Put Organizing Before Organization

gasparazzoAs published in Viewpoint Magazine, Issue 3: Workers’ Inquiry | August 19, 2013
Reposted with permission by the authors

We are still find­ing lessons from the last cycle of California’s stu­dent strug­gle. Among them, the need for chan­nels of stu­dent com­mu­ni­ca­tion, an orga­ni­za­tion that could reg­is­ter and rec­ol­lect insur­gent knowl­edges to guard against the dan­gers of under­grad­u­ate turnover and oppor­tunist inten­tions. In the fall of 2011 and again in the spring of 2012, the strug­gle was ani­mated by rad­i­cal rank-and-file activ­ity, even when it was directed by the lack­eys of the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. And not once, but twice, did they sell out those same stu­dents for a pretty pic­ture in the newspaper.

It is true that the con­struc­tion of the Cal­i­for­nia Stu­dent Union (CASU) began after the high point of strug­gle in the uni­ver­si­ties. But, unfor­tu­nately, this was not the only event that had cast its shadow over our union build­ing. In the same spring of the first CASU con­fer­ence, we learned about the mas­sive stu­dent union in Que­bec, and their strike against tuition and state repres­sion (behind every fee hike, a line of riot cops). CASU has inher­ited Que­bec, and more recently Chile, as not only union mod­els wor­thy of rep­e­ti­tion, but as goals to reach in their own right. Next steps are fre­quently dis­cussed in ref­er­ence to our Cana­dian coun­ter­part, and the pur­pose of the union itself often amounts to a tac­tic, albeit a suc­cess­ful one, employed by the unions: a gen­eral strike.

The debates we’ve been hav­ing over hor­i­zon­tal­ity and cen­tral­iza­tion have an impor­tant part in move­ment build­ing, but argu­ments over orga­ni­za­tion have become a sub­sti­tute for orga­niz­ing the thou­sands of stu­dents across this state. The fact is that these con­ver­sa­tions are not a pre­req­ui­site to the hard work of build­ing a base and grow­ing power. Some­times, they’re even counterproductive.

Instead, CASU’s Regional and statewide meet­ings could be spent learn­ing about the con­di­tions we share across cam­puses and the posi­tions par­tic­u­lar to us. We could dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship of indi­vid­ual orga­niz­ers to the diverse stu­dent bod­ies they hail from, and talk about strate­gies to build a base back at home. Instead, we’re obsessed with the bylaws of a rel­a­tively mar­ginal orga­ni­za­tion, and the pro­ce­dure for a pos­si­ble strike vote, while we con­sis­tently gloss over what col­lab­o­ra­tion will look like in the six months before our next meet­ing. Maybe it’s time to reverse pri­or­i­ties; per­haps our con­ver­sa­tions about struc­ture could be informed by our strat­egy for grow­ing the union across dif­fer­ent campuses.

The authors do not believe the cur­rent strat­egy will not suc­cess­fully build a union; stu­dents will not flock to an orga­ni­za­tion because it is an amal­ga­ma­tion of the rad­i­cals on other cam­puses across the state. They will join a union when the orga­ni­za­tion pro­vides a way to advance the strug­gles stu­dents are always, already involved in. We need to stop pre­tend­ing that CLASSE has all the answers; our asso­ci­a­tion will be won by read­ing the ped­a­go­gies of the poor and pissed off in our own class­rooms. What are our cam­puses fight­ing against, and how can we join that fight? We need shop stew­ards in every edu­ca­tion strug­gle across the state.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a time and a place for con­ver­sa­tions about struc­ture; in fact, his­tory shows that they’re impor­tant. Union­ists in Canada stress the impor­tance of cod­i­fy­ing the improb­a­bil­ity of bureau­cracy through an insis­tence on the demo­c­ra­tic char­ac­ter of the orga­ni­za­tion. But we should remem­ber that the stan­dards of trans­parency and direct democ­racy that CASU has cor­rectly adhered to does not guard against all forms of bureau­cracy. When CASU’s active par­tic­i­pants shrink, our con­struc­tions become obstructed from the view of stu­dents strug­gling with debt, learn­ing, police, and work in our schools. This becomes a cycli­cal process of grow­ing irrel­e­vance. When we obsess more over mim­ic­k­ing the struc­ture of other orga­ni­za­tions than we do learn­ing about what will empower us and oth­ers across Cal­i­for­nia, we’re just doom­ing our own association.

Under­grad­u­ate Union­ists Around Santa Cruz and Beyond


One thought on “Put Organizing Before Organization

  1. Well-said, both in accenting the positive and critiquing strategic limitations.

    While knowledge of history and global perspectives are useful analytically, our value as a formation comes from engaged praxis. As the microcosm reflects the macro, simply discussing lived experiences of school/college/university with other students can be more than enough to catalyze critical consciousness, or even politicize outright, and helps develop a sense of intersubjectivity in solidarity.

    Would be VERY curious to hear what a “Voices Of”-type oral history of CASU through members’ personal stories might sound like, composed of students speaking about their experiences with formal education.

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