Organizing To Win Governing Power

James Mumm

James Mumm Chief Innovation Officer, People's Action

As we enter a perilous period in American history, with Donald Trump’s bottomless insecurity fueling white supremacy and fascism on the one hand and environmental Armageddon on the other, there is an opening of historic proportions for mass revolutionary organizing. Will we break out of self-limiting orthodoxies, face oppressive structures head-on, and take risks that swing for the fences?

Over two centuries, the ambitions of people-powered organizing in this country have grown from stopping material suffering – as in the abolition of slavery – to winning freedoms such as women’s right to vote and the end to child labor, civil rights, and marriage equality. This has advanced to sharing abundance and the common good (Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and the right to organize). Today, the cutting-edge ambition of organizers is to step up and win governing power.

Three recent books by veteran organizers weave deeply reflective stories about breakthroughs in realizing their ambitions through scalable organizing. As we stand at the edge of a new era of the possible, these authors offer new rules for revolutionaries, roadmaps, and strategic conversations that point the way forward toward the realization of our own deepest ambitions. These are the hopes that we fear to speak aloud, tears of joy streaming down our cheeks, free at last in our lifetimes.

This opportunity is clear as day to Jonathan Smucker, the co-founder of Lancaster Stands Up in Pennsylvania. In Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, Smucker says that,

“Given our weak state of popular organization over the past few decades, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street was a beacon of hope for many in the United States, as it provided a powerful, popular counter-hegemonic narrative that aligned overnight a hitherto fragmented left and created a political opening to connect to far more popular audiences and broader social bases than we had had access to in decades.”

That is a rather long-winded way of saying that Occupy, the anti-Wall Street movement where Smucker cut his teeth, changed the debate and articulated a new sense of “we” among the 99 percent who don’t share our economy’s richest rewards.

In Stand Up! How to Get Involved, Speak Out, and Win in A World On Fire, Gordon Whitman, Deputy Director of the PICO National Network, faces the brutal facts:

“…when you combine all the social justice organizing taking place across different networks, issues and movements in the United States, it doesn’t match up against the forces we’re up against…To counterbalance their influence, we the people need to create a level of sustained mobilization, disruption, and grassroots political influence not seen on the side of social justice in the country since the 1960s.”

In Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Becky Bond and Zack Exley, veterans of the New Organizing Institute, CREDO and more, lay out the challenge succinctly: ”Is it really possible to scale grassroots participation to a height that could actually let us go toe to toe with the billionaires and win?”

These authors recount their formative experiences with Occupy, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the rise of multiracial, progressive faith-based organizing. They are both liberated by these experiences and ready to write new rules, even as they acknowledge the contours and filters that shape their lives.

There is no blueprint that we can follow toward the revolution, though there is a starting point. Whitman is blunt: “No one is coming to save us. There’ll be no hero on a white horse. There is no app, no high-tech solution. All we have to fall back on is one another, our human capacity to organize ourselves to create a better society.”

That said, Whitman agrees with Bond and Exley on how technology can amplify and scale up good organizing as they assert that “in some ways, big organizing is what populists used to simply call organizing but with the potential for much greater scale thanks to new and accessible technology for connecting people.”

The printing press, they point out, allowed organizers (the vast majority unpaid) to organize to end slavery, win women’s suffrage, build the populist movement, and create a labor movement – among many others wins. Electricity, the telegraph, telephones, fax machines, mimeo machines and copiers, computers, and the internet are all technologies that organizers have used over time to connect to people. But these authors are clear that at no point has technology done the work of organizing: it has simply changed the nature of how organizers communicate with people.

There are striking similarities in these three volumes. They share a commitment to sifting through organizing methodologies to double down on universals and jettison outdated orthodoxies. Each points to moments when they trusted people to lead their own revolution, taking risks that led to innovation and breakthroughs. They also highlight how the old-fashioned tools of organizing – like the telephone call and barnstorm meetings – are still the most effective, even in the digital age.

But the differences between these authors are perhaps the most illuminating, as they shine a bright light on the fault lines in our movements, and offer some very thoughtful ideas on how to bridge them.



Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Campaign for America's Future

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work