public opinion turned against global capitalism in the late 1990s—remember “Teamsters and turtles together forever!” at the Seattle WTO demonstrations? But this impulse was crushed by the 2000 election, 9/11 and the “war on terror,” and the rising salience of the religious right bolstered by born-again President George W. Bush. “Guns, God and gays” became dominant issues.

Need and opportunity

At the AFL-CIO we saw a need and an opportunity. The Democratic Party embrace of corporate globalization had working people reeling, and white workers in particular were being sheared off by a right-wing social agenda. But instead of riding a wave as we did in the ’70s, we were bucking the tide.

Union members were less vulnerable to the right-wing appeal. Unions were a trusted messenger on the economy, and members voted for the unions’ endorsed candidates up to 70%. But their non-union neighbors were flipping the other way. We had to reach people one by one, bypassing the conservative media and institutions which were shaping their views, become a trusted messenger and restore belief in collective action

So in 2003 we created Working America as the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. In states like Pennsylvania, we canvassed working people who usually had Fox News on the TV. We asked them “what’s the most important issue to you?” In talking about the issues—health care, jobs, education—we named outsized corporate power as the problem and strength in numbers as the solution. A million people joined in the first year. To this day, two out of three people join as members, who hear from us year-round by text, social media, phone and mail.

Our four million members today are working-class, don’t have a union on the job, and aren’t in any other progressive organization. Their interaction with Working America varies—some may just remember the nice canvasser who came to their door and heard them out, and welcome them the next time they come around; others may read the messages we send by email, text and social media on economic issues, and take action by signing petitions or calling legislators. By the end of the year, about 250,000 will be “peer mobilizers,” contacting family and friends to help them access benefits like unemployment insurance, low-income heating assistance, or broadband connectivity. Independent analysis of our work proves what any organizer knows—membership matters. Working America members are far more likely than people just like them to vote for our endorsed candidates, take action on our issues and change their views, including on race and sex.

Meeting the current upheaval

We’re now in another period of upheaval, with a swell of social movementsand a labor movement revived with passionate organizing and strategic strikes and contract fights. But we’re faced with challenges. Social movements have been less likely to use their momentum as a springboard and more likely to turn inward. Weak labor laws limit the right to representation. And we’re being out-organized by the right especially at the state and local level. We can’t afford another cyclical setback.

I’m confident from a lifetime of organizing we can do what’s needed. We can organize working class people across race and class on scale, in good times and bad. We can touch their anger at capitalist excess, and reawaken a belief in collective power. Our priorities should be:

  • Mass outreach, finding common ground on economic issues, recruiting members into organizations that deliver good information and economic gains year-round. That connection lays the groundwork for tackling divisions around race, class and gender.
  • Strengthen unions, the most diverse and powerful organizations for working people, supporting union organizing and labor law reform.
  • Win in 2024 by shifting millions of dollars out of mass communication and into organizations that will build to win, and build to last.

My father was ignited by the fight against fascism led by the Left. In Vivian Gornick’s book, Romance of American Communism, she interviews people who were part of the American Communist Party between the 1930s and ’50s. They offer a litany of what they got wrong. But I was struck by something else they all agreed on: It was thrilling to be in a movement with vision and discipline.

I’d add another element. A local labor leader told me, “We need more organizations where people take minutes!” What she means is organizations that are paid for and governed by their members, that have mechanisms for accountability, and where members vote—including on the minutes. In good times, organizations wrest and secure our gains. In bad times, they help withstand the inevitable chaos from backlash, repression and sectarianism. We need the organizations with the vision and accountability that people like my once teen-aged father will join today.

Karen Nussbaum has been a labor organizer for more than 50 years. She is a founder of 9to5, National Association of Working Women; District 925, SEIU; and Working America, AFL-CIO, where she is a senior advisor.

Convergence is a magazine for radical insights. We produce articles, videos, and podcasts to sharpen our collective practice, lift up stories about organizing, and engage in strategic debate — all with the goal of winning multi-racial democracy and a radically democratic economy.