Building Worker Power
One summer morning in July, in a union hall in Phoenix, Arizona, a group of fifteen workers taught each other the history of the labor movement in America. A former restaurant busser from Phoenix introduced Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor. A food service worker from San Jose narrated the life of Eugene Debs. A hotel doorman from Chicago walked us through Section 7 of the Wagner Act (“our right to organize,” he explained). A union shop steward from Los Angeles thrilled at the speeches of Dolores Huerta: “She invented si se puede!” For two hours, they went around the room, piecing together a collective past. Then they traded their notebooks for clipboards stacked thick with voter registration materials and headed out into the unforgiving heat.
These workers were taking part in the inaugural Worker Power Campaign School, a monthlong training program on how to build a political labor movement. The students were a medley of union members and community allies. Some were still in college; others were approaching retirement. They were from all over the US, and many had been born elsewhere: Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Sudan. But they came to the Campaign School grounded in a common belief that working people should wield genuine political power. The goal of the school was to give them a space to figure out what that power should look like — and then to train them in the skills they need to build it.
The launch of the Campaign School marked the founding of Worker Power, a new political organization with deep roots in the work of UNITE HERE Local 11, the 30,000-member hospitality workers local in Southern California and Arizona. Over the past three decades, Local 11 has become an aggressive force for labor-left politics in the rapidly transforming Southwest. In the 1990s, a group of rank-and-file Latino leaders pushed Local 11 out of decades of stagnation, driving a surge in new organizing and plunging the local into political work by mobilizing their growing membership toward campaigns for living wage ordinances and labor-friendly city council candidates. (In 1994, Mike Davis crowned the union “a militant ship of justice” at the forefront of Los Angeles’s rejuvenated labor movement.) Most significantly, Local 11’s majority-Latino membership insisted on linking together immigrant and labor rights. It was this commitment that led the local to set its sights on Arizona, then a wellspring for anti-immigrant politics. In 2008, the union (in coalition with other organizations and unions) helped to found an independent voter-engagement organization, CASE, in Maricopa County. When the state finally flipped blue in the 2020 election, it did so in no small part thanks to Local 11 and the CASE Action Fund (the lobbying and political arm of CASE). At the height of the pandemic, as most Democratic ground operations faltered, Local 11 and CASE Action Fund trained and mobilized some 400 canvassers, many of them Local 11 members who had lost their jobs that spring. Over four months of daily canvassing, those canvassers turned out more than 15,000 additional votes for Joe Biden — a few thousand more than his margin of victory.
I was there in 2020, working with Local 11 in Phoenix, first as a canvasser and then as a field lead. From the ground, it was clear that the campaign succeeded not because of the number of canvassers or the shifting demographics of Arizona. What mattered was that Local 11’s organizers and union members brought workplace organizing into electoral politics. Every door knock became a miniature house visit, every pre-canvass launch a training in one or another component of an organizing conversation: getting to know the voter, agitating them around their issues, telling your own story of political engagement, presenting the voter with a plan to win, and challenging them to take action based on what they want for themselves and their family. We wanted people to see their vote as part of a broader project of building political power. Just as in an organizing campaign, canvassers built personal relationships with voters, gradually developing a “structure” of people they had spoken to and staying in touch until ballots were cast.
This approach to elections inverts the old rallying cry of the labor left, which is to bring political democracy into an autocratic workplace. That mantra, though well-intentioned, has proved doubly damaging. It has enabled capital to veil workplace dictatorships in the thinnest of “democracies,” elections where workers choose “between” a union and an employer. And it has quietly reinforced the idea that our political electoral system is genuinely democratic. Local 11’s approach flips the analogy, bringing the thick democratic practices of union membership — sustained political relationships that build solidarity and common ground — into our hollowed-out political sphere. It was this principle, shaped by decades of hard-fought victories in Los Angeles and hardened in the crucible of a pandemic-riven Arizona summer, that prompted the founding of Worker Power, which trains union members and community allies to build electoral campaigns with worker organizing at their core.
The Campaign School, which I helped to run, was designed to teach and hone the Worker Power model. We recruited students who had experience with Local 11’s political campaigns: our own members, but also members of sister UNITE HERE Locals (1 in Chicago, 19 in San Jose) as well as community activists who had participated in Local 11’s political or worker-organizing campaigns. We chose to bookend the school with two versions of the union’s two-day, intensive training on the mechanics of a house visit, lightly modified for an electoral context but with the core organizing principles untouched. The trainings are resource-intensive: one union organizer for every two member-students, practicing over and over the fundamentals — listening for a person’s material struggles, their fears, their hopes; agitating them on their own terms while also sharing with them a part of yourself; pushing them from a place of urgency but also care. Seeing these skills presented in the context of electoral politics is bracing. It becomes clear how difficult it is to practice real democracy in America — real in the sense of speaking openly and intimately with our fellow citizens about what kind of society we want to live in together. But it becomes equally evident that the only way we will get there is by building the sort of relationships that can gradually unravel the strictures of capitalist individualism. Political mobilization of the shallow, standard variety will never achieve this.
In the month between these intensive organizing trainings, the Campaign School students — all of whom were paid full-time while at the school — moved into a daily rhythm: class in the morning, fieldwork (sometimes voter registration, sometimes door-to-door canvassing) in the afternoon. The goal of the fieldwork is to let students put into practice the organizing skills they had rehearsed in the two-day intensive. The goal of the classes, meanwhile, is to prompt them to step back and think about why political organizing matters in the first place and what it could look like to build a powerful labor politics in the US. Training union members to be expert field organizers will get us only so far — or, rather, it will get us far but in an unknown direction. The classes were there to ask students: What are you training to fight for? What do you want to win?
We began with models from the past. How have working people built power in politics, and what might we draw from their victories? Then we moved closer to home, with classes on the history of Local 11’s political strategies in Los Angeles and Arizona. Finally, we shifted to present political questions — a course on economic inequality, another on inflation, a third on the stakes of the midterm elections in Arizona (where the “new right” continues to menace). Along the way, we tested out various partnerships with academia and other labor education programs. The historian Robin D.G. Kelley flew in to teach a class on anti-labor politics and the rise of neoliberalism. Samir Sonti, a political scientist at CUNY, zoomed in to discuss the politics of inflation. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) generously sent two rank-and-file members to lead their day-long training, “Reversing Runaway Inequality,” which helped students understand the financialization of the global economy. The CWA training in particular was an inspirational exercise in inter-union solidarity: workers from different industries, united by their unions, coming together to grasp the reactionary political and social forces that we are up against.
As much as possible, the classes were student-driven. Students’ presentations on labor’s historical figures moved us through the past. When we covered contemporary issues, students wrote lesson plans for a hypothetical canvass team and presented them to each other. Most importantly, we made a point of linking abstract or historical questions to students’ own experiences as union members: the fights they had won, the strikes they had waged, the injustices they had witnessed. At its best, this approach yielded some moving moments of recognition. As one member from San Jose exclaimed to me after we had discussed the relationship between the 1930's sit-down strikes and the Wagner Act, “Now I see why my union does politics!”
It was not perfect. The classes sometimes felt disjointed, both from each other and from the fieldwork that students were doing for the rest of the day. Finding a common political and historical vocabulary was difficult, too. Some students were college-educated DSA members, well-versed in the language of class struggle; others were longtime union members whose politics had been forged through experience. The hardest part, which took me a while to understand, is that we — the students, sometimes, but most of all myself — had to refrain from thinking of the Campaign School as a space for students to receive information from elite-educated union staffers. Student-led classes and small group discussions, where I and the other staffers were less professors than facilitators and organizers, were helpful. But still, I don’t know that we fully succeeded in this. Working people are not often invited to think critically and openly, together, about what kind of politics they wish to build.
It is worth lingering on this point for a moment. Organized labor has a rich history of bringing political education to working people. The Populist Revolt of the 1890s depended on a network of 40,000 “traveling lecturers” who journeyed across the South and Midwest to lead community classes on inequality and monopoly capitalism. In the 1920s, Progressives joined with militant unions to found “labor colleges” across the country, with curricula in political economy, labor law, and history. Since then, though, the labor movement has largely abandoned substantive political education, choosing instead to privilege training in organizing, bargaining, and the like. This change has come at great cost. In 2016, union households swung to Clinton over Trump by just eight points, the lowest margin for a Democratic candidate since the early 1980s. 2020 was better, but not by much. This surely has to do with the failure of many unions (not to mention the Democratic Party) to deliver for their members. But the lack of investment in rank-and-file education also does damage.
If we are going to build labor’s political clout in the decades to come, unions must give their members the support they need to organize themselves around a compelling alternative to right-wing populism. We need to recover the tradition of the labor movement as an organizing force and as a place where workers are afforded the time and resources to place their day-to-day struggles within a broader political frame. None of this is mutually exclusive with building a movement that trains rigorously in the skills we need to bring labor’s political vision to fruition. Both, in fact, are essential.
For the midterms, Worker Power’s focus will remain on Arizona, a hotly contested state and an incubator for the dangerous new right. But our aim is to broaden our reach after November: more locals in more cities in more states, all running their political campaigns through Worker Power and on the Worker Power model. The Campaign School will play a crucial role in that expansion. Already, energized member-students from the inaugural class have returned to their locals and recruited dozens of their co-workers to come canvass in Arizona for the next two months.
What is more, there are exciting signs that our model is beginning to filter out to labor’s allies. This summer, members of DSA New York consulted with us to implement the Worker Power model of canvassing in a state senate race in Brooklyn. Their campaign fell just short, but the model proved its worth. When canvassers built their own organizing structure of voters as they knocked (what the campaign called “Door-to-Ballot” canvassing), turnout was double the rest of the campaign’s standard contacts. If we on the left can make Worker Power a hub for labor’s electoral politics in cities across the country, our campaigns will be stronger for it.
No matter how much we grow, though, Worker Power will always be an organization of workers, and of union members especially. The experience of real democracy through a union is organized labor’s epistemic and strategic advantage; we need to use it. Worker Power’s guiding principles, which the experience of the Campaign School helped us hone, are that labor’s political vision must be built by union members themselves and that those same members are in the best position to see that vision to victory. This is not a romantic vision of a working class bequeathed with a unique political agency. It is a pragmatic calculus born of experience. Unions are among the few institutions where people can practice genuine, robust democracy. Building Worker Power means strengthening those democratic practices within the labor movement, and then bringing them out into the country.