To survive in prison, inmates usually accept a “convict code” that demands toughness and makes us wary of others. To thrive in prison, I learned to embrace organizing for social change and discovered the rewards in thinking of others first. Contributing to a collective has helped me find deeper purpose in my life, even while serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Like most transformations in our lives, this didn’t happen overnight. My introduction to organizing was the Black Prisoners Caucus, or BPC, at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington state.
Chicago, Illinois - On the first weekend of October, Wobblies from across North America converged on the grounds of a Marriott hotel in suburban Chicago. The plan for the two-day summit came in the form of several workshops solicited by North America IWW’s Organizing Department Board and suggested by attendees. A total of fourteen Wobblies presented on topics ranging from nonprofits, to tipping, to interviewing IWW members about their organizing. The first workshop I attended was a “Grievance Sort and March on the Boss,” facilitated by Jenni and Louisa of the Organizer Training Committee. We were assigned to small groups of four or five and given a range of grievances, from the mundane (“I don’t like the music that plays at work”) to the potentially life-altering (“my boss makes us work faster and faster regardless of safety”).
Over the last five years, in big pro-union cities and small Southern towns, more than 7,000 workers in 145 shops have organized with the NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers (CWA). After years of layoffs, buyouts, and pay cuts, workers across an entire industry seemed ready to organize. There was no way our union could hire enough staff organizers to keep up. So we built a member-led movement that could grow fast. Rank-and-file members, many of them fresh off their own organizing campaigns, answer emails and calls from workers at non-union shops, train new organizing committees, track assessments of support, win certification elections, and prepare workers for brutal first-contract campaigns.
Over twenty-five years have passed since the AFL-CIO New Voice movement urged unions to dedicate 20-30 percent of their budgets to organizing. Despite recent high-profile victories by the Writers Guild in digital media, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in home health care and at Starbucks, and the Transit Workers at JetBlue, most unions have not heeded the call to organize, and the labor movement has continued to shrink. Facing this decline, unions have turned much of their attention to labor law reform, hoping to address notable weaknesses in U.S. labor law that impede organizing success. Winning the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would be a game changer in this regard but the PRO Act will not pass without organized pressure and militancy from non-union workers demanding unions.
In the early 2000s, UNITE was a small, scrappy union that put an immense amount of resources into new organizing. They had small teams of organizers who flew around the country and lived in hotels and motels and spent their life organizing. I think it’s really important for unions to be oriented in that way, to have just about every arm focused around new organizing and building the labor movement and having militant sites. At the same time, we have to really think critically about the role of organizers. Organizing can be such a science: We assess things, map workplaces, determine our tactics. Our tactics add up to be our strategy. It’s all very methodical and stripped of emotion. I write about standing up in front of the group and telling the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which is something organizers in UNITE get trained to tell.
As we imagine an alternative society, we should think about how we will create something more collective, something where all people have a voice. Most of us come from a tradition where a select few make large impactful decisions for social justice organizations. Organizations have practices that at times feel inadequate and inaccessible for all. How do we move more towards a democratic collective process? These questions come to mind as many movement organizations are wrestling with creating collective democratic power internally. How can processes be more transparent in the organization—and how do we balance that with some need for confidentiality? How do we balance legal obligations/liabilities and honesty?
On this show, we talk about how to build the relationships and analysis we need to create movements that can win. When we have talked about the rise of fascism, and how to fight it, I have often made the point that we have a lot to learn from prison organizers, who operate under the most fascistic conditions in the United States. But amid this pandemic rollercoaster of hope, disappointment and uncertainty, I feel like we also have a lot to learn from imprisoned and formerly incarcerated organizers about how to sustain ourselves and each other psychologically during hard times. So, today we are going to hear from Monica Cosby, a formerly incarcerated Chicago organizer whose insights about mutual aid as a form of social life support are invaluable right now. We are also going to hear from Alan Mills, the executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center about the fight for mental health care in Illinois prisons, how COVID has affected the situation, and what we can do about it.
A team of facilitators from our organization, The Wildfire Project, was invited to support a base-building group whose staff was absolutely burnt out. Our first workshop brought their staff together with a volunteer leadership team (from their base) who, until then, had been minimally engaged. Staff shared their overwhelm and laid out their workload. It was clear that unless the whole group took collective ownership and responsibility for the direction of the organization, it would collapse. We ended that first session together on the other side of that breakthrough: feeling grateful, connected, and on-purpose. But the more difficult work began when we came back together to make that vision of shared leadership real.
At least as early as the first century A.D., shiftas of the Horn of Africa renounced their allegiance to emperors, government and law, and took to the wild where — through their disruptions of the usual business and trade — they would manage to survive as outlaws. For centuries, the Balkan haiduks roamed their lands, stealing from their Ottoman occupiers. Yi brigands and others from across the Chinese frontier sustained their economies in large part through raiding during the early 20th century. From 1917-1937, Peruvian women led bands of sharpshooters by horseback to rob the rich and give to the poor. Despite limited research and the folkloric fictionalization of the Robin Hoods of our past, social banditry seems to be present wherever even the most primordial forms of civilization have offered class inequalities.