The Agonizers

Eric Mann.  Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer.  Beacon Press, 2011.

“Agonizer” was the term an old girlfriend of mine from my vanguard organization days used to describe the branch organizer for the party.  An apt description for someone tasked to do the thankless job of running meetings, setting schedules, and seeing that assignments were carried out, all in a voluntary group whose members were always stretched thin.

Eric Mann’s new book on organizing comes out at an interesting time for this topic.  After all, we are now in the age of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), whose model is the horizontal General Assembly which strives to have no “leaders.”  “We are all leaders” is the mantra.  However agonizing the process of getting a consensus decision out of a GA, it still takes someone to do the agonizing follow-up and see that what was decided gets done.

Aspiring for a more accountable and democratic way of functioning doesn’t change this hard reality.  Mann, a veteran of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the labor movement, and community organizing, tries to summarize the qualities needed in the individual thrust into this activist role.

Mann divides the book into two parts, first “The Job Description: the 12 Roles of the Successful Organizer,” then “The Qualities: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer.”  That’s a lot of roles and qualities, enough to make many of us hang it up right there.  “My name is Jon, not Jesus” as I am wont to say to my foreman when he wants a locomotive out the door in 15 minutes.

You needn’t be intimidated, however.  If you are a good agitator but want to work on your strategic skills, skip right to that part.  If you are courageous to the point of being foolhardy, but a bit lazy, check out the chapter on a “Strong Work Ethic.”  Mann has something for all of us in his 207 pages.

Personally, as a former Teamster bus driver who found it necessary to mobilize and organize passengers to oppose cuts in service, I am attracted to Mann’s account of the battles of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union.  Here is a real success story about organizing a largely African-American and third-world passengers of a transit system that sought to consign them to second-class status, while the transit agency spent its money on expensive rail service for wealthy suburbanites.  The bus riders union was able to force the agency to buy several thousand new natural gas buses to replace an aging fleet of diesel buses.  This campaign should be studied by anyone interested in the vital topic of mass transit, and the book is worth reading for this issue alone.

Mann is after more than just an organizing manual, however.  He wants to see “transformative organizing” which he describes as “. . . recruiting masses of people to fight militantly for immediate concrete demands that have to be won . . . but always as part of a larger strategy to change structural conditions in the world.”

Here’s where some agonizing comes into play.  How do we do that?  How does opposing de jure racism in a transit system transform people into supporters of labor struggles?  How do we transform the always temporary triumphs of new buses or postponed plant closings into permanent victories?

Mann peppers his book with stories of individuals who made a difference, but only now that the Occupations have burst on the international scene do we get a glimpse of the possibility of a global movement encompassing, and taking to a new level, all the issues that Mann the organizer struggled with in the past forty years.

The challenge for this new generation cutting their political teeth in the tent cities around the world will be to learn the lessons Mann tries to teach in this book.  One of the most important?  “Transformative organizers,” Mann says, “know a most precious truth: that much of the deepest healing, transformation and rejuvenation comes from within the work itself.”

While we know that there has been much “agonizing” around the campfires of the Occupations, we also can be sure that a new cohort of organizers has emerged, ready to pick up where Mann’s organizers of the late twentieth century left off.  This book is one for the occupiers’ libraries.

Jon Flanders is a member and former president of IAM LL 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO. 

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