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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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  • Seachange

    I’m not sure I understand your reference to Alinsky. Are you suggesting that he was right or wrong? Are you suggesting that he is/was a hero or villain? Are you suggesting that he organized only “working class, white and in big factory-floor-type industries.”? Or are you suggesting that he also organized poor, minority, low-wage-earners? Exactly what is your point about Alinsky?

  • Solidarious

    There wasn’t one. It was for shock value.

  • Bello

    Slightly offended here. I’m very enthusiastic about organizing people, but I’m hearing if it’s white it ain’t right. Is that it? The ideal white person should be color blind, androgynous and selfless, but all others are allowed to use sex or ethnic attributes to define their identity.

    It’s wrong to insinuate identity politics in a worker’s movement. Work is what we all have in common. Why would you tell white people to go stand in the back of the line? Why would I want to join your movement if it starts out hating me?

    We live in a meritocracy which, in theory, rewards those who produce. Set asides and preferences insert subjective criteria, which is what we’re trying to eliminate in the first place.

    People are people. Jobs are jobs. We all want good jobs with good pay.

  • Page

    Saru, I applaud your aims, but you’ve got the historical perspective of “white” and “color” all wrong. My Irish (Protestant) grandmother spoke proudly of walking picket lines in the ’30’s with Irish Catholics, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians, who brought “exotic” tomato and garlic dishes to planning sessions. They were “women of color” in their time. African-Americans were systematically, and shamefully, excluded, but the other groups were not “white” in the generic way you are framing it. They did not see each other as similar, and they certainly weren’t seen as being ethnically similar to the ruling WASP elite. Yesterday’s lasagna is today’s enchilada. One essential lesson from this is to make sure that no group, African American, Muslim or other, is again kept at the bottom of the well while the others assimilate.

  • Marta Burton

    That’s not what she said. Why waste energy being offended. She is saying we need to include everyone.

  • Marta Burton

    And as we now know, all of our notions of “race” were invented. Race is a social construct…one that has devastated our culture, but it is still an invention for us to overcome!

  • Paul

    Is it true that in places like the Chicago stock yards that those organized were only “white guys”?

  • Paul

    By the 1950s, Alinsky had developed a clearly defined organizing philosophy and had won a reputation as champion of the disenfranchised. He began to organize in predominantly black communities, and in 1959, co-founded The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), which brought the struggle for civil rights to Chicago’s South Side and challenged Mayor Richard J. Daley’s powerful political machine through a radical voter registration drive. In 1965, Alinsky was invited to Rochester, NY to help the black community successfully take on Eastman Kodak over the issue of racial hiring.

  • Jeff Simpson

    Arrgh. Please do your homework about Saul Alinsky.

  • Edward Benghazi CoverUp McClel

    He was a commie piece of shite.

  • Anonymous

    Uf! Ms. Jayaraman, you could have even looked up Saul Alinsky in Wikipedia and seen that his organizing extended to the ‘unorganizable’ dark peoples you write about. It’s the first time, by the way, I read about ‘unorganizable’ people. From which corner of the American mosaic have you ever heard noises about ‘unorganizables’? If there is cultural commentary regarding the ‘unorganizability’ of African descendants and other ethnic immigrants, it is worth at least half a paragraph to pinpoint the sources of that cultural static. If someone from another country read your piece, they would be surprised that Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez and Dolores Huerta managed to organize (through learning both Gandhian and Alinsky methods) the Civil Rights Movement and the United Farm Workers before your Restaurant Opportunities Centers United came on the scene!

  • eabernathy

    Wow. This author seems to have read chapter 1 through 3 of some Alinsky biography and made some broad conclusions. I echo most of the commenters here, who rightly point out how far-reaching Alinsky’s methods have extended. Ever hear of Ernesto Cortez? Know about the work in Rochester? This is weak.

  • Robert C. Olcott

    Alinsky taught us a number of lessons, as did Ray Rogers, Jeremy Rifkin, Janice Fine, Steve Holt, Stuart Acuff, and many others. But I’ve also learned lessons from Occupy Upper Valley, Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, Chris Benz and Dairy Farmers, the New England Hill-Burton Health Advocacy coalition, the Consumer Coalition for Health, ACORN, Gossler Park Neighborhood Alliance, New Hampshire People’s Alliance, New Horizons for New Hampshire, the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee, the American Friends Service Committee, United Health Systems Agency, Maine Health Systems Agency, Western Center for Health Planning, Low Income Planning Aid, Connecticut Citizens Action Group, Rhode Island Health Advocates, the 104-76 project & the Young Lords & H-RUM in the South Bronx, NYMRO, Saint Mary’s Bank (CreditUnion), Floyd D’Agostino of Alternative Economics, Nader & Public Citizen, Bikers Against Child Abuse, and Gwendolyn Hallsmith, Steve Cancian, National VISTA Alliance and OCAW and the NYCabDrivers Union that printed and posted our VISTA Newsletter & the SteelWorkers that absorbed OCAW, The League of Women Voters, VietNam Veterans of America (and the Central NH chapter “they” invited me to “organize”), the Jay Maine Paperworkers Local, National Coalition for the Homeless and the Housing Now march, and I.Ira (“Itzy”) Goldenberg who taught me about “Pluralistic Ignorance”&”Oppression and Social Intervention”, Colonel Pickett during Professor David Osher’s 14th Amendment and Legal Advocacy class …and many more……Thank You ALL!

  • David E. Gibson

    Don’t know what you’re talking about. Alinsky’s principals have always applied to all sectors and classes and cultures of organizing. I have never read anywhere that he ever considered anyone “unorganizable”. He makes that case himself in all of his books. And of course you are right that we need to organize everywhere there is oppression. But I think you should re-read his work. Best wishes to you and keep up your good work.

  • David E. Gibson

    Right on.

  • Donald Shank

    When Ronald Reagan and his cronies said “a rising tide lifts all boats”, what he forgot to mention was that the tide rises from below; when it comes from above it’s called a deluge. If we begin by raising the standard of living of our nation’s poorest, then money will circulate in our local communities instead of offshore accounts and overseas investments, benefiting us all.
    “Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see
    This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
    Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor,
    And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
    Woody Guthrie

  • Rick Deines

    I lived in Woodlawn (Chicago) six years during TWO’s (The Woodlawn Organization’s heyday) in the 1960’s. Woodlawn, considered by some at that time the ‘poorest community in the country, the ‘Alinsky’ organization brought together the ‘unorganizable’ against the huge odds posed by Mayor Daley and the University of Chicago. Ms. Jayaraman’s work is laudable, but owes a debt to Mr. Alinsky and the tens of thousands of ‘unorganizables’ that discovered their own power.

  • Linda Magdalena

    More Alinsky misinformation. He actually worked primarily with people of color in the slums of Chicago.