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Power Training for Nonviolent Action by George Lakey

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Training for acts of civil disobedience can delve deeper than the actions themselves.

by George Lakey posted Jul 26, 2012 on Yes! and Waging

Photo by William Hamon

Usually, direct action training is what it sounds like: training in preparation for a direct action. Sometimes, however, the training itself is the action.

Consider this story. The members of a hospital workers union were frustrated because their strike was being disregarded by the employer. The formerly locally owned Pennsylvania nursing home where they worked had been taken over in the 1980s by a Canadian corporation that wanted to break the union. The workers had never had to go on strike before and felt uneasy about picketing on the streets of their small city; they saw themselves as the "solid citizens" of the working class who didn't make trouble.

Still, the corporation wasn't willing to negotiate seriously, and they felt forced to do what they thought of as an undignified thing by going on strike. But even then, the strike wasn't working; the employer stonewalled.

The union's organizer called me and asked for a civil disobedience training. "The members don't want this," he said, "but they are willing to explore the C.D. option because they are running out of patience. They want a full evening of training."

The youngest said that she was taking the risk "because Mildred" -- nodding to an elderly woman across the circle from her -- "is close to retirement and deserves for her last year to be treated with respect."

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Barbara Smith of the Jobs With Peace Campaign agreed to co-facilitate. We found over 60 workers in the union hall when we arrived -- virtually the whole staff who were free to come. The main part of the workshop was role-playing a sit-in in the offices of the nursing home management, with some members playing police who came in to arrest the workers. I marveled at the courage of these longtime residents of the town, blue-collar people who prided themselves on never having been in trouble with the law, pretending to be handcuffed and led off to police vans. Some were visibly shaking, but they did it.

At the end of the evening, we did a closing circle. Barbara initiated it and asked each person to say why they cared so much about this struggle that they were willing to take the risk. I was moved by the depth with which they spoke. The youngest said that she was taking the risk "because Mildred" -- nodding to an elderly woman across the circle from her -- "is close to retirement and deserves for her last year to be treated with respect."

I saw the tears in Mildred's eyes, and when it came to her turn in the circle, she said, "It's amazing that Karen said what she did, because I was going to say that I'm taking this risk because she's just started her life as a worker, and I want her to know the dignity of being in a union."

The next day I got a phone call from the union organizer. "The boss called me," he said. "He wants to restart negotiations on a serious basis."

Looks like they don't even want to face the civil disobedience -- they just want to settle!

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The organizer laughed. "Of course we assumed there was a company spy in our training last night, so the boss would find out what we were planning. But I didn't expect a turnaround right away. Looks like they don't even want to face the civil disobedience--they just want to settle!"

"What do you think was involved in that?" I asked.

"A lot of things," he said, "but I'll bet one of the most important ones was that closing circle. The spy could see the members' determination. I'm sure they don't want to deal with that!"

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Paul Roden is a long time activist DFA & PDA member working for progressive change in America. I am also the point of organizer for PDA, the Progressive Democrats of America in Lower Bucks County. I am a "Neighborhood Leader" or "Victory Precinct (more...)

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