THE BLOG

Community Organizers Behind Every Great Movement

10/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jonah Lalas Former Union Organizing Director and Labor Activist

By Jonah Lalas and Christian Phillips

When someone makes $5.15 an hour, and is the sole breadwinner for three children, how do you talk to her about going on strike? How do you talk to a woman about standing up for herself on the job, with her husband yelling from the kitchen that she had better not do anything to put her check on the line? Who would knock on door after door, day after day, in some of the most depressed neighborhoods in America, looking for someone who is willing to talk about trying to make things a little better in his or her community?

For organizers, these seemingly illogical questions are their vocation. Behind every great movement, every grassroots action for change, there is an organizer pushing people to overcome their fears, unite and take control of their lives. Though Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin derides organizers as having no "actual responsibilities," the contrary is true. Organizers have a responsibility not only to themselves or the communities they work in, but to the greater struggle for justice. When an organizer fails, a portion of our country's progress may fail with them. To us, that's a much bigger burden than balancing the budget in Wasilla, Alaska.

As former directors at the Houston Organization of Public Employees, we--along with the staff and member organizing team--struggled with this responsibility often. We represented 13,000 city employees and spent nearly a year negotiating a first contract with an administration that continuously stated that they had no money in the budget for anything more than a pitiful 1% raise every year. At that point, Houston had enjoyed year after year of growth, had a budget surplus that reached eight figures and had allowed employee pay to fall 21% behind the pay of the other major cities in Texas. Understandably, the City of Houston employees were outraged and determined to ensure that the administration show more respect for their work.

In order to push the city, organizers had to find leaders at over 300 work place sites spread throughout the city. We spent countless mornings at worksites handing out leaflets at 6 in the morning as workers came into work, and we were there again in the afternoon as they clocked out. We spent the evenings going to employees' homes, and having tough conversations about demonstrating power and why they need to show up to a rally or meeting, or devote four hours one night to call other city workers. Many would express fear and excuses like, "I don't have time," or, "We've already tried this before and it'll never work," or, "I'm already struggling to pay my bills, I can't afford dues." But it was our job to push them past these fears and commit to a higher cause.

This past spring, the city workers won a 9% increase over three years, a freeze on health insurance costs, and raised the minimum wage from $7 to $10/hr. This historic contract was not simply handed to the workers by a benevolent mayor. He was pressured by thousands of his own employees who were willing to finally stand up and say, "I'm worth more."

But behind every worker who spoke out at the negotiating table was an organizer. Behind every worker who showed up to a rally was a phone call or a flyer made by an organizer. Maybe a bus got them there, but there was an organizer at the worksite pushing and motivating workers to climb on board.

And it is organizers on the Obama campaign who recruited everyday people to take ownership of their communities and make phone calls or knock on doors. It was these organizers who made it possible for Obama to defeat the long-established Clinton machine.

Ironically, organizers of a different brand made it possible for someone with extremist cultural views like Palin to rise to power. The Republican Party was not always the one that represented smaller government and socially conservative values. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower actually expanded Democratic social programs and criticized the growing "military-industrial-complex." In the early 1960s, a social and fiscal conservative named Barry Goldwater ran on the Republican ticket, but lost to Lyndon B. Johnson, largely because his views were still on the fringe. But his followers refused to give up hope and organized at the grassroots level through neighborhood organizations and churches. Decades later, their "community organizing" succeeded in pushing liberal and moderate Republicans to the side and they effectively took control of their party.

Palin's comments deriding community organizing will probably fade as the next attack line is dispatched by party leaders. But just as this type of organizing helped her ascend the Republican chain, it will be organizing, by Obama's supporters, that will lead to her ticket's downfall in November.

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