Sunday, November 11, 2012

Practicing our scales

I think we need a deeper conversation about how organizers can think of our work as cultural work, and how (left) cultural workers can think of their work as organizing

The day after Obama was first elected, in 2008, I had a deep sinking feeling, and was incredibly depressed all day. Don't get me wrong — the night before I was caught up in all of the excitement of, among other things, a Democrat winning Virginia and North Carolina, and a sense that a small but significant victory had been won over white supremacy. But while Obama had always been pretty clear that he was a candidate of the center-right — he was just going to be smarter about pursuing imperialism abroad and austerity at home than Bush was — I could just see the widespread politicization and popular mobilization that characterized the last few years of the Bush administration dissolving into vagues "hopes" for "change." Having been a Reagan-era kid who was caught up in the excitement of Clinton's election in 1992 (as, I might add, the first president from the modern working class), I had seen this movie before.

This time around, I am cautiously optimistic that things will be better. The labor movement seems to understand the need to fight the austerity measures being proposed by both parties in the upcoming "fiscal cliff" negotiations, the remnants of Occupy (still organized enough to do a better job than FEMA in Hurricane Sandy relief) are not exactly lining up for cabinet positions, and the sector of the left that I identify with most strongly — the independent community- and worker-based organizations that make up such alliances as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice and Jobs with Justice — seem to be very clear on the need to both maintain independence from the Democratic party while building broad alliances.

However, none of this really matters if we can't, as it's often put, "organize to scale." Having been in and around conversations on this question as a staff person at NDWA, a leader and strategist at the Vermont Workers Center, and a pretty much lifelong member of the United Electrical Workers union, I thought now would be an opportune time to put down some of my thoughts on, um, paper.

* * *

1. Relevance

One line of thinking about "organizing to scale" looks at the organizations which have scale — trade unions, churches, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, etc. — and focuses on their relevance to people's day to day lives. Unions represent workers in their dealings with their bosses, churches provide a sense of community, address spiritual needs and increasingly act as the only social safety net around (as public programs are defunded), Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services, the NRA gives people access to gun safety classes, shooting ranges, etc. The American Association of Retired Persons is, essentially, an insurance program. These organizations collectively have millions of members, and can still wield significant power in the electoral arena.

I think that in some sense, this analysis is spot-on. For a dozen years, I worked in a small shop with fairly high turnover. The likelihood that any of my co-workers would have ever gotten involved in any "movement" activities through their own social networks, or through being leafletted or door-knocked, is, I think, pretty small. The union gives us three things. First, it gives people an experience of collective action through the grievance and bargaining process. Second, it essentially forces people to take on leadership roles ("someone's gotta step up and be the steward, people"). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it gives us a shared cultural context and identity which allows a college-educated dorky political guy in his 30s to engage younger hipsters and older working-class folks in political discussion and action.

But I think that, in a deeper sense, this analysis is deeply un-historical. Quite simply, trade unions, churches, Planned Parenthood and the NRA did not get to be the size that they are by behaving the way they currently behave. If that were the case, they'd still be growing, right? — something that is most emphatically not happening to the labor movement. We can rightly fault the particular weaknesses of the American labor movement, but the reality is that labor movements are in crisis throughout most of the world. *(but more on the recent growth of mega-churches below)

This is not to say that the existing mass organizations (trade unions especially) should not continue to try to organize, or that our smaller, more ideological and grassroots organizations shouldn't try to figure out ways to be more relevant to our members' (and potential members') day-to-day lives. We should just think carefully about how we're doing that — and we should be especially wary of strategies that rely on, essentially, modern mass-marketing techniques.

* * *

2. Participation

The labor movement couldn't have grown by offering workers collective bargaining and grievance handling — before collective bargaining was widely established (in the railroads in the late 19th/early 20th century, in mass industry in the 40s, in the public sector in the 70s, etc.), unions simply didn't have the power to "offer" representation to workers. While there are some unions that can organize this way in some industries today through card-check agreements, or political deals, anyone who has been through a knock-down drag-out organizing campaign — especially any successful one — knows that the one thing that is absolutely essential to organizing is a strong, representative organizing committee of committed leaders from inside the shop, who know and can move their co-workers.

I'm most familiar with the labor history of the CIO, which established collective bargaining in America's mass production industries in the 1930s and 1940s — and this pattern certainly holds. We frequently complain about how hard it is to organize workers under our "broken labor law" — and certainly the psychological sophistication of the multi-million-dollar union-busting industry is much greater now than it was then — but the reality is that workers in the 30s on the whole faced much more difficult conditions and "stuck with the union" for much longer, with much less in the way of "services," than we expect workers to do today. When my union, the UE, was founded in 1936, only one of the seventeen independent locals that gathered in Buffalo to form a new union in their industry had a contract. The United Auto Workers — founded a year earlier — didn't win a collective bargaining agreement with Ford until 1941, and only after suffering, among other things, direct violence at the hands of company goons.

What kept folks going? There's a variety of theories (and different unions had different organizational cultures), but crucial to the initial organizing of UE locals — much of which was initially underground, kept secret from the boss — was a structure of stewards organizing small groups of workers in each department. To this day, UE policy is that there should be a minimum of one steward for every ten workers, and some shops have even more.

These stewards were not people who "enforced the contract" — there was no contract initially — or navigated a bureaucratic grievance procedure. They were, fundamentally, rank and file workers who stepped up and took responsibility for leading a small group of their co-workers, in manageable tasks such as collecting dues and, frequently, organizing direct, collective confrontations with the foreman in the department. Numerous oral histories testify to the importance of these confrontations — of, in modern left-speak, people participating in their own collective liberation — in maintaining loyalty to the union.

These stewards networks in the UE and in the early UAW (and in many other industrial unions) not only kept the union alive when it had little to "offer" its members, they also created a culture of vibrant democracy within the unions and opportunities for women and workers of color to step up to leadership at a time when local officers were almost always white men. It was precisely the establishment of collective bargaining (and, it must be said, the eagerness of many union leaders to be incorporated into the power structures of the capitalist state) that, in most unions, turned the steward from a leader into a bureaucrat, and, in many unions like the UAW, eliminated their shop-floor power altogether.

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3. (counter-)Culture

My wife grew up in the Church of Christ (not to be confused with the liberal United Church of Christ). She was never a liberal, she pretty much went directly from Republican-voting Christian to Marxist. We often talk about how for her, growing up in a culture that had a strong sense of values that countered the materialism of the dominant culture made it a lot easier for her to recognize the deep inhumanity of capitalism, once exposed to a Marxist critique of it. (To be transparent, the other members of her family are all over the map, politically).

Similarly, when I think about why the UE is so different from the rest of the American labor movement, and had such a transformative effect on me, there are plenty of structural reasons, sure — the ongoing commitment to a grassroots steward system, strict rules on preserving democracy within the union, frequent opportunities for local leaders to get together regionally — but I keep coming back to the culture of the organization. As just one example, UE meetings are officially run using Roberts Rule of Order, but they are far more participatory than many of the lefty "convergences" and "spokescouncils" and so forth I've been at that are run through consensus, with lots of agreements and ground rules and sitting in circles and so forth. This, I think, because there is a deep culture of leadership which sees the role of the person with the gavel as facilitating discussion and building consensus.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that the UE's organizational culture is the end-all and be-all; it is a culture that comes out of industrial trade unionism, and I don't think that trade unionism alone is going to get us where we need to go. But I think we need to think about organizational culture seriously, and especially think about how it connects to broader cultural struggles.

We talk a lot about "culture" on the left, while simultaneously bemoaning how we don't incorporate it enough into our work. But I think we have too narrow an understanding of culture. We frequently have an admiring but ultimately utilitarian and tokenizing relationship to artists or "cultural workers" — we open our meetings with the reading of a poem, or have a mural painted on our building, or ask musicians to play benefits for our organization. Or we get everyone singing — before we get down to the "real job" of presenting a panel discussion or hashing out who is going to be overworked by how much at a staff meeting. Or we try to get broader exposure for our issues by linking it to a bit of popular culture or enlisting a celebrity to back our case.

All of which is good, but what we don't do is see cultural work as the work of transforming how people think, how people see the world and relate to each other.

Social transformation is complex and contradictory, and the tools that we use — leaflets, YouTube videos, online petitions, marches, rallies, occupations and strikes — simply can't hold all of that complexity and contradiction. At least not the way that stories, music, poetry, and the other arts can. And I think this is important, especially in the current moment when we need to hold both a sense of victory from the elections and a realistic assessment of the Obama administration and the Democrats.

This is not simply an encouragement for "organizers" and "cultural workers" to rethink how we relate to each other — though we should certainly always keep having that conversation. I think we need a deeper conversation about how organizers can think of our work as cultural work, and how (left) cultural workers can think of their work as organizing — and how we can all build a movement, and organizations, that are relevant, participatory and deeply (counter-)cultural.

* * *

One of the pieces I keep thinking about is this New Yorker article about Rick Warren, one of the most successful leaders of the "mega-church" movement. The mega-churches (unlike the unions, or the traditional churches) have actually been growing, and most importantly, they have been growing in the places that most embody the tearing-apart of the social fabric that has been characteristic of neoliberalism. You should go read the whole article, but what I take from it is that mega-churches combine all three of the elements I discussed above - relevance (meeting people's needs for community, spirituality and frequently for material assistance), participation (in small groups, doing manageable tasks), and a strong culture that counters (some aspects of) the dominant materialistic culture of neoliberal America.

Christian mega-churches, of course, benefit from already having one of the most market-tested stories ever told — and one that has, over the millenia, easily adapted itself to not challenging hierarchies. We don't have anything that can compete. Yet. But that is our challenge.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


This week, the internet — at least the tiny section of it where I hang out — has been consumed with a conversation about care and the movement. Building off an article written last summer by my awesome co-worker Yashna, my colleague B. wrote a piece called An End to Self Care, which was published at the beginning of the week and prompted a slew of responses. In response, the good folks at Organizing Upgrade started a Community Care channel on their website, to further the discussion.

If you haven't read those pieces yet, you should go do so. Now. Especially Yashna's original piece. They are incredibly thoughtful, brilliant and heartfelt pieces — way above the standard of writing here at Domestic Left — and I can't really do them justice in a quick summary. But speaking most broadly, as Yashna puts it in her introduction to the new community care channel, it is a "conversation about our capacity to survive and thrive, individually and collectively," as part of social movements that often demand, or seem to demand, insane amounts of work.

* * *

The most interesting thing I found about this conversation, as I read the pieces, was that of all of them, I had the most visceral (in a positive way) reaction to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's piece, "For Badass Disability Justice, Working-Class and Poor-Led Models of Sustainable Hustling for Liberation." Which was odd, because I am none of those things (demographically I'm pretty much a Republican's dream American, middle-class, home-owning white guy with a wife and two kids), and, when I'm honest about it, not particularly good at connecting with people from widely different backgrounds.

Thinking more on this, though, brought me back to the fact that my foundational politicization was in the labor movement — specifically, for most of my adult life I've been a rank and file member of UE. For many years I served in various leadership capacities, and for eleven years, my wife worked for the union. And, while we certainly worked too hard, occasionally to the level of taking a toll on our relationship, we were constantly surrounded by a culture of struggle over work hours, and over time (something that my shop, in particular, was pretty militant about). While I would frequently bust my ass going to meetings outside of "work time," I certainly wasn't going to let my boss schedule me outside of my union-contract-enforced availability, or even make me work too hard when I was on the clock.

This is, of course, not a suggestion that we should bring that attitude to work when we're employed by movement organizations (in fact, I do think it is problematic when organizers, who often expect members to spend hours every week doing work for the union or movement on top of their regular job, insist on working a strict 40 hour week). But I do think we should ask ourselves the question, do our movements really have a political program around work?

The labor movement was arguably founded, not even so much on struggles for higher wages, as on the struggle for the eight hour day — and one of the slogans for the eight hour day was "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will." For what we will. Workers in the nineteenth century demanded a right to leisure, as a whole, as a class. Are any of our movements today that audacious?

Certainly the labor movement has given up any serious attempt to shorten the workday or workweek on a political level — although the best parts of it still struggle on the shop-floor level against mandatory overtime, against speedup and for rights to do union business (including educational activities) during the workday. And, as Piepzna-Samarasinha writes so eloquently, working-class and poor people, people with disabilities, women, and other oppressed classes have both individual and community strategies to resist encroachments on their time and liberty by bosses and the state (and, though they don't mention this explicitly, husbands/partners, parents, etc.). What movements do, at their best, is raise up the resistance strategies of the oppressed and not only transform them into collective demands, but into visions of a better society that can capture the imaginations of huge numbers of people and move them to action.

* * *

A piece of B.'s article that came in for a lot of critique was the invocation of "a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly." This is, on the face of it, quite terrifying. But I also want to interrogate it from a different angle — do our movements really value all work?

I don't mean to generalize from my own experience, but I actually find straight-up leisure kind of boring. If I'm reasonably well-rested, then I'm going to be puttering around the kitchen doing food prep, or reading Organizing Upgrade, or talking with my kids — and I'm going to make the claim that, just as you can't have an awesome rally without doing the unglamorous work of phone-banking, you can't have productive organizers without good food, intellectual stimulation and healthy "family" relationships (however we define our family). Everything that Piepzna-Samarasinha describes — even laying in bed — strikes me as work (in that context), and it seems to me that if we truly value all work (not just the official "organizer" work), then many of our hearts are already ignited with a fuel to work endlessly.

I was asked by a friend a few weeks ago what it would feel like if we had the movement that we need, and I blurted out "it would feel like doing yoga." I'm still not sure what I meant by that — I think it was the songwriter part of my brain that I've trained to make random associations taking over — but part of it is being intentional about using all of our different muscles. If we're just using our "organizer" muscles all the time, and not our core muscles — the things we do as human beings to maintain ourselves and our communities — then our movement is going to be unbalanced and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

* * *

The flip side to self-determined care is self-determined work (or, to go back to the old Marxist phrase, "unalienated" work). I don't mean we all get to do whatever we want — clearly, movements and more importantly the organizations that are part of them need discipline, collectivity, and accountability (and those of us with more privilege need to pay special attention to being accountable). And, any just society also needs to have some kind of collective discipline and accountability. But maximizing how much individuals, together with their communities, get to determine the scope, pace and nature of their work seems to be a worthy goal.

This is a conversation about care, but also a conversation about work — about what work we value (or even see), and about what our vision for work is. This is our challenge: to envision a liberatory transformation of all work, and to figure out how, in whatever ways we can, we can begin to live that vision in our own lives and work.