By Matt Noyes in collaboration with Carl Biers, Jane Latour, Mike Orrfelt, and Andy Piascik.

How to have a discussion about how to move forward without getting bogged down in one possible approach or another? In this activity participants consider and debate several organizing options that they are free to embrace or reject in whole or in part. The objective is to get them thinking about the long run and how current situation and next steps relate to long term goals. It will also provoke concrete discussion about next steps that the group can take. Presenting options based on existing discussions and experience with other reform groups, without pushing the participants to go one way or another, fosters a real open consideration of a range of strategies.

This activity has four parts: a presentation on a historical case of rank-and-file organizing, presentation of three possible organizing options facing the participants, small group discussion, and a straw poll.

Speaker with expertise, credibility, and skill at communicating. Handouts for small groups. Facilitators lined up for each small group. Big paper and stickers for poll.


  • Explain and motivate.
  • Presentation on a real example of organizing that is relevant to the participants. It is important that it is presented for them to consider, not promoted as a model they have to embrace. The presentation has to be designed to match the situation the participants face; if they are starting out, it should be about how a group got started. If they are facing an international election, that should be the focus.
  • Presentation of organizing options. In turn, three facilitators each present one possible strategic approach that the participants might take. The options should be concise and very different -- to bring out basic differences in strategy. (5 mins.)
  • The three options from our use of this activity at a national conference of Carpenters activists:
    1. form a national caucus with a reform program to intervene at the international union convention with a "convention book" including a ten-point program for democracy and power in the UBC; prepare a few motions to put on floor of convention.
    2. organize committees locally to try to get control of regional union councils, focus on making changes (elect officers, change bylaws) at council/local level, don't make convention a priority.
    3. organize a single-issue national campaign for one member/one vote, try to unite all who agree with that idea, focus on the international union convention and bring petitions, literature, prepared motions, etc. about one member one vote, elect delegates.
    4. other...[we included this option on the handout for each group and in the presentation stressed that groups should feel free to add options.]
  • The facilitator then asks participants to divide into small groups based on the color of their folder. (Facilitators have randomly distributed folders of different colors as people sign in.) Each group has a facilitator who knows the plan and purpose of the activity.
  • Small groups discuss the options, list pros. and cons. of each one, assess it from the standpoint of their activism and experience. Note-takers keep track on main points on big paper that will be posted in main hall.
  • When groups finish, each participant "votes" (putting a sticker next to best option, posted on wall) for the option that s/he thinks is best for this group at this time. Participants are encouraged to write notes next to items, if necessary. (This is not a formal vote, just a poll to see what people are thinking.)
  • The big paper is posted, people circulate to see what other groups people chose/wrote.

Watch for:
There are many elements to this activity that need to be carefully developed in advance. The speaker needs to be able to speak clearly and simply with a focus on the main organizing points that participants might find useful. The organizing options need to be realistic and need to reflect the actual options facing the participants. This is the time to get at differences in strategy, so try to smoke them out. The small groups need facilitators who can keep the discussion moving. The sticker voting process requires facilitators who will constantly steer people to the wall to vote and encourage them to circulate to see the results. (People will want to take advantage of this time to talk with each other, take a break, make a phone call, etc. Facilitators can be a little pushy at this point.)

There are other techniques that could be used to discuss the options, including the mosh pit and problem tree activities. A debate could be helpful as well, though you want everyone to consider each option while a debate often reinforces polarizations and may make it harder for partisans of one view to consider the other view fairly.

I used this format in....

... the Forming of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, by Dan LaBotz, founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, author of Rank and File Rebellion, Troublemaker's Handbook, and other books. Dan LaBotz spoke on Rank-and-File Organizing, basic principles, how it got started in the Teamsters Union, the origins of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, keys to success... (20 mins.)

100 participants ... required a lot of prep...