Saul Alinsky. Back of the Yards organizing

saul alinsky

(Part 4 of a 5-part series this week about Alinsky)

Alinsky started organizing Back of the Yards in Chicago in the 30’s, and invented community organizing in the process. From the Playboy interview in 1972.

ALINSKY: 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.

Everyone on the Left should read and re-read the above paragraph. If we do not provide an alternative to hard right organizing, the masses could go right by default. Right now, the Left is asleep. It needs to wake up. And start organizing.

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.

Marxists generally have a set of beliefs that they wish to impose upon the worker. Alinsky had no particular ideology and instead, big difference, listened to what people said.

He appealed to the self-interest of the priests by saying if you want to keep your parishioners out of communist-dominated unions, then you’ve got to show you care and provide a better alternative for them. Plus, if they get more prosperous, contribution to your parishes will increase.

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.

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.

He finally broke the bosses of the meat packing plants by making a deal with the anti-union Mayor of Chicago, who desperately wanted acceptance by FDR. Alinksy said he could make him into a liberal overnight and completely acceptable to FDR.

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.

And the rest was history. Alinsky’s tactics and ideas have been used in countless communities to organize and get results.

ALINSKY: 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.


Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals. Means vs. ends