By: Rich Feldman
Radicals, union organizer and activists often talk about the difference between work place organizing and community organizing. Which is more important to changing our country? Some talk about creating new links between the workplace and the community. In 2008, the answer is not simply resolved through attempting to join community organizing with work place organizing. These solutions make it sound like we are adding two static, pre-determined concepts and parts together to get the sum total that we want and is often based upon our recognition that both work place and community based organizing are static and similar to another period in history.
What is community organizing? What is community building?
One reason that inspires and challenges us to relate to, learn from and engage with people beyond the workplace and beyond the electoral system is based upon the belief that it is within neighborhoods, communities, churches, civic organizations and community clubs that another part of our humanity is expressed. The success of the union movement of the 1930s was essentially the fact that workers wanted dignity and wanted their voice to be heard. They wanted to be citizens and the union gave them an opportunity to be proud as workers and as union members. The union movement of the 1930s was an expression of democracy and self-government. It did not become a singularly focused vehicle for economic security and eventually economic advancement until the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1930s, workers lived near where they worked and had much fuller and comprehensive relationships with each others. Their concerns were similar and they shared a common conversation (even with different languages). When we limit our organizing to the demands and relationships in the workplace, we are denying the opportunity to create full comprehensive relationships with the people who we hope will become leaders in their workplace and their community. When we reduce our focus to economic issues we definitely deny our humanity.
As a union we need to create relationships and networks with people where they live as well as where they work because the issues facing people are much more than economic and will neither be solved by government programs nor by legislation or a contract. The depth of the crisis which is social, cultural, political and economic requires a long term view and a patient commitment to nurture new relationships with people who want to become citizens for a new America and a new
American worker’s movement. We are in a struggle with the anti-union forces, the corporations for the hearts and minds of the American people.
We are also in a struggle to leave behind our belief that the answers from the past are the answers for today. To win the hearts and minds of the American people we need to listen to them, engage in conversations and recognize that the separation of workplace and community has reduced the courage. We need to believe that they through the creation and commitment to join organizations can once again become a beacon for all of America.
A commitment to community building needs to replace community organizing and workplace organizing. Only then will people make a choice to buy locally, buy union, support new forms of work and local economies. Today, the American worker wants cheap goods from the global market and then they want to get good wages from global corporations. Only when the union respects people and organizes people beyond their capacity as wage earners or consumers will they again join or create 21 century unions.
Solidarity means creating listening and working relationships in both the community and the workplace, locally and internationally. Only after new forms of solidarity are created and new relationships are established at the grass roots level will the politics of leverage or power be significant.
Before we mobilize and even before we get people to join our union we will need to establish a new concept of organizing which requires that we become citizens. People are more than economic animals to be manipulated or simply lead by others, and the union needs to create the relationship and networks to empower people.
The first step is listening to their dreams, the hopes and their fears. This cannot happen when the goal is short term and totally focused in the workplace because the fears, the dreams and the hopes of workers are with their families, their children which is more than the voice at the workplace or the ballot box.