Skip to main content

Member Groups and Meetings in the Workers Defense Alliance

Latest Revision: July 5, 2020

Working groups represent a focal point for organizing work. If the working group does not meet an organizing need, it may disband (that is, we don’t need to direct resources to keep a working group going “on paper” if it isn’t doing or laying the groundwork for actual work). We strongly suggest that working groups be formed around work that is actually happening, rather than work that we plan on doing— an informal group to get the ball rolling on work is often the best way to start a project, before forming a working group. If a working group disbands, we strongly suggest that it record any lessons learned through its struggles as well as guides to the skills and knowledge members learned through its work.

Many projects are useful, valid, and necessary, but not all projects are appropriate for working groups. Our organization has a focus on building autonomous working class power that challenges capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the state. Some might describe this approach as “dual power” or “counter power”— building our own power while challenging that of our oppressors. Working groups that benefit our alliance, and benefit from being federated with us, usually serve as focal points for groups of working class people to challenge power, engage in transformative struggles, and build the confidence, competency, and organization of the class.

Whenever possible and useful, working groups should collaborate with other working groups . For example, Against Police Terror collaborates with Harm Reduction to produce a Copwatch + Know Your Rights + naloxone training specifically aimed at users of intravenous drugs. This is intended to connect our work together, because these struggles are interconnected. It is also intended to maintain communication, cooperation, and a general common purpose between the working groups.

There are four main areas where we build working groups: Class Solidarity, Defense, Mutual Aid, and Support. Class Solidarity projects include solidarity networks, worker councils, tenant councils, and other projects where workers organize against their bosses, landlords, or other capitalists who exploit us. Defense projects include working groups that protect the working class from repression and violence through providing legal aid, physical defense training, organizing against the police, and working against bigots. Mutual Aid projects, or survival programs, work to help people facing poverty, homelessness, addiction, hunger, or other problems while organizing around the causes of those problems and fighting for solutions. Support projects help the broader federation do its work by housing things like education and training, maintaining our spaces and equipment, or other crucial roles.

These are loose categories, and many working groups fall into several. For example, our Survivor Justice Working Group (active 2015-18 in the General Defense Committee) began as a mutual aid and help group for victims of sexual violence, and also as a defense group that organized to expose sexual abusers and institutions that harbored them. It also developed a pod model of trauma support, and concept of transformative justice, that informed and enriched other work in our federation. This pod model eventually became a training, and the group focused its work on generalizing that training, to equip survivors and their supporters with the tools to take ownership over their struggles more directly.

The internal structure of a particular working group can be determined by the members of that working group itself. That said, for coordination, accountability, and transparency, it is required that all working groups should provide monthly:

  • A report of their activities the past month
  • Any meaningful membership information (e.g. alliance members vs participants who are doing work but not alliance members)
  • Upcoming activities for the next month

It is also suggested that working groups:

  • Have a chair, i.e. someone who can
    • bottomline communication with the larger group
    • request funds from the larger group
    • be a good, consistent communicator.
  • Have someone who is collecting dues for their group, and remits them accordingly.
  • Have a designated point or points of contact for folks wishing to get involved in the group
    • It may also help to create materials for getting folks up to speed on the type of work done, the general policies of the group, etc.
    • Part of this may come as some sort of mentorship role.
  • Rotate administrative duties (e.g. calling meetings, writing reports) regularly. Part of building skills includes building up effective communication and organization skills among members to better connect and build projects together. It’s not a good idea to let people sit in these roles for years.

We don’t require groups to structure these responsibilities in any specific way, but all of these jobs do need to get done. We ask these things to be completed so we can stay respectful and cooperative with one another, and that responsibility and power doesn’t collect only in the hands of a few.

In the past, the General Defense Committee sought to “officiate” working groups in a way that may not have been entirely helpful and created turf disputes in a few situations. The 1 project:1 Working Group model isn’t something we should seek to replicate, and more than one working group for a particular issue could actually be helpful, and probably have their own reason to not be one unified group.

During periods of heightened struggle, working groups may find it difficult to continue day to day functioning like they had before. In these times, it’s important to look at working groups not only as projects, but also groups with pre-organized relationships able to approach larger issues with focuses on their shared goals as a group. It’s important to not discount relationships and networks we are building by only focusing on their explicit goals when they can be used to shift power in new ways as well. 

Starting a Member Group

Starting a new working group should look a lot less like upfront work, and a lot more like “making this work responsible and official” on something you're already doing. A workplace organizing campaign isn't started by a union’s mandate, but rather like a group of people already working in a shop that start reporting on progress they've made. By becoming an official campaign, they seek solidarity and mutual aid from the branch. Similarly, projects should seek working group status when they feel like they have consistent work they would like to report on, in order to seek solidarity and mutual aid from the rest of the alliance.

Once you have a functioning campaign with a few members doing ongoing work, it might be a good time to consider starting a working group. When taking this next step, consider the following:

  • What is the scope and mandate of this group? What is the group's name and mission statement? How does this relate to our political orientation? Seeking outside advice on this question from other working groups can often be very helpful.
  • Who will chair this group? The working group chair is not a president, but rather someone who could bottom line reporting to the local, calling meetings, and keeping track of relevant documentation for your working group. Similarly, do we have someone willing to be a point of contact for new members, and someone willing to collect dues?
  • How will decisions be made? All our groups are democratic, but will your group work by consensus? Majority rule? Ranked Voting? Approval? Some combination for different situations/another kind of decision making rules? Hashing this out ahead of time can be really helpful in preventing bad situations.
  • How will membership be determined, and how does this intersect with group decision making? Will there be an interview process for new members in your working group? Can non-members come to observe your meetings? Can membership be revoked or suspended for your group? Will there be an exit process for people leaving the group?
  • Is there some kind of code of conduct or behavior your members should explicitly follow in addition to the organization's code of conduct? If the issue your working group is dealing with is sensitive, maybe making these expectations clear will help your group function better.
  • Is there anything else special about this group that needs to be cleared up?

Maybe not all of these questions are pressing for your new working group, but keeping these issues in mind is absolutely key to making sure that your group is successful at meeting its goals. Once you have answers to the relevant questions that you've worked out with your group, try to write them down and set expectations. If you need help organizing them, other groups might be able to help.

Best Practices for Running a Meeting

Getting Turnout at a Meeting

It helps getting people to show up if the meeting is regular. Try choosing a regular place and time slot that no other meetings are using. Check in with the committee members and try to find a time that works for as many committee members as possible. Checking in with working group members individually can also help increase turnout, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to pressure anybody. Be respectful in your organizing.

Announce meetings 3 times - when they’re set, when they’re a few days out, and the day of the meeting. Use multiple communication platforms you might have: signal, riot, email, or others!

Have a plan for opening up the space you’re going to be using. Someone should be there early to make sure everything is set up.

Crafting an Agenda

It’s best for meetings to follow an agenda, so that the discussion is structured and the work moves along efficiently. Without them, loud and domineering voices can take meetings over and make them less democratic.

The Chair can prepare an agenda by asking what business needs to be discussed in the days before the meeting. If there’s not a prepared agenda, one can be drawn up when the meeting starts, by giving people a few minutes to decide what business needs to be prioritized and discussed. Setting time limits for discussion when drafting agendas can help keep things on track.

Try to give urgent business a priority. Don’t only discuss urgent business, though—if you only react to crises and don’t plan strategic work to build your capacity and strength, you’ll have a hard time moving forward in your work.

The Alliance has a general meeting structure it likes to follow, but it may or may not be appropriate for working groups at all times. We don’t demand that working groups have any specific meeting structure, so long as meetings stay democratic and on topic. 

Roles in a Meeting:

As meeting chair, your role is to check on how the discussion is going. Try to keep people on task while keeping the atmosphere productive and calm. If people are talking over each other in a meeting, consider taking stack and letting people speak in the order they raise their hands. If there are people whose voices aren’t being heard as much, you can put them higher up on stack when they want to speak. This is called “progressive stack” and is especially important when discussing sensitive issues. 

A timekeeper can be helpful to let people know when agenda items are approaching their allotted time. At that point, people can move on, vote to extend, or close the stack for finishing comments.

Someone should always be taking minutes or notes during a meeting. It’s usually best if this is not the chair. Be aware that people have different styles of note taking, and that’s ok.

Sometimes, and especially at large meetings, the meeting can elect a helper to do things like keep stack, do errands around the room, let people in at the door, etc. This position is generally called the Sergeant at Arms, but isn’t always necessary.

Good Practices for Taking Notes

Try to keep the notes organized by topic. If the meeting is following an agenda, this can also be done right in the same place the agenda is written, below the text.

You don’t need to write down everything said in the meeting. You can summarize. If you’re not sure that you’ve summarized something correctly, it’s OK to ask if what you’ve written is right. If something that might be confidential is shared, ask if people want that in the minutes. It might also be appropriate to let individuals review the minutes before sending them out to everyone. 

Consider having a duties category at the bottom. As people agree to take on work during the meeting, write down what they’ve agreed to do. This way, committee members can check the minutes to see what they said they’d do. 

It’s best to send out the minutes as soon as possible. If nobody on the committee asks to review them, try to send them out right after the meeting. Everyone can check these minutes to make sure they are accurate, and let the notetaker know.

Watching for Burnout, Practicing Care

Because we’re a volunteer organization run by working people, one of our main resources is not money for salaries, but the capacity and endurance of our volunteers. We all need to work together to be mindful of each other’s capacity, allow room for people to step back when they have to, and monitor for signs of burnout. Trauma (and vicarious trauma for support volunteers, such as survivor justice or anti-repression workers) is another risk, especially in the face of capitalist, fascist, patriarchal, or police violence. 

A person might be burning out and beyond capacity, if they constantly feel overworked and stressed by their organizing responsibilities. They may feel like their work is an endless pile of tasks, and have a hard time seeing the point in it, or not have much satisfaction over jobs well done. The amount of care and effort we are able to put into our work may suffer as we experience burnout. We may become short-tempered or rude with other organizers, or resentful of those we perceive as not pulling their weight. We may become cynical or disillusioned. 

For organizers who are experiencing burnout, it’s important to learn to set boundaries, to say “no” to new tasks, and to let other people step up. Sometimes, an organizer may even be facing burnout precisely because they have not made room for others to step up, or are not taking the time to mentor and train others in doing the work. Remember that an organizer’s job is to replace themselves. 

If you are a person with more capacity available, and you see a fellow worker burning out, it can be helpful to bring your concerns to them and suggest they step back and take care of themselves. In many cases, though, the person can’t step back and “drop the ball” unless they think someone else will pick it up. For fellow workers who have more capacity and are seeing other organizers burn out, it can be helpful to offer to help the work along, or plug in more volunteers to take up that work load.

Some ways we can practice caring for each other in our committees include:

  • Beginning meetings with “check ins”, and ending them with “good and welfare”, to give people time to tell each other how we’re doing and seek help with problems we’re having
  • Watching people’s workloads and capacities. If someone is taking on way more than they can handle, try to get others to pick up the slack and let them step back a bit.
  • Intentionally mentor and teach new volunteers, and help them feel welcome
  • Try to ensure that everyone has their voice heard and has agency in what they’re doing. Nothing drives people away from work, like being ignored or stuck with the ‘grunt work’.
  • Practice being genuinely kind and considerate towards one another while doing the work.
  • Consider having some non-work-related outings with the committee-- but don’t try to make these compulsory. Nobody likes “mandatory fun”