Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Seven
Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.
Response to our earlier article dealing with Alinsky has been so great that we worked to obtain this extensive interview with him, conducted by Playboy magazine in 1972. It is, by far, the most detailed conversation with Alinsky that we know of. The interview will be appearing in weekly installments here at The Progress Report.
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part SixOrganizing the Back of the Yards
PLAYBOY: What was your first organizational effort?
ALINSKY: My first solo effort was organizing the Back of the Yards area of Chicago, one of the most squalid slums in the country. I was helped a hell of a lot by the moonlighting I'd done as an organizer for the C.I.O., and I'd got to know John L. Lewis very well; I later mediated between him and F.D.R. when their political alliance grew shaky. We became close friends and I learned a lot from him. But I always felt that my own role lay outside the labor movement. What I wanted to try to do was apply the organizing techniques I'd mastered with the C.I.O. to the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements in the country could take control of their own communities and their own destinies. Up till then, specific factories and industries had been organized for social change, but never entire communities. This was the field I wanted to make my own -- community organization for community power and for radical goals.
PLAYBOY: Why did you pick the Back of the Yards district as your first target?
ALINSKY: It appealed to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was the area behind the Chicago Stockyards that Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle at the turn of the century, and nothing at all had been done to improve conditions since then. It was the nadir of all slums in America. People were crushed and demoralized, either jobless or getting starvation wages, diseased, living in filthy, rotting unheated shanties, with barely enough food and clothing to keep alive. And it was a cesspool of hate; the Poles, Slovaks, Germans, Negroes, Mexicans and Lithuanians all hated each other and all of them hated the Irish, who returned the sentiment in spades.
Native fascist groups like the German American Bund, Father Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice and William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts were moving in to exploit the discontent, and making lots of converts. It wasn't because the people had any real sympathy for fascism; it was just that they were so desperate they'd grab on to anything that offered them a glimmer of hope, and Coughlin and Pelley gave them handy scapegoats in the Jews and the "international bankers." But I knew that once they were provided with a real, positive program to change their miserable conditions, they wouldn't need scapegoats anymore. Probably my prime consideration in moving into Back of the Yards, though, was because if it could be done there, it could be done anywhere. People would say to me, "Saul, you're crazy; try any place but Back of the Yards. It's impossible, you'll never get anywhere." You've got to remember that, to most people in those days, the concept that the poor have the intelligence and ingenuity to solve their own problems was heresy; even many radicals who paid it lip service in principle were elitist in practice. So the more I was told it was impossible the more determined I was to push ahead.
PLAYBOY: How did you go about organizing a community like Back of the Yards?
ALINSKY: Well, the first thing I did, the first thing I always do, is to move into the community as an observer, to talk with people and listen and learn their grievances and their attitudes. Then I look around at what I've got to work with, what levers I can use to pry closed doors open, what institutions or organizations already exist that can be useful. In the case of Back of the Yards, the area was 95 percent Roman Catholic, and I recognized that if I could win the support of the Church, we'd be off and running. Conversely, without the Church, or at least some elements of it, it was unlikely that we'd be able to make much of a dent in the community.
PLAYBOY: Wasn't the Catholic Church quite conservative in those days?
ALINSKY: Nationally it certainly was, which was why a little two-bit Hitler like Coughlin was never censured or silenced until the war. But Chicago in those days was a peculiar exception; under Cardinal Mundelein and Bishop Bernard Sheil, it was the most socially progressive archdiocese in the country. Sheil was a fine man, liberal and prolabor, and he was sympathetic to what I wanted to do in Back of the Yards, but the key thing was to win over the local priests; some of whom were much more conservative. Now, it's always been a cardinal principle of organizing for me never to appeal to people on.the basis of abstract values, as too many civil rights leaders do today. Suppose I walked into the office of the average religious leader of any denomination and said, "Look, I'm asking you to live up to your Christian principles, to, make Jesus' words about brotherhood and social justice realities." What do you think would happen? He'd shake my hand warmly, say, "God bless you, my son," and after I was gone he'd tell his secretary, "If that crackpot comes around again, tell him I'm out."
So in order to involve the Catholic priests in Back of the Yards, I didn't give them any stuff about Christian ethics, I just appealed to their self-interest. I'd say, "Look, you're telling your people to stay out of the Communist-dominated unions and action groups, right?" He'd nod. So I'd go on: "And what do they do? They say, 'Yes, Father,' and walk out of the church and join the C.I.O. Why? Because it's their bread and butter, because the C.I.O. is doing something about their problems while you're sitting here on your tail in the sacristy." That stirred 'em up, which is just what I wanted to do, and then I'd say, "Look, if you go on like that you're gonna alienate your parishioners, turn them from the Church, maybe drive them into the arms of the Reds. Your only hope is to move first, to beat the Communists at their own game, to show the people you're more interested in their living conditions than the contents of your collection plate. And not only will you get them back again by supporting their struggle, but when they win they'll be more prosperous and your donations will go up and the welfare of the Church will be enhanced." Now I'm talking their language and we can sit down and hammer out a deal. That was what happened in Back of the Yards, and within a few months the overwhelming majority of the parish priests were backing us, and we were holding our organizational meetings in their churches. To fuck your enemies, you've first got to seduce your allies.
PLAYBOY: How did you win the backing of the community at large?
ALINSKY: The first step was getting the priests; that gave us the right imprimatur with the average resident. But we still had to convince them we could deliver what we promised, that we weren't just another do-gooder social agency strong on rhetoric and short on action. But the biggest obstacles we faced were the apathy and despair and hopelessness of most of the slum dwellers. You've got to remember that when injustice is complete and crushing, people very seldom rebel; they just give up. A small percentage crack and blow their brains out, but the other, 99 percent say, "Sure, it's bad, but what can we do? You can't fight city hall. It's a rotten world for everybody, and anyway, who knows, maybe I'll win at numbers or my lottery ticket will come through. And the guy down the block is probably worse off than me."
The first thing we have to do when we come into a community is to break down those justifications for inertia. We tell people, "Look, you don't have to put up with all this shit. There's something concrete you can do about it. But to accomplish anything you've got to have power, and you'll only get it through organization. Now, power comes in two forms -- money and people. You haven't got any money, but you do have people, and here's what you can do with them." And we showed the workers in the packing houses how they could organize a union and get higher wages and benefits, and we showed the local merchants how their profits would go up with higher wages in the community, and we showed the exploited tenants how they could fight back against their landlords. Pretty soon we'd established a community-wide coalition of workers, local businessmen, labor leaders and housewives -- our power base -- and we were ready to do battle.
PLAYBOY: What tactics did you use?
ALINSKY: Everything at our disposal in those days -- boycotts of stores, strikes against the meat packers, rent strikes against the slumlords, picketing of exploitive businesses, sit-downs in City Hall and the offices of the corrupt local machine bosses. We'd turn the politicians against each other, splitting them up and then taking them on one at a time. At first the establishment dismissed us with a sneer, but pretty soon we had them worried, because they saw how unified we were and that we were capable of exerting potent economic and political pressure. Finally the concessions began trickling in -- reduced rents, public housing, more and better municipal services, school improvements, more equitable mortgages and bank loans, fairer food prices.
I'll give you an example here of the vital importance of personal relationships in organizing. The linchpin of our struggle in Back of the Yards was unionization of the packing-house workers, because most of the local residents who worked had jobs in the stockyards, and unless their wages and living standards were improved, the community as a whole could never move forward. Now, at that time the meat barons treated their workers like serfs, and they had a squad of vicious strikebreakers to terrorize any worker who even opened his mouth about a union. In fact, two of their goons submachined my car one night at the height of the struggle. They missed me and, goddamn it, I missed them when I shot back. So anyway, we knew that the success or failure of the whole effort really hinged on the packing-house union. We picketed, we sat down, we agitated; but the industry wouldn't budge. I said, "OK, we can't hurt 'em head on, so we'll outflank 'em and put heat on the downtown banks that control huge loans to the industry and force them to exert pressure on the packers to accept our demands." We directed a whole series of tactics against the banks, and they were a little wobbly at first, but then they formed a solid front with the packers and refused to give in or even to negotiate.
We were getting nowhere on the key issue of the whole struggle, and I was getting worried. I racked my brain for some new means of applying pressure on the banks and finally I came up with the answer. In those days, the uncontested ruler of Chicago was the old-line political boss Mayor Kelly, who made Daley's machine look like the League of Women Voters. When Kelly whistled, everybody jumped to attention, from the local ward heeler to the leading businessman in town. Now, there were four big-city machines in the country at that time -- Kelly's in Chicago, Pendergast's in Kansas City, Curley's in Boston and Hague's in Jersey City -- and between them they exercised a hell of a political clout, because they were the guys who delivered the swing states to the Democrats at election time. This meant that Roosevelt had to deal with them, but they were all pretty disreputable in the public eye and whenever he met with them he smuggled them through the back door of the White House and conferred in secret in some smoke-filled room. This was particularly true in Kelly's case, since he was hated by liberals and radicals all across the country because of his reactionary anti-labor stand and his responsibility for the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in 1937. In fact, the left despised Kelly as intensely in those days as they did Daley after the Chicago Democratic Convention .
Now, Kelly was a funny guy; he was a mass of contradictions -- like most people -- and despite his antilabor actions he really admired F.D.R.; in fact, he worshiped him, and nothing hurt him more than the way he was forced to sneak into the White House like a pariah -- no dinner parties, none of those little Sunday soirees that Eleanor used to throw, not even a public testimonial. He desperately wanted acceptance by F.D.R. and the intellectuals in his brain trust, and he really smarted under the second-class status the President conferred on him. I'd studied his personality carefully, and I knew I'd get nowhere appealing to him over labor's rights, but I figured I might just be able to use this personal Achilles' heel to our advantage.
Finally I got an audience with Kelly and I started my spiel. "Look, Mayor," I said, "I know I can't deliver you any more votes than you've already got" -- in those days they didn't even bother to count the ballots, they weighed 'em, and every cemetery in town voted; there was a real afterlife in Chicago -- "but I'm going to make a deal with you." Kelly just looked bored; he was probably asking himself why he'd even bothered to see this little pip-squeak radical. "What've you got to deal with, kid?" he asked me. I told him, "Right now you've got a reputation as the number-one enemy of organized labor in the country. But I'll make you a liberal overnight. I'll deliver the national C.I.O. endorsement for you and the public support of every union in Chicago. I've arranged for two of the guys who were wounded in the Memorial Day Massacre to go on the radio and applaud you as a true friend of the workingman. Within forty-eight hours I'll have turned you into a champion of liberalism" -- Kelly still looked bored -- "and that'll make you completely acceptable to F.D.R. on all occasions, social and political."
Suddenly he sat bolt upright in his chair and his eyes bored into mine. "How do I know you can deliver?" he asked. I handed him a slip of paper. "That's the unlisted number of John L. Lewis in Alexandria, Virginia. Call him, tell him I'm here in your office, tell him what I said, and then ask him if I can deliver." Kelly leaned back in his chair and said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want you to put the screws on the meat packers to sign a contract with the union." He said, "It's a deal. You'll get your contract tomorrow." We did, and from that time on victory for Back of the Yards was ensured. And I came out of that fight convinced that the organizational techniques we used in Back of the Yards could be employed successfully anywhere across the nation.
PLAYBOY: Were you right?
ALINSKY: Absolutely. Our tactics have to vary according to the needs and problems of each particular area we're organizing, but we've been very successful with an overall strategy that we adhere to pretty closely. For example, the central principle of all our organizational efforts is self-determination; the community we're dealing with must first want us to come in, and once we're in we insist they choose their own objectives and leaders. It's the organizer's job to provide the technical know-how, not to impose his wishes or his attitudes on the community; we're not there to lead, but to help and to teach. We want the local people to use us, drain our experience and expertise, and then throw us away and continue doing the job themselves. Otherwise they'd grow overly dependent on us and the moment we moved out the situation would start to revert to the status quo ante. This is why I've set a three-year limit on the time one of our organizers remains within any particular area. This has been our operating procedure in all our efforts; we're outside agitators, all right, but by invitation only. And we never overstay our welcome.
Next Week -- Success versus Co-optation
Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals
Alinsky's second and final book, Rules for Radicals
Alinsky's biography is available here
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