Via Turbulence #1:
“Valery Alzaga talks to Rodrigo Nunes about the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) global organising approach
“VA: Research is the first step, before the organising begins. First, you need to identify a ‘universe’. What is the size of the market? Who are the players involved (owners, building management, cleaning companies)? What share of the market do they have? How many cleaners work for each one? How many cleaners are there in total? This will give you an idea of where to build strength. It would be pointless to have all the workers in one company join the campaign, and none everywhere else, if that company only has a tiny fraction of the overall market. This particular company could decide to pay more, which is good, but in the long term it will lose all contracts to cheaper companies and thus the workers will lose their jobs to other exploited workers. This is why density matters. This is what being on the offensive is also about: identifying targets, and how to affect them; and then having the means to move in.
RN Then you start mapping this universe onto the territory: which are the buildings with the highest density of workers? Who owns them, and what companies clean them? But also: what are the conditions and pay in this and that company?– Bearing in mind that even within a single company this can vary a lot.
VA Yes. So after a good deal of the research is done, the organisers move in. Hang out in front of the buildings to identify when shifts change, and try to speak to workers as they go in or out. Get more information about the workplace (how many people? how much do they make? where are most of the people from?), and start a conversation just by questioning the conditions they work in. They listen, talk about the reason for those conditions (lack of power), discuss possible solutions – this we call ‘agitation’. And then we pose the question, or they pose it themselves: what can we do about it? That’s when you tell them about the union, explain what the campaign is about, and show them that it’s not some pie-in-the-sky utopia, but something that has been done before and can be done again. Make them think about how the industry is organised, where the leverage is, who you need to put pressure on, and how the workers from different buildings can make it happen. If they’re up for it, you get their phone number and call them up again a few days later to arrange another meeting, see if they can bring some colleagues. If they do, you know they’re committed, and that’s where the organising begins.
After gaining critical mass in some key sites, you have organising committee meetings, which is where the organic leaders and activists from different places come together. For almost everyone it’s the first time they meet each other, and it’s very empowering to see other people who are in the same position, and that you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. It creates the feeling that sí, se puede! [‘yes, we can!’, slogan of J4J in the US, where the majority of members are Hispano-American]. At these meetings, people discuss and exchange information, including tips on how to talk to their colleagues, and plan next steps. It’s both a space for education and for strategy.
RN Even at this moment, the research element is still present – it only moves from the union researchers to the organisers and workers. A huge part of the organising work is mapping the social networks inside and around the workplace: finding out how many people there are in the workplace, where they are from, what languages they speak, how they feel about the campaign. Inside, you start working out who’s close to whom, who might be closer to management than to the other workers, who are the people that everyone respects, who are the people who are committed, who is indifferent, who is against the campaign. You keep charts and notebooks that are constantly updated, first by the organiser, then by the workplace leaders themselves.
VA Lots of people don’t like it when we speak of ‘leaders’ – they think we go around appointing our favourites. If it were that, there would be no future. It’s by mapping these social networks, as you said, that you identify organic leaders. We don’t appoint them, the other workers do.
RN They’re the point where these networks overlap, the most connected nodes.
VA And they can be for or against the union, or indifferent. If they’re against it, you need to try to make them neutral. And you need to find other people in that workplace who’ll be able to get everyone active.
This, like everything else in a campaign, is done incrementally. Has this person come to organising committee meetings? Then they’re obviously committed. Did they bring people with them? Then they’re capable of moving the others. It’s the same thing with actions: you start with something small, leafleting or a picket with the members of the organising committee. As the committee grows, you start planning bigger actions, and stressing to them that it’s their responsibility to make it grow, to get others active.
When the campaign kicks off, you must have a body of members ready for taking action, but you must keep an eye on many other variables. You need to find political support outside, among politicians too, but mostly the workers’ communities, religious groups etc. You must develop reliable media contacts, as well as prepare leaders to deal with the press. You must keep an eye on the agenda, because timing is crucial – like knowing how to exploit it when banks announce their annual bonuses, or taking advantage of symbolic dates. All these variables run in parallel lines, and you need to coordinate them in order to create a build-up, and get to the point where these companies are getting phone calls from members of the public, being criticised in the newspapers, having religious leaders turn up on their doorstep…
RN Or having their offices in several different countries visited on the same day…
VA Until it becomes unsustainable for them. Then when one of them folds, the whole industry in that city follows. Eventually all companies sign an agreement with the union. After that, the campaign is over and what we call ‘internal organising’ begins: absorbing the new members into the union, creating strong representative structures in every workplace – and hopefully, from the people who became involved in that campaign, some will become future leaders of the union.
RN You mentioned the communities; a lot of the mapping is about identifying which are the areas where large numbers of the workers live, which are the churches they go to, how their national or ethnic community is organised, what are the media of communication (newspapers, radios) the community has… Activating these transversal lines can produce support for the campaign, but can sometimes produce a lot more. In London the Justice for Cleaners campaign had a clear impact in groups working around migration; it created new possibilities, providing access to infrastructure, opening channels of communication between people inside and outside institutions. It’s still too early to say if it will have the same impact as J4J in the US, but one can see the differences – also in the fact that the union [Transport and General Workers’ Union, host of Justice for Cleaners] has become a lot more assertive in its defence of migrants, and taken a public position in favour of regularisation.
VA It depends on the context, too; in the US, very often we have members who already have a memory of struggle in their countries of origin. I worked with former Sandinistas, for example! Also black and Hispanic churches in the US have a long history of involvement in civil rights struggles, and are important nodes of political organisation in the community.”