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OFA Should Reassess Organizing Strategy

Craig Williams: An old Teamster organizer once told me “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” It’s also an insult to working people and the tradition of organizing.

Norman Solomon said something very interesting, which is that the Massachusetts version of health care reform that catered to the insurance companies may have been a key factor in Coakley's defeat. Actually, the insuarnce industry stabbed the reformers in the state in the back, promosing to work with the health care community and then raising rates.

Real Captain America

This may be too much “inside baseball,” but once upon a time in Massachusetts, antiwar (Vietnam) activists became part of the national federation Citizen Action -- primarily antiwar activists who turned community organizers. Many were from Harvard. They would field 40 paid organizers in communities throughout the state. They also had a research and senior staff. They would also field 50 or so year-round canvassers and over 200 summer canvassers who would door knock citizens, night in night out. I was part of this organization, called Fair Share. This is how we did it in the old days, the rarely told history of progressive organizing in the 70s and 80s.

Except for a Vista grant, most of the funding came from small contributions raised by the canvassers going door to door. The Reagan Administration pulled the Vista grant from under us , just 15 minutes after the Gipper was sworn into office.

No Internet no email, yet the group Fair Share was able to move progressive legislation. With California's population numbers that, would be about 250 community organizers and 1,000 canvassers. The organizers made about $15,000 a year and the canvassers worked on commission.

Nowadays, Obama’s Organizing for America has a handful of staff in California and unpaid organizers, one per congressional district who are asked to work for no pay, a innovative, yet highly suspect approach to organizing, not to mention a less than dignified treatment of political workers. The organizers are expected to work at least 40 hours a week.

President Obama is a wealthy man from sales of his books, which have been on best seller lists for years. I also heard a report that in Japan alone 7 million copies of his Inaugural speech were snapped up within days. Not to pay organizers who work 40 hours a week adds new meaning to the phrase “Audacity of Hope.”

A Congressperson was recently defending President Obama, arguing that the bankers didn’t own him though they contributed handsomely to his campaign war chest. He argued, “President Obama is not owned by anyone because he can write a quick email and raise a million at the click of a mouse.” So why not click the mouse a few times and actually pay your organizing staff?

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Organizing is not easy work and if you want to get results it's unlikely that you’ll get great results without paying people. How much real accountability can there be under a non pay system? An old Teamster organizer once told me “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” It’s also an insult to working people and the tradition of organizing.

If OFA had respect for the tradition of organizing, they would have studied how statewide groups combined canvassing and organizing. In Massachusetts, Coakley lost big in the suburbs where a canvass operation is ideal. With a traditional model of community organizing, the canvassers last summer could have raised money going door to door on health care and developed enthusiastic supporters identified by the canvass as precinct activists, trained by the organizers -- precinct activists themselves trained to go door to door on important legislation and in important elections, like the Massachusetts Senate race.

The OFA approach subsequently relies too much on the Internet. True, they have millions of people on their lists, but those are Obama enthusiasts. The independents and persuadable are not on their lists and you need to reach those people using skills developed by traditional organizing. Losing a filibuster-proof Senate may be a wake-up call for our new generation of organizers. A fusion of the old and the new and a respect for how we organized before email might make more sense now after the Coakley defeat. Heck, if you can nationally create a few thousand paid organizing jobs and countless canvassing positions in this economy where people are desperate for work you might be able to develop a precinct system that is unstoppable.

Along with the unions, the precinct networks during the 30s were credited with electing Roosevelt and winning the New Deal. People back then were not naive about the media and believed a precinct network was the only defense against big money and biased radio and newspapers. With Obama, OFA, and their resources, it would be a shame not to at least try to build a similar network because we can pretty much agree that we are still facing big money and a media that are not our friends.

On the other hand, Eric Alterman on Bill Moyers, Friday night, may be right when he suggested that Obama has great email lists (14 million names) but each elected Democrat has his or her own little kingdom that they don’t want anyone else doing any serious organizing in. Maybe what we really have in this country is a “candidate-centered, no party system.”

craig williams

Craig Williams

Developing Democracy