(This is a guest post from “Frank Little”, a union organizer in the Midwest.)
The goal of organizing is winning.
Your community has a need? Organize to build power and you use that leverage against those with statutory power to get what you need.
It is that simple.
This is the first lesson new organizers must learn. They must understand what winning looks like BEFORE they can dive into strategy and tactics.
We can’t win if we don’t know what winning means.
New organizers (regardless of age) should be advised to stay away from social media organizing until they have fully grasped the concept of winning and losing a campaign.
If they want to Instagram their lunch (which is likely volunteer pizza or stale donuts) –that’s fine — but they should not be organizing around hashtags, online petitions, or Twitter storms because even successful social media organizing can give organizers a false sense of winning.
In the formative years of organizing, understanding a win is crucial.
I’m an online organizer and one of the first things I tell people is that my work can only bolster the work on the ground. If I make a huge mistake, it could tank it. However, I am not winning campaigns behind a screen. I have made hashtags trend. I’ve made Thunderclaps explode. I have gotten important information on the news by organizing activists to tweet about it. But even some of my most “successful” campaigns have been parts of campaigns the organizations ultimately lost.
We seldom talk about this in the post-mortem. When we lose, field organizers self-flagellate while the digital organizers continue to pat themselves on their backs.
I go to a lot of digital conferences where we talk a lot about “building community.”
“Well, we lost the campaign, but we built a great community.”
This is nothing more than consultant speak. We have communities. Your workplace is a community — but without a union — the workers are weak in their struggles with the boss. Those workers don’t need a community — they need a union. A successful digital campaign that unites some workers into an email list is not a union. It is a tool that can be used to organize a union, but it is not a win until they receive recognition from a labor board.
The boss will not be compelled to negotiate with a MoveOn.org list.
People who breathe air are even a community. If you are working on an environmental campaign pushing for tougher regulations on manufacturing with regard to air pollution, you need an elected body to approve your policy.
Digital organizing can raise awareness, it can keep believers informed, it can even get the issue in the media, but it cannot make policy.
My goal in a campaign like that may be to increase the email list for the organization. Through online actions, I can collect thousands of email address. A perfectly-worded email subject line may increase the open rate. A good opener may even get a few people to click on some links I have provided.
I can use that data, show it to my boss and get a promotion for my effective work and we can still lose the campaign and continue to choke on the air.
I am not saying digital organizing is a waste of time, but the over-reliance on it is killing our movements. Our class enemies are using it, so we pretty much have to so we aren’t surrendering the digital space to them completely, but we have to be realistic in our expectations.
New organizers need to view digital organizing like they do door knocks and phone banks (although I would argue it is far less effective). They are a piece of the puzzle. You can have phone banks that go awry on a successful campaign, but if they go really well and you still lose, that is part of the overall strategy to be evaluated. You don’t hoist all of the phone bankers on your shoulders and decry the people who don’t own phones for screwing things up. This would be like blaming activists who did not share your meme for losing a campaign.
At the risk of sounding like a “brocialist” or “brogressive,” I think this bears repeating. Organizing is about winning. If your community does not win its demand, the campaign lost. Each piece needs to be assessed as part of the whole campaign. When we lose, it does no one any good to highlight a few tactical wins over the sum of the campaign’s parts. That is why we organize. A winning campaign requires a lot of labor and expertise and by dividing that labor, we are more effective. It’s one thing to understand that theoretically, but new organizers need to live it.