Pay your workers

Pay your workers

Forty people squeezed into a cramped property management office to deliver a letter. The Falcon Art Community, a rental management company dressed up as a “privately funded arts organization”, had neglected a black mold problem in the walls of Beth’s home. Health issues related to the mold forced Beth to move out and live in a tent on a friend’s lawn. The Falcon Art Community subsequently stole her security deposit.

Beth approached from the very back of the group to hand the letter to the nervous secretary as another organizer read the letter aloud, over the phone on the voicemail of the owner of the Falcon Art Community — Brian Wanamaker. Following the demand delivery, posters were put up around the Wanamaker’s properties, warning would-be tenants of the neglectful landlord. After two short months of postering (including “don’t rent here” posters) and coordinated call-ins to the office, Wanamaker paid up. Solidarity Networks like these are winning real demands and creating a newfound confidence in direct action. This article will explain what they are, where they came from and how you can help build the movement.

Around the world people are fighting back against their landlords and bosses to regain stolen wages and security deposits, stop sexual and racial harassment, and obtain needed repairs. Using a model new to many long-time community organizers, they are organizing direct action campaigns in which workers and tenants take part in and lead actions that put pressure directly on their targets until they give in. This can be anything from pickets outside of a business, to “Don’t Shop Here” posters, to showing up to the targets place of worship and talking to the congregation about their terrible practices as a boss or landlord.

Many of these groups are inspired by the Solidarity Network (SolNet) model, which can be summed up by a few basic principles and practices:

  • Direct democracy – Everyone involved in the fight has voice and vote (but often some decisions are deferred to the campaign subject).
  • Volunteer driven Volunteers are the driving force behind the organization. They make the decisions and do the work. (This does not necessarily exclude the possibility of paid positions that carry out mandated tasks)
  • Direct action – Campaigns are based around the community taking a direct stand against an oppressor. Lawyers and politicians are not relied on to fight our battles for us.
  • Attainable demands – A campaign’s winnability is carefully evaluated before it’s taken on. Resources are not spent on organizing for the sake of organizing.
  • Escalating tactics – Throughout the campaign pressure is constantly on the target. Tactics are carefully spaced at the beginning of the campaign to take into account the organization’s capacity and the constant building of pressure on the target.
  • Personal involvement of the campaign subject – SolNets are not a social service. It is expected that the campaign subjects take an active part in organizing of their campaign. It is also expected that they join the SolNet and help out with other fights in the future.

The SolNet model came out of Seattle, Washington in 2007 with the creation of Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol). SeaSol’s model was so successful at winning small scale worker and tenant fights that it spread to cities all over the world. There are currently SolNets in Portland, Brooklyn, East Bay (Oakland), Houston, Philadelphia, Lexington, Bristol (UK), Manchester (UK), Glasgow (UK), Sydney (AUS), Kitchner-Waterloo (CA) and Hamilton (CA).

SolNets work because they restrict themselves to attainable demands. The Solidarity Network movement started in reaction to protest movements which focused on symbolic actions to achieve vague and lofty goals. In the 90s and early 00s protest groups in the U.S. most often focused on shutting down conventions or anti-war demonstrations. These protests were rarely successful and when they were they led to little or no concrete changes in people’s lives. One canceled convention has no real impact on peoples lives. Multiple wins that empower people to make direct changes in their lives were needed to create a new confidence in direct action and direct democracy. Organizers began to ask themselves “what are the most common and noticeable expressions of exploitation that we deal with?” and “what can we win with the capacity we have?”

An important part to making the larger goals of broad social change attainable and realistic is building communities that can make decisions for themselves. Helping someone plan and carry out a successful campaign to get their stolen deposit back builds confidence in the idea that oppressed peoples can take back the things that are rightfully theirs, and that they don’t have to rely on lawyers or politicians to do it for them.

As SolNets win, they gain supporters. People that have never before taken action against the people that rule over their lives are inspired to be a part of the power that is being built. Instead of seeing the same groups of activists and organizers recycled into new projects, new militants with new ideas are being created. Through effective and life-changing action, the relevance of radical politics is seen. We need to continue this movement by building new Solidarity Networks and by growing the ones that already exist. If you live in an area that already has one then join up or lend your hand. If you want to start your own SolNet then check out this guide:

In my next article I will examine how Solidarity Networks have gone beyond the single fight model and how they they can push on to have a permanent presence in our apartment buildings, workplaces, schools and transit systems.

A cat and destroyed house

A friend standing in front of what used to be your organization.

Sitting among a group of college aged friends that all dress and talk in the same way is a recurring scene in activism and organizing groups around the world. In large part, organizing takes the form of a few people trying to rally their friends around a cause. These practices are counterproductive to creating welcoming organizing spaces.

I’ve been in all types: organizations that were started from friendships, groups of people that later became friends after working together (which is better), and most recently a group that I have a few friends in but most of the people I work with I just consider comrades. Meaning once in awhile we go out for beers after a meeting or action but socializing doesn’t go much beyond that. The latter of the three works best to promote a healthy organizational culture. This article will examine the reasons as to how leaning on our friends to take a role in our organizations can become problematic.

1. Organizations that have a membership based around a group of friends are unwelcoming. In friend groups a culture develops: inside jokes happen and friends start to reflect each other’s styles. Groups of friends tend to be homogeneous, belonging to a specific subculture. This is natural, because we want to be around people that validate our interests and beliefs. This means we often share the same tastes in music, sports, fashion, and so on. But our goal in creating broader social movements means that we not only have to look towards engaging people outside of our social sphere, but we also need to create welcoming spaces for people that we may have nothing in common with except the project that we’re all interested in. It’s incredibly difficult to create these spaces when organizations start as groups of friends. A newcomer interested in the project will quickly notice who is friends with who and who has influence over who. That new person will feel left out in realizing that influence in these friendships spills over and dominates the decision making process and power dynamics in the organization.

These types of organizations are identified with the social scene which its members make up. For example, there might be a group made up of solely of hipsters around the same age from a specific university, or solely of crust punks, or solely of diehard Seahawks fans. These groups are going to be unwelcoming to people who could never see themselves as being like those people.

2. Another problem is that friend drama spillover gets in the way of effective organizing. The health and culture of these friend/activist groups are very much linked to health of the friendships of the people involved. For example, friends date each other, they break up, and friends take sides. Organizing spaces that aren’t dominated by friend groups are less susceptible to friend drama spillover because others in the group are likely not to stand for the distraction. There is also less of a possibility that this will cause the friends who are involved in the conflict to leave the organization because the organization is perceived to exist outside of the friend sphere of the people involved.

3. Many of our friends who consider themselves politically minded are just not as serious about organizing as we are. Oftentimes, attendance at meetings is more motivated by the social aspect than an actual desire to make revolution. The motivating force behind recruiting our friends is the idea that by adding bodies to our group will somehow make us more successful, and that by leaning on these people to attend our meetings it will increase our groups capacity and power. This line of reasoning doesn’t work. A group filled with friends can often lead to unreliable members which puts pressure on the reliable organizers in the group to babysit. Babysitting leads to burnout, and burnout of the solid organizers within the group leads to group failure. It’s better to put zero effort into retaining these unreliable people. A group of three reliable people will function better and accomplish more than a group of five with two or three “reliables” and the rest being flakes.

This isn’t to say that people who have a lot going on in their life shouldn’t be able to participate and be involved. Levels of involvement will always vary and we should make space for people with families, illness, or other reasons that leave them with minimal time to contribute. Unreliable people are something different altogether; they are the people who say they will do something and repeatedly don’t follow through or require a phone call meeting reminder to even show up. It just so happens that often times these people happen to be the ones with the most time on their hands.

Why do friendship groups so often dominate our organizing? It’s because they are the people that we have the most access to. Going out and doing real outreach and engaging people that we don’t know and are different than us is scary at first. It takes work, so doing this in teams is a good way to alleviate some of this fear. The simplest thing we can do to change the friend activist group culture is to not lean on our friends to join our groups and actively seek out self-starting organizers who are interested in the projects we want to work on. Start with two or three people instead of five unreliables. You will have better results.