Still Time to Step Up: Reflections on Marshall Ganz’s Organising Method

Last year in the wake of the surprise election of the current Tory government, while the rest of the Left were in mourning over the results, we argued that this was a time to “step up”. We said then that advancing and improving our organising culture within a growing, and still consistently growing, IWW membership was our best resource in attempting to swim against the tide. The European Union referendum of 2016 and the majority vote for Brexit it delivered has heightened the sense of urgency to our call. Nationalistic and anti-migrant sentiments of the populist right are finding fertile soil in white working class communities devastated by decades of de-industrialisation, under-investment and cuts to social welfare and housing. Racist attacks against migrants and people of colour spiked following the referendum result as fascists and xenophobes have felt embolden by the popular sentiments. Theresa May’s post-Brexit Cabinet is one of the most right-wing and anti-working class in over two decades. We could be entering an era of very nasty politics and in response we need to step up now and we need to step up big.

In the UK a lot of the IWW’s membership is concentrated in urban centres the majority of which are cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and, in terms of the referendum, largely voted “remain”. This is the case for much of the radical Left and in some ways is not very surprising. The general cultural and political composition means that these are excellent areas for the IWW to thrive and grow. The looming challenge that faces us, however, is in reaching beyond these cosmopolitan centres to localities and industries that have been hit hard by the financial crisis and austerity policies but where we have no current social or geographical base. Outreach work of this kind requires a heavy investment of time and resources and if we aim to scale up our efforts in this way we need to be sure that our organising approaches are at their best – effective, replicable and reproducible.

Our own “Workplace Organiser 101” programme provides an excellent methodology for members to initiate and organise campaigns in their own workplaces. Where we have a current gap in our knowledge is understanding how we can effectively reach out to sectors where we currently don’t have a membership or conduct outreach based on a more geographical basis. It was in discussing this question that I was referred by a friendly organiser to the writings of Marshall Ganz and his organiser program. As a result over the past few weeks I have been reviewing the lectures which compose his graduate course at Harvard University on “People, Power and Change” (these lectures are hosted on YouTube by Ganz’s organisiation ‘The Leading Change Network’).

Ganz offers a number of important insights that I believe map nicely on to some of the lessons and exercises that compose our own “Workplace Organiser 101”. I don’t intend to outline every aspect of the course here, I would encourage you to watch the lectures for that or follow some of the links to further reading material below, but instead highlight some significant features that I believe Wobbly organisers can integrate into their own method. This is particularly when considering outreach work and “green fields” organising in new localities and industries. Most notably he offers a model of leadership and leadership education that, if applied effectively, could help better activate members and supporters throughout the union to grow the IWW. My hope is that such reflections will spark enough interest in fellow organisers that they will initiate their own research into this area and we can start to develop and deepen our education of members across the union. Ganz’s method is by no means perfect and aspects of his ideas present as problematic from an anti-capitalist perspective. Other writers and organisers have also noted some practical concerns worthy of serious review. In the interests of length, however, I have reserved these criticisms for a forthcoming piece taking a more critical approach Ganz’s method and legacy.

The Emotional Dimension of Organising

Ganz, a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Sociology Department at Harvard, has a long history as an activist and organiser within student, protest and civil rights movements stretching back to the 1960s. He is remembered as a well-respected organiser within the United Farm Workers, which he was involved in for almost 16 years and was appointed as Director or Organising for half of his time there. More recently, he and his ideas have become associated with the successful 2008 Presidential campaign of Barack Obama and his movement-like approach to voter mobilisation in the lead up to that election.

A unique feature of Ganz’s approach is his integration of a number of psychological and sociological theories concerning group and individual behaviour, attitudes and motivation. One of Ganz’s main contentions is that while cognitive/theoretical approaches to organisation are important, i.e. the intellectual rationale behind the purpose and goals of collective action, there is an equally relevant emotional dimension to our individual perception of group behaviour. Humans are not purely rational, calculating beings but also map the world emotionally, e.g. “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, “this worries me”, “I find this stressful” etc. He argues that reasoning why an action might be successful, e.g. “if we all go on strike together we will win higher wages”, does not always tell you why it is a meaningful action or why you should care about it. Only by attaching emotional content to an action does it become truly meaningful to the people involved. That is not to say that feelings and states of mind should be privileged over cognitive readings of a particular situation, rather he argues that we need to acknowledge that emotional information is also a significant aspect of our value judgements. For this reason Ganz recommends that organisers promote emotions and states of mind that facilitate mindful action on the part of co-organisers and movement participants and make them more empowered to participate in social change.

An illustrative example of how Ganz’s theories may be applied to our own organising tradition might be the way the concept of “solidarity” has worked within IWW ideas and actions. Workplace solidarity is often argued from the basis of the individual and collective self-interest, particularly economic self-interest. Increased solidarity amongst workmates allows a shift in the balance of power away from the boss and towards the workforce which in turn allows workers to more successfully pursue their collective interests against their employers. On a larger scale the transformative goals of the IWW can be sketched out on a comparable basis, as workers gain greater collective power they are able to start playing a more socially transformative role forming the structure of a new society that conforms to workers’ interests in their own reproduction more widely – possession of the means of production, the abolition of the wage system and living in harmony with the Earth.

The issue that Ganz’s theories raise is whether these arguments alone fully explain why people act in solidarity with each other? When starving workers have refused to cross picket lines, for example, is it because of an intellectual vision of the future or is it because of a sense of duty, trust and hopefulness towards their fellow workers and their struggles? The reality is that while the intellectual arguments contained in the IWW’s Preamble play an important role in rationalising the actions of the union, the union itself fosters a collective sense of belonging, community and hopefulness through the experiences of collective struggle and shared experience. Any organiser who has suffered “burn out” from a campaign will likely identify the absence of these kind of supportive structures, practical but also emotional, as a key contributor to losing the will to continue on, even if they know that the arguments themselves for action are still sound.

The union has also developed its own positive emotional language, what Ganz calls “action motivators” (see table A), which have played a role in the promotion of solidarity within the IWWs history. There are undoubtedly many examples to draw from such a rich and varied history, but one notable example could be in the tradition of the IWW’s songs. Think of the significance that collective singing has played on picket lines, marches and in union halls in bringing people together in times of adversity or just showing common strength and cause. Why, for example, is it that in the “little red songbook” Joe Hill describes the workers’ commonwealth as not only a place of equality and fairness but also of “beauty” and “health”? The answer is simple, because hearts do starve as well as bodies and if a movement is going to successfully motivate individuals to act on its ideas it needs to provide a hopeful and positive vision of the future to make those actions meaningful and valuable.

A. Action motivators and action inhibitors


Note – Y.C.M.A.D. = You Can Make A Difference

The Nuts and Bolts

The above provides a bit of theoretical grounding for Ganz’s approach. This is undoubtedly useful to reflect on but the real value of his ideas is in how these concepts can be practically applied into organising method. Like I said above, I don’t intend to present a complete summary here. Instead what follows are some insights on significant aspects of his method that strike me as most useful to IWW organisers.

Failing Well (and avoiding burnout)

Burnout is cited as one of the most common causes of organisers stopping being active participants in campaigns. Burnout can have many causes, and some may be completely out of control of the union, but one of the main sources is the pressures and stresses associated with the responsibilities of heading up an organising drive. Burnout, then, presents not just a challenge in terms of member well-being but in terms of the union’s capacity to provide capable leadership on the ground. Yet, Ganz argues, we have an important paradox here, for while fear of failure or letting your members and co-organisers down may be a central cause of the stress associated with organising, failure itself is an invaluable asset to any successful organisation. Failure provides invaluable insights into organisational, strategic and tactical weaknesses, as well as critical points of reflection for improving the practice of organisers. The mark of the most successful and robust organisations, Ganz contends, is not the number of successes they can tot up on their score sheets but how well they handle failure.

When delivering the IWW Workplace Organiser training I often, in a tongue-in-cheek way, cite the famous words of the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder when concerning military planning that, “no plan survives contact with the enemy” (or more accurately, “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”). It may seem esoteric but the point is simple, as much as you plan and prepare for a campaign you cannot possibly anticipate all outcomes. The reality is that planning is best seen as ongoing, cyclical and a learning process. Setting up a plan and doggedly seeing it through to the end is a sure fire way of de-motivating and de-mobilising organisers. Alternatively, cycles of reflection, review and re-appraisal allow organisers to meet and evaluate unanticipated outcomes. This way failures, and their acknowledgement, become part of the refinement of organising practice and not a recipe for dooming the campaign. Ganz suggests that this process of review may in fact be more important than the original strategic planning as re-evaluations are better based on the reality of the situation than the kind of educated guess work that tends to sketch out the projected course of a campaign prior to its launch.

Social Leadership and Good Leadership

Ganz frequently uses the term “leadership” throughout his writings. This concept obviously can have multiple meanings and is in need of clarification. Ganz’s model of leadership is essentially a de-centred one. Throughout his lectures and writings he refers to the “snowflake model” as an illustration of what he sees as good and bad leadership practice (see diagram B). Undoubtedly different organisations will apply this in alternative ways but in principle Ganz’s ideal model of leadership conforms to the established Wobbly practice of “replacing yourself”. In short that a good leader, and a good organiser, aims to train further leaders and organisers making a reliance on the “centre” increasingly redundant. They then go on to educate and empower others, forming a network of leadership or organiser teams. This is distinct from a hierarchical model of leadership which operates on a pure command structure from leader to follower. It is also distinct from a more horizontalist or consensus-based model of organisation where responsibility is diffused amongst a collective of individuals. Ganz, for example, describes his key revelation when active in the civil rights movement that he “wasn’t going to be organising 500,000 people”, his job was to “find people to do it”.  Central then to Ganz’s model of good leadership is the goal of building “leadership-rich” campaigns. Leadership-rich campaigns have the freedom, resources and capacity to act by organising around bottlenecks that may exist in other models of organisation.

B. The Snowflake Model


Our own organiser training programme teaches the importance of leadership and particularly social leadership within a workplace. Workplace and social mapping, for example, allows organisers to place themselves within a matrix of relationships that exist in the area that they aim to organise, identifying individuals who have influence or are influenced by the actions and opinions of others. Identifying social leaders is a vital tool for any organiser hoping to build positive relationships amongst workmates as the basis of a campaign. The novelty and value of Ganz’s approach for us is clarifying what a model of good leadership constitutes beyond the qualities of social influence that are exercised by a social leader. Undoubtedly it is important that organisers are respected and listened to, that they are and have the support of social leaders, but they also need to do much more than this to grow their campaigns.

Ganz argues that a key quality of successful leadership is an emotional and strategic capacity to meet unexpected, novel and ambiguous challenges. It is very difficult to teach this quality but what trainers and organisers can do is try to resource their campaigns so they have the best possible chances of meeting this challenge. For Ganz, coaching is an integral resource in this respect. By coaching he would include the kind of “replace yourself” practices that IWW organisers would advocate of passing on skills, resources and organisational expertise through training. He would also, however, argue that coaching, and by extension good leadership has equally important emotional qualities as well. The best coaching is not about advice giving at all but about enabling the motivation of co-organisers. In other words, not telling them what to do but empowering them to act for themselves. Good leaders should seek to identify inhibitors to motivation that may exist within a campaign – whether it is emotional, informational or strategic – and bring together resources that will help to meet these challenges. This strikes me as a far richer understanding of the more positive qualities of social leadership that are useful in driving forward a campaign in addition to moving towards a more diffused model of leadership based on networks of support.

Public narrative

The presentation of a campaign and its goals – its “public face” – is an integral part of Ganz’s organiser course. It may seem, on surface at least, that these kind of skills are more relevant to single issue campaigns which focus principally on altering public attitudes and opinion. However, as any organiser will know who has taken a campaign public, support from the wider community (and particularly in our current economy organising with workers in chains and franchises with multiple sites) the way that the activities of the union are perceived by the wider public can prove to be a critical factor. In an age increasingly driven by information, connectivity and social media narrative is also an important recruitment tool as many people will discover the union for the first time indirectly – through websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

Ganz’s first recommendation is to seek clarity. All participants in his organiser course are asked to write “organising sentences”. These are simple and straightforward summaries of what the principal aims of the campaign are. The idea being that if you cannot clearly articulate what your goals are to yourself then you will struggle to communicate these on to both the people you hope to organise and the wider public. Organising sentences attempt to address another common and repeated flaw amongst social justice activists of putting tactics ahead or instead of strategy and objectives. Ganz reminds us of the original Greek meanings of these two terms – the strategos, the military general who directs the army to victory from the top of the hill and the taktos, the actual orders given to the troops concerning their arrangement on the field of battle. A strategy is an understanding of who is being organised and to what ultimate end, tactics is how you get there. An example of a recent movement that falls foul of this formula would by ‘Occupy’ where the tactic of occupying public squares and spaces drove the formation of the movement and were put ahead of less clear objectives of opposing austerity and economic inequality.

Good organising sentences should be driven by objectives and goals, setting out clear parameters of who is going to be organised and what they aim to achieve. Ganz’s suggestion is that they follow the following formula:

“I am organising ______________ (Who: Constituency) to do __________________________ (What: goal) by _______________________ (When: date)”

In the IWW we have a very clear “macro-narrative” of what we aim to achieve, through who and how in the form of the preamble – “the employing class and the working class have nothing in common”, “an organisation formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry”, “the workers of the world must take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system and live in harmony with the Earth” etc. Where Ganz offers some guidance in terms of further refinement would be in making sure these ideas are consistently applied in our campaigns. There are some very positive examples of this throughout the union already, in the Starbucks Workers Union, Pizza Hut Workers Union and more recently the Burgerville Union. It is, however, often easier to bring out these features in long-term and large-scale campaigns like these. We need to share best practice from these public campaigns and make sure they exist in all aspects of IWW thinking and organising no matter how large or small.

It is also important to turn to the values behind a campaign message and how it presents those values to its wider constituency. While strategy fills the cognitive aspect of organising, as was discussed above, the public narrative also needs a corresponding emotional content that makes the actions involved in it appear worthwhile.  Even with the best strategy in the world if your message is not going to involve, engage and excite your organising base your efforts are largely redundant. Ganz is keen to emphasise the importance of story-telling for effective political communication in this respect. He argues that stories should not just be dismissed as a means of entertainment. There’s a reason why, for example, many of the moral lessons we transmit to children come in story form. Stories can present a powerful educational tool because they not only transmit a message, a “moral” but they also present to the listener a model of how to make meaningful choices. A protagonist is typically not simply represented as a model of ideal behaviour to copy but will face specific challenges that they must overcome through the course of the story (see diagram C). It is their resilience in the face of such challenges, and a willingness persevere in the face of them, that models the kind of resilience, Ganz argues, needed to cope with adversity and have moral authority in the eyes of others. Good protagonists model positive leadership qualities as well as the emotional states that makes facing and overcoming a challenge seem plausible. Ganz’s contention then is that effective campaign presentation adapts the best qualities of good story-telling.

C. Narrative Structure


In the IWW we utilise the power of story-telling already in our “March on the Boss” technique where personal and emotional testimony form a significant feature of the demands that are put to an employer. This fills out the emotional content of the “story” of our struggles with our bosses’ actions and applies pressure on them to meet our demands. There are also other noteworthy examples in recent campaigns of the power of story-telling as an effective tool for communication and recruitment. Burgerville Workers’ Union has done a fantastic job of telling (what Ganz would call) their “story of self” in terms of getting across the challenges faced by the workers in that chain and how it has impacted their lives. Organisers in Sheffield involved in a campaign concerning the treatment of a worker in a Greek Deli likewise produced their own series of videos documenting their own organising narrative. These methods help to cement the fact in people’s minds that these issues have a real and significant impact on our members’ well-being and that, therefore, support for the campaign is valuable and meaningful. It adds a very human dimension to the activity we engage in as a union and adequately captures the challenges, stresses and struggles involved in organising that make it a worthy endeavour to offer support.

Like the use of organising sentences, aspects of Ganz’s public narrative techniques do exist in our union already, but what Ganz offers is a way of systemising it and a vehicle for ensuring its presence in all aspects of our activity. There’s a great deal more that can be said here about the specific details of crafting a public narrative. Thankfully a number of organisations have adapted Ganz’s method and produced resources and activities for organisers to use and adapt and I’d encourage any organiser interested in this to review these.

Aiming for capacity and capacity shifts

Finally, Ganz provides some useful insights into the growth and development of organisations over a longer timescale. In the UK in particular where we have had an explosion in membership over a period of about two years it is useful to reflect on how this can translate effectively into improving our capacity to organise. It’s important to recognise, for example, that both organisational and campaign growth does not follow a straight trajectory (see diagram D). There will be natural peaks and troughs as things “heat up” and “cool down” and typically periods of intense activity may be followed by quieter periods as people regroup and recuperate.

D. Campaign Trajectory


Given then that both campaigns and organisations will have these dynamic qualities it’s important to reflect on what particular focus will prove most effective during different parts of the cycle. A focus on outreach, for example, may not be best suited to a period of rapid growth where lots of new members have joined in a shorter period of time. Here a more qualitative focus on developing leadership, education and general organising capacity may be more appropriate. Conversely a long period of internal readjustment and development will not be served well by a continuing focus on organisational structure. Here it may be better to look outwards at how to grow and expand quantitatively before instituting changes that may prove ill-suited to a new organising context or an influx of new members. The key, as with the principles underlying “failing well,” is to attempt to always re-evaluate and adjust in the face of evolving circumstances. That and to be open-minded and dynamic when it comes to the shape and structure of the organisation.

Four years ago the IWW in the UK held a strategy conference in London, this came at a very interesting time, just prior to our recent burst in membership. It’s interesting to look back at that conference and reflect on what has developed and improved in the union since that time (as well as what issues remain unresolved). Certainly it was a very useful exercise and in terms of establishing a consensus for the strategic orientation of the union it was an important step forward. Since then we have held one, and intend to hold another, organising summit which should hopefully revive some of the debates and issues that are undoubtedly discussed in branches but not nearly enough at a union-wide level. It might be interesting and useful to hold a “big picture”, “state of the union” style session in which we do attempt to re-evaluate the direction of travel and build some sense of consensus on what areas we should aim to prioritise in terms of translating our larger membership base into a greater capacity to organise.

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