I have spent four months writing about how a group of Olympia carpenters learned to get organized and act as a community of carpenters. I told the story of how building a community .and finding allies created something beyond just the interests of carpenters. In the course of my writing two questions emerged: What does it mean to be an organizer? Why we do need them now?
My early experiences as a non-union carpenter led me to the union, and eventually to learning the skills necessary to become an organizer. But I also derived an understanding of who I was from my mother and her family. My father’s family were small business people, organized differently, but nonetheless organized. I recognized I was working class from family.
I worked many types of jobs prior to becoming a union carpenter. All were for wages. None had the protection of a union contract. A change in my working life began when I went to work for a concrete subcontractor on a job at the Washington Center for Performing Arts around 1983. It was a prevailing wage job, where carpenters were supposed to be paid an hourly wage equal to the pay of a union carpenter.
We need organizers in order to rebuild our neighborhoods and communities to act for more just purposes.
I discovered that my fellow carpenters and I weren’t being paid the prevailing wage: we were being cheated. I set out to learn about the situation, and made a prevailing wage claim for myself and a few other carpenters with the Department of Labor & Industries. We won—and received the balance owed us. I think that was my first organizing effort.
It was also the first time I visited my Carpenters local, seeking help. But they turned me away because I wasn’t a union member. The Business Agent also kept me from joining the local. I kept digging and found that the Tacoma Carpenters Local had a more liberal policy when it came to joining. I “tested-in” as a journeyman. I received my journeyman’s card in March 1985 and continue as a member of the Carpenters’ Union to this day.
So, in answer to the first question; what does it mean to be an organizer? It took a personal experience of injustice to move me to act; to join with others experiencing the same injustice and to lose my fear; to right wrongs and fight for change. It is easier to do this when you’re part of a group. I learned then that organizers have a desire to make social change. I had found myself on the short end of the stick, and I didn’t want to be there, nor did I want the other carpenters to be there. Coupled with that desire was my perception that the culture of the union would also need to change, if it was to return to its original mission: organizing carpenters. All this was because I had once been turned away.
Organizing doesn’t take some mysterious ability. It’s a skill that can be taught and learned. I was lucky and seized the opportunity to attend an organizing school in our backyard at the Labor Center of The Evergreen State College. It took nine months of study, discussion, and practice. We learned to listen and be patient, and respectful of others, accepting them from where they were, not where we thought they should be. We were taught to make estimates and think strategically. I learned that an organizer has to be reliable, dependable, show up on time, and take responsibility. We looked for common beliefs and ideas in a group. Organizers also continue to learn new skills. They stay grounded in their community in order to learn from others.
I’m writing this on MLK Day and thinking of the work and inspiration Dr. King’s organizing brought to that social movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that envisioned a just and equal society—in the distance, on a mountaintop. In his metaphor. was the mission of the Civil Rights Movement. But it took skilled organizers, from the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and across the country, to build organizations with enough power to take-on the racists and racist institutions of our country to end Jim Crow. This was not dreaming, but acting.
In the early 20th century, organizers helped workers build enough power to convince capital to share part of the pie created by labor productivity. Washington State history celebrates how labor took local government in the Seattle General Strike of 1919. These large social movements did not just spring up overnight. They were the fruit of organizing over months and years in churches, union halls, and neighborhoods. Rosa Parks was not just an individual who didn’t give up her seat to a white man. She was a Highlander School-trained organizer. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began with her act after much planning and organizing.
Recently on a walk around the Port of Olympia area, I ran into a group of retired carpenters working on an old wooden sailboat. I had worked with them out of the hall back in the day. They were resurrecting the Megan S into an exhibit for the Hands-On Children’s Museum. Here was a bunch of guys that had also been together during our organizing in the 90s. It was easy to join the crew the next day on the boat. It felt good to be working with tools. joining together to create something outside myself. An organizer is trained to see what brings people together for a purpose, even one as simple as refurbishing a boat.
Similarly, we all know people, friends and neighbors living together through common experiences, some very good, some not so pleasant. And many of us do good works as individuals, helping those less fortunate than ourselves. We are members of groups, formal and informal. This is where an organizer looks to build a movement of people to build power and strategy towards some better future for all.
I know that in the core of these older carpenters is that spark and memory of marching together for our common good with a purpose, born through our experience. I think our neighbors too have that same feeling. However, they aren’t organized to reach a goal together. It will take organizers to help them to act by bringing them together to see and hear each other. This is the way we build energy to change social circumstances.
We need organizers in order to rebuild our neighborhoods and communities to act for more just purposes. Organizers educate people in order to organize them. This is why we need organizers now. Our position as working people has been eroded and worsened by political organizations and powerful corporate interests. The future of a cooperative, just and equal society will depend on our organizers and ourselves.
Mark Bean is a retired carpenter and organizer. He was born and grew up on the westside of Olympia.