[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]
[The featured image shows the Taft Bridge in Washington, D.C. Photo credit to Matt Blaze.]
Artist and organizer Ricardo Levins Morales speaks of sun spaces and moon spaces to explain how power is generated in some spaces but is merely derivative or reflected in others (in pamphlet form here, in a video here). I first heard about the concept when a fellow worker and organizer created a workshop of these ideas and brought them to a picket line where we were both on strike. I’ll apply his brilliant metaphor to relationship-based organizing and develop it in some other directions as well.
I’ll start by quoting Morales at length because he illustrates it so well:
By a “Moon Space” I mean the places like union negotiating tables, peace treaty negotiations, court rooms, legislatures, the places where contending forces try to settle their differences and come up with a decision.
I call them “Moon Spaces” because they don’t generate power. The moon doesn’t generate light – it reflects light from the sun.
The “Sun Spaces” are where the people are. The Sun Spaces are where the power is generated, where the movement, where the contending forces represented in those moon spaces get their energy and their strength from.
People who spend a lot of time in the Moon Spaces often come to believe that that’s where the power is, that that’s where the story is being written. They think of themselves, especially if they didn’t go in with a real strong power analysis, as being the spear when they’re really just the point of the spear, and the hands holding that spear are on the outside.
In order to really be able to take advantage of these spaces, there needs to be an organic connection.
It’s not so important whether it’s inside the system or outside the system, but whether your feet are firmly planted in the community where the power really originates. (emphasis in original)
I want to develop this idea further and really try to sharpen the lines whereby we see power being generated, being nurtured, being exercised, and those spaces where power is illusory, fleeting, or contingent.
In labor organizing, the community where our power originates is the workplace itself, which has two unique and distinguishing features: 1) The workplace is where workers spend the most time together, work with one another, and come to form relationships. 2) The workplace alone is where workers can come together to exert pressure by withholding their labor to stop production or can exert influence over production directly by implementing their own workplace policies.
Just as the sun generates light while the moon merely reflects it, the workplace is the “sun space” where worker power is generated. Any power that workers have, for it to be their own and real power and not just an illusion of power or power borrowed temporarily from another source, always comes from worker relationships in the workplace. The relationships themselves are where trust and solidarity come from and is what enables workers to take collective action to win demands. I’ll call workers “sun people”.
Then there are some outsiders who operate neither in the sun or the moon spaces, and I’ll call them the “satellites” because they move around outside of those spaces. The satellites can be helpful or detrimental, determined purely on whether they bolster worker power in the workplace by strengthening worker confidence and relationships or not. Lawyers, politicians, union organizing staff, lobbyists, nonprofits, social media pages and personalities, and so many others are the satellites. A lawyer may be helpful in suing an employer to get a worker their job back after an unfair firing, or a lawyer may be detrimental by trying to pressure workers to stop organizing and instead rely on the courts for winning demands.
Not always, but all too often, the satellites play the role of using workers and siphoning away their power instead of nurturing worker power. The satellites may try to get workers to depend on some outside resource, like the expertise of a lawyer or the social media following of a prominent personality, and distract workers from the relationships they have with each other in the workplace. The satellites usually aren’t doing this intentionally, but oftentimes they have an attitude that the workers are weak and childish on their own and thus need outside guidance or tools.
Typically, the further removed the outsider is from the workplace the more their interests differ from the workers and the more liable that person is to siphon away rather than nurture worker power. Politicians and lawyers are least likely to support worker power because their economic position and social relations in society are often leagues apart from that of workers organizing against their employers. In contrast, workers in the same industry across town or a group of customers who support a worker campaign or a group of parents who support striking educators or an org of community artists, these are the kind of people who are often closer to the workers in their material interests and class position. In any case, it’s central to remember none of these outsiders have union power themselves, but at their best can play a secondary role in nurturing power for workers.
Sometimes outside union organizers help workers build their confidence, skills, and connections in a way that empowers the workers to create stronger relationships of solidarity with each other, and when that happens, grassroots power is being nurtured. However, sometimes outside union organizers just come in and try to tell workers what to do, or even show them how to do it but without giving them influence over how it’s done. In these cases, power is not being nurtured or built, but is rather being bound, captured, and siphoned away from the workers themselves.
Then there are those people whose special authority is entirely contingent on the grassroots power of others, those who operate mostly in the moon spaces and who I’ll call the “moon people”. The moon people speak or act on behalf of workers. For labor organizing, this is usually union negotiators, elected union officials, and occasionally politicians who align themselves with workers. The moon people have no independent worker power of their own, and every bit of agency they do have rests on the power that workers built themselves through their relationships with each other. Just like the moon only reflects the light shined on it by the sun, so the moon people derive the entirety of their power from the sun people.
People in moon spaces are even more likely to betray grassroots power, because, as Morales says, they come to think that the moon space is where power is generated. They come to see themselves as the real power holders and the workers as just getting in the way when they aren’t doing what they’re told. When people in these positions are able to convince workers that it is the moon people that truly hold power, then the workers become mere bargaining chips or passive followers of the big-shot leaders who make the “real” decisions in the moon spaces.
The terrain of struggle that bosses prefer in their fight against workers is the moon space, or any place that is far away from the workplace. If coworkers aren’t talking to each other around the workplace about how to change the labor process to their advantage or threatening to withhold labor, that’s good for the bosses. Thus, bosses try to pull worker struggle out of the workplace where coworker relationships are strongest and into the union negotiating room, into the legal system, into the halls of government where workers are separated from each other. When workers outsource all of their agency and power to the moon people that’s when workers become helpless in the face of bureaucratic co-optation and capitalist control.
To avoid having their power siphoned away and to maintain their strength through relationships with coworkers, the orientation of the rank-and-file workers to moon people must be one of vigilant oversight, accountability, and discipline.
If the grassroots were to design their own institutions and organizations, I think we’d mostly do away with the specialized roles of the moon people (union negotiators, lawyers, politicians) who get sent far away from the workplace to discuss things behind closed doors with our bosses. While in an ideal grassroots org there’s still room for some degree of specialized roles, I think it would be far more limited than the systematic disempowerment of workers that happens in many unions today.
Often, moon people will try to bring in sun people into the moon spaces to distract from and sever the sun people from the true source of their power. Often, workers will be invited onto union negotiations teams or will be asked to testify in a labor court or will be asked to speak at a political rally. None of these are inherently bad, but they become so when workers who enter these moon spaces are then taught to think that the moon space is where the real power lies, and that they’ll be more effective in winning worker demands by neglecting the workplace and their coworkers and instead targeting their efforts at rallies, court rooms, and negotiations tables. Just as moon people can siphon power away from workers and the workplace, so too can workers siphon away the power of their coworkers when they are assimilated into moon spaces.
There are ways for workers to take collective action by circumventing the systems of mediation that typically govern “labor relations” where moon people are in control. When workers find their union leadership uninspiring, they often take the initiative themselves and lead “wildcat” strikes and other actions in defiance of union officials. When workers find union contracts unhelpful in creating fair working conditions, they can come together to create and enforce their own rules on the job.
But this isn’t always possible, and to the extent that we have to interact with these specialized roles and moon spaces at all because we’re stuck with them for the time being, the grassroots should at every instance be keeping the moon people in line and attacking them when they go against the grassroots.
Sun People and Moon Spaces in a Strike
I was on strike once with public school educators against our school district, and all of the roles noted in the previous section came out into the open in a way that aptly illustrates these concepts (credit to my aforementioned friend who first applied these ideas to the strike and which I build upon here). The strike took place across numerous worksites, the union negotiating team met with the employer negotiating team behind closed doors (due partly to public sector labor law that regulated this kind of strike activity), union staff were all around, and satellites of all kinds buzzed with activity. While the sun and moon metaphors are illuminating in showing how power works within social movements and organizations, it obviously is not a replacement for a class analysis but should be seen as a companion to it.
The picket lines were the sun spaces (right in front of the workplace) where the sun people (the workers) were generating their power. The relationships between coworkers were what kept the picket lines strong and viable. The bonds of personal affinity, political solidarity, financial mutual aid, and emotional support were the dimensions of these relationships which generated all of the power of the strike. The power generated from these relationships was then exercised in the form of the collective withholding of labor from the workplace.
Satellites involved in the strikes included union staff, community and political groups, students, and parents. The roles each of these satellite groups played illustrates the diversity of functions such agents can play. Union staff played coordinating roles for some strike bodies, particularly the picket line infrastructure. Some of this was helpful in empowering workers from each site with the skills and confidence to organize their coworkers on the picket lines. Other union staff played a pivotal role in organizing large rallies and influencing negotiations, and in many ways it seemed like these staff were taking agency away from workers who would have done things differently if they were given influence over this process themselves.
Some parent groups used their public platforms to shame the workers and push the district’s messaging during the strike. Some students took collective action to occupy district buildings in solidarity with the educators and to advance demands of their own on the district. Clearly, satellites aren’t inherently for or against the sun people. They can align themselves with a particular side, but their greatest leverage is in how their activity affects the morale, solidarity, and strength of the sun people’s relationships themselves. Whereas some parent groups hoped to fracture the unity of the striking educators, some students sought to bolster it.
The moon people were the union negotiating team and elected leadership who were acting and speaking on behalf of the strikers. The moon space here was especially shady, being as the negotiations were happening behind closed doors, which frustrated efforts by strikers to have access to important information and enabled the moon people to act autonomously and, many suspected, not in the best interests of the strikers. The resolution of the strike saw some gains but fell far short of expectations and was deeply disappointing to many of the workers. This opened up questions about what could have been differently and how the sun people could better advance and protect their interests against moon people in the future.
Morales’ allegory of the sun and moon spaces provides a powerful frame through which to interpret worker struggle and power, a frame that workers can use to challenge official narratives and traditional union authority. Fundamentally, the allegory derives its analytical potency from the way it centers relationships between coworkers as the locus of grassroots power and narrates how that power flows between the many other parties involved in social conflict.