Monday Apr 23

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Wade Rathke shares almost 50 years of organizing experience with a look at the "nuts and bolts" of how ACORN was organized and able to build a mass membership and major victories in the United States, Canada, and around the world in plain language that can inform organizers, leaders, activists, and policy makers about how to change and build power.

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Jane McAlevey’s latest book No Shortcuts is what everyone who is serious about social change has to read this year.  At a time when the leadership of several of the strongest national labor unions are at their weakest point in 100 years, some even admitting that they are bracing for cuts in membership of 30 to 50%  this book offers the clearest prescription for rebuilding.  Written right before the Trump victory McAlevey aims her book at the heart of the most important debate in progressive politics right now – how will the American working class rebuild a mass political base, most especially its labor unions?  For McAlevey it’s people – in all their splendor, confusion and disarray that are at the heart of successful organizing, and its only organized people that will get us of this crisis.

We weren’t supposed to need this book.  Twenty-five years ago there was a renewed confidence and excitement about the value of organizing people.  The New Labor moment of the mid 1990’s which Jane was both eyewitness to and participant in was a breath of fresh air in the then slowly declining trade union sector.   New Labor promised to reinvent the American labor movement – and rebuild class based popular power.  The AFL –CIO seemed reinvigorated, the Teamsters were being reborn, HERE and SEIU were experimenting with different ways to organize low income service workers that other unions had struggled to recruit, and even college campuses featured fights over sweat shops.  There was a parallel development in community organizing – ACORN was growing in leaps and bounds, the IAF had recently helped elect Anne Richards Governor of Texas.  New campaigns like the Living wage effort that IAF invented and ACORN popularized were springing up everywhere.  I remember that time as a season of hope; a time of creative collaboration between community and labor organizers.  The story of the failure of that bright moment to realize lasting gains for labor is longer in scope than this book, but the seeds of that story are embedded here and progressive thinkers can only hope that McAlevey will follow the thread further in a later book.

The essential argument of No Shortcuts is that direct person to person organizing - as Chavez would say “you talk to one person, and then another person and then another person” is the missing ingredient in making lasting real social change.  The failure to embrace this hard truth is the reason for labor’s decline.  McAlevey argues that it is both the web of relationships among workers (or in her community case study, neighbors) and the commitment to build organizations that are owned and led by people that depend on them that make the difference between people power and raw defeat.

She resurrects the old CIO idea of the “list and chain system” – a process of identifying (listing) the organic leaders among the people you are organizing and helping them activate their own chain of relationships and followers to bring power to bear on whatever the organizing effort is about.  This conception of leadership differs enormously from the current progressive model where leaders are seen as people who already agree with a program, and who are then developed further into leadership.  For McAlevey real organizing is aimed at identifying and working with people who actually have followers.

Building that list and chain with organic leaders requires careful listening and countless kitchen table conversations.  It means mapping the community institutions – the Catholic and evangelical churches, ethnic mutual aid societies, soccer clubs, Scouting groups – as well as the all-important informal associations like home country relationships or friends who speak the same dialect, high school friends, relationships built through marriage, caregiving support networks, babysitting help, betting pools, money saving clubs like the systems of paluwagan – all these and many more  must be recognized catalogued, understood and valued.  Essentially everything involved in the intrinsic beautiful ways of fellowship that our people use to connect to each other must also be valued by the organizer and the organization if that organization is to be truly representative of people’s interests. I suspect that it is this painstaking work combined with bourgeois disdain that make so many liberal elites look so hard for other methods of social change, and be so suspicious of organizing.

As McAlevey describes it this process of listening and mapping is hard work.  It requires the organizer listen with the whole heart, and discard anything that gets in the way of that listening.  This listening is not a one-time thing, done in the service of a single action.   Instead listening in the service of organizing is a constant practice – the heart of the soft martial art of organizing.  Only once this is understood can the organizer create their list and chain.

Once assembled the “list and chain” (once again for McAlevey this means the list of leaders and the chain of relationships they can mobilize) of potential leaders and followers must be tested in crucible of public action and tension – which brings us to the second core concept of No Shortcuts – the structure test.  This is any activity that tests the rank and file leader’s ability to deliver followers to shop floor petition, picket line, direct action or even strike.  Jane argues that organizations (union or community groups) that regularly test their membership in action are strong – and each test reflects back on the organizer and leadership team.  Each test reveals again if the organization truly represents and leads the people, or not.  In this model failure teaches almost as much as successes.  Consistently meeting the challenge of structure tests is the essential ongoing ingredient of building an organization that is owned by the people who make it up and it is a radical insight.

The focus on leaders and their exercise of power is radical in the original sense of the word – structure tests go to the root of what makes a people’s organization live and breathe.  Each action is an opportunity for every leader to confront and conquer their own fear, and every individual moment of courage changes the person that struggles through it.  It is in this way that the struggle is also a spiritual one, and the first revolution for each and every leader is indeed internal.  This process done over and over and over again is the essence of how organizing not only wins power, but readies our people to lead their union, church, community or nation.

In a set of five compelling case studies McAlevey demonstrates how (rank and file) people’s leadership is the margin between victory and defeat.  Each story illustrates a slightly different nuance of the central argument about the need for rank and file leaders with real followers, real relationships.  Meticulously documented each of these stories stands up on its own – and there is enough in them for many hours of reflection for teams of community and labor leaders.  In a recent talk I gave to new young organizers at a network of progressive community groups someone asked me for a reading list, and I immediately thought of this book.  The case studies here should be added to the required reading lists for any seasoned practitioner as well as for the next generation of organizers struggling to learn the art and craft of the work, but the larger argument urgently needs to be (re)learned by the broader progressive community.

Whether or not you agree with every aspect of McAlevey’s point it’s certainly true that too much of the left’s current writing is aimed at a privileged and educated class of leadership seeking any solution but the one that brings them face to face with the workers and rough edged people of our nation.  The coming Trump years are likely to demonstrate the hollow nature of organizing campaigns that failed to build worker (or community) leadership and buy in – as if anyone needed another harsh lesson in this.  It is long past time for a “fearless self-inventory of failures” and Jane McAlevey points the way to the self-awareness Progressives will require to move forward.  It’s not an entirely new argument – McAlevey echoes some of the insights of legendary reinventor of community organizing Ernie Cortez – but it’s never been a more important or timely one.  This is the book that meets the needs of the time we are living in and you should read it.


Drew Astolfi

Former director FACE, current staff at CCC

Drew Astolfi is a 27 year veteran community organizer.  He has worked in the Bronx, the uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Western Massachusetts and most recently as the director of Faith Action for Community Equity in Hawaii.  Currently he works for the Center for Community Change a DC based social movement support organization.

To demand living wages and unionization rights, striking workers in Chicago and New York walked out of fast food recently. In other major industrial tourism locations like New Orleans, the sad truth is that workers at every level of food service, from fast food to fine dining, are struggling to put food on their own tables. A tourism Mecca, like New Orleans ought to be different, as restaurants cash in on the local reputation for flavor, from fast food, like Popeye’s, to fine dining restaurants bearing the names of famous New Orleans chefs – Emerile’s, Besh Steakhouse, and K-Paul’s. Restaurants drive local tourism, yet abuse and underpayment is what too many workers receive.

New Orleans perhaps makes the case better for unionization than Chicago and New York. An emblematic case is Yousef Wafiq “J’obert” Salem Aladwan, owner of Tony Moran’s in the French Quarter. He wrote paychecks that bounced, paid workers in cash, failed to pay overtime, made employees work off the clock, and stole their tips. He assigned workers of color to the upstairs dining area where there were fewer customers and therefore fewer tips. When workers complained, he threatened to have them placed on a blacklist. Finally, eleven workers had the courage to stand up to him. They filed suit, and he has been forced to pay them $260,000.

The sad fact is that such conditions are all too common. In a survey of restaurant workers reported in the Times Picayune (2/21/2010) and in which I participated while I was a professor at Tulane University, 72 percent of restaurant workers have worked while sick as few had health insurance to get necessary medication and fewer still had paid sick days. With average wages of $16,870, 83 percent of workers earning less than $10 per hour, and 28 percent of workers below the federal poverty line, restaurant workers in New Orleans can’t afford to miss a day of work.

Restaurant workers like the ones at Tony Moran’s stay in the industry because they love their customers and want to give every diner a meal to remember. As they serve our food, they are co-participants in our most important life events – birthdays, marriage proposals, family reunions. Yet, all too often they are underpaid, have to work while sick, and face discrimination and harassment in the workplace. This hurts workers, customers, and the very brand at the heart of New Orleans tourism. Restaurant owners who cheat the city out of taxes and cheat workers out of their wages also cheat customers out of their dining experience. Dining memories require better public policy. That starts with a tipped minimum wage of higher than $2.13, like in California, and paid sick days, like in New York.

This is more than feasible. Both California and New York have a lucrative restaurant sector. So does New Orleans; accommodation and food services generate around $3 billion for the city’s economy and provide close to 50 thousand jobs. Every one of those jobs should be a good one. To make every workplace to a safe, healthy, profitable producer of memorable dining experiences, restaurant workers have formed an organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Center. They offer to work with employers to create high road establishments that do right by the city, do right by their customers, and do right by their workers. But, if employers do wrong, the workers at Tony Moran’s have sent a message: workers will stand up, and they will win.

Aaron Schneider
Professor, University of Denver
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copy of Op-Ed published in The Baltimore SUN on June 27th, 2016 by Frank Strier, Author of the book Guns & Kids: Can We Survive the Carnage?" available exclusively from Social Policy Press.

As the debate over access to guns in America rages in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we aren't loudly discussing one thing we really should be, despite a presidential push to do so: smart guns. They may not stop a committed killer, but they could save a child's life.

With programmable smart guns, ballistic science has provided an option that could sharply reduce gun deaths — especially those suffered by children who live in homes with unlocked guns — while still allowing wide weapon ownership. A smart gun is inoperable without the owner's personalized code, or fingerprint recognition or other distinguishing information. It may add a few seconds before you can fire, but for the life of your child is that an offer too good to refuse or an intolerable restriction?

In late April, President Barack Obama reprised his plaintive appeal for boosting so-called "smart gun" technology as part of his series of executive actions for "common sense" gun reforms. "As long as we've got the technology to prevent a criminal from stealing and using your smartphone, then we should be able to prevent the wrong person from pulling a trigger on a gun," the president wrote in a Facebook post at the time.

Law enforcement is expected to take the lead in creating a market for the guns, and President Obama's administration is developing a set of requirements that manufacturers would have to meet to satisfy police; the rules are due in October. "These common-sense steps are not going to prevent every tragedy, but what if they prevented even one?" the president's Facebook post read.

Despite their potential to save lives, smart guns have never sold in the United States. Why? It's largely New Jersey's fault. The state's Childproof Handgun Law of 2002 says that once "personalized handguns" are available anywhere in the country, all handguns sold in New Jersey must be smart guns within 30 months. So whichever manufacturer is the first to launch smart gun sales knows it will also trigger a ban on other kinds of guns in New Jersey, undoubtedly upsetting thousands of people. And so far, no gun maker has been willing to do that.

When retailers have tried to sell the technology-enabled firearms, they were flooded with angry calls and messages from people who considered the replacement requirement of the New Jersey law an infringement of the Second Amendment. A store owner offering to sell smart guns says he received multiple death threats and other retailers offering to sell them quickly backed down on their plans.

Grim firearm fatality data from The CDC attest to the eye-popping depth of the U.S. problem: About 100,000 people get shot every year in the U.S., about 30,000 fatally. Among children under 18, the corresponding annual numbers are roughly 10,000 shootings and 3,000 deaths. These are, by far, the highest rates of gun violence in the world.

Our great gun control debate is an intense, hearts-and-minds struggle that has long riven the country. Opposing President Obama and other reformers is the NRA, founded in 1871, formidable and unyielding. Few if any lobbies have ever employed more power. And with such unequivocal success. Fueling that influence is the economic impact of the U.S. firearms industry, estimated at $32 billion per year.

Largely overlooked by gun proponents is the extent to which gun violence afflicts our most vulnerable population. Underlying the president's proposal is a long-standing and profound concern for the safety of children. Inattention — or worse, indifference — to the particularly horrendous dangers that guns present to children perpetuates a volatile and often lethal environment for them.

One-third of all U.S. households with children younger than 18 have a gun, and more than 46 percent of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked. Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that these conditions significantly intensify the risk of suicide or unintentional injury among youths.

Predictable results follow.

The furious and petulant reaction of the gun lobby and its many supporters to the president's smart gun proposal and recent efforts to limit assault weapons speaks volumes about the profound ties of many in America to their guns. It's a bond that's apparently stronger even, in too many instances, than that between parent and child.

Frank Strier is professor emeritus at California State University and the author of "Guns & Kids: Can We Survive the Carnage?" (Social Policy Press, December 2015); his email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I received a note from Fred Ross, Jr. and Mike Miller seeking support for this campaign to recognize, posthumously, Fred Ross, Senior, one of the great organizers for lower income families of all races and ethnicity, for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over the years while I was at ACORN whenever I was asked if I was an Alinksy-organizer, I would often reply, "No, I was a Ross-organizer!" Fred Ross's commitment to house meetings was instrumental in the role "organizing committees" played in the ACORN Model.

Below you will find the letters that Fred and Mike have helped distribute that have been signed by several Congresspeople and sent to the White House. Hopefully, you will join us in adding your name in support of this call for recognition for those who work in the vineyards of the freedom fight.


Dear Colleague,

As President Barack Obama considers candidates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I write to you today to join me in a letter that urges the President to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross, Sr.

Since 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes those individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." Fred Ross Sr.’s enduring legacy an organizer who built collective action, citizenship engagement, and leadership development has never been more relevant or important to our democracy.

Last year, when Dolores Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom she recognized Fred Ross Sr. as the organizer who mentored both her and Cesar Chavez. Cesar once described his relationship with Fred Ross by saying “I learned quite a bit by studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross Sr….he changed my life. “For nearly half a century, Fred educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear, despair and cynicism. He was a pioneer who fought for racial and economic justice.

To join this letter, please contact Christina Partida (Grijalva) at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Raúl M. Grijalva  Member of Congress

George Miller Member of Congress

Lucille Roybal-Allard Member of Congress


Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned, are writing to ask you to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross, Sr.

Last year, when Dolores Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom she recognized Fred Ross Sr. as the organizer who mentored both her and Cesar Chavez. Cesar once described his relationship with Fred Ross by saying “I learned quite a bit by studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross Sr….he changed my life.”

For nearly half a century, Fred educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear, despair and cynicism. He was a pioneer who fought for racial and economic justice.

In the thirties and early forties, he organized “Dust Bowl” refugees in the migratory worker camps that John Steinbeck wrote about, helping them form camp councils and self-governance. In the mid-forties, he worked with Japanese Americans during World War II. He organized community support to combat wartime hysteria and prejudice. He helped newly released “internees” find employment and housing in Cleveland and San Francisco.

After WWII, in the midst of KKK activity, he organized eight Civic Unity Leagues in California’s Citrus Belt, bringing Mexican Americans and African Americans together to battle segregation in schools, skating rinks and movie theatres. In Orange County he organized parents to fight the practice of segregation in local schools and successfully integrated School Boards across the Citrus Belt through voter registration drives and civic engagement. One of the most dramatic outcomes of his work in Orange County occurred when parents sued the School Districts and prevailed. (Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District, et al. 1947) , creating the legal precedent for the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.

In 1947 Saul Alinsky hired Ross to organize the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Los Angeles’ Eastside Barrio. In 1949 the CSO helped elect Ed Roybal, the first Hispanic ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

In the early 1950s, Ross met Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. He recruited them to become fulltime organizers with the CSO and became a lifetime mentor. Together with CSO leaders across California and Arizona, they successfully overcame voter suppression efforts and passed landmark legislation on behalf of immigrants. Ross recruited and trained many other Hispanic leaders, including Cruz Reynoso who was later appointed the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in California, and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. Later he recruited and trained young farm worker, Eliseo Medina, who dedicated years to the UFW, became the Secretary Treasurer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and is a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform today.

In 1965, as part of the “War on Poverty,” Ross worked through Syracuse University and trained many of the organizers who went on to be leaders in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the deep south.

Perhaps, Fred Ross Sr. is most remembered for his work with America’s farm workers and their struggle for justice and dignity during the 1960s and 1970s. He trained close to 2,000 grape and lettuce boycott and strike organizers in every major city in the United States and Toronto, Canada. The powerful pressure that resulted from massive collective action led to the passage of the historic California Agricultural Labor Relations Act signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown in 1975.

In 1983 Fred Ross Sr. joined his son, Fred Ross Jr., and trained organizers to defeat the unfair Recall election of San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein who had been targeted because of her support for tough gun control regulation in the aftermath of the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Fred Ross Sr.’s house meeting method was instrumental in recruiting the hundreds of volunteers who turned out to defeat the Recall by an 80% margin.

In the mid-1980s, Fred Ross Sr. joined his son, Fred, to train yet another generation of organizers to challenge the Reagan foreign policy in Central America. He died in 1992 at the age of 82.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Fred Ross Senior left a legacy of good works that have given many the courage of their convictions, the powers of their ideals, and the strength to do heroic deeds on behalf of the common person.”

Jerry Cohen, former UFW General Counsel stated, “Fred fought more fights and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation against social injustice than anyone we’re ever likely to see again.”

That Fred remains an unsung hero, despite decades of unselfish work and achievements, is largely his own fault. Carey McWilliams may have put it best when he wrote: “(Fred) is a man of exasperating modesty, the kind that never steps forward to claim his fair share of credit for any enterprise in which he is involved.”

The late Los Angeles Times Associate Editor, Frank del Olmo, called Ross “one of a small cadre of underappreciated people who saw the potential in the Mexican American community long before anyone else did, literally generations before anyone else did, and helped nurture it and bring it along at a time when there was really no certainty that the potential they saw would ever come to fruition. I’m enough of an historian to believe that this kind of quiet heroism should not be forgotten.”

Fred Ross Sr.’s enduring legacy an organizer who built collective action, citizenship engagement, and leadership development has never been more relevant or important to our democracy.

In recognition of this unsung hero we urge you to confer the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously upon Fred Ross, Sr. This recognition would be a beacon of hope for living and future organizers committed to social justice.


Members of Congress



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