In mid-April 2020, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (RLS) concluded its second online seminar series under the banner “Organizing for Power” (O4P). This ongoing project began in late 2019 with a four-part class, led by labor activist Jane McAlevey, that distilled organizing techniques and strategies core to winning power in the workplace and beyond. While open to all groups, the course was intended especially for organizers seeking to build high participation unions with super majorities of actively engaged workers. These were pre-Corona days, when largescale online seminars were still something of an oddity, and none of us knew exactly what to expect.
Tsafrir Cohen is the head of office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in London. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ethan Earle is a Paris-based political consultant who collaborates regularly with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, including as part of the O4P organizing team. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Fanni Stolz works on class politics, organizing and international unions at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis in Berlin. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The response from our extended political networks was overwhelming. With minimal advertising over two weeks’ time, thousands of people from forty-one countries registered to participate. In our outreach, we strongly encouraged people to participate not as individuals but together, with groups of fellow organizers. After all, organizing is a group activity, and organizing for power requires numbers. The result was much more than the sum of its registrants. Groups of 5, 15, up to 50 organizers piled into rooms, using a single participant link but working together on in-class exercises to identify organic leaders and choose the right words for one-on-one conversations.
We originally intended to follow this first online seminar with another that would be planned on a longer timeline to give our participants enough space to prepare their networks. Then came the Coronavirus. By mid-March it was clear that everything had changed, and that it was up to us to meet the moment. Frontline workers rushed to save lives while organizing to protect their workplace safety. Many in the broader international left community began to worry about the struggles to come, in the aftermath of the crisis, when disaster capitalists would come to get even richer by making the poor pay the costs of reconstruction. We threw our original blueprint out the window and immediately began to prepare our most recent online seminar, “Organizing for Power: Coronavirus and Everything After.”
This time, for obvious COVID-related reasons, our participants couldn’t take part in the online seminar while seated in the same room with fellow organizers. Yet, the Coronavirus crisis has had a strange way of bringing us together even while confined in our own homes. Once again, thousands of people from dozens of countries took part, many using WhatsApp, Telegram, or other messaging services to communicate with their comrades. Over four sessions spanning from late-March to early-April, in settings ranging from largescale plenaries to three-person breakout groups, we discussed how to tie together the organizing taking place right now to save lives with the organizing that will be needed to fight the austerity vultures already circling above our heads. Now concluded, the question is what comes next?
One clear result, based on the detailed feedback of nearly a thousand participants, is that people want more of this. People are scared right now, and angry, and they want to de
velop the tools and networks needed to fight back against the depredations of capitalism that have allowed this crisis to fester in poor and working class communities, that threaten to punish these same frontline communities to restore an economic order designed for and by the 1%.
Another clear result, echoed by representatives from the dozens of trade unions that participated, is that any continuation must be structured in such a way that it brings in new organizers, develops the skills of mid-level organizers, and provides a space for lead organizers to grow, connect and strategize. While it can be perfectly okay to let a hundred flowers blossom, the valley of online seminars is vast and growing, and without building greenhouses to cultivate these blossoms in a shared ecosystem, all our brilliant colors will fail to amass into something more threatening to our opponents.
Based on this feedback, we are planning a series of complementary online seminars starting in the summer and continuing through the fall. The first will be a “train the trainer” program, in which experienced organizers will learn to share their skills in different organizing contexts. This will be followed by a largescale “Strike School”, again led by Jane McAlevey, where thousands of organizers from around the world will come together to learn how to harness the power of the strike. The Strike School will deepen the breakout methodology begun this April, with participants meeting in smaller groups according to language or sector, where they will have the chance to practice, share learnings and work with different trainers. At the conclusion of Strike School, participants will be invited to apply for other, more advanced trainings on subjects such as big and open organizing. (To find out more or to get involved in any of these programs, contact Ethan Earle)
As with any project intending to have a concrete political impact, crucial to our online seminar series is the way in which we build it. Over these past months, Organizing for Power has contributed to the development of real organizing networks—both among the thousands of people who participated and the dozens of advanced organizers who assisted in its planning and trainings. This latter group will gradually take leadership as the project matures, and all of our participants will continue to receive support to develop clusters of organizers around the world capable of acting with their own agency and autonomy. One spin-off project formed of O4P clusters may focus more exclusively on the threats to educators in the pandemic and beyond. Another might emphasize the particular organizing challenges in a different sector or region of the world. Some of these may be led by RLS, others merely accompanied, and still others will branch off entirely and take on lives of their own. The result is a project that has a clearly defined structure but also creates space for organic growth.
In the first weeks after the scale of the COVID-19 crisis began to set in, there was a collective sprint among all sorts of organizations to take their operations online, often in the form of online seminars. That immediacy has now diminished, but the importance of shifting to online modalities has not. To the contrary, it is increasingly clear that this sprint represented the first steps in what will be a marathon, and that online training programs will continue to grow in importance for the foreseeable future. In this context, it behooves us to train like marathon runners, thinking not just about this kilometer but the next, and the one after that, all the while keeping in focus that we do have specific goals, that we are racing against others and toward something.
In many ways, RLS is well suited for this marathon. Its commitment to democratic socialism and clear political agenda provides it with an important guiding star and sense of purpose; while its institutional stability permits it to project into the future and build structures to sustain itself and even improve as the marathon goes along. As such, Organizing for Power is well suited for RLS, and vice versa. The same could be said for other educational and networking-building projects, and we hope that the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung seeks to replicate and expand on this successful model in other areas of its political work. After all, the COVID-19 crisis is a multi-fold crisis, revealing a world stretched to its limits along multiple axes by unfettered neoliberalism. Our response must be every bit as multi-fold, and it must be dexterous, innovative and bold in its approach to the struggles to come in the post-COVID world.