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GETSOS: Blocking Highways, Blocking Hallways

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Photo of Paul Getsos

The main objective is easy. Stop the normal operations of society. No business as usual.  Stop the means of production be it the flow of products and services or the ability of government workers to go to work.

Paul Getsos is a widely recognized expert on strategy development, organizing, leadership training and community power-building. Paul has extensive experience working at the national, state and local level. He has been a lead staff person on two national campaigns focused on jobs and unemployment and health-care reform, as well as a key strategic partner representing Community Voices Heard (an organization he co-founded) on national welfare reform, TANF re-authorization and global justice issues. He is also the co-author of Tools for a Radical Democracy. The following is reflection written by Paul Getsos on in early March when he was in Argentina studying unemployed movements, seeking for transferable lessons for U.S. based organizing.
The main objective is easy. Stop the normal operations of society. No business as usual.  Stop the means of production be it the flow of products and services or the ability of government workers to go to work.

It is simple. We need more localities, cities and towns in the United States to erupt in protest, civil disobedience and militant action demanding jobs, unemployment benefits, no cuts to poor and working people. We need working and middle class people to demand taxes on the rich and corporations and to bear the costs of education and basic services and community needs for all.

We do these things and then we can beat back the current right wing attacks and begin the long term work of  building a mass based left progressive movement that takes on corporate power and the politicians who feed at the trough of corporate contributions and then heed their will and demands.

In Argentina where the unemployed movement has been organizing for years, workers without jobs block streets to stop the transport of goods and workers.  In Albany, workers who want jobs and under-employed poor people who need government support block the halls to the State Capital. In Wisconsin, tens of thousands rally at the State Capital to preserve worker rights.

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Blocking highways, blocking hallways. Marching on capitals.

Disruption of the normal flow of business is the tool that is most available to workers who have no jobs or those who are under attack.  It is the tactic that those who are part of the labor market, but who are not actively working, have at their disposal as workers. Employed workers strike or engage in slow-downs. Workers faced with firings and layoffs occupy factories. Workers without jobs block the transfer of goods, services and other workers. Its the tool that is at their disposal to force those with both economic and political power to answer to their demands.  If its jobs, cash assistance, food, or education, these tactics are key to reinforcing the identity of those without jobs as workers who are still part of the labor market.

When the hundreds of people from Community Voices Heard and NY VOCAL held banners across the entrances to the State Capital and forced state workers to take another path, they were echoing the actions of workers without jobs in La Plata, Argentina. Here 1200 people took over the main highway two weeks ago to demand that the federal government release millions of pesos for jobs programs in the state.

The protests in Albany and in La Plata included those without work, low-wage workers, students, working class supporters and retirees who saw the importance of working on this issue.  In La Plata, the two local union affiliates sent hundreds of people along to block the highway in solidarity with those seeking work.

I have been studying social movements of unemployed workers and the poor here in Argentina for 3 months. I have been meeting with organizers and leaders who have worked since the mid- 1990′s on these issues, and talking to workers and poor people themselves.

In all the various movements and organizations I have talked to,  there are four main points that those who seek to build a movement in the United States should think about when organizing around the issues of jobs, benefits and services for the poor, working and middle class.

These points are:

1. Organize people as workers and have a clear “working class identity.”

People do not want to identify as unemployed or even poor.  People are workers. Some with jobs, some without.  Some don’t have enough work to sustain themselves or to save for the future.  Some are not making enough at 40 hour a week jobs. By starting from this common identity as workers – you lay the ground for keeping people involved in political action and your organization or movement, even when they get a job.

Also it is important to redefine what a worker is and what working class means, both within your organization and as you talk about your movement to people outside of your organization. When you engage politicians, corporate targets, new members or the press use the language of working class identity for everyone that is not benefitting from the economic restructuring of society.

2. Build a Multi-Sector Movement.

Every organizer and leader I have met in Argentina told me that the thing they learned is that a multi-sector organization and movement is critical for winning enough power to win.  While it takes work, the importance of both getting people of each sector to work together on a common issue and supporting each others struggles is the key for building a strong movement.  Students, union members, retirees, welfare mothers, and workers without jobs, are all key to building enough power to take on corporate power and conservative political interests.   An example of the importance of building these multi-sectoral organizations and movements, is that when the state starts to crack down and repress the movements, broad based support will help to neutralize the repression.  When politicians work or make offers to divide and conquer the interests of each group, it will be easier to maintain a united front and have mutual support. For one another struggles.  The tactics of pueblados, when entire neighborhoods or towns go on what is essentially a general strike to support militant actions and protect the participants of these actions  against state repression is the most important result of multi-sector organizing here.

3. Organize at the local neighborhood level and engage in easy fights to win things that people say they need.

Working at the local level and building organization in the neighborhood  helps to get people working cross sector because they will ultimately work on and win things that will impact the whole community. They will learn  and understand the power of working together.  In the process of this work, they will build relationships and accountability with their neighbors. When the work, meetings and campaigns are based locally, they will more likely turn out their friends, families and neighbors to mass actions, increasing the scale of the movement. By achieving local wins, they will stay involved in the longer battles.

4. Invest the time and energy to engage in deep democratic processes and political education.

By building organizations that are democratic and rooted in the base and where community level decisions inform the larger movement, you can keep people involved for the long haul. Make sure community members are informing the campaign and making decisions about demands and tactics. Have clear organizational structures that include representation and participation from the base at every level of the larger organization.

When engaging in the work at all levels, make sure political education and critical analysis is a key component of the work. Maintain and articulate a vision beyond a single demand and one that has a vision for the world we want to build.

These are only some of the lessons from Argentina,  but these are the key ones, where people from every movement and organization agree.

These are points that might be useful to consider to those who seek to build organizations and movements that seek to address the challenges of the new economic realities in the United States, attacks on unions and workers, a jobless recovery, and attempts to dismantle the already bare boned social safety net that exists for those without work and in need.