Organizing in the trenches : tactics, discipline, and accountability in Texas left social movements




Venegas, Mario

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This dissertation asks: how do activist and organizers understand the craft of organizing? What is organizing to them and what practical challenges do they encounter? In exploring these questions, I answer a larger theoretical question: how do styles of organizing shape the relationships of power in the organizations that organizers and activists build? I argue that styles of organizing shape power relationships, in particular decision making in three key conjunctures: tactics, discipline, and accountability. Katznelson’s notion of trenches sensitizes scholars to understand how relations of power, competing factions, and ideological differences shape community and labor. That is, styles of organizing are guided by ideology, vision, and tactics that help unions, nonprofits and community organizations to outmaneuver rivals and enemies like employers, political figures, as well as internal rivals within their organizations. Through in-depth interviews with 35 activists, as well as archival data, I examine the styles of organizing that came out of the Alinsky, New Left, and Marxist schools of activism in three key movements in Texas: the Chicana/o movement, LGBTQ movements, and public sector unions. I identify tactics, discipline, and accountability as three key conjunctures with their own internal tensions and practical dilemmas that activists navigate as key aspects of organizing. The Chicano movement in Texas illuminates the tactical warfare between activists with Alinskyite, New Left, and Marxist philosophies to organize the movement. Alinsky’s dominance in the movement through its confrontational and intimidating tactics also established inequalities that persist to this day. Activists navigate internal tensions in discipline and accountability, such as negotiating between permissive discipline or sectarian purging among LGBTQ activists and negotiating between transparency and image-management among public sector union activists. By studying the craft of organizing in the Alinskyite, New Left, and Marxist styles, I set out to illuminate the mechanisms of organizing, what it consists of, and examine the practical organizing challenges that those engaged with transforming society encounter. Lastly, I contribute to the social movements literature by exploring internal movement dynamics and centering endogenous factors in the way movements develop, splinter, and persist.



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