Political organizing can sometimes feel like going over a waterfall. Things move too fast and there’s a hundred things running through your mind. This is the kind of organizing we’re often told stories about in media and which many of us try to emulate, consciously or not. Other times organizing can feel like sailing across the ocean with only the faintest breeze. You think through every possibility of how to speed things up but the situation dictates that you take a more steady approach.
I’ve had more than a few unflattering stray thoughts comparing the slow pace of organizing at my work with the pace of organizing at other people’s workplaces. But if your organizing isn’t the spitting image of impending revolution, that’s actually ok. If you’re putting in the effort and seeing progress, even if slow, your organizing can be as valuable as any other organizing.
[This piece was originally written for Regeneration Magazine.]
There’s a dissonance at the heart of the labor movement. On the one hand, contemporary labor unions were built on the back of militant worker struggle. For example, the massive strikes of the 1930s built the backbone of the present-day AFL-CIO. Any particular long-standing union, if you go far enough back in its history, you’ll find strikes that made the union. On the other hand, the labor movement of the present has been in retreat for decades, in large part aided by the passivity and cowardice of union officials and staff who have preferred to make concessionary deals and shy away from direct confrontation.
This dissonance expresses itself most when workers in a unionized workplace want to fight for better treatment and pay but the union leadership itself is either urging compromise with employers or is just ignoring the workers altogether. What are workers in these settings supposed to do? Some fellow workers and organizers of mine have developed the idea of a spectrum of organizing models for how to relate to your mainstream union, which I’m borrowing and putting my own spin on here.
With left groups on the rise across the country, there’s a hunger for ideas about how to relate our new formations to existing ones. While the dichotomy of working within the system versus working outside of it is a helpful starting point, as an ending point it erases an array of strategic options that fall in between. With the assumed goal of doing grassroots, action-oriented workplace organizing, this piece draws out a range of organizing models of how to relate to mainstream unions and factors that might help you choose between them. This article will provide information to help choose the organizing model that best facilitates the kind of workplace organizing given the particular conditions.
[This piece was originally written for and published on the blog organizing.work.]
In my first job after finishing college, I worked at a preppy private summer school in Los Angeles located two blocks from the mayor’s mansion. I was making barely above minimum wage while my student loan bills started to arrive, and I was given a full class of 6th graders despite having virtually no classroom teaching experience or training. My job entailed yelling at kids all day, not so harshly that I or the kids felt entirely miserable, but just harshly enough that they did their rote worksheets and my boss didn’t feel it necessary to come in and really humiliate the kids (and me). During the staff lunch break, which wasn’t really a break because we had to supervise the kids eating lunch, all the teachers complained to each other.
Looking back, I wish I had had basic organizing skills then because everything was out in the open and people wouldn’t have needed much persuasion to see what was wrong, or much nudging to do something about it.
However, since then I’ve personally felt stranded in my organizing at a string of after-school and education assistant jobs, because they didn’t match that image in my head of a shitty workplace. There are still plenty of problems, including chronic understaffing, lack of training, and falling wages. But between having nice bosses, working in an industry where we’re made to believe we “do it for the kids”, and pay and benefits being just good enough that few people are desperate, I have had a difficult time wrapping my head around organizing.
When I look into the face of a student, I see a human face. As an educator in schools there’s a feeling of responsibility that pulls on me to preserve their humanity, partly by my own efforts to make things fair and keep them safe in school and partly by helping them learn the skills to make things fair and keep themselves safe when they enter the “real” world. How to be faithful to the whole of a child’s current being and future potential is the daunting task all educators face. Even under perfect conditions this task is difficult enough. Under the conditions of the education system we find ourselves in this task is all too often impossible.
The multitude of problems in the school system leads any caring educator to ask larger questions about why things are the way they are. “Life’s not fair” is one answer, one we tell ourselves as often as we tell our students. If we don’t see agency in ourselves or in others, accepting the problems of the existing world as inevitable can be the first step in hardening ourselves and others as a strategy for mental and biological survival. “Life’s not fair, but…” accepts the world as it is in the present but makes space for the possibility of the world to be changed in the future.
When an educator looks a student in the eye, what about their economic relationship shapes what the educator sees? The educator is paid to be there and the student is compelled to be there to learn skills and get credentials that they’ll need later to get a job. These are partly class relations, relations of people in specific economic positions who encounter each other in the context of larger economic systems.
Link to open a PDF of this paper hosted on wordpress.com in a separate tab. This draft of the paper is dated 10/28/18.
This paper represents one part of a larger research project into the philosophy and science of structure which I’ve been pursuing for the last 4 years. This paper has been re-written numerous times over the last couple years and has been subject to a lot of fine-tuning, though I recognize that some of the arguments still require significant work. Any feedback or questions are most welcome.