More Than A Memoir: Acuff’s new book defends the ‘absolute necessity’ of organizing

Stewart Acuff is the author of the new book “Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing.”

In his new book, “Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing,” Stewart Acuff looks back on his 35-year career as a community, political and union organizer, including a stint as organizing director of the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, from 2001 to 2008. Acuff is quick to point out, however, that the book is more than a memoir. It is also a call to arms and a defense of organizing as an “absolute necessity” to the survival of the nation’s labor and progressive movements.

Acuff, who now serves as chief of staff for the Utility Workers Union, is in Minnesota this week promoting his book. He will appear at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7 p.m. Wednesday, along with local authors Jack Nelson-Pallmayer and Joanne Boyer.

Acuff spoke yesterday with The Union Advocate from Duluth, where he was scheduled to give a reading at the Paul Wellstone Hall. Here are selected excerpts from our interview.

Union Advocate: You’re in Minnesota to promote your new book, a memoir of your career as a community and labor organizer. What lessons or knowledge are you hoping readers gain from your personal story?

Stewart Acuff: Some people describe it (as a memoir), but there’s nothing personal in it. It’s mainly about campaign struggles, fights I’ve been in over the last 35 years… Each chapter is a different struggle and fight and what we did to win. I don’t think I put any losses in it (laughing).

There’s a very interesting chapter on the huge fight we had to unionize the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which we won. It was actually labor’s biggest victory in the South. There’s a big chapter on my time as a United Nations election observer in Sierra Leone … and how I almost got killed there. There’s a chapter on non-violent civil disobedience, and there’s a chapter on politics… There’s a chapter on strikes. There’s a kind of “do’s and don’ts” for organizers …

It’s getting good reviews. People like it. I also have a website,, which is just chock full of poetry I’ve been writing a lot of lately.

UA: I didn’t know you wrote poetry.

SA: I don’t do it regularly. I’m in a spate of it right now. Some writer once said, ‘If you want to write, write everything,’ so I’ve been doing a little free verse poetry for this year and last year… There’s some more personal stuff in there… I’m less careful with it than I was with the books, more expressive. And I will read a little bit of poetry (at Common Good Books).

Acuff’s new book is available on Minneapolis-based Levins Publishing.

UA: Who is your target audience with this book, and what are you trying to tell them?

SA: It’s all progressives. The point is basically, there’s two kinds of power… There’s the power of organized money, which is ruining our country right now. And there’s the power of organized people. And we have got to organize people right now. There’s more of us than there is of them, which the Occupy Movement has re-taught us. If we’re organizing, we can make this a much more just and fair country and society, with prosperity for all.

UA: Why write this book at this point in time?

I was sort of at a good point to look back. I wrote my first book (“Getting America Back to Work,” with University of Minnesota economist Richard Levins), and then I thought, this is a good time to sort of define my career and try to teach my lessons and maybe inspire some young organizers, I hope, and talk to progressives in the country about the absolute necessity of organizing…

There’s probably more truth written in this book about the (AFL-CIO and Change to Win) split than has ever been written before, too. I managed the split for the AFL-CIO, the politics of it and the media of it. I thought this is a time that makes sense to draw some lessons and to talk about it… I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time to watch history. This was probably the right place and the right time to record some of it.

UA: Any highlights from the split that will surprise people or pique people’s interest?

SA: One of the hardest things about the split was that it occurred at the AFL-CIO convention. I was running the floor of the convention, and I had to accept and sign for the letters of disaffiliation from my union, SEIU, and the Teamsters.

One of the unfortunate things about the split, besides the fact that it weakened us, was that it dominated labor news, and it was absolutely the wrong thing for union members and the general public to be talking about – the byzantine, arcane world inside labor. I blame myself every day that I didn’t turn more of those debates and more of those interviews into a discussion about why the labor movement is needed now more than ever and how to rebuild it, instead of just arguing about our inside business.

UA: It’s clear that writing this book required a lot of self-reflection. How difficult was that process?

SA: It was at times a painful process. I’m 57, so I’m obviously closer to 60 than I am to 50, and it’s kind of a reminder that you don’t have that much longer. So it was a very interesting process to write, and it brought back tons of memories, most of them good, some of them not.

UA: You’ve worked at all levels of the labor movement, from local unions to the national AFL-CIO. From your standpoint, is the union movement as committed to organizing workers as it needs to be in order to survive?

SA: No, we’re not. We’re not as committed to organizing as we need to be. And that’s been a struggle for a long time. I spent 10 years working on that, and in two of those 10 years we had the greatest growth we’ve had in a generation. We know we can organize, but it’s damn hard – and it’s really damn hard in a recession.

As the organizing director, I was more concerned with systemic change that would allow workers to organize without as much retaliation and interference from the boss… It’s not enough to win one campaign at a time. We’ve got to change the terrain, we’ve got to change the climate, we’ve got to change the playing field. What stopped us (from passing the Employee Free Choice Act), frankly, were the deaths of Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd… We just couldn’t get them to the Senate floor at the same time. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over that.


  1. […] Acuff spoke yesterday with The Union Advocate from Duluth. Read excerpts from the interview. […]

  2. […] This interview is cross-posted at The Union Advocate […]

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