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Choose tactics that support your strategy

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“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.”

Alvin Toffler
In Sum

Don’t let an individual tactic distract from a larger strategy. Strategy is your overall plan, and tactics are those things you do to implement the plan — a distinction critical for structuring effective campaigns.

Strategy involves identifying your group’s power and then finding specific ways to concentrate it in order to achieve your goals.[1] Organizing a rally, for example, should never be thought of as a strategy. It’s a tactic. Before you can identify appropriate tactics, you need to identify your target see PRINCIPLE: Choose your target wisely and figure out what power you can bring to bear against it.

Developing a strategy requires:
• analyzing the problem;
• identifying your goal (formulation of demands);
• understanding your target[2] — who holds the power to meet your demands;
• identifying specific forms of power you have over your target and how to concentrate that power to maximal effect.

If your target is a city councilor whose vote you need in order to pass a living wage ordinance, tactics that concentrate your power must involve or influence voters in her district in some way.

If your target is a bank that is carrying out foreclosures, tactics that concentrate your power must involve or influence their customers or regulators.

Within that framework, tactics are specific activities that:
• mobilize a specific type and amount of power;
• are directed at a specific target;
• are intended to achieve a specific objective.

In choosing a tactic you must always be able to answer the question: “What is the power behind the tactic?” In other words, how does the tactic give you leverage over your target?

We use tactics to demonstrate (or imply) a certain form of power. For example, when we carry out an action against a particular company, our underlying power is economic — it must cost them time or customers. That’s why disruption matters. If we target an elected official, our underlying power is political — our tactic must cost them contributions or votes. (The power to “embarrass” is only effective if embarrassing your target costs them money or votes by making voters or donors question their moral legitimacy. Embarrassment in and of itself isn’t a form of power.)

In community organizing, power can be broken down into two broad categories:

Strategic power
Power that is sufficiently strong to win the issue.

Tactical power
Power that can move you along toward a goal and help you gain ground, but is itself not decisive.

Once we understand the forms of power we can deploy, we are ready to develop our campaign plan.

A campaign is a series of tactics deployed over a specified period of time, each of which builds the strength of the organization and puts increasing pressure on the target until it gives in on your specific demands. A campaign is not a series of events on a common theme; it is a series of tactics, each one carefully selected for its power to ratchet up pressure on a target over time. All tactics are connected, and each one is chosen on the basis of how much work it requires to pull off and how much pressure it will bring to bear.

A campaign is not endless; it has a beginning, middle and end. It ends, ideally, in a specific victory: people get something they wanted or needed, and/or the target agrees to do something they previously refused to do.

  1. [1] The author wishes to acknowledge Midwest Academy and Northeast Action, both of whom assisted in developing the curriculum that this module is based on.
  2. [2] Often it’s important to identify “secondary targets.” These are individuals who have significant power over your target and over whom you may have more power than you have over your primary target (see CASE: Taco Bell Boycott).

Janice Fine is associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at the School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University where she teaches and writes about low wage immigrant labor in the U.S., historical and contemporary debates regarding federal immigration policy, dilemmas of labor standards enforcement and innovative union and community organizing strategies. She is the author of Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream (2006) published by Cornell University Press and the Economic Policy Institute. Before becoming a professor, Fine worked as a community, labor, coalition and electoral organizer for more than twenty-five years.

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