Organizing Through History

Organizing Gets Easier and Easier

I’m flattered when somebody introduces me as an organizer. They sometimes say I’m a “union organizer,” which is not actually true. A real union organizer is a paid professional with a strong background in labor law. I consider myself a “worker organizer.” But everybody is an organizer.

We organize every time we meet somebody for lunch. It’s all organizing. But what’s critical is organizing on the job.


A Short History of Organizing, Starting with Slave Labor

Looking back through history, we can see that organizing was really hard to do when most work was done by slaves. Nat Turner, John Brown and Spartacus all found out how hard. They all failed, and were executed for trying. The only successful slave organizer I know of was Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti around 1800. The reason it was so difficult was probably because slaves were pretty much interchangeable. When one was worked to death, another could be easily substituted.

Serfs and sharecroppers, who mostly replaced slaves, were a little more organizable. I think that’s because they had to know a little bit more about their jobs and weren’t so easy to switch around. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s was one of the more successful efforts. I actually met H.L. Mitchell once. Their gigantic accomplishment was to fight racial barriers that have always made organizing in the American South so difficult. Even back in those days, there were a few small guilds of workers who could be organized because they had special skills and tools.

The Bosses Do Most of Our Organizing

Modern unions came about because of the industrial revolution. England was the first capitalist nation, the first to industrialize, and of course the first to have organized unions. In America, the first successful unions were people who made shoes. It wasn’t everybody in a shoe factory. It was only the most skilled workers. For the next couple of centuries, the more skilled workers tended to organize around their special skills and tools. We call that craft unionism, and it was the model for the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) during its century of dominating organized workers in America. In steel production, for example, the molders and machinists might be organized, but not the people shoveling coal and ore. In textile, the cutters would be organized but not the women doing the sewing.

Modern Industrial Organizing Finally Developed

Labor’s Giant Step (free book on Amazon) can trace its development to the beginning of the 20th century, when the Industrial Workers of the World set out to organize everybody who worked, skilled and unskilled, men or women, Black, Brown, or white. By then, industrialization had made just about every job in America into a somewhat skilled position. It was difficult to replace one worker with another. General education and training were involved. The IWW ran into a minor obstacle because the AF of L undermined them, but their major obstacle was the U.S. government. IWW’ers were arrested, deported, horsewhiped, and murdered.

The saying goes that you can kill revolutionaries but you can’t kill revolutionary ideas. So industrial unionism eventually triumphed when the AF of L started the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935. Three years later, they thought better of it and expelled them, but by then the CIO was strong enough to survive and thrive on its own. After 1935, the biggest and most successful unions were those who organized “wall-to-wall,” everybody in a given industry from the most skilled computer operator to the lady sweeping the floors. AF of L unions adopted industrial organizing.

The best known pioneer and most successful union of the CIO was the auto workers. You can see why they organized so well, because auto manufacturing, more than most other work, was done by assembly line. If you could get three or four people on strike, you could shut down the line! Once again, the bosses had done most of what was necessary to organize workers!

Organizing Gets Easier and Easier

American industry became so well organized that the anti-worker bosses had to get the U.S. government to help them keep wages and benefits down by outsourcing the work to other countries. The same process of organizing is taking place in those other countries, so the bosses won’t benefit from outsourcing forever, but it works for them as an interim solution.

Meanwhile, Americans are better informed and more skillful than ever. The internet is making a qualitative jump in people’s access to information. It would be possible, in my estimation, to organize a national shutdown in only a few days. A worldwide shutdown could be organized in a matter of weeks. After that, everything is possible.

–Gene Lantz

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