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How Prisoner-Led Organizing Saved My Life

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.

North American Wobblies Hold 2022 Organizing Summit

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”).

Learn It, Do It, Teach It

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.

Winning Against The Odds: The 32BJ SEIU Organizing Model

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Why We Need To Shift From Crisis Mode To Sustainable Organizing

As we in this part of the world are entering the spring season, it seems like a good time to consider the cycles in our ongoing struggle to become Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community. Just as King’s political strategy and moral concerns evolved and even shifted radically during his life, most of us involved in justice work have experienced growth in our consciousness. I’m personally starting to understand how movements work, and why they change. I recently had the opportunity to reflect on my time with Occupy Wall Street as the Fellowship of Reconciliation was creating a documentary film on the 10th anniversary of the movement. In September 2011, I was starting an internship with FOR, and through my involvement with a student group from Union Theological Seminary, called the Protest Chaplains, I became one of FOR’s on-the-ground respondents to the Occupy movement.

How To Build Fierce And Worker-Centered 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.

Movements And Leaders Have Seasons

Over the last two years, social movements, organizations and leaders around the world have been thrust into a period of tumult, transition and uncertainty. These moments of crisis in our personal lives and in society can force sudden changes in our capacity to respond. What happens when we are not able to offer leadership like we used to? Or inversely, what happens when we do have the energy and capacity to respond, but our efforts don’t yield the results that are expected? Responsibility is the essence of leadership, and millions of community leaders who are working hard to resolve difficult, structural problems are uncomfortable when they feel like they need to respond to the moment, but are unable to. This can lead to burnout, or worse: leaders leaving the movement altogether, creating vacuums of leadership that don’t honor the cycles of our own development.

Building Collective Power Within Our Organizations

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?

People In Prison Organize Collectively For Survival

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.

Think Outside The Protest Box

Protest. Petition. Call your senators. Nothing changes, right? No matter how large our demonstrations get, no matter how many millions of people write and petition politicians, no matter how many people get arrested in front of the White House or at our state capitols, it seems that our (supposedly) elected officials keep turning a blind eye and deaf ear to our cries for change. In fact, there’s even a study out that shows that in 20 years on 2,000 different bills, we, the People, got our bills through Congress a whopping 0.0 percent of the time. (Yes, you read that correctly. Zero point zero. In other words, “never-ever-not-once”.) Only businesses and rich people managed to get legislation passed. And sure, it looked like we had a few victories, so long as one of those other groups were aligned with us.

Healthy Group Accountability: Learning How To Learn

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.

Social Banditry For The 21st Century

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.

Digital Corbynism

The first time I saw protesters dancing on the roof of a police van was at a May Day demonstration in London in 2002. Over the dulcet acid techno beats of a bike-powered sound system, a friend explained that we were imitating the Reclaim the Streets movement of the 1990s—free parties on highways doubled as tactics of resistance against infrastructure projects in the name of halting ecological and capitalist crisis. I learned then that I had come too late for anything new. The late British cultural theorist Mark Fisher described this era as one of nostalgia (-algia, the suffix, signifies pain, distress). Thanks to the ideology of what Fisher called “capitalist realism,” faith in the future had been canceled.

Beyond Mobilizing: Towards A Movement That Builds A Base For Power

As I wrote not long ago, the North American anarchist movement has reached a crossroads. The movement must decide whether it will continue to remain a relatively isolated subculture or broaden its horizons and reach out to new groups of the oppressed. In short, I argued that the movement must turn its focus to mass organizing or risk becoming a marginal force in the political struggles to come. But what exactly would such a shift look like, and how would an organizing movement operate in practice?

Get Up And Get Going: How To Form A Group

Becoming radicalized in a small town by yourself, seemingly in the “middle of nowhere,” can often be one of the most difficult experiences you may ever encounter. But even harder than the feeling of being adrift can be the desperation of not knowing how to go about attempting to make the leap from being just an individual with a set of ideas to someone that is part of a movement and specifically, a group of people who are organized in a set area, acting in concert, with that movement.
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