OK, picture this: we have a conservative Catholic who fasts and marches like he’s Ghandi. He courts progressive clerics and hires liberal Jews and alienated Anglos to mobilize immigrant Mexicans and Philipinos to fight Slavic and Italian growers. At first David slays Goliath, but then he morphs into King Lear and destroys his newly built kingdom amidst slaughter and recrimination. We’ve got side plot romances between devotees who work for $5/week and bad food trying to raise farmworker pay. We've got violent Teamster, UFW, and grower thugs straight out of the Sopranos. We've got a certifiably batshit human potential guru who wreaks havoc getting everyone to criticize everyone else. And under the carpet here somewhere, we may even have communists trying to advance a proletarian revolution without a proletariat. How can we miss?”Astonishingly, it is a true story and Bardacke delivers it with intelligence and compassion. Unique among labor historians, he grounds his analysis in “the work itself”, with brilliant, memorable descriptions of how different stages of production for different crops in different regions of California all affect the ability and willingness of different crews to self organize. He describes clearly why organizing was often sustained by the tight-knit, highly skilled lechugeuros or the celery cutters, not the garlic or asparagus workers or those in ladder crops. He describes the skill and endurance that the work requires, introduces leaders that arise from various crews, and captures in fine detail how they interact with a union that was built on a very different set of principles from farm work. In a decade spent organizing waiters, housekeepers, nurses, bartenders, machinists, cannery workers, and assembly workers, I observed precisely these differences. The work itself shapes our propensity to organize. Bardacke is the first writer to apply this principle to the fields and he does so with a deep understanding and compassion for the work.
Bringing an existing union into a workplace is an act of industrial combat not for the faint of heart -- but starting a new union from scratch is a herculean task that almost always fails. I started a company that has lasted more than a decade, a public agency that lasted three years, and a union (United Espresso Workers – I was a bit early) that lasted all of three weeks. With the proud exception of the United Farmworkers, I cannot think of a single independent union formed in the United States in the past 50 years that was not sponsored and controlled by an incumbent union (I can think of several that tried and died – but none who made it). This was not always true -- new unions once spawned regularly in the US. There are many reasons for the change, but the lack of competition between unions has positioned them nicely for extinction. Organizations evolve through the mutation, variation, and selection that is always produced by competition. The labor movement stopped growing the instant the AFL joined with the CIO and prohibited unions from competing with each other. When two teachers unions competed, both grew. The instant the Teamsters stopped raiding the UFW, growth stopped. I hated the Teamsters (who were kicked out of the AFL-CIO for corruption and are not subject to the noncompete provisions) and I took a nasty beating from them once, but like sharks or wolves, they have their place in the ecosystem. (I am aware of no union leader who agrees with this view, by the way. Most feel that they have all the competition they can handle from employers). But for a brief moment following the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a new labor union arose in the United States and in the least likely place. If you had asked in 1960 where in the economy a new union might appear, you would never have selected the farmworkers of California. Organizers prefer workers who are tied to one place and to one employer, not workers who are seasonal and often itinerant. Probably wrongly, organizers prefer workers who are covered by labor laws, which had always exempted farmworkers. Organizers like English-speaking Americans, not Tagalog or Spanish-speaking immigrants or Braceros who are tolerated for a season then ushered back to Mexico. A dozen or so failed efforts by farmworkers to form agricultural unions seemed to validate Marx and Lenin’s belief that workers would organize once they were forced into factories and worked for a single employer. Bardacke demonstrates that Cesar Chavez succeeded in organizing farmworkers because he was, at heart, a brilliant and hard-working Alinksy-trained community organizer. As a community organizer, Chavez pioneered an enormous innovation that had the potential to transform labor organizing: he mastered the secondary boycott (illegal for most workers under the federal labor law, which thoughtfully excludes farmworkers). Chavez tirelessly organized enormous boycott operations in grapes, lettuce, and against major retailers including Safeway. Farmworker boycotts were the Occupy movement of the 70s and 80s – a way for college students, community activists, and middle class young people to participate directly in the tough work of social change. And credit Chavez's brilliant leadership, it worked magnificently: faced with effective boycotts, growers raised wages and improved working conditions and politicians begged the army of grass-roots Chavistas to help register voters and turn them out on election day. The UFW became a powerful force for social change.
But the UFW was only briefly a powerful labor union. Bardacke correctly diagnoses the boycott as creating a formidable tension within the UFW. He frames the tension between labor and boycott organizing as a struggle between the "two souls" of the UFW. The metaphor is fraught. As Bardacke demonstrates, the UFW collapses not because it has two souls, but because none of its activities were organized, financed, or led in a manner that enable them to grow. The problem is not that community organizing is a distraction -- most American labor unions lack a community service organization and are much the weaker for it. This is tragic: having discovered and refined one of the few recent innovations in union organizing, Chavez cannot let it grow. Instead, he strangles his own child. One of the heros of Bardacke’s book is Marshall Ganz, one of America's most innovative labor organizers. Ganz also dropped out of Harvard, but moved south to organize for civil rights before heading west. After his exile from the UFW, Ganz helped the Silicon Valley Central Labor Council build a powerful neighborhood-based political organization for the 1984 elections. He was terrific at posing fundamental questions – and at directing me and others to writers and thinkers who helped answer them. In 1984 he urged me to read, of all things, a business book, In Search of Excellence. I quickly developed an appetite for business writing. decided to get trained in it, and ended up working with the book’s authors. Marshall returned to Harvard, got his degree after a 28 year hiatus, and now teaches at the Kennedy School. (His version of the UFW story, told in Why David Sometimes Wins, is a fine companion volume. It suffers for being his PhD dissertation and dwells more deeply on theories of organizing and less on the dynamics of local struggles). So let’s ask a Marshall Ganz-like question: what does it take for an organization to grow successfully? Venture capitalists, a group not deeply concerned with the welfare of those who produce their salads, obsess about this question. There are at least as many answers as there are VCs, but common elements include:
- A big market. If there is not substantial demand for the product or service an organization produces, the organization cannot get very big.
- Positive unit economics. If serving one more person imposes more cost on the organization than it generates in revenue, then growth makes no economic sense and the organization will depend for growth on funding from charity or government. Anyone can sell a dime for a nickel; selling a nickel for a dime means that an organization has to add at least a nickel’s worth of value if it wants to grow.
- Customer or member acquisition costs that scale. Every organization has a cost of acquiring a customer that must be repaid over the lifetime of that customer or member. Smart organizations exhibit declining COA: the cost of acquiring each incremental customer declines with scale. Very smart organizations (and effective social movements) are viral: COA approaches zero as current participants recruit new ones. See Facebook, Google, or Arab Spring.
- Leadership. Growth is very, very demanding on an organization. Everyone in a fast-growing organization has to grow with it: jobs change radically every few months. Not everyone grows at the same pace, so leaders must recruit furiously, communicate direction and values continually, promote and replace people regularly, and test what works all the time. It is stressful and a lot of fun – ask anyone who has been involved in a fast-growing company, boycott, strike, or organizing campaign.
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