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Moving Beyond Alinsky Activism

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Saru Jayaraman

Activism in America and around the globe draws on the strategies and tactics of many cultures and philosophies. But to the extent that a certain model has dominated in the American left, it’s the progeny of Saul Alinsky and the trade unionist movement — an organizing practice best described as forming groups of workers to collectively protest and challenge the otherwise-unchecked power of bosses.

Historically, the workers who organized were mostly working class, white and in big factory-floor-type industries. Of course, to a working class white guy — not just Alinsky but most of the political figures who have shaped the institutional left — organizing other working class white guys is the easiest default. There’s nothing wrong with organizing working class white people. There is, however, something quite wrong if those are the only communities we’re organizing. A broad-based and far-reaching progressive movement must have broad strategies and reach into every community in America.

Ironically, while low-wage workers, people of color and immigrant workers are often considered “unorganizable,” it was these workers clamoring to be organized that sparked the creation of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. Over the last twelve years we at ROC have built a national restaurant workers’ organization with more than 10,000 members in 26 cities, 100 employer partners and several thousand consumer members. While we’ve won back millions of dollars in stolen tips and wages for workers, opened several worker-owned restaurants, trained thousands of low-wage workers in livable-wage job skills, published two dozen reports on the industry and won some policy changes, our biggest accomplishment has been to develop the leadership of women and men from all backgrounds – white, black, Latino, Asian, Arab, immigrant and non-immigrant – to lead this movement themselves.

The communities most often neglected as “unorganizable” are the critical canaries in the coal mine of American society. When women, people of color and immigrant workers aren’t paid a living wage, it drives down incomes and the economy for everyone. When low-wage restaurant workers don’t have access to paid sick days, they come to work and spread germs and everyone who eats out pays the price. If we are not focusing our organizing efforts on poor people, communities of color, immigrants and women, then not only are we failing to build a broad and powerful left but we are also failing to include the perspectives of those most affected by the injustices we seek to fix.

Saru Jayaraman is co-founder and director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and author of Behind the Kitchen Door. She was featured on Moyers & Company in February 2013.

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