The Downtown Workers Union: Reflections on Being a Volunteer Organizer

Note: The content contained in this piece is based on true events. Identifying information such as names and locations has been altered.

May 17th, 2016. Petersburg, California 

To whom it may concern,

In early Spring of 2015 I was sitting at a coffee shop in the small town of Revolution Mills when I met and struck up a conversation with two Petersburg Workers Center (PWC) members–an Alinsky model NGO with some quasi radical persuasions. They told me about an “IWW style” organizing campaign based in Petersburg that sought to form a downtown-wide union in the small urban city. This was the first interesting and serious political project I had heard about since moving to the area roughly six months earlier. I was ecstatic. I was relieved and excited all at once to have finally stumbled upon a good fight, to have finally met “the political people”. Shortly thereafter I met Sybil Purpelistky at a show in downtown Petersburg. Sybil told me that she was interning as an organizer on a campaign called the Petersurg Organizing Project (POP) trying to build a downtown workers union. Within about five minutes she had signed me up to do working conditions surveys of downtown workers later that week.

My first experience canvassing with POP was a rainy Sunday morning on Church St–the retail hub of Petersburg–with Sybil and another volunteer. I have a hard time describing the particular mix of excitement, urgency, and nervousness that I had because I’ve since become accustomed to it, I guess. But that morning going from store to store with Sybil in the pouring rain I felt like I was finding my way home. It was a clarifying moment that made me absolutely certain–”I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. This work is what I’m going to spend the rest of my life on.”

I was living Revolution Mills, an hour outside of Petersburg, at the time so every weekend I would drive up to Petersburg to canvass and do other POP work. I met May Glover the second or third weekend I came to Petersburg to canvass. May was at that point the PWC staff person assigned to POP. Additionally they were part of the team of people who initially formulated the project, gave it a vision, and actively fought within the PWC bureaucracy for the organization to give it priority (a noble attempt which ultimately failed). May and Sybil both canvassed with me countless times, teaching me some of the basics of organizing as we went. I learned how to have organizing conversations, how to approach workers at work, how to be confident in uncomfortable interactions, how to avoid the attention of bosses on the shop floor and a million other more subtle lessons which would require an entire much longer letter to fully delve into.

I met Rosalind Strong relatively early on in my time on the project as well. Rosalind was another PWC staff person at the time and was also one of the people responsible for bringing POP into existence. She did an organizer training on one of the few weekdays I was able to make it to Petersburg. The workshop was about how to have an organizing conversation and get through the grant-mandated survey we were using to talk to downtown workers at the same time. There I met a downtown worker named Leonard Block. This worker was the first volunteer I met who showed up consistently to help organize and was an asset to the campaign. Unfortunately he later decided to take a management position claiming he was going to “work from within the system”. Sybil was also present at the workshop that evening and afterward the three of us walked downtown to canvass with our newly acquired and clumsily applied knowledge.

The summer of 2015 consisted of weekly, sometimes twice weekly trips to Petersburg. During the hour long drive I was nervous with anticipation and elated with the sense of being part of something important, something immeasurably bigger than myself yet quantifiable in its usefulness. I looked forward all week to Saturdays spent on Church St with a clipboard and a stack of surveys. I couldn’t wait to make the rounds, checking every alleyway for dishwashers taking a cigarette break, memorizing the few and far between spaces downtown where working folks can socialize without buying anything or taking orders.

In the Fall I met Grant Gompers. Grant had been an intern with a different NGO before he started volunteering with POP. He worked downtown and was surveyed by Sybil who subsequently organized him onto the campaign. He did a large amount of the on the ground work from roughly October to late January. I saw him working on essentially every piece of work there was related to the project for that stretch of time. He caught on very quickly to organizing and eventually was facilitating some of the meetings and informational gatherings we were having with groups of downtown workers. Later that Winter Grant left the state for a professional organizing job with a large service-model union.

Toward the end of Fall we stopped doing surveys after having surveyed well over 300 workers. Instead we were just going into workplaces to have organizing conversations and invite workers to events that were designed to garner enthusiasm for the downtown workers union. This new direction of our canvassing seemed to yield more of what felt like real organizing conversations as opposed to information gathering with a hint of “raising standards” (some NGO fluff language I heard a lot during my time on the project).

Sybil was still active as a volunteer on the campaign by this time but had an increasingly heavy workload from a professional union organizer position that she had also recently taken. However she was still bringing in downtown worker volunteers on a semi-regular basis. One of them was Paul who was one of our more reliable volunteers during the time which he was active. Paul and May set about charting all of the information we had gathered from the surveys and setting hard statistics to them. That work resulted in the most viable piece of propaganda that we were able to develop–a small half-sheet flyer with the header “they say that Petersburg is a livable city…” followed by some statistics on downtown working conditions.

During the Winter it was difficult to do all day canvassing runs like we had done during the summer. Our volunteer base and worker attendance at meetings was also declining significantly. Around this time I was beginning to realize the extent to which the volunteers were pretty much on our own with the campaign. This had been the case previously for a month or so but it was at a point at which we had more volunteers to speak of and more of a materially demonstrated interest from downtown workers. A downtown worker named John was a key part of keeping the campaign alive during its lowest points. John had experienced wage theft working in a downtown restaurant which he took steps to fight and ended up winning his back pay. He was one of our most active volunteers despite having parental responsibilities and an array of other time constraints.

Mid-winter 2016. I started having my first conscious fears about my competence as an organizer at this point in the campaign. I had a few more months of experience by then but POP was getting significantly less (almost none) organizational support than we had gotten over the preceding summer and my confidence in the PWC was waning as a result. For some reason all the sudden there was nobody around to debrief my conversations with workers, nobody directing me in this gigantic task for which I was entirely ill-experienced. The leadership I had come to trust and rely on within PWC was no longer present. When Rosalind and May left staff, the hole that was created in POP was not adequately filled. By January the work for me had become a matter of going through the motions, staying disciplined to the work but lacking the excitement about it that I had before.

There is plenty more that could and will be said about the Petersburg Organizing Project than what I have laid out here. This is my initial attempt to say some of what has never been said enough. This is an initial attempt on my part to emphasize where the bulk of the work on POP was done and by whom. It is important to me that the efforts of downtown workers and other volunteers does not go ignored or unappreciated. I would also hope here to express my deep personal gratitude for May, Sybil and Rosalind. The vision they and others had in devising the Petersburg Organizing Project and the militant dedication they demonstrated in carrying out the work has inspired me to do likewise. But what I’m most grateful for is that they taught me how to organize.

-In solidarity and indebtedness, Charna Fon


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