Radio — Organizing workers, and how to do it better

Nick Driedger lives in northern Alberta and has been involved in organizing workers for almost 20 years. He has been part of a number of different unions, including the Candian Union of Postal Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World, and he currently works for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. He is also a contributor at Organizing Work, a website with a grassroots focus committed to honest, strategic discussions about the nuts and bolts of organizing. Scott Neigh interviews him about his vision of organizing, and about his recent article “Common Organizing Mistakes.”

On the left, the term “organizing” gets used in a number of different ways. Some people use it very broadly, to capture a wide range of different kinds of grassroots political activity. Other people, however, argue that there is value to being able to clearly name different models of change and different kinds of grassroots practices, so we can distinguish what they require and what they can do. More precise applications of the term “organizing” generally point towards approaches to social change that prioritize direct engagement with people who are not already involved or in agreement, and building collective power through bringing people together in some sort of organization.

Even within that there is variation. For Driedger, when he talks about organizing, he specifically means starting from people who are in some kind of bounded constituency, all of whom are subject to somebody else’s power, and bringing them together in a group to exert collective power and win concrete demands. His focus is workplace organizing, where workers are subject to the power of the boss, but the same principles can apply to tenant organizing, where renters are subject to the power of the landlord.

Driedger’s first experience of organizing was back when he was a call-centre worker. He and some of his co-workers tried to unionize, and they lost badly. Soon after, he started working at Canada Post, and got active in both internal mobilizing campaigns and external organizing drives with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He left the post office after about a decade and took a job with the Athabasca University Faculty Association. Recently, he started working as the Director of Labour Relations and Organizing with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. Though he is not a member any more because his current job is a management position with the AUPE, for most of these two decades he was also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies.”

In his article “Common Organizing Mistakes,” Driedger describes some of the most common errors that people make when they’re doing workplace organizing. Some of these flow from broader weaknesses that are sometimes features of left grassroots political culture – things like focusing too much on talking with people who already agree with you, or assuming you already know what people need and not doing enough listening. Others are more practical, like going public with your campaign too quickly, having a tactical repertoire that’s too narrow, and not doing enough to “inoculate” workers, which means preparing them for what the boss’s retaliation is likely to look like.

On a broader level, Driedger is skeptical, to say the least, about a lot of what passes for grassroots political activity these days. In his analysis, all too often, it involves bringing together people who already agree with one another, and then the same small cross-section of people doing the same things while never really engaging with people beyond their own circles. And, most importantly, it rarely involves actually building collective power in contexts where exerting that power can force real, material concessions.

To be effective, he thinks, social transformation must be based in collectives organized not around shared ideas but around shared material interests. People who want radical change should “pick a constituency that’s full of people they disagree with and start trying to move their politics through that constituency. And the politics that will move is the politics that actually has real revolutionary content.”

And the place that anyone can start, he thinks, is by getting a little training in how to organize, sitting down with whoever you happen to work with and really listening to what they are concerned about, and figuring out what, together, you can do about it.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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