01 May 2006

Wade Rathke Seminar - summary

Second Progressive Strategy Seminar
Wade Rathke, presenter

Progressive Strategy Studies Project
Commonwealth Institute, Cambridge, MA USA
12 October 2005

For the Second Progressive Strategy Seminar organized by the Progressive Strategy Studies Project Wade Rathke shared his views on the challenges facing the development and implementation of a progressive strategy. Wade Rathke is the founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 100, AFL-CIO.

Rathke addressed several major issues, including ACORN's direction, the critical challenges facing the progressive community (especially questions concerning method and resources), majority unionism and how it relates to ACORN's attempt to organize Wal-Mart, and the impact of Katrina on all of these aspects.

The core of Rathke's presentation and the discussion focused on the relationship between resources, organization and power. In the first part of his presentation, he contrasted the explosive growth of ACORN with the decline of most unions and the general crisis of the labor movement. Most unions continue to lose members at the same time as members' demands far outstrip organizational resources. From the very beginning, he emphasized what he sees as the core problem of the progressive community: A relative lack of power due to declining resources and hence organizational capacities.

In explaining the growth of ACORN, Rathke revealed himself as a pragmatic organizer. Speaking from his 35 years as an organizer, he emphasized that organizers essentially try out different methods and eventually go with the one(s) that works best. In his case, he focuses on increasing the number of dues-paying members and maintaining them in the organization as long as possible. All the different techniques for recruiting and maintaining members are geared towards achieving this overriding goal. The power of an organization in this sense is a function of the number of members and the amount of resources they contribute by paying their dues. The advantage of this quantitative approach is that it is measurable, and Rathke insisted how important it is to 'count heads', and at all times meticulously keep track of the quantitative development of the organization. He repeatedly emphasized the need to develop effective and scalable strategies based on 'majority unionism' that can be replicated in different organizations and contexts.

The success of an organization in this model thus depends on the number of its members, which determines its ability to achieve its objectives, which in turn motivates new members to join and old members to stay. Nothing succeeds like success.

[Comment: One of the major challenges facing many progressive organizations is declining membership and there is a critical question of how to recruit new members and maintain old members. As the discussion confirmed, this is one challenge to which progressives urgently need to learn to respond more effectively.]

In the second part of his presentation, he briefly described the great difficulties ACORN faces in organizing Wal-Mart, but also its tremendous and exciting potential - if successful - given the size and importance of Wal-Mart. Confronted with the business model on which Wal-Mart is based, traditional methods of union organizing are likely to be ineffective, and the challenge consists in beginning to organize Wal-Mart employees around issues outside of a traditional union context. ACORN is still exploring ways of exerting pressure outside of a collective bargaining regime. The particularly hostile environment at Wal-Mart requires thinking about new ways of responding to workers' interests and needs, such as lowering dues and developing new and more flexible forms of organizational membership. The minimum goal of the attempt to organize Wal-Mart should be to force the company to establish a fairer business model. At best, it will send a powerful message to the tens of millions of unorganized employees in other service sectors and create new momentum in attempts to organize them.

At the end of his presentation, while showing a number of slides illustrating the devastating impact of Katrina on ACORN's office and operations in New Orleans, he underlined the obligation and opportunity Katrina presents to move questions of race and class to the center stage of all progressive efforts, and emphasized its potential for developing a more effective national progressive strategy.


Beyond describing the immediate efforts of ACORN to become involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans, he had relatively little to say as to how this strategy might be pursued. Nevertheless, he concluded that there can be no effective progressive strategy without a vibrant labor movement.

In general, drawing upon his extensive operational experience, Rathke focused more on tactics and operations than strategy. It may be the case that for long-term organizers effective tactics tend to determine strategic priorities. This highlights the need to learn more about the relationship between tactics and strategy in general, and about how successful tactics sometimes drive and limit strategies.]

To conclude, what emerged from the presentation and discussion as the core challenge facing progressive strategy is the relative lack of power of the progressive community due to scarce and in many cases decreasing resources that significantly limit the capacities of existing organizations and the formation of new and stronger organizations. While this is hardly a new insight, its importance can hardly be overestimated, especially when it is identified by a successful long-time organizer and leader of one of the fastest growing progressive organizations in the country.

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