The Organizing Cadre: On The Training of Organizers for a new Operation Dixie

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

The organizer has to play many roles on any campaign: manager, scheduler, healer, therapist, evangelist, and so much more. It is a job that stretches the limits of what seems possible for one human being to do, yet thousands of people wake up everyday and serve as the floor general or lieutenant for their party, their union, or their individual cause. When it comes to the labor movement, the organizer plays a key role in all aspects of growth. They are integral in bringing together enough workers to vote for the formation of a union, assisting in contract negotiation by pulling together a contract campaign, and then ongoing in some states to keep density on the shop floor up. Without dedicated organizers, the labor movement would be nowhere near as strong as it is today, if it even existed at all.

As such, when a primary criticism of our last piece seemed to be that the lack of sufficient lead organizers to supervise the effort and the difficulty of getting hundreds of organizers up to speed for a operation of this size could make it infeasible, it was a criticism that we had to take seriously. The current training system can be described as an artisanal one: it trains excellent organizers in comparatively small quantities. For a new Operation Dixie to be successful, however, the labor movement must have the ability to raise a battalion of organizers in a relatively short period of time. The implementation of organizing cadres is an optimal solution to this potential issue facing a large-scale labor organizing operation in the South.

There are basically two ways to become an organizer. Either as a member of a union’s rank and file or a volunteer activist sympathetic to labor, you get referred into a formal training program. There are a couple of different programs: the Service Employees International Union calls their training program WAVE, the AFL-CIO and its member unions have the Organizing Institute, but both train organizers on the basics of organizing. So trained, these newly minted organizers get placed on existing campaigns as organizers-in-training or apprentice organizers and are overseen for a few months by experienced organizers until they are deemed ready to be promoted to a full organizer position. With lead organizers, there’s basically one way: you spend enough time working as an organizer that you are entrusted with an increasing amount of responsibility until it gets formalized. Some unions make leads undergo additional formal training, but this isn’t universal.

This kind of intensive training produces the most skilled organizers possible. Activists who come through WAVE or the OI are able to handle just about anything that gets thrown at them in the field. While the existing system is sufficient for current needs, it will be overwhelmed if asked to supply the quantity of organizers needed for this operation. As such, another way to train organizers for this operation will be necessary.

In the face of the challenge that preparing a thousand organizers represents, we propose the formation of training cadres of ten to fifteen potential organizers with one potential lead organizer overseeing their work. The lead will be an experienced organizer drawn from within the movement. The new organizers will then go through slightly modified versions of existing training programs together, but they will be directly overseen at all times by the newly minted leads. If a new organizer had a problem or needed assistance, the lead will provide it. At the same time, the lead will be learning how to supervise the work of the organizers in this cadre by overseeing their training. Once the training is complete, this cadre will be then placed on one of the organizing efforts the operation was running as a team. Once the entire operation was fully staffed, a couple of permanent training cadres could be kept in operation to replace organizers who quit or get fired. These training cadres could be shifted around to provide additional staffing if a campaign needed it.

There are myriad advantages to using such a system. Firstly, by making the leads and organizers train together, you encourage group cohesion and can identify personality conflicts in a setting where they cause a minimal amount of harm. Secondly, it gets the leads trained the only way it’s possible to train them: by giving them hands-on experience supervising the organizers reporting to them. Thirdly, it will allow the movement to stretch its training resources by shifting the burden of oversight from the trainers to the leads. The main drawback might be that it would take more time to run the trainings and the organizers that it produces will not be as polished as the ones the existing training pipeline produces.

While some might balk at the notion of training a hundred good organizers over a dozen great ones, the fact of the matter is that the skills that a good organizer will utilize on any campaign can only be learned by doing the job itself. As we said, this job is unique, and the best organizers are broad-minded people with diverse interests and personal flexibility; these attributes are not something that can be learned in a book. Organizing is like any craft: a certain level of proficiency can be attained just by practice and sufficient training, but excellence requires passion and some inborn skill for the work. In the end, the organizers and leads trained by this program will learn more from actually working as organizers and leads as a part of this operation than any formal training.

The current training pipeline for union organizers has trained some of the most capable advocates for worker justice available anywhere. However, for an organizing drive of this magnitude, another training format is necessary to supplement it. The organizing cadre is that supplement, and on its shoulders a great change can be carried across the South.