Labor Unrest and Public Policy
What every public official should know about Saul Alinsky's: 
Rules For Radicals

Public officials, particularly elected public officials, have a special problem when dealing with labor unrest. Labor unrest makes the public--the voters--nervous. The natural political response is to seek an end to the unrest.

This, very natural, political response gives unions a tremendous advantage and puts public managers trying to efficiently deliver public services at a disadvantage. By creating labor unrest unions are able to manipulate public decision making to achieve union objectives.

Strikes by public sector unions are an extreme and, in most cases, illegal form of labor unrest. There are relatively few strikes against government and they are generally of short duration. By the time a strike occurs, public officials are usually prepared for it.

Other forms of labor unrest are far more common. Because they are frequently unconventional and unexpected, they are unsettling and more troublesome.

Unless public officials understand it and are prepared to deal with it, the capacity to generate this sort of unrest gives public sector unions a significant advantage in disputes with management.

Unexpected and unconventional disruptions are by definition "radical" activity. The best place to look for an understanding of this sort of activity is Saul Alinsky and his "Rules for Radicals."

Saul Alinsky didn't invent radicalism any more than Isaac Newton "invented" gravity. What Alinsky did was to study it and put it in a system others could use. He literally "wrote the book" on radicalism.

Even though he passed away 30 years ago, Alinsky continues to have a strong influence on American unions. This influence is particularly strong among public sector unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO.

It is quite likely that the training of many public sector union organizers includes a crash course based on Alinsky's teachings. Some confirmation of this is contained in an interview with John Lloyd, who was once an NEA UniServ representative and the executive director of an NEA state affiliate. He warned:

"To understand the NEA - to understand the union - read Saul Alinsky. If you read "Rules for Radicals," you will understand NEA more profoundly than reading anything else. Because the whole organization was modeled on that kind of behavior which was really begun when NEA used Saul Alinsky as a consultant to train their own staff."

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lists Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" on its web page under training for shop stewards. It describes these rules as "power tactics to solve the kinds of problems that organizers and stewards often encounter."

But Alinsky's influence is certainly not limited to public sector unions.

An article in the January 3, 2002 Wall Street Journal described Andrew Stern, the President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as a "devotee" of Saul Alinsky. SEIU has a very strong interest in public employment and is the fastest growing union in America.

John Sweeney was the President of SEIU before becoming president of the AFL-CIO. There is little doubt where Stern got his lessons about Alinsky.

Time and again public officials have reacted with shock and disbelief to what union officials had done to them personally during organizing campaigns or labor disputes. Such tactics are entirely predictable because it is almost textbook Alinsky. Most public officials recognize that, if they had only known what to expect, they could have prepared for it and taken steps to neutralize its worst effects.

Here, therefore, is a thumbnail sketch of some of Saul Alinsky's "Rules" taken from his book "Rules for Radicals" published in 1971 by Vintage Books.

Alinsky emphatically states that the end justifies the means but cautions that extreme means are only justified in certain situations. Here are Alinsky's rules to test whether the means are ethical.

  1. One's concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one's personal interest in the issue.
  2. The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.
  3. In war the end justifies almost any means.
  4. Judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.
  5. Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. The morality of means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.
  9. Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition to be unethical.
  10. You do what you can with what you have and clothe it in moral garments.
  11. Goals must be phrased in general terms like "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," "Of the Common Welfare," "Pursuit of Happiness," or "Bread and Peace."

Alinsky also had rules for what he called "power tactics" or the means used to "take." He described it as "how the Have Nots can take power away from the Haves."

Here are his rules of power tactics.

  1. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.
  2. Never go outside the experience of your people.
  3. Whenever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy.
  4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
  5. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.
  6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
  8. Keep the pressure on with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.
  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
  10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
  11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside.
  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Even a cursory review of these rules for radicals reveals that a union activist schooled in them will have no compunction about using almost any tactic in a conflict with a public agency. In fact, radicals must often create issues to stir up problems in order to radicalize their potential followers.

With careful forethought any of these tactics can be defeated, but in order to do so one must sometimes play by the same rules as the radicals.

For example, the tactic that seems to shock public officials the most is the personalization of the attack. For the radical, it is not sufficient to attack the "administration" or the "board" they must attack a particular administrator or board member. This is "outside their experience." They are not accustomed to having questions raised about their personal character because of differences of opinion on public policy questions.

Public officials may seem to be trapped by this tactic because personally attacking an individual is "against their rules." If they attack the "union," the organizer can then turn this around by telling his followers, or potential followers, that they have been attacked or insulted by the individual. Using the "pick it, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it" tactic, the reaction must be against a particular union activist, no matter how distasteful this might be.

Alinsky says that, even if the decision is a 48% to 52% one, once it is made, the opposition becomes "100 per cent devil." He calls any effort to be objective or fair about your opponent as "political idiocy."

Even if public officials are not willing to respond in kind to this sort of tactic, much can be done to minimize the impact of radical activity by warning key audiences what might happen. For example, at the outset of a union campaign a public official could warn the employees of the agency that the union was going to attempt to make them seem incompetent, immoral and corrupt. They would then be in a strong position to ward off the worst effects of such attacks by reminding the employees that they had been predicted.

It is particularly important that appointed officials get this warning across to the elected officials who appoint them and that the elected officials then inform other opinion leaders in the community.

Above all public officials must not let radical tactics divide them. Radical tactics are illegitimate and must be resisted by a unified response from responsible public officials of all political persuasions.