Factory Invasions & Organizing from Within

I’m still going through the fabulous 68 survey responses I’ve gotten so far and will find some way to put up some of the amazing things folks are saying probably by Sunday 5/3.  In the meantime, here’s some thoughts on “factory invasions” and organizing from within.

redtidencThere are a lot of older activists still around Greensboro, NC, where I live, who came out of the vibrant civil rights and black power movements, and turned to communism in the 1970s. Many of them (former college students and even sometimes doctors) went to work in textile mills and tobacco factories so they could organize workers towards challenging capitalism. I’ve heard this affectionately called “factory invasions” and “factory colonization.” Pretty intense language, but it seems to be what the folks who did it called it.  They had some success bringing together multi-racial coalitions of workers to fight for change, until the KKK and Naziis attacked a 1979 demonstration and killed five organizers.  Greensboro had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission process about that horrific incident, and you can read some about it in Through Survivor’s Eyes and Love and Revolution, both by survivors of the attacks.

Of the folks I can think of in Greensboro who went to work in factories as communist organizers and survived the massacre, these days one is a pastor, one is the director of a grassroots non-profit, one recently retired from a tobacco factory, one used to be an organic farmer, one works for a housing advocacy group.  Interestingly, most of the white  folks seem to have left Greensboro and many went on to university jobs.   I’m hoping to interview some of these various folks about what it was like working and organizing in the factories, why they did it, what they think about it in retrospect, and what kinds of work they did after that. Stay tuned for an interview like that in the next month or so.

revairMax Elbaum’s book Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che talks a bit about how members of the New Communist Movement came to work in factories, but spends more time talking about their work transitions after the “collapse of communism” in the US. He describes how former cadre members “readjusted to civilian life,” saying that they both struggled with finding a way to pay the bills, and looked for ways to continue with progressive activism. Those with race and class privilege tended to attempt to move back into the middle-class life they had turned away from, while those with working class backgrounds were more likely to continue in working class jobs, though some used skills developed in the movement to move in to professional jobs (307-313). Part of it is posted at google books.

I don’t know of anyone actively pursuing “factory invasions” today, do you? It does come across as somewhat paternalistic to me….but I’ll be curious to hear more from the perspective of someone who actually did it. And not all the folks who did it were middle class students, some were working class radicals who chose to stay in working class jobs and organize, instead of try to claw their ways in to the university. I know at the time, they all felt like revolution was right around the corner, so it made sense.  How effective was it?  How did the “invaders” relate with the folks previously working there? Do the folks who did it then think it was effective when they look back? Hopefully I’ll have more ideas after I do some interviews.

saltshakerEven though factory invasions don’t seem to be an option folks today think of much, there are some current ways that people try to organize from within. Though usually not attempting to challenge capitalism, unions use “salting” sometimes to get organizers on the inside. In a section of their website on the practice, the IWW says: “”Salting” is the deliberate act of getting a job at a specific workplace with the intent to organize a union.” A friend of mine went to a training for potential “salts” with a mainstream union in Philly, but ended up deciding it wasn’t for him (too much heterosexism, among other things). Has anyone out there worked as a “salt”? How did you like it?

lt29smallAnother example of organizing from within comes from a group of teachers in LA who wrote an article for Left Turn magazine about their efforts to push their union towards more progressive politics. They put together a platform and elected a full slate of candidates, working in coalition with parents and communities to challenge racism, classism, standardization of curriculum, and worsening school conditions. The first paragraph of the article, titled “Transforming Our Union,” is on the Left Turn website. Its worth buying a copy of the magazine to read that article if you’re interested – Left Turn is great!

Of course, some people end up organizing their workplaces without having applied for the job intending to do so – most union campaigns are only won because workers who weren’t previously organizers believed in the struggle and began organizing their fellow workers – so its not just (or even mostly) college educated people, like most of the older folks I know in Greensboro, who end up playing that role.

What do you think of the “factory invasion” phenomenon of the new communists of the 1970s and 1980s? What about salting, teacher organizing or other examples of organizing from within that happen today? Have you had a job where you organized from within formally or informally? How did it go?  How does this option appeal to you as you think about your own “honest living” dilemmas?


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