No single person’s brilliance will lead the labor movement out of our current predicament — nor should it. I do not have the answer for how to organize megacorporations; this essay will not conclude with a ten-point plan to ignite a mass workers movement. Instead, this is an attempt to think out loud and to invite others to think with me. Every successful campaign I have been part of has worked this way: someone proposes one tactic, someone else builds on it. Another person sees the connection between the two tactics and proposes a tweak to the strategy, and a fourth sharpens the strategy further. 

I’ve been an organizer for almost thirty years — with UNITE (now UNITE HERE), Justice for Janitors with SEIU, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), and, most recently, Power Switch Action, formerly Partnership for Working Families. In each of these roles, I’ve found that generative discussion and hard questions have helped move us forward. 

When the first union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, fell short last year, it sparked a flood of opinion pieces. Some argued about organizing tactics; others focused on the problems with current labor law. These are worthwhile perspectives, and they also illustrate a challenge our movement faces. When we focus on just the mechanics of our craft or the regulations governing it, we can lose sight of the fact that workplace organizing must be part of a larger fight to win societal power for working people. 

We are not going to reconstruct the labor power of the postwar period by just “gutting it out” in organizing battles, whether shop by shop or across entire sectors at a time. Even if we could somehow restore the union density of that era, the right has grown more sophisticated in exploiting race, the financialization of our economy, and the weaknesses of our political system to maintain its grasp on power. 

Indeed, our opponents have a clear political project and strategy. The alliance between certain corporate executives and right-wing political players is focused on reasserting the inherent goodness and superiority of white Christian identity, tied to the “freedom” inherent in a hyper-extractive market economy. This alliance deploys a number of strategies to achieve its ends: 

  • It organizes a base. The modern conservative Christian mega-church is one effective organizing model. Another is distributed organizing like QAnon, where small circles connect online, bond together, and recruit others. 

  • It advances an identity and worldview. It is actively engaged in shaping (at times contradictory, but effective) metaphors and images of what it means to be American.

  • It corrupts the democratic process to strengthen its hold on governing power. When its champions win public office, they pass laws and rules that give its bloc — despite being a minority — disproportionate influence over elections and policymaking.

Given everything we’re up against, we need to be much more ambitious in our thinking and disciplined in our strategizing. Is the best we can offer a plan to combat a boss campaign or to muscle our way back to 30 percent union density? Is the most equitable future we can envision one with oases of relative economic stability for unionized workers while oligarchic power rules our overall society? Do we aspire to govern or simply to reduce harm in a system that treats people — especially Black and Brown people, women, and immigrants — as disposable? How does our work shape a common purpose and shared identity, and how is each arena of our organizing devoted to developing that bloc? What values and visions drive that assemblage forward? 

Organizing Amazon or any other megacorporation is vital, but it should be one prong of a larger political project that competes for power in the economic, political, and social arenas — just as the workplace should be one site where we are shaping a new “common sense” among a multiracial, democratic citizenry. Growing the number of workers in unions and worker centers is critical: there is no path to power for our side that does not go through mass organizing in the workplace. But that on its own is not enough. We need labor leaders and rank-and-file members who are warriors for all working people — champions of their communities in the broadest sense. And we need an ambitious political project that aspires to social, economic, and governing power for working people — the real majority in the US. One part of building towards that project has to be thinking about how we organize. 


Dangerous Nostalgia: Building a Labor Movement for the 21st Century

The demographic, economic, and political conditions of the postwar period are gone. Nearly everything about 2022 is different from the 1950s — from the structure of the economy and the international context to how we understand gender and the looming threat of environmental catastrophe. Yet there are some organizers who argue that the left needs to focus exclusively on increasing the numbers and percentage of working people organized in unions. The only “we” to be constructed, they argue, is “we, the workers.” Frankly, I think this strategy is little more than nostalgia for the labor power of the postwar period. Such nostalgia is seductive and dangerous. 

First, over 87 percent of the US population identified as white on the 1950 census while just 60 percent did in 2020. The task of building unity among “working people'' was a simpler project — one that both actively and passively excluded women, Black, Indigenous, and immigrant working people. Today, our opponents are actively recruiting people of color, even as they deploy white, Christian supremacy narratives. As researchers like Anat Shenker-Osorio and Ian Haney Lopez have shown, class-based appeals fall short when our opponents speak about race. The autocratic and economic nationalist factions on the right are positioning themselves as the real tribunes of the American working class, and it will take more than raising wages to contest their advances.

Second, the megacorporation’s sins extend beyond its role as employer. It has found ways to extract wealth in all aspects of our lives: buying our homes, controlling our access to healthcare, taking our public resources. In our consolidated, globalized, financialized economy, the corporation for which we work often has ties to the corporations taking their own pound of flesh. To retake power in our lives, it is thus not enough to just take on the boss (challenging as that is); we must also humble the landlord, the bank, and the private electric monopoly. 

Third, the right’s success at controlling courts and state legislatures has given it powerful tools for maintaining power. Bosses can intimidate with near-impunity to interfere with organizing. Corporations pay to elect state lawmakers who interfere to keep municipalities from raising minimum wages or passing laws to protect tenants. Conservative governors and secretaries of state chip away at working people’s ability to cast a ballot. 

Given this reality, our strategies must be broad and bold. Our work is to shape a new social force — a governing majority that is aligned around values and vision. Those who have organized in diverse workplaces know that mere agreement on the abuses of the company and a desire for a raise is not enough to build a union. The organizing committee’s work is to weave together the different groups into a new collective. It can only be done well when we accept that how people understand themselves is as important as their particular subjectivity in the economy. As Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-British cultural theorist, argues, “the identities which people carry in their heads — their subjectivities, their cultural life, their sexual life, their family life and their ethnic identities, are always incomplete and have become massively politicized.” We cannot just skip over who we believe ourselves to be to get to “the important stuff”: the raise, the healthcare, and so on. A successful project must speak to people in all their contradictory complexity. The art of organizing is forging out of “the many” a common purpose around what “we” aim to do together.  

Labor is one of the few multiracial places where conversations about race and gender — planned or unplanned — take place. Because of this, labor can inform how progressives at large make meaning of the political moment in a manner that resonates across the diverse groups we hope to unite into a political force. Just as we will not stumble into mass strikes, we will not fall into a world where our narratives dominate; we must do the work to make them so. 

Perhaps we can listen closely as worker activists and leaders tell us about the ways that racism, class, and patriarchy shape their living and working conditions — and then reflect that back to them. We can help them see what they already know: there is a connection between the battle at the worksite and the battles for clean air, accessible transit, and more affordable housing. An interview with Rob Baril, President of SEIU 1199 New England, on Black Work Talk captures how organizers with sharp listening skills will hear how people are understanding the political forces shaping societal conditions. Rob shares the words of a worker leader, one of the many Black and brown women who work in the long-term healthcare sector: 

We are talking about the pandemic, but some of us have been suffering from a pandemic for a real long time. It’s not just people getting killed in the street by police. I see my Black mothers and sisters getting sick and dying in the facilities and it’s time for the political leadership in the state that funds our work to take their knee off of our neck.

This is a sharp analysis of how the harms of racial patriarchal capitalism are brought to bear in many communities. It is race and class and gender. 

Our people are smart and observant, but that does not mean they are born fully developed boosters of multiracial feminist democracy, waiting for the right leader to jump on the table and hoist a sign above their head. We all believe contradictory things. And we all have interpretations of why things are the way they are. Our questions in our house visits, organizing meetings, and leadership trainings should aid members and leaders in clarifying their own thinking. It is the work of organizing to create space for us to explore how we interpret the world — to develop our capacity to act collectively and on behalf of the common good. Organizing is the building block for shaping a feminist, democratic future. 


A Breakthrough Moment 

Late in 2021, I attended the convening that led to this issue of The Forge. I spent two days with an amazing group of labor organizers, worker center organizers, economic policy strategists, and academics. The conversation focused on lessons we’ve learned from past campaigns that can help us think about how we organize workers at megacorporations like Amazon. We agreed the political terrain must change to create the momentum and space for workers to organize at scale. 

So what do we do now?

Our strategies must move beyond organizing the base for discrete tactical wins to working with leaders to prepare for crisis moments when more is possible. Periods of volatility, like the one we are in right now, have the potential to be breakthrough moments for our movements. In an article for Labor Notes, Mark Meinster ponders what could have been if, amidst the outcry over the draconian Sessenbrener immigration bill, organizers had prepared to escalate from mass marches to strikes. 

But crises are not only rich with potential for our movements; they are also fertile ground for our opposition. To turn any crisis to our advantage, we need to do the kind of organizing that will produce leaders prepared to defend the hope of multiracial, feminist democracy — and to be the force that one day helps us truly realize it. We won’t just happen upon a time when people will lay down in traffic for each other. People will not spontaneously risk their relative comfort for our collective gain; this will be the product of deliberate organizing.

I opened with some disagreements with my fellow labor organizers because disagreement can be generative. When we pose questions in which the answers are not immediately obvious, we gain something. As a seasoned organizer confronting new conditions, I invite other organizers to join me in embracing the freedom of admitting our uncertainty. It frees us to be wrong at times, to be nimble, and, most importantly, to try new actions and tactics. I am not endorsing sloppy work. Rather I am challenging myself — and all of us — to ask the hardest questions about our work and its purpose.

The question that needs to be present with us at all times is not just how we transform a jobsite or change an industry. It is, “How do we change the world?” If we hold that question in each fight — whether for healthcare, parental leave, or a pay raise — we can be more certain that victory will lead to the larger shifts that we all need. The path to winning the world we dream of is in each campaign and each fight. And we must go into those fights armed with our willingness to ask the hard questions. 


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