Interview: Alexander Riccio


Alexander Riccio is a labor organizer based in Corvallis, Oregon. He co-hosts the podcast LabourWave Revolution Radio and is currently collaborating with the Common Space Collective on a project to revive the commons in the Willamette Valley.


What are the sorts of experiences that led you to become a union organizer?

I am asked this question, or a variation of it, a lot and I find it’s very difficult to answer. I think this is because when people ask, ‘how did you become an activist’ or ‘how did you become an organizer’ they seem to actually be asking ‘what is the secret to change people from being passive to active?’ At the risk of disappointing such earnestness, I do not think there is a secret formula we can learn that will magically turn people into activists or organizers. The process by which someone becomes who they are is one which covers an entire lifetime. While I believe there are cataclysmic moments, or events, that inevitably occur in a person’s life that will change the course of their personal trajectory, I think these are often less important occasions in a person’s development than we might like to believe. The experiences of everyday life are the ones that shape a person, and these often take on the appearance of monotony or lull, so much so that we tend to neglect how important such everyday life is for shaping a person’s perspective and steering them towards a life of passivity or action.


For me, I grew up primarily in a working-class house raised by a single-mother. My class background is complicated, because there were years where my mother re-married and her spouse slowly rose up the class ladder during their marriage. So I remember in one year I moved six times across three different states from apartment to apartment, and then we began moving less and our moves turned from one apartment to another to one condo to a rental house to a mortgaged home. There were years of stability, and then those years changed again to precarious living.


My experience as an adult has been one of precariousness to a slow and steady improvement in my class conditions (though not in a linear way) to where now I am modestly comfortable, but still very much a part of the working-class. All of this, which likely seems unremarkable, I think is tremendously important for the development of my political worldview.


I also grew up in a home where abuse at the hands of a former step-father was very common, which forced me to encounter the true ugliness of what some might refer to as “toxic masculinity.” I call it patriarchy. This was part of my everyday experience, and all of these things have shaped me and ultimately steered me toward organizing.


There were momentous events, as well, that directed me to organizing. Again, I don’t think on the whole these events were as important as the experiences of my everyday life, but they were still significant. The most significant single event, I believe, which guided me toward organizing was Occupy Wall Street. OWS sprang to life when I was twenty-three years old, working in a pizza restaurant where I made $8.50 an hour and had no healthcare (which was a particular challenge for me as I have chronic asthma). No one had to convince me that we live in a class society, but until OWS no one was saying things like “We are the 99%.” Once I heard that slogan it clicked for me that my material conditions as a wage-earner with no social safety net was a political relationship.

At the time of Occupy I was not yet ready to dive into activism and be a part of the movement, but I visited the encampments in Atlanta a couple of times and listened to people talk about a range of topics, from police brutality to the oppression of women to the dominance of the ruling class (the 1%), and then shortly after my visits the entire Occupy movement was brutally crushed by police. It was shocking to me at the time, and I realize in hindsight how naive I must have been to be shocked, but seeing the news for a week-straight of encampment after encampment being broken up by police and people getting the shit kicked out of them is something I’ll never forget. If you ever want to see me get ruffled, which I’m typically a pretty calm person, just tell me about how much “freedom” we have in the US to criticize our government.


I had to process what happened during Occupy for a while, I feel like at least a year, and then it became clear to me that I needed to get involved.


Who would you consider your organizing heroes and what did you learn from them that inspires you?

I’ve been very privileged in that I’ve had many great mentors who have helped guide me as an organizer. To sort of break the fourth wall here, two of my mentors who were quite honestly the biggest influences in my organizing are Tony Vogt and Joseph Orosco, the founders of the Anarres Project and two professors I had serve on my graduate school committee when I was a student. I also want to acknowledge Dr. Robert Thompson and Dr. Allison Hurst as great influences on me and my politics.


To me, there are two sides to the question of who are my “organizing heroes.” On the one side, there are those whose writings and political engagements have been inspiring and influential for me, and on the other side there are those who I have organized alongside that have inspired me and given me reason for hope. I feel that the latter are more foundational.


I’m impressed by the work of Jane McAlevey, Ursula le Guin, David Graeber, and many others. But, to sound a bit corny, my heroes are the ordinary people that I get to work alongside regularly. I’ve lived in Corvallis, Oregon now for over four years and I’ve been able to engage and work with so many people, and I continue to encounter new folks who are considerate and care about changing the world.


What inspires me the most is meeting someone and then getting to witness their own political development. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone who is completely new to organizing, and maybe thinks politics is a matter of voting for either a Democrat or Republican, and then have witnessed them become radicalized and tremendous leaders. It happens all the time.


These experiences help recharge my energy, because it reminds me that there are potential radicals everywhere and people are capable of enormous personal growth. As well, the vast majority of people that I’ve engaged with in political conversations, even when at first they’ve seemed like a conservative or apologist for the status quo, have proven to be incredibly sensitive and compassionate. Nurturing those qualities of compassion and sensitivity is a primary task for organizers. If we approach organizing from a framework where we recognize people as dynamic and not static, that they’re politics are not fixed but always changing, then we can begin to start recognizing, as John Holloway puts it, “the rebellion in each and every one of us.”


Since we’re all potential agents of change, then we don’t really need to rely on the heroics of a few individual people to inspire us, and really we probably limit ourselves when we’re searching for those few famed heroes because likely the heroes we’re searching for are right in front of us all along.


What gives you hope for the future?

In addition to the things I’ve said about every person’s extraordinary capacity for change, what gives me hope is the fact that capitalism is not stable. Its power seems inescapable, but in fact the systems of domination we all live under are unstable and have many weaknesses.


I always make the following point when people slip into despair and fatalism, which is a particularly big problem for Leftist intellectuals (the ghost of Foucault perhaps): if capitalism were so absolutely powerful then why is it necessary to keep innovating techniques of surveillance and social control? In fact, why is it necessary for all the police and policing if the status quo were so total?


I make this point to highlight that capitalism is always having to conspire new ways of trying to control people because we are always rebelling against it, and as far back as written history one finds that there is a constant rebellion by ordinary people against any system of domination they live under. Silvia Federici points out that capitalism itself emerged as a counter-revolution to explosive liberation movements happening in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Maybe it’s just as plausible as any other claim about human nature to suggest that part of human nature is the refusal to be oppressed? The tendency latent in humans to refuse their subordination is something that continues to fuel my commitment to organizing, because while the future is not predetermined something we can reasonably assume as a given is that people will continue to fight against any forms of injustice we collectively encounter. Because of the human drive toward rebellion, capitalism is not stable. So that’s hope. The harder challenge is how to maximize such refusal into something at the scale we need to overturn this rotten system.


What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social/economic justice in the future?

I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people are capable of personal growth stimulated by their empathy for others, but what we encounter today is an incredibly isolating society where public space is steadily shrinking and the opportunities for people to connect with one another on a face-to-face basis are disappearing. When we are alienated in such a way, it becomes incredibly easy for people to dehumanize each other, because we don’t have to see each other’s lives and experiences as fundamentally human. In other words, attaining justice will require that we begin recognizing each other as human beings.


Part of how power is embodied is through the display of who gets to be considered human and who doesn’t. Within feminist theory there is the concept of “interpretative labor,” where what these thinkers have explored is how people who are oppressed are constantly in the position of having to identify the emotional needs of their oppressors. Oppressed people do this as a strategy for survival.


What this means is that we’re constantly looking through the gaze of the powerful in order to empathize with their so-called plight (consider here the despicable notion of the “white man’s burden” coined by Rudyard Kipling used as a pretext for invading foreign countries).


I remember one specific conversation I had in a classroom where I began talking about how difficult the labor and life of a farmworker is and how CEOs of big banks are not creating socially valuable goods that we can actually eat, and therefore we should be paying farmworkers more than CEOs when someone immediately said, “But those CEOs have hard jobs, and it can be really stressful to be a CEO.” What about the stress for the worker in the fields being paid poverty wages?


Coming back to my original point, I think these struggles to be recognized as human are really rooted in the structures of everyday life and the inability for people to have regular meaningful contact with one another. If we could start creating spaces where people can come together to relate to each other as humans, then I think we’ll begin making progress on these fronts.


Take up space.

Take it all.


I think one of our immediate tasks in fighting capitalism is to transfer as much private space as possible into public space, and as much public space as possible into the commons. And when we begin to start thinking about the commons, we can really enlarge our collective imagination about just what these spaces might look like and what they could mean. Common spaces could be seed exchanges and community gardens, open software programs and a collectively owned internet, they could be communes or cooperative workplaces, land trusts for sustainable farming or housing, and they could even be cooperatively owned laundry mats with free libraries and free educational classes.


The absence of shared spaces really fatigues our social movement energies, and I think if we begin to start creating spaces which can be for the purpose of organically reproducing our movement energies and relating to one another on a human level then we can shatter our collective alienation and really build a better world.


What books or movies would you recommend people study to learn about organizing and social change?

There are so many great books to read, but I’ll share a few that have been particularly impactful for me. John Holloway’s In, Against, and Beyond Capitalism; Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power; adrienne maree brown’s Emergent StrategiesOur Word is Our Weapon a collection of works by the Zapatistas, David Graeber’s The Democracy Project; Andrew Cornell’s Oppose and Propose; Grace Lee Bogg’s The Next American Revolution; and for a great encyclopedia of key radical terms and ideas I love the collection Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle.


For movies, the series Trouble put out by is spectacular and I love the films, Tout Va Bien with Jane Fonda and directed by Costa-Gavras. I also really like movies like It and A Bug’s Life because they have very clear messages on inequality and the power of collective action— just think about it.


But for all the great books and films one can learn about social movements, nothing really beats the education you’ll receive by getting involved with a group, whether that means joining an existing group or creating a new one. So for folks that are looking to gain more insights and education on how social change happens, the best way is to put yourself out there and start forming relationships with people in your area that are passionate like you are. I know for many this is daunting because we can feel like we don’t know enough, we’re not educated on political matters, we don’t have anything to say or our own original ideas, and we don’t have the experience all of which may make one feel very insecure. But, speaking as an organizer, I can guarantee you that you’re not alone in this feeling and the people that present themselves as super confident, cool, and knowledgeable on every little thing often are full of shit because we’re all really trying to figure this out as we go. Like the Zapatistas say, “walking we ask questions.”


(Interview with Joseph Orosco, February 2018)


Locals Insurgency: A Call to Action for Unionists

By Alex Riccio (January 22, 2018)


A pending Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, is all but guaranteed to pass in favor of the plaintiff. This decision will make Right to Work (aka Right to Greed) laws a national standard. For many who are involved in organized labor, this prospect is viewed as a threat to the very survival of unions. To prepare for “doomsday,” as I’ve heard it described, large unions have plans to cut staff by upwards of 30%. Unfortunately, this seems to be the bulk of their strategy.

Despite how common it is to hear about the decline of the labor movement, I don’t view Janus as the death of unions in the US. Or, to be more precise, I don’t think it has to mean the death of unions. Instead, it could prove to be a catalyst for the sorts of ambitious changes we need to revitalize the labor movement, and to feel confident in describing it as a ‘movement’ again.

Rather than posing a threat to the very survival of unions, Janus exposes the limits of one particular form of unionism; business unionism. Indeed, business unionism, the standard in organized labor today, has been a walking zombie for decades unaware (or possibly in denial) of its own undead condition. Come Spring, the zombie head will be lopped off once and for all.

While there’s no reason to mourn the killing of a zombie, now is not the time to wait and watch for what happens next; it’s time to create power. Two hurdles need to be overcome for labor to get back to being a movement—the working-class movement. Unions must develop an identity which goes beyond narrowed workplace concerns, and visionary rank-and-filers need to mount insurgencies against their parent union bureaucracies to take over the reins of leadership.

Partly to explain the existential dread amid many a unionist today is their inability to imagine union models outside the narrowed parameters of wage increases and grievance filings. Described as “Gomperism,” or “business unionism,” this approach to union organizing is geared toward winning contracts at all costs and is fixated on adding new members, all the time, to the union.

Union density has declined dramatically since the 1970s, but the bulk of labor’s problem is not with the number of unionized workers. There are millions of workers in unions in the US. The core problem, as thoroughly detailed in The Death and Life of American Labor by Stanley Aronowitz, is the lack of radical imagination within organized labor today.

I have personally been a part of grassroots organizations operating with zero dollars and sometimes as few as five people. Such scarcity did not prevent them from accomplishing tremendous victories. Unions have resources, people, and (most importantly) labor-power. Imagine, for a moment, the possibilities.

What if unions shifted the millions of dollars they dump into the Democrat party into the creation of cooperative living establishments? For union members, they would have access to lowered-rents or previously unavailable home ownership in areas where their neighbors are their union comrades (yes, they could begin seeing them as comrades instead of only co-workers).

Imagine, also, that they link these union neighborhoods with land trusts for sustainable farming, along with recreational centers for children and families. Such initiatives could go a tremendous way in capturing housing and food security for millions of workers and families across the country. Just think of the additional time people could have for engaging in civic matters without having to worry as much about their housing and food needs!

Above is simply one small thought experiment that began with the recognition that housing needs are union issues (something Gomperism does not often understand). Notice how quickly it expanded into a nearly utopian vision of possibilities. Unionists should do more of such imagining, and take time in their organizing for it. There are nearly limitless ways to reimagine the shape of unionism, but the best sorts of visions are those which come out of group conversations over needs and desires. Take the time for such envisioning. Resist the trap of constant ‘business’ meetings or before long you’ll be taking on the form of a zombie!

Labor cannot simply turn to community building alone. In order to fundamentally reshape the identity of mainstream unionism, any vision for a different kind of labor movement must center their strategies for accomplishing such visions through utilizing a union’s greatest weapon: strikes.

Jane McAlevey has explained perfectly the root of workers’ labor-power; to paraphrase, “the boss doesn’t need you as a worker, the boss needs you and all of your co-workers.” Strategies within organized labor need to consistently build toward strikes of all varieties—wildcat strikes, general strikes, single-day strikes, etc.—if they are to accomplish the kinds of radical gains necessary to mobilize the movement of the working-class.

In many ways, the work of rethinking organized labor’s identity simply requires learning our own union histories, which are ripe with working-class radicalism. Meaning the task is not really so daunting after all. What, then, explains the entrenched conservatism and staid routine within labor? Short answer—comfortable leadership buffered by bureaucratic regulation (both externally and self-imposed).

Yet, true as this may be, the rank-and-file can still reenergize their unions. Even though organized labor is bogged down by egotistical leaders (pointing at Richard Trumka) and a lot of pointless bureaucracy, on the whole unions are still very democratic. Indeed, the degree of democracy present in the labor movement (particularly in one’s own local) is measurably greater than what passes for “democracy” in the US electoral arena.

The story of CORE (the Caucus of Rank and File Educators) based in Chicago is instructive. They educated themselves on union history and neoliberalism, crafted an ambitious platform for reshaping their unions, developed a strategy oriented toward utilizing strikes, and then ran their own candidates for positions within their union leadership—and won. With their vision and leadership, CORE was able to revitalize their union and even beat back an assault hurled against them by the most powerful mayor in the country and former Obama Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel.

An open secret within organized labor is that radicals, socialists, anarchists, and communists are present in every union, and they are often great unionists. McCarthyism, which was facilitated by labor’s turn to Gomperism, still terrifies many of these folks to the point of their own self-censorship. Imagine if there was a groundswell of such radicals taking over leadership positions in organized labor. Forget about reforming the Democrat party, let’s radicalize the labor movement instead!

To the visionaries within labor: start an insurgency. Place yourselves at the vanguard of the labor movement, take advantage of the catalyst which you are being offered in the form of Janus, and enable labor to proclaim itself as what it can and should be—the vehicle for a working-class revolution.

I encourage folks to explore these ideas more and recommend this short list of works as something of a beginning:


Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward New Worker’s Movement (London: Verso, 2014).

Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

David Bacon, A Radical Vision for Today’s Labor Movement, Monthly Review 2009

Janaé Bonsu, A Strike Against the New Jim Crow, Dissent Magazine 2017



Radicals: Don’t Ignore the General Strike!

By Alex Riccio (February 6, 2017)


The rise of Trump and the alt-right has exposed fascism’s ability to creep into spaces of political and social power within the United States. “The ‘fascist creep,’” writes Alexander Reid Ross in his new book on the topic, “refers to the porous borders between fascism and the radical right, through which fascism is able to ‘creep’ into mainstream discourse.” Not only does it creep into discourse, but through techniques of infiltration fascism is capable of creeping all the way to the White House. But as I think about this process of right-wing slides into fascism, I can’t help but pose that since the election of Trump we have been witnessing the potential for creeping socialism (even of the anarchist variety) as well.

One can point to the flurry of polls which suggest that millennials are more favorable to socialism than to capitalism, the surprise success of Bernie Sanders primary run despite his willingness to embrace “democratic socialism,” the permanent discursive imprint left by OWS disparaging the 1%, and a host of other political developments which suggest that the socialist creep may be on the rise. In recent months we have also witnessed an explosion of social protest, making the times ripe with opportunities for socialism to creep in even more. I imagine that some of your liberal friends have suddenly become more receptive to direct action, punching neo-nazis in the face, and even disavowing the Democrat party in the face of their passive resistance (and here I’m being kind) to Trump’s onslaught of authoritarian maneuvers. Such changes in liberal sentiment reveal openings in the political imagination, and I point this out to encourage the Left to think of proposed events like the upcoming General Strike as possibilities for radicalizing liberals, and deepening the roots of a socialist creep.

Obviously, and here I harbor no illusions, the strike on Feb. 17 is going to be far from what we desire—an event where organized labor surges, workers shut down whole industries, and our objectives are much more appetizing than the strange jumble of demands this present strike is calling for (I mean, who really cares about Trump’s taxes? We know he’s a thief, all capitalists are crooks).

But this call has been made, and promoted, mostly by liberals who are inexperienced or unaware of the long history, and hard work, that has generated massive disruptions like the list of labor strikes outlined by Alex Gourevitch in his critical article on the matter. Before leaping to impugn proposals which have inspired swaths of the population we radicals have been struggling to energize, let’s see this upcoming protest as an opportunity to reach folks where they are at in the process of their political development and facilitate this process as best as we can.

Remarking on the deluge of derisions against the Women’s March after inauguration day, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor writes that such actions are more “the beginning, not the end.” She continues, “movements do not come to us from heaven, fully formed and organized. They are built by actual people, with all their political questions, weaknesses and strengths.”

Therefore, she concludes, if you think these actions aren’t radical enough, then do something about it. I can think of no better advice for those experiencing discomfort with present calls for a General Strike.

Racism, Capitalism, and the Prison System

As part of the Allied Students for Another Politics! Radical teach in series, Dr. Robert Thompson and OSU graduate students, Zandro Lerma, and Amber Moody discuss the connections between capitalism, racism, and the prison-industrial-complex.  Co-sponsored by the Anarres Project for Alternatives Futures. Continue reading “Racism, Capitalism, and the Prison System”

We Won’t Pay: How Debtors Unions and Strikes Can Lead the Fight for Tuition Free Education

As part of the Allied Students for Another Politics!’s Fall Radical Teach In series, a panel that explores the reasons for hikes in tuition, the explosion of student debt, and how we can collectively lead the fight to abolish student debt and create a tuition-free university. Continue reading “We Won’t Pay: How Debtors Unions and Strikes Can Lead the Fight for Tuition Free Education”

Revolutionary Unions and the Abolishment of Wage Slavery

The first event in the “Radical Visions towards Another Politics” Series was a discussion on Revolutionary Unions and the Abolition of Wage Slavery hosted by the Corvallis Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.). Continue reading “Revolutionary Unions and the Abolishment of Wage Slavery”

Black Lives Matter: A Two Hundred Year Old Spirit


By Alex Riccio (September 15, 2015)


9 August 2014; eighteen-year-old Mike Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson and left face down on a public street for four and a half hours before being processed into a local morgue. (1, 2) The murder of Mike Brown proved a catalyst for the revival of a black-led liberation movement with roots in preceding Abolitionists, Civil Rights, and Black Power! movements. Continue reading “Black Lives Matter: A Two Hundred Year Old Spirit”

Interview: John Lindsay-Poland

John Lindsay-Poland has been active in movements for Latin American human rights and solidarity and demilitarization of US policy. He currently coordinates the Wage Peace program in San Francisco of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization founded in 1917 that promotes peace and non-violence. He resides in Oakland, California. Continue reading “Interview: John Lindsay-Poland”

Chains of Debt


By Alex Riccio

On March 3rd student organizers from Allied Students for Another Politics (ASAP!) hosted an ambitious event: a Strike Debt Assembly. The core purpose of this assembly was to gather together students with like-minded opponents of rising tuition costs and debt oppression (specifically student debt oppression) in order to envision a world with open and accessible colleges, then develop strategies for attaining our vision. Continue reading “Chains of Debt”

Debt Manifesto: Allied Students for Another Politics!


The following is a manifesto issued by ASAP!, the Allied Students for Another Politics!, a group of student organizers at Oregon State University, as a statement of purpose for their planned action on March 3, 2015. Continue reading “Debt Manifesto: Allied Students for Another Politics!”

Fantasy Might Make Another World Possible


By Alexander Riccio

In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology David Graeber dedicates some time to the historical development of current anarchistic societies within Madagascar, which he explains happened as an insurrectionary response to the unsuspecting Malagasy government. Continue reading “Fantasy Might Make Another World Possible”